Chapter XXXIII's "Promise" is for M. Paul to take the students and teachers for breakfast in the country. Lucy, who like everyone has dressed up, worries that M. Paul will chide her for wearing her pink dress, and she avoids the professor. He sees through her ruse and teases her again with that word from the night at the de Bassompierres': "coquette." Lucy defends her sartorial choices.
They sit, and M. Paul regales them with a story told with such feeling and spoken so well that Lucy falls into a kind of reverie of imagination.
After breakfast, M. Paul and Lucy sit under a tree while Lucy reads aloud from a book. In a strange moment he asks that if she were his sister, would she like to always stay with a brother such as he? She says that indeed she would. He continues questioning her, asking how she would remember him if he went away, for how long, and so on. Lucy is upset by this and begins to weep. She hides it, and for once M. Paul is silent and lets it pass. The rest of the day passes pleasantly.
In Chapter XXXIV Madame Beck asks Lucy to take a long walk to the Rue de Mages and give a basket to Madame Walravens, who lives there. The neighborhood where the lady lives looks like it has seen better days. An old priest sees Lucy as she approaches, and Lucy attempts to bring the basket in to Madame Walravens, but the servant will not let her in. The priest comes and works things out so that Lucy may enter. Inside, a short well-dressed lady comes in, and she frightens Lucy with her strange appearance. She refuses the basket from Madame Beck with the message that "she can buy fruit when she wants it."
It has begun raining, so Lucy waits inside for a while. The old priest comes her and asks her to sit in the salon. She looks at a portrait on the wall, and the priest tells her about the subject, Justine Marie. She was to marry a man of her own economic class, but the young man's father died and left him with debts. Therefore they could not marry, so Justine Marie took the veil and very shortly afterwards died. While he is telling this story, Lucy recognizes the man as Père Silas, her confessor on the night that she collapsed and was rescued by Dr. John.
He continues the story, relating that the young man was plunged into deep sorrow. Justine's family eventually came to ruin, too. Justine's mother and grandmother would have been left destitute on Justine's father's death if the young man had not helped them. Madame Walravens is Justine's grandmother, and the young man had installed her in this house along with a servant. The priest was the young man's old tutor. The young man is very charitable and monkish in his habits.
Lucy begins to smell a rat, wondering if she was sent here with some purpose other than the delivery of a gift. Père Silas ask if she knows M. Paul, and Lucy says she does. It is M. Paul who was this young bereaved man, and it is he who now supports the family of his dead fiancée. Lucy has been brought here to learn M. Paul's history.
Lucy returns to Madame Beck and says that Madame Walravens sent it back because she thinks that Madame Beck would like to marry her cousin M. Paul herself. This is not Madame Beck's desire, though, and she says that M. Paul is still in love with Justine.
The concern of Chapter XXXV is Madame Beck's plan to reveal M. Paul's true nature. She wants Lucy to know that M. Paul is good, generous, and capable of very deep feeling. Lucy wonders about the motives of Père Silas and Madame Beck.
When M. Paul next arrives, he takes her into a room separate from the others. There are two associates from the Athénée who are there to examine her. She has written an essay, and they cannot believe an English schoolteacher could have written it without help, and she is now to prove that M. Paul is not a liar. Taken aback, she stammers horribly, and they accuse her of idiocy. She begins to cry, mostly because she has let M. Paul down. Lucy's ability to write a good essay does not translate into on-the-spot verbal quizzing.
The two gentlemen make Lucy write an essay "On Human Justice." In another implausible Brontëan coincidence, Lucy recognizes these two men as those who were following her on her first night in Villette. This realization inspires her to write a brilliant allegory of Dame Justice sitting by her fireside, dispensing punishment and reward on those who deserve it. Lucy leaves before the men can tell her what they think of her essay.
M. Paul later apologizes, explaining that his position warranted the encounter. They have a heated exchange in which Lucy accuses him of treating his students like machines and of being generally an inhuman brute. She says he has no home and is unnatural, and he retorts that he lives in two rooms in the boys' college and keeps no servants. Lucy reveals her knowledge of Madame Walravens, and she teases him about his charity. She really does admire him, but she instead pokes fun at him.
