The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 3

The young ladies consented to return to the Avenue des Villiers; and this time they found the celebrity of the future. He was smoking cigarettes with a friend while coffee was served to the two gentlemen — it was just after luncheon — on a vast divan covered with scrappy oriental rugs and cushions; it looked, Francie thought, as if the artist had set up a carpet-shop in a corner. He struck her as very pleasant; and it may be mentioned without circumlocution that the young lady ushered in by the vulgar American reporter, whom he didn’t like and who had already come too often to his studio to pick up “glimpses” (the painter wondered how in the world he had picked HER up), this charming candidate for portraiture rose on the spot before Charles Waterlow as a precious model. She made, it may further be declared, quite the same impression on the gentleman who was with him and who never took his eyes off her while her own rested afresh on several finished and unfinished canvases. This gentleman asked of his friend at the end of five minutes the favour of an introduction to her; in consequence of which Francie learned that his name — she thought it singular — was Gaston Probert. Mr. Probert was a kind-eyed smiling youth who fingered the points of his moustache; he was represented by Mr. Waterlow as an American, but he pronounced the American language — so at least it seemed to Francie — as if it had been French.

After she had quitted the studio with Delia and Mr. Flack — her father on this occasion not being of the party — the two young men, falling back on their divan, broke into expressions of aesthetic rapture, gave it to each other that the girl had qualities — oh but qualities and a charm of line! They remained there an hour, studying these rare properties through the smoke of their cigarettes. You would have gathered from their conversation — though as regards much of it only perhaps with the aid of a grammar and dictionary — that the young lady had been endowed with plastic treasures, that is with physical graces, of the highest order, of which she was evidently quite unconscious. Before this, however, Mr. Waterlow had come to an understanding with his visitors — it had been settled that Miss Francina should sit for him at his first hour of leisure. Unfortunately that hour hovered before him as still rather distant — he was unable to make a definite appointment. He had sitters on his hands, he had at least three portraits to finish before going to Spain. He adverted with bitterness to the journey to Spain — a little excursion laid out precisely with his friend Probert for the last weeks of the spring, the first of the southern summer, the time of the long days and the real light. Gaston Probert re-echoed his regrets, for though he had no business with Miss Francina, whose name he yet liked, he also wanted to see her again. They half-agreed to give up Spain — they had after all been there before — so that Waterlow might take the girl in hand without delay, the moment he had knocked off his present work. This amendment broke down indeed, for other considerations came up and the artist resigned himself to the arrangement on which the young women had quitted him: he thought it so characteristic of their nationality that they should settle a matter of that sort for themselves. This was simply that they should come back in the autumn, when he should be comparatively free: then there would be a margin and they might all take their time. At present, before long — by the time he should be ready — the question of the pretty one’s leaving Paris for the summer would be sure to rise, and that would be a tiresome interruption. The pretty one clearly liked Paris, she had no plans for the autumn and only wanted a reason to come back about the twentieth of September. Mr. Waterlow remarked humorously that she evidently bossed the shop. Meanwhile, before starting for Spain, he would see her as often as possible — his eye would take possession of her.

