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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVillette - Chapter XXXIX - OLD AND NEW ACQUAINTANCE
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Villette - Chapter XXXIX - OLD AND NEW ACQUAINTANCE Post by :Mothergoose Category :Long Stories Author :Charlotte Bronte Date :June 2011 Read :6798

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Villette - Chapter XXXIX - OLD AND NEW ACQUAINTANCE

CHAPTER XXXIX - OLD AND NEW ACQUAINTANCE


Fascinated as by a basilisk with three heads, I could not leave this
clique; the ground near them seemed to hold my feet. The canopy of
entwined trees held out shadow, the night whispered a pledge of
protection, and an officious lamp flashed just one beam to show me an
obscure, safe seat, and then vanished. Let me now briefly tell the
reader all that, during the past dark fortnight, I have been silently
gathering from Rumour, respecting the origin and the object of M.
Emanuel's departure. The tale is short, and not new: its alpha is
Mammon, and its omega Interest.

If Madame Walravens was hideous as a Hindoo idol, she seemed also to
possess, in the estimation of these her votaries, an idol's
consequence. The fact was, she had been rich--very rich; and though,
for the present, without the command of money, she was likely one day
to be rich again. At Basseterre, in Guadaloupe, she possessed a large
estate, received in dowry on her marriage sixty years ago, sequestered
since her husband's failure; but now, it was supposed, cleared of
claim, and, if duly looked after by a competent agent of integrity,
considered capable of being made, in a few years, largely productive.

Pere Silas took an interest in this prospective improvement for the
sake of religion and the church, whereof Magliore Walravens was a
devout daughter. Madame Beck, distantly related to the hunchback and
knowing her to be without family of her own, had long brooded over
contingencies with a mother's calculating forethought, and, harshly
treated as she was by Madame Walravens, never ceased to court her for
interest's sake. Madame Beck and the priest were thus, for money
reasons, equally and sincerely interested in the nursing of the West
Indian estate.

But the distance was great, and the climate hazardous. The competent
and upright agent wanted, must be a devoted man. Just such a man had
Madame Walravens retained for twenty years in her service, blighting
his life, and then living on him, like an old fungus; such a man had
Pere Silas trained, taught, and bound to him by the ties of gratitude,
habit, and belief. Such a man Madame Beck knew, and could in some
measure influence. "My pupil," said Pere Silas, "if he remains in
Europe, runs risk of apostacy, for he has become entangled with a
heretic." Madame Beck made also her private comment, and preferred in
her own breast her secret reason for desiring expatriation. The thing
she could not obtain, she desired not another to win: rather would she
destroy it. As to Madame Walravens, she wanted her money and her land,
and knew Paul, if he liked, could make the best and faithfullest
steward: so the three self-seekers banded and beset the one unselfish.
They reasoned, they appealed, they implored; on his mercy they cast
themselves, into his hands they confidingly thrust their interests.
They asked but two or three years of devotion--after that, he should
live for himself: one of the number, perhaps, wished that in the
meantime he might die.

No living being ever humbly laid his advantage at M. Emanuel's feet,
or confidingly put it into his hands, that he spurned the trust or
repulsed the repository. What might be his private pain or inward
reluctance to leave Europe--what his calculations for his own future--
none asked, or knew, or reported. All this was a blank to me. His
conferences with his confessor I might guess; the part duty and
religion were made to play in the persuasions used, I might
conjecture. He was gone, and had made no sign. There my knowledge
closed.

* * * * *

With my head bent, and my forehead resting on my hands, I sat amidst
grouped tree-stems and branching brushwood. Whatever talk passed
amongst my neighbours, I might hear, if I would; I was near enough;
but for some time, there was scarce motive to attend. They gossiped
about the dresses, the music, the illuminations, the fine night. I
listened to hear them say, "It is calm weather for _his voyage;
the _Antigua_" (his ship) "will sail prosperously." No such
remark fell; neither the _Antigua_, nor her course, nor her
passenger were named.

Perhaps the light chat scarcely interested old Madame Walravens more
than it did me; she appeared restless, turning her head now to this
side, now that, looking through the trees, and among the crowd, as if
expectant of an arrival and impatient of delay. "Ou sont-ils? Pourquoi
ne viennent-ils?" I heard her mutter more than once; and at last, as
if determined to have an answer to her question--which hitherto none
seemed to mind, she spoke aloud this phrase--a phrase brief enough,
simple enough, but it sent a shock through me--"Messieurs et
mesdames," said she, "ou donc est Justine Marie?"

