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Authors: Dorothy Strachey

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BOOK: Olivia
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t was not till I was well on in my first term, with all its novelties and distractions, that I became aware that there was an uneasiness in the atmosphere.
I have said very little so far of Mlle Cara, but she too was a pervading influence—the influence of an invalid. “Oh,” the girls said at first, “she isn’t strong enough to do much in the school. She just takes the little ones.” But that was not every day: only on the days she felt well. On those days, the timetable was recklessly disregarded and everything had to give way—lessons, walks, practising, no matter what, went by the board. When the cry went up,
“Les petites pour Mlle Cara!”
there was a stampede and off they rushed. She had her own methods of flattering, cajoling, and amusing them. But, I gathered, everyone was not so pleased. This irregularity was upsetting. Classes were disturbed. Mistresses who were off duty had to remain at hand, liable to be called upon at any moment, for it was not unusual for the little ones’
French hour to end as abruptly as it had begun. They would steal out of her room with anxious faces. “The migraine!” they whispered. And sometimes, “She cried again today.” On those days, Mlle Cara would not appear at meals and Mlle Julie, visibly anxious, would speak sharply or not at all, would hurry over dessert and give the signal for dismissing us almost before we had finished our last mouthful.
“What is the matter with Mlle Cara?” I asked Signorina.
“Nobody knows. For my part, I think nothing. When she chooses she’s as well as anybody. Last holiday she didn’t have a single migraine. There was nothing she wasn’t up to—plays, concerts, walks. She was up and out all the time.”
“Perhaps she overdid it.”
“Perhaps. The very day Mlle Julie came back, so did the migraines.”
“Does she have the doctor?”
“Sometimes. He doesn’t seem to prescribe anything very definite. Sometimes a sleeping draught. Mlle Julie always says, ‘He tells me it’s nothing.’ But it worries her dreadfully all the same. For my part——”
“What, for your part?”
“She does it on purpose.”
“On purpose for what?”
“To worry her. And then——”
“And then?”
“Frau Riesener——”
“Encourages her.”
“I know why. But we’ve talked enough now. You must say your sonnet.”
And I began:
Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
La donna mia quand’ella altrui saluta
Ch’ogni lingua divien tremenda, muta,
E gli occhi non l’ardiscon di guardare.
It was easy to learn that.
Whatever might be the reason, it was plain enough that Frau Riesener and Signorina detested each other. They were more or less the heads of rival factions—“the Cara-ites” and the “Julie-ites.” Yes, that was it. The Julie-ites gravitated to Signorina and learnt Italian, the Cara-ites to Frau Riesener and learnt German.
“I’ve won my bet,” said Nina one morning to Mimi. “It was a bet about you, Olivia.”
“Oh, how exciting!”
“I’m sorry I’ve lost,” said Mimi.
“Yes, the first minute I set eyes on you, Olivia, I knew you’d be a Julie-ite. I gave her a week, didn’t I, Mimi?”
“Yes,” answered Mimi gloomily. y. “You’ve won.”
So I was a Julie-ite. I didn’t much care for the appellation.
But it was true that it hadn’t taken me a week to make up my mind about our two heads. And yet Mlle Cara was extraordinarily kind. She would often invite me with Mimi and one or two others to have coffee in her
cabinet de travail.
She would call me by caressing names, she would talk to me about my dear Mamma and my little brothers and sisters, she would tell me she had heard I was so clever, and I must be an honour to the school. She would admire my clothes. She was all softness and sweetness, but she made me feel uncomfortable. After a time I dreaded the visits to the
cabinet de travail.
Mlle Cara’s coaxings and wheedlings got on my nerves. One day she looked at me reproachfully and said:
“You don’t like me,
ma petite.
Why is that? Haven’t I been kind to you?”
“Oh, Mademoiselle,” I cried, horrified, “of course you have. Very, very kind. I’m truly grateful.”
“Go away,” she said brusquely. “Go down to the library, since that’s what you prefer.”
And then I knew it was true. I didn’t like her. Better, oh, much better than Mlle Cara’s
cabinet de travail
I liked the library, though there I was not flattered or coaxed, sometimes treated roughly, sometimes ignored, and sometimes again carried up into sublime heights of enthusiasm, excitement, rapture.
spent three terms at Les Avons, but cannot divide the growth of my experience into terms, nor always remember with exactness the order of the events which were important in my story. For instance, when was it that Laura came to visit? After the summer or after the Christmas holidays? But the holidays did not count for me. They were mere tracts of time to be got through-pauses, in which, no doubt, I continued to grow, to develop, to become formed in body and mind, but unconsciously. I seemed to myself not to be really alive during the holidays, to be somebody acting a part and pretending to be present, pretending to be myself, while all the while the real I was somewhere else.
Not that I was unhappy during that first period, either at home or at school. There was gaiety, there were talks, there were friends. And I was never conscious of any jealousy or envy or dislike from companions who could not but see that I was favoured. The common herd,
as I contemptuously called them in my thoughts, were incapable of feeling envy of the privileges which I enjoyed, and which they did not want and very likely did not notice. But the others—my friends and equals—they, who might have envied me, seemed to think that all I received was my due. Not that
did not appreciate Mlle Julie’s favours, oh yes, they knew their price, but allowed me, I don’t know why, an undisputed right to enjoy them.
