The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 4

Delia had broken out the evening they took Mr. Probert to the circus; she had apostrophised Francie as they each sat in a red-damask chair after ascending to their apartments. They had bade their companions farewell at the door of the hotel and the two gentlemen had walked off in different directions. But upstairs they had instinctively not separated; they dropped into the first places and sat looking at each other and at the highly-decorated lamps that burned night after night in their empty saloon. “Well, I want to know when you’re going to stop,” Delia said to her sister, speaking as if this remark were a continuation, which it was not, of something they had lately been saying.

“Stop what?” asked Francie, reaching forward for a marron.

“Stop carrying-on the way you do — with Mr. Flack.”

Francie stared while she consumed her marron; then she replied in her small flat patient voice: “Why, Delia Dosson, how can you be so foolish?”

“Father, I wish you’d speak to her. Francie, I ain’t foolish,” Delia submitted.

“What do you want me to say to her?” Mr. Dosson enquired. “I guess I’ve said about all I know.”

“Well, that’s in fun. I want you to speak to her in earnest.”

“I guess there’s no one in earnest but you,” Francie remarked. “These ain’t so good as the last.”

“NO, and there won’t be if you don’t look out. There’s something you can do if you’ll just keep quiet. If you can’t tell difference of style, well, I can!” Delia cried.

“What’s the difference of style?” asked Mr. Dosson. But before this question could be answered Francie protested against the charge of “carrying-on.” Quiet? Wasn’t she as quiet as a Quaker meeting? Delia replied that a girl wasn’t quiet so long as she didn’t keep others so; and she wanted to know what her sister proposed to do about Mr. Flack. “Why don’t you take him and let Francie take the other?” Mr. Dosson continued.

“That’s just what I’m after — to make her take the other,” said his elder daughter.

“Take him — how do you mean?” Francie returned.

“Oh you know how.”

“Yes, I guess you know how!” Mr. Dosson laughed with an absence of prejudice that might have been deplored in a parent.

“Do you want to stay in Europe or not? that’s what I want to know,” Delia pursued to her sister. “If you want to go bang home you’re taking the right way to do it.”

“What has that got to do with it?” Mr. Dosson audibly wondered.

“Should you like so much to reside at that place — where is it? — where his paper’s published? That’s where you’ll have to pull up sooner or later,” Delia declaimed.

“Do you want to stay right here in Europe, father?” Francie said with her small sweet weariness.

“It depends on what you mean by staying right here. I want to go right home SOME time.”

“Well then you’ve got to go without Mr. Probert,” Delia made answer with decision. “If you think he wants to live over there —”

“Why Delia, he wants dreadfully to go — he told me so himself,” Francie argued with passionless pauses.

“Yes, and when he gets there he’ll want to come back. I thought you were so much interested in Paris.”

“My poor child, I AM interested!” smiled Francie. “Ain’t I interested, father?”

“Well, I don’t know how you could act differently to show it.”

“Well, I do then,” said Delia. “And if you don’t make Mr. Flack understand I will.”

“Oh I guess he understands — he’s so bright,” Francie vaguely pleaded.

“Yes, I guess he does — he IS bright,” said Mr. Dosson. “Good-night, chickens,” he added; and wandered off to a couch of untroubled repose.

