The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 13

Mr. Dosson, as we know, was, almost more than anything else, loosely contemplative, and the present occasion could only minister to that side of his nature, especially as, so far at least as his observation of his daughters went, it had not urged him into uncontrollable movement. But the truth is that the intensity, or rather the continuity, of his meditations did engender an act not perceived by these young ladies, though its consequences presently became definite enough. While he waited for the Proberts to arrive in a phalanx and noted that they failed to do so he had plenty of time to ask himself — and also to ask Delia — questions about Mr. Flack. So far as they were addressed to his daughter they were promptly answered, for Delia had been ready from the first, as we have seen, to pronounce upon the conduct of the young journalist. Her view of it was clearer every hour; there was a difference however in the course of action which she judged this view to demand. At first he was to have been blown up sky-high for the mess he had got them into — profitless as the process might be and vain the satisfaction; he was to have been scourged with the sharpest lashes the sense of violated confidence could inflict. At present he was not to be touched with a ten-foot pole, but rather cut dead, cast off and ignored, let alone to his dying day: Delia quickly caught at this for the right grand way of showing displeasure. Such was the manner in which she characterised it in her frequent conversations with her father, if that can be called conversation which consisted of his serenely smoking while she poured forth arguments that kept repetition abreast of variety. The same cause will according to application produce effects without sameness: as a mark of which truth the catastrophe that made Delia express freely the hope she might never again see so much as the end of Mr. Flack’s nose had just the opposite action on her parent. The best balm for his mystification would have been to let his eyes sociably travel over his young friend’s whole person; this would have been to deal again with quantities and forces he could measure and in terms he could understand. If indeed the difference had been pushed further the girl would have kept the field, for she had the advantage of being able to motive her attitude, to which Mr. Dosson could have opposed but an indefensible, in fact an inarticulate, laxity. She had touched on her deepest conviction in saying to Francie that the correspondent of the Reverberator had played them that trick on purpose to get them into such trouble with the Proberts that he might see his own hopes bloom again in the heat of their disaster. This had many of the appearances of a strained interpretation, but that didn’t prevent Delia from placing it before her father several times an hour. It mattered little that he should remark in return that he didn’t see what good it could do Mr. Flack that Francie — and he and Delia, for all he could guess — should be disgusted with him: to Mr. Dosson’s mind that was such a queer way of reasoning. Delia maintained that she understood perfectly, though she couldn’t explain — and at any rate she didn’t want the manoeuvring creature to come flying back from Nice. She didn’t want him to know there had been a scandal, that they had a grievance against him, that any one had so much as heard of his article or cared what he published or didn’t publish; above all she didn’t want him to know that the Proberts had cooled off. She didn’t want him to dream he could have had such effects. Mixed up with this high rigour on Miss Dosson’s part was the oddest secret complacency of reflexion that in consequence of what Mr. Flack HAD published the great American community was in a position to know with what fine folks Francie and she were associated. She hoped that some of the people who used only to call when they were “off tomorrow” would take the lesson to heart.

While she glowed with this consolation as well as with the resentment for which it was required her father quietly addressed a few words by letter to their young friend in the south. This communication was not of a minatory order; it expressed on the contrary the loose sociability which was the essence of the good gentleman’s nature. He wanted to see Mr. Flack, to talk the whole thing over, and the desire to hold him to an account would play but a small part in the interview. It commended itself much more to him that the touchiness of the Proberts should be a sign of a family of cranks — so little did any experience of his own match it — than that a newspaper-man had misbehaved in trying to turn out an attractive piece. As the newspaper-man happened to be the person with whom he had most consorted for some time back he felt drawn to him in presence of a new problem, and somehow it didn’t seem to Mr. Dosson to disqualify him as a source of comfort that it was just he who had been the fountain of injury. The injury wouldn’t be there if the Proberts didn’t point to it with a thousand ringers. Moreover Mr. Dosson couldn’t turn his back at such short notice on a man who had smoked so many of his cigars, ordered so many of his dinners and helped him so handsomely to spend his money: such acts constituted a bond, and when there was a bond people gave it a little jerk in time of trouble. His letter to Nice was the little jerk.

