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The Professor, a novel by Charlotte Bronte


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_ NEXT day the morning hours seemed to pass very slowly at M.
Pelet's; I wanted the afternoon to come that I might go again to
the neighbouring pensionnat and give my first lesson within its
pleasant precincts; for pleasant they appeared to me. At noon
the hour of recreation arrived; at one o'clock we had lunch; this
got on the time, and at last St. Gudule's deep bell, tolling
slowly two, marked the moment for which I had been waiting.

At the foot of the narrow back-stairs that descended from my
room, I met M. Pelet.

"Comme vous avez l'air rayonnant!" said he. "Je ne vous ai
jamais vu aussi gai. Que s'est-il donc passe?"

"Apparemment que j'aime les changements," replied I.

"Ah! je comprends--c'est cela-soyez sage seulement. Vous etes
bien jeune--trop jeune pour le role que vous allez jouer; il faut
prendre garde--savez-vous?"

"Mais quel danger y a-t-il?"

"Je n'en sais rien--ne vous laissez pas aller a de vives
impressions--voila tout."

I laughed: a sentiment of exquisite pleasure played over my
nerves at the thought that "vives impressions" were likely to be
created; it was the deadness, the sameness of life's daily
ongoings that had hitherto been my bane; my blouse-clad "eleves"
in the boys' seminary never stirred in me any "vives impressions"
except it might be occasionally some of anger. I broke from M.
Pelet, and as I strode down the passage he followed me with one
of his laughs--a very French, rakish, mocking sound.

Again I stood at the neighbouring door, and soon was re-admitted
into the cheerful passage with its clear dove-colour imitation
marble walls. I followed the portress, and descending a step,
and making a turn, I found myself in a sort of corridor; a
side-door opened, Mdlle. Reuter's little figure, as graceful as
it was plump, appeared. I could now see her dress in full
daylight; a neat, simple mousseline-laine gown fitted her compact
round shape to perfection--delicate little collar and manchettes
of lace, trim Parisian brodequins showed her neck, wrists, and
feet, to complete advantage; but how grave was her face as she
came suddenly upon me! Solicitude and business were in her eye
--on her forehead; she looked almost stern. Her "Bon jour,
monsieur," was quite polite, but so orderly, so commonplace, it
spread directly a cool, damp towel over my "vives impressions."
The servant turned back when her mistress appeared, and I walked
slowly along the corridor, side by side with Mdlle. Reuter.

"Monsieur will give a lesson in the first class to-day," said
she; "dictation or reading will perhaps be the best thing to
begin with, for those are the easiest forms of communicating
instruction in a foreign language; and, at the first, a master
naturally feels a little unsettled."

She was quite right, as I had found from experience; it only
remained for me to acquiesce. We proceeded now in silence. The
corridor terminated in a hall, large, lofty, and square; a glass
door on one side showed within a long narrow refectory, with
tables, an armoire, and two lamps; it was empty; large glass
doors, in front, opened on the playground and garden; a broad
staircase ascended spirally on the opposite side; the remaining
wall showed a pair of great folding-doors, now closed, and
admitting: doubtless, to the classes.

Mdlle. Reuter turned her eye laterally on me, to ascertain,
probably, whether I was collected enough to be ushered into her
sanctum sanctorum. I suppose she judged me to be in a tolerable
state of self-government, for she opened the door, and I followed
her through. A rustling sound of uprising greeted our entrance;
without looking to the right or left, I walked straight up the
lane between two sets of benches and desks, and took possession
of the empty chair and isolated desk raised on an estrade, of one
step high, so as to command one division; the other division
being under the surveillance of a maitresse similarly elevated.
At the back of the estrade, and attached to a moveable partition
dividing this schoolroom from another beyond, was a large tableau
of wood painted black and varnished; a thick crayon of white
chalk lay on my desk for the convenience of elucidating any
grammatical or verbal obscurity which might occur in my lessons
by writing it upon the tableau; a wet sponge appeared beside the
chalk, to enable me to efface the marks when they had served the
purpose intended.

