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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Professor - Chapter XIV
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The Professor - Chapter XIV Post by :joe_chapuis Category :Long Stories Author :Charlotte Bronte Date :January 2011 Read :1163

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The Professor - Chapter XIV

IF I was punctual in quitting Mdlle. Reuter's domicile, I was at
least equally punctual in arriving there; I came the next day at
five minutes before two, and on reaching the schoolroom door,
before I opened it, I heard a rapid, gabbling sound, which warned
me that the "priere du midi" was not yet concluded. I waited the
termination thereof; it would have been impious to intrude my
heretical presence during its progress. How the repeater of the
prayer did cackle and splutter! I never before or since heard
language enounced with such steam-engine haste. "Notre Pere qui
etes au ciel" went off like a shot; then followed an address to
Marie "vierge celeste, reine des anges, maison d'or, tour
d'ivoire!" and then an invocation to the saint of the day; and
then down they all sat, and the solemn (?) rite was over; and I
entered, flinging the door wide and striding in fast, as it was
my wont to do now; for I had found that in entering with aplomb,
and mounting the estrade with emphasis, consisted the grand
secret of ensuring immediate silence. The folding-doors between
the two classes, opened for the prayer, were instantly closed; a
maitresse, work-box in hand, took her seat at her appropriate
desk; the pupils sat still with their pens and books before them;
my three beauties in the van, now well humbled by a demeanour of
consistent coolness, sat erect with their hands folded quietly on
their knees; they had given up giggling and whispering to each
other, and no longer ventured to utter pert speeches in my
presence; they now only talked to me occasionally with their
eyes, by means of which organs they could still, however, say
very audacious and coquettish things. Had affection, goodness,
modesty, real talent, ever employed those bright orbs as
interpreters, I do not think I could have refrained from giving a
kind and encouraging, perhaps an ardent reply now and then; but
as it was, I found pleasure in answering the glance of vanity
with the gaze of stoicism. Youthful, fair, brilliant, as were
many of my pupils, I can truly say that in me they never saw any
other bearing than such as an austere, though just guardian,
might have observed towards them. If any doubt the accuracy of
this assertion, as inferring more conscientious self-denial or
Scipio-like self-control than they feel disposed to give me
credit for, let them take into consideration the following
circumstances, which, while detracting from my merit, justify my
veracity.

Know, O incredulous reader! that a master stands in a somewhat
different relation towards a pretty, light-headed, probably
ignorant girl, to that occupied by a partner at a ball, or a
gallant on the promenade. A professor does not meet his pupil to
see her dressed in satin and muslin, with hair perfumed and
curled, neck scarcely shaded by aerial lace, round white arms
circled with bracelets, feet dressed for the gliding dance. It
is not his business to whirl her through the waltz, to feed her
with compliments, to heighten her beauty by the flush of
gratified vanity. Neither does he encounter her on the
smooth-rolled, tree shaded Boulevard, in the green and sunny
park, whither she repairs clad in her becoming walking dress, her
scarf thrown with grace over her shoulders, her little bonnet
scarcely screening her curls, the red rose under its brim adding
a new tint to the softer rose on her cheek; her face and eyes,
too, illumined with smiles, perhaps as transient as the sunshine
of the gala-day, but also quite as brilliant; it is not his
office to walk by her side, to listen to her lively chat, to
carry her parasol, scarcely larger than a broad green leaf, to
lead in a ribbon her Blenheim spaniel or Italian greyhound. No:
he finds her in the schoolroom, plainly dressed, with books
before her. Owing to her education or her nature books are to
her a nuisance, and she opens them with aversion, yet her teacher
must instil into her mind the contents of these books; that mind
resists the admission of grave information, it recoils, it grows
restive, sullen tempers are shown, disfiguring frowns spoil the
symmetry of the face, sometimes coarse gestures banish grace from
the deportment, while muttered expressions, redolent of native
and ineradicable vulgarity, desecrate the sweetness of the voice.
Where the temperament is serene though the intellect be sluggish,
an unconquerable dullness opposes every effort to instruct.
Where there is cunning but not energy, dissimulation, falsehood,
a thousand schemes and tricks are put in play to evade the
necessity of application; in short, to the tutor, female youth,
female charms are like tapestry hangings, of which the wrong side
is continually turned towards him; and even when he sees the
smooth, neat external surface he so well knows what knots, long
stitches, and jagged ends are behind that he has scarce a
temptation to admire too fondly the seemly forms and bright
colours exposed to general view.

Our likings are regulated by our circumstances. The artist
prefers a hilly country because it is picturesque; the engineer a
flat one because it is convenient; the man of pleasure likes what
he calls "a fine woman"--she suits him; the fashionable young
gentleman admires the fashionable young lady--she is of his kind;
the toil-worn, fagged, probably irritable tutor, blind almost to
beauty, insensible to airs and graces, glories chiefly in certain
mental qualities: application, love of knowledge, natural
capacity, docility, truthfulness, gratefulness, are the charms
that attract his notice and win his regard. These he seeks, but
seldom meets; these, if by chance he finds, he would fain retain
for ever, and when separation deprives him of them he feels as if
some ruthless hand had snatched from him his only ewe-lamb. Such
being the case, and the ease it is, my readers will agree with me
that there was nothing either very meritorious or very marvellous
in the integrity and moderation of my conduct at Mdlle. Reuter's
pensionnat de demoiselles.

