The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 2

The court was roofed with glass; the April air was mild; the cry of women selling violets came in from the street and, mingling with the rich hum of Paris, seemed to bring with it faintly the odour of the flowers. There were other odours in the place, warm succulent and Parisian, which ranged from fried fish to burnt sugar; and there were many things besides: little tables for the post-prandial coffee; piles of luggage inscribed (after the initials or frequently the name) R. P. Scudamore or D. Jackson Hodge, Philadelphia Pa., or St. Louis Mo.; rattles of unregarded bells, flittings of tray-bearing waiters, conversations with the second-floor windows of admonitory landladies, arrivals of young women with coffinlike bandboxes covered with black oil-cloth and depending from a strap, sallyings-forth of persons staying and arrivals just afterwards of other persons to see them; together with vague prostrations on benches of tired heads of American families. It was to this last element that Mr. Dosson himself in some degree contributed, but it must be added that he had not the extremely bereft and exhausted appearance of certain of his fellows. There was an air of ruminant resignation, of habitual accommodation in him; but you would have guessed that he was enjoying a holiday rather than aching for a truce, and he was not so enfeebled but that he was able to get up from time to time and stroll through the porte cochere to have a look at the street.

He gazed up and down for five minutes with his hands in his pockets, and then came back; that appeared to content him; he asked for little and had no restlessness that these small excursions wouldn’t assuage. He looked at the heaped-up luggage, at the tinkling bells, at the young women from the lingere, at the repudiated visitors, at everything but the other American parents. Something in his breast told him that he knew all about these. It’s not upon each other that the animals in the same cage, in a zoological collection, most turn their eyes. There was a silent sociability in him and a superficial fineness of grain that helped to account for his daughter Francie’s various delicacies. He was fair and spare and had no figure; you would have seen in a moment that the question of how he should hold himself had never in his life occurred to him. He never held himself at all; providence held him rather — and very loosely — by an invisible string at the end of which he seemed gently to dangle and waver. His face was so smooth that his thin light whiskers, which grew only far back, scarcely seemed native to his cheeks: they might have been attached there for some harmless purpose of comedy or disguise. He looked for the most part as if he were thinking over, without exactly understanding it, something rather droll that had just occurred; if his eyes wandered his attention rested, just as it hurried, quite as little. His feet were remarkably small, and his clothes, in which light colours predominated, were visibly the work of a French tailor: he was an American who still held the tradition that it is in Paris a man dresses himself best. His hat would have looked odd in Bond Street or the Fifth Avenue, and his necktie was loose and flowing.

Mr. Dosson, it may further be noted, was a person of the simplest composition, a character as cipherable as a sum of two figures. He had a native financial faculty of the finest order, a gift as direct as a beautiful tenor voice, which had enabled him, without the aid of particular strength of will or keenness of ambition, to build up a large fortune while he was still of middle age. He had a genius for happy speculation, the quick unerring instinct of a “good thing”; and as he sat there idle amused contented, on the edge of the Parisian street, he might very well have passed for some rare performer who had sung his song or played his trick and had nothing to do till the next call. And he had grown rich not because he was ravenous or hard, but simply because he had an ear, not to term it a nose. He could make out the tune in the discord of the market-place; he could smell success far up the wind. The second factor in his little addition was that he was an unassuming father. He had no tastes, no acquirements, no curiosities, and his daughters represented all society for him. He thought much more and much oftener of these young ladies than of his bank-shares and railway-stock; they crowned much more his sense of accumulated property. He never compared them with other girls; he only compared his present self with what he would have been without them. His view of them was perfectly simple. Delia had a greater direct knowledge of life and Francie a wider acquaintance with literature and art. Mr. Dosson had not perhaps a full perception of his younger daughter’s beauty: he would scarcely have pretended to judge of that, more than he would of a valuable picture or vase, but he believed she was cultivated up to the eyes. He had a recollection of tremendous school-bills and, in later days, during their travels, of the way she was always leaving books behind her. Moreover wasn’t her French so good that he couldn’t understand it?

