Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Chapter XXIV. M. De Bassompierre
Those who live in retirement, whose lives have fallen amid the seclusion of schools or of other walled-in and guarded dwellings, are liable to be suddenly and for a long while dropped out of the memory of their friends, the denizens of a freer world. Unaccountably, perhaps, and close upon some space of unusually frequent intercourse - some congeries of rather exciting little circumstances, whose natural sequel would rather seem to be the quickening than the suspension of communication - there falls a stilly pause, a wordless silence, a long blank of oblivion. Unbroken always is this blank; alike entire and unexplained. The letter, the message once frequent, are cut off: the visit, formerly periodical, ceases to occur; the book, paper, or other token that indicated remembrance, comes no more,
Always there are excellent reasons for these lapses, if the hermit but knew them. Though he is stagnant in his cell, his connections without are whirling in the very vortex of life. That void interval which passes for him so slowly that the very clocks seem at a stand, and the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones - that same interval, perhaps, teems with events, and pants with hurry for his friends.
The hermit - if he be a sensible hermit - will swallow his own thoughts, and lock up his own emotions during these weeks of inward winter. He will know that Destiny designed him to imitate, on occasion, the dormouse, and he will be conformable: make a tidy ball of himself creep into a hole of life's wall, and submit decently to the drift which blows in and soon blocks him up, preserving him in ice for the season.
Let him say, 'It is quite right: it ought to be so, since so it is.' And, perhaps, one day his snow sepulchre will open, spring's softness will return, the sun and south wind will reach him; the budding of hedges, and carolling of birds, and singing of liberated streams, will call him to kindly resurrection. Perhaps this may be the case, perhaps not: the frost may get into his heart and never thaw more; when spring comes, a crow or a pie may pick out of the wall only his dormouse bones. Well, even in that case, all will be right: it is to be supposed he knew from the first he was mortal, and must one day go the way of all flesh, 'As well soon as syne.'
Following that eventful evening at the theatre, came for me seven weeks as bare as seven sheets of blank paper: no word was written on one of them, not a visit, not a token.
About the middle of that time I entertained fancies that something had happened to my friends at La Terrasse. The mid blank is always a beclouded point for the solitary: his nerves ache with the strain of long expectancy; the doubts hitherto repelled gather now to a mass and - strong in accumulation - roll back upon him with a force which savours of vindictiveness. Night, too, becomes an unkindly time, and sleep and his nature cannot agree: strange starts and struggles harass his couch; the sinister band of bad dreams, with horror of calamity, and sick dread of entire desertion at their head, join the league against him. Poor wretch! He does his best to bear up, but he is a poor, pallid, wasting wretch, despite that best.
Towards the last of these long seven weeks I admitted, what through the other six I had jealously excluded - the conviction that these blanks were inevitable: the result of circumstances, the fiat of fate, a part of my life's lot, and - above all - a matter about whose origin no question must ever be asked, for whose painful sequence no murmur ever uttered. Of course I did not blame myself for suffering: I thank God I had a truer sense of justice than to fall into any imbecile extravagance of self-accusation; and as to blaming others for silence, in my reason I well knew them blameless, and in my heart acknowledged them so: but it was a rough and heavy road to travel, and I longed for better days.
I tried different expedients to sustain and fill existence: I commenced an elaborate piece of lace-work, I studied German pretty hard, I undertook a course of regular reading of the driest and thickest books in the library; in all my efforts I was as orthodox as I knew how to be. Was there error somewhere? Very likely. I only know the result was as if I had gnawed a file to satisfy hunger, or drank brine to quench thirst.
My hour of torment was the post-hour. Unfortunately, I knew it too well, and tried as vainly as assiduously to cheat myself of that knowledge; dreading the rack of expectation, and the sick collapse of disappointment which daily preceded and followed upon that well recognised ring.
I suppose animals kept in cages, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter. Oh! - to speak truth, and drop that tone of a false calm which long to sustain, outwears nature's endurance - I underwent in those seven weeks bitter fears and pains, strange inward trials, miserable defections of hope, intolerable encroachments of despair. This last came so near me sometimes that her breath went right through me. I used to feel it like a baleful air or sigh, penetrate deep, and make motion pause at my heart, or proceed only under unspeakable oppression. The letter - the well-beloved letter - would not come; and it was all of sweetness in life I had to look for.
