The American, by Henry James

Chapter 2

He wandered back to the divan and seated himself on the other side, in view of the great canvas on which Paul Veronese had depicted the marriage-feast of Cana. Wearied as he was he found the picture entertaining; it had an illusion for him; it satisfied his conception, which was ambitious, of what a splendid banquet should be. In the left-hand corner of the picture is a young woman with yellow tresses confined in a golden head-dress; she is bending forward and listening, with the smile of a charming woman at a dinner-party, to her neighbor. Newman detected her in the crowd, admired her, and perceived that she too had her votive copyist — a young man with his hair standing on end. Suddenly he became conscious of the germ of the mania of the “collector;” he had taken the first step; why should he not go on? It was only twenty minutes before that he had bought the first picture of his life, and now he was already thinking of art-patronage as a fascinating pursuit. His reflections quickened his good-humor, and he was on the point of approaching the young man with another “Combien?” Two or three facts in this relation are noticeable, although the logical chain which connects them may seem imperfect. He knew Mademoiselle Nioche had asked too much; he bore her no grudge for doing so, and he was determined to pay the young man exactly the proper sum. At this moment, however, his attention was attracted by a gentleman who had come from another part of the room and whose manner was that of a stranger to the gallery, although he was equipped with neither guide-book nor opera-glass. He carried a white sun-umbrella, lined with blue silk, and he strolled in front of the Paul Veronese, vaguely looking at it, but much too near to see anything but the grain of the canvas. Opposite to Christopher Newman he paused and turned, and then our friend, who had been observing him, had a chance to verify a suspicion aroused by an imperfect view of his face. The result of this larger scrutiny was that he presently sprang to his feet, strode across the room, and, with an outstretched hand, arrested the gentleman with the blue-lined umbrella. The latter stared, but put out his hand at a venture. He was corpulent and rosy, and though his countenance, which was ornamented with a beautiful flaxen beard, carefully divided in the middle and brushed outward at the sides, was not remarkable for intensity of expression, he looked like a person who would willingly shake hands with any one. I know not what Newman thought of his face, but he found a want of response in his grasp.

“Oh, come, come,” he said, laughing; “don’t say, now, you don’t know me — if I have NOT got a white parasol!”

The sound of his voice quickened the other’s memory, his face expanded to its fullest capacity, and he also broke into a laugh. “Why, Newman — I’ll be blowed! Where in the world — I declare — who would have thought? You know you have changed.”

“You haven’t!” said Newman.

“Not for the better, no doubt. When did you get here?”

“Three days ago.”

“Why didn’t you let me know?”

“I had no idea YOU were here.”

“I have been here these six years.”

“It must be eight or nine since we met.”

“Something of that sort. We were very young.”

“It was in St. Louis, during the war. You were in the army.”

“Oh no, not I! But you were.”

“I believe I was.”

“You came out all right?”

“I came out with my legs and arms — and with satisfaction. All that seems very far away.”

“And how long have you been in Europe?”

“Seventeen days.”

“First time?”

“Yes, very much so.”

“Made your everlasting fortune?”

Christopher Newman was silent a moment, and then with a tranquil smile he answered, “Yes.”

“And come to Paris to spend it, eh?”

“Well, we shall see. So they carry those parasols here — the menfolk?”

“Of course they do. They’re great things. They understand comfort out here.”

“Where do you buy them?”

“Anywhere, everywhere.”

“Well, Tristram, I’m glad to get hold of you. You can show me the ropes. I suppose you know Paris inside out.”

Mr. Tristram gave a mellow smile of self-gratulation. “Well, I guess there are not many men that can show me much. I’ll take care of you.”

“It’s a pity you were not here a few minutes ago. I have just bought a picture. You might have put the thing through for me.”

“Bought a picture?” said Mr. Tristram, looking vaguely round at the walls. “Why, do they sell them?”

“I mean a copy.”

“Oh, I see. These,” said Mr. Tristram, nodding at the Titians and Vandykes, “these, I suppose, are originals.”

“I hope so,” cried Newman. “I don’t want a copy of a copy.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Tristram, mysteriously, “you can never tell. They imitate, you know, so deucedly well. It’s like the jewelers, with their false stones. Go into the Palais Royal, there; you see ‘Imitation’ on half the windows. The law obliges them to stick it on, you know; but you can’t tell the things apart. To tell the truth,” Mr. Tristram continued, with a wry face, “I don’t do much in pictures. I leave that to my wife.”

