The Pupil, by Henry James

Chapter VIII

When he got at work with the opulent youth, who was to be taken in hand for Balliol, he found himself unable to say if this aspirant had really such poor parts or if the appearance were only begotten of his own long association with an intensely living little mind. From Morgan he heard half a dozen times: the boy wrote charming young letters, a patchwork of tongues, with indulgent postscripts in the family Volapuk and, in little squares and rounds and crannies of the text, the drollest illustrations — letters that he was divided between the impulse to show his present charge as a vain, a wasted incentive, and the sense of something in them that publicity would profane. The opulent youth went up in due course and failed to pass; but it seemed to add to the presumption that brilliancy was not expected of him all at once that his parents, condoning the lapse, which they good-naturedly treated as little as possible as if it were Pemberton’s, should have sounded the rally again, begged the young coach to renew the siege.

The young coach was now in a position to lend Mrs. Moreen three louis, and he sent her a post-office order even for a larger amount. In return for this favour he received a frantic scribbled line from her: “Implore you to come back instantly — Morgan dreadfully ill.” They were on there rebound, once more in Paris — often as Pemberton had seen them depressed he had never seen them crushed — and communication was therefore rapid. He wrote to the boy to ascertain the state of his health, but awaited the answer in vain. He accordingly, after three days, took an abrupt leave of the opulent youth and, crossing the Channel, alighted at the small hotel, in the quarter of the Champs Elysees, of which Mrs. Moreen had given him the address. A deep if dumb dissatisfaction with this lady and her companions bore him company: they couldn’t be vulgarly honest, but they could live at hotels, in velvety entresols, amid a smell of burnt pastilles, surrounded by the most expensive city in Europe. When he had left them in Venice it was with an irrepressible suspicion that something was going to happen; but the only thing that could have taken place was again their masterly retreat. “How is he? where is he?” he asked of Mrs. Moreen; but before she could speak these questions were answered by the pressure round hid neck of a pair of arms, in shrunken sleeves, which still were perfectly capable of an effusive young foreign squeeze.

“Dreadfully ill — I don’t see it!” the young man cried. And then to Morgan: “Why on earth didn’t you relieve me? Why didn’t you answer my letter?”

Mrs. Moreen declared that when she wrote he was very bad, and Pemberton learned at the same time from the boy that he had answered every letter he had received. This led to the clear inference that Pemberton’s note had been kept from him so that the game practised should not be interfered with. Mrs. Moreen was prepared to see the fact exposed, as Pemberton saw the moment he faced her that she was prepared for a good many other things. She was prepared above all to maintain that she had acted from a sense of duty, that she was enchanted she had got him over, whatever they might say, and that it was useless of him to pretend he didn’t know in all his bones that his place at such a time was with Morgan. He had taken the boy away from them and now had no right to abandon him. He had created for himself the gravest responsibilities and must at least abide by what he had done.

“Taken him away from you?” Pemberton exclaimed indignantly.

“Do it — do it for pity’s sake; that’s just what I want. I can’t stand this — and such scenes. They’re awful frauds — poor dears!” These words broke from Morgan, who had intermitted his embrace, in a key which made Pemberton turn quickly to him and see that he had suddenly seated himself, was breathing in great pain, and was very pale.

Now do you say he’s not in a state, my precious pet?” shouted his mother, dropping on her knees before him with clasped hands, but touching him no more than if he had been a gilded idol. “It will pass — it’s only for an instant; but don’t say such dreadful things!”

“I’m all right — all right,” Morgan panted to Pemberton, whom he sat looking up at with a strange smile, his hands resting on either side of the sofa.

“Now do you pretend I’ve been dishonest, that I’ve deceived?” Mrs. Moreen flashed at Pemberton as she got up.

“It isn’t he says it, it’s I!” the boy returned, apparently easier, but sinking back against the wall; while his restored friend, who had sat down beside him, took his hand and bent over him.

“Darling child, one does what one can; there are so many things to consider,” urged Mrs. Moreen. “It’s his place — his only place. You see you think it is now.”

“Take me away — take me away,” Morgan went on, smiling to Pemberton with his white face.

“Where shall I take you, and how — oh how, my boy?” the young man stammered, thinking of the rude way in which his friends in London held that, for his convenience, with no assurance of prompt return, he had thrown them over; of the just resentment with which they would already have called in a successor, and of the scant help to finding fresh employment that resided for him in the grossness of his having failed to pass his pupil.

“Oh we’ll settle that. You used to talk about it,” said Morgan. “If we can only go all the rest’s a detail.”

