The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 12

Her absence had not been long and when she re-entered the familiar salon at the hotel she found her father and sister sitting there together as if they had timed her by their watches, a prey, both of them, to curiosity and suspense. Mr. Dosson however gave no sign of impatience; he only looked at her in silence through the smoke of his cigar — he profaned the red satin splendour with perpetual fumes — as she burst into the room. An irruption she made of her desired reappearance; she rushed to one of the tables, flinging down her muff and gloves, while Delia, who had sprung up as she came in, caught her closely and glared into her face with a “Francie Dosson, what HAVE you been through?” Francie said nothing at first, only shutting her eyes and letting her sister do what she would with her. “She has been crying, poppa — she HAS,” Delia almost shouted, pulling her down upon a sofa and fairly shaking her as she continued. “Will you please tell? I’ve been perfectly wild! Yes you have, you dreadful —!” the elder girl insisted, kissing her on the eyes. They opened at this compassionate pressure and Francie rested their troubled light on her father, who had now risen to his feet and stood with his back to the fire.

“Why, chicken,” said Mr. Dosson, “you look as if you had had quite a worry.”

“I told you I should — I told you, I told you!” Francie broke out with a trembling voice. “And now it’s come!”

“You don’t mean to say you’ve DONE anything?” cried Delia, very white.

“It’s all over, it’s all over!” With which Francie’s face braved denial.

“Are you crazy, Francie?” Delia demanded. “I’m sure you look as if you were.”

“Ain’t you going to be married, childie?” asked Mr. Dosson all considerately, but coming nearer to her.

Francie sprang up, releasing herself from her sister, and threw her arms round him. “Will you take me away, poppa? will you take me right straight away?”

“Of course I will, my precious. I’ll take you anywhere. I don’t want anything — it wasn’t MY idea!” And Mr. Dosson and Delia looked at each other while the girl pressed her face upon his shoulder.

“I never heard such trash — you can’t behave that way! Has he got engaged to some one else — in America?” Delia threw out.

“Why if it’s over it’s over. I guess it’s all right,” said Mr. Dosson, kissing his younger daughter. “I’ll go back or I’ll go on. I’ll go anywhere you like.”

“You won’t have your daughters insulted, I presume!” Delia cried. “If you don’t tell me this moment what has happened,” she pursued to her sister, “I’ll drive straight round there and make THEM.”

“HAVE they insulted you, sweetie?” asked the old man, bending over his child, who simply leaned on him with her hidden face and no sound of tears. Francie raised her head, turning round to their companion. “Did I ever tell you anything else — did I ever believe in it for an hour?”

“Oh well, if you’ve done it on purpose to triumph over me we might as well go home, certainly. But I guess,” Delia added, “you had better just wait till Gaston comes.”

“It will be worse when he comes — if he thinks the same as they do.”

“HAVE they insulted you — have they?” Mr. Dosson repeated while the smoke of his cigar, curling round the question, gave him the air of putting it with placidity.

“They think I’ve insulted THEM— they’re in an awful state — they’re almost dead. Mr. Flack has put it into the paper — everything, I don’t know what — and they think it’s too wicked. They were all there together — all at me at once, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth. I never saw people so affected.”

Delia’s face grew big with her stare. “So affected?”

“Ah yes, I guess there’s a good deal OF THAT,” said Mr. Dosson.

“It’s too real — too terrible; you don’t understand. It’s all printed there — that they’re immoral, and everything about them; everything that’s private and dreadful,” Francie explained.

“Immoral, is that so?” Mr. Dosson threw off.

“And about me too, and about Gaston and my marriage, and all sorts of personalities, and all the names, and Mme. de Villepreux, and everything. It’s all printed there and they’ve read it. It says one of them steals.”

“Will you be so good as to tell me what you’re talking about?” Delia enquired sternly. “Where is it printed and what have we got to do with it?”

“Some one sent it, and I told Mr. Flack.”

“Do you mean HIS paper? Oh the horrid ape!” Delia cried with passion.

“Do they mind so what they see in the papers?” asked Mr. Dosson. “I guess they haven’t seen what I’ve seen. Why there used to be things about ME—”

“Well, it IS about us too — about every one. They think it’s the same as if I wrote it,” Francie ruefully mentioned.

“Well, you know what you COULD do!” And Mr. Dosson beamed at her for common cheer.

“Do you mean that piece about your picture — that you told me about when you went with him again to see it?” Delia demanded.

“Oh I don’t know what piece it is; I haven’t seen it.”