In the very extremity of want, I had recourse again, and yet again, to the little packet in the case - the five letters. How splendid that month seemed whose skies had beheld the rising of these five stars! It was always at night I visited them, and not daring to ask every evening for a candle in the kitchen, I bought a wax taper and matches to light it, and at the study hour stole up to the dormitory and feasted on my crust from the Barmecide's loaf. It did not nourish me: I pined on it, and got as thin as a shadow: otherwise I was not ill.
Reading there somewhat late one evening, and feeling that the power to read was leaving me - for the letters from incessant perusal were losing all sap and significance: my gold was withering to leaves before my eyes, and I was sorrowing over the disillusion - suddenly a quick tripping foot ran up the stairs. I knew Ginevra Fanshawe's step: she had dined in town that afternoon; she was now returned, and would come here to replace her shawl, etc., in the wardrobe.
Yes: in she came, dressed in bright silk, with her shawl falling from her shoulders, and her curls, half uncurled in the damp of night, drooping careless and heavy upon her neck. I had hardly time to recasket my treasures and lock them up when she was at my side: her humour seemed none of the best.
'It has been a stupid evening: they are stupid people,' she began.
'Who? Mrs. Cholmondeley? I thought you always found her house charming?'
'I have not been to Mrs. Cholmondeley's.'
'Indeed! Have you made new acquaintance?'
'My uncle De Bassompierre is come.'
'Your uncle De Bassompierre! Are you not glad? - I thought he was a favourite.'
'You thought wrong: the man is odious; I hate him.'
'Because he is a foreigner? or for what other reason of equal weight?'
'He is not a foreigner. The man is English enough, goodness knows; and had an English name till three or four years ago; but his mother was a foreigner, a De Bassompierre, and some of her family are dead and have left him estates, a title, and this name: he is quite a great man now.'
'Do you hate him for that reason?'
'Don't I know what mamma says about him? He is not my own uncle, but married mamma's sister. Mamma detests him; she says he killed aunt Ginevra with unkindness: he looks like a bear. Such a dismal evening!' she went on. 'I'll go no more to his big hotel. Fancy me walking into a room alone, and a great man fifty years old coming forwards, and after a few minutes' conversation actually turning his back upon me, and then abruptly going out of the room. Such odd ways! I daresay his conscience smote him, for they all say at home I am the picture of Aunt Ginevra. Mamma often declares the likeness is quite ridiculous.'
'Were you the only visitor?'
'The only visitor? Yes, then there was missy, my cousin: little spoiled, pampered thing.'
'M. de Bassompierre has a daughter?'
'Yes, yes: don't tease one with questions. Oh, dear! I am so tired.'
She yawned. Throwing herself without ceremony on my bed, she added, 'It seems Mademoiselle was nearly crushed to a jelly in a hubbub at the theatre some weeks ago.'
'Ah! indeed. And they live at a large hôtel in the Rue Crécy?'
'Justement. How do you know?'
'I have been there.'
'Oh, you have? Really. You go everywhere in these days. I suppose Mother Bretton took you. She and Esculapius have the entrée of the Dc Bassompierre apartments: it seems "my son John" attended missy on the occasion of her accident - Accident? Bah! All affectation! I don't think she was squeezed more than she richly deserves for her airs. And now there is quite an intimacy sprung up: I heard something about "auld lang syne," and what not. Oh, how stupid they all were!'
'All! You said you were the only visitor.'
'Did I? You see one forgets to particularise an old woman and her boy.'
'Dr. and Mrs. Bretton were at M. de Bassompierre's this evening?'
'Ay, ay! as large as life; and missy played the hostess. What a conceited doll it is!'
Soured and listless, Miss Fanshawe was beginning to disclose the causes of her prostrate condition. There had been a retrenchment of incense, a diversion or a total withholding of homage and attention: coquetry had failed of effect, vanity had undergone mortification. She lay fuming in the vapours.
'Is Miss de Bassompierre quite well now?' I asked.
