Recollections of My Youth/Little Noemi/Part I

Little Noemi/Part IEdit

Although the religious and too premature sacerdotal education which I had received prevented me from being on any intimate terms with young people of the other sex, I had several little girl-friends one of whom more particularly has left a profound impression upon me. From an early age I preferred the society of girls to boys, and the latter did not like me, as I was too effeminate for them. We could not play together, as they called me "Mademoiselle," and teased me in a variety of ways. On the other hand, I got on very well with girls of my own age, and they found me very sensible and steady. I was about twelve or thirteen, and I could not account for the preference. The vague idea which attracted me to them was, I think, that men are at liberty to do many things which women cannot, and the latter consequently had, in my eyes, the charm of being weak and beautiful creatures, subject in their daily life to rules of conduct which they did not attempt to override. All those whom I had known were the pattern of modesty. The first feeling which stirred in me was one of pity, so to speak, coupled with the idea of assisting them in their becoming resignation, of liking them for their reserve, and making it easier for them. I quite felt my own intellectual superiority; but even at that early age, I felt that the woman who is very beautiful or very good, solves completely the problem of which we, with all our hard-headedness, make such a hash. We are mere children or pedants compared to her. I as yet understood this only vaguely, though I saw clearly enough that beauty is so great a gift that talent, genius, and even virtue are nothing when weighed in the balance with it; so that the woman who is really beautiful has the right to hold herself superior to everybody and everything, inasmuch as she combines not in a creation outside of herself, but in her very person, as in a Myrrhine vase, all the qualities which genius painfully endeavours to reproduce.

Among these, my companions, there was, as I have said, one to whom I was particularly attached Her name was Noemi, and she was quite a model of good conduct and grace. Her eyes had a languid look which denoted at once good-nature and quickness; her hair was beautifully fair. She was about two years my senior, and she treated me partly as an elder sister, partly with the confidential affection of one child for another. We got on very well together, and while our friends were constantly falling out, we were always of one mind. I tried to make these quarrels up, but she never thought that I should be successful, and would tell me that it was hopeless to try and make everybody agree. These attempts at mediation, which gave us an imperceptible superiority over the other children, formed a very pleasing tie between us. Even now I cannot hear "Nous n'irons plus an bois," or "Il pleut, il pleut, bergere" without my heart beating rather more quickly than is its wont. There can be no doubt that but for the fatal vice which held me fast, I should have been in love with Noemi two or three years later; but I was a slave to reasoning, and my whole time was devoted to religious dialectics. The flow of abstractions which rushed to the head made me giddy, and caused me to be absent-minded and oblivious of all else.

This budding affection was, moreover, turned from its course by a peculiar defect which, has more than once been injurious to my prospects in life. This is my indecision of character, which often leads me into positions from which I have great difficulty in extricating myself. This defect was further complicated in this particular case by a good quality which has led me into as many difficulties as the most serious of defects. There was among these children a little girl though much less pretty than Noemi, who, gentle and amiable as she was, did not get nearly so much notice taken of her. She was even fonder of making me her companion than Noemi, of whom she was rather jealous. I have never been able to do a thing which would give pain to any one. I had a vague sort of idea that a woman who was not very pretty must be unhappy and feel the inward pang of having missed her fate. I was oftener, therefore, with her than with Noemi, because I saw that she was melancholy. So I allowed my first love to go off at a tangent, just as, later in life, I did in politics, and in a very bungling sort of way. Once or twice I noticed Noemi laughing to herself at my simple folly. She was always nice with me, but at times her manner was slightly sarcastic, and this tinge of irony, which she made no attempt to conceal, only rendered her more charming in my eyes.

The struggles amid which I grew to manhood nearly effaced her from my memory. In after years I often fancied that I could see her again, and one day I asked my mother what had become of her. "She is dead," my mother replied, "and of a broken heart. She had no fortune of her own. When she lost her father and mother, her aunt--a very respectable woman who kept the equally respectable Hotel ----, took her to live there. She did the best she could. Even as a child, when you knew her, she was charming, but at two-and-twenty she was marvellously beautiful. Her hair--which she tried in vain to keep out of sight under a heavy cap--came down over her neck in wavy tresses like handfuls of ripe wheat. She did all that she could to conceal her beauty. Her beautiful figure was disguised by a cape, and her long white hands were always covered with mittens. But it was all of no use. Groups of young men would assemble in church to see her at her devotions. She was too beautiful for our country, and she was as good as she was beautiful." My mother's story touched me very much. I have thought of her much more frequently since, and when it pleased God to give me a daughter I named her Noemi.