“Haven’t seen it? Didn’t they show it to you?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t read it. Mme. de Brecourt wanted me to take it — but I left it behind.”

“Well, that’s LIKE you — like the Tauchnitzes littering up our track. I’ll be bound I’d see it,” Delia declared. “Hasn’t it come, doesn’t it always come?”

“I guess we haven’t had the last — unless it’s somewhere round,” said Mr. Dosson.

“Poppa, go out and get it — you can buy it on the boulevard!” Delia continued. “Francie, what DID you want to tell him?”

“I didn’t know. I was just conversing. He seemed to take so much interest,” Francie pleaded.

“Oh he’s a deep one!” groaned Delia.

“Well, if folks are immoral you can’t keep it out of the papers — and I don’t know as you ought to want to,” Mr. Dosson remarked. “If they ARE I’m glad to know it, lovey.” And he gave his younger daughter a glance apparently intended to show that in this case he should know what to do.

But Francie was looking at her sister as if her attention had been arrested. “How do you mean —‘a deep one’?”

“Why he wanted to break it off, the fiend!”

Francie stared; then a deeper flush leapt to her face, already mottled as with the fine footprints of the Proberts, dancing for pain. “To break off my engagement?”

“Yes, just that. But I’ll be hanged if he shall. Poppa, will you allow that?”

“Allow what?”

“Why Mr. Flack’s vile interference. You won’t let him do as he likes with us, I suppose, will you?”

“It’s all done — it’s all done!” said Francie. The tears had suddenly started into her eyes again.

“Well, he’s so smart that it IS likely he’s too smart,” her father allowed. “But what did they want you to do about it? — that’s what I want to know?”

“They wanted me to say I knew nothing about it — but I couldn’t.”

“But you didn’t and you don’t — if you haven’t even read it!” Delia almost yelled.

“Where IS the d —— d thing?” their companion asked, looking helplessly about him.

“On the boulevard, at the very first of those kiosks you come to. That old woman has it — the one who speaks English — she always has it. Do go and get it — DO!” And Delia pushed him, looked for his hat for him.

“I knew he wanted to print something and I can’t say I didn’t!” Francie said. “I thought he’d crack up my portrait and that Mr. Waterlow would like that, and Gaston and every one. And he talked to me about the paper — he’s always doing that and always was — and I didn’t see the harm. But even just knowing him — they think that’s vile.”

“Well, I should hope we can know whom we like!”— and Delia bounced fairly round as from the force of her high spirit.

Mr. Dosson had put on his hat — he was going out for the paper. “Why he kept us alive last year,” he uttered in tribute.

“Well, he seems to have killed us now,” Delia cried.

“Well, don’t give up an old friend,” her father urged with his hand on the door. “And don’t back down on anything you’ve done.”

“Lord, what a fuss about an old newspaper!” Delia went on in her exasperation. “It must be about two weeks old anyway. Didn’t they ever see a society-paper before?”

“They can’t have seen much,” said Mr. Dosson. He paused still with his hand on the door. “Don’t you worry — Gaston will make it all right.”

“Gaston? — it will kill Gaston!”

“Is that what they say?” Delia demanded.

“Gaston will never look at me again.”

“Well then he’ll have to look at ME,” said Mr. Dosson.

“Do you mean that he’ll give you up — he’ll be so CRAWLING?” Delia went on.

“They say he’s just the one who’ll feel it most. But I’m the one who does that,” said Francie with a strange smile.

“They’re stuffing you with lies — because THEY don’t like it. He’ll be tender and true,” Delia glared.

“When THEY hate me? — Never!” And Francie shook her head slowly, still with her smile of softness. “That’s what he cared for most — to make them like me.”

“And isn’t he a gentleman, I should like to know?” asked Delia.

“Yes, and that’s why I won’t marry him — if I’ve injured him.”

“Shucks! he has seen the papers over there. You wait till he comes,” Mr. Dosson enjoined, passing out of the room.

The girls remained there together and after a moment Delia resumed. “Well, he has got to fix it — that’s one thing I can tell you.”

“Who has got to fix it?”

“Why that villainous man. He has got to publish another piece saying it’s all false or all a mistake.”

“Yes, you’d better make him,” said Francie with a weak laugh. “You’d better go after him — down to Nice.”

“You don’t mean to say he’s gone down to Nice?”

“Didn’t he say he was going there as soon as he came back from London — going right through without stopping?”

“I don’t know but he did,” said Delia. Then she added: “The mean coward!”

“Why do you say that? He can’t hide at Nice — they can find him there.”

“Are they going after him?”

