The School Teacher and Her Brother
“Lisita,” said Paula to me one day on returning from school, “Mlle. Virtud was not in class this morning.”
“That’s all the same to me,” I said with indifference, “except that if I had known that, I would have gone to school anyway in spite of my chilblains.”
“Do they still hurt you so badly,” Paula asked.
“Yes, quite a bit; but not so badly as yesterday, and it bores me terribly to stay at home alone. You see, Teresa makes me clean the spinach, and Catalina gives me a basketful of stockings to darn, and I think I’d rather go to school, especially if there is anything the matter with the teacher, even though my feet hurt worse than a toothache. Do you ever have chilblains?”
“No, I don’t think I ever had them.”
“Well,” I said, “I always seem to be the one that gets something—something that’s bad and horrible.”
“I think that Mlle. Virtud is sick,” continued Paula.
“You’re always thinking of that woman. I tell you, it doesn’t make any difference to me what happens to her,” I said impatiently.
“Oh, Lisita, aren’t you ashamed to say such a thing?”
“No,” I said, “How do you expect me to like her? No matter what I do in the class she punishes me for the slightest thing; and not only do I suffer in class, but I get twenty-five lines to copy after school, so that I have no time to play with the rest of them. How I do detest that woman!”
“Of whom were you speaking?” asked Teresa, who appeared at that moment.
“Of the school teacher, Mlle. Virtud.”
“I have a good mind to box your ears,” cried Teresa indignantly. “You detest such a fine young lady who works in your behalf.”
“Oh, Teresa, don’t be angry,” I said. “You have no idea how she makes me suffer. When you were little you never went to school, so you do not understand. Now, listen—instead of keeping the bad children after school, she sends us all home with twenty to fifty lines to copy, while she goes calmly back to her house. The other teachers keep the bad ones there for ten minutes or so, and that’s all there is to it, which is a whole lot more agreeable.”
“Mlle. Virtud is absolutely right, for she makes the punishment fit the crime.”
“No, it isn’t that,” I answered in a rage; “It’s because she doesn’t want to stay in school like the other teachers, the selfish thing! Here I am right now with lines which were given last Monday, and I’m not going to do them. She can say what she pleases!”
Paula, whose tender heart would have loved to have been on my side and also on that of Mlle. Virtud at the same time, suggested that perhaps she had someone who was ill in the house.
“She,” I cried, “Mlle. Virtud! Who do you think would ever have such a disagreeable thing in the house with them! Besides, she has told us that her family live far away in the country.”
“I don’t know,” said Paula; “but do you remember the day when we saw her carrying flowers back home with her. I dare say it was for somebody.”
“Perhaps,” I answered indifferently.
That afternoon Teresa permitted me to go to school, and there I found the teacher of the Third Year in charge of our class. She was a beautiful woman with lovely golden hair and blue eyes, and pink-and-white cheeks that reminded one of a wax doll. “Ah,” said I to myself, “how I wish I was in the Third Year to have such a beautiful teacher always in front of me!”
She read to us and told us stories almost all the afternoon, and never punished anybody, and on coming out of school her two little brothers ran to embrace her affectionately. “Hurry up, dear sister,” said one of them, “Mama is waiting for us on the porch.”
“My! How beautiful she is,” I murmured to myself. “How I do love her! Mlle. Virtud would never be so gentle with her little brothers, if she ever had any.” Then suddenly I stopped, for it seemed to me that I heard Paula saying to me sadly, “Are you not ashamed of yourself, Lisita?” And I looked up to see Paula exchanging a few words with a poorly-dressed child just before she joined me.
“Lisita, it is true,” Paula said, “Mademoiselle Virtud is quite ill; she tried to get up this morning and wasn’t able to raise her head. Victoria, the little girl who was speaking to me just now, knows her very well; in fact, she lives in the same courtyard.”
“Who is taking care of her?” I said.
“No one, as far as I can find out. Do you think Teresa would let us go to see her?”
“No, I am sure she wouldn’t, and for one thing, I’d never go. I haven’t done my fifty lines.”
“Oh, but see; I’ll help you do your fifty lines right now.”
“Oh, but that wouldn’t be square.”
Paula laughed, “You generally haven’t such a delicate conscience. You know very well that half of the time Rosa does your lines for you.”
“Oh, Paula, I swear to you—”
“No, don’t do anything of the kind. It’s useless, for I’ve seen it myself, and I’m sure teacher would say nothing if I were to help you in order that we should both be able to see her. I’m sure she would be so delighted, Lisita. When my father was so ill, all his pupils came to see him, and he was so happy.”
“Your father wasn’t like Mlle. Virtud though. Never! Never! I’ll never go to see her.”