His companion envied his eye, even expressed jealousy of his eye. It was perhaps as a step towards establishing his right to jealousy that Mr. Probert left a card upon the Miss Dossons at the Hotel de l’Univers et de Cheltenham, having first ascertained that such a proceeding would not, by the young American sisters, be regarded as an unwarrantable liberty. Gaston Probert was an American who had never been in America and was obliged to take counsel on such an emergency as that. He knew that in Paris young men didn’t call at hotels on blameless maids, but he also knew that blameless maids, unattended by a parent, didn’t visit young men in studios; and he had no guide, no light he could trust — none save the wisdom of his friend Waterlow, which was for the most part communicated to him in a derisive and misleading form. Waterlow, who was after all himself an ornament of the French, and the very French, school, jeered at the other’s want of native instinct, at the way he never knew by which end to take hold of a compatriot. Poor Probert was obliged to confess to his terrible paucity of practice, and that in the great medley of aliens and brothers — and even more of sisters — he couldn’t tell which was which. He would have had a country and countrymen, to say nothing of countrywomen, if he could; but that matter had never been properly settled for him, and it’s one there’s ever a great difficulty in a gentleman’s settling for himself. Born in Paris, he had been brought up altogether on French lines, in a family that French society had irrecoverably absorbed. His father, a Carolinian and a Catholic, was a Gallomaniac of the old American type. His three sisters had married Frenchmen, and one of them lived in Brittany while the others were ostensibly seated in Touraine. His only brother had fallen, during the Terrible Year, in defence of their adopted country. Yet Gaston, though he had had an old Legitimist marquis for godfather, was not legally one of its children; his mother had, on her death-bed, extorted from him the promise that he wouldn’t take service in its armies; she considered, after the death of her elder son — Gaston, in 1870, had been a boy of ten — that the family had sacrificed enough on the altar of sympathy.

The young man therefore, between two stools, had no clear sitting-place: he wanted to be as American as he could and yet not less French than he was; he was afraid to give up the little that he was and find that what he might be was less — he shrank from a flying leap which might drop him in the middle of the sea. At the same time he thought himself sure that the only way to know how it feels to be an American is to try it, and he had had many a purpose of making the pious pilgrimage. His family however had been so completely Gallicised that the affairs of each member of it were the affairs of all the rest, and his father, his sisters and his brothers-inlaw had not yet begun sufficiently to regard this scheme as their own for him to feel it substantially his. It was a family in which there was no individual but only a collective property. Meanwhile he tried, as I say, by affronting minor perils, and especially by going a good deal to see Charles Waterlow in the Avenue de Villiers, whom he believed to be his dearest friend, formed for his affection by Monsieur Carolus. He had an idea that in this manner he kept himself in touch with his countrymen; and he had never pitched his endeavour so high as in leaving that card on the Misses Dosson. He was in search of freshness, but he needn’t have gone far: he would have had but to turn his lantern on his own young breast to find a considerable store of it. Like many of his dawdling coaevals he gave much attention to art, lived as much as possible in that more select world where it is a positive duty not to bustle. To make up for his want of talent he espoused the talent of others — that is of several — and was as sensitive and conscientious about them as he might have been about himself. He defended certain of Waterlow’s purples and greens as he would have defended his own honour, and there was a genius or two, not yet fully acclaimed by the vulgar, in regard to whom he had convictions that belonged almost to the undiscussable part of life. He had not, for himself, any very high sense of performance, but what kept it down particularly was his untractable hand, the fact that, such as they were, Waterlow’s purples and greens, for instance, were far beyond him. If he hadn’t failed there other failures wouldn’t have mattered, not even that of not having a country; and it was on the occasion of his friend’s agreement to paint that strange lovely girl, whom he liked so much and whose companions he didn’t like, that he felt supremely without a vocation. Freshness was in HER at least, if he had only been organised for catching it. He prayed earnestly, in relation to such a triumph, for a providential re-enforcement of Waterlow’s sense of that source of charm. If Waterlow had a fault it was that his freshnesses were sometimes too crude.

He avenged himself for the artist’s profanation of his first attempt to approach Miss Francie by indulging at the end of another week in a second. He went about six o’clock, when he supposed she would have returned from her day’s wanderings, and his prudence was rewarded by the sight of the young lady sitting in the court of the hotel with her father and sister. Mr. Dosson was new to Gaston Probert, but the young man might have been a naturalist visiting a rank country with a net of such narrow meshes as to let no creature of the air escape. The little party was as usual expecting Mr. Flack at any moment, and they had collected downstairs, so that he might pick them up easily. They had, on the first floor, an expensive parlour, decorated in white and gold, with sofas of crimson damask; but there was something lonely in that grandeur and the place had become mainly a receptacle for their tall trunks, with a half-emptied paper of chocolates or marrons glaces on every table. After young Probert’s first call his name was often on the lips of the simple trio, and Mr. Dosson grew still more jocose, making nothing of a secret of his perception that Francie hit the bull’s-eye “every time.” Mr. Waterlow had returned their visit, but that was rather a matter of course, since it was they who had gone after him. They had not gone after the other one; it was he who had come after them. When he entered the hotel, as they sat there, this pursuit and its probable motive became startlingly vivid.

