The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 5

Gaston Probert made his plan, confiding it only to his friend Waterlow whose help indeed he needed to carry it out. These revelations cost him something, for the ornament of the merciless school, as it might have been called, found his predicament amusing and made no scruple of showing it. Gaston was too much in love, however, to be upset by a bad joke or two. This fact is the more noteworthy as he knew that Waterlow scoffed at him for a purpose — had a view of the good to be done him by throwing him on the defensive. The French tradition, or a grimacing ghost of it, was in Waterlow’s “manner,” but it had not made its mark on his view of the relations of a young man of spirit with parents and pastors. He mixed his colours, as might have been said, with the general sense of France, but his early American immunities and serenities could still swell his sail in any “vital” discussion with a friend in whose life the principle of authority played so large a part. He accused Probert of being afraid of his sisters, which was an effective way — and he knew it — of alluding to the rigidity of the conception of the family among people who had adopted and had even to Waterlow’s sense, as the phrase is, improved upon the “Latin” ideal. That did injustice — and this the artist also knew — to the delicate nature of the bond uniting the different members of the house of Probert, who were each for all and all for each. Family feeling among them was not a tyranny but a religion, and in regard to Mesdames de Brecourt, de Cliche and de Douves what Gaston most feared was that he might seem to them not to love them enough. None the less Charles Waterlow, who thought he had charming parts, held that the best way hadn’t been taken to make a man of him, and the zeal with which the painter appeared to have proposed to repair that mistake was founded in esteem, though it sometimes flowered in freedom. Waterlow combined in odd fashion many of the forms of the Parisian studio with the moral and social ideas of Brooklyn Long Island, where the seeds of his strictness had been sown.

Gaston Probert desired nothing better than to be a man; what worried him — and it is perhaps a proof that his instinct was gravely at fault — was a certain vagueness as to the constituents of that character. He should approximate more nearly, as it seemed to him, to the brute were he to sacrifice in such an effort the decencies and pieties — holy things all of them — in which he had been reared. It was very well for Waterlow to say that to be a “real” man it was necessary to be a little of a brute; his friend was willing, in theory, to assent even to that. The difficulty was in application, in practice — as to which the painter declared that all would be easy if such account hadn’t to be taken of the marquise, the comtesse and — what was the other one? — the princess. These young amenities were exchanged between the pair — while Gaston explained, almost as eagerly as if he were scoring a point, that the other one was only a baronne — during that brief journey to Spain of which mention has already been made, during the later weeks of the summer, after their return (the friends then spent a fortnight together on the coast of Brittany), and above all during the autumn, when they were settled in Paris for the winter, when Mr. Dosson had reappeared, according to the engagement with his daughters, when the sittings for the portrait had multiplied (the painter was unscrupulous as to the number he demanded), and the work itself, born under a happy star, seemed to take more and more the turn of a great thing. It was at Granada that Gaston had really broken out; there, one balmy night, he had dropped into his comrade’s ear that he would marry Francina Dosson or would never marry at all. The declaration was the more striking as it had come after such an interval; many days had elapsed since their separation from the young lady and many new and beautiful objects appealed to them. It appeared that the smitten youth had been thinking of her all the while, and he let his friend know that it was the dinner at Saint–Germain that had finished him. What she had been there Waterlow himself had seen: he wouldn’t controvert the lucid proposition that she showed a “cutting” equal to any Greek gem.

In November, in Paris — it was months and weeks before the artist began to please himself — Gaston came often to the Avenue de Villiers toward the end of a sitting and, till it was finished, not to disturb the lovely model, cultivated conversation with the elder sister: the representative of the Proberts was capable of that. Delia was always there of course, but Mr. Dosson had not once turned up and the newspaper-man happily appeared to have faded from view. The new aspirant learned in fact from Miss Dosson that a crisis in the history of his journal had recalled Mr. Flack to the seat of that publication. When the young ladies had gone — and when he didn’t go with them; he accompanied them not rarely — the visitor was almost lyrical in his appreciation of his friend’s work; he had no jealousy of the act of appropriation that rendered possible in its turn such an act of handing over, of which the canvas constituted the field. He was sure Waterlow painted the girl too well to be in love with her and that if he himself could have dealt with her in that fashion he mightn’t have wanted to deal in any other. She bloomed there on the easel with all the purity of life, and the artist had caught the very secret of her beauty. It was exactly the way in which her lover would have chosen to see her shown, and yet it had required a perfectly independent hand. Gaston mused on this mystery and somehow felt proud of the picture and responsible for it, though it was no more his property as yet than the young lady herself. When in December he put before Waterlow his plan of campaign the latter made a comment. “I’ll do anything in the world you like — anything you think will help you — but it passes me, my dear fellow, why in the world you don’t go to them and say: ‘I’ve seen a girl who is as good as cake and pretty as fire, she exactly suits me, I’ve taken time to think of it and I know what I want; therefore I propose to make her my wife. If you happen to like her so much the better; if you don’t be so good as to keep it to yourselves.’ That’s much the most excellent way. Why in the name of goodness all these mysteries and machinations?”