“The Lord Jesus said that when we go to see the sick it is as if we visited Him. Wouldn’t you care to go for love of Him, Lisita?”
“Well, we’ll talk about that tomorrow,” I answered, not daring to refuse on such grounds, and not caring to promise anything either.
Teresa gave her permission, and promised herself to visit the sick one at the very first opportunity. Paula wrote exactly half of my fifty lines, and in order to do so she sacrificed her playtime that afternoon because she wrote so slowly. I performed my twenty-five without further murmuring, and, exacting a promise from Paula that she would go in first, I decided to accompany my cousin on her visit to the teacher.
“Take this,” Teresa said to us at the last moment. “It’s just a little chocolate for the sick one, for there is nothing better to fortify her strength.”
“Oh, many thanks,” said Paula. “You think of everything. By the way I’ve got four cents; what do you think we could buy with them?”
Teresa reflected a minute. “Get some oranges, and see that they are good and ripe. Don’t stay late, for the days are getting short, and it gets terribly cold when the sun goes down.”
Paula herself suddenly became very timid as we entered the Rue Blanche and asked a young girl where Mlle. Virtud lived.
“Ah, you are looking for Mademoiselle,” said a childish voice.
“It’s you, Victoria,” Paula cried, “I’m so glad to find you here. Yes, we are looking for Mlle. Virtud.”
“Come along, then,” said Victoria as she blew on her hands that were purple with the cold, “I’ll take you to her door.” She took us up four flights of stairs when at last we came to Mlle Virtud’s apartment. “Here you are,” said our little guide, and downstairs she went.
I started to follow her on down. “Oh, Lisita,” cried Paula; “remember your promise.”
“Well, why don’t you knock?” I said, rather wickedly, as I saw that Paula was having trouble to muster up her courage.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me; I can’t seem to do it.”
In a sudden spirit of mischief I suddenly ran to the door and gave it three tremendous knocks, and then ran into the far comer of the hall.
“Oh, Lisita, how could you,” cried poor, dismayed Paula.
Pretty soon we heard someone coming slowly to the door, but as if he were dragging something behind him with each step, and then the door opened noiselessly, and there stood a forlorn, twisted little figure, a lad of about ten years. As we looked at his face with its halo of golden hair we forgot all about his deformities.
“Have you come to see my sister?” he said.
“Yes,” said Paula, “that is, we have come to see Mademoiselle Virtud.”
“She is very, very sick,” he said, and we saw that it was with difficulty that he restrained his tears. As he opened the door a bit wider to let us in, we saw that a black shawl had been placed over the only window in the room, so that it was extremely difficult after the door was closed for our unaccustomed eyes to see anything in the room.
“Elena,” called the boy softly; “here are some visitors to see you.”
“For me?” said a voice from the darkness—a voice which we recognized at once.
“Well, then, Gabriel, please take the shawl from the window; they will find it too dark here.”
“But Elena, the light will make your head ache.”
“No, no, dear; it’s alright now I’ve slept a bit, and I feel better.”
Presently the shawl came down from the window, allowing us to see the form of poor Mlle. Virtud on the bed.
“Oh,” she said, “so it’s you! It’s very kind of you, dear children, to come and see me!”
We stood near the door transfixed as we looked on the face of our poor sick teacher and we saw what a terrible change a few days had made. The little boy came and stood near his elder sister with a mixed air of concern and deep affection.
“And how is everybody at the school?” asked the invalid. And Paula told her a bit about the small happenings in the class.
“And so Mademoiselle Virginia has taken the class. I am sure you must love her very much.”
“Not as much as we do you, dear teacher,” said Paula.
“Oh, Paula, you just say that to make me feel good; do you not?” and poor Mlle. Virtud looked from one to the other of us a bit sadly, I thought.
At this, Paula came over to the bed and placed her warm hand on the thin cheek of the sick one, as she said, “No, Mademoiselle; it is because it is true that I said it. You are our dear teacher, and we know that you have sacrificed so much and worked so hard to give us knowledge, and so that is why we love you.”
“I did my fifty lines!” I burst out, “that is to say, Paula did twenty-five, and I did the rest.”
“What’s that you say?” and a smile of amusement passed over the thin features of the teacher, and yet a certain tender look came into her eyes as she said, “You poor little thing! I’d forgotten all about it!”
“Gabriel,” she said, turning to the boy who had been examining us minutely, “these are the young ladies who have been sending you such beautiful flowers. You see, he loves flowers so!” explained Mademoiselle. “Poor child, he cannot walk, and so he has to stay here in this stuffy room all day long. Before I was ill, I was able to take him out in his little carriage, and sometimes we would go as far as the open fields where he could see all the flowers he wanted to, to his heart’s desire, but now that I’m confined to my bed with this heart attack, those little excursions have become impossible.”