'As well as you or I, no doubt; but she is an affected little thing, and gave herself invalid airs to attract medical notice. And to see the old dowager making her recline on a couch, and "my son John" prohibiting excitement, etcetera - faugh! the scene was quite sickening.'
'It would not have been so if the object of attention had been changed: if you had taken Miss de Bassompierre's place.'
'Indeed! I hate "my son John!"'
'"My son John!" - whom do you indicate by that name? Dr. Bretton's mother never calls him so.'
'Then she ought. A clownish, bearish John he is.'
'You violate the truth in saying so; and as the whole of my patience is now spun off the distaff, I peremptorily desire you to rise from that bed, and vacate this room.'
'Passionate thing! Your face is the colour of a coquelicot. I wonder what always makes you so mighty testy ô l'endroit du gros Jean? "John Anderson, my jo, John!" Oh, the distinguished name!'
Thrilling with exasperation, to which it would have been sheer folly to have given vent - for there was no contending with that unsubstantial feather, that mealy-winged moth - I extinguished my taper, locked my bureau, and left her, since she would not leave me. Small-beer as she was, she had turned insufferably acid.
The morrow was Thursday and a half-holiday. Breakfast was over; I had withdrawn to the first classe. The dreaded hour, the post-hour, was nearing, and I sat waiting it, much as a ghost-seer might wait his spectre. Less than ever was a letter probable; still, strive as I would, I could not forget that it was possible. As the moments lessened, a restlessness and fear almost beyond the average assailed me. It was a day of winter east wind, and I had now for some time entered into that dreary fellowship with the winds and their changes, so little known, so incomprehensible to the healthy. The north and east owned a terrific influence, making all pain more poignant, all sorrow sadder. The south could calm, the west sometimes cheer: unless, indeed, they brought on their wings the burden of thunder-clouds, under the weight and warmth of which all energy died.
Bitter and dark as was this January day, I remember leaving the classe, and running down without bonnet to the bottom of the long garden, and then lingering amongst the stripped shrubs, in the forlorn hope that the postman's ring might occur while I was out of hearing, and I might thus be spared the thrill which some particular nerve or nerves, almost gnawed through with the unremitting tooth of a fixed idea, were becoming wholly unfit to support. I lingered as long as I dared without fear of attracting attention by my absence. I muffled my head in my apron, and stopped my ears in terror of the torturing clang, sure to be followed by such blank silence, such barren vacuum for me. At last I ventured to re-enter the first classe, where, as it was not yet nine o'clock, no pupils had been admitted. The first thing seen was a white object on my black desk a white, flat object. The post had, indeed, arrived; by me unheard. Rosine had visited my cell, and, like some angel, had left behind her a bright token of her presence. That shining thing on the desk was indeed a letter, a real letter: I saw so much at the distance of three yards, and as I had but one correspondent on earth, from that one it must come. He remembered me yet. How deep a pulse of gratitude sent new life through my heart.
Drawing near, bending and looking on the letter, in trembling but almost certain hope of seeing a known hand, it was my lot to find, on the contrary, an autograph for the moment deemed unknown - a pale female scrawl, instead of a firm, masculine character. I then thought fate was too hard for me, and I said, audibly, 'This is cruel.'
But I got over that pain also. Life is still life, whatever its pangs: our eyes and ears and their use remain with us, though the prospect of what pleases be wholly withdrawn, and the sound of what consoles be quite silenced.
I opened the billet: by this time I had recognised its handwriting as perfectly familiar. It was dated 'La Terrasse,' and it ran thus: -
'DEAR LUCY, - It occurs to me to inquire what you have been doing with yourself for the last month or two? Not that I suspect you would have the least difficulty in giving an account of your proceedings. I daresay you have been just as busy and as happy as ourselves at La Terrasse. As to Graham, his professional connection extends daily: he is so much sought after, so much engaged, that I tell him he will grow quite conceited. Like a right good mother, as I am, I do my best to keep him down: no flattery does he get from me, as you know. And yet, Lucy, he is a fine fellow: his mother's heart dances at the sight of him. After being hurried here and there the whole day, and passing the ordeal of fifty sorts of tempers, and combating a hundred caprices, and sometimes witnessing cruel sufferings - perhaps, occasionally, as I tell him, inflicting them - at night he still comes home to me in such kindly, pleasant mood, that, really, I seem to live in a sort of moral antipodes, and on these January evenings my day rises when other people's night sets in.
