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Authors: Dorothy Strachey

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Olivia (10 page)

BOOK: Olivia
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And then my swelling heart burst. I was tired; I was hopeless; I was resentful; I had been cheated; I had made a fool of myself; nothing was any good.
Chimères! Chimères!
I put my head down between my hands and sobbed.
She got up from her chair. Even through my fit of sobbing, I was intensely conscious of her movements. But she did not come near me. On the contrary, she walked away and stood by the fireplace.
“Olivia,” she said gravely, “I’m sorry I disappointed you last night. If you don’t understand why, I can’t explain. But I would like you to understand this: I’m trying now to do the best for us.” And then in a whisper, she added, so low that I could hardly hear it: “
Je t’aime bien
,
mon enfant
.” Her voice broke and sank and then, lower still, she added, “
Plus que tu ne crois
.” With that she was gone. The door shut and I was alone.
My sobs gradually died away in the stillness of the big room. The quiet, the deepening twilight, calmed me. The memory of her words, the tenderness of her voice, wrapped me round with a mantle of comfort. I dried my eyes. The great cast of the Victory of Samothrace glimmered white in a corner of the room; I could still see on one wall Michelangelo’s prophets and sibyls, sitting robed in their majesty above me; on another, Piranesi’s engraving of the Roman aqueduct led my eyes away into an infinity of grandeur; a bunch of Nice roses bloomed in a vase on the table; and all around me were books. Solemnity, nobility, beauty, love, were these then chimeras? No, no, a hundred times no! I believed in them. With my whole soul I believed in them. It was no waste of gifts and graces to pursue them. But I must pursue them in a purer spirit, with more faith, with less selfishness. It would be easier now. I was no longer alone. She was with me—beside me. She had said “us.” She had lifted me to her star. She loved me too, better than—ah, infinitely better than I deserved. She, with her own greater sorrows, had spared time to be sorry for me. Pity and gratitude flooded me, overpowered me. I drooped beneath them. How tired I was. I took a cushion from the armchair on which she usually sat, put it on the floor, sank my head down on it and fell asleep.
 
I don’t know how long it was before I woke to find the light turned on and Mlle Cara standing over me.
“You!” she said, “and what are you doing here?”
Half dazed, I sat up, blinked my eyes and answered, “Nothing. I was asleep.”
“Asleep!” she said angrily. “And how do you come to be asleep here of all the places in the world?”
I rose to my feet, muttered vaguely, “I’m sorry,” and tried to make for the door.
But she caught hold of me and began to pour forth a torrent of agitated, incoherent words:
“You! You, whom I had hoped for, whom I had looked forward to—you to betray me, abandon me. What would your mother say if she knew? If she knew how you were being led astray, demoralized, depraved? How idle you have become, and for all I know, vicious. Fallen into the hands of a lowborn Italian Jewess—and into others, worse, worse! Look at you now, your hair down, your dress so untidy and rumpled, your eyes wild. Shame on you, Olivia. Shame! Shame!”
Her voice rose to a shriek. I thought she was demented. I had never seen a person in hysterics before. I was terrified by that shrill, choking, sobbing laughter, by those insane words. And suddenly she turned. Mlle Julie had come into the room behind me; I was standing now between the two.
“What is it, Cara?” she said.
The raving flood changed its direction and went on. She was shaking now from head to foot.
“One of your favourites, one of your darlings, one of your
victims
!” she shrieked.
“Go, Olivia,” said Mlle Julie.
She managed to extricate me and I ran to the door, but before I reached it, I heard the fury cry:
“Oh yes, you go to their rooms at night—Cécile’s, Baietto’s, and now hers! You do, you
do.