The morning after Francie had passed with such an air from Gaston’s sight and left him planted in the salon — he had remained ten minutes, to see if she would reappear, and then had marched out of the hotel — she received by the first post a letter from him, written the evening before. It conveyed his deep regret that their meeting that day should have been of so painful, so unnatural a character, and the hope that she didn’t consider, as her strange behaviour had seemed to suggest, that SHE had anything to complain of. There was too much he wanted to say, and above all too much he wanted to ask, for him to consent to the indefinite postponement of a necessary interview. There were explanations, assurances, de part et d’autre, with which it was manifestly impossible that either of them should dispense. He would therefore propose that she should see him again, and not be wanting in patience to that end, late on the morrow. He didn’t propose an earlier moment because his hands were terribly full at home. Frankly speaking, the state of things there was of the worst. Jane and her husband had just arrived and had made him a violent, an unexpected scene. Two of the French newspapers had got hold of the article and had given the most perfidious extracts. His father hadn’t stirred out of the house, hadn’t put his foot inside a club, for more than a week. Marguerite and Maxime were immediately to start for England on an indefinite absence. They couldn’t face their life in Paris. For himself he was in the breach, fighting hard and making, on her behalf, asseverations it was impossible for him to believe, in spite of the dreadful defiant confession she had appeared to throw at him in the morning, that she wouldn’t virtually confirm. He would come in as soon after nine as possible; the day up to that time would be stiff in the Cours la Reine, and he begged her in the meantime not to doubt of his perfect tenderness. So far from her having caused it at all to shrink, he had never yet felt her to have, in his affection, such a treasure of indulgence to draw upon.

A couple of hours after the receipt of this manifesto Francie lay on one of the satin sofas with her eyes closed and her hand clinched upon it in her pocket. Delia sat hard by with a needle in her fingers, certain morsels of silk and ribbon in her lap, several pins in her mouth, and her attention turning constantly from her work to her sister’s face. The weather was now so completely vernal that Mr. Dosson was able to haunt the court, and he had lately resumed this practice, in which he was presumably at the present moment absorbed. Delia had lowered her needle and was making sure if her companion were awake — she had been perfectly still for so long — when her glance was drawn to the door, which she heard pushed open. Mr. Flack stood there, looking from one to the other of the young ladies as to see which would be most agreeably surprised by his visit.

“I saw your father downstairs — he says it’s all right,” said the journalist, advancing with a brave grin. “He told me to come straight up — I had quite a talk with him.”

“All right — ALL RIGHT?” Delia Dosson repeated, springing up. “Yes indeed — I should say so!” Then she checked herself, asking in another manner: “Is that so? poppa sent you up?” And then in still another: “Well, have you had a good time at Nice?”

“You’d better all come right down and see. It’s lovely down there. If you’ll come down I’ll go right back. I guess you want a change,” Mr. Flack went on. He spoke to Delia but he looked at Francie, who showed she had not been asleep by the quick consciousness with which she raised herself on her sofa. She gazed at the visitor with parted lips, but uttered no word. He barely faltered, coming toward her with his conscious grimace and his hand out. His knowing eyes were more knowing than ever, but had an odd appearance of being smaller, like penetrating points. “Your father has told me all about it. Did you ever hear of anything so cheap?”

“All about what? — all about what?” said Delia, whose attempt to represent happy ignorance was menaced by an intromission of ferocity. She might succeed in appearing ignorant, but could scarcely succeed in appearing kind. Francie had risen to her feet and had suffered Mr. Flack to possess himself for a moment of her hand, but neither of them had asked the young man to sit down. “I thought you were going to stay a month at Nice?” Delia continued.

“Well, I was, but your father’s letter started me up.”

“Father’s letter?”

“He wrote me about the row — didn’t you know it? Then I broke. You didn’t suppose I was going to stay down there when there were such times up here.”

“Gracious!” Delia panted.

“Is it pleasant at Nice? Is it very gay? Isn’t it very hot now?” Francie rather limply asked.