“Talk about it as much as you like, but don’t think you can attempt it. Mr. Moreen would never consent — it would be so very hand-to-mouth,” Pemberton’s hostess beautifully explained to him. Then to Morgan she made it clearer: “It would destroy our peace, it would break our hearts. Now that he’s back it will be all the same again. You’ll have your life, your work and your freedom, and we’ll all be happy as we used to be. You’ll bloom and grow perfectly well, and we won’t have any more silly experiments, will we? They’re too absurd. It’s Mr. Pemberton’s place — every one in his place. You in yours, your papa in his, me in mine — n’est-ce pas, cheri? We’ll all forget how foolish we’ve been and have lovely times.”

She continued to talk and to surge vaguely about the little draped stuffy salon while Pemberton sat with the boy, whose colour gradually came back; and she mixed up her reasons, hinting that there were going to be changes, that the other children might scatter (who knew? — Paula had her ideas) and that then it might be fancied how much the poor old parent-birds would want the little nestling. Morgan looked at Pemberton, who wouldn’t let him move; and Pemberton knew exactly how he felt at hearing himself called a little nestling. He admitted that he had had one or two bad days, but he protested afresh against the wrong of his mother’s having made them the ground of an appeal to poor Pemberton. Poor Pemberton could laugh now, apart from the comicality of Mrs. Moreen’s mustering so much philosophy for her defence — she seemed to shake it out of her agitated petticoats, which knocked over the light gilt chairs — so little did their young companion, marked, unmistakeably marked at the best, strike him as qualified to repudiate any advantage.

He himself was in for it at any rate. He should have Morgan on his hands again indefinitely; though indeed he saw the lad had a private theory to produce which would be intended to smooth this down. He was obliged to him for it in advance; but the suggested amendment didn’t keep his heart rather from sinking, any more than it prevented him from accepting the prospect on the spot, with some confidence moreover that he should do so even better if he could have a little supper. Mrs. Moreen threw out more hints about the changes that were to be looked for, but she was such a mixture of smiles and shudders — she confessed she was very nervous — that he couldn’t tell if she were in high feather or only in hysterics. If the family was really at last going to pieces why shouldn’t she recognise the necessity of pitching Morgan into some sort of lifeboat? This presumption was fostered by the fact that they were established in luxurious quarters in the capital of pleasure; that was exactly where they naturally would be established in view of going to pieces. Moreover didn’t she mention that Mr. Moreen and the others were enjoying themselves at the opera with Mr. Granger, and wasn’t that also precisely where one would look for them on the eve of a smash? Pemberton gathered that Mr. Granger was a rich vacant American — a big bill with a flourishy heading and no items; so that one of Paula’s “ideas” was probably that this time she hadn’t missed fire — by which straight shot indeed she would have shattered the general cohesion. And if the cohesion was to crumble what would become of poor Pemberton? He felt quite enough bound up with them to figure to his alarm as a dislodged block in the edifice.

It was Morgan who eventually asked if no supper had been ordered for him; sitting with him below, later, at the dim delayed meal, in the presence of a great deal of corded green plush, a plate of ornamental biscuit and an aloofness marked on the part of the waiter. Mrs. Moreen had explained that they had been obliged to secure a room for the visitor out of the house; and Morgan’s consolation — he offered it while Pemberton reflected on the nastiness of lukewarm sauces — proved to be, largely, that his circumstance would facilitate their escape. He talked of their escape — recurring to it often afterwards — as if they were making up a “boy’s book” together. But he likewise expressed his sense that there was something in the air, that the Moreens couldn’t keep it up much longer. In point of fact, as Pemberton was to see, they kept it up for five or six months. All the while, however, Morgan’s contention was designed to cheer him. Mr. Moreen and Ulick, whom he had met the day after his return, accepted that return like perfect men of the world. If Paula and Amy treated it even with less formality an allowance was to be made for them, inasmuch as Mr. Granger hadn’t come to the opera after all. He had only placed his box at their service, with a bouquet for each of the party; there was even one apiece, embittering the thought of his profusion, for Mr. Moreen and Ulick. “They’re all like that,” was Morgan’s comment; “at the very last, just when we think we’ve landed them they’re back in the deep sea!”

