Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

Pupasse by Grace E. King

 

Every day, every day, it was the same overture in Madame Joubert's room in the Institute St. Denis; the strident:

“Mesdemoiselles; a vos places! Notre Pere qui est dans le ciel—Qui a fait ce bruit?”

“It's Pupasse, madame! It's Pupasse!” The answer invariably was unanimous.

“But, Madame Joubert,—I assure you, Madame Joubert,—I could not help it! They know I could not help it!”

By this time the fresh new fool's cap made from yesterday's “Bee" would have been pinned on her head.

“Quelle injustice! Quelle injustice!”

This last apostrophe in a high, whining nasal voice, always procured Pupasse's elevation on the tall three-legged stool in the corner.

It was a theory of the little girls in the primary class that Madame Joubert would be much more lenient to their own little inevitabilities of bad conduct and lessons if Pupasse did not invariably comb her the wrong way every morning after prayers, by dropping something, or sniffling, or sneezing. Therefore, while they distractedly got together books, slates, and copy-books, their infantile eyes found time to dart deadly reproaches toward the corner of penitence, and their little lips, still shaped from their first nourishment, pouted anything but sympathy for the occupant of it.

Indeed, it would have been a most startling unreality to have ever entered Madame Joubert's room and not seen Pupasse in that corner, on that stool, her tall figure shooting up like a post, until her tall, pointed bonnet d' ane came within an inch or two of the ceiling. It was her hoop-skirt that best testified to her height. It was the period of those funnel-shaped hoop-skirts that spread out with such nice mathematical proportions, from the waist down, that it seemed they must have emanated from the brains of astronomers, like the orbits, and diameters, and other things belonging to the heavenly bodies. Pupasse could not have come within three feet of the wall with her hoop-skirt distended. To have forced matters was not to be thought of an instant. So even in her greatest grief and indignation, she had to pause before the three-legged black stool, and gather up steel after steel of her circumference in her hands behind, until her calico skirt careened and flattened; and so she could manage to accommodate herself to the limited space of her punishment, the circles drooping far over her feet as she stood there, looking like the costumed stick of a baby's rattle.

Her thinness continued into her face, which, unfortunately, had nothing in the way of toilet to assist it. Two little black eyes fixed in the sides of a mere fence of a nose, and a mouth with the shape and expression of all mouths made to go over sharp-pointed teeth planted very far apart; the smallest amount possible of fine, dry, black hair—a perfect rat-tail when it was plaited in one, as almost all wore their hair. But sometimes Pupasse took it into her head to plait it in two braids, as none but the thick-haired ventured to wear it. As the little girls said, it was a petition to Heaven for “eau Quinquina.” When Marcelite, the hair-dresser, came at her regular periods to visit the hair of the boarders, she would make an effort with Pupasse, plaiting her hundred hairs in a ten-strand braid. The effect was a half yard of black worsted galloon; nothing more, or better. Had Pupasse possessed as many heads as the hydra, she could have “coiffe'd” them all with fools' caps during one morning's recitations. She entirely monopolized the “Daily Bee.” Madame Joubert was forced to borrow from “madame” the stale weekly “Courrier des Etats-Unis” for the rest of the room. From grammar, through sacred history, arithmetic, geography, mythology, down to dictation, Pupasse could pile up an accumulation of penitences that would have tasked the limits of the current day had not recreation been wisely set as a term which disbarred, by proscription, previous offenses. But even after recreation, with that day's lessons safely out, punished and expiated, Pupasse's doom seemed scarcely lightened; there was still a whole criminal code of conduct to infract. The only difference was that instead of books, slates, or copy-books, leathern medals, bearing various legends and mottos, were hung around her neck—a travestied decoration worse than the books for humiliation.

The “abecedaires,” their torment for the day over, thankful for any distraction from the next day's lessons, and eager for any relief from the intolerable ennui of goodness, were thankful enough now for Pupasse. They naturally watched her in preference to Madame Joubert, holding their books and slates quite cunningly to hide their faces. Pupasse had not only the genius, but that which sometimes fails genius, the means for grimacing: little eyes, long nose, foolish mouth, and pointed tongue. And she was so amusing, when Madame Joubert's head was turned, that the little girls, being young and innocent, would forget themselves and all burst out laughing. It sounded like a flight of singing birds through the hot, close, stupid little room; but not so to Madame Joubert.

“Young ladies! But what does this mean?”