“Oh it’s all right. But I haven’t come up here to crow about Nice, have I?”

“Why not, if we want you to?”— Delia spoke up.

Mr. Flack looked at her for a moment very hard, in the whites of the eyes; then he replied, turning back to her sister: “Anything YOU like, Miss Francie. With you one subject’s as good as another. Can’t we sit down? Can’t we be comfortable?” he added.

“Comfortable? of course we can!” cried Delia, but she remained erect while Francie sank upon the sofa again and their companion took possession of the nearest chair.

“Do you remember what I told you once, that the people WILL have the plums?” George Flack asked with a hard buoyancy of the younger girl.

She looked an instant as if she were trying to recollect what he had told her; and then said, more remotely, “DID father write to you?”

“Of course he did. That’s why I’m here.”

“Poor father, sometimes he doesn’t know WHAT to do!” Delia threw in with violence.

“He told me the Reverberator has raised a breeze. I guessed that for myself when I saw the way the papers here were after it. That thing will go the rounds, you’ll see. What brought me was learning from him that they HAVE got their backs up.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” Delia Dosson rang out.

Mr. Flack turned his eyes on her own as he had done a moment before; Francie sat there serious, looking hard at the carpet. “What game are you trying, Miss Delia? It ain’t true YOU care what I wrote, is it?” he pursued, addressing himself again to Francie.

After a moment she raised her eyes. “Did you write it yourself?”

“What do you care what he wrote — or what does any one care?” Delia again interposed.

“It has done the paper more good than anything — every one’s so interested,” said Mr. Flack in the tone of reasonable explanation. “And you don’t feel you’ve anything to complain of, do you?” he added to Francie kindly.

“Do you mean because I told you?”

“Why certainly. Didn’t it all spring out of that lovely drive and that walk up in the Bois we had — when you took me up to see your portrait? Didn’t you understand that I wanted you to know that the public would appreciate a column or two about Mr. Waterlow’s new picture, and about you as the subject of it, and about your being engaged to a member of the grand old monde, and about what was going on in the grand old monde, which would naturally attract attention through that? Why Miss Francie,” Mr. Flack ever so blandly pursued, “you regularly TALKED as if you did.”

“Did I talk a great deal?” asked Francie.

“Why most freely — it was too lovely. We had a real grand old jaw. Don’t you remember when we sat there in the Bois?”

“Oh rubbish!” Delia panted.

“Yes, and Mme. de Cliche passed.”

“And you told me she was scandalised. And we had to laugh,” he reminded her —“it struck us as so idiotic. I said it was a high old POSE, and I knew what to think of it. Your father tells me she’s scandalised now — she and all the rest of them — at the sight of their names at last in a REAL newspaper. Well now, if you want to know, it’s a bigger pose than ever, and, as I said just now, it’s too damned cheap. It’s THIN— that’s what it is; and if it were genuine it wouldn’t count. They pretend to be shocked because it looks exclusive, but in point of fact they like it first-rate.”

“Are you talking about that old piece in the paper? Mercy, wasn’t that dead and buried days and days ago?” Delia quavered afresh. She hovered there in dismay as well as in displeasure, upset by the news that her father had summoned Mr. Flack to Paris, which struck her almost as a treachery, since it seemed to denote a plan. A plan, and an uncommunicated plan, on Mr. Dosson’s part was unnatural and alarming; and there was further provocation in his appearing to shirk the responsibility of it by not having come up at such a moment with his accomplice. Delia was impatient to know what he wanted anyway. Did he want to drag them down again to such commonness — ah she felt the commonness now! — even though it COULD hustle? Did he want to put Mr. Flack forward, with a feeble flourish that didn’t answer one of their questions, as a substitute for the alienated Gaston? If she hadn’t been afraid that something still more uncanny than anything that had happened yet might come to pass between her two companions in case of her leaving them together she would have darted down to the court to appease her conjectures, to challenge her father and tell him how particularly pleased she should be if he wouldn’t put in his oar. She felt liberated, however, the next moment, for something occurred that struck her as a sure proof of the state of her sister’s spirit.