“Oh you don’t understand, you don’t understand!” sighed Gaston, who had never pulled so long a face. “One can’t break with one’s traditions in an hour, especially when there’s so much in them that one likes. I shan’t love her more if they like her, but I shall love THEM more, and I care about that. You talk as a man who has nothing to consider. I’ve everything to consider — and I’m glad I have. My pleasure in marrying her will be double if my father and my sisters accept her, and I shall greatly enjoy working out the business of bringing them round.”

There were moments when Charles Waterlow resented the very vocabulary of his friend; he hated to hear a man talk about the “acceptance” by any one but himself of the woman he loved. One’s own acceptance — of one’s bliss — in such a case ended the matter, and the effort to bring round those who gave her the cold shoulder was scarcely consistent with the highest spirit. Young Probert explained that of course he felt his relatives would only have to know Francina to like her, to delight in her, yet also that to know her they would first have to make her acquaintance. This was the delicate point, for social commerce with such malheureux as Mr. Dosson and Delia was not in the least in their usual line and it was impossible to disconnect the poor girl from her appendages. Therefore the whole question must be approached by an oblique movement — it would never do to march straight up. The wedge should have a narrow end, which Gaston now made sure he had found. His sister Susan was another name for this subtle engine; he would break her in first and she would help him to break in the others. She was his favourite relation, his intimate friend — the most modern, the most Parisian and inflammable member of the family. She had no suite dans les idees, but she had perceptions, had imagination and humour, and was capable of generosity, of enthusiasm and even of blind infatuation. She had in fact taken two or three plunges of her own and ought to allow for those of others. She wouldn’t like the Dossons superficially any better than his father or than Margaret or than Jane — he called these ladies by their English names, but for themselves, their husbands, their friends and each other they were Suzanne, Marguerite and Jeanne; but there was a good chance of his gaining her to his side. She was as fond of beauty and of the arts as he — this was one of their bonds of union. She appreciated highly Charles Waterlow’s talent and there had been talk of her deciding to sit to him. It was true her husband viewed the project with so much colder an eye that it had not been carried out.

According to Gaston’s plan she was to come to the Avenue de Villiers to see what the artist had done for Miss Francie; her brother was to have worked upon her in advance by his careful rhapsodies, bearing wholly on the achievement itself, the dazzling example of Waterlow’s powers, and not on the young lady, whom he was not to let her know at first that he had so much as seen. Just at the last, just before her visit, he was to mention to her that he had met the girl — at the studio — and that she was as remarkable in her way as the picture. Seeing the picture and hearing this, Mme. de Brecourt, as a disinterested lover of charming impressions, and above all as an easy prey at all times to a rabid curiosity, would express a desire also to enjoy a sight of so rare a creature; on which Waterlow might pronounce it all arrangeable if she would but come in some day when Miss Francie should sit. He would give her two or three dates and Gaston would see that she didn’t let the opportunity pass. She would return alone — this time he wouldn’t go with her — and she would be as taken as could be hoped or needed. Everything much depended on that, but it couldn’t fail. The girl would have to take her, but the girl could be trusted, especially if she didn’t know who the demonstrative French lady was, with her fine plain face, her hair so blond as to be nearly white, her vividly red lips and protuberant light-coloured eyes. Their host was to do no introducing and to reveal the visitor’s identity only after she had gone. That was a condition indeed this participant grumbled at; he called the whole business an odious comedy, though his friend knew that if he undertook it he would acquit himself honourably. After Mme. de Brecourt had been captivated — the question of how Francie would be affected received in advance no consideration — her brother would throw off the mask and convince her that she must now work with him. Another meeting would be managed for her with the girl — in which each would appear in her proper character; and in short the plot would thicken.