Delia had taken the matter much more seriously than her father; she said there was ever so much she wanted to find out. She mused upon these mysteries visibly, but with no great advance, and she appealed for assistance to George Flack, with a candour which he appreciated and returned. If he really knew anything he ought to know at least who Mr. Probert was; and she spoke as if it would be in the natural course that as soon as he should find out he would put it for them somehow into his paper. Mr. Flack promised to “nose round”; he said the best plan would be that the results should “come back” to her in the Reverberator; it might have been gathered from him that “the people over there”— in other words the mass of their compatriots — wouldn’t be unpersuadable that they wanted about a column on Mr. Probert. His researches were to prove none the less fruitless, for in spite of the vivid fact the girl was able to give him as a starting-point, the fact that their new acquaintance had spent his whole life in Paris, the young journalist couldn’t scare up a single person who had even heard of him. He had questioned up and down and all over the place, from the Rue Scribe to the far end of Chaillot, and he knew people who knew others who knew every member of the American colony; that select settled body, which haunted poor Delia’s imagination, glittered and re-echoed there in a hundred tormenting roundabout glimpses. That was where she wanted to “get” Francie, as she said to herself; she wanted to get her right in there. She believed the members of this society to constitute a little kingdom of the blest; and she used to drive through the Avenue Gabriel, the Rue de Marignan and the wide vistas which radiate from the Arch of Triumph and are always changing their names, on purpose to send up wistful glances to the windows — she had learned that all this was the happy quarter — of the enviable but unapproachable colonists. She saw these privileged mortals, as she supposed, in almost every victoria that made a languid lady with a pretty head dash past her, and she had no idea how little honour this theory sometimes did her expatriated countrywomen. Her plan was already made to be on the field again the next winter and take it up seriously, this question of getting Francie in.

When Mr. Flack remarked that young Probert’s net couldn’t be either the rose or anything near it, since they had shed no petal, at any general shake, on the path of the oldest inhabitant, Delia had a flash of inspiration, an intellectual flight that she herself didn’t measure at the time. She asked if that didn’t perhaps prove on the contrary quite the opposite — that they were just THE cream and beyond all others. Wasn’t there a kind of inner, very FAR in, circle, and wouldn’t they be somewhere about the centre of that? George Flack almost quivered at this weird hit as from one of the blind, for he guessed on the spot that Delia Dosson had, as he would have said, got there.

“Why, do you mean one of those families that have worked down so far you can’t find where they went in?”— that was the phrase in which he recognised the truth of the girl’s grope. Delia’s fixed eyes assented, and after a moment of cogitation George Flack broke out: “That’s the kind of family we want to handle!”

“Well, perhaps they won’t want to be handled,” Delia had returned with a still wilder and more remarkable play of inspiration. “You had better find out,” she had added.

The chance to find out might have seemed to present itself after Mr. Probert had walked in that confiding way into the hotel; for his arrival had been followed a quarter of an hour later by that of the representative of the Reverberator. Gaston had liked the way they treated him — though demonstrative it was not artificial. Mr. Dosson had said they had been hoping he would come round again, and Delia had remarked that she supposed he had had quite a journey — Paris was so big; and had urged his acceptance of a glass of wine or a cup of tea. Mentioning that that wasn’t the place where they usually received — she liked to hear herself talk of “receiving”— she led the party up to her white-and-gold saloon, where they should be so much more private: she liked also to hear herself talk of privacy. They sat on the red silk chairs and she hoped Mr. Probert would at least taste a sugared chestnut or a chocolate; and when he declined, pleading the imminence of the dinner-hour, she sighed: “Well, I suppose you’re so used to them — to the best — living so long over here.” The allusion to the dinner-hour led Mr. Dosson to the frank hope that he would go round and dine with them without ceremony; they were expecting a friend — he generally settled it for them — who was coming to take them round.