“Do you know the view I take of the matter, according to what your father has told me?” Mr. Flack enquired. “I don’t mean it was he gave me the tip; I guess I’ve seen enough over here by this time to have worked it out. They’re scandalised all right — they’re blue with horror and have never heard of anything so dreadful. Miss Francie,” her visitor roared, “that ain’t good enough for you and me. They know what’s in the papers every day of their lives and they know how it got there. They ain’t like the fellow in the story — who was he? — who couldn’t think how the apples got into the dumplings. They’re just grabbing a pretext to break because — because, well, they don’t think you’re blue blood. They’re delighted to strike a pretext they can work, and they’re all cackling over the egg it has taken so many hens of ’em to lay. That’s MY diagnosis if you want to know.”

“Oh — how can you say such a thing?” Francie returned with a tremor in her voice that struck her sister. Her eyes met Delia’s at the same moment, and this young woman’s heart bounded with the sense that she was safe. Mr. Flack’s power to hustle presumed too far — though Mr. Dosson had crude notions about the licence of the press she felt, even as an untutored woman, what a false step he was now taking — and it seemed to her that Francie, who was not impressed (the particular light in her eyes now showed it) could be trusted to allow him no benefit.

“What does it matter what he says, my dear?” she interposed. “Do make him drop the subject — he’s talking very wild. I’m going down to see what poppa means — I never heard of anything so flat!” At the door she paused a moment to add mutely, by mere facial force: “Now just wipe him out, mind!” It was the same injunction she had launched at her from afar that day, a year before, when they all dined at Saint–Germain, and she could remember how effective it had then been. The next moment she flirted out.

As soon as she had gone Mr. Flack moved nearer to Francie. “Now look here, you’re not going back on me, are you?”

“Going back on you — what do you mean?”

“Ain’t we together in this thing? WHY sure! We’re CLOSE together, Miss Francie!”

“Together — together?” Francie repeated with charming wan but not at all tender eyes on him.

“Don’t you remember what I said to you — just as straight as my course always is — before we went up there, before our lovely drive? I stated to you that I felt — that I always feel — my great hearty hungry public behind me.”

“Oh yes, I understood — it was all for you to work it up. I told them so. I never denied it,” Francie brought forth.

“You told them so?”

“When they were all crying and going on. I told them I knew it — I told them I gave you the tip as you call it.”

She felt Mr. Flack fix her all alarmingly as she spoke these words; then he was still nearer to her — he had taken her hand. “Ah you’re too sweet!” She disengaged her hand and in the effort she sprang up; but he, rising too, seemed to press always nearer — she had a sense (it was disagreeable) that he was demonstrative — so that she retreated a little before him. “They were all there roaring and raging, trying to make you believe you had outraged them?”

“All but young Mr. Probert. Certainly they don’t like it,” she said at her distance.

“The cowards!” George Flack after a moment remarked. “And where was young Mr. Probert?” he then demanded.

“He was away — I’ve told you — in America.”

“Ah yes, your father told me. But now he’s back doesn’t he like it either?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Flack,” Francie answered with impatience.

“Well I do then. He’s a coward too — he’ll do what his poppa tells him, and the countess and the duchess and his French brothers-inlaw from whom he takes lessons: he’ll just back down, he’ll give you up.”

“I can’t talk with you about that,” said Francie.

“Why not? why is he such a sacred subject, when we ARE together? You can’t alter that,” her visitor insisted. “It was too lovely your standing up for me — your not denying me!”

“You put in things I never said. It seems to me it was very different,” she freely contended.

“Everything IS different when it’s printed. What else would be the good of the papers? Besides, it wasn’t I; it was a lady who helps me here — you’ve heard me speak of her: Miss Topping. She wants so much to know you — she wants to talk with you.”

“And will she publish THAT?” Francie asked with unstudied effect.

Mr. Flack stared a moment. “Lord, how they’ve worked on you! And do YOU think it’s bad?”

“Do I think what’s bad?”

“Why the letter we’re talking about.”

“Well — I didn’t see the point of so much.”

He waited a little, interestedly. “Do you think I took any advantage?”

