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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Professor - Chapter VIII
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The Professor - Chapter VIII Post by :FayeB Category :Long Stories Author :Charlotte Bronte Date :January 2011 Read :3326

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The Professor - Chapter VIII

AND Pelet himself? How did I continue to like him? Oh,
extremely well! Nothing could be more smooth, gentlemanlike,
and even friendly, than his demeanour to me. I had to endure
from him neither cold neglect, irritating interference, nor
pretentious assumption of superiority. I fear, however, two
poor, hard-worked Belgian ushers in the establishment could not
have said as much; to them the director's manner was invariably
dry, stern, and cool. I believe he perceived once or twice that
I was a little shocked at the difference he made between them and
me, and accounted for it by saying, with a quiet sarcastic
smile--

"Ce ne sont que des Flamands--allez!"

And then he took his cigar gently from his lips and spat on the
painted floor of the room in which we were sitting. Flamands
certainly they were, and both had the true Flamand physiognomy,
where intellectual inferiority is marked in lines none can
mistake; still they were men, and, in the main, honest men; and I
could not see why their being aboriginals of the flat, dull soil
should serve as a pretext for treating them with perpetual
severity and contempt. This idea, of injustice somewhat poisoned
the pleasure I might otherwise have derived from Pelet's soft
affable manner to myself. Certainly it was agreeable, when the
day's work was over, to find one's employer an intelligent and
cheerful companion; and if he was sometimes a little sarcastic
and sometimes a little too insinuating, and if I did discover
that his mildness was more a matter of appearance than of
reality--if I did occasionally suspect the existence of flint or
steel under an external covering of velvet--still we are none of
us perfect; and weary as I was of the atmosphere of brutality and
insolence in which I had constantly lived at X----, I had no
inclination now, on casting anchor in calmer regions, to
institute at once a prying search after defects that were
scrupulously withdrawn and carefully veiled from my view. I was
willing to take Pelet for what he seemed--to believe him
benevolent and friendly until some untoward event should prove
him otherwise. He was not married, and I soon perceived he had
all a Frenchman's, all a Parisian's notions about matrimony and
women. I suspected a degree of laxity in his code of morals,
there was something so cold and BLASE in his tone whenever he
alluded to what he called "le beau sexe;" but he was too
gentlemanlike to intrude topics I did not invite, and as he was
really intelligent and really fond of intellectual subjects of
discourse, he and I always found enough to talk about, without
seeking themes in the mire. I hated his fashion of mentioning
love; I abhorred, from my soul, mere licentiousness. He felt the
difference of our notions, and, by mutual consent, we kept off
ground debateable.

Pelet's house was kept and his kitchen managed by his mother, a
real old Frenchwoman; she had been handsome--at least she told me
so, and I strove to believe her; she was now ugly, as only
continental old women can be; perhaps, though, her style of dress
made her look uglier than she really was. Indoors she would go
about without cap, her grey hair strangely dishevelled; then,
when at home, she seldom wore a gown--only a shabby cotton
camisole; shoes, too, were strangers to her feet, and in lieu of
them she sported roomy slippers, trodden down at the heels. On
the other hand, whenever it was her pleasure to appear abroad, as
on Sundays and fete-days, she would put on some very
brilliant-coloured dress, usually of thin texture, a silk bonnet
with a wreath of flowers, and a very fine shawl. She was not, in
the main, an ill-natured old woman, but an incessant and most
indiscreet talker; she kept chiefly in and about the kitchen, and
seemed rather to avoid her son's august presence; of him, indeed,
she evidently stood in awe. When he reproved her, his reproofs
were bitter and unsparing; but he seldom gave himself that
trouble.

Madame Pelet had her own society, her own circle of chosen
visitors, whom, however, I seldom saw, as she generally
entertained them in what she called her "cabinet," a small den of
a place adjoining the kitchen, and descending into it by one or
two steps. On these steps, by-the-by, I have not unfrequently
seen Madame Pelet seated with a trencher on her knee, engaged in
the threefold employment of eating her dinner, gossiping with her
favourite servant, the housemaid, and scolding her antagonist,
the cook; she never dined, and seldom indeed took any meal with
her son; and as to showing her face at the boys' table, that was
quite out of the question. These details will sound very odd in
English ears, but Belgium is not England, and its ways are not
our ways.

Madame Pelet's habits of life, then, being taken into
consideration, I was a good deal surprised when, one Thursday
evening (Thursday was always a half-holiday), as I was sitting
all alone in my apartment, correcting a huge pile of English and
Latin exercises, a servant tapped at the door, and, on its being
opened, presented Madame Pelet's compliments, and she would be
happy to see me to take my "gouter" (a meal which answers to our
English "tea") with her in the dining-room.