Gaston’s forecast of his difficulties showed how finely he could analyse; but that was not rare enough in any French connexion to make his friend stare. He brought Suzanne de Brecourt, she was enchanted with the portrait of the little American, and the rest of the drama began to follow in its order. Mme. de Brecourt raved to Waterlow’s face — she had no opinions behind people’s backs — about his mastery of his craft; she could dispose the floral tributes of homage with a hand of practice all her own. She was the reverse of egotistic and never spoke of herself; her success in life sprang from a much wiser adoption of pronouns. Waterlow, who liked her and had long wanted to paint her ugliness — it was a gold-mine of charm — had two opinions about her: one of which was that she knew a hundred times less than she thought, and even than her brother thought, of what she talked about; and the other that she was after all not such a humbug as she seemed. She passed in her family for a rank radical, a bold Bohemian; she picked up expressions out of newspapers and at the petits theatres, but her hands and feet were celebrated, and her behaviour was not. That of her sisters, as well, had never been disastrously exposed.

“But she must be charming, your young lady,” she said to Gaston while she turned her head this way and that as she stood before Francie’s image. “She’s a little Renaissance statuette cast in silver, something of Jean Goujon or Germain Pilon.” The young men exchanged a glance, for this struck them as the happiest comparison, and Gaston replied in a detached way that the girl was well worth seeing.

He went in to have a cup of tea with his sister on the day he knew she would have paid her second visit to the studio, and the first words she greeted him with were: “But she’s admirable — votre petite — admirable, admirable!” There was a lady calling in the Place Beauvau at the moment — old Mme. d’Outreville — who naturally asked for news of the object of such enthusiasm. Gaston suffered Susan to answer all questions and was attentive to her account of the new beauty. She described his young friend almost as well as he would have done, from the point of view of her type, her graces, her plastic value, using various technical and critical terms to which the old lady listened in silence, solemnly, rather coldly, as if she thought such talk much of a galimatias: she belonged to the old-fashioned school and held a pretty person sufficiently catalogued when it had been said she had a dazzling complexion or the finest eyes in the world.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette merveille?” she enquired; to which Mme. de Brecourt made answer that it was a little American her brother had somewhere dug up. “And what do you propose to do with it, may one ask?” Mme. d’Outreville demanded, looking at Gaston with an eye that seemed to read his secret and that brought him for half a minute to the point of breaking out: “I propose to marry it — there!” But he contained himself, only pleading for the present his wish to ascertain the uses to which she was adapted; meanwhile, he added, there was nothing he so much liked as to look at her, in the measure in which she would allow him. “Ah that may take you far!” their visitor cried as she got up to go; and the young man glanced at his sister to see if she too were ironic. But she seemed almost awkwardly free from alarm; if she had been suspicious it would have been easier to make his confession. When he came back from accompanying their old friend Outreville to her carriage he asked her if Waterlow’s charming sitter had known who she was and if she had been frightened. Mme. de Brecourt stared; she evidently thought that kind of sensibility implied an initiation — and into dangers — which a little American accidentally encountered couldn’t possibly have. “Why should she be frightened? She wouldn’t be even if she had known who I was; much less therefore when I was nothing for her.”

“Oh you weren’t nothing for her!” the brooding youth declared; and when his sister rejoined that he was trop aimable he brought out his lurking fact. He had seen the lovely creature more often than he had mentioned; he had particularly wished that SHE should see her. Now he wanted his father and Jane and Margaret to do the same, and above all he wanted them to like her even as she, Susan, liked her. He was delighted she had been taken — he had been so taken himself. Mme. de Brecourt protested that she had reserved her independence of judgement, and he answered that if she thought Miss Dosson repulsive he might have expressed it in another way. When she begged him to tell her what he was talking about and what he wanted them all to do with the child he said: “I want you to treat her kindly, tenderly, for such as you see her I’m thinking of bringing her into the family.”

“Mercy on us — you haven’t proposed for her?” cried Mme. de Brecourt.

“No, but I’ve sounded her sister as to THEIR dispositions, and she tells me that if I present myself there will be no difficulty.”

“Her sister? — the awful little woman with the big head?”

“Her head’s rather out of drawing, but it isn’t a part of the affair. She’s very inoffensive; she would be devoted to me.”

“For heaven’s sake then keep quiet. She’s as common as a dressmaker’s bill.”

“Not when you know her. Besides, that has nothing to do with Francie. You couldn’t find words enough a moment ago to express that Francie’s exquisite, and now you’ll be so good as to stick to that. Come — feel it all; since you HAVE such a free mind.”

“Do you call her by her little name like that?” Mme. de Brecourt asked, giving him another cup of tea.

“Only to you. She’s perfectly simple. It’s impossible to imagine anything better. And think of the delight of having that charming object before one’s eyes — always, always! It makes a different look-out for life.”

