The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 7

It may as well be said at once that his prevision was soon made good and that in the course of a fortnight old Mr. Probert and his daughters alighted successively at the Hotel de l’Univers et de Cheltenham. Francie’s visit with her intended to Mme. de Brecourt bore exactly the fruit her admirer had foretold and was followed the very next day by a call from this lady. She took the girl out with her in her carriage and kept her the whole afternoon, driving her half over Paris, chattering with her, kissing her, delighting in her, telling her they were already sisters, paying her compliments that made Francie envy her art of saying things as she had never heard things said — for the excellent reason, among many, that she had never known such things COULD be. After she had dropped her charge this critic rushed off to her father’s, reflecting with pleasure that at that hour she should probably find her sister Marguerite there. Mme. de Cliche was with their parent in fact — she had three days in the week for coming to the Cours la Reine; she sat near him in the firelight, telling him presumably her troubles, for, Maxime de Cliche having proved not quite the pearl they had originally supposed, Mme. de Brecourt knew what Marguerite did whenever she took that little ottoman and drew it close to the paternal chair: she gave way to her favourite vice, that of dolefulness, which lengthened her long face more: it was unbecoming if she only knew it. The family was intensely united, as we see; but that didn’t prevent Mme. de Brecourt’s having a certain sympathy for Maxime: he too was one of themselves, and she asked herself what SHE would have done had she been a well-constituted man with a wife whose cheeks were like decks in a high sea. It was the twilight hour in the winter days, before the lamps, that especially brought her out; then she began her long stories about her complicated cares, to which her father listened with angelic patience. Mme. de Brecourt liked his particular room in the old house in the Cours la Reine; it reminded her of her mother’s life and her young days and her dead brother and the feelings connected with her first going into the world. Alphonse and she had had an apartment, by her father’s kindness, under the roof that covered in associations as the door of a linen-closet preserves herbaceous scents, so that she continued to pop in and out, full of her fresh impressions of society, just as she had done when she was a girl. She broke into her sister’s confidences now; she announced her trouvaille and did battle for it bravely.

Five days later — there had been lively work in the meantime; Gaston turned so pale at moments that she feared it would all result in a mortal illness for him, and Marguerite shed gallons of tears — Mr. Probert went to see the Dossons with his son. Mme. de Brecourt paid them another visit, a real official affair as she deemed it, accompanied by her husband; and the Baron de Douves and his wife, written to by Gaston, by his father and by Margaret and Susan, came up from the country full of anxious participation. M. de Douves was the person who took the family, all round, most seriously and who most deprecated any sign of crude or precipitate action. He was a very small black gentleman with thick eyebrows and high heels — in the country and the mud he wore sabots with straw in them — who was suspected by his friends of believing that he looked like Louis XIV. It is perhaps a proof that something of the quality of this monarch was really recognised in him that no one had ever ventured to clear up this point by a question. “La famille c’est moi” appeared to be his tacit formula, and he carried his umbrella — he had very bad ones, Gaston thought — with something of a sceptral air. Mme. de Brecourt went so far as to believe that his wife, in confirmation of this, took herself for a species of Mme. de Maintenon: she had lapsed into a provincial existence as she might have harked back to the seventeenth century; the world she lived in seemed about as far away. She was the largest, heaviest member of the family, and in the Vendee was thought majestic despite the old clothes she fondly affected and which added to her look of having come down from a remote past or reverted to it. She was at bottom an excellent woman, but she wrote roy and foy like her husband, and the action of her mind was wholly restricted to questions of relationship and alliance. She had extraordinary patience of research and tenacity of grasp for a clue, and viewed people solely in the light projected upon them by others; that is not as good or wicked, ugly or handsome, wise or foolish, but as grandsons, nephews, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters-inlaw, cousins and second cousins. You might have supposed, to listen to her, that human beings were susceptible of no attribute but that of a dwindling or thickening consanguinity. There was a certain expectation that she would leave rather formidable memoirs. In Mme. de Brecourt’s eyes this pair were very shabby, they didn’t payer de mine — they fairly smelt of their province; “but for the reality of the thing,” she often said to herself, “they’re worth all of us. We’re diluted and they’re pure, and any one with an eye would see it.” “The thing” was the legitimist principle, the ancient faith and even a little the right, the unconscious, grand air.

