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Authors: Dorothy Strachey

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BOOK: Olivia
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Apparently nobody ever had. At any rate there was a silence.
“Come, come,” she said, “you can’t all be as badly educated as that.”
After another pause, I plucked up my courage and piped out:
“Hector’s wife.”
“Yes. And who was Orestes’ father?”
I answered this too to her satisfaction. (Hadn’t I browsed upon Pope’s Homer since the age of twelve and eked it out with reading innumerable tales of Greek mythology?)
She went on with her questions and I answered them all until it came to Hermione.
“And Hermione?” she asked.
“I have never heard of Hermione.”
“Ah!” she said. “Well, tonight you shall hear of her, and I hope never forget her. But as you’ve answered so well, come here and sit beside me.”
She beckoned me up and made me take poor little Signorina’s stool close to her elbow. Then, after lecturing us for a minute on the importance of mythology, she rapidly explained the situation at Pyrrhus’s court, took up the book and began:
Oui, puisque je retrouve un ami si fidèle
. . .
I have often wondered what share Racine had in lighting the flame that began to burn in my heart that night, or what share proximity. If she hadn’t read just that play or if she hadn’t called me up by chance to sit so near her, in such immediate contact, would the inflammable stuff which I carried so unsuspectingly within me have remained perhaps outside the radius of the kindling spark and never caught fire at all? But probably not; sooner or later, it was bound to happen.
There was a table in front of her with a lamp on it which cast its light on her book and her face. I, sitting beside and below her, saw her illuminated and almost in profile. I looked at her for the first time as I listened. I don’t know which I did more thirstily—looked or listened. It suddenly dawned upon me that this was beauty—great beauty—a thing I had read of and heard of without understanding, a thing I had passed by perhaps a hundred times with careless, unseeing eyes. Pretty girls I had seen, lovely girls, no doubt, but I had never paid much conscious attention to their looks, never been particularly interested in them. But this was something different. No, it was not different. It was merely being awakened to something for the first time—physical beauty. I was never blind to it again.
Who can describe a face? Who can forbear trying to? But such descriptions resolve themselves into an inventory of items. As item: a rather broad face, a low forehead, dark hair with a thread or two of grey in it, parted
in the middle, gently waving on the temples and gathered up into a bunch of curls at the back of the head. A curious kind of hairdressing which I have never seen except in pictures or statues. The features were regular, cleanly cut and delicately formed, nose, lips, and chin fine and firm. The eyes were grey, sometimes clear and translucid, sometimes dark, impenetrable, burning. It was thanks to Racine that night that I saw a little of what they could express.
What a strange relationship exists between the reader and his listener. What an extraordinary breaking down of barriers. The listener is suddenly given the freedom of a city at whose gates he would never have dreamt of knocking. He may enter forbidden precincts. He may communicate at the most sacred altars with a soul he has never dared, never will dare approach, watch without fear or shame a spirit that has dropped its arms, its veils, its prudences, its reserves. He who is not beloved may gaze and hearken and learn at last what nothing else will ever reveal to him and what he longs to know even at the cost of life itself—how the beloved face is moved by passion, how scorn sits upon those features, and anger and love. How the beloved’s voice softens and trembles into tenderness or breaks in the anguish of jealousy and grief. . . . Oh, but it is too soon to say all this. All these are reflections of a later date.
I have heard many readers read Racine, and famous
men among them, but I have not heard any who read him as well as Mlle Julie. She read simply and rapidly, without any of the actor’s arts and affectations, with no swelling voice, with no gestures beyond the occasional lifting of her hand, in which she held a long ivory paper cutter. But the gravity of her bearing and her voice transported me at once into the courts of princes and the presence of great emotions:
Avant que tous les Grecs vous parlent par ma voix,
Souffrez que j’ose ici me flatter de leur choix,
Et qu’à vos yeux, Seigneur, je montre quelque joie
De voir le fils d’Achille et le vainqueur de Troye . . .
The sonorous vowels, the majestic periods, the tremendous names sweep on; one is borne upon a tide of music and greatness; one follows breathlessly the evolutions, the shiftings, the advances and retreats of the doomed quartet as they tread their measured way to death and madness, through all the vicissitudes of irresolution, passion and jealousy, leaving at the end a child’s soul shaken and exhausted, the first great rent made in the veil that hides the emotions of men and women from the eyes of innocence.
Did I understand the play at that first reading? Oh, certainly not. Haven’t I put the gathered experience of years into my recollection of it? No doubt. What is certain is that it gave me my first conception of tragedy, of
the terror and complication and pity of human lives. Strange that for an English child that revelation should have come through Racine instead of through Shakespeare. But it did.
I went to bed that night in a kind of daze, slept as if I had been drugged and in the morning awoke to a new world—a world of excitement—a world in which everything was fierce and piercing, everything charged with strange emotions, clothed with extraordinary mysteries, and in which I myself seemed to exist only as an inner core of palpitating fire.
The walk that morning, the beauty of the forest, the sky, the deliciousness of the air, the delight of running—for the first time I enjoyed these things consciously.
“I understand,” I cried to myself, “I understand at last. Life, life, life, this is life, full to overflowing with every ecstasy and every agony. It is mine, mine to hug, to exhaust, to drain.”
