The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 10

When Francie, two days later, passed with Mr. Flack into Charles Waterlow’s studio she found Mme. de Cliche before the great canvas. She enjoyed every positive sign that the Proberts took an interest in her, and this was a considerable symptom, Gaston’s second sister’s coming all that way — she lived over by the Invalides — to look at the portrait once more. Francie knew she had seen it at an earlier stage; the work had excited curiosity and discussion among the Proberts from the first of their making her acquaintance, when they went into considerations about it which had not occurred to the original and her companions — frequently as, to our knowledge, these good people had conversed on the subject. Gaston had told her that opinions differed much in the family as to the merit of the work, and that Margaret, precisely, had gone so far as to say that it might be a masterpiece of tone but didn’t make her look like a lady. His father on the other hand had no objection to offer to the character in which it represented her, but he didn’t think it well painted. “Regardez-moi ca, et ca, et ca, je vous demande!” he had exclaimed, making little dashes at the canvas with his glove, toward mystifying spots, on occasions when the artist was not at hand. The Proberts always fell into French when they spoke on a question of art. “Poor dear papa, he only understands le vieux jeu!” Gaston had explained, and he had still further to expound what he meant by the old game. The brand-newness of Charles Waterlow’s game had already been a bewilderment to Mr. Probert.

Francie remembered now — she had forgotten it — Margaret de Cliche’s having told her she meant to come again. She hoped the marquise thought by this time that, on canvas at least, she looked a little more like a lady. Mme. de Cliche smiled at her at any rate and kissed her, as if in fact there could be no mistake. She smiled also at Mr. Flack, on Francie’s introducing him, and only looked grave when, after she had asked where the others were — the papa and the grande soeur — the girl replied that she hadn’t the least idea: her party consisted only of herself and Mr. Flack. Then Mme. de Cliche’s grace stiffened, taking on a shade that brought back Francie’s sense that she was the individual, among all Gaston’s belongings, who had pleased her least from the first. Mme. de Douves was superficially more formidable, but with her the second impression was comparatively comforting. It was just this second impression of the marquise that was not. There were perhaps others behind it, but the girl hadn’t yet arrived at them. Mr. Waterlow mightn’t have been very much prepossessed with Mr. Flack, but he was none the less perfectly civil to him and took much trouble to show him the work he had in hand, dragging out canvases, changing lights, moving him off to see things at the other end of the great room. While the two gentlemen were at a distance Mme. de Cliche expressed to Francie the conviction that she would allow her to see her home: on which Francie replied that she was not going home, but was going somewhere else with Mr. Flack. And she explained, as if it simplified the matter, that this gentleman was a big editor. Her sister-inlaw that was to be echoed the term and Francie developed her explanation. He was not the only big editor, but one of the many big editors, of an enormous American paper. He was going to publish an article — as big, as enormous, as all the rest of the business — about her portrait. Gaston knew him perfectly: it was Mr. Flack who had been the cause of Gaston’s being presented to her. Mme. de Cliche looked across at him as if the inadequacy of the cause projected an unfavourable light upon an effect hitherto perhaps not exactly measured; she appealed as to whether Francie thought Gaston would like her to drive about Paris alone with one of ces messieurs. “I’m sure I don’t know. I never asked him!” said Francie. “He ought to want me to be polite to a person who did so much for us.” Soon after this Mme. de Cliche retired with no fresh sign of any sense of the existence of Mr. Flack, though he stood in her path as she approached the door. She didn’t kiss our young lady again, and the girl observed that her leave-taking consisted of the simple words “Adieu mademoiselle.” She had already noted that in proportion as the Proberts became majestic they became articulately French. She and Mr. Flack remained in the studio but a short time longer, and when they were seated in the carriage again, at the door — they had come in Mr. Dosson’s open landau — her companion said “And now where shall we go?” He spoke as if on their way from the hotel he hadn’t touched upon the pleasant vision of a little turn in the Bois. He had insisted then that the day was made on purpose, the air full of spring. At present he seemed to wish to give himself the pleasure of making his companion choose that particular alternative. But she only answered rather impatiently:

“Wherever you like, wherever you like!” And she sat there swaying her parasol, looking about her, giving no order.

“Au Bois,” said George Flack to the coachman, leaning back on the soft cushions. For a few moments after the carriage had taken its easy elastic start they were silent; but he soon began again. “Was that lady one of your new relatives?”

“Do you mean one of Mr. Probert’s old ones? She’s his sister.”

“Is there any particular reason in that why she shouldn’t say good-morning to me?”

“She didn’t want you to remain with me. She doesn’t like you to go round with me. She wanted to carry me off.”

“What has she got against me?” Mr. Flack asked with a kind of portentous calm.

Francie seemed to consider a little. “Oh it’s these funny French ideas.”

“Funny? Some of them are very base,” said George Flack.

His companion made no answer; she only turned her eyes to right and left, admiring the splendid day and shining city. The great architectural vista was fair: the tall houses, with their polished shop-fronts, their balconies, their signs with accented letters, seemed to make a glitter of gilt and crystal as they rose in the sunny air. The colour of everything was cool and pretty and the sound of everything gay; the sense of a costly spectacle was everywhere. “Well, I like Paris anyway!” Francie exhaled at last with her little harmonising flatness.