She made no answer at first, but after a moment said in a tone he had never heard from her: “Why do you come here this way? Why do you ask me such questions?”

He hesitated; after which he broke out: “Because I love you. Don’t you know that?”

“Oh PLEASE don’t!” she almost moaned, turning away.

But he was launched now and he let himself go. “Why won’t you understand it — why won’t you understand the rest? Don’t you see how it has worked round — the heartless brutes they’ve turned into, and the way OUR life, yours and mine, is bound to be the same? Don’t you see the damned sneaking scorn with which they treat you and that I only want to do anything in the world for you?”

Francie’s white face, very quiet now, let all this pass without a sign of satisfaction. Her only response was presently to say: “Why did you ask me so many questions that day?”

“Because I always ask questions — it’s my nature and my business to ask them. Haven’t you always seen me ask you and ask every one all I could? Don’t you know they’re the very foundation of my work? I thought you sympathised with my work so much — you used to tell me you did.”

“Well, I did,” she allowed.

“You put it in the dead past, I see. You don’t then any more?”

If this remark was on her visitor’s part the sign of a rare assurance the girl’s cold mildness was still unruffled by it. She considered, she even smiled; then she replied: “Oh yes I do — only not so much.”

“They HAVE worked on you; but I should have thought they’d have disgusted you. I don’t care — even a little sympathy will do: whatever you’ve got left.” He paused, looking at her, but it was a speech she had nothing for; so he went on: “There was no obligation for you to answer my questions — you might have shut me up that day with a word.”

“Really?” she asked with all her grave good faith in her face. “I thought I HAD to — for fear I should appear ungrateful.”

“Ungrateful?”

“Why to you — after what you had done. Don’t you remember that it was you who introduced us —?” And she paused with a fatigued delicacy.

“Not to those snobs who are screaming like frightened peacocks. I beg your pardon — I haven’t THAT on my conscience!” Mr. Flack quite grandly declared.

“Well, you introduced us to Mr. Waterlow and he introduced us to — to his friends,” she explained, colouring, as if it were a fault for the inexactness caused by her magnanimity. “That’s why I thought I ought to tell you what you’d like.”

“Why, do you suppose if I’d known where that first visit of ours to Waterlow was going to bring you out I’d have taken you within fifty miles —?” He stopped suddenly; then in another tone: “Jerusalem, there’s no one like you! And you told them it was all YOU?”

“Never mind what I told them.”

“Miss Francie,” said George Flack, “if you’ll marry me I’ll never ask a question again. I’ll go into some other business.”

“Then you didn’t do it on purpose?” Francie asked.

“On purpose?”

“To get me into a quarrel with them — so that I might be free again.”

“Well, of all the blamed ideas —!” the young man gasped. “YOUR pure mind never gave birth to that — it was your sister’s.”

“Wasn’t it natural it should occur to me, since if, as you say, you’d never consciously have been the means —”

“Ah but I WAS the means!” Mr. Flack interrupted. “We must go, after all, by what DID happen.”

“Well, I thanked you when I drove with you and let you draw me out. So we’re square, aren’t we?” The term Francie used was a colloquialism generally associated with levity, but her face, as she spoke, was none the less deeply serious — serious even to pain.

“We’re square?” he repeated.

“I don’t think you ought to ask for anything more. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye? Never!” cried George Flack, who flushed with his defeat to a degree that spoke strangely of his hopes.

Something in the way she repeated her “Goodbye!” betrayed her impression of this, and not a little withal that so much confidence left her unflattered. “Do go away!” she broke out.

“Well, I’ll come back very soon”— and he took up his hat.

“Please don’t — I don’t like it.” She had now contrived to put a wide space between them.

“Oh you tormentress!” he groaned. He went toward the door, but before he reached it turned round.

“Will you tell me this anyway? ARE you going to marry the lot — after this?”

“Do you want to put that in the paper?”

“Of course I do — and say you said it!” Mr. Flack held up his head.

They stood looking at each other across the large room. “Well then — I ain’t. There!”

“That’s all right,” he said as he went out.

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