The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 1

“I guess my daughter’s in here,” the old man said leading the way into the little salon de lecture. He was not of the most advanced age, but that is the way George Flack considered him, and indeed he looked older than he was. George Flack had found him sitting in the court of the hotel — he sat a great deal in the court of the hotel — and had gone up to him with characteristic directness and asked him for Miss Francina. Poor Mr. Dosson had with the greatest docility disposed himself to wait on the young man: he had as a matter of course risen and made his way across the court to announce to his child that she had a visitor. He looked submissive, almost servile, as he preceded the visitor, thrusting his head forward in his quest; but it was not in Mr. Flack’s line to notice that sort of thing. He accepted the old gentleman’s good offices as he would have accepted those of a waiter, conveying no hint of an attention paid also to himself. An observer of these two persons would have assured himself that the degree to which Mr. Dosson thought it natural any one should want to see his daughter was only equalled by the degree to which the young man thought it natural her father should take trouble to produce her. There was a superfluous drapery in the doorway of the salon de lecture, which Mr. Dosson pushed aside while George Flack stepped in after him.

The reading-room of the Hotel de l’Univers et de Cheltenham was none too ample, and had seemed to Mr. Dosson from the first to consist principally of a highly-polished floor on the bareness of which it was easy for a relaxed elderly American to slip. It was composed further, to his perception, of a table with a green velvet cloth, of a fireplace with a great deal of fringe and no fire, of a window with a great deal of curtain and no light, and of the Figaro, which he couldn’t read, and the New York Herald, which he had already read. A single person was just now in possession of these conveniences — a young lady who sat with her back to the window, looking straight before her into the conventional room. She was dressed as for the street; her empty hands rested upon the arms of her chair — she had withdrawn her long gloves, which were lying in her lap — and she seemed to be doing nothing as hard as she could. Her face was so much in shadow as to be barely distinguishable; nevertheless the young man had a disappointed cry as soon as he saw her. “Why, it ain’t Miss Francie — it’s Miss Delia!”

“Well, I guess we can fix that,” said Mr. Dosson, wandering further into the room and drawing his feet over the floor without lifting them. Whatever he did he ever seemed to wander: he had an impermanent transitory air, an aspect of weary yet patient non-arrival, even when he sat, as he was capable of sitting for hours, in the court of the inn. As he glanced down at the two newspapers in their desert of green velvet he raised a hopeless uninterested glass to his eye. “Delia dear, where’s your little sister?”

Delia made no movement whatever, nor did any expression, so far as could be perceived, pass over her large young face. She only ejaculated: “Why, Mr. Flack, where did you drop from?”

“Well, this is a good place to meet,” her father remarked, as if mildly, and as a mere passing suggestion, to deprecate explanations.

“Any place is good where one meets old friends,” said George Flack, looking also at the newspapers. He examined the date of the American sheet and then put it down. “Well, how do you like Paris?” he subsequently went on to the young lady.

“We quite enjoy it; but of course we’re familiar now.”

“Well, I was in hopes I could show you something,” Mr. Flack said.

“I guess they’ve seen most everything,” Mr. Dosson observed.

“Well, we’ve seen more than you!” exclaimed his daughter.

“Well, I’ve seen a good deal — just sitting there.”

A person with delicate ear might have suspected Mr. Dosson of a tendency to “setting”; but he would pronounce the same word in a different manner at different times.

“Well, in Paris you can see everything,” said the young man. “I’m quite enthusiastic about Paris.”

“Haven’t you been here before?” Miss Delia asked.

“Oh yes, but it’s ever fresh. And how is Miss Francie?”

“She’s all right. She has gone upstairs to get something. I guess we’re going out again.”

“It’s very attractive for the young,” Mr. Dosson pleaded to the visitor.

“Well then, I’m one of the young. Do you mind if I go with you?” Mr. Flack continued to the girl.

“It’ll seem like old times, on the deck,” she replied. “We’re going to the Bon Marche.”

“Why don’t you go to the Louvre? That’s the place for YOU.”

“We’ve just come from there: we’ve had quite a morning.”

“Well, it’s a good place,” the visitor a trifle dryly opined.

“It’s good for some things but it doesn’t come up to my idea for others.”

“Oh they’ve seen everything,” said Mr. Dosson. Then he added: “I guess I’ll go and call Francie.”

“Well, tell her to hurry,” Miss Delia returned, swinging a glove in each hand.

“She knows my pace,” Mr. Flack remarked.

“I should think she would, the way you raced!” the girl returned with memories of the Umbria. “I hope you don’t expect to rush round Paris that way.”

“I always rush. I live in a rush. That’s the way to get through.”

“Well, I AM through, I guess,” said Mr. Dosson philosophically.