 
 
My brain was whirling. I too was trembling from head to foot. What did it all mean? Why did I suddenly feel as if I were surrounded by horrors, as if the landscape, which a moment before had shone with an almost celestial radiance, were clouded now with darkness, full of abominable pitfalls and lurking hideous monsters? Mystery was about me, murky suspicions, and, at the bottom of my heart lay jealousy such as I had never known before, and a dreadful curiosity and a dreadful longing for wickedness. In so short a time to be cast from the glories of Paradise into this direful region! It was the first time I learnt how near, how contiguous, are the gates of Heaven and Hell.
That night too I slept very little. I lay for hours, it seemed to me, tossing in an aimless conflict, everything at war within me, every issue confused and shadowy. What was this vice of which I was accused? Was I really capable of vice? Yes, I felt it within me, in this hatred, in this horror, in this confusion itself. But love was no vice.
When best I loved, then I was best. But lately, had not love too been clouded with exhalations from some obscure depths, at which I shuddered? Why were good and evil so inextricably mixed? Evil? Was there any evil in my love’s pure face, in the sweetness of her sensitive lips, in the delicate, pale curve of her cheek, in the deep thoughtful eyes, in the grave brow? And I thought of the other face, distorted with anger, swollen, inflamed, with ugly hatreds, ugly vanities, ugly weaknesses. Was there any doubt where virtue lay between those two? And then my thoughts were punctuated again by the sudden, flashing vision of Cécile’s creamy shoulder, and I writhed in my bed—I too in the clutches of ugly hatreds, ugly vanities, ugly weaknesses. I should like to pray, thought I, if only I knew to what deity. Ah! It is Reason I must implore—some calm Minerva, who shall look down from her god-like abode, and still my passions, and dispel these sulphurous fumes, and restore to my soul clarity and discernment. And with the thought and with the prayer, peace fell on me and I slept.
10
I
sprang out of bed next morning, full of good resolutions, determined to work better, to love better, to
be
better. I would attend to the history professor, though he
was
dull. I would check my thoughts the moment they began to wander down the familiar alluring paths. I would concentrate my mind on what I had to do. I would do it as well as I could. Alas! I had not yet learnt that concentration of mind comes from long discipline and sternly acquired habit. On the very first morning of what was to be my new life, how could I expect to banish entirely those haunting visions—of a shoulder, of a profile? Was I responsible when, in the middle of the professor’s lecture, his voice, his words, his person, were suddenly obliterated and I was conscious of nothing but an almost inaudible murmur, “
Je t’aime bien, mon enfant . . . plus que tu ne crois
”? Could I help it, if, with a sudden wild leap of my heart, I felt my lips pressing against warm hands, the hardness of a ring, the roughness of a woollen
dress? Or again, if I heard a frantic voice cry, “You go to Cécile’s room at night,” I would try to suppress my jealousies, my suspicions, by forcing an interest in Richelieu’s government—was it my fault if I failed?
These jealousies and suspicions broke their way to the surface during my Italian lesson.
“Signorina,” I asked (but I despised myself as I asked it), “is it true she goes to Cécile’s room at night?”
“To Cécile’s room!” laughed Signorina. “Why on earth should she go there? She doesn’t care two straws for Cécile. And as for Cécile, if her beauty sleep were disturbed, she’d certainly leave the very next morning. Mlle Cara’s been at you, I see.”
There was a pause. Then she went on: “Olivia,” she said, “she comes to me as well as to you, because we love her. And I think I have more reason to be jealous of you than you of me. But I’m not. She talks to me. She tells me about this dreadful situation. She told me last night about the scene Mlle Cara had with you. She said she was like a madwoman. . . . It can’t go on. It’s bad for everyone, bad for the school, for the girls. It’s eating the heart out of her. And all she does to pacify Mlle Cara only makes her worse. She has finally made up her mind. She has decided to leave.”
“To leave!” I cried aghast. “How? When? What will she do?”
“Nothing is settled,” answered Signorina, “but she thinks she’ll let Frau Riesener and Mlle Cara carry on
here and that she’ll go to Canada and start a fresh school there. I shall go with her, of course.”
