The Pupil, by Henry James

Chapter VI

A couple of days after this, during which he had failed to profit by so free a permission, he had been for a quarter of an hour walking with his charge in silence when the boy became sociable again with the remark: “I’ll tell you how I know it; I know it through Zenobie.”

“Zenobie? Who in the world is she?”

“A nurse I used to have — ever so many years ago. A charming woman. I liked her awfully, and she liked me.”

“There’s no accounting for tastes. What is it you know through her?”

“Why what their idea is. She went away because they didn’t fork out. She did like me awfully, and she stayed two years. She told me all about it — that at last she could never get her wages. As soon as they saw how much she liked me they stopped giving her anything. They thought she’d stay for nothing — just because, don’t you know?” And Morgan had a queer little conscious lucid look. “She did stay ever so long — as long an she could. She was only a poor girl. She used to send money to her mother. At last she couldn’t afford it any longer, and went away in a fearful rage one night — I mean of course in a rage against them. She cried over me tremendously, she hugged me nearly to death. She told me all about it,” the boy repeated. “She told me it was their idea. So I guessed, ever so long ago, that they have had the same idea with you.”

“Zenobie was very sharp,” said Pemberton. “And she made you so.”

“Oh that wasn’t Zenobie; that was nature. And experience!” Morgan laughed.

“Well, Zenobie was a part of your experience.”

“Certainly I was a part of hers, poor dear!” the boy wisely sighed. “And I’m part of yours.”

“A very important part. But I don’t see how you know that I’ve been treated like Zenobie.”

“Do you take me for the biggest dunce you’ve known?” Morgan asked. “Haven’t I been conscious of what we’ve been through together?”

“What we’ve been through?”

“Our privations — our dark days.”

“Oh our days have been bright enough.”

Morgan went on in silence for a moment. Then he said: “My dear chap, you’re a hero!”

“Well, you’re another!” Pemberton retorted.

“No I’m not, but I ain’t a baby. I won’t stand it any longer. You must get some occupation that pays. I’m ashamed, I’m ashamed!” quavered the boy with a ring of passion, like some high silver note from a small cathedral cloister, that deeply touched his friend.

“We ought to go off and live somewhere together,” the young man said.

“I’ll go like a shot if you’ll take me.”

“I’d get some work that would keep us both afloat,” Pemberton continued.

“So would I. Why shouldn’t I work? I ain’t such a beastly little muff as that comes to.”

“The difficulty is that your parents wouldn’t hear of it. They’d never part with you; they worship the ground you tread on. Don’t you see the proof of it?” Pemberton developed. “They don’t dislike me; they wish me no harm; they’re very amiable people; but they’re perfectly ready to expose me to any awkwardness in life for your sake.”

The silence in which Morgan received his fond sophistry struck Pemberton somehow as expressive. After a moment the child repeated: “You are a hero!” Then he added: “They leave me with you altogether. You’ve all the responsibility. They put me off on you from morning till night. Why then should they object to my taking up with you completely? I’d help you.”

“They’re not particularly keen about my being helped, and they delight in thinking of you as theirs. They’re tremendously proud of you.”

“I’m not proud of them. But you know that,” Morgan returned.

“Except for the little matter we speak of they’re charming people,” said Pemberton, not taking up the point made for his intelligence, but wondering greatly at the boy’s own, and especially at this fresh reminder of something he had been conscious of from the first — the strangest thing in his friend’s large little composition, a temper, a sensibility, even a private ideal, which made him as privately disown the stuff his people were made of. Morgan had in secret a small loftiness which made him acute about betrayed meanness; as well as a critical sense for the manners immediately surrounding him that was quite without precedent in a juvenile nature, especially when one noted that it had not made this nature “old-fashioned,” as the word is of children — quaint or wizened or offensive. It was as if he had been a little gentleman and had paid the penalty by discovering that he was the only such person in his family. This comparison didn’t make him vain, but it could make him melancholy and a trifle austere. While Pemberton guessed at these dim young things, shadows of shadows, he was partly drawn on and partly checked, as for a scruple, by the charm of attempting to sound the little cool shallows that were so quickly growing deeper. When he tried to figure to himself the morning twilight of childhood, so as to deal with it safely, he saw it was never fixed, never arrested, that ignorance, at the instant he touched it, was already flushing faintly into knowledge, that there was nothing that at a given moment you could say an intelligent child didn’t know. It seemed to him that he himself knew too much to imagine Morgan’s simplicity and too little to disembroil his tangle.

The boy paid no heed to his last remark; he only went on: “I’d have spoken to them about their idea, as I call it, long ago, if I hadn’t been sure what they’d say.”

“And what would they say?”

“Just what they said about what poor Zenobie told me — that it was a horrid dreadful story, that they had paid her every penny they owed her.”

“Well, perhaps they had,” said Pemberton.

“Perhaps they’ve paid you!”

