A Bundle of Letters, by Henry James

Chapter VII

From Leon Verdier, in Paris, to Prosper Gobain, at Lille.

September 28th.

My Dear Prosper — It is a long time since I have given you of my news, and I don’t know what puts it into my head to-night to recall myself to your affectionate memory. I suppose it is that when we are happy the mind reverts instinctively to those with whom formerly we shared our exaltations and depressions, and je t’eu ai trop dit, dans le bon temps, mon gros Prosper, and you always listened to me too imperturbably, with your pipe in your mouth, your waistcoat unbuttoned, for me not to feel that I can count upon your sympathy to-day. Nous en sommes nous flanquees des confidences — in those happy days when my first thought in seeing an adventure poindre a l’horizon was of the pleasure I should have in relating it to the great Prosper. As I tell thee, I am happy; decidedly, I am happy, and from this affirmation I fancy you can construct the rest. Shall I help thee a little? Take three adorable girls . . . three, my good Prosper — the mystic number — neither more nor less. Take them and place thy insatiable little Leon in the midst of them! Is the situation sufficiently indicated, and do you apprehend the motives of my felicity?

You expected, perhaps, I was going to tell you that I had made my fortune, or that the Uncle Blondeau had at last decided to return into the breast of nature, after having constituted me his universal legatee. But I needn’t remind you that women are always for something in the happiness of him who writes to thee — for something in his happiness, and for a good deal more in his misery. But don’t let me talk of misery now; time enough when it comes; ces demoiselles have gone to join the serried ranks of their amiable predecessors. Excuse me — I comprehend your impatience. I will tell you of whom ces demoiselles consist.

You have heard me speak of my cousine de Maisonrouge, that grande belle femme, who, after having married, en secondes noces — there had been, to tell the truth, some irregularity about her first union — a venerable relic of the old noblesse of Poitou, was left, by the death of her husband, complicated by the indulgence of expensive tastes on an income of 17,000 francs, on the pavement of Paris, with two little demons of daughters to bring up in the path of virtue. She managed to bring them up; my little cousins are rigidly virtuous. If you ask me how she managed it, I can’t tell you; it’s no business of mine, and, a fortiori none of yours. She is now fifty years old (she confesses to thirty-seven), and her daughters, whom she has never been able to marry, are respectively twenty-seven and twenty-three (they confess to twenty and to seventeen). Three years ago she had the thrice-blessed idea of opening a sort of pension for the entertainment and instruction of the blundering barbarians who come to Paris in the hope of picking up a few stray particles of the language of Voltaire — or of Zola. The idea lui a porte bonheur; the shop does a very good business. Until within a few months ago it was carried on by my cousins alone; but lately the need of a few extensions and embellishments has caused itself to be felt. My cousin has undertaken them, regardless of expense; she has asked me to come and stay with her — board and lodging gratis — and keep an eye on the grammatical eccentricities of her pensionnaires. I am the extension, my good Prosper; I am the embellishment! I live for nothing, and I straighten up the accent of the prettiest English lips. The English lips are not all pretty, heaven knows, but enough of them are so to make it a gaining bargain for me.

Just now, as I told you, I am in daily conversation with three separate pairs. The owner of one of them has private lessons; she pays extra. My cousin doesn’t give me a sou of the money; but I make bold, nevertheless, to say that my trouble is remunerated. But I am well, very well, with the proprietors of the two other pairs. One of them is a little Anglaise, of about twenty — a little figure de keepsake; the most adorable miss that you ever, or at least that I ever beheld. She is decorated all over with beads and bracelets and embroidered dandelions; but her principal decoration consists of the softest little gray eyes in the world, which rest upon you with a profundity of confidence — a confidence that I really feel some compunction in betraying. She has a tint as white as this sheet of paper, except just in the middle of each cheek, where it passes into the purest and most transparent, most liquid, carmine. Occasionally this rosy fluid overflows into the rest of her face — by which I mean that she blushes — as softly as the mark of your breath on the window-pane.

Like every Anglaise, she is rather pinched and prim in public; but it is very easy to see that when no one is looking elle ne demande qu’a se laisser aller! Whenever she wants it I am always there, and I have given her to understand that she can count upon me. I have reason to believe that she appreciates the assurance, though I am bound in honesty to confess that with her the situation is a little less advanced than with the others. Que voulez-vous? The English are heavy, and the Anglaises move slowly, that’s all. The movement, however, is perceptible, and once this fact is established I can let the pottage simmer. I can give her time to arrive, for I am over-well occupied with her concurrentes. Celles-ci don’t keep me waiting, par exemple!

These young ladies are Americans, and you know that it is the national character to move fast. “All right — go ahead!” (I am learning a great deal of English, or, rather, a great deal of American.) They go ahead at a rate that sometimes makes it difficult for me to keep up. One of them is prettier than the other; but this hatter (the one that takes the private lessons) is really une file prodigieuse. Ah, par exemple, elle brule ses vais-seux cella-la! She threw herself into my arms the very first day, and I almost owed her a grudge for having deprived me of that pleasure of gradation, of carrying the defences, one by one, which is almost as great as that of entering the place.

Would you believe that at the end of exactly twelve minutes she gave me a rendezvous? It is true it was in the Galerie d’Apollon, at the Louvre; but that was respectable for a beginning, and since then we have had them by the dozen; I have ceased to keep the account. Non, c’est une file qui me depasse.

The little one (she has a mother somewhere, out of sight, shut up in a closet or a trunk) is a good deal prettier, and, perhaps, on that account elle y met plus de facons. She doesn’t knock about Paris with me by the hour; she contents herself with long interviews in the petit salon, with the curtains half-drawn, beginning at about three o’clock, when every one is a la promenade. She is admirable, this little one; a little too thin, the bones rather accentuated, but the detail, on the whole, most satisfactory. And you can say anything to her. She takes the trouble to appear not to understand, but her conduct, half an hour afterwards, reassures you completely — oh, completely!

However, it is the tall one, the one of the private lessons, that is the most remarkable. These private lessons, my good Prosper, are the most brilliant invention of the age, and a real stroke of genius on the part of Miss Miranda! They also take place in the petit salon, but with the doors tightly closed, and with explicit directions to every one in the house that we are not to be disturbed. And we are not, my good Prosper; we are not! Not a sound, not a shadow, interrupts our felicity. My cousine is really admirable; the shop deserves to succeed. Miss Miranda is tall and rather flat; she is too pale; she hasn’t the adorable rougeurs of the little Anglaise. But she has bright, keen, inquisitive eyes, superb teeth, a nose modelled by a sculptor, and a way of holding up her head and looking every one in the face, which is the most finished piece of impertinence I ever beheld. She is making the tour du monde entirely alone, without even a soubrette to carry the ensign, for the purpose of seeing for herself a quoi s’en tenir sur les hommes et les choses — on les hommes particularly. Dis donc, Prosper, it must be a drole de pays over there, where young persons animated by this ardent curiosity are manufactured! If we should turn the tables, some day, thou and I, and go over and see it for ourselves. It is as well that we should go and find them chez elles, as that they should come out here after us. Dis donc, mon gras Prosper . . .

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