His daughters sat up half an hour later, but not by the wish of the younger girl. She was always passive, however, always docile when Delia was, as she said, on the war-path, and though she had none of her sister’s insistence she was courageous in suffering. She thought Delia whipped her up too much, but there was that in her which would have prevented her ever running away. She could smile and smile for an hour without irritation, making even pacific answers, though all the while it hurt her to be heavily exhorted, much as it would have done to be violently pushed. She knew Delia loved her — not loving herself meanwhile a bit — as no one else in the world probably ever would; but there was something funny in such plans for her — plans of ambition which could only involve a “fuss.” The real answer to anything, to everything her sister might say at these hours of urgency was: “Oh if you want to make out that people are thinking of me or that they ever will, you ought to remember that no one can possibly think of me half as much as you do. Therefore if there’s to be any comfort for either of us we had both much better just go on as we are.” She didn’t however on this occasion meet her constant companion with that syllogism, because a formidable force seemed to lurk in the great contention that the star of matrimony for the American girl was now shining in the east — in England and France and Italy. They had only to look round anywhere to see it: what did they hear of every day in the week but of the engagement of somebody no better than they to some count or some lord? Delia dwelt on the evident truth that it was in that vast vague section of the globe to which she never alluded save as “over here” that the American girl was now called upon to play, under providence, her part. When Francie made the point that Mr. Probert was neither a count nor a lord her sister rejoined that she didn’t care whether he was or not. To this Francie replied that she herself didn’t care, but that Delia ought to for consistency.

“Well, he’s a prince compared with Mr. Flack,” Delia declared.

“He hasn’t the same ability; not half.”

“He has the ability to have three sisters who are just the sort of people I want you to know.”

“What good will they do me?” Francie asked. “They’ll hate me. Before they could turn round I should do something — in perfect innocence — that they’d think monstrous.”

“Well, what would that matter if HE liked you?”

“Oh but he wouldn’t then! He’d hate me too.”

“Then all you’ve got to do is not to do it,” Delia concluded.

“Oh but I should — every time,” her sister went on.

Delia looked at her a moment. “What ARE you talking about?”

“Yes, what am I? It’s disgusting!” And Francie sprang up.

“I’m sorry you have such thoughts,” said Delia sententiously.

“It’s disgusting to talk about a gentleman — and his sisters and his society and everything else — before he has scarcely looked at you.”

“It’s disgusting if he isn’t just dying; but it isn’t if he is.”

“Well, I’ll make him skip!” Francie went on with a sudden approach to sharpness.

“Oh you’re worse than father!” her sister cried, giving her a push as they went to bed.

They reached Saint–Germain with their companions nearly an hour before the time it had been agreed they had best dine; the purpose of this being to enable them to enjoy with what remained of daylight a stroll on the celebrated terrace and a study of the magnificent view. The evening was splendid and the atmosphere favourable to these impressions; the grass was vivid on the broad walk beside the parapet, the park and forest were fresh and leafy and the prettiest golden light hung over the curving Seine and the far-spreading city. The hill which forms the terrace stretched down among the vineyards, with the poles delicate yet in their bareness, to the river, and the prospect was spotted here and there with the red legs of the little sauntering soldiers of the garrison. How it came, after Delia’s warning in regard to her carrying-on — especially as she hadn’t failed to feel the weight of her sister’s wisdom — Francie couldn’t have told herself: certain it is that before ten minutes had elapsed she became aware, first, that the evening wouldn’t pass without Mr. Flack’s taking in some way, and for a certain time, peculiar possession of her; and then that he was already doing so, that he had drawn her away from the others, who were stopping behind to appreciate the view, that he made her walk faster, and that he had ended by interposing such a distance that she was practically alone with him. This was what he wanted, but it was not all; she saw he now wanted a great many other things. The large perspective of the terrace stretched away before them — Mr. Probert had said it was in the grand style — and he was determined to make her walk to the end. She felt sorry for his ideas — she thought of them in the light of his striking energy; they were an idle exercise of a force intrinsically fine, and she wanted to protest, to let him know how truly it was a sad misuse of his free bold spirit to count on her. She was not to be counted on; she was a vague soft negative being who had never decided anything and never would, who had not even the merit of knowing how to flirt and who only asked to be let alone. She made him stop at last, telling him, while she leaned against the parapet, that he walked too fast; and she looked back at their companions, whom she expected to see, under pressure from Delia, following at the highest speed. But they were not following; they still stood together there, only looking, attentively enough, at the couple who had left them. Delia would wave a parasol, beckon her back, send Mr. Waterlow to bring her; Francie invoked from one moment to another some such appeal as that. But no appeal came; none at least but the odd spectacle, presently, of an agitation of the group, which, evidently under Delia’s direction, turned round and retraced its steps. Francie guessed in a moment what was meant by that; it was the most definite signal her sister could have given. It made her feel that Delia counted on her, but to such a different end, just as poor Mr. Flack did, just as Delia wished to persuade her that Mr. Probert did. The girl gave a sigh, looking up with troubled eyes at her companion and at the figure of herself as the subject of contending policies. Such a thankless bored evasive little subject as she felt herself! What Delia had said in turning away was —“Yes, I’m watching you, and I depend on you to finish him up. Stay there with him, go off with him — I’ll allow you half an hour if necessary: only settle him once for all. It’s very kind of me to give you this chance, and in return for it I expect you to be able to tell me this evening that he has his answer. Shut him up!”