My first business this afternoon consisted in reading the list of
places for the month, determined by the relative correctness of
the compositions given the preceding day. The list was headed, as
usual, by the name of Sylvie, that plain, quiet little girl I
have described before as being at once the best and ugliest pupil
in the establishment; the second place had fallen to the lot of a
certain Leonie Ledru, a diminutive, sharp-featured, and
parchment-skinned creature of quick wits, frail conscience, and
indurated feelings; a lawyer-like thing, of whom I used to say
that, had she been a boy, she would have made a model of an
unprincipled, clever attorney. Then came Eulalie, the proud
beauty, the Juno of the school, whom six long years of drilling
in the simple grammar of the English language had compelled,
despite the stiff phlegm of her intellect, to acquire a
mechanical acquaintance with most of its rules. No smile, no
trace of pleasure or satisfaction appeared in Sylvie's nun-like
and passive face as she heard her name read first. I always felt
saddened by the sight of that poor girl's absolute quiescence on
all occasions, and it was my custom to look at her, to address
her, as seldom as possible; her extreme docility, her assiduous
perseverance, would have recommended her warmly to my good
opinion; her modesty, her intelligence, would have induced me to
feel most kindly--most affectionately towards her,
notwithstanding the almost ghastly plainness of her features, the
disproportion of her form, the corpse-like lack of animation in
her countenance, had I not been aware that every friendly word,
every kindly action, would be reported by her to her confessor,
and by him misinterpreted and poisoned. Once I laid my hand on
her head, in token of approbation; I thought Sylvie was going to
smile, her dim eye almost kindled; but, presently, she shrank
from me; I was a man and a heretic; she, poor child! a destined
nun and devoted Catholic: thus a four-fold wall of separation
divided her mind from mine. A pert smirk, and a hard glance of
triumph, was Leonie's method of testifying her gratification;
Eulalie looked sullen and envious--she had hoped to be first.
Hortense and Caroline exchanged a reckless grimace on hearing
their names read out somewhere near the bottom of the list; the
brand of mental inferiority was considered by them as no
disgrace, their hopes for the future being based solely on their
personal attractions.

This affair arranged, the regular lesson followed. During a
brief interval, employed by the pupils in ruling their books, my
eye, ranging carelessly over the benches, observed, for the first
time, that the farthest seat in the farthest row--a seat usually
vacant--was again filled by the new scholar, the Mdlle. Henri so
ostentatiously recommended to me by the directress. To-day I had
on my spectacles; her appearance, therefore, was clear to me at
the first glance; I had not to puzzle over it. She looked young;
yet, had I been required to name her exact age, I should have
been somewhat nonplussed; the slightness of her figure might have
suited seventeen; a certain anxious and pre-occupied expression
of face seemed the indication of riper years. She was dressed,
like all the rest, in a dark stuff gown and a white collar; her
features were dissimilar to any there, not so rounded, more
defined, yet scarcely regular. The shape of her head too was
different, the superior part more developed, the base
considerably less. I felt assured, at first sight, that she was
not a Belgian; her complexion, her countenance, her lineaments,
her figure, were all distinct from theirs, and, evidently, the
type of another race--of a race less gifted with fullness of
flesh and plenitude of blood; less jocund, material, unthinking.
When I first cast my eyes on her, she sat looking fixedly down,
her chin resting on her hand, and she did not change her attitude
till I commenced the lesson. None of the Belgian girls would
have retained one position, and that a reflective one, for the
same length of time. Yet, having intimated that her appearance
was peculiar, as being unlike that of her Flemish companions, I
have little more to say respecting it; I can pronounce no
encomiums on her beauty, for she was not beautiful; nor offer
condolence on her plainness, for neither was she plain; a
careworn character of forehead, and a corresponding moulding of
the mouth, struck me with a sentiment resembling surprise, but
these traits would probably have passed unnoticed by any less
crotchety observer.

Now, reader, though I have spent more than a page in describing
Mdlle. Henri, I know well enough that I have left on your mind's
eye no distinct picture of her; I have not painted her
complexion, nor her eyes, nor her hair, nor even drawn the
outline of her shape. You cannot tell whether her nose was
aquiline or retrousse, whether her chin was long or short, her
face square or oval; nor could I the first day, and it is not my
intention to communicate to you at once a knowledge I myself
gained by little and little.

I gave a short exercise: which they all wrote down. I saw the
new pupil was puzzled at first with the novelty of the form and
language; once or twice she looked at me with a sort of painful
solicitude, as not comprehending: at all what I meant; then she
was not ready when the others were, she could not write her
phrases so fast as they did; I would not help her, I went on
relentless. She looked at me; her eye said most plainly, "I
cannot follow you." I disregarded the appeal, and, carelessly
leaning back in my chair, glancing from time to time with a
NONCHALANT air out of the window, I dictated a little faster. On
looking towards her again, I perceived her face clouded with
embarrassment, but she was still writing on most diligently; I
paused a few seconds; she employed the interval in hurriedly
re-perusing what she had written, and shame and discomfiture were
apparent in her countenance; she evidently found she had made
great nonsense of it. In ten minutes more the dictation was
complete, and, having allowed a brief space in which to correct
it, I took their books; it was with a reluctant hand Mdlle. Henri
gave up hers, but, having once yielded it to my possession, she
composed her anxious face, as if, for the present she had
resolved to dismiss regret, and had made up her mind to be
thought unprecedentedly stupid. Glancing over her exercise, I
found that several lines had been omitted, but what was written
contained very few faults; I instantly inscribed "Bon" at the
bottom of the page, and returned it to her; she smiled, at first
incredulously, then as if reassured, but did not lift her eyes;
she could look at me, it seemed, when perplexed and bewildered,
but not when gratified; I thought that scarcely fair.

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