The two girls, at any rate, formed the breeze in his sail and the only directing determinant force he knew; when anything happened — and he was under the impression that things DID happen — they were there for it to have happened TO. Without them in short, as he felt, he would have been the tail without the kite. The wind rose and fell of course; there were lulls and there were gales; there were intervals during which he simply floated in quiet waters — cast anchor and waited. This appeared to be one of them now; but he could be patient, knowing that he should soon again inhale the brine and feel the dip of his prow. When his daughters were out for any time the occasion affected him as a “weather-breeder”— the wind would be then, as a kind of consequence, GOING to rise; but their now being out with a remarkably bright young man only sweetened the temporary calm. That belonged to their superior life, and Mr. Dosson never doubted that George M. Flack was remarkably bright. He represented the newspaper, and the newspaper for this man of genial assumptions represented — well, all other representations whatever. To know Delia and Francie thus attended by an editor or a correspondent was really to see them dancing in the central glow. This is doubtless why Mr. Dosson had slightly more than usual his air of recovering slowly from a pleasant surprise. The vision to which I allude hung before him, at a convenient distance, and melted into other bright confused aspects: reminiscences of Mr. Flack in other relations — on the ship, on the deck, at the hotel at Liverpool, and in the cars. Whitney Dosson was a loyal father, but he would have thought himself simple had he not had two or three strong convictions: one of which was that the children should never go out with a gentleman they hadn’t seen before. The sense of their having, and his having, seen Mr. Flack before was comfortable to him now: it made mere placidity of his personally foregoing the young man’s society in favour of Delia and Francie. He had not hitherto been perfectly satisfied that the streets and shops, the general immensity of Paris, were just the safest place for young ladies alone. But the company of a helpful gentleman ensured safety — a gentleman who would be helpful by the fact of his knowing so much and having it all right there. If a big newspaper told you everything there was in the world every morning, that was what a big newspaper-man would have to know, and Mr. Dosson had never supposed there was anything left to know when such voices as Mr. Flack’s and that of his organ had daily been heard. In the absence of such happy chances — and in one way or another they kept occurring — his girls might have seemed lonely, which was not the way he struck himself. They were his company but he scarcely theirs; it was as if they belonged to him more than he to them.

They were out a long time, but he felt no anxiety, as he reflected that Mr. Flack’s very profession would somehow make everything turn out to their profit. The bright French afternoon waned without bringing them back, yet Mr. Dosson still revolved about the court till he might have been taken for a valet de place hoping to pick up custom. The landlady smiled at him sometimes as she passed and re-passed, and even ventured to remark disinterestedly that it was a pity to waste such a lovely day indoors — not to take a turn and see what was going on in Paris. But Mr. Dosson had no sense of waste: that came to him much more when he was confronted with historical monuments or beauties of nature or art, which affected him as the talk of people naming others, naming friends of theirs, whom he had never heard of: then he was aware of a degree of waste for the others, as if somebody lost something — but never when he lounged in that simplifying yet so comprehensive way in the court. It wanted but a quarter of an hour to dinner — THAT historic fact was not beyond his measure — when Delia and Francie at last met his view, still accompanied by Mr. Flack and sauntering in, at a little distance from each other, with a jaded air which was not in the least a tribute to his possible solicitude. They dropped into chairs and joked with each other, mingling sociability and languor, on the subject of what they had seen and done — a question into which he felt as yet the delicacy of enquiring. But they had evidently done a good deal and had a good time: an impression sufficient to rescue Mr. Dosson personally from the consciousness of failure. “Won’t you just step in and take dinner with us?” he asked of the young man with a friendliness to which everything appeared to minister.

“Well, that’s a handsome offer,” George Flack replied while Delia put it on record that they had each eaten about thirty cakes.

“Well, I wondered what you were doing so long. But never mind your cakes. It’s twenty minutes past six, and the table d’hote’s on time.”

“You don’t mean to say you dine at the table d’hote!” Mr. Flack cried.

“Why, don’t you like that?”— and Francie’s candour of appeal to their comrade’s taste was celestial.

“Well, it isn’t what you must build on when you come to Paris. Too many flowerpots and chickens’ legs.”

“Well, would you like one of these restaurants?” asked Mr. Dosson. “I don’t care — if you show us a good one.”

“Oh I’ll show you a good one — don’t you worry.” Mr. Flack’s tone was ever that of keeping the poor gentleman mildly but firmly in his place.

“Well, you’ve got to order the dinner then,” said Francie.

