Madame Beck

Being delivered into the charge of the maîtresse, I was led through a long narrow passage into a foreign kitchen, very clean but very strange. It seemed to contain no means of cooking—neither fireplace nor oven; I did not understand that the great black furnace which filled one corner was an efficient substitute for these. Surely pride was not already beginning its whispers in my heart; yet I felt a sense of relief when, instead of being left in the kitchen, as I half anticipated, I was led forward to a small inner room termed a “cabinet.” A cook in a jacket, a short petticoat, and sabots brought my supper—to wit, some meat, nature unknown, served in an odd and acid but pleasant sauce; some chopped potatoes made savoury with I know not what—vinegar and sugar, I think; a tartine, or slice of bread and butter, and a baked pear. Being hungry, I ate and was grateful.

After the prière du soir, madame herself came to have another look at me. She desired me to follow her upstairs. Through a series of the queerest little dormitories (which, I heard afterwards, had once been nuns’ cells, for the premises were in part of ancient date), and through the oratory (a long, low, gloomy room, where a crucifix hung, pale, against the wall, and two tapers kept dim vigils), she conducted me to an apartment where three children were asleep in three tiny beds. A heated stove made the air of this room oppressive; and, to mend matters, it was scented with an odour rather strong than delicate—a perfume, indeed, altogether surprising and unexpected under the circumstances, being like the combination of smoke with some spirituous essence—a smell, in short, of whisky.

Beside a table, on which flared the remnant of a candle guttering to waste in the socket, a coarse woman, heterogeneously clad in a broad-striped showy silk dress and a stuff apron, sat in a chair fast asleep. To complete the picture, and leave no doubt as to the state of matters, a bottle and an empty glass stood at the sleeping beauty’s elbow.

Madame contemplated this remarkable tableau with great calm. She neither smiled nor scowled; no impress of anger, disgust, or surprise ruffled the equality of her grave aspect; she did not even wake the woman. Serenely pointing to a fourth bed, she intimated that it was to be mine; then, having extinguished the candle, and substituted for it a night-lamp, she glided through an inner door, which she left ajar—the entrance to her own chamber, a large, well-furnished apartment, as was discernible through the aperture.

My devotions that night were all thanksgiving. Strangely had I been led since morning, unexpectedly had I been provided for. Scarcely could I believe that not forty-eight hours had elapsed since I left London, under no other guardianship than that which protects the passenger-bird, with no prospect but the dubious cloudtracery of hope.

I was a light sleeper. In the dead of night I suddenly awoke. All was hushed, but a white figure stood in the room—madame in her night-dress. Moving without perceptible sound, she visited the three children in the three beds. She approached me. I feigned sleep, and she studied me long. A small pantomime ensued, curious enough. I dare say she sat a quarter of an hour on the edge of my bed, gazing at my face. She then drew nearer, bent close over me, slightly raised my cap, and turned back the border so as to expose my hair. She looked at my hand lying on the bedclothes. This done, she turned to the chair where my clothes lay; it was at the foot of the bed. Hearing her touch and lift them, I opened my eyes with precaution, for I own I felt curious to see how far her taste for research would lead her. It led her a good way; every article did she inspect. I divined her motive for this proceeding—namely, the wish to form from the garments a judgment respecting the wearer, her station, means, neatness, etc. The end was not bad, but the means were hardly fair or justifiable. In my dress was a pocket. She fairly turned it inside out. She counted the money in my purse; she opened a little memorandum-book, coolly perused its contents, and took from between the leaves a small plaited lock of Miss Marchmont’s gray hair. To a bunch of three keys, being those of my trunk, desk, and work-box, she accorded special attention. With these, indeed, she withdrew a moment to her own room. I softly rose in my bed and followed her with my eye. These keys, reader, were not brought back till they had left on the toilet of the adjoining room the impress of their wards in wax. All being thus done decently and in order, my property was returned to its place, my clothes were carefully refolded. Of what nature were the conclusions

  By PanEris using Melati.

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