“They want to shoot him — to stab him, I don’t know what — those men.”

“Well, I wish they would,” said Delia.

“They’d better shoot me. I shall defend him. I shall protect him,” Francie went on.

“How can you protect him? You shall never speak to him again!” her sister engaged.

Francie had a pause. “I can protect him without speaking to him. I can tell the simple truth — that he didn’t print a word but what I told him.”

“I’d like to see him not!” Delia fairly hooted. “When did he grow so particular? He fixed it up,” she said with assurance. “They always do in the papers — they’d be ashamed if they didn’t. Well now he has got to bring out a piece praising them up — praising them to the skies: that’s what he has got to do!” she wound up with decision.

“Praising them up? They’ll hate that worse,” Francie returned musingly.

Delia stared. “What on earth then do they want?”

Francie had sunk to the sofa; her eyes were fixed on the carpet. She gave no reply to this question but presently said: “We had better go tomorrow, the first hour that’s possible.”

“Go where? Do you mean to Nice?”

“I don’t care where. Anywhere to get away.”

“Before Gaston comes — without seeing him?”

“I don’t want to see him. When they were all ranting and raving at me just now I wished he was there — I told them so. But now I don’t feel like that — I can never see him again.”

“I don’t suppose YOU’RE crazy, are you?” Delia returned.

“I can’t tell him it wasn’t me — I can’t, I can’t!” her companion went on.

Delia planted herself in front of her. “Francie Dosson, if you’re going to tell him you’ve done anything wrong you might as well stop before you begin. Didn’t you hear how poppa put it?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Francie said listlessly.

“‘Don’t give up an old friend — there’s nothing on earth so mean.’ Now isn’t Gaston Probert an old friend?”

“It will be very simple — he’ll give me up.”

“Then he’ll be worse than a worm.”

“Not in the least — he’ll give me up as he took me. He’d never have asked me to marry him if he hadn’t been able to get THEM to accept me: he thinks everything in life of THEM. If they cast me off now he’ll do just the same. He’ll have to choose between us, and when it comes to that he’ll never choose me.”

“He’ll never choose Mr. Flack, if that’s what you mean — if you’re going to identify yourself so with HIM!”

“Oh I wish he’d never been born!” Francie wailed; after which she suddenly shivered. And then she added that she was sick — she was going to bed, and her sister took her off to her room.

Mr. Dosson that afternoon, sitting by his younger daughter’s bedside, read the dreadful “piece” out to both his children from the copy of the Reverberator he had secured on the boulevard. It is a remarkable fact that as a family they were rather disappointed in this composition, in which their curiosity found less to repay it than it had expected, their resentment against Mr. Flack less to stimulate it, their fluttering effort to take the point of view of the Proberts less to sustain it, and their acceptance of the promulgation of Francie’s innocent remarks as a natural incident of the life of the day less to make them reconsider it. The letter from Paris appeared lively, “chatty,” highly calculated to please, and so far as the personalities contained in it were concerned Mr. Dosson wanted to know if they weren’t aware over here of the charges brought every day against the most prominent men in Boston. “If there was anything in that style they might talk,” he said; and he scanned the effusion afresh with a certain surprise at not finding in it some imputation of pecuniary malversation. The effect of an acquaintance with the text was to depress Delia, who didn’t exactly see what there was in it to take back or explain away. However, she was aware there were some points they didn’t understand, and doubtless these were the scandalous places — the things that had so worked up the Proberts. But why should they have minded if other people didn’t understand the allusions (these were peculiar, but peculiarly incomprehensible) any better than she did? The whole thing struck Francie herself as infinitely less lurid than Mme. de Brecourt’s account of it, and the part about her own situation and her beautiful picture seemed to make even less of the subject than it easily might have done. It was scanty, it was “skimpy,” and if Mr. Waterlow was offended it wouldn’t be because they had published too much about him. It was nevertheless clear to her that there were a lot of things SHE hadn’t told Mr. Flack, as well as a great many she had: perhaps those were the things that lady had put in-Florine or Dorine — the one she had mentioned at Mme. de Brecourt’s.

