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Authors: Dorothy Strachey

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BOOK: Olivia
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4
B
ut it must not be supposed that more orthodox studies were neglected or that companionship was wanting. There were four or five of the elder girls who were congenial and friendly. We made a set apart, we were “the clever ones,” those who spoke up at the classes, those who attended Mlle Julie’s literature lessons and readings, those who were chosen to send in essays to the Paris professors. These essays, or
“devoirs”
as they were called, were the chief torment and excitement of our lives. After the professor’s lecture, we had to write out a
résumé
of his discourse, or expand one particular portion of it. We were expected to fill some fifteen or sixteen copy-book pages, had access to a fairly large library, and were supposed to devote the greater part of Thursday and Sunday afternoons to the task, in a small study specially reserved for
les grandes.
When the
devoir
was finished it was handed on Friday and Monday mornings to Mlle Julie, who looked it over and, if she thought it
worthy, passed it on to the professor. It was her comments we cared about; the professor was generally, I suppose, a young man fresh from his examinations, cast in a university mould, and very much at sea in talking to this strange collection of
jeunes filles
from barbarous lands. At any rate, we usually had a supreme contempt for him, and, in truth, he was at an overwhelming disadvantage, obliged in spite of himself to endure the ordeal of comparison with an intellect so alive, so widely experienced as Mlle Julie’s, with a personality so exceptional, a beauty so striking.
I remember my first
devoir.
It was on Corneille and the “quarrel of the Cid.” Do what I would, I could not pad it out to more than six pages. Dry facts, jejune statements were all that I could wring from my subject. I had no notion how to work, how to think, how to co-ordinate. I was desperate.
I remember the night she gave it back to me. Not good enough! It was after dinner. A bevy of us were collected in the long, wide passage, paved with a chequer of black and white marble, which led to the front door, and which we were allowed to use as a kind of promenade deck. It was an evening on which Mlle Julie was going out—to dinner in the town or to an evening party in Paris, somewhere which necessitated evening dress. This was always an occasion, and her devotees would cluster to see her go by in her magnificence and say good night as she passed. She came sweeping down stairs,
Signorina running after her with her fan, her gloves, her handbag. Her evening cloak was thrown back and we could see the shimmer of bare neck and lace and satin.
“Tiens!”
she said as she caught sight of me. “I was looking for you. Here’s your
devoir. Un peu pauvre
.” She tossed it to me and swept on.
“Un peu pauvre!”
Yes, that was it. That was I. Poor! Poor! It was my first incentive to work, to till my soil, to extract from it all the riches I could, to show—to show her—that, after all, I had some.
 
Part of the school’s programme was that the girls should be taken from time to time to Paris to be shown the sights, the churches, the picture galleries and so on, and on special occasions to a concert or a play. When Mlle Julie led the party, there were never more than two or three of us and I was always one. Sometimes, greatest treat of all, it would be to a
matinée
at the Français—yes always to the Theatre Français. In those days it had not been shorn of all its glory. The great tradition was still respected, still intact. Want of faith in its virtues, distrust of its powers, a belief in new standards, new values, new methods, were no doubt already growing outside. They were no doubt already rife on the other bank of the Seine, and Antoine was beginning perhaps to raise his head, but it was only when these dissolvents entered the sacred doors themselves that they proved fatal. In the days of my youth, the prestige of the Comédie Française
was still unblown upon. The Sociétaires carried their heads high and there were famous names among them. The consummate art of acting was theirs by divine, by imprescriptible right, and no touch of doubt, or fear of failure, or lack of enthusiasm, or envy of others’ success, had insinuated its poison into the great institution.
And so the first time I sat in a
baignoire
with Mlle Julie beside me, and heard the three fateful knocks, and saw the great curtain roll apart, was one of unforgettable, of purest pleasure. It rolled open upon a scene of lovely fancy and romantic cynicism and exquisite elegance. Delaunay was acting one of Musset’s heroes, Reichemberg was the
ingénue.
Got the
abbé,
Madeleine Brohan (the survivor of a still more famous past) the old Marquise. Ravishing, ravishing creatures, whose every word and every movement were wit and grace, and who distilled into one’s heart, drop by drop, the delicious satisfaction of perfect finish.
Then there was the
entr’acte.
We walked up and down the long, broad foyer amidst the buzz of animated Parisians; we gazed, at one end, on Voltaire, sitting impish in his armchair, at the other, on Moliere’s weary melancholy; on one long side, the row of big windows looked down on the busy Place below; on the other, were ranged more busts of the Maison’s deities—a woman too among them. Then back to the
baignoire,
in a more elevated mood. This time the curtain rolled open on the court of the Caesars;
Britannicus
was the play and
Mounet Sully the budding Nero. We watched the growth of evil passions in his face, we heard his voice, more and more raucous, more and more rapid, swell fuller and fuller of lust, hatred, and cruelty; when the tempter crept up behind him and dropped the insidious poison in his ear, we saw the conflict working in his features, in his almost motionless attitude; we saw the gradual breaking down of virtue’s barriers, the increasing rush of oncoming wickedness; we saw the monster still held in respect by Agrippina’s lash, we saw him furtive and distraught after his crime,
. . .
ses yeux mal assurés
N’osant lever aux cieux leurs regards égarés
as he swept hounded from his mother’s presence to brood upon her awful prophecy.