'Still he needs keeping in order, and correcting, and repressing, and I do him that good service; but the boy is so elastic there is no such thing as vexing him thoroughly. When I think I have at last driven him to the sullens, he turns on me with jokes for retaliation: but you know him and all his iniquities, and I am but an elderly simpleton to make him the subject of this epistle.
'As for me, I have had my old Bretton agent here on a visit, and have been plunged over head and ears in business matters. I do so wish to regain for Graham at least some part of what his father left him. He laughs to scorn my anxiety on this point, bidding me look and see how he can provide for himself and me too, and asking what the old lady can possibly want that she has not; hinting about sky blue turbans; accusing me of an ambition to wear diamonds, keep livery servants, have an hotel, and lead the fashion amongst the English clan in Villette.
'Talking of sky blue turbans, I wish you had been with us the other evening He had come in really tired; and after I had given him his tea, he threw himself into my chair with his customary presumption. To my great delight he dropped asleep. (You know how he teases me about being drowsy: I, who never, by any chance, close an eye by daylight.) While he slept, I thought he looked very bonny, Lucy: fool as I am to be so proud of him; but who can help it? Show me his peer. Look where I will, I see nothing like him in Villette. Well, I took it into my head to play him a trick: so I brought out the sky blue turban, and handling it with gingerly precaution, I managed to invest his brows with this grand adornment. I assure you it did not at all misbecome him; he looked quite Eastern, except that he is so fair. Nobody, however, can accuse him of having red hair now - it is genuine chestnut - a dark, glossy chestnut; and when I put my large Cashmere about him, there was as fine a young bey, dey, or pacha improvised as you would wish to see.
'It was good entertainment; but only half enjoyed, since I was alone: you should have been there.
'In due time my lord awoke: the looking-glass above the fireplace soon intimated to him his plight: as you may imagine, I now live under threat and dread of vengeance.
'But to come to the gist of my letter. I know Thursday is a half-holiday in the Rue Fossette: be ready, then, by five in the afternoon, at which hour I will send the carriage to take you out to La Terrasse. Be sure to come: you may meet some old acquaintance. Good-bye, my wise, dear, grave little goddaughter. - Very truly yours, 'LOUISA BRETTON.'
Now, a letter like that sets one to rights! I might still be sad after reading that letter, but I was more composed; not exactly cheered, perhaps, but relieved. My friends, at least, were well and happy: no accident had occurred to Graham; no illness had seized his mother - calamities that had so long been my dream and thought. Their feelings for me too were - as they had been. Yet, how strange it was to look on Mrs. Bretton's seven weeks and contrast them with my seven weeks! Also, how very wise it is in people placed in an exceptional position to hold their tongues and not rashly declare how such position galls them! The world can understand well enough the process of perishing for want of food: perhaps few persons can enter into or follow out that of going mad from solitary confinement. They see the long-buried prisoner disinterred, a maniac or an idiot - how his senses left him - how his nerves, first inflamed, underwent nameless agony, and then sunk to palsy - is a subject too intricate for examination, too abstract for popular comprehension. Speak of it! you might almost as well stand up in an European marketplace, and propound dark sayings in that language and mood wherein Nebuchadnezzar, the imperial hypochondriac, communed with his baffled Chaldeans. And long, long may the minds to whom such themes are no mystery - by whom their bearings are sympathetically seized - be few in number, and rare of rencounter. Long may it be generally thought that physical privations alone merit compassion, and that the rest is a figment. When the world was younger and haler than now, moral trials were a deeper mystery still: perhaps in all the land of Israel there was but one Saul - certainly but one David to soothe or comprehend him.