Francie didn’t in the least dislike Mr. Flack. Interested as I am in presenting her favourably to the reader I am yet obliged as a veracious historian to admit that she believed him as “bright” as her father had originally pronounced him and as any young man she was likely to meet. She had no other measure for distinction in young men but their brightness; she had never been present at any imputation of ability or power that this term didn’t seem to cover. In many a girl so great a kindness might have been fanned to something of a flame by the breath of close criticism. I probably exaggerate little the perversity of pretty girls in saying that our young woman might at this moment have answered her sister with: “No, I wasn’t in love with him, but somehow, since you’re so very disgusted, I foresee that I shall be if he presses me.” It is doubtless difficult to say more for Francie’s simplicity of character than that she felt no need of encouraging Mr. Flack in order to prove to herself that she wasn’t bullied. She didn’t care whether she were bullied or not, and she was perfectly capable of letting Delia believe her to have carried mildness to the point of giving up a man she had a secret sentiment for in order to oblige a relative who fairly brooded with devotion. She wasn’t clear herself as to whether it mightn’t be so; her pride, what she had of it, lay in an undistributed inert form quite at the bottom of her heart, and she had never yet thought of a dignified theory to cover her want of uppishness. She felt as she looked up at Mr. Flack that she didn’t care even if he should think she sacrificed him to a childish docility. His bright eyes were hard, as if he could almost guess how cynical she was, and she turned her own again toward her retreating companions. “They’re going to dinner; we oughtn’t to be dawdling here,” she said.

“Well, if they’re going to dinner they’ll have to eat the napkins. I ordered it and I know when it’ll be ready,” George Flack answered. “Besides, they’re not going to dinner, they’re going to walk in the park. Don’t you worry, we shan’t lose them. I wish we could!” the young man added in his boldest gayest manner.

“You wish we could?”

“I should like to feel you just under my particular protection and no other.”

“Well, I don’t know what the dangers are,” said Francie, setting herself in motion again. She went after the others, but at the end of a few steps he stopped her again.

“You won’t have confidence. I wish you’d believe what I tell you.”

“You haven’t told me anything.” And she turned her back to him, looking away at the splendid view. “I do love the scenery,” she added in a moment.

“Well, leave it alone a little — it won’t run away! I want to tell you something about myself, if I could flatter myself you’d take any interest in it.” He had thrust the raised point of his cane into the low wall of the terrace, and he leaned on the knob, screwing the other end gently round with both hands.

“I’ll take an interest if I can understand,” said Francie.

“You can understand right enough if you’ll try. I got today some news from America,” he went on, “that I like awfully. The Reverberator has taken a jump.”

This was not what Francie had expected, but it was better. “Taken a jump?”

“It has gone straight up. It’s in the second hundred thousand.”

“Hundred thousand dollars?” said Francie.

“No, Miss Francie, copies. That’s the circulation. But the dollars are footing up too.”

“And do they all come to you?”

“Precious few of them! I wish they did. It’s a sweet property.”