Morgan’s comments in these days were more and more free; they even included a large recognition of the extraordinary tenderness with which he had been treated while Pemberton was away. Oh yes, they couldn’t do enough to be nice to him, to show him they had him on their mind and make up for his loss. That was just what made the whole thing so sad and caused him to rejoice after all in Pemberton’s return — he had to keep thinking of their affection less, had less sense of obligation. Pemberton laughed out at this last reason, and Morgan blushed and said: “Well, dash it, you know what I mean.” Pemberton knew perfectly what he meant; but there were a good many things that — dash it too! — it didn’t make any clearer. This episode of his second sojourn in Paris stretched itself out wearily, with their resumed readings and wanderings and maunderings, their potterings on the quays, their hauntings of the museums, their occasional lingerings in the Palais Royal when the first sharp weather came on and there was a comfort in warm emanations, before Chevet’s wonderful succulent window. Morgan wanted to hear all about the opulent youth — he took an immense interest in him. Some of the details of his opulence — Pemberton could spare him none of them — evidently fed the boy’s appreciation of all his friend had given up to come back to him; but in addition to the greater reciprocity established by that heroism he had always his little brooding theory, in which there was a frivolous gaiety too, that their long probation was drawing to a close. Morgan’s conviction that the Moreens couldn’t go on much longer kept pace with the unexpended impetus with which, from month to month, they did go on. Three weeks after Pemberton had rejoined them they went on to another hotel, a dingier one than the first; but Morgan rejoiced that his tutor had at least still not sacrificed the advantage of a room outside. He clung to the romantic utility of this when the day, or rather the night, should arrive for their escape.

For the first time, in this complicated connexion, our friend felt his collar gall him. It was, as he had said to Mrs. Moreen in Venice, trop fort — everything was trop fort. He could neither really throw off his blighting burden nor find in it the benefit of a pacified conscience or of a rewarded affection. He had spent all the money accruing to him in England, and he saw his youth going and that he was getting nothing back for it. It was all very well of Morgan to count it for reparation that he should now settle on him permanently — there was an irritating flaw in such a view. He saw what the boy had in his mind; the conception that as his friend had had the generosity to come back he must show his gratitude by giving him his life. But the poor friend didn’t desire the gift — what could he do with Morgan’s dreadful little life? Of course at the same time that Pemberton was irritated he remembered the reason, which was very honourable to Morgan and which dwelt simply in his making one so forget that he was no more than a patched urchin. If one dealt with him on a different basis one’s misadventures were one’s own fault. So Pemberton waited in a queer confusion of yearning and alarm for the catastrophe which was held to hang over the house of Moreen, of which he certainly at moments felt the symptoms brush his cheek and as to which he wondered much in what form it would find its liveliest effect.

Perhaps it would take the form of sudden dispersal — a frightened sauve qui peut, a scuttling into selfish corners. Certainly they were less elastic than of yore; they were evidently looking for something they didn’t find. The Dorringtons hadn’t re-appeared, the princes had scattered; wasn’t that the beginning of the end? Mrs. Moreen had lost her reckoning of the famous “days”; her social calendar was blurred — it had turned its face to the wall. Pemberton suspected that the great, the cruel discomfiture had been the unspeakable behaviour of Mr. Granger, who seemed not to know what he wanted, or, what was much worse, what they wanted. He kept sending flowers, as if to bestrew the path of his retreat, which was never the path of a return. Flowers were all very well, but — Pemberton could complete the proposition. It was now positively conspicuous that in the long run the Moreens were a social failure; so that the young man was almost grateful the run had not been short. Mr. Moreen indeed was still occasionally able to get away on business and, what was more surprising, was likewise able to get back. Ulick had no club but you couldn’t have discovered it from his appearance, which was as much as ever that of a person looking at life from the window of such an institution; therefore Pemberton was doubly surprised at an answer he once heard him make his mother in the desperate tone of a man familiar with the worst privations. Her question Pemberton had not quite caught; it appeared to be an appeal for a suggestion as to whom they might get to take Amy. “Let the Devil take her!” Ulick snapped; so that Pemberton could see that they had not only lost their amiability but had ceased to believe in themselves. He could also see that if Mrs. Moreen was trying to get people to take her children she might be regarded as closing the hatches for the storm. But Morgan would be the last she would part with.

