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Ten Yards of Silk and an Education

The old woman, Farah’s mother-in-law, was, Farah told me, in her own country held in high esteem on account of the excellent education which she had given her daughters. They were there the glass of fashion and the mould of maidenly form. Indeed here were three young women of the most exquisite dignity and demureness; I have never known ladies more ladylike. Their maiden modesty was accentuated by the style of their clothes. They wore skirts of imposing amplitude, it took, I know,—for I have often bought silk or calico for them,—ten yards of material to make one of them. Inside these masses of stuff their slim knees moved in an insinuating and mysterious rhythm: Tes nobles jambes, sous les volants qu’elles chassent Tourmentent les desirs obscurs et les agacent, Comme deux sorcieres qui font Toumer un philtre noir dans un vase profond.

The mother herself was an impressive figure, very stout, with the powerful and benevolent placidity of a female elephant, contented in her strength. I have never seen her angry. Teachers and pedagogues ought to have envied her that great inspiring quality which she had in her; in her hands education was no compulsion, and no drudgery, but a great noble conspiracy into which her pupils were by privilege admitted. The little house, that I had built for them in the woods, was a small High-school of White Magic, and the three young girls, who walked so gently upon the forest-paths round it, were like three young witches who were studying at it as hard as they could, for at the end of their apprenticeship great mightiness would be theirs. They were competing in excellency in a congenial spirit; probably where you are in reality upon the market, and have your price openly discussed, rivalry takes on a frank and honest character. Farah’s wife, who was no longer in suspense as to her price, was holding a special position, like that of the good Pupil who has already obtained a scholarship in witchcraft; she might be observed in confidential talks with the old Head Magician, and such an honour never fell to the maidens.

—Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

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