All the same, if the communication in the Reverberator let them down, at the hotel, more gently than had seemed likely and bristled so much less than was to have been feared with explanations of the anguish of the Proberts, this didn’t diminish the girl’s sense of responsibility nor make the case a whit less grave. It only showed how sensitive and fastidious the Proberts were and therefore with what difficulty they would come round to condonation. Moreover Francie made another reflexion as she lay there — for Delia kept her in bed nearly three days, feeling this to be for the moment at any rate an effectual reply to any absurd heroics about leaving Paris. Perhaps they had got “case-hardened” Francie said to herself; perhaps they had read so many such bad things that they had lost the delicacy of their palate, as people were said to do who lived on food too violently spiced. Then, very weak and vague and passive as she was now, in the bedimmed room, in the soft Parisian bed and with Delia treating her as much as possible like a sick person, she thought of the lively and chatty letters they had always seen in the papers and wondered if they ALL meant a violation of sanctities, a convulsion of homes, a burning of smitten faces, a rupture of girls’ engagements. It was present to her as an agreeable negative, I must add, that her father and sister took no strenuous view of her responsibility or of their own: they neither brought the matter home to her as a crime nor made her worse through her feeling them anxiously understate their blame. There was a pleasant cheerful helplessness in her father on this head as on every other. There could be no more discussion among them on such a question than there had ever been, for none was needed to show that for these candid minds the newspapers and all they contained were a part of the general fatality of things, of the recurrent freshness of the universe, coming out like the sun in the morning or the stars at night or the wind and the weather at all times.

The thing that worried Francie most while Delia kept her in bed was the apprehension of what her father might do; but this was not a fear of what he might do to Mr. Flack. He would go round perhaps to Mr. Probert’s or to Mme. de Brecourt’s and reprimand them for having made things so rough to his “chicken.” It was true she had scarcely ever seen him reprimand any one for anything; but on the other hand nothing like this had ever happened before to her or to Delia. They had made each other cry once or twice, but no one else had ever made them, and no one had ever broken out on them that way and frightened them half to death. Francie wanted her father not to go round; she had a sense that those other people had somehow stores of comparison, of propriety, of superiority, in any discussion, which he couldn’t command. She wanted nothing done and no communication to pass — only a proud unbickering silence on the part of the Dossons. If the Proberts made a noise and they made none it would be they who would have the best appearance. Moreover now, with each elapsing day, she felt she did wish to see Gaston about it. Her desire was to wait, counting the hours, so that she might just clearly explain, saying two or three things. Perhaps these things wouldn’t make it better — very likely they wouldn’t; but at any rate nothing would have been done in the interval, at least on her part and her father’s and Delia’s, to make it worse. She told her father that she wouldn’t, as Delia put it, “want to have him” go round, and was in some degree relieved at perceiving that he didn’t seem very clear as to what it was open to him to say to their alienated friends. He wasn’t afraid but was uncertain. His relation to almost everything that had happened to them as a family from a good while back was a sense of the absence of precedents, and precedents were particularly absent now, for he had never before seen a lot of people in a rage about a piece in the paper.

Delia also reassured her; she said she’d see to it that poppa didn’t sneak round. She communicated to her indeed that he hadn’t the smallest doubt that Gaston, in a few days, would blow them up — all THEM down there — much higher than they had blown her, and that he was very sorry he had let her go down herself on that sort of summons. It was for her and the rest to come to Francie and to him, and if they had anything practical to say they’d arrive in a body yet. If Mr. Dosson had the sense of his daughter’s having been roughly handled he derived some of the consolation of amusement from his persistent humorous view of the Proberts as a “body.” If they were consistent with their character or with their complaint they would move en masse upon the hotel, and he hung about at home a good deal as if to wait for them. Delia intimated to her sister that this vision cheered them up as they sat, they two, in the red salon while Francie was in bed. Of course it didn’t exhilarate this young lady, and she even looked for no brighter side now. She knew almost nothing but her sharp little ache of suspense, her presentiment of Gaston’s horror, which grew all the while. Delia remarked to her once that he would have seen lots of society-papers over there, he would have become familiar; but this only suggested to the girl — she had at present strange new moments and impulses of quick reasoning — that they would only prepare him to be disgusted, not to be indifferent. His disgust would be colder than anything she had ever known and would complete her knowledge of him — make her understand him properly for the first time. She would just meet it as briefly as possible; it would wind up the business, close the incident, and all would be over.