“Are you very sick, Mademoiselle?” Paula asked.
“Oh, I feel very much better today. I have suffered greatly. I must get better quickly. Madame Boudre, the principal, wrote me yesterday that she hoped I would be back very soon in my place in the class. Madame Boudre doesn’t care to have sick people,” and our teacher looked toward the window with its little white curtains and sighed deeply.
Gabriel came near the bed, “Don’t worry about that, sister; when I get big I will work for you and become rich, and then you won’t need to go to school at all.”
How many things I was discovering, I who thought that the life of the school teacher was a bed of roses.
“No, never any more,” continued the little boy, “I know why you’re sick. It’s because the school children trouble you, and as you told me it gave you so much pain to punish them, but when I get big you shall see, as I said before.”
Mlle. Virtud looked at the little face with its great, earnest eyes.
“I’m afraid you will have to wait a long, long time,” she said tenderly. “I don’t think I ever told you young ladies that I had a little brother at home. He is the youngest of our family, and I am the oldest.”
“How is it that Gabriel is not at home with his parents?” questioned Paula.
“Because, you see, he needed certain special treatment which my parents could not give him in the small village where we live; but here in Rouen there are fine doctors and big hospitals. Of course, I doubt if he can be restored completely, but we are doing all we can. That is my one consolation. I didn’t expect that he would be with me so long a time. The first time Gabriel came to Rouen, he went into the big hospital Hotel-de-Dieu but, after staying there for many months, his hip seemed to be no better, and they could not keep him any longer, and then he stayed with me here so that I could take him to the doctor once in a while.”
“You’ll tire yourself, Mademoiselle, talking to us,” broke in Paula, who had learned this much, taking care of Catalina.
“Do you think so,” said Mademoiselle, “I know I’m not very well yet, but it isn’t very often that I have the pleasure of a visit from my pupils, and so I’m profiting by it. You see, I took Gabriel home once, but when I started to return, the poor boy begged so hard to come back with me that finally my parents agreed; so he’s been with me now for several years. We are very happy, are we not, Gabriel? You see, when I’m in school he’s able to tidy up the house and wash the dishes. What would I do without my little Gabriel?” she said, as she playfully pulled the little boy’s hair.
“And I,” said Gabriel, “What would I do without you? In fact, what would everybody do around this whole court without you? Wasn’t it you who—”
“There, that will do,” said Mlle. Virtud. “You mustn’t tell all the family secrets. We are here in this world to help others; are we not, Lisita?”
“Yes, Mademoiselle,” I answered, and I was filled with fear that there might be another sermon coming. However, Mlle. Virtud began to tell us of the rest of the family and of the little village to which they returned at vacation time; and one could see that her heart was there with her loved ones. During the next few minutes there was quite a silence, and I began to shiver with cold, and we noticed that there was no fire in the grate.
“How pale you are,” said Mademoiselle; “Are you cold?”
“Yes, a little, Mademoiselle,” I said, quite ashamed for my discomfort to be discovered.
“Poor little girl,” she said. Taking my two hands in her two hot ones that were burning with fever, “You had better not stay here any longer as you are not accustomed to the cold. Our neighbor made a little fire in the grate this morning to cook the breakfast with, but it’s gone out.”
Was it this little touch of tenderness on the part of Mademoiselle, or remorse for all the wicked feelings I had so long held against my teacher? Anyway, a flood of tears came as I knelt beside the bed and hid my face on the white cover. “Oh, Mademoiselle… forgive me,” I murmured between by sobs.
All my pride had broken and I saw myself for what I was, guilty, unjust and cruel toward this young woman whom I had accused of living solely for herself. I felt a hand passing slowly over my head.
“I forgive you with all my heart, poor child,” and the invalid’s voice was both sincere and kindly.
I rose and embraced her with a repentant heart, and with a hearty kiss I buried our old war then and there, and in that cold room I felt the warmth of the beginning of a new life for me, although at that time I could not have analyzed it.
Suddenly, we heard a knock on the door.
“Ah, that will be Madame Bertin,” said Gabriel, as he hitched himself to the door and opened it, revealing a gray-haired woman who came in on tiptoe.
“Ah, you have visitors, Mademoiselle,” as she stopped a moment near the door.
“Only two of my pupils who have come to see me. Come in, come in, it’s all right,” insisted our teacher.