I carefully and deliberately made these observations before
allowing myself to take one glance at the benches before me;
having handled the crayon, looked back at the tableau, fingered
the sponge in order to ascertain that it was in a right state of
moisture, I found myself cool enough to admit of looking calmly
up and gazing deliberately round me.

And first I observed that Mdlle. Reuter had already glided away,
she was nowhere visible; a maitresse or teacher, the one who
occupied the corresponding estrade to my own, alone remained to
keep guard over me; she was a little in the shade, and, with my
short sight, I could only see that she was of a thin bony figure
and rather tallowy complexion, and that her attitude, as she sat,
partook equally of listlessness and affectation. More obvious,
more prominent, shone on by the full light of the large window,
were the occupants of the benches just before me, of whom some
were girls of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, some young women from
eighteen (as it appeared to me) up to twenty; the most modest
attire, the simplest fashion of wearing the hair, were apparent
in all; and good features, ruddy, blooming complexions, large and
brilliant eyes, forms full, even to solidity, seemed to abound.
I did not bear the first view like a stoic; I was dazzled, my
eyes fell, and in a voice somewhat too low I murmured--

"Prenez vos cahiers de dictee, mesdemoiselles."

Not so had I bid the boys at Pelet's take their reading-books. A
rustle followed, and an opening of desks; behind the lifted lids
which momentarily screened the heads bent down to search for
exercise-books, I heard tittering and whispers.

"Eulalie, je suis prete a pamer de rire," observed one.

"Comme il a rougi en parlant!"

"Oui, c'est un veritable blanc-bec."

"Tais-toi, Hortense--il nous ecoute."

And now the lids sank and the heads reappeared; I had marked
three, the whisperers, and I did not scruple to take a very
steady look at them as they emerged from their temporary eclipse.
It is astonishing what ease and courage their little phrases of
flippancy had given me; the idea by which I had been awed was
that the youthful beings before me, with their dark nun-like
robes and softly braided hair, were a kind of half-angels. The
light titter, the giddy whisper, had already in some measure
relieved my mind of that fond and oppressive fancy.

The three I allude to were just in front, within half a yard of
my estrade, and were among the most womanly-looking present.
Their names I knew afterwards, and may as well mention now; they
were Eulalie, Hortense, Caroline. Eulalie was tall, and very
finely shaped: she was fair, and her features were those of a
Low Country Madonna; many a "figure de Vierge" have I seen in
Dutch pictures exactly resembling hers; there were no angles in
her shape or in her face, all was curve and roundness--neither
thought, sentiment, nor passion disturbed by line or flush the
equality of her pale, clear skin; her noble bust heaved with her
regular breathing, her eyes moved a little--by these evidences of
life alone could I have distinguished her from some large
handsome figure moulded in wax. Hortense was of middle size and
stout, her form was ungraceful, her face striking, more alive and
brilliant than Eulalie's, her hair was dark brown, her complexion
richly coloured; there were frolic and mischief in her eye:
consistency and good sense she might possess, but none of her
features betokened those qualities.

Caroline was little, though evidently full grown; raven-black
hair, very dark eyes, absolutely regular features, with a
colourless olive complexion, clear as to the face and sallow
about the neck, formed in her that assemblage of points whose
union many persons regard as the perfection of beauty. How, with
the tintless pallor of her skin and the classic straightness of
her lineaments, she managed to look sensual, I don't know. I
think her lips and eyes contrived the affair between them, and
the result left no uncertainty on the beholder's mind. She was
sensual now, and in ten years' time she would be coarse--promise
plain was written in her face of much future folly.

If I looked at these girls with little scruple, they looked at me
with still less. Eulalie raised her unmoved eye to mine, and
seemed to expect, passively but securely, an impromptu tribute to
her majestic charms. Hortense regarded me boldly, and giggled at
the same time, while she said, with an air of impudent freedom--

"Dictez-nous quelquechose de facile pour commencer, monsieur."