M. Paul now softens, and they are brought together again by shared knowledge. He knows that she now has no illusions about his character. She would like the friendship with him, but Lucy has had a friendship with a Dr. John fail before, so she is shy of commitment. M. Paul is reassuring.
Their talk turns to the portrait of Justine Marie, and M. Paul would like to know if it reminds Lucy of the ghostly nun. She says that it does, but Lucy is still hoping for a better explanation for the visitations than this. M. Paul, with his rational mind, agrees.
Though it happens in broad daylight, the episode of Lucy being sent to the Basse-Ville on a fool's errand is classically Gothic. The ruined house, the mysterious painting, the fearsome old lady, and the strangely communicative priest are all elements of a quasi-supernatural, foreboding type of story. The fact that the priest, Père Silas, already has met Lucy and helped her before, however, mitigates the feeling of dread. The feeling of an oppressive unknown, palpable but just out of reach, and the dramatic revelation of the disparate elements all relating to characters we already know, are also classic storytelling. The portrait and the young dead woman are familiar points, but the errand through the lonely, down-at-the-heels neighborhood, the reappearance of Père Silas, and the secret charity of M. Paul are all very interesting and unexpected twists.
Lucy's reaction to it all could have been much more fearful if she had not been such a brave heroine. We have already seen Lucy move to a foreign country with very little money, no friends, and no knowledge of the language. She has carved out for herself, with little to no aid from other people, a tolerable life. While it is not the full, open life that she would desire, she nevertheless has faced many people's worst fears: making a life among strangers, facing down a class of hostile girls, and surviving several ghostly visitations. She has come through it all bravely and remarkably calm, despite Dr. John's pronouncements of her psychosomatic hysteria.
Père Silas is an odd character, and it is clear that Lucy does not know quite what to make of him. She believes that he wants to be questioned about the strange story of Justine Marie, and she wonders why he wants to tell her all these things. The whole thing, though Lucy does not say so, appears to be a setup. But to what purpose? Lucy, even with her mistrust of Catholics and general reservation toward strangers, has been done good turns by Père Silas, and in the end she judges him to be a good man.
The unsettling event of the examination by the colleagues of the Athénée is another example of M. Paul's intellectual vanity and fragile male honor. That they come to quiz Lucy to determine if, indeed, she is the one who wrote the good essay is not to ratify Lucy's achievement but rather to verify M. Paul's skill in teaching her. M. Paul has made it clear that, while he finds instruction necessary for Lucy, he in no way wants her to be proud of it. The achievement is to be his if she learns well, and that achievement must be defended from all detractors. M. Paul, even with his likable traits and his understanding of Lucy's character (and in this he is the only one around her), is still the patriarchal male and the defender of the ownership of intellectual supremacy, a condition which Lucy can hardly even be allowed to seek.
That the two gentlemen should happen to be those who stalked Lucy's steps on her first night in Villette is perhaps the most incredible Brontëan coincidence in this novel, for it is actually unnecessary. Lucy could have been merely reminded of those two men or some other trigger for Justice, without the professors of the Athénée actually being those very men. Their appearance, their mannerisms, or perhaps even just their questioning and insistent attitude could have been enough for Lucy to recall her first terror in the town that was to become her home. That they are actually those men is a melodramatic detail that is supposed to make it plausible that Lucy could write a passionate and apropos essay on Human Justice.
Lucy finally knows a little more about M. Paul, his past, and his current habits. That he lives very much like a monk, devoting his fortune to others and all his time to teaching and learning, is not necessarily a surprise. M. Paul is other-centered, as shown by his personal giving to people who owe him nothing, such as his dead fiancée's family and his old tutor, and by his lack of possessions. His despotic and autocratic personal habits make more sense now, and they seem less to be faults than to be the idiosyncrasies of an essentially good man. M. Paul is able, since he has the male prerogative, to live for others (including his students and his dependents) without giving up his own desires and pursuits. He thus contrasts with Paulina, who will only be able to live for others (which is her goal) by giving up most of herself and "living in another's world." Lucy can be neither the selfless but dependent Polly nor the autocratic but profoundly charitable M. Paul.