The Pupil, by Henry James

Chapter IV

A year after he had come to live with them Mr. and Mrs. Moreen suddenly gave up the villa at Nice. Pemberton had got used to suddenness, having seen it practised on a considerable scale during two jerky little tours — one in Switzerland the first summer, and the other late in the winter, when they all ran down to Florence and then, at the end of ten days, liking it much less than they had intended, straggled back in mysterious depression. They had returned to Nice “for ever,” as they said; but this didn’t prevent their squeezing, one rainy muggy May night, into a second-class railway-carriage — you could never tell by which class they would travel — where Pemberton helped them to stow away a wonderful collection of bundles and bags. The explanation of this manoeuvre was that they had determined to spend the summer “in some bracing place”; but in Paris they dropped into a small furnished apartment — a fourth floor in a third-rate avenue, where there was a smell on the staircase and the portier was hateful — and passed the next four months in blank indigence.

The better part of this baffled sojourn was for the preceptor and his pupil, who, visiting the Invalides and Notre Dame, the Conciergerie and all the museums, took a hundred remunerative rambles. They learned to know their Paris, which was useful, for they came back another year for a longer stay, the general character of which in Pemberton’s memory to-day mixes pitiably and confusedly with that of the first. He sees Morgan’s shabby knickerbockers — the everlasting pair that didn’t match his blouse and that as he grew longer could only grow faded. He remembers the particular holes in his three or four pair of coloured stockings.

Morgan was dear to his mother, but he never was better dressed than was absolutely necessary — partly, no doubt, by his own fault, for he was as indifferent to his appearance as a German philosopher. “My dear fellow, you are coming to pieces,” Pemberton would say to him in sceptical remonstrance; to which the child would reply, looking at him serenely up and down: “My dear fellow, so are you! I don’t want to cast you in the shade.” Pemberton could have no rejoinder for this — the assertion so closely represented the fact. If however the deficiencies of his own wardrobe were a chapter by themselves he didn’t like his little charge to look too poor. Later he used to say “Well, if we’re poor, why, after all, shouldn’t we look it?” and he consoled himself with thinking there was something rather elderly and gentlemanly in Morgan’s disrepair — it differed from the untidiness of the urchin who plays and spoils his things. He could trace perfectly the degrees by which, in proportion as her little son confined himself to his tutor for society, Mrs. Moreen shrewdly forbore to renew his garments. She did nothing that didn’t show, neglected him because he escaped notice, and then, as he illustrated this clever policy, discouraged at home his public appearances. Her position was logical enough — those members of her family who did show had to be showy.

During this period and several others Pemberton was quite aware of how he and his comrade might strike people; wandering languidly through the Jardin des Plantes as if they had nowhere to go, sitting on the winter days in the galleries of the Louvre, so splendidly ironical to the homeless, as if for the advantage of the calorifere. They joked about it sometimes: it was the sort of joke that was perfectly within the boy’s compass. They figured themselves as part of the vast vague hand-to-mouth multitude of the enormous city and pretended they were proud of their position in it — it showed them “such a lot of life” and made them conscious of a democratic brotherhood. If Pemberton couldn’t feel a sympathy in destitution with his small companion — for after all Morgan’s fond parents would never have let him really suffer — the boy would at least feel it with him, so it came to the same thing. He used sometimes to wonder what people would think they were — to fancy they were looked askance at, as if it might be a suspected case of kidnapping. Morgan wouldn’t be taken for a young patrician with a preceptor — he wasn’t smart enough; though he might pass for his companion’s sickly little brother. Now and then he had a five-franc piece, and except once, when they bought a couple of lovely neckties, one of which he made Pemberton accept, they laid it out scientifically in old books. This was sure to be a great day, always spent on the quays, in a rummage of the dusty boxes that garnish the parapets. Such occasions helped them to live, for their books ran low very soon after the beginning of their acquaintance. Pemberton had a good many in England, but he was obliged to write to a friend and ask him kindly to get some fellow to give him something for them.