“Well, you’ll see how I could do it!” He towered over her in the pride of this feat.

“He has got an interest in some place,” Delia declared. “He has taken us to ever so many stores where he gets his commission.”

“Well, I’d pay you to take them round,” said Mr. Dosson; and with much agreeable trifling of this kind it was agreed that they should sally forth for the evening meal under Mr. Flack’s guidance.

If he had easily convinced them on this occasion that that was a more original proceeding than worrying those old bones, as he called it, at the hotel, he convinced them of other things besides in the course of the following month and by the aid of profuse attentions. What he mainly made clear to them was that it was really most kind of a young man who had so many big things on his mind to find sympathy for questions, for issues, he used to call them, that could occupy the telegraph and the press so little as theirs. He came every day to set them in the right path, pointing out its charms to them in a way that made them feel how much they had been in the wrong. It made them feel indeed that they didn’t know anything about anything, even about such a matter as ordering shoes — an art in which they had vaguely supposed themselves rather strong. He had in fact great knowledge, which was wonderfully various, and he knew as many people as they knew few. He had appointments — very often with celebrities — for every hour of the day, and memoranda, sometimes in shorthand, on tablets with elastic straps, with which he dazzled the simple folk at the Hotel de l’Univers et de Cheltenham, whose social life, of narrow range, consisted mainly in reading the lists of Americans who “registered” at the bankers’ and at Galignani’s. Delia Dosson in particular had a trick of poring solemnly over these records which exasperated Mr. Flack, who skimmed them and found what he wanted in the flash of an eye: she kept the others waiting while she satisfied herself that Mr. and Mrs. D. S. Rosenheim and Miss Cora Rosenheim and Master Samuel Rosenheim had “left for Brussels.”

Mr. Flack was wonderful on all occasions in finding what he wanted — which, as we know, was what he believed the public wanted — and Delia was the only one of the party with whom he was sometimes a little sharp. He had embraced from the first the idea that she was his enemy, and he alluded to it with almost tiresome frequency, though always in a humorous fearless strain. Even more than by her fashion of hanging over the registers she provoked him by appearing to find their little party not sufficient to itself, by wishing, as he expressed it, to work in new stuff. He might have been easy, however, for he had sufficient chance to observe how it was always the fate of the Dossons to miss their friends. They were continually looking out for reunions and combinations that never came off, hearing that people had been in Paris only after they had gone away, or feeling convinced that they were there but not to be found through their not having registered, or wondering whether they should overtake them if they should go to Dresden, and then making up their minds to start for Dresden only to learn at the eleventh hour, through some accident, that the hunted game had “left for” Biarritz even as the Rosenheims for Brussels. “We know plenty of people if we could only come across them,” Delia had more than once observed: she scanned the Continent with a wondering baffled gaze and talked of the unsatisfactory way in which friends at home would “write out” that other friends were “somewhere in Europe.” She expressed the wish that such correspondents as that might be in a place that was not at all vague. Two or three times people had called at the hotel when they were out and had left cards for them without an address and superscribed with some mocking dash of the pencil —“So sorry to miss you!” or “Off tomorrow!” The girl sat looking at these cards, handling them and turning them over for a quarter of an hour at a time; she produced them days afterwards, brooding upon them afresh as if they were a mystic clue. George Flack generally knew where they were, the people who were “somewhere in Europe.” Such knowledge came to him by a kind of intuition, by the voices of the air, by indefinable and unteachable processes. But he held his peace on purpose; he didn’t want any outsiders; he thought their little party just right. Mr. Dosson’s place in the scheme of Providence was to “go” with Delia while he himself “went” with Francie, and nothing would have induced George Flack to disfigure that equation. The young man was professionally so occupied with other people’s affairs that it should doubtless be mentioned to his praise that he still managed to have affairs — or at least an affair — of his own. That affair was Francie Dosson, and he was pleased to perceive how little SHE cared what had become of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenheim and Master Samuel and Miss Cora. He counted all the things she didn’t care about — her soft inadvertent eyes helped him to do that; and they footed up so, as he would have said, that they gave him the rich sense of a free field. If she had so few interests there was the greater possibility that a young man of bold conceptions and cheerful manners might become one. She had usually the air of waiting for something, with a pretty listlessness or an amused resignation, while tender shy indefinite little fancies hummed in her brain. Thus she would perhaps recognise in him the reward of patience. George Flack was aware that he exposed his friends to considerable fatigue: he brought them back pale and taciturn from suburban excursions and from wanderings often rather aimless and casual among the boulevards and avenues of the town. He regarded them at such times with complacency however, for these were hours of diminished resistance: he had an idea that he should be able eventually to circumvent Delia if he only could catch her some day sufficiently, that is physically, prostrate. He liked to make them all feel helpless and dependent, and this was not difficult with people who were so modest and artless, so unconscious of the boundless power of wealth. Sentiment, in our young man, was not a scruple nor a source of weakness; but he thought it really touching, the little these good people knew of what they could do with their money. They had in their hands a weapon of infinite range and yet were incapable of firing a shot for themselves. They had a sort of social humility; it appeared never to have occurred to them that, added to their loveliness, their money gave them a value. This used to strike George Flack on certain occasions when he came back to find them in the places where he had dropped them while he rushed off to give a turn to one of his screws. They never played him false, never wearied of waiting; always sat patient and submissive, usually at a cafe to which he had introduced them or in a row of chairs on the boulevard, on the level expanse of the Tuileries or in the Champs Elysees.

