The Portresse's Cabinet

It was summer and very hot. Georgette, the youngest of Madame Beck’s children, took a fever. Désirée, suddenly cured of her ailments, was, together with Fifine, packed off to bonne-maman in the country, by way of precaution against infection. Medical aid was now really needed; and madame, choosing to ignore the return of Dr. Pillule, who had been at home a week, conjured his English rival to continue his visits. One or two of the pensionnaires complained of headache, and in other respects seemed slightly to participate Georgette’s ailment. “Now, at last,” I thought, “Dr. Pillule must be recalled. The prudent directress will never venture to permit the attendance of so young a man on the pupils.”

The directress was very prudent, but she could also be intrepidly venturous. She actually introduced Dr. John to the school-division of the premises, and established him in attendance on the proud and handsome Blanche de Melcy, and the vain, flirting Angélique, her friend. Dr. John, I thought, testified a certain gratification at this mark of confidence; and if discretion of bearing could have justified the step, it would by him have been amply justified. Here, however, in this land of convents and confessionals, such a presence as his was not to be suffered with impunity in a pensionnat de demoiselles. The school gossiped, the kitchen whispered, the town caught the rumour, parents wrote letters and paid visits of remonstrance. Madame, had she been weak, would now have been lost. A dozen rival educational houses were ready to improve this false step—if false step it were—to her ruin; but madame was not weak, and little Jesuit though she might be, yet I clapped the hands of my heart, and with its voice cried, “Brava!” as I watched her able bearing, her skilled management, her temper, and her firmness on this occasion.

She met the alarmed parents with a good-humoured, easy grace; for nobody matched her in—I know not whether to say the possession or the assumption of a certain rondeur et franchise de bonne femme, which on various occasions gained the point aimed at with instant and complete success, where severe gravity and serious reasoning would probably have failed.

“Ce pauvre Docteur Jean!” she would say, chuckling and rubbing joyously her fat little white hands; “ce cher jeune homme! le meilleur créature du monde!” and go on to explain how she happened to be employing him for her own children, who were so fond of him they would scream themselves into fits at the thought of another doctor; how, where she had confidence for her own, she thought it natural to repose trust for others; and, au reste, it was only the most temporary expedient in the world. Blanche and Angélique had the migraine; Dr. John had written a prescription; voilà tout!

The parents’ mouths were closed. Blanche and Angélique saved her all remaining trouble by chanting loud duets in their physician’s praise; the other pupils echoed them, unanimously declaring that when they were ill they said they would have Dr. John and nobody else; and madame laughed, and the parents laughed too. The Labassecouriens must have a large organ of philo-progenitiveness—at least the indulgence of offspring is carried by them to excessive lengths, the law of most households being the children’s will. Madame now got credit for having acted on this occasion in a spirit of motherly partiality. She came off with flying colours; people liked her as a directress better than ever.

To this day I never fully understood why she thus risked her interest for the sake of Dr. John. What people said, of course, I know well. The whole house—pupils, teachers, servants included—affirmed that she was going to marry him. So they had settled it. Difference of age seemed to make no obstacle in their eyes; it was to be so.

It must be admitted that appearances did not wholly discountenance this idea, madame seemed so bent on retaining his services, so oblivious of her former protége Pillule. She made, too, such a point of personally receiving his visits, and was so unfailingly cheerful, blithe, and benignant in her manner to him. Moreover, she paid, about this time, marked attention to dress. The morning dishabille, the nightcap and shawl, were discarded. Dr. John’s early visits always found her with auburn braids all nicely arranged, silk dress trimly fitted on, neat laced brodequins in lieu of slippers—in short, the whole toilet complete as a model and fresh as a flower. I scarcely think, however, that her intention in this went further than just to show a very handsome man that she was not quite a plain woman; and plain she was not. Without

  By PanEris using Melati.

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