“Ah, you have got a wife?”

“Didn’t I mention it? She’s a very nice woman; you must know her. She’s up there in the Avenue d’Iena.”

“So you are regularly fixed — house and children and all.”

“Yes, a tip-top house and a couple of youngsters.”

“Well,” said Christopher Newman, stretching his arms a little, with a sigh, “I envy you.”

“Oh no! you don’t!” answered Mr. Tristram, giving him a little poke with his parasol.

“I beg your pardon; I do!”

“Well, you won’t, then, when — when —”

“You don’t certainly mean when I have seen your establishment?”

“When you have seen Paris, my boy. You want to be your own master here.”

“Oh, I have been my own master all my life, and I’m tired of it.”

“Well, try Paris. How old are you?”

“Thirty-six.”

“C’est le bel age, as they say here.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that a man shouldn’t send away his plate till he has eaten his fill.”

“All that? I have just made arrangements to take French lessons.”

“Oh, you don’t want any lessons. You’ll pick it up. I never took any.”

“I suppose you speak French as well as English?”

“Better!” said Mr. Tristram, roundly. “It’s a splendid language. You can say all sorts of bright things in it.”

“But I suppose,” said Christopher Newman, with an earnest desire for information, “that you must be bright to begin with.”

“Not a bit; that’s just the beauty of it.”

The two friends, as they exchanged these remarks, had remained standing where they met, and leaning against the rail which protected the pictures. Mr. Tristram at last declared that he was overcome with fatigue and should be happy to sit down. Newman recommended in the highest terms the great divan on which he had been lounging, and they prepared to seat themselves. “This is a great place; isn’t it?” said Newman, with ardor.

“Great place, great place. Finest thing in the world.” And then, suddenly, Mr. Tristram hesitated and looked about him. “I suppose they won’t let you smoke here.”

Newman stared. “Smoke? I’m sure I don’t know. You know the regulations better than I.”

“I? I never was here before!”

“Never! in six years?”

“I believe my wife dragged me here once when we first came to Paris, but I never found my way back.”

“But you say you know Paris so well!”

“I don’t call this Paris!” cried Mr. Tristram, with assurance. “Come; let’s go over to the Palais Royal and have a smoke.”

“I don’t smoke,” said Newman.

“A drink, then.”

And Mr. Tristram led his companion away. They passed through the glorious halls of the Louvre, down the staircases, along the cool, dim galleries of sculpture, and out into the enormous court. Newman looked about him as he went, but he made no comments, and it was only when they at last emerged into the open air that he said to his friend, “It seems to me that in your place I should have come here once a week.”

“Oh, no you wouldn’t!” said Mr. Tristram. “You think so, but you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t have had time. You would always mean to go, but you never would go. There’s better fun than that, here in Paris. Italy’s the place to see pictures; wait till you get there. There you have to go; you can’t do anything else. It’s an awful country; you can’t get a decent cigar. I don’t know why I went in there, to-day; I was strolling along, rather hard up for amusement. I sort of noticed the Louvre as I passed, and I thought I would go in and see what was going on. But if I hadn’t found you there I should have felt rather sold. Hang it, I don’t care for pictures; I prefer the reality!” And Mr. Tristram tossed off this happy formula with an assurance which the numerous class of persons suffering from an overdose of “culture” might have envied him.

The two gentlemen proceeded along the Rue de Rivoli and into the Palais Royal, where they seated themselves at one of the little tables stationed at the door of the cafe which projects into the great open quadrangle. The place was filled with people, the fountains were spouting, a band was playing, clusters of chairs were gathered beneath all the lime-trees, and buxom, white-capped nurses, seated along the benches, were offering to their infant charges the amplest facilities for nutrition. There was an easy, homely gayety in the whole scene, and Christopher Newman felt that it was most characteristically Parisian.

“And now,” began Mr. Tristram, when they had tested the decoction which he had caused to be served to them, “now just give an account of yourself. What are your ideas, what are your plans, where have you come from and where are you going? In the first place, where are you staying?”

“At the Grand Hotel,” said Newman.