On golden days Mlle Julie took me to Paris alone. Golden but exhausting. She would take me by the hand and race me through the galleries at the Louvre, talking torrentially all the time—for pictures seemed to excite her—until we reached the room of her choice. Here she would select a masterpiece for special contemplation and remain silent before it, gazing with fixed intentness. I remember some of those she would so contemplate: Giorgione’s
Concert,
Watteau’s
Indifférent,
the
Pilgrims of Emaus,
a Chardin, a Corot. I stood beside her trying to understand. Sometimes she would say, “Now, go and look at
your
favourites.” I took this for a dismissal and
went off, but my favourite would always be one I could look at without letting her out of the compass of my eye. She would join me after a little, cast a cursory glance at it and say, rather contemptuously,
“Pas si mal!”
(but she didn’t guess the limitations set to my choice).
Then she would begin again to talk, to herself, rather than to me: what was the common factor that made each of these pictures a work of art? Could I tell her that? And how with such material substances as canvas, oil, pigments, were such immaterial effects produced? The plastic arts! Had I ever thought how different they were from the other arts, from literature, the art of words? From music, the purest—or was it the impurest—of them all? Had I noticed that Watteau’s painting was the painting of a sick man, of a man who had to fly to dreams as a relief from bodily suffering? That his gay celestial visions were the refuge of a man who spat blood? That in the
Voyage to Cythera
there were no bodies but the evanescence of lights and colours? And yet that same art of painting had created the
Pilgrims of Emaus.
Little pagan that I was, let me learn some divinity, some portion of the meaning of Christianity from the gloom and the radiance of that picture. And so on. Seeds flung at random into the air, some to take root, some, alas, to be lost for ever.
And then she would whirl me off to a fashionable pastrycook’s and stuff me with cakes and chocolates, and enjoy her own share too. Afterwards, perhaps, there
would be a visit to some of her friends: to a
ex-président du conseil,
whose wife had been one of her pupils (and I was awed to hear him still called
Monsieur le Président
) or to the widow of a poor professor painfully bringing up three or four children in the
Quartier Latin;
or to the studio of a famous painter; or to the at-home day of a French Academician. Wherever she flashed, she was welcomed, honoured, spoilt; it was she who became the centre of the talk and the laughter and the cordiality. I sat silent in my corner and wondered at these French, at the readiness of their wits, at their unfailing interest in things of the mind, at the profound seriousness that underlay all this surface brilliance.
When we left the house, Mlle Julie would give me a sketch of the inmates, of some of the tragedies and struggles and successes and failures she had known. She told me of the girl who refused to eat and who was at death’s door from starvation, “but I managed to cure her by holding her hand and letting her talk two hours a day . . . it needed a deal of patience.” Of the boy who had shot himself, for love, he thought, but really because his poor mother had overworked him. “Ah, that was a dreadful business! There was no curing that grief.” Of the despair of a young wife who had lost three children and her husband of diphtheria in one week, and had become the wife of her husband’s best friend a few months later. Of the young and beautiful and gifted Margaret X——, recently married to a great savant, who was also a hunchback
dwarf. “Poor child! But one has only to look at her eyes to see she’s not unhappy. The bride of mysticism!”
On every side of me, strange new worlds were opening. Veil after veil was slowly lifting from life, to leave still further veils and mysteries beyond.
And the background, the setting of such days, was the adorable beauty of Paris. I, who had not yet awakened to the beauty of London, felt that of Paris sink into my very being. Little as I knew of it, little as an English girl could know of it, it seemed to me the quintessence and the symbol of everything I cared for most. The incomparable light in which it was bathed, the river gliding so intimately through its very heart, the noble palaces, the quays, the bridges where one looked alternately west and east, wondering which vista was the more enchanting, the more moving, whether the groves of the Champs Elysees or the towers of Notre Dame—all of this filled me with rapture. And sometimes we drove through the great spaces of the Place de la Concorde, with its giddy stream of life, its fountains and its obelisk, and in one corner the
crêpe-shrouded
figure of Strasbourg. Oh, how those veils smote my heart; there in the midst of all that life and gaiety, stood a monument of grief, a reminder of death and defeat; but one looked away from it, looked further westward and watched the sky turn golden in the distance behind the Arc de Triomphe. The sun was setting indeed, but triumphantly, gloriously, and shedding on the world an ineffable tenderness in its farewell. Then
Paris lighted up; one by one, sparkling like fireflies, I thought, the lamps came out in the trees. A minute more and the boulevards were ablaze. A tornado of excitement was whirling round me. Theatres, cafes, music halls! What fever, what intoxication possessed those crowds? I should have liked to know, I should have liked to rush with them to their pleasures, to drink their draughts of life and exhilaration. But no; not yet. I was only a girl, and besides, it was time to go home. There was more than an hour’s train journey and we shouldn’t be back till late.
The train was generally empty at that time. Mlle Julie would lean back in a corner of the dimly lighted carriage and I liked to sit opposite and look at her. I could often do so for a long time without indiscretion, for her eyes were shut. No, she wasn’t asleep, but tired. I watched the eyelashes on the cheek, the soft resting eyelids. Was it tired she looked? Not so much tired as sad. Not so much sad as serious. No, it wasn’t bitterness in the curving corner of her lips, but an extraordinary sweetness, an extraordinary gravity, an extraordinary nobility. What were her thoughts? Behind those closed lids, what was going on? What had her life been? Had she suffered? She must have suffered to look so grave. Had she loved? Whom had she loved? I think the passion that devoured me at that time was the passion of curiosity. Once, as I was watching her like this, she suddenly opened her eyes and caught me. Her glance held me for
a moment, and I was too fascinated to look away. Her glance was piercing, not unkind but terrifying. She was searching me. What did she see?
“Come,” she said at last. “Come here and sit beside me.
I think she said it to get rid of my intolerable gaze. After I had obeyed, she put her hand on mine for the space of a heartbeat. I turned my eager palm to clasp it, but she withdrew it gently and sank back again into her corner and her reverie.
BOOK: Olivia
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