“Ah,” said the new arrival with great interest, “so you are my Victoria’s schoolmates. How proud you ought to be to have such a wonderful teacher!” Here she advanced to the bed. “Well, I declare,” she said, “you have no more drinking water!” She shook a flask near the bedside, saying, “I will go and fill it and bring back a little something to make a fire with so as to get your tea ready. I’m sure Gabriel must be hungry by this time,” and without waiting for a reply the good woman went rapidly down the four flights of stairs. Paula then gave Mademoiselle the small package Teresa had sent, as well as the little bag of oranges.
“See, Gabriel!” said Mademoiselle as she opened the packages with delight, “Oranges!—and chocolate! What a treat! You are very good to remember me in such a lovely way. Please thank your Teresa, too.”
“She said she was coming to see you,” said Paula.
At this the poor young woman looked disturbed. “I’m afraid she’ll find things in a very bad state here,” and she colored slightly.
But as we started to go away Paula assured her that Teresa wouldn’t mind a bit.
“Just a moment,” said the invalid; “Would you mind reading me a chapter out of this book? I have not been able to read it today, as my head ached too badly. It’s a book that I love very much.”
“The Bible!” cried Paula, “Oh, I didn’t know that you read it, too.”
The young lady shook her head sadly, “I used to read it when I was a child, Paula. It was and is the beloved Book of my mother, but for many, many years I never opened it. When your uncle came to inscribe you as a pupil, he told me how much you loved your father’s Bible, and that started me thinking of my own, hidden in the bottom of my trunk, and so I began to read many chapters that I remember having read with my mother, and now I believe that Gabriel would never tire if I read it to him all day.”
“Tell her to read the story of Jesus healing the sick people,” came the eager voice of Gabriel.
Mademoiselle smiled, “Gabriel is right. When people are sick they love to hear of the greatest Doctor of all. Read about the ten lepers, Paula.”
At this point the old lady returned, and she, too, stood and listened as Paula began to read the wonderful story.
“ ‘And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger. And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.’ (Luke 17:11-19) ” Here Paula stopped, not knowing whether to go on to the end of the chapter.
Mlle. Virtud then closed her eyes, but one could see she was not sleeping. Paula waited in silence, and so did the old lady as she stood there with her rough, toil-worn hands clasped beneath her apron.
“Read some more,” said Gabriel.
“No,” said Mlle. Virtud. “It’s time the children returned, for they must reach home before dark.” She drew us to her, giving us both a long embrace. “May God bless you both, by dear young friends! Come back soon to see me.”
Then Victoria’s mother embraced us also, saying at the same time, “I have a poor, blind daughter. I would be very grateful if you would stop in to see her the next time and read her the same story you have just read to Mademoiselle.
“I don’t know how to read,” she continued; “I have such a poor stupid head, and Victoria doesn’t seem to have learned to read very well. She can show you where we live—and now, goodbye until the next time.”
On our return Teresa prepared supper. She was more hurried than usual because she had to get the week’s wash ready for the next day; but she listened with great interest, nevertheless, to the story of our afternoon’s visit. “I’m going to see her tomorrow, poor child,” she said.
That night Teresa came to tuck us in and kiss us goodnight, which was her habit, as she said, to try to take partly the place of our poor dear mother.
I whispered in her ear, “Teresa, I’ve come to love Mademoiselle Virtud.”
“Good! Good!” exclaimed the old servant; “that’s something new indeed! And why has the wind so suddenly changed in her direction?”
“It’s because I know her now!” I said.
Teresa seated herself on my bed, and in spite of the cold she talked to me a long time, telling me that my heart’s coldness and my selfishness had caused her much grief. I could see how happy I had made her to have confessed my faults and thus show the beginning of a great change. She told me how my mother died with a prayer on her lips for me. Then she spoke of Paula, who thought of nothing except making other people happy. “Wouldn’t you like to be like Paula?” Teresa questioned me.
“Of course, dear Teresa,” I said, “but that’s impossible, I’m too bad for that.”
“Who it is, Lisita, that makes Paula so good?” and Teresa’s voice took on a new and most tender note.
“It’s the Lord Jesus!” I answered in a low whisper.
“That’s well answered, Lisita! And the same Lord Jesus would do the like for you. Let me ask you something. Do you not find me changed—since—since—I began to pray to Him?”
“In what way have you noticed the change?”
“Well, for one thing—wash day doesn’t make you irritable, as it used to do,” I said.
“That’s something, now isn’t it? Oh, when one has the peace of God in the heart, anger doesn’t have a chance to get inside as it used to do.”
I looked at her furtively. By the lamplight I could see in those dark blue eyes such a new, such a tender, confident look, that in spite of the wrinkled cheeks and her white hair I saw a startling likeness to Paula herself. I couldn’t explain it at the time, but later I understood—Teresa and Paula were just part of the family of God, and it was the likeness of Jesus, His dear Son, I had seen in both of them.