And lessons! I went to them with a renovated ardour. Oh yes, I had been a fairly intelligent pupil; I had enjoyed learning and working in a kind of humdrum way. This was something quite different—something I had never known. Every page of the Latin grammar seemed to hold some passionate secret which must be mine or I should die. Words! How astonishing they were. The simplest bore with it such an aura of music and romance as wafted me into fairyland. Geography! Oh, to sit poring and wondering over an atlas. Here were pagodas. There
the Nile. Jungles. Deserts. Coral islands in the Pacific ringed round with lagoons. The eternal snows of the Himalayas! Aurora Borealis flaming at the pole! Worlds upon worlds of magic revealed! Why had I never known of them before? History! Those men! Those heroes! How they looked, how they smiled as they were going to the block or the stake! And what had they died for? Faith, liberty, truth, humanity. What did those words really represent? I mustn’t rest till I found out. And the peoples! The poor sheeplike peoples! Those too must be thought of. Not yet. I dare not yet. There will be time enough for that later. I am not strong enough yet to look really at all those dreadful meaningless pains. I must put that at the back of my mind. Now, now, I must grow strong. I must feed on beauty and rapture in order to grow strong.
And first of all that face. There was that to look at. A long way off, at the end of a table. Passing one on the stairs, coming suddenly out of a door. Talking to other people. Listening to other people. And sometimes, rarely, reading aloud. Had I then never looked at a face before? Why should the mere sight of it make my heart stand still? What was there so extraordinarily fascinating in watching it? Was it more satisfying when it was motionless, when one could imprint the line of the profile on one’s memory, so fine and grave and austere, the delicate curl of the lip, the almost imperceptible and indescribably touching faint hollow of the cheek, the fall of
the lashes on the pale skin, the curve of the dark hair on the brow? Or was it when expressions flowed over it so swiftly that one’s eyes and one’s heart were never quick enough to register them? Laughter was never long absent from it, spreading from the slight quiver of a smile to a ripple, to a tempest of gaiety, passing like a flash of lightning, a flood of colour, transforming, vivifying every feature. So I watched from afar. At meals especially, where I sat some way off but on the opposite side of the table.
There were three tables in the big dining room; the two heads, at the centre one, sat opposite to each other, as the foreign fashion is, in the middle of each long side. When there were guests or visiting professors, they sat on each side of the ladies. Special dishes were generally served for these honoured ones, and if any remained over, the servant was told to hand it round to the young ladies. Once when this occurred, Mlle Julie cross-examined the girls who had been served in this way:
“Did you like that dish? Honestly now. As much as your English roast beef? No——? Yes——? You don’t know? Ah, these English! They have no taste. And you, Olivia, what did you think of it?”
My answer, “Delicious!” was so fervent that she laughed:
“Ha! Have we got a
at last? But appreciation isn’t all. There must be discrimination too. Was
there anything in the dish that you think might be criticised? Anything that might have improved it?”
“I think——” I murmured.
“Yes, out with it.”
“There was perhaps a thought too much lemon in it.”
“Bravo!” she cried. “You deserve encouragement. You shall be promoted.”
And at the next meal, after an anxious search, I found my napkin ring had been placed next to Mlle Julie’s own. And it was there, at her right hand, that I sat till the end of my time at Les Avons, unless a visitor or a professor sometimes separated us. And now she almost always helped me herself to one or other of the special dishes, calling me
“Mlle Gourmet,”
asking me my opinion, laughing at my enjoyment, teasing me for being still too “English,” because I wouldn’t drink wine. “But perhaps,” she said, “our
vin ordinaire
isn’t good enough for you?” And perhaps, indeed, that was it.
But there was no need of wine to intoxicate me. Everything in her proximity was intoxicating. And I was now, for the first time, within range of her talk. Mlle Julie’s talk, I discovered later, was celebrated, and not only amongst us schoolgirls, but amongst famous men, whose names we whispered.
I had no doubt been accustomed, or ought to have been accustomed, to good talk at home. But at home one was inattentive. There were all the other children who
somehow interfered. It was on their level, in their turmoil, that one lived. They were too distracting to allow of one’s taking any interest in one’s elders and their conversation. When one did listen to it, it was mostly political, or else took the form of argument. My mother and my aunt, who was often in the house, had interminable and heated discussions, in which my mother was invariably in the right and my aunt beyond belief inconsequent and passionate. We found them tedious and sometimes nerve-racking. My father, a man, in our eyes, of infinite wisdom and humour, did not talk much; he was fond of explaining scientific or mathematical problems to us, or occasionally, of inventing and making us take a share in some fantastic piece of tomfoolery. He would let fall from time to time a grim and gnomic apophthegm, which we treasured as a household word, and would often calm a heated discussion by an apparently irrelevant absurdity. As for the people who came to the house, many of whom were highly distinguished, we admired them without listening to them. Their world seemed hardly to impinge upon ours.
How different it was here! Mlle Julie was witty. Her brilliant speech darted here and there with the agility and grace of a hummingbird. Sharp and pointed, it would sometimes transfix a victim cruelly. No one was safe, and if one laughed with her, one was liable the next minute to be pierced oneself with a shaft of irony. But she tossed her epigrams about with such evident enjoyment, that if
one had the smallest sense of fun, one enjoyed them too, and it was from her that I, for one, learnt to realize the exquisite adaptation of the French tongue to the French wit. But her talk was not all epigrams. One felt it informed by that infectious ardour, that enlivening zest, which were the secret of her success as a schoolmistress. There was nothing into which she could not infuse them. Every subject, however dull it had seemed in the hands of others, became animated in hers. With the traditional culture of a French Protestant family, having contacts with eminent men and women in many countries, she had too a spontaneous and open mind, capable of points of view, fond of the stimulus of paradox. The dullest of her girls was stirred into some sort of life in her presence; to the intelligent, she communicated a Promethean fire which warmed and coloured their whole lives. To sit at table at her right hand was an education itself.
BOOK: Olivia
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