“Well, I ain’t!” his daughter declared with decision.

“Well, you must come round often,” he continued to their friend as a leave-taking.

“Oh, I’ll come round! I’ll have to rush, but I’ll do it.”

“I’ll send down Francie.” And Francie’s father crept away.

“And please give her some more money!” her sister called after him.

“Does she keep the money?” George Flack enquired.

“KEEP it?” Mr. Dosson stopped as he pushed aside the portiere. “Oh you innocent young man!”

“I guess it’s the first time you were ever called innocent!” cried Delia, left alone with the visitor.

“Well, I WAS— before I came to Paris.”

“Well, I can’t see that it has hurt US. We ain’t a speck extravagant.”

“Wouldn’t you have a right to be?”

“I don’t think any one has a right to be,” Miss Dosson returned incorruptibly.

The young man, who had seated himself, looked at her a moment.

“That’s the way you used to talk.”

“Well, I haven’t changed.”

“And Miss Francie — has she?”

“Well, you’ll see,” said Delia Dosson, beginning to draw on her gloves.

Her companion watched her, leaning forward with his elbows on the arms of his chair and his hands interlocked. At last he said interrogatively: “Bon Marche?”

“No, I got them in a little place I know.”

“Well, they’re Paris anyway.”

“Of course they’re Paris. But you can get gloves anywhere.”

“You must show me the little place anyhow,” Mr. Flack continued sociably. And he observed further and with the same friendliness: “The old gentleman seems all there.”

“Oh he’s the dearest of the dear.”

“He’s a real gentleman — of the old stamp,” said George Flack.

“Well, what should you think our father would be?”

“I should think he’d be delighted!”

“Well, he is, when we carry out our plans.”

“And what are they — your plans?” asked the young man.

“Oh I never tell them.”

“How then does he know whether you carry them out?”

“Well, I guess he’d know it if we didn’t,” said the girl.

“I remember how secretive you were last year. You kept everything to yourself.”

“Well, I know what I want,” the young lady pursued.

He watched her button one of her gloves deftly, using a hairpin released from some mysterious office under her bonnet. There was a moment’s silence, after which they looked up at each other. “I’ve an idea you don’t want me,” said George Flack.

“Oh yes, I do — as a friend.”

“Of all the mean ways of trying to get rid of a man that’s the meanest!” he rang out.

“Where’s the meanness when I suppose you’re not so ridiculous as to wish to be anything more!”

“More to your sister, do you mean — or to yourself?”

“My sister IS myself — I haven’t got any other,” said Delia Dosson.

“Any other sister?”

“Don’t be idiotic. Are you still in the same business?” the girl went on.

“Well, I forget which one I WAS in.”

“Why, something to do with that newspaper — don’t you remember?”

“Yes, but it isn’t that paper any more — it’s a different one.”

“Do you go round for news — in the same way?”

“Well, I try to get the people what they want. It’s hard work,” said the young man.

“Well, I suppose if you didn’t some one else would. They will have it, won’t they?”

“Yes, they will have it.” The wants of the people, however, appeared at the present moment to interest Mr. Flack less than his own. He looked at his watch and remarked that the old gentleman didn’t seem to have much authority.

“What do you mean by that?” the girl asked.

“Why with Miss Francie. She’s taking her time, or rather, I mean, she’s taking mine.”

“Well, if you expect to do anything with her you must give her plenty of that,” Delia returned.

“All right: I’ll give her all I have.” And Miss Dosson’s interlocutor leaned back in his chair with folded arms, as to signify how much, if it came to that, she might have to count with his patience. But she sat there easy and empty, giving no sign and fearing no future. He was the first indeed to turn again to restlessness: at the end of a few moments he asked the young lady if she didn’t suppose her father had told her sister who it was.

“Do you think that’s all that’s required?” she made answer with cold gaiety. But she added more familiarly: “Probably that’s the reason. She’s so shy.”

“Oh yes — she used to look it.”

“No, that’s her peculiarity, that she never looks it and yet suffers everything.”

“Well, you make it up for her then, Miss Delia,” the young man ventured to declare. “You don’t suffer much.”

“No, for Francie I’m all there. I guess I could act for her.”

He had a pause. “You act for her too much. If it wasn’t for you I think I could do something.”

“Well, you’ve got to kill me first!” Delia Dosson replied.

“I’ll come down on you somehow in the Reverberator” he went on.

But the threat left her calm. “Oh that’s not what the people want.”

“No, unfortunately they don’t care anything about MY affairs.”

“Well, we do: we’re kinder than most, Francie and I,” said the girl. “But we desire to keep your affairs quite distinct from ours.”

