Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Madame Beck
By Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855)
From ‘Villette’

“YOU ayre Engliss?” said a voice at my elbow. I almost bounded, so unexpected was the sound; so certain had I been of solitude.  1
  No ghost stood beside me, nor anything of spectral aspect; merely a motherly, dumpy little woman, in a large shawl, a wrapping-gown, and a clean, trim, nightcap.  2
  I said I was English, and immediately, without further prelude, we fell to a most remarkable conversation. Madame Beck (for Madame Beck it was; she had entered by a little door behind me, and being shod with the shoes of silence, I had heard neither her entrance nor approach)—Madame Beck had exhausted her command of insular speech when she said “You ayre Engliss,” and she now proceeded to work away volubly in her own tongue. I answered in mine. She partly understood me, but as I did not at all understand her—though we made together an awful clamor (anything like madame’s gift of utterance I had not hitherto heard or imagined)—we achieved little progress. She rang, ere long, for aid; which arrived in the shape of a “maîtresse,” who had been partly educated in an Irish convent, and was esteemed a perfect adept in the English language. A bluff little personage this maîtresse was—Labasse-courienne from top to toe: and how she did slaughter the speech of Albion! However, I told her a plain tale, which she translated. I told her how I had left my own country, intent on extending my knowledge and gaining my bread; how I was ready to turn my hand to any useful thing, provided it was not wrong or degrading: how I would be a child’s nurse or a lady’s-maid, and would not refuse even housework adapted to my strength. Madame heard this; and questioning her countenance, I almost thought the tale won her ear.  3
  “Il n’y a que les Anglaises pour ces sortes d’entreprises,” said she: “sont-elles donc intrépides, ces femmes-là!”  4
  She asked my name, my age; she sat and looked at me—not pityingly, not with interest: never a gleam of sympathy or a shade of compassion crossed her countenance during the interview. I felt she was not one to be led an inch by her feelings: grave and considerate, she gazed, consulting her judgment and studying my narrative….  5
  In the dead of night I suddenly awoke. All was hushed, but a white figure stood in the room—Madame in her night-dress. Moving without perceptible sound, she visited the three children in the three beds; she approached me; I feigned sleep, and she studied me long. A small pantomime ensued, curious enough. I dare say she sat a quarter of an hour on the edge of my bed, gazing at my face. She then drew nearer, bent close over me; slightly raised my cap, and turned back the border so as to expose my hair; she looked at my hand lying on the bed-clothes. This done, she turned to the chair where my clothes lay; it was at the foot of the bed. Hearing her touch and lift them, I opened my eyes with precaution, for I own I felt curious to see how far her taste for research would lead her. It led her a good way: every article did she inspect. I divined her motive for this proceeding; viz., the wish to form from the garments a judgment respecting the wearer, her station, means, neatness, etc. The end was not bad, but the means were hardly fair or justifiable. In my dress was a pocket; she fairly turned it inside out; she counted the money in my purse; she opened a little memorandum-book, coolly perused its contents, and took from between the leaves a small plaited lock of Miss Marchmont’s gray hair. To a bunch of three keys, being those of my trunk, desk, and work-box, she accorded special attention: with these, indeed, she withdrew a moment to her own room. I softly rose in my bed and followed her with my eye: these keys, reader, were not brought back till they had left on the toilet of the adjoining room the impress of their wards in wax. All being thus done decently and in order, my property was returned to its place, my clothes were carefully refolded. Of what nature were the conclusions deduced from this scrutiny? Were they favorable or otherwise? Vain question. Madame’s face of stone (for of stone in its present night-aspect it looked: it had been human, and as I said before, motherly, in the salon) betrayed no response.  6
  Her duty done—I felt that in her eyes this business was a duty—she rose, noiseless as a shadow: she moved toward her own chamber; at the door she turned, fixing her eyes on the heroine of the bottle, who still slept and loudly snored. Mrs. Svini (I presume this was Mrs. Svini, Anglicé or Hibernicé Sweeny)—Mrs. Sweeny’s doom was in Madame Beck’s eye—an immutable purpose that eye spoke: madame’s visitations for shortcomings might be slow, but they were sure. All this was very un-English: truly I was in a foreign land….  7
  When attired, Madame Beck appeared a personage of a figure rather short and stout, yet still graceful in its own peculiar way: that is, with the grace resulting from proportion of parts. Her complexion was fresh and sanguine, not too rubicund; her eye, blue and serene; her dark silk dress fitted her as a French sempstress alone can make a dress fit; she looked well, though a little bourgeoise, as bourgeoise indeed she was. I know not what of harmony pervaded her whole person; and yet her face offered contrast too: its features were by no means such as are usually seen in conjunction with a complexion of such blended freshness and repose: their outline was stern; her forehead was high but narrow; it expressed capacity and some benevolence, but no expanse; nor did her peaceful yet watchful eye ever know the fire which is kindled in the heart or the softness which flows thence. Her mouth was hard: it could be a little grim; her lips were thin. For sensibility and genius, with all their tenderness and temerity, I felt somehow that madame would be the right sort of Minos in petticoats.  8