"Justine Marie!" What was this? Justine Marie--the dead nun--where was
she? Why, in her grave, Madame Walravens--what can you want with her?
You shall go to her, but she shall not come to you.

Thus _I should have answered, had the response lain with me, but
nobody seemed to be of my mind; nobody seemed surprised, startled, or
at a loss. The quietest commonplace answer met the strange, the dead-
disturbing, the Witch-of-Endor query of the hunchback.

"Justine Marie," said one, "is coming; she is in the kiosk; she will
be here presently."

Out of this question and reply sprang a change in the chat--chat it
still remained, easy, desultory, familiar gossip. Hint, allusion,
comment, went round the circle, but all so broken, so dependent on
references to persons not named, or circumstances not defined, that
listen as intently as I would--and I _did listen _now with
a fated interest--I could make out no more than that some scheme was
on foot, in which this ghostly Justine Marie--dead or alive--was
concerned. This family-junta seemed grasping at her somehow, for some
reason; there seemed question of a marriage, of a fortune--for whom I
could not quite make out-perhaps for Victor Kint, perhaps for Josef
Emanuel--both were bachelors. Once I thought the hints and jests
rained upon a young fair-haired foreigner of the party, whom they
called Heinrich Muehler. Amidst all the badinage, Madame Walravens
still obtruded from time to time, hoarse, cross-grained speeches; her
impatience being diverted only by an implacable surveillance of
Desiree, who could not stir but the old woman menaced her with her
staff.

"La voila!" suddenly cried one of the gentlemen, "voila Justine Marie
qui arrive!"

This moment was for me peculiar. I called up to memory the pictured
nun on the panel; present to my mind was the sad love-story; I saw in
thought the vision of the garret, the apparition of the alley, the
strange birth of the berceau; I underwent a presentiment of discovery,
a strong conviction of coming disclosure. Ah! when imagination once
runs riot where do we stop? What winter tree so bare and branchless--
what way-side, hedge-munching animal so humble, that Fancy, a passing
cloud, and a struggling moonbeam, will not clothe it in spirituality,
and make of it a phantom?

With solemn force pressed on my heart, the expectation of mystery
breaking up: hitherto I had seen this spectre only through a glass
darkly; now was I to behold it face to face. I leaned forward; I
looked.

"She comes!" cried Josef Emanuel.

The circle opened as if opening to admit a new and welcome member. At
this instant a torch chanced to be carried past; its blaze aided the
pale moon in doing justice to the crisis, in lighting to perfection
the denouement pressing on. Surely those near me must have felt some
little of the anxiety I felt, in degree so unmeted. Of that group the
coolest must have "held his breath for a time!" As for me, my life
stood still.

It is over. The moment and the nun are come. The crisis and the
revelation are passed by.

The flambeau glares still within a yard, held up in a park-keeper's
hand; its long eager tongue of flame almost licks the figure of the
Expected--there--where she stands full in my sight. What is she like?
What does she wear? How does she look? Who is she?

There are many masks in the park to-night, and as the hour wears late,
so strange a feeling of revelry and mystery begins to spread abroad,
that scarce would you discredit me, reader, were I to say that she is
like the nun of the attic, that she wears black skirts and white head-
clothes, that she looks the resurrection of the flesh, and that she is
a risen ghost.

All falsities--all figments! We will not deal in this gear. Let us be
honest, and cut, as heretofore, from the homely web of truth.

_Homely_, though, is an ill-chosen word. What I see is not
precisely homely. A girl of Villette stands there--a girl fresh from
her pensionnat. She is very comely, with the beauty indigenous to this
country. She looks well-nourished, fair, and fat of flesh. Her cheeks
are round, her eyes good; her hair is abundant. She is handsomely
dressed. She is not alone; her escort consists of three persons--two
being elderly; these she addresses as "Mon Oncle" and "Ma Tante." She
laughs, she chats; good-humoured, buxom, and blooming, she looks, at
all points, the bourgeoise belle.

"So much for Justine Marie;" so much for ghosts and mystery: not that
this last was solved--this girl certainly is not my nun: what I saw in
the garret and garden must have been taller by a span.