“Oh your — yours: if I could only discover what they are!” cried George Flack. And during the rest of the time that they waited the young journalist tried to find out. If an observer had chanced to be present for the quarter of an hour that elapsed, and had had any attention to give to these vulgar young persons, he would have wondered perhaps at there being so much mystery on one side and so much curiosity on the other — wondered at least at the elaboration of inscrutable projects on the part of a girl who looked to the casual eye as if she were stolidly passive. Fidelia Dosson, whose name had been shortened, was twenty-five years old and had a large white face, in which the eyes were far apart. Her forehead was high but her mouth was small, her hair was light and colourless and a certain inelegant thickness of figure made her appear shorter than she was. Elegance indeed had not been her natural portion, and the Bon Marche and other establishments had to make up for that. To a casual sister’s eye they would scarce have appeared to have acquitted themselves of their office, but even a woman wouldn’t have guessed how little Fidelia cared. She always looked the same; all the contrivances of Paris couldn’t fill out that blank, and she held them, for herself, in no manner of esteem. It was a plain clean round pattern face, marked for recognition among so many only perhaps by a small figure, the sprig on a china plate, that might have denoted deep obstinacy; and yet, with its settled smoothness, it was neither stupid nor hard. It was as calm as a room kept dusted and aired for candid earnest occasions, the meeting of unanimous committees and the discussion of flourishing businesses. If she had been a young man — and she had a little the head of one — it would probably have been thought of her that she was likely to become a Doctor or a Judge.

An observer would have gathered, further, that Mr. Flack’s acquaintance with Mr. Dosson and his daughters had had its origin in his crossing the Atlantic eastward in their company more than a year before, and in some slight association immediately after disembarking, but that each party had come and gone a good deal since then — come and gone however without meeting again. It was to be inferred that in this interval Miss Dosson had led her father and sister back to their native land and had then a second time directed their course to Europe. This was a new departure, said Mr. Flack, or rather a new arrival: he understood that it wasn’t, as he called it, the same old visit. She didn’t repudiate the accusation, launched by her companion as if it might have been embarrassing, of having spent her time at home in Boston, and even in a suburban quarter of it: she confessed that as Bostonians they had been capable of that. But now they had come abroad for longer — ever so much: what they had gone home for was to make arrangements for a European stay of which the limits were not to be told. So far as this particular future opened out to her she freely acknowledged it. It appeared to meet with George Flack’s approval — he also had a big undertaking on that side and it might require years, so that it would be pleasant to have his friends right there. He knew his way round in Paris — or any place like that — much better than round Boston; if they had been poked away in one of those clever suburbs they would have been lost to him.

“Oh, well, you’ll see as much as you want of us — the way you’ll have to take us,” Delia Dosson said: which led the young man to ask which that way was and to guess he had never known but one way to take anything — which was just as it came. “Oh well, you’ll see what you’ll make of it,” the girl returned; and she would give for the present no further explanation of her somewhat chilling speech. In spite if it however she professed an interest in Mr. Flack’s announced undertaking — an interest springing apparently from an interest in the personage himself. The man of wonderments and measurements we have smuggled into the scene would have gathered that Miss Dosson’s attention was founded on a conception of Mr. Flack’s intrinsic brilliancy. Would his own impression have justified that? — would he have found such a conception contagious? I forbear to ridicule the thought, for that would saddle me with the care of showing what right our officious observer might have had to his particular standard. Let us therefore simply note that George Flack had grounds for looming publicly large to an uninformed young woman. He was connected, as she supposed, with literature, and wasn’t a sympathy with literature one of the many engaging attributes of her so generally attractive little sister? If Mr. Flack was a writer Francie was a reader: hadn’t a trail of forgotten Tauchnitzes marked the former line of travel of the party of three? The elder girl grabbed at them on leaving hotels and railway-carriages, but usually found that she had brought odd volumes. She considered however that as a family they had an intellectual link with the young journalist, and would have been surprised if she had heard the advantage of his acquaintance questioned.

Mr. Flack’s appearance was not so much a property of his own as a prejudice or a fixed liability of those who looked at him: whoever they might be what they saw mainly in him was that they had seen him before. And, oddly enough, this recognition carried with it in general no ability to remember — that is to recall — him: you couldn’t conveniently have prefigured him, and it was only when you were conscious of him that you knew you had already somehow paid for it. To carry him in your mind you must have liked him very much, for no other sentiment, not even aversion, would have taught you what distinguished him in his group: aversion in especial would have made you aware only of what confounded him. He was not a specific person, but had beyond even Delia Dosson, in whom we have facially noted it, the quality of the sample or advertisement, the air of representing a “line of goods” for which there is a steady popular demand. You would scarce have expected him to be individually designated: a number, like that of the day’s newspaper, would have served all his, or at least all your purpose, and you would have vaguely supposed the number high — somewhere up in the millions. As every copy of the newspaper answers to its name, Miss Dosson’s visitor would have been quite adequately marked as “young commercial American.” Let me add that among the accidents of his appearance was that of its sometimes striking other young commercial Americans as fine. He was twenty-seven years old and had a small square head, a light grey overcoat and in his right forefinger a curious natural crook which might have availed, under pressure, to identify him. But for the convenience of society he ought always to have worn something conspicuous — a green hat or a yellow necktie. His undertaking was to obtain material in Europe for an American “society-paper.”

