The Letter

When all was still in the house; when dinner was over, and the noisy recreation-hour past; when darkness had set in, and the quiet lamp of study was lit in the refectory; when the externes were gone home, the clashing door and clamorous bell hushed for the evening; when madame was safely settled in the salle à manger in company with her mother and some friends—I then glided to the kitchen, begged a bougie for one half-hour for a particular occasion, found acceptance of my petition at the hands of my friend Goton, who answered, “Mais certainement, chou-chou, vous en aurez deux, si vous voulez.” And, light in hand, I mounted noiseless to the dormitory.

Great was my chagrin to find in that apartment a pupil gone to bed indisposed, greater when I recognized amid the muslin nightcap borders the figure chiffonée of Miss Ginevra Fanshawe—supine, at this moment, it is true, but certain to wake and overwhelm me with chatter when the interruption would be least acceptable. Indeed, as I watched her, a slight twinkling of the eyelids warned me that the present appearance of repose might be but a ruse, assumed to cover sly vigilance over “Timon’s” movements. She was not to be trusted. And I had so wished to be alone, just to read my precious letter in peace.

Well, I must go to the classes. Having sought and found my prize in its casket, I descended. Ill-luck pursued me. The classes were undergoing sweeping and purification by candle-light, according to hebdomadal custom. Benches were piled on desks, the air was dim with dust, damp coffee-grounds (used by Labassecourian housemaids instead of tea-leaves) darkened the floor—all was hopeless confusion. Baffled, but not beaten, I withdrew, bent as resolutely as ever on finding solitude somewhere.

Taking a key whereof I knew the repository, I mounted three staircases in succession, reached a dark, narrow, silent landing, opened a worm-eaten door, and dived into the deep, black, cold garret. Here none would follow me, none interrupt—not madame herself. I shut the garret door; I placed my light on a doddered and mouldy chest of drawers; I put on a shawl, for the air was ice-cold; I took my letter, trembling with sweet impatience; I broke its seal.

“Will it be long? will it be short?” thought I, passing my hand across my eyes to dissipate the silvery dimness of a suave, south wind shower.

It was long.

“Will it be cool? Will it be kind?”

It was kind.

To my checked, bridled, disciplined expectation it seemed very kind. To my longing and famished thought it seemed, perhaps, kinder than it was.

So little had I hoped, so much had I feared, there was a fullness of delight in this taste of fruition—such, perhaps, as many a human being passes through life without ever knowing. The poor English teacher in the frosty garret, reading by a dim candle guttering in the wintry air a letter simply good-natured, nothing more—though that good-nature then seemed to me godlike—was happier than most queens in palaces.

Of course, happiness of such shallow origin could be but brief; yet, while it lasted, it was genuine and exquisite—a bubble, but a sweet bubble, of real honeydew. Dr. John had written to me at length. He had written to me with pleasure; he had written in benignant mood, dwelling with sunny satisfaction on scenes that had passed before his eyes and mine—on places we had visited together, on conversations we had held, on all the little subject-matter, in short, of the last few halcyon weeks. But the cordial core of the delight was—a conviction the blithe, genial language generously imparted—that it had been poured out not merely to content me but to gratify himself,—a gratification he might never more desire, never more seek, an hypothesis in every point of view approaching the certain; but that concerned the future. This present moment had no pain, no blot, no want—full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me. A passing seraph seemed to have rested beside me, leaned towards my heart, and reposed on its throb a softening,

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