We have looked at the city belle; we have cursorily glanced at the
respectable old uncle and aunt. Have we a stray glance to give to the
third member of this company? Can we spare him a moment's notice? We
ought to distinguish him so far, reader; he has claims on us; we do
not now meet him for the first time. I clasped my hands very hard, and
I drew my breath very deep: I held in the cry, I devoured the
ejaculation, I forbade the start, I spoke and I stirred no more than a
stone; but I knew what I looked on; through the dimness left in my
eyes by many nights' weeping, I knew him. They said he was to sail by
the _Antigua_. Madame Beck said so. She lied, or she had uttered
what was once truth, and failed to contradict it when it became false.
The _Antigua was gone, and there stood Paul Emanuel.

Was I glad? A huge load left me. Was it a fact to warrant joy? I know
not. Ask first what were the circumstances attendant on this respite?
How far did this delay concern _me? Were there not those whom it
might touch more nearly?

After all, who may this young girl, this Justine Marie, be? Not a
stranger, reader; she is known to me by sight; she visits at the Rue
Fossette: she is often of Madame Beck's Sunday parties. She is a
relation of both the Becks and Walravens; she derives her baptismal
name from the sainted nun who would have been her aunt had she lived;
her patronymic is Sauveur; she is an heiress and an orphan, and M.
Emanuel is her guardian; some say her godfather.

The family junta wish this heiress to be married to one of their band
--which is it? Vital question--which is it?

I felt very glad now, that the drug administered in the sweet draught
had filled me with a possession which made bed and chamber
intolerable. I always, through my whole life, liked to penetrate to
the real truth; I like seeking the goddess in her temple, and handling
the veil, and daring the dread glance. O Titaness among deities! the
covered outline of thine aspect sickens often through its uncertainty,
but define to us one trait, show us one lineament, clear in awful
sincerity; we may gasp in untold terror, but with that gasp we drink
in a breath of thy divinity; our heart shakes, and its currents sway
like rivers lifted by earthquake, but we have swallowed strength. To
see and know the worst is to take from Fear her main advantage.

The Walravens' party, augmented in numbers, now became very gay. The
gentlemen fetched refreshments from the kiosk, all sat down on the
turf under the trees; they drank healths and sentiments; they laughed,
they jested. M. Emanuel underwent some raillery, half good-humoured,
half, I thought, malicious, especially on Madame Beck's part. I soon
gathered that his voyage had been temporarily deferred of his own
will, without the concurrence, even against the advice, of his
friends; he had let the _Antigua go, and had taken his berth in
the _Paul et Virginie_, appointed to sail a fortnight later. It
was his reason for this resolve which they teased him to assign, and
which he would only vaguely indicate as "the settlement of a little
piece of business which he had set his heart upon." What _was_
this business? Nobody knew. Yes, there was one who seemed partly, at
least, in his confidence; a meaning look passed between him and
Justine Marie. "La petite va m'aider--n'est-ce pas?" said he. The
answer was prompt enough, God knows?

"Mais oui, je vous aiderai de tout mon coeur. Vous ferez de moi tout
ce que vous voudrez, mon parrain."

And this dear "parrain" took her hand and lifted it to his grateful
lips. Upon which demonstration, I saw the light-complexioned young
Teuton, Heinrich Muehler, grow restless, as if he did not like it. He
even grumbled a few words, whereat M. Emanuel actually laughed in his
face, and with the ruthless triumph of the assured conqueror, he drew
his ward nearer to him.

M. Emanuel was indeed very joyous that night. He seemed not one whit
subdued by the change of scene and action impending. He was the true
life of the party; a little despotic, perhaps, determined to be chief
in mirth, as well as in labour, yet from moment to moment proving
indisputably his right of leadership. His was the wittiest word, the
pleasantest anecdote, the frankest laugh. Restlessly active, after his
manner, he multiplied himself to wait on all; but oh! I saw which was
his favourite. I saw at whose feet he lay on the turf, I saw whom he
folded carefully from the night air, whom he tended, watched, and
cherished as the apple of his eye.

Still, hint and raillery flew thick, and still I gathered that while
M. Paul should be absent, working for others, these others, not quite
ungrateful, would guard for him the treasure he left in Europe. Let
him bring them an Indian fortune: they would give him in return a
young bride and a rich inheritance. As for the saintly consecration,
the vow of constancy, that was forgotten: the blooming and charming
Present prevailed over the Past; and, at length, his nun was indeed
buried.