He introduced them to many cafes, in different parts of Paris, being careful to choose those which in his view young ladies might frequent with propriety, and there were two or three in the neighbourhood of their hotel where they became frequent and familiar figures. As the late spring days grew warmer and brighter they mainly camped out on the “terrace,” amid the array of small tables at the door of the establishment, where Mr. Flack, on the return, could descry them from afar at their post and in the very same postures to which he had appointed them. They complained of no satiety in watching the many-coloured movement of the Parisian streets; and if some of the features in the panorama were base they were only so in a version that the social culture of our friends was incapable of supplying. George Flack considered that he was rendering a positive service to Mr. Dosson: wouldn’t the old gentleman have sat all day in the court anyway? and wasn’t the boulevard better than the court? It was his theory too that he nattered and caressed Miss Francie’s father, for there was no one to whom he had furnished more copious details about the affairs, the projects and prospects, of the Reverberator. He had left no doubt in the old gentleman’s mind as to the race he himself intended to run, and Mr. Dosson used to say to him every day, the first thing, “Well, where have you got to now?”— quite as if he took a real interest. George Flack reported his interviews, that is his reportings, to which Delia and Francie gave attention only in case they knew something of the persons on whom the young emissary of the Reverberator had conferred this distinction; whereas Mr. Dosson listened, with his tolerant interposition of “Is that so?” and “Well, that’s good,” just as submissively when he heard of the celebrity in question for the first time.

In conversation with his daughters Mr. Flack was frequently the theme, though introduced much more by the young ladies than by himself, and especially by Delia, who announced at an early period that she knew what he wanted and that it wasn’t in the least what SHE wanted. She amplified this statement very soon — at least as regards her interpretation of Mr. Flack’s designs: a certain mystery still hung about her own, which, as she intimated, had much more to recommend them. Delia’s vision of the danger as well as the advantage of being a pretty girl was closely connected, as was natural, with the idea of an “engagement”: this idea was in a manner complete in itself — her imagination failed in the oddest way to carry it into the next stage. She wanted her sister to be engaged but wanted her not at all to be married, and had clearly never made up her mind as to how Francie was to enjoy both the peril and the shelter. It was a secret source of humiliation to her that there had as yet to her knowledge been no one with whom her sister had exchanged vows; if her conviction on this subject could have expressed itself intelligibly it would have given you a glimpse of a droll state of mind — a dim theory that a bright girl ought to be able to try successive aspirants. Delia’s conception of what such a trial might consist of was strangely innocent: it was made up of calls and walks and buggy-drives, and above all of being, in the light of these exhibitions, the theme of tongues and subject to the great imputation. It had never in life occurred to her withal that a succession of lovers, or just even a repetition of experiments, may have anything to say to a young lady’s delicacy. She felt herself a born old maid and never dreamed of a lover of her own — he would have been dreadfully in her way; but she dreamed of love as something in its nature essentially refined. All the same she discriminated; it did lead to something after all, and she desired that for Francie it shouldn’t lead to a union with Mr. Flack. She looked at such a union under the influence of that other view which she kept as yet to herself but was prepared to produce so soon as the right occasion should come up; giving her sister to understand that she would never speak to her again should this young man be allowed to suppose —! Which was where she always paused, plunging again into impressive reticence.

