Read an Excerpt
Featured Excerpt in Penguin iPhone App
That night, she dreams of her professor, Monsieur H. She is sitting on the white sofa, talking to his wife, yet thinking of him so vividly. He has left on an extended voyage. She pictures the thick, black hair, dark eyes, robust body, wide shoulders, and strong legs. He is dressed casually, without any effort at elegance, in his loose old cloak. She says to his wife, who looks pale and is obviously upset by this long absence, "you can replace a husband but not a father," and she sees a small, delicate child standing in the doorway, bent over with grief. The child looks very much like Charlotte herself. She wakes with a start in tears, all her old sorrow returning.
How she had trudged through the damp streets of Brussels, half-crazed with longing, lust, and jealousy, reluctant to return to the school. She lingered there in the dark and the rain to escape black thoughts. She walked to forget her Master and beloved friend who had replaced her father and her brother—her black swan, the first to discover her talent and encourage her art. How she has waited for his letters!
It was his wife whom she and Emily met first when they arrived in Brussels that evening, tired and hungry, having somehow lost a suitcase and their way in the dark cobble-stoned streets, which glistened wet in the lamplight. Finally they came to the green door with the bronze plaque in the wall with the name of the Pensionnat de Demoiselles. The great door was opened by a small, hunched woman who ushered them inside the bright parlor with its black-and-white marble floor, where they were immediately confronted by a picture of family life that surprised and delighted them. Madame H. was there with her own mother, Madame Parent, as she was called, and sitting close by her side in her old-fashioned dress was Madame Parent's sister. Delicious odors wafted in from the kitchens: baking break and bubbling stew.
Charlotte and Emily sat side by side on the elegant white sofa so unlike the old dark horsehair one at home. A fat green stove warmed the room. They admired the paintings in their gold frames, the ornaments on the mantel piece, and the folding doors, which led into the petit salon with its piano and enormous draped window.
As they ate, something heavy but delicious in a brown sauce with fresh bread followed by an apple tart, Madame Parent regaled them with an exciting tale. She had very blue eyes and a small mouth, and maintained she had been a beauty in her youth. She was a good storyteller and seemed delighted to have new listeners. Though Charlotte was not certain of the truth of her story, she was immediately drawn into it. She had fallen in love with a man who had escaped to Brussels penniless, with the Comte d'Artois, the king's brother, during the French Revolution. The old lady told them her husband had been an elegant man, her eyes glistening and a tremor in her voice, who continued to powder his hair, wear knee breeches, and use the formal vous when addressing her.
His sister, she said, a nun of both courage and generosity, had left her convent with a friend, both of them disguised as men. They, also arrived in Brussels, were the ones who had founded this school, which her niece—and here she smiled proudly down at her daughter—now continued to run.
Charlotte, too, admired the ebony haired and dignified Madame H., a woman in her late thirties who sat very upright, her lace collar perfectly flat. What a relief to be in the company of these hospitable women!
But how unlike them was Monsier H., a rude and choleric man. The only jarring note in the scene of harmony and family entente was his sudden entrance and exit. He came into the black-and-white-tiled hall of the house on the rue d'Isabelle in a cloud of cigar smoke. He was obviously in a hurry, had apparently lost something, and seemed in bad humor. Charlotte watched him open a desk lid and rummage about inside, muttering and sputtering under his breath.
Still, there was something familiar about him. He was like a caricature of a man entering and rummaging about in a desk in a hallway, looking cross. Perhaps she had read such a scene in a book?
Madame H. called to him through the open glass doors of the salon, "come, Constantin, dear, and meet our new pupils." He lifted his head, gave her a stern glance, and strode impatiently into the elegant sitting room.
A small, spare, bespectacled man, he entered with a preoccupied air. With his black hair closely cropped, his brow broad and sallow, and his nostrils wide and quivering, Charlotte decided he looked like a beetle. He seemed to her in a childish rage.
Charlotte pitied Madame H. who appeared to be somewhat older than he, though neither of them was yet in their forties. She remembers thinking, What an intensely disagreeable and ugly man, as he bent briefly over her hand with her sister at her side. He hardly took the time to mutter a greeting to his new pupils. Indeed, he seemed to scowl at her particularly and take an instant dislike to both of them.
Madame H. arose to show the sisters to their dormitory. As they walked through the rooms, Charlotte admired the large school buildings. She stopped a moment before the image of the virgin in an alcove with a burning lamp at her feet and found a prayer rising to her lips: God give me the courage to live here and do my duty.
In the dormitory, they were placed at the end of the long row of beds, with extra bed space and a washstand between the beds, providing welcome privacy, and spotless white curtains, which lifted in the breeze.
The next morning they were able to see that the windows overlooked a romantic garden, a haven of quiet and calm in the midst of the city, which would become what she loved more than anything else. She liked to stroll there in the birdsong of early spring mornings or in the calm of the evening, within the shadows of its high walls, its row of pear trees, and its widespread acacia with the fine, feathery leaves, which trembled in the slightest breeze. It made her think of their childhood's imaginary country, Angria, and long for her brother as he had once been. She would have liked to walk with him within such a sheltered garden as this, with its bright blooms, its graveled walks, and its romantic bower nestled in vines.
From the start, in those first few February days, she admired the orderly but generous way Madame H. ran her school: the young girls were not starved or overworked or obliged to walk to church in wet boots, as Charlotte had once been. Lessons were at reasonable hours: from nine to twelve and then again in the afternoon from two until four. The excellent food they had eaten that first evening proved to be a sample of what was to come. No burned porridge here. Exercise, too, was provided: fresh air in the garden. Mens sana in corpore sano.
Or so she thought at first.
She saw him the next morning in the large, sunny classroom where they took their lessons. He taught literature at his wife's school and also at the one for boys next door.
From the moment he entered the classroom, he seemed transformed. The dark beetle had become a black swan, the rarest of birds. Monsieur H. sailed in fast, wings spread, obviously in an altered, expansive mood. He was already talking fast, moving his hands furiously through the bright air, as though he were on urgent business. Now, as he mounted the platform, she noticed the broad chest, the strength of the legs, the smiling mouth, the intensity of the black eyes.
He commanded his pupils to sit up and listen.
"Ecoutez," he trumpeted with authority, and his gaze roamed the room fiercely, searching for an inattentive gaze. He was obviously enjoying himself, the admiring looks of this crowd of young women. When he had their complete attention, he proceeded to read from Racine's Phèdre in a fine, deep, resonant voice. He rendered Hippolyte's lines with such feeling and so much expression that, despite her limited French, she forgot where she was, swept away. When he came to a breathless halt and looked around the classroom and the silent, awestruck pupils, she thought, I am falling in love, falling in love with language, with these sensuous words.
She listened to him as he analyzed what he had read, probing and darting with daring and eloquence. Despite her limited understanding of the language, she was immediately aware of this man's original mind, his deep comprehension of the many layers of the difficult text. She watched him use all his enthusiasm, his strength of mind and body, to claim the attention, and the hearts and minds, of these young women. Suddenly, she became aware, her mouth was open and her breathing shallow.
Then he handed back the girls' homework, his pupils coming up to claim their work. She saw his expression change again and again, withering one pupil with the movement of lip or nostril and elevating the next with the upturn of an eyebrow. Some wept; others beamed, their faces lit with delight. Sometimes he would produce a little gift for a favorite student who had pleased him particularly, bringing forth something, a bonbon or gourmandize from one of his numerous pockets, like a conjuror from a hat.
She knew she wanted to please this man, to see his expression alter, to delight his eyes. She wanted one of his sweet gifts.