The Marquis de Cliche did his duty with his wife, who mopped the decks, as Susan said, for the occasion, and was entertained in the red-satin drawing-room by Mr. Dosson, Delia and Francie. Mr. Dosson had wanted and proposed to be somewhere else when he heard of the approach of Gaston’s relations, and the fond youth had to instruct him that this wouldn’t do. The apartment in question had had a range of vision, but had probably never witnessed stranger doings than these laudable social efforts. Gaston was taught to feel that his family had made a great sacrifice for him, but in a very few days he said to himself that now they knew the worst he was safe. They made the sacrifice, they definitely agreed to it, but they thought proper he should measure the full extent of it. “Gaston must never, never, never be allowed to forget what we’ve done for him:” Mme. de Brecourt told him that Marguerite de Cliche had expressed herself in that sense at one of the family conclaves from which he was absent. These high commissions sat for several days with great frequency, and the young man could feel that if there was help for him in discussion his case was promising. He flattered himself that he showed infinite patience and tact, and his expenditure of the latter quality in particular was in itself his only reward, for it was impossible he should tell Francie what arts he had to practise for her. He liked to think however that he practised them successfully; for he held that it was by such arts the civilised man is distinguished from the savage. What they cost him was made up simply in this — that his private irritation produced a degree of adoptive heat in regard to Mr. Dosson and Delia, whom he could neither justify nor coherently account for nor make people like, but whom he had ended after so many days of familiar intercourse by liking extremely himself. The way to get on with them — it was an immense simplification — was just to love them: one could do that even if one couldn’t converse with them. He succeeded in making Mme. de Brecourt seize this nuance; she embraced the idea with her quick inflammability. “Yes,” she said, “we must insist on their positive, not on their negative merits: their infinite generosity, their untutored, their intensely native and instinctive delicacy. Ah their charming primitive instincts — we must work those!” And the brother and sister excited each other magnanimously to this undertaking. Sometimes, it must be added, they exchanged a look that seemed to sound with a slight alarm the depth of their responsibility.

On the day Mr. Probert called at the Hotel de l’Univers et de Cheltenham with his son the pair walked away together, back to the Cours la Reine, without immediate comments. The only words uttered were three or four of Mr. Probert’s, with Gaston’s rejoinder, as they crossed the Place de la Concorde.

“We should have to have them to dinner.” The young man noted his father’s conditional, as if his assent to the strange alliance were not yet complete; but he guessed all the same that the sight of them had not made a difference for the worse: they had let the old gentleman down more easily than was to have been feared. The call had had above all the immense luck that it hadn’t been noisy — a confusion of underbred sounds; which was very happy, for Mr. Probert was particular in this: he could bear French noise but couldn’t for the life of him bear American. As for English he maintained that there was no such thing: England was a country with the straw down in all the thoroughfares of talk. Mr. Dosson had scarcely spoken and yet had remained perfectly placid, which was exactly what Gaston would have chosen. No hauteur could have matched it — he had gone so little out of his way. Francie’s lover knew moreover — though he was a little disappointed that no charmed exclamation should have been dropped as they quitted the hotel — that the girl’s rare spell had worked: it was impossible the old man shouldn’t have liked her.

“Ah do ask them, and let it be very soon,” he replied. “They’ll like it so much.”

“And whom can they meet — who can meet THEM?”

“Only the family — all of us: au complet. Other people we can have later.”