  In the long run, I found that she was something else in petticoats too. Her name was Modeste Maria Beck, née Kint: it ought to have been Ignacia. She was a charitable woman, and did a great deal of good. There never was a mistress whose rule was milder. I was told that she never once remonstrated with the intolerable Mrs. Sweeny [the heroine’s predecessor], despite her tipsiness, disorder, and general neglect; yet Mrs. Sweeny had to go, the moment her departure became convenient. I was told too that neither masters nor teachers were found fault with in that establishment: yet both masters and teachers were often changed; they vanished and others filled their places, none could well explain how.  9
  The establishment was both a pensionnat and an externat: the externes or day-pupils exceeded one hundred in number; the boarders were about a score. Madame must have possessed high administrative powers: she ruled all these, together with four teachers, eight masters, six servants, and three children, managing at the same time to perfection the pupil’s parents and friends; and that without apparent effort, without bustle, fatigue, fever, or any symptom of undue excitement; occupied she always was—busy, rarely. It is true that madame had her own system for managing and regulating this mass of machinery; and a very pretty system it was: the reader has seen a specimen of it in that small affair of turning my pocket inside out and reading my private memoranda. Surveillance, espionnage, these were her watchwords.  10
  Still, madame knew what honesty was, and liked it—that is, when it did not obtrude its clumsy scruples in the way of her will and interest. She had a respect for “Angleterre”; and as to “les Anglaises,” she would have the women of no other country about her own children, if she could help it.  11
  Often in the evening, after she had been plotting and counter-plotting, spying and receiving the reports of spies all day, she would come up to my room, a trace of real weariness on her brow, and she would sit down and listen while the children said their little prayers to me in English: the Lord’s Prayer and the hymn beginning “Gentle Jesus,” these little Catholics were permitted to repeat at my knee; and when I had put them to bed, she would talk to me (I soon gained enough French to be able to understand and even answer her) about England and Englishwomen, and the reason for what she was pleased to term their superior intelligence, and, more real and reliable probity. Very good sense she often showed; very sound opinions she often broached: she seemed to know that keeping girls in distrustful restraint, in blind ignorance, and under a surveillance that left them no moment and no corner for retirement, was not the best way to make them grow up honest and modest women; but she averred that ruinous consequences would ensue if any other method were tried with Continental children—they were so accustomed to restraint that relaxation, however guarded, would be misunderstood and fatally presumed on: she was sick, she would declare, of the means she had to use, but use them she must; and after discoursing, often with dignity and delicacy, to me, she would move away on her “souliers de silence,” and glide ghost-like through the house, watching and spying everywhere, peering through every key-hole, listening behind every door.  12
  After all, madame’s system was not bad—let me do her justice. Nothing could be better than all her arrangements for the physical well-being of her scholars. No minds were overtasked; the lessons were well distributed and made incomparably easy to the learner; there was a liberty of amusement and a provision for exercise which kept the girls healthy; the food was abundant and good: neither pale nor puny faces were anywhere to be seen in the Rue Fossette. She never grudged a holiday; she allowed plenty of time for sleeping, dressing, washing, eating: her method in all these matters was easy, liberal, salutary, and rational; many an austere English schoolmistress would do vastly well to imitate it—and I believe many would be glad to do so, if exacting English parents would let them.  13
  As Madame Beck ruled by espionage, she of course had her staff of spies; she perfectly knew the quality of the tools she used, and while she would not scruple to handle the dirtiest for a dirty occasion—flinging this sort from her like refuse rind, after the orange has been duly squeezed—I have known her fastidious in seeking pure metal for clean uses; and when once a bloodless and rustless instrument was found, she was careful of the prize, keeping it in silk and cotton-wool. Yet woe be to the man or woman who relied on her one inch beyond the point where it was her interest to be trustworthy; interest was the master-key of madame’s nature—the mainspring of her motives—the alpha and omega of her life. I have seen her feelings appealed to, and I have smiled in half-pity, half-scorn at the appellants. None ever gained her ear through that channel, or swayed her purpose by that means. On the contrary, to attempt to touch her heart was the surest way to rouse her antipathy, and to make of her a secret foe. It proved to her that she had no heart to be touched: it reminded her where she was impotent and dead. Never was the distinction between charity and mercy better exemplified than in her. While devoid of sympathy, she had a sufficiency of rational benevolence: she would give in the readiest manner to people she had never seen—rather, however, to classes than to individuals. “Pour les pauvres” she opened her purse freely—against the poor man, as a rule, she kept it closed. In philanthropic schemes, for the benefit of society at large, she took a cheerful part; no private sorrow touched her: no force or mass of suffering concentrated in one heart had power to pierce hers. Not the agony of Gethsemane, not the death on Calvary, could have wrung from her eyes one tear.  14
  I say again, madame was a very great and a very capable woman. That school offered for her powers too limited a sphere: she ought to have swayed a nation; she should have been the leader of a turbulent legislative assembly. Nobody could have browbeaten her, none irritated her nerves, exhausted her patience, or overreached her astuteness. In her own single person, she could have comprised the duties of a first minister and a superintendent of police. Wise, firm, faithless, secret, crafty, passionless; watchful and inscrutable; acute and insensate—withal perfectly decorous—what more could be desired?  15

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