“And then we’re going to the circus,” Francie said, speaking for the first time.

If she had not spoken before she had done something still more to the purpose; she had removed any shade of doubt that might have lingered in the young man’s spirit as to her charm of line. He was aware that the education of Paris, acting upon a natural aptitude, had opened him much — rendered him perhaps even morbidly sensitive — to impressions of this order; the society of artists, the talk of studios, the attentive study of beautiful works, the sight of a thousand forms of curious research and experiment, had produced in his mind a new sense, the exercise of which was a conscious enjoyment and the supreme gratification of which, on several occasions, had given him as many indelible memories. He had once said to his friend Waterlow: “I don’t know whether it’s a confession of a very poor life, but the most important things that have happened to me in this world have been simply half a dozen visual impressions — things that happened through my eyes.”

“Ah malheureux, you’re lost!” the painter had exclaimed in answer to this, and without even taking the trouble to explain his ominous speech. Gaston Probert however had not been frightened by it, and he continued to be thankful for the sensitive plate that nature had lodged in his brain and that culture had brought to so high a polish. The experience of the eye was doubtless not everything, but it was so much gained, so much saved, in a world in which other treasures were apt to slip through one’s fingers; and above all it had the merit that so many things gave it and that nothing could take it away. He had noted in a moment how straight Francie Dosson gave it; and now, seeing her a second time, he felt her promote it in a degree which made acquaintance with her one of those “important” facts of which he had spoken to Charles Waterlow. It was in the case of such an accident as this that he felt the value of his Parisian education. It made him revel in his modern sense.

It was therefore not directly the prospect of the circus that induced him to accept Mr. Dosson’s invitation; nor was it even the charm exerted by the girl’s appearing, in the few words she uttered, to appeal to him for herself. It was his feeling that on the edge of the glittering ring her type would attach him to her, to her only, and that if he knew it was rare she herself didn’t. He liked to be intensely conscious, but liked others not to be. It seemed to him at this moment, after he had told Mr. Dosson he should be delighted to spend the evening with them, that he was indeed trying hard to measure how it would feel to recover the national tie; he had jumped on the ship, he was pitching away to the west. He had led his sister, Mme. de Brecourt, to expect that he would dine with her — she was having a little party; so that if she could see the people to whom, without a scruple, with a quick sense of refreshment and freedom, he now sacrificed her! He knew who was coming to his sister’s in the Place Beauvau: Mme. d’Outreville and M. de Grospre, old M. Courageau, Mme. de Drives, Lord and Lady Trantum, Mile de Saintonge; but he was fascinated by the idea of the contrast between what he preferred and what he gave up. His life had long been wanting — painfully wanting — in the element of contrast, and here was a chance to bring it in. He saw it come in powerfully with Mr. Flack, after Miss Dosson had proposed they should walk off without their initiator. Her father didn’t favour this suggestion; he said “We want a double good dinner today and Mr. Flack has got to order it.” Upon this Delia had asked the visitor if HE couldn’t order — a Frenchman like him; and Francie had interrupted, before he could answer the question, “Well, ARE you a Frenchman? That’s just the point, ain’t it?” Gaston Probert replied that he had no wish but to be a citizen of HER country, and the elder sister asked him if he knew many Americans in Paris. He was obliged to confess he knew almost none, but hastened to add he was eager to go on now he had taken such a charming start.

“Oh we ain’t anything — if you mean that,” Delia said. “If you go on you’ll go on beyond us.”

“We ain’t anything here, my dear, but we’re a good deal at home,” Mr. Dosson jocosely interjected.