He didn’t write; that proved it in advance; there had now been two or three mails without a letter. He had seen the paper in Boston or in New York and it had simply struck him dumb. It was very well for Delia to say that of course he didn’t write when he was on the ocean: how could they get his letters even if he did? There had been time before — before he sailed; though Delia represented that people never wrote then. They were ever so much too busy at the last and were going to see their correspondents in a few days anyway. The only missives that came to Francie were a copy of the Reverberator, addressed in Mr. Flack’s hand and with a great inkmark on the margin of the fatal letter, and three intense pages from Mme. de Brecourt, received forty-eight hours after the scene at her house. This lady expressed herself as follows:

MY DEAR FRANCIE— I felt very badly after you had gone yesterday morning, and I had twenty minds to go and see you. But we’ve talked it over conscientiously and it appears to us that we’ve no right to take any such step till Gaston arrives. The situation isn’t exclusively ours but belongs to him as well, and we feel we ought to make it over to him in as simple and compact a form as possible. Therefore, as we regard it, we had better not touch it (it’s so delicate, isn’t it, my poor child?) but leave it just as it is. They think I even exceed my powers in writing you these simple lines, and that once your participation has been constatee (which was the only advantage of that dreadful scene) EVERYTHING should stop. But I’ve liked you, Francie, I’ve believed in you, and I don’t wish you to be able to say that in spite of the thunderbolt you’ve drawn down on us I’ve not treated you with tenderness. It’s a thunderbolt indeed, my poor and innocent but disastrous little friend! We’re hearing more of it already — the horrible Republican papers here have (AS WE KNOW) already got hold of the unspeakable sheet and are preparing to reproduce the article: that is such parts of it as they may put forward (with innuendoes and sous-entendus to eke out the rest) without exposing themselves to a suit for defamation. Poor Leonie de Villepreux has been with us constantly and Jeanne and her husband have telegraphed that we may expect them day after tomorrow. They are evidently immensely emotionnes, for they almost never telegraph. They wish so to receive Gaston. We have determined all the same to be intensely QUIET, and that will be sure to be his view. Alphonse and Maxime now recognise that it’s best to leave Mr. Flack alone, hard as it is to keep one’s hands off him. Have you anything to lui faire dire — to my precious brother when he arrives? But it’s foolish of me to ask you that, for you had much better not answer this. You will no doubt have an opportunity to say to him — whatever, my dear Francie, you CAN say! It will matter comparatively little that you may never be able to say it to your friend with every allowance SUZANNE DE BRECOURT.

Francie looked at this letter and tossed it away without reading it. Delia picked it up, read it to her father, who didn’t understand it, and kept it in her possession, poring over it as Mr. Flack had seen her pore over the cards that were left while she was out or over the registers of American travellers. They knew of Gaston’s arrival by his telegraphing from Havre (he came back by the French line) and he mentioned the hour —“about dinner-time”— at which he should reach Paris. Delia, after dinner, made her father take her to the circus so that Francie should be left alone to receive her intended, who would be sure to hurry round in the course of the evening. The girl herself expressed no preference whatever on this point, and the idea was one of Delia’s masterly ones, her flashes of inspiration. There was never any difficulty about imposing such conceptions on poppa. But at half-past ten, when they returned, the young man had not appeared, and Francie remained only long enough to say “I told you so!” with a white face and march off to her room with her candle. She locked herself in and her sister couldn’t get at her that night. It was another of Delia’s inspirations not to try, after she had felt that the door was fast. She forbore, in the exercise of a great discretion, but she herself for the ensuing hours slept no wink. Nevertheless the next morning, as early as ten o’clock, she had the energy to drag her father out to the banker’s and to keep him out two hours. It would be inconceivable now that Gaston shouldn’t turn up before dejeuner. He did turn up; about eleven o’clock he came in and found Francie alone. She noticed, for strangeness, that he was very pale at the same time that he was sunburnt; also that he didn’t for an instant smile at her. It was very certain there was no bright flicker in her own face, and they had the most singular, the most unnatural meeting. He only said as he arrived: “I couldn’t come last evening; they made it impossible; they were all there and we were up till three o’clock this morning.” He looked as if he had been through terrible things, and it wasn’t simply the strain of his attention to so much business in America. What passed next she couldn’t remember afterwards; it seemed but a few seconds before he said to her slowly, holding her hand — before this he had pressed his lips to hers silently —“Is it true, Francie, what they say (and they swear to it!) that YOU told that blackguard those horrors; that that infamous letter’s only a report of YOUR talk?”

“I told him everything — it’s all me, ME, ME!” the girl replied exaltedly, without pretending to hesitate an instant as to what he might mean.

Gaston looked at her with deep eyes, then walked straight away to the window and remained there in silence. She herself said nothing more. At last the young man went on: “And I who insisted to them that there was no natural delicacy like yours!”

“Well, you’ll never need to insist about anything any more!” she cried. And with this she dashed out of the room by the nearest door. When Delia and Mr. Dosson returned the red salon was empty and Francie was again locked in her room. But this time her sister forced an entrance.

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