Dear, mild, scrupulous Gertrude, taken from a commonplace, middle-class English family and suddenly dumped into this hotbed of foreign culture, suddenly subjected to the stimulus of Mlle Julie’s personality, how anxious she was to profit, to learn, to acquire knowledge and grace. How she grew to realize the unbridgeable chasm between the life to which she belonged by birth and circumstance and this world of which Mlle Julie held the keys. How she grew to fear that all her efforts would be vain, that she had been uprooted, not transplanted, and that she would never find a soil in which to thrive. How then she pined and wilted to a tragic end.
Edith, my friend, who loved me better than I loved her, who had all the qualities that I lacked, who had a clearer, cooler, saner brain, but who could yet endure, and even admire, my fits of humour, my enthusiasms, my excitements, without reproving them and without sharing them.
Georgie, strange dark-eyed Georgie. There was nothing intellectual about
But I guessed she had
already lived with greater intensity than any of us. She hid some mysterious ardour in her own breast, near which mine too gathered heat.
Turbulent, undisciplined, Irish Nina, for ever in and out of scrapes, so concerned when she was in, so reckless when she was out, so generous, so warmhearted, so amusing in her outbreaks of rebellion, that even authority smiled in checking them—how fond I was of her —and of Mimi too. Mimi, the will-o’-the-wisp, incapable of learning anything out of a book and skilful at a hundred other things; who could toss up a fancy-dress in half an hour, and arrange a bunch of flowers, and sing like an angel, and mimic like a monkey. Her company delighted me, though my graver friends wondered why.
There were others, of course, whom I didn’t like, whom I thought mean, dull, affected, irritating. But I didn’t frequent them. Why should I? We let each other be. I had enough to fill my heart and mind without them.
But it is of Laura I must speak now. I had looked forward to her coming, I confess, with a good deal of apprehension. “Mlle Julie’s favourite—the most favourite favourite she has ever had,” said some of the older girls, who had been new during Laura’s last term. They spoke with admiration and almost with awe of her “cleverness,” that schoolgirl word for every kind of excellence at “lessons.” Her
were always the best; they used to be read aloud as examples of what a
might be, ought to be. When she went up to the blackboard to do
a problem in algebra or geometry, the professor used to say,
“Je vous félicite, Mademoiselle.”
She read
with Frau Riesener and the
Divina Commedia
with Signorina. Did Signorina like her, I asked. As for me, I knew I should hate her.
“Oh no,” said Signorina, “I don’t think you will.”
“But she’s altogether too perfect. How can one like such a paragon? And besides, she’ll despise me. And never speak to me. And besides she’ll always be in the library, and——”
“In fact,” said Signorina, “you’ve made up your mind to be jealous, Olivia mia. I strongly advise you to get over that little failing, or else——” her voice dropped, did it tremble? “——you’re in for a bad time.”
But the first time I saw Laura, I felt nothing of what I had expected to feel, of what I had determined to feel. I was conquered afresh as I had been by the first sight of her photograph. No, it was impossible to be jealous of Laura.
When Mlle Julie called me into the library and introduced us to each other, we were both shy and awkward, but Laura more awkward than I, and I soon realized that, instead of feeling herself superior, on the contrary, she was curiously conscious of her deficiencies. She knew that, in spite of her efforts, she was badly dressed and clumsy, that she had neither beauty, nor grace, nor manner, nothing, in fact, to atone for her intellectual superiority, while at the same time she had an uneasy feeling
that that superiority ought somehow to be atoned for. Not that this want of confidence in her powers of attraction made her self-conscious. No, I have never seen anyone freer from every sort of selfishness, never seen anyone devote herself to others with such manifest gladness. And yet, with all her altruism, one could never think of her as self-sacrificing. She never did sacrifice herself. She had no self to sacrifice. When she gave her time, her thoughts, her energies to bringing up her stepbrothers and stepsisters, it was
a joy to her. When her father married again and she lost her position as mistress of his household—a great position, for he was perhaps the most important man in England at the time—she welcomed her young stepmother with such a warmth of affection, of sympathy, of gratitude to her for bringing happiness to the father she loved, that no one could pity her; one felt she was
glad. Her face was one of the most radiant I have ever seen; grave sometimes, but never moody, never despondent. Her clear, untroubled eyes looked at one with such frank, joyful affection that for the moment she banished moodiness and despondency from oneself too.
She was an invigorating companion. We talked of many things. Not so much of politics at that time, for I was too remote from that world to take an intelligent interest in it, but of character, of ambitions, of morals, of conduct, and of certain elementary notions of metaphysics which I was beginning to read a little; very rarely
of persons. It was while we were walking up and down the long black-and-white-paved passage that we talked; but we often sat in the library too, for far from trying to keep me out of the library, far from wanting to be there alone with Mlle Julie, it was Laura who always came to fetch me when there was a chance; it was she who made me familiar with it, so that even after she had left, I often used to go there uninvited.
In the library, we listened to Mlle Julie’s reading. This was desultory enough and often interrupted by conversation, in which my part was that of a listener. Sometimes it would be an article from a review that she read us, on a living author, or a Renaissance painter; sometimes a chapter of a book—a page of Michelet’s or Renan’s —sometimes a poem—a Victor Hugo or a Vigny. Sometimes it was one of us who had to read to her. Often she would make us look up a reference in the big Larousse; sometimes she would show us her collection of photographs, of which she had large stocks gathered on her travels. It was generally the spare hour after lunch and dinner that we spent with her in this way, and generally when we left her Signorina would come in to help her, with the day’s correspondence and accounts.
BOOK: Olivia
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