Thus it must be. The revelation was indeed come. Presentiment had not
been mistaken in her impulse: there is a kind of presentiment which
never _is mistaken; it was I who had for a moment miscalculated;
not seeing the true bearing of the oracle, I had thought she muttered
of vision when, in truth, her prediction touched reality.

I might have paused longer upon what I saw; I might have deliberated
ere I drew inferences. Some, perhaps, would have held the premises
doubtful, the proofs insufficient; some slow sceptics would have
incredulously examined ere they conclusively accepted the project of a
marriage between a poor and unselfish man of forty, and his wealthy
ward of eighteen; but far from me such shifts and palliatives, far
from me such temporary evasion of the actual, such coward fleeing from
the dread, the swift-footed, the all-overtaking Fact, such feeble
suspense of submission to her the sole sovereign, such paltering and
faltering resistance to the Power whose errand is to march conquering
and to conquer, such traitor defection from the TRUTH.

No. I hastened to accept the whole plan. I extended my grasp and took
it all in. I gathered it to me with a sort of rage of haste, and
folded it round me, as the soldier struck on the field folds his
colours about his breast. I invoked Conviction to nail upon me the
certainty, abhorred while embraced, to fix it with the strongest
spikes her strongest strokes could drive; and when the iron had
entered well my soul, I stood up, as I thought, renovated.

In my infatuation, I said, "Truth, you are a good mistress to your
faithful servants! While a Lie pressed me, how I suffered! Even when
the Falsehood was still sweet, still flattering to the fancy, and warm
to the feelings, it wasted me with hourly torment. The persuasion that
affection was won could not be divorced from the dread that, by
another turn of the wheel, it might be lost. Truth stripped away
Falsehood, and Flattery, and Expectancy, and here I stand--free!"

Nothing remained now but to take my freedom to my chamber, to carry it
with me to my bed and see what I could make of it. The play was not
yet, indeed, quite played out. I might have waited and watched longer
that love-scene under the trees, that sylvan courtship. Had there been
nothing of love in the demonstration, my Fancy in this hour was so
generous, so creative, she could have modelled for it the most salient
lineaments, and given it the deepest life and highest colour of
passion. But I _would not look; I had fixed my resolve, but I
would not violate my nature. And then--something tore me so cruelly
under my shawl, something so dug into my side, a vulture so strong in
beak and talon, I must be alone to grapple with it. I think I never
felt jealousy till now. This was not like enduring the endearments of
Dr. John and Paulina, against which while I sealed my eyes and my
ears, while I withdrew thence my thoughts, my sense of harmony still
acknowledged in it a charm. This was an outrage. The love born of
beauty was not mine; I had nothing in common with it: I could not dare
to meddle with it, but another love, venturing diffidently into life
after long acquaintance, furnace-tried by pain, stamped by constancy,
consolidated by affection's pure and durable alloy, submitted by
intellect to intellect's own tests, and finally wrought up, by his own
process, to his own unflawed completeness, this Love that laughed at
Passion, his fast frenzies and his hot and hurried extinction, in
_this Love I had a vested interest; and whatever tended either
to its culture or its destruction, I could not view impassibly.

I turned from the group of trees and the "merrie companie" in its
shade. Midnight was long past; the concert was over, the crowds were
thinning. I followed the ebb. Leaving the radiant park and well-lit
Haute-Ville (still well lit, this it seems was to be a "nuit blanche"
in Villette), I sought the dim lower quarter.

Dim I should not say, for the beauty of moonlight--forgotten in the
park--here once more flowed in upon perception. High she rode, and
calm and stainlessly she shone. The music and the mirth of the fete,
the fire and bright hues of those lamps had out-done and out-shone her
for an hour, but now, again, her glory and her silence triumphed. The
rival lamps were dying: she held her course like a white fate. Drum,
trumpet, bugle, had uttered their clangour, and were forgotten; with
pencil-ray she wrote on heaven and on earth records for archives
everlasting. She and those stars seemed to me at once the types and
witnesses of truth all regnant. The night-sky lit her reign: like its
slow-wheeling progress, advanced her victory--that onward movement
which has been, and is, and will be from eternity to eternity.

These oil-twinkling streets are very still: I like them for their
lowliness and peace. Homeward-bound burghers pass me now and then, but
these companies are pedestrians, make little noise, and are soon gone.
So well do I love Villette under her present aspect, not willingly
would I re-enter under a roof, but that I am bent on pursuing my
strange adventure to a successful close, and quietly regaining my bed
in the great dormitory, before Madame Beck comes home.