"Plait-il?" said I, for I thought I must have misunderstood, the
message and invitation were so unusual; the same words were
repeated. I accepted, of course, and as I descended the stairs,
I wondered what whim had entered the old lady's brain; her son
was out--gone to pass the evening at the Salle of the Grande
Harmonie or some other club of which he was a member. Just as I
laid my hand on the handle of the dining-room door, a queer idea
glanced across my mind.

"Surely she's not going to make love to me," said I. "I've heard
of old Frenchwomen doing odd things in that line; and the gouter?
They generally begin such affairs with eating and drinking, I
believe."

There was a fearful dismay in this suggestion of my excited
imagination, and if I had allowed myself time to dwell upon it, I
should no doubt have cut there and then, rushed back to my
chamber, and bolted myself in; but whenever a danger or a horror
is veiled with uncertainty, the primary wish of the mind is to
ascertain first the naked truth, reserving the expedient of
flight for the moment when its dread anticipation shall be
realized. I turned the door-handle, and in an instant had
crossed the fatal threshold, closed the door behind me, and stood
in the presence of Madame Pelet.

Gracious heavens! The first view of her seemed to confirm my
worst apprehensions. There she sat, dressed out in a light green
muslin gown, on her head a lace cap with flourishing red roses in
the frill; her table was carefully spread; there were fruit,
cakes, and coffee, with a bottle of something--I did not know
what. Already the cold sweat started on my brow, already I
glanced back over my shoulder at the closed door, when, to my
unspeakable relief, my eye, wandering mildly in the direction of
the stove, rested upon a second figure, seated in a large
fauteuil beside it. This was a woman, too, and, moreover, an old
woman, and as fat and as rubicund as Madame Pelet was meagre and
yellow; her attire was likewise very fine, and spring flowers of
different hues circled in a bright wreath the crown of her
violet-coloured velvet bonnet.

I had only time to make these general observations when Madame
Pelet, coming forward with what she intended should be a graceful
and elastic step, thus accosted me:-

"Monsieur is indeed most obliging to quit his books, his studies,
at the request of an insignificant person like me--will Monsieur
complete his kindness by allowing me to present him to my dear
friend Madame Reuter, who resides in the neighbouring house--the
young ladies' school."

"Ah!" thought I, "I knew she was old," and I bowed and took my
seat. Madame Reuter placed herself at the table opposite to me.

"How do you like Belgium, Monsieur?" asked she, in an accent of
the broadest Bruxellois. I could now well distinguish the
difference between the fine and pure Parisian utterance of M.
Pelet, for instance, and the guttural enunciation of the
Flamands. I answered politely, and then wondered how so coarse
and clumsy an old woman as the one before me should be at the
head of a ladies' seminary, which I had always heard spoken of in
terms of high commendation. In truth there was something to
wonder at. Madame Reuter looked more like a joyous, free-living
old Flemish fermiere, or even a maitresse d'auberge, than a
staid, grave, rigid directrice de pensionnat. In general the
continental, or at least the Belgian old women permit themselves
a licence of manners, speech, and aspect, such as our venerable
granddames would recoil from as absolutely disreputable, and
Madame Reuter's jolly face bore evidence that she was no
exception to the rule of her country; there was a twinkle and
leer in her left eye; her right she kept habitually half shut,
which I thought very odd indeed. After several vain attempts to
comprehend the motives of these two droll old creatures for
inviting me to join them at their gouter, I at last fairly gave
it up, and resigning myself to inevitable mystification, I sat
and looked first at one, then at the other, taking care meantime
to do justice to the confitures, cakes, and coffee, with which
they amply supplied me. They, too, ate, and that with no
delicate appetite, and having demolished a large portion of the
solids, they proposed a "petit verre." I declined. Not so
Mesdames Pelet and Reuter; each mixed herself what I thought
rather a stiff tumbler of punch, and placing it on a stand near
the stove, they drew up their chairs to that convenience, and
invited me to do the same. I obeyed; and being seated fairly
between them, I was thus addressed first by Madame Pelet, then by
Madame Reuter.

"We will now speak of business," said Madame Pelet, and she went
on to make an elaborate speech, which, being interpreted, was to
the effect that she had asked for the pleasure of my company that
evening in order to give her friend Madame Reuter an opportunity
of broaching an important proposal, which might turn out greatly
to my advantage.

"Pourvu que vous soyez sage," said Madame Reuter, "et a vrai
dire, vous en avez bien l'air. Take one drop of the punch" (or
ponche, as she pronounced it); "it is an agreeable and wholesome
beverage after a full meal."