“Then it isn’t yours?” she asked, turning round to him. It was an impulse of sympathy that made her look at him now, for she already knew how much he had the success of his newspaper at heart. He had once told her he loved the Reverberator as he had loved his first jack-knife.

“Mine? You don’t mean to say you suppose I own it!” George Flack shouted. The light projected upon her innocence by his tone was so strong that the girl blushed, and he went on more tenderly: “It’s a pretty sight, the way you and your sister take that sort of thing for granted. Do you think property grows on you like a moustache? Well, it seems as if it had, on your father. If I owned the Reverberator I wouldn’t be stumping round here; I’d give my attention to another branch of the business. That is I’d give my attention to all, but I wouldn’t go round with the delivery-cart. Still, I’m going to capture the blamed thing, and I want you to help me,” the young man went on; “that’s just what I wanted to speak to you about. It’s a big proposition as it stands, but I mean to make it bigger: the most universal society-paper the world has seen. That’s where the future lies, and the man who sees it first is the man who’ll make his pile. It’s a field for enlightened enterprise that hasn’t yet begun to be worked.” He continued, glowing as if on a sudden with his idea, and one of his knowing eyes half-closed itself for an emphasis habitual with him when he talked consecutively. The effect of this would have been droll to a listener, the note of the prospectus mingling with the question of his more intimate hope. But it was not droll to Francie; she only thought it, or supposed it, a proof of the way Mr. Flack saw everything on a stupendous scale. “There are ten thousand things to do that haven’t been done, and I’m going to do them. The society-news of every quarter of the globe, furnished by the prominent members themselves — oh THEY can be fixed, you’ll see! — from day to day and from hour to hour and served up hot at every breakfast-table in the United States: that’s what the American people want and that’s what the American people are going to have. I wouldn’t say it to every one, but I don’t mind telling you, that I consider my guess as good as the next man’s on what’s going to be required in future over there. I’m going for the inside view, the choice bits, the chronique intime, as they say here; what the people want’s just what ain’t told, and I’m going to tell it. Oh they’re bound to have the plums! That’s about played out, anyway, the idea of sticking up a sign of ‘private’ and ‘hands off’ and ‘no thoroughfare’ and thinking you can keep the place to yourself. You ain’t going to be able any longer to monopolise any fact of general interest, and it ain’t going to be right you should; it ain’t going to continue to be possible to keep out anywhere the light of the Press. Now what I’m going to do is to set up the biggest lamp yet made and make it shine all over the place. We’ll see who’s private then, and whose hands are off, and who’ll frustrate the People — the People THAT WANTS TO KNOW. That’s a sign of the American people that they DO want to know, and it’s the sign of George P. Flack,” the young man pursued with a rising spirit, “that he’s going to help them. But I’ll make the touchy folks crowd in THEMSELVES with their information, and as I tell you, Miss Francie, it’s a job in which you can give me a lovely lift.”

“Well, I don’t see how,” said Francie candidly. “I haven’t got any choice bits or any facts of general interest.” She spoke gaily because she was relieved; she thought she had in truth a glimpse of what he wanted of her. It was something better than she had feared. Since he didn’t own the great newspaper — her view of such possibilities was of the dimmest — he desired to possess himself of it, and she sufficiently grasped the idea that money was needed for that. She further seemed to make out that he presented himself to her, that he hovered about her and pressed on her, as moneyless, and that this brought them round by a vague but comfortable transition to a helpful remembrance that her father was not. The remaining divination, silently achieved, was quick and happy: she should acquit herself by asking her father for the sum required and by just passing it on to Mr. Flack. The grandeur of his enterprise and the force of his reasoning appeared to overshadow her as they stood there. This was a delightful simplification and it didn’t for the moment strike her as positively unnatural that her companion should have a delicacy about appealing to Mr. Dosson directly for financial aid, though indeed she would have been capable of thinking that odd had she meditated on it. There was nothing simpler to Francie than the idea of putting her hand into her father’s pocket, and she felt that even Delia would be glad to appease their persecutor by this casual gesture. I must add unfortunately that her alarm came back to her from his look as he replied: “Do you mean to say you don’t know, after all I’ve done?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’ve done.”