Mr. Tristram puckered his plump visage. “That won’t do! You must change.”

“Change?” demanded Newman. “Why, it’s the finest hotel I ever was in.”

“You don’t want a ‘fine’ hotel; you want something small and quiet and elegant, where your bell is answered and you — your person is recognized.”

“They keep running to see if I have rung before I have touched the bell,” said Newman “and as for my person they are always bowing and scraping to it.”

“I suppose you are always tipping them. That’s very bad style.”

“Always? By no means. A man brought me something yesterday, and then stood loafing in a beggarly manner. I offered him a chair and asked him if he wouldn’t sit down. Was that bad style?”

“Very!”

“But he bolted, instantly. At any rate, the place amuses me. Hang your elegance, if it bores me. I sat in the court of the Grand Hotel last night until two o’clock in the morning, watching the coming and going, and the people knocking about.”

“You’re easily pleased. But you can do as you choose — a man in your shoes. You have made a pile of money, eh?”

“I have made enough”

“Happy the man who can say that? Enough for what?”

“Enough to rest awhile, to forget the confounded thing, to look about me, to see the world, to have a good time, to improve my mind, and, if the fancy takes me, to marry a wife.” Newman spoke slowly, with a certain dryness of accent and with frequent pauses. This was his habitual mode of utterance, but it was especially marked in the words I have just quoted.

“Jupiter! There’s a programme!” cried Mr. Tristram. “Certainly, all that takes money, especially the wife; unless indeed she gives it, as mine did. And what’s the story? How have you done it?”

Newman had pushed his hat back from his forehead, folded his arms, and stretched his legs. He listened to the music, he looked about him at the bustling crowd, at the plashing fountains, at the nurses and the babies. “I have worked!” he answered at last.

Tristram looked at him for some moments, and allowed his placid eyes to measure his friend’s generous longitude and rest upon his comfortably contemplative face. “What have you worked at?” he asked.

“Oh, at several things.”

“I suppose you’re a smart fellow, eh?”

Newman continued to look at the nurses and babies; they imparted to the scene a kind of primordial, pastoral simplicity. “Yes,” he said at last, “I suppose I am.” And then, in answer to his companion’s inquiries, he related briefly his history since their last meeting. It was an intensely Western story, and it dealt with enterprises which it will be needless to introduce to the reader in detail. Newman had come out of the war with a brevet of brigadier-general, an honor which in this case — without invidious comparisons — had lighted upon shoulders amply competent to bear it. But though he could manage a fight, when need was, Newman heartily disliked the business; his four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things — life and time and money and “smartness” and the early freshness of purpose; and he had addressed himself to the pursuits of peace with passionate zest and energy. He was of course as penniless when he plucked off his shoulder-straps as when he put them on, and the only capital at his disposal was his dogged resolution and his lively perception of ends and means. Exertion and action were as natural to him as respiration; a more completely healthy mortal had never trod the elastic soil of the West. His experience, moreover, was as wide as his capacity; when he was fourteen years old, necessity had taken him by his slim young shoulders and pushed him into the street, to earn that night’s supper. He had not earned it but he had earned the next night’s, and afterwards, whenever he had had none, it was because he had gone without it to use the money for something else, a keener pleasure or a finer profit. He had turned his hand, with his brain in it, to many things; he had been enterprising, in an eminent sense of the term; he had been adventurous and even reckless, and he had known bitter failure as well as brilliant success; but he was a born experimentalist, and he had always found something to enjoy in the pressure of necessity, even when it was as irritating as the haircloth shirt of the mediaeval monk. At one time failure seemed inexorably his portion; ill-luck became his bed-fellow, and whatever he touched he turned, not to gold, but to ashes. His most vivid conception of a supernatural element in the world’s affairs had come to him once when this pertinacity of misfortune was at its climax; there seemed to him something stronger in life than his own will. But the mysterious something could only be the devil, and he was accordingly seized with an intense personal enmity to this impertinent force. He had known what it was to have utterly exhausted his credit, to be unable to raise a dollar, and to find himself at nightfall in a strange city, without a penny to mitigate its strangeness. It was under these circumstances that he made his entrance into San Francisco, the scene, subsequently, of his happiest strokes of fortune. If he did not, like Dr. Franklin in Philadelphia, march along the street munching a penny-loaf, it was only because he had not the penny-loaf necessary to the performance. In his darkest days he had had but one simple, practical impulse — the desire, as he would have phrased it, to see the thing through. He did so at last, buffeted his way into smooth waters, and made money largely. It must be admitted, rather nakedly, that Christopher Newman’s sole aim in life had been to make money; what he had been placed in the world for was, to his own perception, simply to wrest a fortune, the bigger the better, from defiant opportunity. This idea completely filled his horizon and satisfied his imagination. Upon the uses of money, upon what one might do with a life into which one had succeeded in injecting the golden stream, he had up to his thirty-fifth year very scantily reflected. Life had been for him an open game, and he had played for high stakes. He had won at last and carried off his winnings; and now what was he to do with them? He was a man to whom, sooner or later, the question was sure to present itself, and the answer to it belongs to our story. A vague sense that more answers were possible than his philosophy had hitherto dreamt of had already taken possession of him, and it seemed softly and agreeably to deepen as he lounged in this brilliant corner of Paris with his friend.