It seems hard to believe, but this was the very first time I had ever thought of the future. I had been so utterly absorbed by the newness and violence of all my emotions, that it had never occurred to me the present could be anything but eternal. It was of myself I thought first. She was going—to Canada—to another world. She was going, perhaps for ever——Immeasurable oceans would separate me from her—immeasurable ages.
I grew dizzy with the shock. The world swam. A cloud of darkness came over my eyes. I think I was on the point of fainting.
There was a sofa in the little study where we had our Italian lessons. Signorina made me lie down on it. I was thankful for this bodily weakness, which, like an anaesthetic, dulled an intolerable pain. Vaguely, I felt that I had heard something cruel, something frightful, but when, what, I didn’t know. Signorina took up
I Promessi Sposi
and began reading aloud in a monotonous voice. I let the melodious Italian sounds flow over me, lap me round, as I lay there on the sofa, not listening, not thinking. Then, suddenly I became conscious again.
“Oh, Signorina,” I cried, sitting up and stretching out my hands to her, “what shall I do? How shall I bear it?”
“Try to be calmer, Olivia.” (Oh, these grown-ups! Calmer!) “There’s no need to be agitated just yet. Everything
will go on just the same to the end of the term. And in any case, you would be going home for the holidays. I don’t suppose you need come back next term, when she’s not here.”
(Come back next term, when she’s not here!)
“And then, Olivia, I’ve planned it all out. We shall have a school in Canada and in two or three years’ time, you’ll be old enough, you’ll have passed your examinations, and you’ll come out and be a teacher in the new school.”
(In two or three years!)
Vain, idle consolations! I knew it.
So now, if the beak and talons of the vulture jealousy had eased their grip on my heart, another worse torment was mine. I became conscious of the flight of time. Five weeks. And soon there would be four, and soon three, and soon two, and soon only one, and then . . .
I was the prisoner condemned to execution. There was no escape. I turned and turned in my cage. No thought of submission, no thought of acceptance touched me, very little thought of anyone else’s sufferings but my own. Yes, I was the prisoner of my own selfishness. And the more I longed to stay the inexorable passage of the days, the faster, the more terrifyingly they fled. I had scarcely left my bedroom in the morning than I was back again in it at night. One more of the precious days had
gone by beyond recall and left nothing behind it, not one grain of gold to add to my tiny heap of treasure. During all those days, Mlle Julie was kind to me, but distant. I no longer dared to go unbidden to the library. She no longer dropped her hand into mine, if we chanced to be alone; and if I listened to her footsteps down the passage on the nights she came in late, it was no longer with the beating heart of hope.
During all those days too, the signs of approaching change, of approaching catastrophe even, were becoming more and more visible. I had been told by Signorina to say nothing of the coming break, and I did not, but there was uneasiness in the air. Girls whispered in corners; mistresses looked anxious. There were unusual comings and goings. Gentlemen with black
serviettes
full of papers were closeted upstairs with the ladies in the
cabinet de travail.
Mlle Julie went oftener to Paris, and one day, even Mlle Cara herself, wrapped up in shawls and mufflers and accompanied by Frau Riesener, drove out (to the town, it was said) in a closed carriage.
“They are making legal arrangements,” said Signorina. “A deed of separation has to be drawn up. She is being far too generous to Mlle Cara. Frau Riesener sees to it that her dear friend gets every ounce she can extract. And Mlle Julie doesn’t care. It was she who put every penny of capital into the school, but she’s getting very little back. And, what do you think, when she stipulated
she should have her father’s books, they said they must be valued and half the value put to Mlle Cara’s credit. She just shrugged her shoulders and consented.”
And so these odious questions of material interest had to be debated when hearts were breaking.
When hearts were breaking . . .
 
 
One evening was generally set apart during the week for Mlle Julie to read to the elder girls in the library. Those evenings have coloured for me all French literature. How many masterpieces she read us! How many she clothed in the beauty of her voice! How many she passed on to us, infused and vivified by the zest of her wit, by the spirit of her genius!
BOOK: Olivia
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