Caroline shook her loose ringlets of abundant but somewhat coarse
hair over her rolling black eyes; parting her lips, as full as
those of a hot-blooded Maroon, she showed her well-set teeth
sparkling between them, and treated me at the same time to a
smile "de sa facon." Beautiful as Pauline Borghese, she looked at
the moment scarcely purer than Lucrece de Borgia. Caroline was
of noble family. I heard her lady-mother's character afterwards,
and then I ceased to wonder at the precocious accomplishments of
the daughter. These three, I at once saw, deemed themselves the
queens of the school, and conceived that by their splendour they
threw all the rest into the shade. In less than five minutes
they had thus revealed to me their characters, and in less than
five minutes I had buckled on a breast-plate of steely
indifference, and let down a visor of impassible austerity.

"Take your pens and commence writing," said I, in as dry and
trite a voice as if I had been addressing only Jules Vanderkelkov
and Co.

The dictee now commenced. My three belles interrupted me
perpetually with little silly questions and uncalled-for remarks,
to some of which I made no answer, and to others replied very
quietly and briefly. "Comment dit-on point et virgule en Anglais,

"Semi-colon, mademoiselle."

"Semi-collong? Ah, comme c'est drole!" (giggle.)

"J'ai une si mauvaise plume--impossible d'ecrire!"

"Mais, monsieur--je ne sais pas suivre--vous allez si vite."

"Je n'ai rien compris, moi!"

Here a general murmur arose, and the teacher, opening her lips
for the first time, ejaculated--

"Silence, mesdemoiselles!"

No silence followed--on the contrary, the three ladies in front
began to talk more loudly.

"C'est si difficile, l'Anglais!"

"Je deteste la dictee."

"Quel ennui d'ecrire quelquechose que l'on ne comprend pas!"

Some of those behind laughed: a degree of confusion began to
pervade the class; it was necessary to take prompt measures.

"Donnez-moi votre cahier," said I to Eulalie in an abrupt tone;
and bending over, I took it before she had time to give it.

"Et vous, mademoiselle-donnez-moi le votre," continued I, more
mildly, addressing a little pale, plain looking girl who sat in
the first row of the other division, and whom I had remarked as
being at once the ugliest and the most attentive in the room; she
rose up, walked over to me, and delivered her book with a grave,
modest curtsey. I glanced over the two dictations; Eulalie's was
slurred, blotted, and full of silly mistakes--Sylvie's (such was
the name of the ugly little girl) was clearly written, it
contained no error against sense, and but few faults of
orthography. I coolly read aloud both exercises, marking the
faults--then I looked at Eulalie:

"C'est honteux!" said I, and I deliberately tore her dictation
in four parts, and presented her with the fragments. I returned
Sylvie her book with a smile, saying--

"C'est bien--je suis content de vous."

Sylvie looked calmly pleased, Eulalie swelled like an incensed
turkey, but the mutiny was quelled: the conceited coquetry and
futile flirtation of the first bench were exchanged for a
taciturn sullenness, much more convenient to me, and the rest of
my lesson passed without interruption.

A bell clanging out in the yard announced the moment for the
cessation of school labours. I heard our own bell at the same
time, and that of a certain public college immediately after.
Order dissolved instantly; up started every pupil, I hastened to
seize my hat, bow to the maitresse, and quit the room before the
tide of externats should pour from the inner class, where I knew
near a hundred were prisoned, and whose rising tumult I already

I had scarcely crossed the hall and gained the corridor, when
Mdlle. Reuter came again upon me.

"Step in here a moment," said she, and she held open the door of
the side room from whence she had issued on my arrival; it was a
SALLE-A-MANGER, as appeared from the beaufet and the armoire
vitree, filled with glass and china, which formed part of its
furniture. Ere she had closed the door on me and herself, the
corridor was already filled with day-pupils, tearing down their
cloaks, bonnets, and cabas from the wooden pegs on which they
were suspended; the shrill voice of a maitresse was heard at
intervals vainly endeavouring to enforce some sort of order;
vainly, I say: discipline there was none in these rough ranks,
and yet this was considered one of the best-conducted schools in

"Well, you have given your first lesson," began Mdlle. Reuter in
the most calm, equable voice, as though quite unconscious of the
chaos from which we were separated only by a single wall.

