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Authors: Dorothy Strachey

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Olivia (3 page)

BOOK: Olivia
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We escaped, however. The end of my time was reached without disaster, and when Miss Stock bade me good-bye, she said, looking over her spectacles with the mild benevolence that characterized her in the intervals of special Bible classes:
“I am afraid, my dear, you haven’t been very happy here. Can you tell me why? Is there anything you have had to complain of?”
“No, oh, no! No!”
2
I
was rather more than sixteen when my mother decided to take me away from Miss Stock’s and send me for my “finishing” to a school in France. There was one already chosen to hand, kept by two French ladies whom my mother had met several years earlier when she was staying in a hotel in Italy, and who had remained her friends ever since.
Mademoiselle Julie T——and Mademoiselle Cara M——were dim figures flitting occasionally through my childhood, barely distinguishable from each other, but invested in a kind of romance from the fact of their foreign nationality. They sometimes came to stay with us a little in the holidays. They nearly always sent me a child’s French book on New Year’s Day. Starting with
Les Malheurs de Sophie,
we progressed gradually through several volumes of Erckmann-Chatrian up to
La Petite Fadette
and
François le Champi,
with one lurid and delightful interruption to dullness in the shape of a novel by Alphonse Daudet arranged for young people. Thanks to
my mother and a French nursery maid, I knew French pretty well, that is I understood it when spoken and could read it fluently; but time was too precious to be wasted on French books, so that the only ones I read were my New Year presents, and those only as a matter of duty and politeness. At Miss Stock’s, the French lessons, given by a deadly Mademoiselle, were a torture from which I took refuge as best I could in depths of agreeable abstraction, only coming to the surface for a moment when it was my turn to translate two or three lines of
L’Avare
or of whatever the classic might be we were spending that particular term in stumbling through.
The new school—Les Avons it was called—was situated in one of the loveliest parts of a great forest and within easy reach of Paris. It was delightful setting off for the first time abroad. I travelled with a party of other girls, some new and some old, under the conduct of the two ladies,
“ces dames,”
as it was the fashion to call them. I can’t remember much of the journey, except the excitement of it.
The school was a small one, consisting of not more than thirty girls, English, American and Belgian, and a staff of German, Italian, English and French mistresses, a music mistress, and so forth.
For the first time in my life I was given a delightful little bedroom entirely to myself, and I remember it was in that room that I first looked at myself in the glass—a proceeding for which the strictest privacy is necessary,
and for which, to tell the truth, I had never felt much inclination. I was beginning the new life in very different circumstances from the old. Here, I was not going to be a pariah, a goat outside the pale of salvation, and looked at with suspicion and misgiving by the Wesleyan sheep gathered safely inside it. On the contrary, I was starting, I felt, with the sympathy of the authorities and the respect of my companions, the precious daughter of a highly revered friend; and if, thought I, there is such a friendship between the French ladies and my mother, it must be that they know her “views” and possibly share them.
“And who is that tiny thing like a brownie?” I asked next morning, as I watched a curious little figure tripping and bustling down the long broad passage.
“Oh, that’s Signorina, the Italian mistress. She’s on Mademoiselle Julie’s side.”
“And just think!” said someone else, “the German mistress is a
widow
!”
“Yes, and
she’s
all for Mademoiselle Cara!”
Curious words. I didn’t pay much attention to them, taken up as I was for the first few days by all the novelty around me, by the kind of disorder that reigned, by the chatter and laughter, by the foreign speech, by the absence of rules, by the extraordinary and delicious meals, by an atmosphere of gaiety and freedom which was like the breath of life to me.
It was the term that begins in spring and ends in
summer, and I felt indeed as if I were coming to life with the rest of the world. The grip of a numbing winter was loosened, the frozen ground had thawed, the sun was shining, the air was soft, violets and primroses were pushing up their heads in the woods. The woods lay just on the other side of the road; when we went out for our walks, as soon as we had crossed it, we were allowed to break out of file and run about as we chose, pick flowers or play games. How beautiful the woods were! How different this was from those crocodile walks along the suburban, villa-lined roads round Stockhome, where we were not allowed to forget for a single moment that we were young ladies, but must walk in step and never fall out and not talk much, though talking was the only way of amusing oneself, for there was nothing about us that we cared to look at.
On that first morning walk, my companion was a lively, pretty girl called Mimi; she took with her on a lead a big St. Bernard dog who belonged to the school and whom she had special charge of. As soon as we got into the woods, she set him free, and the great creature rushed and bounded and tried to knock us down, and we laughed and shouted and were happy.
But though I enjoyed my walk, I wasn’t sorry to go in. The first week at a new school is a busy one; curriculum to be talked over, timetables to be arranged, names and faces to be learnt. Though a new girl, I at once took my place among the elder pupils. I knew French better
than a great many of them; I was to attend the visiting professors’ lectures and Mlle Julie’s literature lessons. (Mlle Cara, I discovered, gave no lessons.) I was to begin Italian and go on with German and Latin; I was to be allowed to give up mathematics.
