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
“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
“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
“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
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
“I assure you, Pupasse!”
“On the cross, 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
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
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
“Your last punishment: the rule for irregular verbs. Commence!”
“I know it, Madame Joubert; I know it perfectly, I assure you.”
“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
“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!”
“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