“Haven’t I tried — all I know — to make you like me?”

“Oh dear, I do like you!” cried Francie; “but how will that help you?”

“It will help me if you’ll understand how I love you.”

“Well, I won’t understand!” replied the girl as she walked off.

He followed her; they went on together in silence and then he said: “Do you mean to say you haven’t found that out?”

“Oh I don’t find things out — I ain’t an editor!” Francie gaily quavered.

“You draw me out and then you gibe at me,” Mr. Flack returned.

“I didn’t draw you out. Why, couldn’t you see me just strain to get away?”

“Don’t you sympathise then with my ideas?”

“Of course I do, Mr. Flack; I think your ideas splendid,” said Francie, who hadn’t in the least taken them in.

“Well then why won’t you work with me? Your affection, your brightness, your faith — to say nothing of your matchless beauty — would be everything to me.”

“I’m very sorry, but I can’t, I can’t!” she protested.

“You could if you would, quick enough.”

“Well then I won’t!” And as soon as these words were spoken, as if to mitigate something of their asperity, she made her other point. “You must remember that I never said I would — nor anything like it; not one little wee mite. I thought you just wanted me to speak to poppa.”

“Of course I supposed you’d do that,” he allowed.

“I mean about your paper.”

“About my paper?”

“So as he could give you the money — to do what you want.”

“Lord, you’re too sweet!” George Flack cried with an illumined stare. “Do you suppose I’d ever touch a cent of your father’s money?”— a speech not rankly hypocritical, inasmuch as the young man, who made his own discriminations, had never been guilty, and proposed to himself never to be, of the indelicacy of tugging at his potential father-inlaw’s purse-strings with his own hand. He had talked to Mr. Dosson by the hour about his master-plan of making the touchy folks themselves fall into line, but had never dreamed this man would subsidise him as an interesting struggler. The only character in which he could expect it would be that of Francie’s accepted suitor, and then the liberality would have Francie and not himself for its object. This reasoning naturally didn’t lessen his impatience to take on the happy character, so that his love of his profession and his appreciation of the girl at his side now ached together in his breast with the same disappointment. She saw that her words had touched him like a lash; they made him for a moment flush to his eyes. This caused her own colour to rise — she could scarcely have said why — and she hurried along again. He kept close to her; he argued with her; he besought her to think it over, assuring her he had brains, heart and material proofs of a college education. To this she replied that if he didn’t leave her alone she should cry — and how would he like that, to bring her back in such a state to the others? He answered “Damn the others!” but it didn’t help his case, and at last he broke out: “Will you just tell me this, then — is it because you’ve promised Miss Delia?” Francie returned that she hadn’t promised Miss Delia anything, and her companion went on: “Of course I know what she has got in her head: she wants to get you into the smart set — the grand monde, as they call it here; but I didn’t suppose you’d let her fix your life for you. You were very different before HE turned up.”

“She never fixed anything for me. I haven’t got any life and I don’t want to have any,” Francie veraciously pleaded. “And I don’t know who you’re talking about either!”

“The man without a country. HE’LL pass you in-that’s what your sister wants.”

“You oughtn’t to abuse him, because it was you that presented him,” the girl pronounced.

“I never presented him! I’d like to kick him.”

“We should never have seen him if it hadn’t been for you,” she maintained.

“That’s a fact, but it doesn’t make me love him any better. He’s the poorest kind there is.”

“I don’t care anything about his kind.”

“That’s a pity if you’re going to marry him right off! How could I know that when I took you up there?”

“Good-bye, Mr. Flack,” said Francie, trying to gain ground from him.

This attempt was of course vain, and after a moment he resumed: “Will you keep me as a friend?”

“Why Mr. Flack, OF COURSE I will!” cried the easy creature.

“All right,” he replied; and they presently overtook their companions.

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