I bowed, but again declined it. She went on:-

"I feel," said she, after a solemn sip--"I feel profoundly the
importance of the commission with which my dear daughter has
entrusted me, for you are aware, Monsieur, that it is my daughter
who directs the establishment in the next house?"

"Ah! I thought it was yourself, madame." Though, indeed, at that
moment I recollected that it was called Mademoiselle, not Madame
Reuter's pensionnat.

"I! Oh, no! I manage the house and look after the servants, as
my friend Madame Pelet does for Monsieur her son--nothing more.
Ah! you thought I gave lessons in class--did you?"

And she laughed loud and long, as though the idea tickled her
fancy amazingly.

"Madame is in the wrong to laugh," I observed; "if she does not
give lessons, I am sure it is not because she cannot;" and I
whipped out a white pocket-handkerchief and wafted it, with a
French grace, past my nose, bowing at the name time.

"Quel charmant jeune homme!" murmured Madame Pelet in a low
voice. Madame Reuter, being less sentimental, as she was Flamand
and not French, only laughed again.

"You are a dangerous person, I fear," said she; "if you can forge
compliments at that rate, Zoraide will positively be afraid of
you; but if you are good, I will keep your secret, and not tell
her how well you can flatter. Now, listen what sort of a
proposal she makes to you. She has heard that you are an
excellent professor, and as she wishes to get the very beet
masters for her school (car Zoraide fait tout comme une reine,
c'est une veritable maitresse-femme), she has commissioned me to
step over this afternoon, and sound Madame Pelet as to the
possibility of engaging you. Zoraide is a wary general; she never
advances without first examining well her ground I don't think
she would be pleased if she knew I had already disclosed her
intentions to you; she did not order me to go so far, but I
thought there would be no harm in letting you into the secret,
and Madame Pelet was of the same opinion. Take care, however,
you don't betray either of us to Zoraide--to my daughter, I mean;
she is so discreet and circumspect herself, she cannot understand
that one should find a pleasure in gossiping a little--"

"C'est absolument comme mon fils!" cried Madame Pelet.

"All the world is so changed since our girlhood!" rejoined the
other: "young people have such old heads now. But to return,
Monsieur. Madame Pelet will mention the subject of your giving
lessons in my daughter's establishment to her son, and he will
speak to you; and then to-morrow, you will step over to our
house, and ask to see my daughter, and you will introduce the
subject as if the first intimation of it had reached you from M.
Pelet himself, and be sure you never mention my name, for I would
not displease Zoraide on any account.

"Bien! bien!" interrupted I--for all this chatter and
circumlocution began to bore me very much; "I will consult M.
Pelet, and the thing shall be settled as you desire. Good
evening, mesdames--I am infinitely obliged to you."

"Comment! vous vous en allez deja?" exclaimed Madame Pelet.

"Prenez encore quelquechose, monsieur; une pomme cuite, des
biscuits, encore une tasse de cafe?"

"Merci, merci, madame--au revoir." And I backed at last out of
the apartment.

Having regained my own room, I set myself to turn over in my mind
the incident of the evening. It seemed a queer affair
altogether, and queerly managed; the two old women had made quite
a little intricate mess of it; still I found that the uppermost
feeling in my mind on the subject was one of satisfaction. In
the first place it would be a change to give lessons in another
seminary, and then to teach young ladies would be an occupation
so interesting--to be admitted at all into a ladies'
boarding-school would be an incident so new in my life. Besides,
thought I, as I glanced at the boarded window, "I shall now at
last see the mysterious garden: I shall gaze both on the angels
and their Eden."

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M. PELET could not of course object to the proposal made byMdlle. Reuter; permission to accept such additional employment,should it offer, having formed an article of the terms on whichhe had engaged me. It was, therefore, arranged in the course ofnext day that I should be at liberty to give lessons in Mdlle.Reuter's establishment four afternoons in every week.When evening came I prepared to step over in order to seek aconference with Mademoiselle herself on the subject; I had nothad time to pay the visit before, having been all day closelyoccupied in class. I remember very well that before
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READER, perhaps you were never in Belgium? Haply you don't knowthe physiognomy of the country? You have not its lineamentsdefined upon your memory, as I have them on mine?Three--nay four--pictures line the four-walled cell where arestored for me the records of the past. First, Eton. All in thatpicture is in far perspective, receding, diminutive; but freshlycoloured, green, dewy, with a spring sky, piled with glitteringyet showery clouds; for my childhood was not all sunshine--it hadits overcast, its cold, its stormy hours. Second, X----, huge,dingy; the canvas cracked and smoked; a yellow sky, sooty clouds;no sun, no
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