Live and Let Live/Chapter XV
every schoolgirl now acquires a certain facility at talking French. Mrs. Hartell was educated before this was considered one of the necessaries of polite life, and she set an undue value upon it. She went abroad, to use a commercial phrase, without capital, and consequently returned as poor as she went. In plainer language, she acquired a taste only for that to which art gives a false gloss and fashion a fictitious value, a love for the frivolities that float on the surface of society in the French capital, and for the usages that belong to a highly artificial state of society; usages about as well adapted to our stage in the progress of civilization as an ottoman is to the growing, bounding child, or a lord-mayor's coach to our western hunting-grounds. Instead of training her children to the vigour necessary to endure and resist our rugged climate, she immured them alternately in the nursery and in a French boarding-school. Instead of allowing their persons to expand in obedience to the laws of nature, the beautiful work of God was marred, and the frames fearfully and wonderfully made were given over to French milliners and tailors. But worse than this: instead of learning to speak their own homely Saxon, in the phrases consecrated by the domestic usages of centuries, they must first lisp in foreign accents, taught by French servants. Even Mrs. Hartell might have perceived the folly of a Frenchwoman permitting her children to take their first lessons on that most delicate, "most cunning instrument," language, from an American servant; but it never occurred to her that the care of the French servant teacher was worse, inasmuch as the opportunities of education, moral and intellectual, for the lower classes abroad are inferior to those accessible to parallel classes at home. But, unhappily, these were not Mrs. Hartell's most serious mistakes. She never even thought of preparing the minds and manners of her children for the state of society in which they were to live, or of adapting her own conduct to the actual duties of her condition. Among other necessary effects of this fatuity was the disorder and misrule which in our domiciliary visits fall more particularly under our observation.
Mr. Hartell was a man of good moral instincts, but very little moral cultivation. He but half concealed from his children his contempt for their mother, and not at all his detestation of her French favourites. He very early took a liking to Lucy Lee. He perceived that his boy, his idol, soon preferred her to Adéle, and he knew the preferences of a child are unerring. He unwarily expressed in Adéle's presence his superior confidence in Lucy. Lucy's sweet qualities, and thoroughly tried they were, won the love of the little girls, which they constantly manifested, much to their mother's annoyance, by preferring Lucy on all occasions to Adéle. All this, of course, galled Adéle; but while her mistress was her champion she felt quite safe, and she was not insensible to the advantage of having a young girl of Lucy's capacity and good temper, upon whom she might impose her duties without her indolent mistress giving herself the trouble to reprove, or even to notice her injustice. But there were occasions when she felt the presence of this faithful girl to be not only inconvenient, but dangerous. On one of these Lucy returned unexpectedly from Mrs. Hartell's sister's, where she had been sent to aid in the care of a sick child. The child had died suddenly, and Lucy, on re-entering the nursery, found Adéle at a tête-à-tête petit souper with a dear friend. Both master and mistress were out, and the keys had been left in trust with Adéle. The table was spread with the choicest luxuries of the pantry. After Adéle recovered from the first shock of Lucy's appearance, she resumed her conversation with her visitor in French with apparent ease, and with unwonted courtesy begged Lucy to join them. Lucy declined, and refused a glass of Burgundy, which Adéle said was "the best thing in the world to raise the spirits after seeing one little child die." When Adéle's friend was gone, and the relics of the supper removed, she said, as if soliloquising, "Oh, how generous madame is—she say to me alway 'Adéle, do with mine as if it were yours.' Ah, she is one angel, madame!"
Lucy understood the drift of this. No one likes to appear a passive dupe; and, nettled at Adéle's thinking her so, she said, in allusion to the Burgundy, "Does Mr. Hartell tell you, Adéle, to do with his as if it were your own?"
"Very impertinent, miss! just so you always are. Madame know so well as I your little arts to get the blind of Mr. Hartell—bad appearance in the young girls to get the blind of the lady's husband. I have madame's leave—monsieur is quite another thing—you will not tell him?" she added, softening her tone. Lucy considered for a moment, and then remembering her mother's rule, whenever she doubted as to her course, to go straight forward, she said, "Adéle, you know that I know you are abusing Mrs. Hartell's confidence." Adéle's eyes absolutely glowed with rage, but Lucy courageously proceeded. "Did I not hear you tell Mrs. Hartell how much sewing you had done the two evenings you were out at balls when she was gone, and every stitch I had taken myself?"
"You could not hear that—we talk alway French."
"I heard and understood perfectly—half Mrs. Hartell's words are English, and I have learned many French words from you and the children. Perhaps you think I did not understand your winking at me, when you showed Mrs. Hartell as your work the stitches I had taken up on Ophelia's stocking, nor your offering me the pink cravat when Mrs. Hartell had left the nursery?"
"So it was to insult me you did not accept it?"
"No; but I would not accept a free gift from one I did not like, and certainly not a bribe."
Adéle had begun with a high blustering tone. She now began to feel how powerful are the weapons of truth, even wielded by a child; and softening down, she said, in a deprecating voice, "You, my dear, mean always right, but in one such young person the judgment is not ripe!"
"If my judgment is not ripe, Adéle, my eyesight is very clear, and I made no mistake when I unlocked Mrs. Hartell's emerald earring for you. You would not have asked me to do it if you could have done it yourself."
"Mon Dieu! mon enfant, is there but one emerald earring in the world?—that was the earring of my friend Matilda!"
"I do not believe it, Adéle, any more than I believe those stockings embroidered with rosebuds which I saw on Mrs. Hartell's feet last Sunday, and which are now on yours, belong to Matilda! I am not deceived, Adéle, and I fear I am wrong in not undeceiving Mrs. Hartell."
"You will not dare to say to madame," cried Adéle, bursting into a stormy flood of tears, "that I am thief and liar—madame will believe not—madame know very well the American servant hate all the French peoples."
"It is true she may not believe me, but that is no reason why I should not do right. I hate to turn telltale—I have no friend to advise me; but my conscience, a safe adviser, tells me I ought not to stand silently by and see my employer's confidence abused."
"Then you tell?" asked Adéle, alarmed and enraged.
"I must, if you go on in this way—but if you stop here I will never tell what is past." Lucy paused for Adéle's reply. She was too cunning to make a promise that implied confession. "I never will bind myself to one such little girl as you—but remember, you have promised not to tell till you suspect more." She evidently was abashed, but not penitent. She was hardened by the long and unexposed practice of evil and imboldened by Mrs. Hartell's silly confidence and partiality. Perhaps Adéle had been singularly unfortunate; we leave to others to decide whether her case was a rare one; but in many years' service in her own country—and with sorrow we add in ours—she had never had one employer who had regarded it as a duty to attempt to reform the faults, and enlighten the moral sense, and strengthen the feeble virtue of her inferior and dependent. She had never had one who considered her a member of the same great family with herself, a creature of the same passions and affections, who, after a few flying years, when the relations instituted as a trial to the virtue of employers and employed are past, must appear with her at the same tribunal. Mrs. Hartell winked at her faults to profit by her faculties; and, instead of leading her back to truth and duty, urged her forward in her devious course by the example of her own vanities and self-indulgence.
Lucy knew she had provoked a powerful adversary who would do battle with the "sword and the shield," but she was strong and tranquil in the consciousness of having done right. Before going to bed she offered Adéle her hand, saying, "Be sure, Adéle, I wish to be your friend; and it shall not be my fault if we are not the better and happier for living together."
"Mais—c'est un bon enfant! She is a good creature" exclaimed Adéle, yielding to a good impulse and returning the pressure of Lucy's hand.
"He's human, and some pulse of good must live within his nature."