“To suppose what?” Francie would ask as if she were totally unacquainted — which indeed she really was — with the suppositions of young men.

“Well, you’ll see — when he begins to say things you won’t like!” This sounded ominous on Delia’s part, yet her anxiety was really but thin: otherwise she would have risen against the custom adopted by Mr. Flack of perpetually coming round. She would have given her attention — though it struggled in general unsuccessfully with all this side of their life — to some prompt means of getting away from Paris. She expressed to her father what in her view the correspondent of the Reverberator was “after”; but without, it must be added, gaining from him the sense of it as a connexion in which he could be greatly worked up. This indeed was not of importance, thanks to her inner faith that Francie would never really do anything — that is would never really like anything — her nearest relatives didn’t like. Her sister’s docility was a great comfort to Delia, the more that she herself, taking it always for granted, was the first to profit by it. She liked and disliked certain things much more than her junior did either; and Francie cultivated the convenience of her reasons, having so few of her own. They served — Delia’s reasons — for Mr. Dosson as well, so that Francie was not guilty of any particular irreverence in regarding her sister rather than her father as the controller of her fate. A fate was rather an unwieldy and terrible treasure, which it relieved her that some kind person should undertake to administer. Delia had somehow got hold of hers first — before even her father, and ever so much before Mr. Flack; and it lay with Delia to make any change. She couldn’t have accepted any gentleman as a party to an engagement — which was somehow as far as her imagination went — without reference to Delia, any more than she could have done up her hair without a glass. The only action taken by Mr. Dosson on his elder daughter’s admonitions was to convert the general issue, as Mr. Flack would have called it, to a theme for daily pleasantry. He was fond, in his intercourse with his children, of some small usual joke, some humorous refrain; and what could have been more in the line of true domestic sport than a little gentle but unintermitted raillery on Francie’s conquest? Mr. Flack’s attributive intentions became a theme of indulgent parental chaff, and the girl was neither dazzled nor annoyed by the freedom of all this tribute. “Well, he HAS told us about half we know,” she used to reply with an air of the judicious that the undetected observer I am perpetually moved to invoke would have found indescribably quaint.

Among the items of knowledge for which they were indebted to him floated the fact that this was the very best time in the young lady’s life to have her portrait painted and the best place in the world to have it done well; also that he knew a “lovely artist,” a young American of extraordinary talent, who would be delighted to undertake the job. He led his trio to this gentleman’s studio, where they saw several pictures that opened to them the strange gates of mystification. Francie protested that she didn’t want to be done in THAT style, and Delia declared that she would as soon have her sister shown up in a magic lantern. They had had the fortune not to find Mr. Waterlow at home, so that they were free to express themselves and the pictures were shown them by his servant. They looked at them as they looked at bonnets and confections when they went to expensive shops; as if it were a question, among so many specimens, of the style and colour they would choose. Mr. Waterlow’s productions took their place for the most part in the category of those creations known to ladies as frights, and our friends retired with the lowest opinion of the young American master. George Flack told them however that they couldn’t get out of it, inasmuch as he had already written home to the Reverberator that Francie was to sit. They accepted this somehow as a kind of supernatural sign that she would have to, for they believed everything they ever heard quoted from a newspaper. Moreover Mr. Flack explained to them that it would be idiotic to miss such an opportunity to get something at once precious and cheap; for it was well known that impressionism was going to be the art of the future, and Charles Waterlow was a rising impressionist. It was a new system altogether and the latest improvement in art. They didn’t want to go back, they wanted to go forward, and he would give them an article that would fetch five times the money in about five years — which somehow, as he put it, seemed a very short time, though it would have seemed immense for anything else. They were not in search of a bargain, but they allowed themselves to be inoculated with any reason they thought would be characteristic of informed people; and he even convinced them after a little that when once they had got used to impressionism they would never look at anything else. Mr. Waterlow was the man, among the young, and he had no interest in praising him, because he was not a personal friend: his reputation was advancing with strides, and any one with any sense would want to secure something before the rush.

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