And, terror-stricken, the innocents would call out with one voice, “It's Pupasse, madame! It's Pupasse who made us laugh!” There was nothing but fools' caps to be gained by prevaricating, and there was frequently nothing less gained by confession. And oh, the wails and the sobs as the innocents would be stood up, one by one, in their places! Even the pigtails at the backs of their little heads were convulsed with grief. Oh, how they hated Pupasse then! When their bonnes came for them at three o'clock,—washing their tear-stained faces at the cistern before daring to take them through the streets,—how passionately they would cry out, the tears breaking afresh into the wet handkerchiefs:

“It's that Pupasse! It's that vilaine Pupasse!”

To Pupasse herself would be meted out that “peine forte et dure,” that acme of humiliation and disgrace, so intensely horrible that many a little girl in that room solemnly averred and believed she would kill herself before submitting to it. Pupasse's voluminous calico skirt would be gathered up by the hem and tied up over her head! Oh, the horrible monstrosity on the stool in the corner then! There were no eyes in that room that had any desire to look upon it. And the cries and the “Quelle injustice!” that fell on the ears then from the hidden feelings had all the weirdness of the unseen, but heard. And all the other girls in the room, in fear and trembling, would begin to move their lips in a perfect whirlwind of study, or write violently on their slates, or begin at that very instant to rule off their copy-books for the next day's verb.

Pupasse—her name was Marie Pupasse but no one thought of calling her anything but Pupasse, with emphasis on the first syllable and sibilance on the last—had no parents only a grandmother, to describe whom, all that is necessary to say is that she was as short as Pupasse was tall, and that her face resembled nothing so much as a little yellow apple shriveling from decay. The old lady came but once a week, to fetch Pupasse fresh clothes, and a great brown paper bag of nice things to eat. There was no boarder in the school who received handsomer bags of cake and fruit than Pupasse. And although, not two hours before, a girl might have been foremost in the shrill cry, “It is Pupasse who made the noise! It is Pupasse who made me laugh!” there was nothing in that paper bag reserved even from such a one. When the girl herself with native delicacy would, under the circumstances, judge it discreet to refuse, Pupasse would plead, “Oh, but take it to give me pleasure!” And if still the refusal continued, Pupasse would take her bag and go into the summer-house in the corner of the garden, and cry until the unforgiving one would relent. But the first offering of the bag was invariably to the stern dispenser of fools' caps and the unnamed humiliation of the reversed skirt: Madame Joubert.

Pupasse was in the fifth class. The sixth—the abecedaires—was the lowest in the school. Green was the color of the fifth; white—innocence—of the abecedaires. Exhibition after exhibition, the same green sash and green ribbons appeared on Pupasse's white muslin, the white muslin getting longer and longer every year, trying to keep up with her phenomenal growth; and always, from all over the room, buzzed the audience's suppressed merriment at Pupasse's appearance in the ranks of the little ones of nine and ten. It was that very merriment that brought about the greatest change in the Institute St. Denis. The sitting order of the classes was reversed. The first class—the graduates—went up to the top step of the estrade; and the little ones put on the lowest, behind the pianos. The graduates grumbled that it was not comme il faut to have young ladies of their position stepping like camels up and down those great steps; and the little girls said it was a shame to hide them behind the pianos after their mamas had taken so much pains to make them look pretty. But madame said—going also to natural history for her comparison—that one must be a rhinoceros to continue the former routine.

Religion cannot be kept waiting forever on the intelligence. It was always in the fourth class that the first communion was made; that is, when the girls stayed one year in each class. But Pupasse had spent three years in the sixth class, and had already been four in the fifth, and Madame Joubert felt that longer delay would be disrespectful to the good Lord. It was true that Pupasse could not yet distinguish the ten commandments from the seven capital sins, and still would answer that Jeanne d'Arc was the foundress of the “Little Sisters of the Poor.” But, as Madame Joubert always said in the little address she made to the catechism class every year before handing it over to Father Dolomier, God judged from the heart, and not from the mind.

Father Dolomier—from his face he would have been an able contestant of bonnets d'ane with Pupasse, if subjected to Madame Joubert's discipline—evidently had the same method of judging as God, although the catechism class said they could dance a waltz on the end of his long nose without his perceiving it.

There is always a little air of mystery about the first communion: not that there is any in reality, but the little ones assume it to render themselves important. The going to early mass, the holding their dog-eared catechisms as if they were relics, the instruction from the priest, even if he were only old Father Dolomier—it all put such a little air of devotion into their faces that it imposed (as it did every year) upon their companions, which was a vastly gratifying effect. No matter how young and innocent she may be, a woman's devotion always seems to have two aims—God and her own sex.