“Let us pretend they have, and n’en parlons plus.”

“They accused her of lying and cheating” — Morgan stuck to historic truth. “That’s why I don’t want to speak to them.”

“Lest they should accuse me, too?” To this Morgan made no answer, and his companion, looking down at him — the boy turned away his eyes, which had filled — saw what he couldn’t have trusted himself to utter. “You’re right. Don’t worry them,” Pemberton pursued. “Except for that, they are charming people.”

“Except for their lying and their cheating?”

“I say — I say!” cried Pemberton, imitating a little tone of the lad’s which was itself an imitation.

“We must be frank, at the last; we must come to an understanding,” said Morgan with the importance of the small boy who lets himself think he is arranging great affairs — almost playing at shipwreck or at Indians. “I know all about everything.”

“I dare say your father has his reasons,” Pemberton replied, but too vaguely, as he was aware.

“For lying and cheating?”

“For saving and managing and turning his means to the best account. He has plenty to do with his money. You’re an expensive family.”

“Yes, I’m very expensive,” Morgan concurred in a manner that made his preceptor burst out laughing.

“He’s saving for you,” said Pemberton. “They think of you in everything they do.”

“He might, while he’s about it, save a little — ” The boy paused, and his friend waited to hear what. Then Morgan brought out oddly: “A little reputation.”

“Oh there’s plenty of that. That’s all right!”

“Enough of it for the people they know, no doubt. The people they know are awful.”

“Do you mean the princes? We mustn’t abuse the princes.”

“Why not? They haven’t married Paula — they haven’t married Amy. They only clean out Ulick.”

“You do know everything!” Pemberton declared.

“No, I don’t, after all. I don’t know what they live on, or how they live, or why they live! What have they got and how did they get it? Are they rich, are they poor, or have they a modeste aisance? Why are they always chiveying me about — living one year like ambassadors and the next like paupers? Who are they, any way, and what are they? I’ve thought of all that — I’ve thought of a lot of things. They’re so beastly worldly. That’s what I hate most — oh, I’ve seen it! All they care about is to make an appearance and to pass for something or other. What the dickens do they want to pass for? What do they, Mr. Pemberton?”

“You pause for a reply,” said Pemberton, treating the question as a joke, yet wondering too and greatly struck with his mate’s intense if imperfect vision. “I haven’t the least idea.”

“And what good does it do? Haven’t I seen the way people treat them — the ‘nice’ people, the ones they want to know? They’ll take anything from them — they’ll lie down and be trampled on. The nice ones hate that — they just sicken them. You’re the only really nice person we know.”

“Are you sure? They don’t lie down for me!”

“Well, you shan’t lie down for them. You’ve got to go — that’s what you’ve got to do,” said Morgan.

“And what will become of you?”

“Oh I’m growing up. I shall get off before long. I’ll see you later.”

“You had better let me finish you,” Pemberton urged, lending himself to the child’s strange superiority.

Morgan stopped in their walk, looking up at him. He had to look up much less than a couple of years before — he had grown, in his loose leanness, so long and high. “Finish me?” he echoed.

“There are such a lot of jolly things we can do together yet. I want to turn you out — I want you to do me credit.”

Morgan continued to look at him. “To give you credit — do you mean?”

“My dear fellow, you’re too clever to live.”

“That’s just what I’m afraid you think. No, no; it isn’t fair — I can’t endure it. We’ll separate next week. The sooner it’s over the sooner to sleep.”

“If I hear of anything — any other chance — I promise to go,” Pemberton said.

Morgan consented to consider this. “But you’ll be honest,” he demanded; “you won’t pretend you haven’t heard?”

“I’m much more likely to pretend I have.”

“But what can you hear of, this way, stuck in a hole with us? You ought to be on the spot, to go to England — you ought to go to America.”

“One would think you were my tutor!” said Pemberton.

Morgan walked on and after a little had begun again: “Well, now that you know I know and that we look at the facts and keep nothing back — it’s much more comfortable, isn’t it?”

“My dear boy, it’s so amusing, so interesting, that it will surely be quite impossible for me to forego such hours as these.”

This made Morgan stop once more. “You do keep something back. Oh you’re not straight — I am!”

“How am I not straight?”

“Oh you’ve got your idea!”

“My idea?”

“Why that I probably shan’t make old — make older — bones, and that you can stick it out till I’m removed.”

“You are too clever to live!” Pemberton repeated.

“I call it a mean idea,” Morgan pursued. “But I shall punish you by the way I hang on.”

“Look out or I’ll poison you!” Pemberton laughed.

“I’m stronger and better every year. Haven’t you noticed that there hasn’t been a doctor near me since you came?”

I’m your doctor,” said the young man, taking his arm and drawing him tenderly on again.

Morgan proceeded and after a few steps gave a sigh of mingled weariness and relief. “Ah now that we look at the facts it’s all right!”

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