Mme. Brecourt’s lively head tossed this argument as high as if she had carried a pair of horns. “My poor child, what are you thinking of? You can’t pick up a wife like that — the first little American that comes along. You know I hoped you wouldn’t marry at all — what a pity I think it for a man. At any rate if you expect us to like Miss — what’s her name? — Miss Fancy, all I can say is we won’t. We can’t DO that sort of thing!”

“I shall marry her then,” the young man returned, “without your leave given!”

“Very good. But if she deprives you of our approval — you’ve always had it, you’re used to it and depend on it, it’s a part of your life — you’ll hate her like poison at the end of a month.”

“I don’t care then. I shall have always had my month.”

“And she — poor thing?”

“Poor thing exactly! You’ll begin to pity her, and that will make you cultivate charity, and cultivate HER WITH it; which will then make you find out how adorable she is. Then you’ll like her, then you’ll love her, then you’ll see what a perfect sense for the right thing, the right thing for ME, I’ve had, and we shall all be happy together again.”

“But how can you possibly know, with such people,” Mme. de Brecourt demanded, “what you’ve got hold of?”

“By having a feeling for what’s really, what’s delicately good and charming. You pretend to have it, and yet in such a case as this you try to be stupid. Give that up; you might as well first as last, for the girl’s an exquisite fact, she’ll PREVAIL, and it will be better to accept her than to let her accept you.”

Mme. de Brecourt asked him if Miss Dosson had a fortune, and he said he knew nothing about that. Her father certainly must be rich, but he didn’t mean to ask for a penny with her. American fortunes moreover were the last things to count upon; a truth of which they had seen too many examples. To this his sister had replied: “Papa will never listen to that.”

“Listen to what?”

“To your not finding out, to your not asking for settlements — comme cela se fait.”

“Pardon me, papa will find out for himself; and he’ll know perfectly whether to ask or whether to leave it alone. That’s the sort of thing he does know. And he knows quite as well that I’m very difficult to place.”

“You’ll be difficult, my dear, if we lose you,” Mme. de Brecourt laughed, “to replace!”

“Always at any rate to find a wife for. I’m neither fish nor flesh. I’ve no country, no career, no future; I offer nothing; I bring nothing. What position under the sun do I confer? There’s a fatuity in our talking as if we could make grand terms. You and the others are well enough: qui prend mari prend pays, and you’ve names about which your husbands take a great stand. But papa and I— I ask you!”

“As a family nous sommes tres-bien,” said Mme. de Brecourt. “You know what we are — it doesn’t need any explanation. We’re as good as anything there is and have always been thought so. You might do anything you like.”

“Well, I shall never like to marry — when it comes to that — a Frenchwoman.”

“Thank you, my dear”— and Mme. de Brecourt tossed her head.

“No sister of mine’s really French,” returned the young man.

“No brother of mine’s really mad. Marry whomever you like,” Susan went on; “only let her be the best of her kind. Let her be at least a gentlewoman. Trust me, I’ve studied life. That’s the only thing that’s safe.”

“Francie’s the equal of the first lady in the land.”

“With that sister — with that hat? Never — never!”

“What’s the matter with her hat?”

“The sister’s told a story. It was a document — it described them, it classed them. And such a PATOIS as they speak!”

“My dear, her English is quite as good as yours. You don’t even know how bad yours is,” the young man went on with assurance.

“Well, I don’t say ‘Parus’ and I never asked an Englishman to marry me. You know what our feelings are,” his companion as ardently pursued; “our convictions, our susceptibilities. We may be wrong, we may be hollow, we may be pretentious, we mayn’t be able to say on what it all rests; but there we are, and the fact’s insurmountable. It’s simply impossible for us to live with vulgar people. It’s a defect, no doubt; it’s an immense inconvenience, and in the days we live in it’s sadly against one’s interest. But we’re made like that and we must understand ourselves. It’s of the very essence of our nature, and of yours exactly as much as of mine or of that of the others. Don’t make a mistake about it — you’ll prepare for yourself a bitter future. I know what becomes of us. We suffer, we go through tortures, we die!”

The accent of passionate prophecy was in this lady’s voice, but her brother made her no immediate answer, only indulging restlessly in several turns about the room. At last he took up his hat. “I shall come to an understanding with her tomorrow, and the next day, about this hour, I shall bring her to see you. Meanwhile please say nothing to any one.”

Mme. de Brecourt’s eyes lingered on him; he had grasped the knob of the door. “What do you mean by her father’s being certainly rich? That’s such a vague term. What do you suppose his fortune to be?”

“Ah that’s a question SHE would never ask!” her brother cried as he left her.

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