“I must confess,” he presently went on, “that here I don’t feel at all smart. My remarkable talents seem of no use. I feel as simple as a little child, and a little child might take me by the hand and lead me about.”

“Oh, I’ll be your little child,” said Tristram, jovially; “I’ll take you by the hand. Trust yourself to me”

“I am a good worker,” Newman continued, “but I rather think I am a poor loafer. I have come abroad to amuse myself, but I doubt whether I know how.”

“Oh, that’s easily learned.”

“Well, I may perhaps learn it, but I am afraid I shall never do it by rote. I have the best will in the world about it, but my genius doesn’t lie in that direction. As a loafer I shall never be original, as I take it that you are.”

“Yes,” said Tristram, “I suppose I am original; like all those immoral pictures in the Louvre.”

“Besides,” Newman continued, “I don’t want to work at pleasure, any more than I played at work. I want to take it easily. I feel deliciously lazy, and I should like to spend six months as I am now, sitting under a tree and listening to a band. There’s only one thing; I want to hear some good music.”

“Music and pictures! Lord, what refined tastes! You are what my wife calls intellectual. I ain’t, a bit. But we can find something better for you to do than to sit under a tree. To begin with, you must come to the club.”

“What club?”

“The Occidental. You will see all the Americans there; all the best of them, at least. Of course you play poker?”

“Oh, I say,” cried Newman, with energy, “you are not going to lock me up in a club and stick me down at a card-table! I haven’t come all this way for that.”

“What the deuce HAVE you come for! You were glad enough to play poker in St. Louis, I recollect, when you cleaned me out.”

“I have come to see Europe, to get the best out of it I can. I want to see all the great things, and do what the clever people do.”

“The clever people? Much obliged. You set me down as a blockhead, then?”

Newman was sitting sidewise in his chair, with his elbow on the back and his head leaning on his hand. Without moving he looked a while at his companion with his dry, guarded, half-inscrutable, and yet altogether good-natured smile. “Introduce me to your wife!” he said at last.

Tristram bounced about in his chair. “Upon my word, I won’t. She doesn’t want any help to turn up her nose at me, nor do you, either!”

“I don’t turn up my nose at you, my dear fellow; nor at any one, or anything. I’m not proud, I assure you I’m not proud. That’s why I am willing to take example by the clever people.”

“Well, if I’m not the rose, as they say here, I have lived near it. I can show you some clever people, too. Do you know General Packard? Do you know C. P. Hatch? Do you know Miss Kitty Upjohn?”

“I shall be happy to make their acquaintance; I want to cultivate society.”

Tristram seemed restless and suspicious; he eyed his friend askance, and then, “What are you up to, any way?” he demanded. “Are you going to write a book?”