The week of retreat came. Oh, the week of retreat! That was the bonne bouche of it all, for themselves and for the others. It was the same every year. By the time the week of retreat arrived, interest and mystery had been frothed to the point of indiscretion; so that the little girls would stand on tiptoe to peep through the shutters at the postulants inside, and even the larger girls, to whom first communion was a thing of an infantile past, would condescend to listen to their reports with ill-feigned indifference.

As the day of the first communion neared, the day of the general confession naturally neared too, leading it. And then the little girls, peeping through the shutters, and holding their breath to see better, saw what they beheld every year; but it was always new and awesome—mysterious scribbling in corners with lead-pencils on scraps of paper; consultations; rewritings; copyings; the list of their sins, of all the sins of their lives.

Ma chere!”—pigtails and sunbonnets hiving outside would shudder. “Oh, Mon Dieu! To have to confess all—but all your sins! As for me, it would kill me, sure!”

And the frightful recoils of their consciences would make all instantly blanch and cross themselves.

“And look at Pupasse's sins! Oh, but they are long! Ma chere, but look! But look, I ask you, at them!”

The longest record was of course the most complimentary and honorable to the possessor, as each girl naturally worked not only for absolution but for fame.

Between catechisms and instructions Madame Joubert would have “La Vie des Saints” read aloud, to stimulate their piety and to engage their thoughts; for the thoughts of first communicants are worse than flies for buzzing around the forbidden. The lecture must have been a great quickener of conscience; for they would dare punishment and cheat Madame Joubert, under her own eyes, in order surreptitiously to add a new sin to their list. Of course the one hour's recreation could not afford time enough for observation now, and the little girls were driven to all sorts of excuses to get out of the classroom for one moment's peep through the shutters; at which whole swarms of them would sometimes be caught and sent into punishment.

Only two days more. Madame Joubert put them through the rehearsal, a most important part of the preparation, almost as important as catechism—how to enter the church, how to hold the candle, how to advance, how to kneel, retire—everything, in fact.

Only one day more, the quietest, most devotional day of all. Pupasse lost her sins!

Of course every year the same accident happened to some one. But it was a new accident to Pupasse. And such a long list!

The commotion inside that retreat! Pupasse's nasal whine, carrying her lament without any mystery to the outside garden. Such searching of pockets, rummaging of corners, microscopic examination of the floor! Such crimination and recrimination, protestation, asseveration, assurances, backed by divine and saintly invocations! Pupasse accused companion after companion of filching her sins, which each after each would violently deny, producing each her own list from her own pocket,—proof to conviction of innocence, and, we may say, of guilt also.

Pupasse declared they had niched it to copy, because her list was the longest and most complete. She could not go to confession without her sins; she could not go to communion without confession. The tears rolled down her long thin nose unchecked, for she never could remember to use her handkerchief until reminded by Madame Joubert.

She had committed it to memory, as all the others had done theirs; but how was she to know without the list if she had not forgotten something? And to forget one thing in a general confession they knew was a mortal sin.

“I shall tell Madame Joubert! I shall tell Madame Joubert!”

Ma chere!'“ whispered the little ones outside. “Oh, but look at them! Elles font les quatre cents coups!” which is equivalent to “cutting up like the mischief.”

And with reason. As if such an influx of the world upon them at this moment were not sufficient of itself to damn them. But to tell Madame Joubert! With all their dresses made and ready, wreaths, veils, candles, prayer-books, picture-cards, mother-of-pearl prayer-beads, and festival breakfasts with admiring family and friends prepared. Tell Madame Joubert! She would simply cancel it all. In a body they chorused:

“But, Pupasse!”

Chere Pupasse!”

Voyons, Pupasse!”

“I assure you, Pupasse!”

“On the cross, Pupasse!”

“Ah, Pupasse!”

“We implore you, Pupasse!”

The only response—tears, and “I shall tell Madame Joubert.”

Consultations, caucuses, individual appeals, general outbursts. Pupasse stood in the corner. Curiously, she always sought refuge in the very sanctum of punishment, her face hidden in her bended arms, her hoops standing out behind, vouchsafing nothing but tears, and the promise to tell Madame Joubert. And three o'clock approaching! And Madame Joubert imminent! But Pupasse really could not go to confession without her sins. They all recognized that; they were reasonable, as they assured her.

A crisis quickens the wits. They heard the cathedral clock strike the quarter to three. They whispered, suggested, argued—bunched in the farthest corner from Pupasse.

“Console yourself, Pupasse! We will help you, Pupasse! Say no more about it! We will help you!”

A delegate was sent to say that. She was only four feet and a half high, and had to stand on tiptoe to pluck the six-foot Pupasse's dress to gain her attention.