If it be objected to all this that when Francie Dosson at last came in she addressed him as if she easily placed him, the answer is that she had been notified by her father — and more punctually than was indicated by the manner of her response. “Well, the way you DO turn up,” she said, smiling and holding out her left hand to him: in the other hand, or the hollow of her slim right arm, she had a lumpish parcel. Though she had made him wait she was clearly very glad to see him there; and she as evidently required and enjoyed a great deal of that sort of indulgence. Her sister’s attitude would have told you so even if her own appearance had not. There was that in her manner to the young man — a perceptible but indefinable shade — which seemed to legitimate the oddity of his having asked in particular for her, asked as if he wished to see her to the exclusion of her father and sister: the note of a special pleasure which might have implied a special relation. And yet a spectator looking from Mr. George Flack to Miss Francie Dosson would have been much at a loss to guess what special relation could exist between them. The girl was exceedingly, extraordinarily pretty, all exempt from traceable likeness to her sister; and there was a brightness in her — a still and scattered radiance — which was quite distinct from what is called animation. Rather tall than short, fine slender erect, with an airy lightness of hand and foot, she yet gave no impression of quick movement, of abundant chatter, of excitable nerves and irrepressible life — no hint of arriving at her typical American grace in the most usual way. She was pretty without emphasis and as might almost have been said without point, and your fancy that a little stiffness would have improved her was at once qualified by the question of what her softness would have made of it. There was nothing in her, however, to confirm the implication that she had rushed about the deck of a Cunarder with a newspaper-man. She was as straight as a wand and as true as a gem; her neck was long and her grey eyes had colour; and from the ripple of her dark brown hair to the curve of her unaffirmative chin every line in her face was happy and pure. She had a weak pipe of a voice and inconceivabilities of ignorance.

Delia got up, and they came out of the little reading-room — this young lady remarking to her sister that she hoped she had brought down all the things. “Well, I had a fiendish hunt for them — we’ve got so many,” Francie replied with a strange want of articulation. “There were a few dozens of the pocket-handkerchiefs I couldn’t find; but I guess I’ve got most of them and most of the gloves.”

“Well, what are you carting them about for?” George Flack enquired, taking the parcel from her. “You had better let me handle them. Do you buy pocket-handkerchiefs by the hundred?”

“Well, it only makes fifty apiece,” Francie yieldingly smiled. “They ain’t really nice — we’re going to change them.”

“Oh I won’t be mixed up with that — you can’t work that game on these Frenchmen!” the young man stated.

“Oh with Francie they’ll take anything back,” Delia Dosson declared. “They just love her, all over.”

“Well, they’re like me then,” said Mr. Flack with friendly cheer. “I’LL take her back if she’ll come.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m ready quite yet,” the girl replied. “But I hope very much we shall cross with you again.”

“Talk about crossing — it’s on these boulevards we want a life-preserver!” Delia loudly commented. They had passed out of the hotel and the wide vista of the Rue de la Paix stretched up and down. There were many vehicles.

“Won’t this thing do? I’ll tie it to either of you,” George Flack said, holding out his bundle. “I suppose they won’t kill you if they love you,” he went on to the object of his preference.

“Well, you’ve got to know me first,” she answered, laughing and looking for a chance, while they waited to pass over.

“I didn’t know you when I was struck.” He applied his disengaged hand to her elbow and propelled her across the street. She took no notice of his observation, and Delia asked her, on the other side, whether their father had given her that money. She replied that he had given her loads — she felt as if he had made his will; which led George Flack to say that he wished the old gentleman was HIS father.

“Why you don’t mean to say you want to be our brother!” Francie prattled as they went down the Rue de la Paix.

“I should like to be Miss Delia’s, if you can make that out,” he laughed.

“Well then suppose you prove it by calling me a cab,” Miss Delia returned. “I presume you and Francie don’t take this for a promenade-deck.”

“Don’t she feel rich?” George Flack demanded of Francie. “But we do require a cart for our goods”; and he hailed a little yellow carriage, which presently drew up beside the pavement. The three got into it and, still emitting innocent pleasantries, proceeded on their way, while at the Hotel de l’Univers et de Cheltenham Mr. Dosson wandered down into the court again and took his place in his customary chair.

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