Only one street lies between me and the Rue Fossette; as I enter it,
for the first time, the sound of a carriage tears up the deep peace of
this quarter. It comes this way--comes very fast. How loud sounds its
rattle on the paved path! The street is narrow, and I keep carefully
to the causeway. The carriage thunders past, but what do I see, or
fancy I see, as it rushes by? Surely something white fluttered from
that window--surely a hand waved a handkerchief. Was that signal meant
for me? Am I known? Who could recognise me? That is not M. de
Bassompierre's carriage, nor Mrs. Bretton's; and besides, neither the
Hotel Crecy nor the chateau of La Terrasse lies in that direction.
Well, I have no time for conjecture; I must hurry home.

Gaining the Rue Fossette, reaching the pensionnat, all there was
still; no fiacre had yet arrived with Madame and Desiree. I had left
the great door ajar; should I find it thus? Perhaps the wind or some
other accident may have thrown it to with sufficient force to start
the spring-bolt? In that case, hopeless became admission; my adventure
must issue in catastrophe. I lightly pushed the heavy leaf; would it
yield?

Yes. As soundless, as unresisting, as if some propitious genius had
waited on a sesame-charm, in the vestibule within. Entering with bated
breath, quietly making all fast, shoelessly mounting the staircase, I
sought the dormitory, and reached my couch.

* * * * *

Ay! I reached it, and once more drew a free inspiration. The next
moment, I almost shrieked--almost, but not quite, thank Heaven!

Throughout the dormitory, throughout the house, there reigned at this
hour the stillness of death. All slept, and in such hush, it seemed
that none dreamed. Stretched on the nineteen beds lay nineteen forms,
at full-length and motionless. On mine--the twentieth couch--nothing
_ought to have lain: I had left it void, and void should have
found it. What, then; do I see between the half-drawn curtains? What
dark, usurping shape, supine, long, and strange? Is it a robber who
has made his way through the open street-door, and lies there in wait?
It looks very black, I think it looks--not human. Can it be a
wandering dog that has come in from the street and crept and nestled
hither? Will it spring, will it leap out if I approach? Approach I
must. Courage! One step!--

My head reeled, for by the faint night-lamp, I saw stretched on my bed
the old phantom--the NUN.

A cry at this moment might have ruined me. Be the spectacle what it
might, I could afford neither consternation, scream, nor swoon.
Besides, I was not overcome. Tempered by late incidents, my nerves
disdained hysteria. Warm from illuminations, and music, and thronging
thousands, thoroughly lashed up by a new scourge, I defied spectra. In
a moment, without exclamation, I had rushed on the haunted couch;
nothing leaped out, or sprung, or stirred; all the movement was mine,
so was all the life, the reality, the substance, the force; as my
instinct felt. I tore her up--the incubus! I held her on high--the
goblin! I shook her loose--the mystery! And down she fell--down all
around me--down in shreds and fragments--and I trode upon her.

Here again--behold the branchless tree, the unstabled Rosinante; the
film of cloud, the flicker of moonshine. The long nun proved a long
bolster dressed in a long black stole, and artfully invested with a
white veil. The garments in very truth, strange as it may seem, were
genuine nun's garments, and by some hand they had been disposed with a
view to illusion. Whence came these vestments? Who contrived this
artifice? These questions still remained. To the head-bandage was
pinned a slip of paper: it bore in pencil these mocking words--

"The nun of the attic bequeaths to Lucy Snowe her wardrobe. She will
be seen in the Rue Fossette no more."

And what and who was she that had haunted me? She, I had actually seen
three times. Not a woman of my acquaintance had the stature of that
ghost. She was not of a female height. Not to any man I knew could the
machination, for a moment, be attributed.

Still mystified beyond expression, but as thoroughly, as suddenly,
relieved from all sense of the spectral and unearthly; scorning also
to wear out my brain with the fret of a trivial though insoluble
riddle, I just bundled together stole, veil, and bandages, thrust them
beneath my pillow, lay down, listened till I heard the wheels of
Madame's home-returning fiacre, then turned, and worn out by many
nights' vigils, conquered, too, perhaps, by the now reacting narcotic,
I deeply slept.

Content of CHAPTER XXXIX - OLD AND NEW ACQUAINTANCE (Charlotte Bronte's novel: Villette)

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