The keen, still cold of the morning was succeeded, later in the day, by a sharp breathing from Russian wastes: the cold zone sighed over the temperate zone, and froze it fast. A heavy firmament, dull and thick with snow, sailed up from the north, and settled over expectant Europe. Towards afternoon began the descent. I feared no carriage would come, the white tempest raged so dense and wild. But trust my godmother! Once having asked, she would have her guest. About six o'clock I was lifted from the carriage over the already blocked-up front steps of the château, and put in at the door of La Terrasse.
Running through the vestibule, and upstairs to the drawing-room, there I found Mrs. Bretton - a summer day in her own person. Had I been twice as cold I was, her kind kiss and cordial clasp would have warmed me. Inured now for so long a time to rooms with bare boards, black benches, desks and stoves, the blue saloon seemed to me gorgeous. In its Christmas-like fire alone there was a clear and crimson splendour which quite dazzled me.
When my godmother had held my hand for a little while, and chatted with me, and scolded me for having become thinner than when she last saw me, she professed to discover that the snow-wind had disordered my hair, and sent me upstairs to make it neat and remove my shawl.
Repairing to my own little sea-green room, there also I found a bright fire, and candles too were lit: a tall waxlight stood on each side the great looking- glass; but between the candles, and before the glass, appeared something dressing itself - an airy, fairy thing - small, slight, white - a winter spirit.
I declare, for one moment I thought of Graham and his spectral illusions With distrustful eye I noted the details of this new vision. It wore white sprinkled slightly with drops of scarlet; its girdle was red; it had something in its hair leafy, yet shining - a little wreath with an evergreen gloss. Spectral or not, here truly was nothing frightful, and I advanced.
Turning quick upon me, a large eye, under long lashes, flashed over me the intruder: the lashes were as dark as long, and they softened with their pencilling the orb they guarded.
'Ah! you are come!' she breathed out, in a soft, quiet voice, and she smiled slowly, and gazed intently.
I knew her now. Having only once seen that sort of face, with that cast of fine and delicate featuring, I could not but know her.
'Miss de Bassompierre,' I pronounced.
'No,' was the reply, 'not Miss de Bassompierre for you.' I did not inquire who then she might be, but waited voluntary information.
'You are changed, but still you are yourself' she said, approaching nearer. 'I remember you well - your countenance, the colour of your hair, the outline of your face. . . .'
I had moved to the fire, and she stood opposite, and gazed into me; and as she gazed, her face became gradually more and more expressive of thought and feeling, till at last a dimness quenched her clear vision.
'It makes me almost cry to look so far back,' said she; 'but as to being sorry, or sentimental, don't think it: on the contrary, I am quite pleased and glad.'
Interested, yet altogether at fault, I knew not what to say. At last I stammered, 'I think I never met you till that night, some weeks ago, when you were hurt. . .?'
She smiled. 'You have forgotten then that I have sat on your knee, been lifted in your arms, even shared your pillow? You no longer remember the night when I came crying like a naughty little child as I was, to your bedside, and you took me in? You have no memory for the comfort and protection by which you soothed an acute distress? Go back to Bretton. Remember Mr. Home.'
At last I saw it all. 'And you are little Polly?'
'I am Paulina Mary Home de Bassompierre.'
How time can change! Little Polly wore in her pale small features, her fairy symmetry, her varying expression, a certain promise of interest and grace; but Paulina Mary was become beautiful - not with the beauty that strikes the eye like a rose - orbed, ruddy and replete; not with the plump, and pink, and flaxen attributes of her blond cousin Ginevra; but her seventeen years had brought her a refined and tender charm which did not lie in complexion, though hers was fair and clear; nor in outline, though her features were sweet, and her limbs perfectly turned; but, I think, rather in a subdued glow from the soul outward. This was not an opaque vase, of material however costly, but a lamp chastely lucent, guarding from extinction, yet not hiding from worship, a flame vital and vestal. In speaking of her attractions, I would not exaggerate language; but, indeed, they seemed to me very real and engaging. What though all was on a small scale, it was the perfume which gave this white violet distinction, and made it superior to the broadest camellia - the fullest dahlia that ever bloomed.
'Ah! and you remember the old time at Bretton?'
'Better,' said she, 'better, perhaps, than you. I remember it with minute distinctness: not only the time, but the days of the time, and the hours of the days.'
'You must have forgotten some things?'