And they did help her generously. A new sheet of fool's-cap was procured, and torn in two, lengthwise, and pinned in a long strip. One by one, each little girl took it, and, retiring as far as possible, would put her hand into her pocket, and, extracting her list, would copy it in full on the new paper. Then she would fold it down, and give it to the next one, until all had written.

“Here, Pupasse; here are all our sins. We give them to you; you can have them.”

Pupasse was radiant; she was more than delighted, and the more she read the better pleased she was. Such a handsome long list, and so many sins she had never thought of—never dreamed of! She set herself with zeal to commit them to memory. But a hand on the door—Madame Joubert! You never could have told that those little girls had not been sitting during the whole time, with their hands clasped and eyes cast up to the ceiling, or moving their lips as the prayer-beads glided through their fingers. Their versatility was really marvelous.

[Illustration: THE FIRST COMMUNION.]

Poor Pupasse! God solved the dilemma of her education, and madame's increasing sensitiveness about her appearance in the fifth class, by the death of the old grandmother. She went home to the funeral, and never returned—or at least she returned, but only for madame. There was a little scene in the parlor: Pupasse, all dressed in black, with her bag of primary books in her hand, ready and eager to get back to her classes and fools' caps; madame, hesitating between her interests and her fear of ridicule; Madame Joubert, between her loyalty to school and her conscience. Pupasse the only one free and untrammeled, simple and direct.

That little school parlor had been the stage for so many scenes! Madame Joubert detested acting—the comedy, as she called it. There was nothing she punished with more pleasure up in her room. And yet—

“Pupasse, ma fille, give me your grammar.”

The old battered, primitive book was gotten out of the bag, the string still tied between the leaves for convenience in hanging around the neck.

“Your last punishment: the rule for irregular verbs. Commence!”

“I know it, Madame Joubert; I know it perfectly, I assure you.”

“Commence!”

“Irregular verbs—but I assure you I know it—I know it by heart—”

“Commence, ma fille!

“Irregular verbs—irregular verbs—I know it, Madame Joubert—one moment—” and she shook her right hand, as girls do to get inspiration, they say. “Irregular verbs—give me one word, Madame Joubert; only one word!”

“That—”

“Irregular verbs, that—irregular verbs, that—”

“See here, Pupasse; you do not know that lesson any more than a cat does”—Madame Joubert's favorite comparison.

“Yes, I do, Madame Joubert! Yes, I do!”

“Silence!”

“But, Madame Joubert—”

“Will you be silent!”

“Yes, Madame Joubert; only—”

“Pupasse, one more word—and—” Madame Joubert was forgetting her comedy—“Listen, Pupasse, and obey! You go home and learn that lesson. When you know it, you can reenter your class. That is the punishment I have thought of to correct your 'want of attention.'“

That was the way Madame Joubert put it—“want of attention.”

Pupasse looked at her—at madame, a silent but potent spectator. To be sent from home because she did not know the rule of the irregular verbs! To be sent from home, family, friends!—for that was the way Pupasse put it. She had been in that school—it may only be whispered—fifteen years. Madame Joubert knew it; so did madame, although they accounted for only four or five years in each class. That school was her home; Madame Joubert—God help her!—her mother; madame, her divinity; fools' caps and turned-up skirts, her life. The old grandmother—she it was who had done everything for her (a ci-devant rag-picker, they say); she it was who was nothing to her.

Madame must have felt something of it besides the loss of the handsome salary for years from the little old withered woman. But conventionality is inexorable; and the St. Denis's great recommendation was its conventionality. Madame Joubert must have felt something of it,—she must have felt something of it,—for why should she volunteer? Certainly madame could not have imposed that upon her. It must have been an inspiration of the moment, or a movement, a tressaillement, of the heart.

“Listen, Pupasse, my child. Go home, study your lesson well. I shall come every evening myself and hear it; and as soon as you know it, I shall fetch you back myself. You know I always keep my word.”

Keep her word! That she did. Could the inanimate past testify, what a fluttering of fools' caps in that parlor—“Daily Bees,” and “Weekly Couriers,” by the year-full!

What could Pupasse say or do? It settled the question, as Madame Joubert assured madame, when the tall, thin black figure with the bag of books disappeared through the gate.

Madame Joubert was never known to break her word; that is all one knows about her part of the bargain.

One day, not three years ago, ringing a bell to inquire for a servant, a familiar murmuring fell upon the ear, and an old abecedaire's eyes could not resist the temptation to look through the shutters. There sat Pupasse; there was her old grammar; there were both fingers stopping her ears—as all studious girls do, or used to do; and there sounded the old words composing the rule for irregular verbs.

And you all remember how long it is since we wore funnel-shaped hoop-skirts!

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page