If they had to relinquish that summer the advantage of the bracing climate the young man couldn’t but suspect this failure of the cup when at their very lips to have been the effect of a rude jostle of his own. This had represented his first blow-out, as he called it, with his patrons; his first successful attempt — though there was little other success about it — to bring them to a consideration of his impossible position. As the ostensible eve of a costly journey the moment had struck him as favourable to an earnest protest, the presentation of an ultimatum. Ridiculous as it sounded, he had never yet been able to compass an uninterrupted private interview with the elder pair or with either of them singly. They were always flanked by their elder children, and poor Pemberton usually had his own little charge at his side. He was conscious of its being a house in which the surface of one’s delicacy got rather smudged; nevertheless he had preserved the bloom of his scruple against announcing to Mr. and Mrs. Moreen with publicity that he shouldn’t be able to go on longer without a little money. He was still simple enough to suppose Ulick and Paula and Amy might not know that since his arrival he had only had a hundred and forty francs; and he was magnanimous enough to wish not to compromise their parents in their eyes. Mr. Moreen now listened to him, as he listened to every one and to every thing, like a man of the world, and seemed to appeal to him — though not of course too grossly — to try and be a little more of one himself. Pemberton recognised in fact the importance of the character — from the advantage it gave Mr. Moreen. He was not even confused or embarrassed, whereas the young man in his service was more so than there was any reason for. Neither was he surprised — at least any more than a gentleman had to be who freely confessed himself a little shocked — though not perhaps strictly at Pemberton.

“We must go into this, mustn’t we, dear?” he said to his wife. He assured his young friend that the matter should have his very best attention; and he melted into space as elusively as if, at the door, he were taking an inevitable but deprecatory precedence. When, the next moment, Pemberton found himself alone with Mrs. Moreen it was to hear her say “I see, I see” — stroking the roundness of her chin and looking as if she were only hesitating between a dozen easy remedies. If they didn’t make their push Mr. Moreen could at least disappear for several days. During his absence his wife took up the subject again spontaneously, but her contribution to it was merely that she had thought all the while they were getting on so beautifully. Pemberton’s reply to this revelation was that unless they immediately put down something on account he would leave them on the spot and for ever. He knew she would wonder how he would get away, and for a moment expected her to enquire. She didn’t, for which he was almost grateful to her, so little was he in a position to tell.

“You won’t, you know you won’t — you’re too interested,” she said. “You are interested, you know you are, you dear kind man!” She laughed with almost condemnatory archness, as if it were a reproach — though she wouldn’t insist; and flirted a soiled pocket-handkerchief at him.

Pemberton’s mind was fully made up to take his step the following week. This would give him time to get an answer to a letter he had despatched to England. If he did in the event nothing of the sort — that is if he stayed another year and then went away only for three months — it was not merely because before the answer to his letter came (most unsatisfactory when it did arrive) Mr. Moreen generously counted out to him, and again with the sacrifice to “form” of a marked man of the world, three hundred francs in elegant ringing gold. He was irritated to find that Mrs. Moreen was right, that he couldn’t at the pinch bear to leave the child. This stood out clearer for the very reason that, the night of his desperate appeal to his patrons, he had seen fully for the first time where he was. Wasn’t it another proof of the success with which those patrons practised their arts that they had managed to avert for so long the illuminating flash? It descended on our friend with a breadth of effect which perhaps would have struck a spectator as comical, after he had returned to his little servile room, which looked into a close court where a bare dirty opposite wall took, with the sound of shrill clatter, the reflexion of lighted back windows. He had simply given himself away to a band of adventurers. The idea, the word itself, wore a romantic horror for him — he had always lived on such safe lines. Later it assumed a more interesting, almost a soothing, sense: it pointed a moral, and Pemberton could enjoy a moral. The Moreens were adventurers not merely because they didn’t pay their debts, because they lived on society, but because their whole view of life, dim and confused and instinctive, like that of clever colour-blind animals, was speculative and rapacious and mean. Oh they were “respectable,” and that only made them more immondes. The young man’s analysis, while he brooded, put it at last very simply — they were adventurers because they were toadies and snobs. That was the completest account of them — it was the law of their being. Even when this truth became vivid to their ingenious inmate he remained unconscious of how much his mind had been prepared for it by the extraordinary little boy who had now become such a complication in his life. Much less could he then calculate on the information he was still to owe the extraordinary little boy.

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