So far, Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara remained, as far as I was concerned, on their Olympian heights. I had very little to do with them and only distinguished one from the other by saying to myself that Mlle Julie was the more lively and Mlle Cara the kinder. One evening, my friend Mimi, the girl with the dog, said to me: “Mlle Julie has gone to Paris and Mlle Cara wants us to go and have coffee with her in her
cabinet de travail.
Go up now. I’ve something I must do, but I’ll be there in a moment.”
I went upstairs, quaking a little, for I remembered the terrifying solemnity of my visits to Miss Stock’s private sitting room. But this, I thought, will probably be different. I hoped so.
Mlle Cara’s
cabinet de travail
was on the first floor, almost next door to my own bedroom and just opposite the “ladies’ ” apartment on the other side of the passage. I knocked at the door and was told to come in. Mlle Cara was lying on a sofa, looking very pretty and invalidish, I thought. Frau Riesener was bending over her, arranging a shawl over her feet. As I came in, I heard Mlle Cara say: “No, no. No one cares how ill I am.” Then she turned to me with a smile:
“Ah! There’s Olivia. Come in, dear child. Sit down
beside me and tell me what news you have from your dear Mamma.”
Her voice was low, sweet and caressing, her manner all gentleness, all sympathy. She and Mlle Julie, having known me from my childhood, always said “
tu
” to me. I liked it. There was something, I thought, very lovely in this habit of the French language which gives it an added grace, tenderness,
nuance,
sadly lacking in English, with its single use of “you.”
Frau Riesener left the room almost at once, and when a minute or two later Mimi appeared, we were soon employed in half a dozen little ways. One of us had to fetch the eau-de-Cologne, the other soak a handkerchief and help the sufferer put it on her forehead to relieve the migraine; one had to fan her for a little, the other tuck up her shawl, which had slipped. But she was so grateful for all these little services that we enjoyed doing them and felt busy and happy. Then we had to serve the coffee and look in a cupboard for the box of chocolates; then Mimi was told to show me the album of school photographs. It was the most recent ones that I enjoyed looking at most, for among the many faces of old girls there were some of girls I could recognize as being still here. But it was an old girl’s face that attracted me most. It stood out among the others, not for its beauty, for it was almost plain, but for its expression. I had never seen a face, I thought, so frank, so candid, so glad and so intelligent. But I couldn’t analyse what charmed me so.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“Oh, Laura. Laura——” answered Mimi, and she said the name of a celebrated English statesman. “Yes, his daughter; she left last term.”
After that, as the pages turned, it was her face I looked for in the groups, and exclaimed with pleasure as I found it:
“Laura! There’s Laura!”
“Do you admire her?” asked Mlle Cara. “For my part, I think she’s downright ugly. No elegance. No grace. Always so dowdily dressed. But of course, she has inherited brains.”
Mlle Cara herself figured in all the photographs, graceful enough and languid, with a group of the smallest girls sitting at her feet.
“And Mlle Julie?” I asked. “Why is she never there?”
“Oh, she hates being photographed. It’s a mania.”
And so the evening came to an end. It had been unlike any experience I had ever had of school and slid away very pleasantly, but—but—had I been altogether at my ease, hadn’t I left Mlle Cara’s
cabinet de travail
with a curious little sensation of discomfort?
As we walked away down the long passage together, Mimi put her arm in mine.
“Mlle Cara didn’t like Laura,” she said. “She was Mlle Julie’s favourite.”
3
I
had been at Les Avons about a week when, one evening after dinner, it was announced that Mlle Julie was going to read to us.
Signorina came running up to me with sparkling eyes. She was almost as young as I was and I never looked upon her as a governess or a superior.
“Oh, Olivia mia,
chè piacere!
You’ll like it. I know you will.”
We collected in the big music room, dressed in our evening frocks, with or without needlework, as we preferred. I was surprised and relieved to find there was no compulsion. After we had taken our seats, little Signorina flitted in and out among us, visiting those who were sewing and giving them advice, help, admiration, or scorn. I came in for the latter.
“Not like sewing!” she cried. “Great lazy one! Come and look at mine.”
She took me up to a little stool which was placed close behind the tall straight armchair, evidently reserved for Mlle Julie, and showed me her own piece of embroidery,
so delicate, so filmy, so dainty, made of such exquisite lawn and adorned with such tiny stitches, that I exclaimed:
“Oh, but I’m not a fairy!”
As we were laughing together, Mlle Julie came in; she gave Signorina a glance as she passed.
“Little vanity!” she said, and went on to her chair.
Signorina turned scarlet, took up her work with a dejected air, and was just going to sit down on her stool when Frau Riesener came in.
“Mlle Cara wants you to make her tisane, Mademoiselle Baietto,” she said. “You’re the only person who makes it properly.”
“Oh,” said Signorina, “but I asked her before dinner whether she would be wanting it, and she said she wouldn’t.”
“Well,” said Frau Riesener, “she wants it now.”
Signorina cast an appealing glance at Mlle Julie, who looked at her gravely and said:
“Go, my child.”
Then, as Signorina went reluctantly out, Mlle Julie took up her book and began turning over the pages. In the meantime, I had slipped back to my own seat at the other end of the room.
“I am going to read you Racine’s
Andromaque
,” said Mlle Julie, “but before I begin, I’ll ask you a few questions. Has anybody here ever heard of Andromaque?”
BOOK: Olivia
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