One winter afternoon — it was a Sunday — he and the boy walked far together in the Bois de Boulogne. The evening was so splendid, the cold lemon-coloured sunset so clear, the stream of carriages and pedestrians so amusing and the fascination of Paris so great, that they stayed out later than usual and became aware that they should have to hurry home to arrive in time for dinner. They hurried accordingly, arm-in-arm, good-humoured and hungry, agreeing that there was nothing like Paris after all and that after everything too that had come and gone they were not yet sated with innocent pleasures. When they reached the hotel they found that, though scandalously late, they were in time for all the dinner they were likely to sit down to. Confusion reigned in the apartments of the Moreens — very shabby ones this time, but the best in the house — and before the interrupted service of the table, with objects displaced almost as if there had been a scuffle and a great wine-stain from an overturned bottle, Pemberton couldn’t blink the fact that there had been a scene of the last proprietary firmness. The storm had come — they were all seeking refuge. The hatches were down, Paula and Amy were invisible — they had never tried the most casual art upon Pemberton, but he felt they had enough of an eye to him not to wish to meet him as young ladies whose frocks had been confiscated — and Ulick appeared to have jumped overboard. The host and his staff, in a word, had ceased to “go on” at the pace of their guests, and the air of embarrassed detention, thanks to a pile of gaping trunks in the passage, was strangely commingled with the air of indignant withdrawal. When Morgan took all this in — and he took it in very quickly — he coloured to the roots of his hair. He had walked from his infancy among difficulties and dangers, but he had never seen a public exposure. Pemberton noticed in a second glance at him that the tears had rushed into his eyes and that they were tears of a new and untasted bitterness. He wondered an instant, for the boy’s sake, whether he might successfully pretend not to understand. Not successfully, he felt, as Mr. and Mrs. Moreen, dinnerless by their extinguished hearth, rose before him in their little dishonoured salon, casting about with glassy eyes for the nearest port in such a storm. They were not prostrate but were horribly white, and Mrs. Moreen had evidently been crying. Pemberton quickly learned however that her grief was not for the loss of her dinner, much as she usually enjoyed it, but the fruit of a blow that struck even deeper, as she made all haste to explain. He would see for himself, so far as that went, how the great change had come, the dreadful bolt had fallen, and how they would now all have to turn themselves about. Therefore cruel as it was to them to part with their darling she must look to him to carry a little further the influence he had so fortunately acquired with the boy — to induce his young charge to follow him into some modest retreat. They depended on him — that was the fact — to take their delightful child temporarily under his protection; it would leave Mr. Moreen and herself so much more free to give the proper attention (too little, alas! had been given) to the readjustment of their affairs.

“We trust you — we feel we can,” said Mrs. Moreen, slowly rubbing her plump white hands and looking with compunction hard at Morgan, whose chin, not to take liberties, her husband stroked with a paternal forefinger.

“Oh yes — we feel that we can. We trust Mr. Pemberton fully, Morgan,” Mr. Moreen pursued.

Pemberton wondered again if he might pretend not to understand; but everything good gave way to the intensity of Morgan’s understanding. “Do you mean he may take me to live with him for ever and ever?” cried the boy. “May take me away, away, anywhere he likes?”

“For ever and ever? Comme vous-y-allez!” Mr. Moreen laughed indulgently. “For as long as Mr. Pemberton may be so good.”

“We’ve struggled, we’ve suffered,” his wife went on; “but you’ve made him so your own that we’ve already been through the worst of the sacrifice.”

Morgan had turned away from his father — he stood looking at Pemberton with a light in his face. His sense of shame for their common humiliated state had dropped; the case had another side — the thing was to clutch at that. He had a moment of boyish joy, scarcely mitigated by the reflexion that with this unexpected consecration of his hope — too sudden and too violent; the turn taken was away from a good boy’s book — the “escape” was left on their hands. The boyish joy was there an instant, and Pemberton was almost scared at the rush of gratitude and affection that broke through his first abasement. When he stammered “My dear fellow, what do you say to that?” how could one not say something enthusiastic? But there was more need for courage at something else that immediately followed and that made the lad sit down quietly on the nearest chair. He had turned quite livid and had raised his hand to his left side. They were all three looking at him, but Mrs. Moreen suddenly bounded forward. “Ah his darling little heart!” she broke out; and this time, on her knees before him and without respect for the idol, she caught him ardently in her arms. “You walked him too far, you hurried him too fast!” she hurled over her shoulder at Pemberton. Her son made no protest, and the next instant, still holding him, she sprang up with her face convulsed and with the terrified cry “Help, help! he’s going, he’s gone!” Pemberton saw with equal horror, by Morgan’s own stricken face, that he was beyond their wildest recall. He pulled him half out of his mother’s hands, and for a moment, while they held him together, they looked all their dismay into each other’s eyes, “He couldn’t stand it with his weak organ,” said Pemberton — “the shock, the whole scene, the violent emotion.”

“But I thought he wanted to go to you!”, wailed Mrs. Moreen.

“I told you he didn’t, my dear,” her husband made answer. Mr. Moreen was trembling all over and was in his way as deeply affected as his wife. But after the very first he took his bereavement as a man of the world.

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