The Pupil, by Henry James

Chapter I

The poor young man hesitated and procrastinated: it cost him such an effort to broach the subject of terms, to speak of money to a person who spoke only of feelings and, as it were, of the aristocracy. Yet he was unwilling to take leave, treating his engagement as settled, without some more conventional glance in that direction than he could find an opening for in the manner of the large affable lady who sat there drawing a pair of soiled gants de Suede through a fat jewelled hand and, at once pressing and gliding, repeated over and over everything but the thing he would have liked to hear. He would have liked to hear the figure of his salary; but just as he was nervously about to sound that note the little boy came back — the little boy Mrs. Moreen had sent out of the room to fetch her fan. He came back without the fan, only with the casual observation that he couldn’t find it. As he dropped this cynical confession he looked straight and hard at the candidate for the honour of taking his education in hand. This personage reflected somewhat grimly that the thing he should have to teach his little charge would be to appear to address himself to his mother when he spoke to her — especially not to make her such an improper answer as that.

When Mrs. Moreen bethought herself of this pretext for getting rid of their companion Pemberton supposed it was precisely to approach the delicate subject of his remuneration. But it had been only to say some things about her son that it was better a boy of eleven shouldn’t catch. They were extravagantly to his advantage save when she lowered her voice to sigh, tapping her left side familiarly, “And all overclouded by this, you know; all at the mercy of a weakness —!” Pemberton gathered that the weakness was in the region of the heart. He had known the poor child was not robust: this was the basis on which he had been invited to treat, through an English lady, an Oxford acquaintance, then at Nice, who happened to know both his needs and those of the amiable American family looking out for something really superior in the way of a resident tutor.

The young man’s impression of his prospective pupil, who had come into the room as if to see for himself the moment Pemberton was admitted, was not quite the soft solicitation the visitor had taken for granted. Morgan Moreen was somehow sickly without being “delicate,” and that he looked intelligent — it is true Pemberton wouldn’t have enjoyed his being stupid — only added to the suggestion that, as with his big mouth and big ears he really couldn’t be called pretty, he might too utterly fail to please. Pemberton was modest, was even timid; and the chance that his small scholar might prove cleverer than himself had quite figured, to his anxiety, among the dangers of an untried experiment. He reflected, however, that these were risks one had to run when one accepted a position, as it was called, in a private family; when as yet one’s university honours had, pecuniarily speaking, remained barren. At any rate when Mrs. Moreen got up as to intimate that, since it was understood he would enter upon his duties within the week she would let him off now, he succeeded, in spite of the presence of the child, in squeezing out a phrase about the rate of payment. It was not the fault of the conscious smile which seemed a reference to the lady’s expensive identity, it was not the fault of this demonstration, which had, in a sort, both vagueness and point, if the allusion didn’t sound rather vulgar. This was exactly because she became still more gracious to reply: “Oh I can assure you that all that will be quite regular.”

Pemberton only wondered, while he took up his hat, what “all that” was to amount to — people had such different ideas. Mrs. Moreen’s words, however, seemed to commit the family to a pledge definite enough to elicit from the child a strange little comment in the shape of the mocking foreign ejaculation “Oh la-la!”

Pemberton, in some confusion, glanced at him as he walked slowly to the window with his back turned, his hands in his pockets and the air in his elderly shoulders of a boy who didn’t play. The young man wondered if he should be able to teach him to play, though his mother had said it would never do and that this was why school was impossible. Mrs. Moreen exhibited no discomfiture; she only continued blandly: “Mr. Moreen will be delighted to meet your wishes. As I told you, he has been called to London for a week. As soon as he comes back you shall have it out with him.”

This was so frank and friendly that the young man could only reply, laughing as his hostess laughed: “Oh I don’t imagine we shall have much of a battle.”

“They’ll give you anything you like,” the boy remarked unexpectedly, returning from the window. “We don’t mind what anything costs — we live awfully well.”

“My darling, you’re too quaint!” his mother exclaimed, putting out to caress him a practised but ineffectual hand. He slipped out of it, but looked with intelligent innocent eyes at Pemberton, who had already had time to notice that from one moment to the other his small satiric face seemed to change its time of life. At this moment it was infantine, yet it appeared also to be under the influence of curious intuitions and knowledges. Pemberton rather disliked precocity and was disappointed to find gleams of it in a disciple not yet in his teens. Nevertheless he divined on the spot that Morgan wouldn’t prove a bore. He would prove on the contrary a source of agitation. This idea held the young man, in spite of a certain repulsion.

“You pompous little person! We’re not extravagant!” Mrs. Moreen gaily protested, making another unsuccessful attempt to draw the boy to her side. “You must know what to expect,” she went on to Pemberton.

“The less you expect the better!” her companion interposed. “But we are people of fashion.”

“Only so far as you make us so!” Mrs. Moreen tenderly mocked. “Well then, on Friday — don’t tell me you’re superstitious — and mind you don’t fail us. Then you’ll see us all. I’m so sorry the girls are out. I guess you’ll like the girls. And, you know, I’ve another son, quite different from this one.”

“He tries to imitate me,” Morgan said to their friend.

“He tries? Why he’s twenty years old!” cried Mrs. Moreen.

“You’re very witty,” Pemberton remarked to the child — a proposition his mother echoed with enthusiasm, declaring Morgan’s sallies to be the delight of the house.

The boy paid no heed to this; he only enquired abruptly of the visitor, who was surprised afterwards that he hadn’t struck him as offensively forward: “Do you want very much to come?”

“Can you doubt it after such a description of what I shall hear?” Pemberton replied. Yet he didn’t want to come at all; he was coming because he had to go somewhere, thanks to the collapse of his fortune at the end of a year abroad spent on the system of putting his scant patrimony into a single full wave of experience. He had had his full wave but couldn’t pay the score at his inn. Moreover he had caught in the boy’s eyes the glimpse of a far-off appeal.

“Well, I’ll do the best I can for you,” said Morgan; with which he turned away again. He passed out of one of the long windows; Pemberton saw him go and lean on the parapet of the terrace. He remained there while the young man took leave of his mother, who, on Pemberton’s looking as if he expected a farewell from him, interposed with: “Leave him, leave him; he’s so strange!” Pemberton supposed her to fear something he might say. “He’s a genius — you’ll love him,” she added. “He’s much the most interesting person in the family.” And before he could invent some civility to oppose to this she wound up with: “But we’re all good, you know!”

“He’s a genius — you’ll love him!” were words that recurred to our aspirant before the Friday, suggesting among many things that geniuses were not invariably loveable. However, it was all the better if there was an element that would make tutorship absorbing: he had perhaps taken too much for granted it would only disgust him. As he left the villa after his interview he looked up at the balcony and saw the child leaning over it. “We shall have great larks!” he called up.

Morgan hung fire a moment and then gaily returned: “By the time you come back I shall have thought of something witty!”

This made Pemberton say to himself “After all he’s rather nice.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/pupil/chapter1.html

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