'Very little, I imagine.'
'You were then a little creature of quick feelings: you must, long ere this, have outgrown the impressions with which joy and grief affection and bereavement, stamped your mind ten years ago?'
'You think I have forgotten whom I liked, and in what degree I liked them when a child?'
'The sharpness must be gone - the point, the poignancy - the deep imprint must be softened away, and effaced?'
'I have a good memory for those days.'
She looked as if she had. Her eyes were the eyes of one who can remember; one whose childhood does not fade like a dream, nor whose youth vanish like a sunbeam. She would not take life, loosely and incoherently, in parts, and let one season slip as she entered on another: she would retain and add; often review from the commencement, and so grow in harmony and consistency as she grew in years. Still I could not quite admit the conviction that all the pictures which now crowded upon me were vivid and visible to her. Her fond attachments, her sports and contests with a well-loved playmate, the patient, true devotion of her child's heart, her fears, her delicate reserves, her little trials, the last piercing pain of separation. . . . I retraced these things, and shook my head incredulous. She persisted. 'The child of seven years lives yet in the girl of seventeen,' said she.
'You used to be excessively fond of Mrs. Bretton,' I remarked, intending to test her. She set me right at once.
'Not excessively fond,' said she; 'I liked her: I respected her, as I should do now: she seems to me very little altered.'
'She is not much changed,' I assented.
We were silent a few minutes. Glancing round the room, she said: -
'There are several things here that used to be at Bretton. I remember that pincushion and that looking-glass.'
Evidently, she was not deceived in her estimate of her own memory; not, at least, so far.
'You think, then, you would have known Mrs. Bretton?' I went on.
'I perfectly remembered her; the turn of her features, her olive complexion, and black hair, her height, her walk, her voice.'
'Dr. Bretton, of course,' I pursued, 'would be out of the question: and, indeed, as I saw your first interview with him. I am aware that he appeared to you as a stranger.'
'That first night I was puzzled,' she answered.
'How did the recognition between him and your father come about?'
'They exchanged cards. The names Graham Bretton and Home de Bassompierre gave rise to questions and explanations. That was on the second day; but before then I was beginning to know something.'
'How - know something?'
'Why,' she said, 'how strange it is that most people seem so slow to feel the truth - not to see, but feel! When Dr. Bretton had visited me a few times, and sat near and talked to me; when I had observed the look in his eyes, the expression about his mouth, the form of his chin, the carriage of his head, and all that we do observe in persons who approach us - how could I avoid being led by association to think of Graham Bretton? Graham was slighter than he, and not grown so tall, and had a smoother face, and longer and lighter hair, and spoke - not so deeply - more like a girl; but yet he is Graham, just as I am little Polly, or you are Lucy Snowe.'
I thought the same, but I wondered to find my thoughts hers: there are certain things in which we so rarely meet with our double that it seems a miracle when that chance befalls.
'You and Graham were once playmates.'
'And do you remember that?' she questioned in her turn.
'No doubt he will remember it also,' said I.
'I have not asked him: few things would surprise me so much as to find that he did. I suppose his disposition is still gay and careless?'
'Was it so formerly? Did it so strike you? Do you thus remember him?'
'I scarcely remember him in any other light. Sometimes he was studious; sometimes he was merry; but whether busy with his books or disposed for play, it was chiefly the books or game he thought of; not much heeding those with whom he read or amused himself.'
'Yet to you he was partial.'
'Partial to me? Oh, no! he had other playmates - his schoolfellows; I was of little consequence to him, except on Sundays: yes, he was kind on Sundays. I remember walking with him hand in hand to St. Mary's, and his finding the places in my prayer-book; and how good and still he was on Sunday evenings! So mild for such a proud, lively boy; so patient with all my blunders in reading; and so wonderfully to be depended on, for he never spent those evenings from home: I had a constant fear that he would accept some invitation and forsake us; but he never did, nor seemed ever to wish to do it. Thus, of course, it can be no more. I suppose Sunday will now be Dr. Bretton's dining-out day. . . ?'
'Children, come down!' here called Mrs. Bretton from below. Paulina would still have lingered, but I inclined to descend: we went down.