"Were you satisfied with your pupils, or did any circumstance in
their conduct give you cause for complaint? Conceal nothing from
me, repose in me entire confidence."

Happily, I felt in myself complete power to manage my pupils
without aid; the enchantment, the golden haze which had dazzled
my perspicuity at first, had been a good deal dissipated. I
cannot say I was chagrined or downcast by the contrast which the
reality of a pensionnat de demoiselles presented to my vague
ideal of the same community; I was only enlightened and amused;
consequently, I felt in no disposition to complain to Mdlle.
Reuter, and I received her considerate invitation to confidence
with a smile.

"A thousand thanks, mademoiselle, all has gone very smoothly."

She looked more than doubtful.

"Et les trois demoiselles du premier banc?" said she.

"Ah! tout va au mieux!" was my answer, and Mdlle. Reuter ceased
to question me; but her eye--not large, not brilliant, not
melting, or kindling, but astute, penetrating, practical, showed
she was even with me; it let out a momentary gleam, which said
plainly, "Be as close as you like, I am not dependent on your
candour; what you would conceal I already know."

By a transition so quiet as to be scarcely perceptible, the
directress's manner changed; the anxious business-air passed from
her face, and she began chatting about the weather and the town,
and asking in neighbourly wise after M. and Madame Pelet. I
answered all her little questions; she prolonged her talk, I went
on following its many little windings; she sat so long, said so
much, varied so often the topics of discourse, that it was not
difficult to perceive she had a particular aim in thus detaining
me. Her mere words could have afforded no clue to this aim, but
her countenance aided; while her lips uttered only affable
commonplaces, her eyes reverted continually to my face. Her
glances were not given in full, but out of the corners, so
quietly, so stealthily, yet I think I lost not one. I watched
her as keenly as she watched me; I perceived soon that she was
feeling after my real character; she was searching for salient
points, and weak; points, and eccentric points; she was applying
now this test, now that, hoping in the end to find some chink,
some niche, where she could put in her little firm foot and stand
upon my neck--mistress of my nature, Do not mistake me, reader,
it was no amorous influence she wished to gain--at that time it
was only the power of the politician to which she aspired; I was
now installed as a professor in her establishment, and she wanted
to know where her mind was superior to mine--by what feeling or
opinion she could lead me.

I enjoyed the game much, and did not hasten its conclusion;
sometimes I gave her hopes, beginning a sentence rather weakly,
when her shrewd eye would light up--she thought she had me;
having led her a little way, I delighted to turn round and finish
with sound, hard sense, whereat her countenance would fall. At
last a servant entered to announce dinner; the conflict being
thus necessarily terminated, we parted without having gained any
advantage on either side: Mdlle. Reuter had not even given me an
opportunity of attacking her with feeling, and I had managed to
baffle her little schemes of craft. It was a regular drawn
battle. I again held out my hand when I left the room, she gave
me hers; it was a small and white hand, but how cool! I met her
eye too in full--obliging her to give me a straightforward look;
this last test went against me: it left her as it found her
--moderate, temperate, tranquil; me it disappointed.

"I am growing wiser," thought I, as I walked back to M. Pelet's.
"Look at this little woman; is she like the women of novelists
and romancers? To read of female character as depicted in Poetry
and Fiction, one would think it was made up of sentiment, either
for good or bad--here is a specimen, and a most sensible and
respectable specimen, too, whose staple ingredient is abstract
reason. No Talleyrand was ever more passionless than Zoraide
Reuter!" So I thought then; I found afterwards that blunt
susceptibilities are very consistent with strong propensities. _

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Read previous: CHAPTER IX

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