The Pension Beaurepas, by Henry James

The Pension Beaurepas

1

I was not rich — on the contrary; and I had been told the Pension Beaurepas was cheap. I had further been told that a boarding-house is a capital place for the study of human nature. I was inclined to a literary career and a friend had said to me: “If you mean to write you ought to go and live in a boarding-house: there’s no other such way to pick up material.” I had read something of this kind in a letter addressed by the celebrated Stendhal to his sister: “I have a passionate desire to know human nature, and a great mind to live in a boarding-house, where people can’t conceal their real characters.” I was an admirer of La Chartreuse de Parme, and easily believed one couldn’t do better than follow in the footsteps of its author. I remembered, too, the magnificent boarding-house in Balzac’s Père Goriot— the “pension bourgeoise des deux sexes et autres,” kept by Madame Vauquer, née de Conflans. Magnificent, I mean, as a piece of portraiture; the establishment, as an establishment, was certainly sordid enough, and I hoped for better things from the Pension Beaurepas. This institution was one of the most esteemed in Geneva and, standing in a little garden of its own not far from the lake, had a very homely comfortable sociable aspect. The regular entrance was, as one might say, at the back, which looked upon the street, or rather upon a little place adorned, like every place in Geneva, great or small, with a generous cool fountain. That approach was not prepossessing, for on crossing the threshold you found yourself more or less in the kitchen — amid the “offices” and struck with their assault on your nostril. This, however, was no great matter, for at the Pension Beaurepas things conformed frankly to their nature and the whole mechanism lay bare. It was rather primitive, the mechanism, but it worked in a friendly homely regular way. Madame Beaurepas was an honest little old woman — she was far advanced in life and had been keeping a pension for more than forty years — whose only faults were that she was slightly deaf, that she was fond of a surreptitious pinch of snuff, and that, at the age of seventy-four, she wore stacks of flowers in her cap. There was a legend in the house that she wasn’t so deaf as she pretended and that she feigned this infirmity in order to possess herself of the secrets of her lodgers. I never indeed subscribed to this theory, convinced as I became that Madame Beaurepas had outlived the period of indiscreet curiosity. She dealt with the present and the future in the steady light of a long experience; she had been having lodgers for nearly half a century and all her concern with them was that they should pay their bills, fold their napkins and make use of the doormat. She cared very little for their secrets. “J’en ai vus de toutes les couleurs,” she said to me. She had quite ceased to trouble about individuals; she cared only for types and clear categories. Her large observation had made her acquainted with a number of these and her mind become a complete collection of “heads.” She flattered herself that she knew at a glance where to pigeonhole a new-comer, and if she made mistakes her deportment never betrayed them. I felt that as regards particular persons — once they conformed to the few rules — she had neither likes nor dislikes; but she was capable of expressing esteem or contempt for a species. She had her own ways, I suppose, of manifesting her approval, but her manner of indicating the reverse was simple and unvarying. “Je trouve que c’est déplacé!”— this exhausted her view of the matter. If one of her inmates had put arsenic into the pot-au-feu I believe Madame Beaurepas would have been satisfied to remark that this receptacle was not the place for arsenic. She could have imagined it otherwise and suitably applied. The line of misconduct to which she most objected was an undue assumption of gentility; she had no patience with boarders who gave themselves airs. “When people come chez moi it isn’t to cut a figure in the world; I’ve never so flattered myself,” I remember hearing her say; “and when you pay seven francs a day, tout compris, it comprises everything but the right to look down on the others. Yet there are people who, the less they pay, take themselves the more au sérieux. My most difficult boarders have always been those who’ve fiercely bargained and had the cheapest rooms.”

Madame Beaurepas had a niece, a young woman of some forty odd years; and the two ladies, with the assistance of a couple of thick-waisted red-armed peasant-women, kept the house going. If on your exits and entrances you peeped into the kitchen it made very little difference; as Célestine the cook shrouded herself in no mystery and announced the day’s fare, amid her fumes, quite with the resonance of the priestess of the tripod foretelling the future. She was always at your service with a grateful grin: she blacked your boots; she trudged off to fetch a cab; she would have carried your baggage, if you had allowed her, on her broad little back. She was always tramping in and out between her kitchen and the fountain in the place, where it often seemed to me that a large part of the preparation for our meals went forward — the wringing-out of towels and table-cloths, the washing of potatoes and cabbages, the scouring of saucepans and cleansing of water-bottles. You enjoyed from the door-step a perpetual back-view of Célestine and of her large loose woollen ankles as she craned, from the waist, over into the fountain and dabbled in her various utensils. This sounds as if life proceeded but in a makeshift fashion at the Pension Beaurepas — as if we suffered from a sordid tone. But such was not at all the case. We were simply very bourgeois; we practised the good old Genevese principle of not sacrificing to appearances. Nothing can be better than that principle when the rich real underlies it. We had the rich real at the Pension Beaurepas: we had it in the shape of soft short beds equipped with fluffy duvets; of admirable coffee, served to us in the morning by Célestine in person as we lay recumbent on these downy couches; of copious wholesome succulent dinners, conformable to the best provincial traditions. For myself, I thought the Pension Beaurepas local colour, and this, with me, at that time, was a grand term. I was young and ingenuous and had just come from America. I wished to perfect myself in the French tongue and innocently believed it to flourish by Lake Leman. I used to go to lectures at the Academy, the nursing mother of the present University, and come home with a violent appetite. I always enjoyed my morning walk across the long bridge — there was only one just there in those days — which spans the deep blue out-gush of the lake, and up the dark steep streets of the old Calvinistic city. The garden faced this way, toward the lake and the old town, and gave properest access to the house. There was a high wall with a double gate in the middle and flanked by a couple of ancient massive posts; the big rusty grille bristled with old-fashioned iron-work. The garden was rather mouldy and weedy, tangled and untended; but it contained a small thin-flowing fountain, several green benches, a rickety little table of the same complexion, together with three orange-trees in tubs disposed as effectively as possible in front of the windows of the salon.

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