“I think we’re very nice anywhere!” Francie exclaimed; upon which Gaston Probert declared that they were as delightful as possible. It was in these amenities that George Flack found them engaged; but there was none the less a certain eagerness in his greeting of the other guest, as if he had it in mind to ask him how soon he could give him half an hour. I hasten to add that with the turn the occasion presently took the correspondent of the Reverberator dropped the conception of making the young man “talk” for the benefit of the subscribers to that journal. They all went out together, and the impulse to pick up something, usually so irresistible in George Flack’s mind, suffered an odd check. He found himself wanting to handle his fellow visitor in a sense other than the professional. Mr. Probert talked very little to Francie, but though Mr. Flack didn’t know that on a first occasion he would have thought this aggressive, even rather brutal, he knew it was for Francie, and Francie alone, that the fifth member of the party was there. He said to himself suddenly and in perfect sincerity that it was a mean class anyway, the people for whom their own country wasn’t good enough. He didn’t go so far, however, when they were seated at the admirable establishment of M. Durand in the Place de la Madeleine, as to order a bad dinner to spite his competitor; nor did he, to spoil this gentleman’s amusement, take uncomfortable seats at the pretty circus in the Champs Elysees to which, at half-past eight o’clock, the company was conveyed — it was a drive of but five minutes — in a couple of cabs. The occasion therefore was superficially smooth, and he could see that the sense of being disagreeable to an American newspaper-man was not needed to make his nondescript rival enjoy it. That gentleman did indeed hate his crude accent and vulgar laugh and above all the lamblike submission to him of their friends. Mr. Flack was acute enough for an important observation: he cherished it and promised himself to bring it to the notice of his clinging charges. Their imperturbable guest professed a great desire to be of service to the young ladies — to do what would help them to be happy in Paris; but he gave no hint of the intention that would contribute most to such a result, the bringing them in contact with the other members, especially with the female members, of his family. George Flack knew nothing about the matter, but he required for purposes of argument that Mr. Probert’s family should have female members, and it was lucky for him that his assumption was just. He grasped in advance the effect with which he should impress it on Francie and Delia — but notably on Delia, who would then herself impress it on Francie — that it would be time for their French friend to talk when he had brought his mother round. BUT HE NEVER WOULD— they might bet their pile on that! He never did, in the strange sequel — having, poor young man, no mother to bring. Moreover he was quite mum — as Delia phrased it to herself — about Mme. de Brecourt and Mme. de Cliche: such, Miss Dosson learned from Charles Waterlow, were the names of his two sisters who had houses in Paris — gleaning at the same time the information that one of these ladies was a marquise and the other a comtesse. She was less exasperated by their non-appearance than Mr. Flack had hoped, and it didn’t prevent an excursion to dine at Saint–Germain a week after the evening spent at the circus, which included both the new admirers. It also as a matter of course included Mr. Flack, for though the party had been proposed in the first instance by Charles Waterlow, who wished to multiply opportunities for studying his future sitter, Mr. Dosson had characteristically constituted himself host and administrator, with the young journalist as his deputy. He liked to invite people and to pay for them, and disliked to be invited and paid for. He was never inwardly content on any occasion unless a great deal of money was spent, and he could be sure enough of the large amount only when he himself spent it. He was too simple for conceit or for pride of purse, but always felt any arrangements shabby and sneaking as to which the expense hadn’t been referred to him. He never named what he paid for anything. Also Delia had made him understand that if they should go to Saint–Germain as guests of the artist and his friend Mr. Flack wouldn’t be of the company: she was sure those gentlemen wouldn’t rope HIM in. In fact she was too sure, for, though enjoying him not at all, Charles Waterlow would on this occasion have made a point of expressing by an act of courtesy his sense of obligation to a man who had brought him such a subject. Delia’s hint however was all-sufficient for her father; he would have thought it a gross breach of friendly loyalty to take part in a festival not graced by Mr. Flack’s presence. His idea of loyalty was that he should scarcely smoke a cigar unless his friend was there to take another, and he felt rather mean if he went round alone to get shaved. As regards Saint–Germain he took over the project while George Flack telegraphed for a table on the terrace at the Pavilion Henri Quatre. Mr. Dosson had by this time learned to trust the European manager of the Reverberator to spend his money almost as he himself would.

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