“All of us au complet — that makes eight. And the three of THEM,” said Mr. Probert. Then he added: “Poor creatures!” The fine ironic humane sound of it gave Gaston much pleasure; he passed his hand into his father’s arm. It promised well; it made the intelligent, the tender allowance for the dear little Dossons confronted with a row of fierce French critics, judged by standards they had never even heard of. The meeting of the two parents had not made the problem of their commerce any more clear; but our youth was reminded afresh by his elder’s hinted pity, his breathed charity, of the latent liberality that was really what he had built on. The dear old governor, goodness knew, had prejudices and superstitions, but if they were numerous, and some of them very curious, they were not rigid. He had also such nice inconsistent feelings, such irrepressible indulgences, such humorous deviations, and they would ease everything off. He was in short an old darling, and with an old darling in the long run one was always safe. When they reached the house in the Cours la Reine Mr. Probert said: “I think you told me you’re dining out.”

“Yes, with our friends.”

“‘Our friends’? Comme vous y allez! Come in and see me then on your return; but not later than half-past ten.”

From this the young man saw he had swallowed the dose; if he had found it refuse to go down he would have cried for relief without delay. This reflexion was highly agreeable, for Gaston perfectly knew how little he himself would have enjoyed a struggle. He would have carried it through, but he couldn’t bear to think of that, and the sense of the further arguments he was spared made him feel at peace with all the world. The dinner at the hotel became the gayest of banquets in honour of this state of things, especially as Francie and Delia raved, as they said, about his poppa.

“Well, I expected something nice, but he goes far beyond!” Delia declared. “That’s my idea of a real gentleman.”

“Ah for that —!” said Gaston.

“He’s too sweet for anything. I’m not a bit afraid of him,” Francie contributed.

“Why in the world should you be?”

“Well, I am of you,” the girl professed.

“Much you show it!” her lover returned.

“Yes, I am,” she insisted, “at the bottom of all.”

“Well, that’s what a lady should be-afraid of her lord and master.”

“Well, I don’t know; I’m more afraid than that. You’ll see.”

“I wish you were afraid of talking nonsense,” said happy Gaston.

Mr. Dosson made no observation whatever about their grave bland visitor; he listened in genial unprejudiced silence. It was a sign of his prospective son-inlaw’s perfect comprehension of him that Gaston knew this silence not to be in any degree restrictive: it didn’t at all mean he hadn’t been pleased. Mr. Dosson had nothing to say because nothing had been given him; he hadn’t, like his so differently-appointed young friend, a sensitive plate for a brain, and the important events of his life had never been personal impressions. His mind had had absolutely no history with which anything occurring in the present connexion could be continuous, and Mr. Probert’s appearance had neither founded a state nor produced a revolution. If the young man had asked him how he liked his father he would have said at the most: “Oh I guess he’s all right!” But what was more touchingly candid even than this in Gaston’s view was the attitude of the good gentleman and his daughters toward the others, Mesdames de Douves, de Brecourt and de Cliche and their husbands, who had now all filed before them. They believed the ladies and the gentlemen alike to have covered them with frank endearments, to have been artlessly and gushingly glad to make their acquaintance. They had not in the least seen what was manner, the minimum of decent profession, and what the subtle resignation of old races who have known a long historical discipline and have conventional forms and tortuous channels and grimacing masks for their impulses — forms resembling singularly little the feelings themselves. Francie took people at their word when they told her that the whole maniere d’etre of her family inspired them with an irresistible sympathy: that was a speech of which Mme. de Cliche had been capable, speaking as if for all the Proberts and for the old noblesse of France. It wouldn’t have occurred to the girl that such things need have been said as for mere frilling and finish. Her lover, whose life affected her as a picture, of high price in itself but set in a frame too big and too heavy for it, and who therefore might have taken for granted any amount of gilding, yet made his reflexions on it now; he noticed how a manner might be a very misleading symbol, might cover pitfalls and bottomless gulfs, when it had reached that perfection and corresponded so little to fact. What he had wanted was that his people should be as easy as they could see their way to being, but with such a high standard of compliment where after all was sincerity? And without sincerity how could people get on together when it came to their settling down to common life? Then the Dossons might have surprises, and the surprises would be painful in proportion as their present innocence was great. As to the high standard itself there was no manner of doubt: there ought to be preserved examples of that perfection.

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