Christopher Newman twisted one end of his mustache a while, in silence, and at last he made answer. “One day, a couple of months ago, something very curious happened to me. I had come on to New York on some important business; it was rather a long story — a question of getting ahead of another party, in a certain particular way, in the stock-market. This other party had once played me a very mean trick. I owed him a grudge, I felt awfully savage at the time, and I vowed that, when I got a chance, I would, figuratively speaking, put his nose out of joint. There was a matter of some sixty thousand dollars at stake. If I put it out of his way, it was a blow the fellow would feel, and he really deserved no quarter. I jumped into a hack and went about my business, and it was in this hack — this immortal, historical hack — that the curious thing I speak of occurred. It was a hack like any other, only a trifle dirtier, with a greasy line along the top of the drab cushions, as if it had been used for a great many Irish funerals. It is possible I took a nap; I had been traveling all night, and though I was excited with my errand, I felt the want of sleep. At all events I woke up suddenly, from a sleep or from a kind of a reverie, with the most extraordinary feeling in the world — a mortal disgust for the thing I was going to do. It came upon me like THAT!” and he snapped his fingers —“as abruptly as an old wound that begins to ache. I couldn’t tell the meaning of it; I only felt that I loathed the whole business and wanted to wash my hands of it. The idea of losing that sixty thousand dollars, of letting it utterly slide and scuttle and never hearing of it again, seemed the sweetest thing in the world. And all this took place quite independently of my will, and I sat watching it as if it were a play at the theatre. I could feel it going on inside of me. You may depend upon it that there are things going on inside of us that we understand mighty little about.”

“Jupiter! you make my flesh creep!” cried Tristram. “And while you sat in your hack, watching the play, as you call it, the other man marched in and bagged your sixty thousand dollars?”

“I have not the least idea. I hope so, poor devil! but I never found out. We pulled up in front of the place I was going to in Wall Street, but I sat still in the carriage, and at last the driver scrambled down off his seat to see whether his carriage had not turned into a hearse. I couldn’t have got out, any more than if I had been a corpse. What was the matter with me? Momentary idiocy, you’ll say. What I wanted to get out of was Wall Street. I told the man to drive down to the Brooklyn ferry and to cross over. When we were over, I told him to drive me out into the country. As I had told him originally to drive for dear life down town, I suppose he thought me insane. Perhaps I was, but in that case I am insane still. I spent the morning looking at the first green leaves on Long Island. I was sick of business; I wanted to throw it all up and break off short; I had money enough, or if I hadn’t I ought to have. I seemed to feel a new man inside my old skin, and I longed for a new world. When you want a thing so very badly you had better treat yourself to it. I didn’t understand the matter, not in the least; but I gave the old horse the bridle and let him find his way. As soon as I could get out of the game I sailed for Europe. That is how I come to be sitting here.”

“You ought to have bought up that hack,” said Tristram; “it isn’t a safe vehicle to have about. And you have really sold out, then; you have retired from business?”

“I have made over my hand to a friend; when I feel disposed, I can take up the cards again. I dare say that a twelvemonth hence the operation will be reversed. The pendulum will swing back again. I shall be sitting in a gondola or on a dromedary, and all of a sudden I shall want to clear out. But for the present I am perfectly free. I have even bargained that I am to receive no business letters.”

“Oh, it’s a real caprice de prince,” said Tristram. “I back out; a poor devil like me can’t help you to spend such very magnificent leisure as that. You should get introduced to the crowned heads.”

Newman looked at him a moment, and then, with his easy smile, “How does one do it?” he asked.

“Come, I like that!” cried Tristram. “It shows you are in earnest.”

“Of course I am in earnest. Didn’t I say I wanted the best? I know the best can’t be had for mere money, but I rather think money will do a good deal. In addition, I am willing to take a good deal of trouble.”

“You are not bashful, eh?”

“I haven’t the least idea. I want the biggest kind of entertainment a man can get. People, places, art, nature, everything! I want to see the tallest mountains, and the bluest lakes, and the finest pictures and the handsomest churches, and the most celebrated men, and the most beautiful women.”

“Settle down in Paris, then. There are no mountains that I know of, and the only lake is in the Bois du Boulogne, and not particularly blue. But there is everything else: plenty of pictures and churches, no end of celebrated men, and several beautiful women.”

“But I can’t settle down in Paris at this season, just as summer is coming on.”

“Oh, for the summer go up to Trouville.”

“What is Trouville?”

“The French Newport. Half the Americans go.”

“Is it anywhere near the Alps?”

“About as near as Newport is to the Rocky Mountains.”

“Oh, I want to see Mont Blanc,” said Newman, “and Amsterdam, and the Rhine, and a lot of places. Venice in particular. I have great ideas about Venice.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Tristram, rising, “I see I shall have to introduce you to my wife!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38