“It’s lucky for you, since you’ve got to live here.”

“I haven’t got to; there’s no obligation. We haven’t settled anything about that.”

“Hasn’t that lady settled it for you?”

“Yes, very likely she has,” said Francie placidly enough. “I don’t like her so well as the others.”

“You like the others very much?”

“Of course I do. So would you if they had made so much of you.”

“That one at the studio didn’t make much of me, certainly,” Mr. Flack declared.

“Yes, she’s the most haughty,” Francie allowed.

“Well, what is it all about?” her friend demanded. “Who are they anyway?”

“Oh it would take me three hours to tell you,” the girl cheerfully sighed. “They go back a thousand years.”

“Well, we’ve GOT a thousand years — I mean three hours.” And George Flack settled himself more on his cushions and inhaled the pleasant air. “I AM getting something out of this drive, Miss Francie,” he went on. “It’s many a day since I’ve been to the old Bois. I don’t fool round much in woods.”

Francie replied candidly that for her too the occasion was most agreeable, and Mr. Flack pursued, looking round him with his hard smile, irrelevantly but sociably: “Yes, these French ideas! I don’t see how you can stand them. Those they have about young ladies are horrid.”

“Well, they tell me you like them better after you’re married.”

“Why after they’re married they’re worse — I mean the ideas. Every one knows that.”

“Well, they can make you like anything, the way they talk,” Francie said.

“And do they talk a great deal?”

“Well, I should think so. They don’t do much else, and all about the queerest things — things I never heard of.”

“Ah THAT I’ll bet my life on!” Mr. Flack returned with understanding.

“Of course,” his companion obligingly proceeded, “‘ve had most conversation with Mr. Probert.”

“The old gentleman?”

“No, very little with him. I mean with Gaston. But it’s not he that has told me most — it’s Mme. de Brecourt. She’s great on life, on THEIR life — it’s very interesting. She has told me all their histories, all their troubles and complications.”

“Complications?” Mr. Flack threw off. “That’s what she calls them. It seems very different from America. It’s just like a beautiful story — they have such strange feelings. But there are things you can see — without being told.”

“What sort of things?”

“Well, like Mme. de Cliche’s —” But Francie paused as if for a word.

Her friend was prompt with assistance. “Do you mean her complications?”

“Yes, and her husband’s. She has terrible ones. That’s why one must forgive her if she’s rather peculiar. She’s very unhappy.”

“Do you mean through her husband?”

“Yes, he likes other ladies better. He flirts with Mme. de Brives.”

Mr. Flack’s hand closed over it. “Mme. de Brives?”

“Yes, she’s lovely,” said Francie. “She ain’t very young, but she’s fearfully attractive. And he used to go every day to have tea with Mme. de Villepreux. Mme. de Cliche can’t bear Mme. de Villepreux.”

“Well, he seems a kind of MEAN man,” George Flack moralised.

“Oh his mother was very bad. That was one thing they had against the marriage.”

“Who had? — against what marriage?”

“When Maggie Probert became engaged.”

“Is that what they call her — Maggie?”

“Her brother does; but every one else calls her Margot. Old Mme. de Cliche had a horrid reputation. Every one hated her.”

“Except those, I suppose, who liked her too much!” Mr. Flack permitted himself to guess. “And who’s Mme. de Villepreux?” he proceeded.

“She’s the daughter of Mme. de Marignac.”

“And who’s THAT old sinner?” the young man asked.

“Oh I guess she’s dead,” said Francie. “She used to be a great friend of Mr. Probert — of Gaston’s father.”

“He used to go to tea with her?”

“Almost every day. Susan says he has never been the same since her death.”

“The way they do come out with ’em!” Mr. Flack chuckled. “And who the mischief’s Susan?”

“Why Mme. de Brecourt. Mr. Probert just loved Mme. de Marignac. Mme. de Villepreux isn’t so nice as her mother. She was brought up with the Proberts, like a sister, and now she carries on with Maxime.”

“With Maxime?”

“That’s M. de Cliche.”

“Oh I see — I see!” and George Flack engulfed it. They had reached the top of the Champs Elysees and were passing below the wondrous arch to which that gentle eminence forms a pedestal and which looks down even on splendid Paris from its immensity and across at the vain mask of the Tuileries and the river-moated Louvre and the twin towers of Notre Dame painted blue by the distance. The confluence of carriages — a sounding stream in which our friends became engaged — rolled into the large avenue leading to the Bois de Boulogne. Mr. Flack evidently enjoyed the scene; he gazed about him at their neighbours, at the villas and gardens on either hand; he took in the prospect of the far-stretching brown boskages and smooth alleys of the wood, of the hour they had yet to spend there, of the rest of Francie’s pleasant prattle, of the place near the lake where they could alight and walk a little; even of the bench where they might sit down. “I see, I see,” he repeated with appreciation. “You make me feel quite as if I were in the grand old monde.”

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