A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

24

Good Robert Thompson was followed by fin M. Lerambert — who was surely good too, in his different way; good at least for feigning an interest he could scarce have rejoicingly felt and that he yet somehow managed to give a due impression of: that artifice being, as we must dimly have divined at the time (in fact I make bold to say that I personally did divine it,) exactly a sign of his finesse. Of no such uncanny engine had Mr. Thompson, luckily, known a need — luckily since to what arsenal could he possibly have resorted for it? None capable of supplying it could ever have met his sight, and we ourselves should at a pinch have had to help him toward it. He was easily interested, or at least took an easy view, on such ground as we offered him, of what it was to be so; whereas his successor attached to the condition a different value — one recognising no secondary substitute. Perhaps this was why our connection with M. Lerambert can have lasted but four or five months — time even for his sharp subterfuge to have ceased entirely to serve him; though indeed even as I say this I vaguely recall that our separation was attended with friction, that it took him unaware and that he had been prepared (or so represented himself) for further sacrifices. It could have been no great one, assuredly, to deal with so intensely living a young mind as my elder brother’s, it could have been but a happy impression constantly renewed; but we two juniors, Wilky and I, were a drag — Wilky’s powers most displayed at that time in his preference for ingenuous talk over any other pursuit whatever, and my own aptitude showing for nil, according to our poor gentleman’s report of me when a couple of months had sped, save as to rendering La Fontaine’s fables into English with a certain corresponding felicity of idiom. I remember perfectly the parental communication to me of this fell judgment, I remember as well the interest with which its so quite definite character inspired me — that character had such beauty and distinctness; yet, and ever so strangely, I recover no sense of having been crushed, and this even though destitute, utterly, of any ground of appeal. The fact leaves me at a loss, since I also remember my not having myself thought particularly well, in the connection allowed, of my “rendering” faculty. “Oh,” I seem inwardly to have said, “if it were to be, if it only could be, really a question of rendering —!” and so, without confusion, though in vague, very vague, mystification to have left it: as if so many things, intrinsic and extrinsic, would have to change and operate, so many would have to happen, so much water have to flow under the bridge, before I could give primary application to such a thought, much more finish such a sentence.

All of which is but a way of saying that we had since the beginning of the summer settled ourselves in Paris, and that M. Lerambert — by what agency invoked, by what revelation vouchsafed, I quite forget — was at this time attending us in a so-called pavilion, of middling size, that, between the Rond–Point and the Rue du Colisée, hung, at no great height, over the Avenue des Champs–Elysées; hung, that is, from the vantage of its own considerable terrace, surmounted as the parapet of the latter was with iron railings rising sufficiently to protect the place for familiar use and covert contemplation (we ever so fondly used it,) and yet not to the point of fencing out life. A blest little old-world refuge it must have seemed to us, with its protuberantly-paved and peculiarly resonant small court and idle communs beside it, accessible by a high grille where the jangle of the bell and the clatter of response across the stones might have figured a comprehensive echo of all old Paris. Old Paris then even there considerably lingered; I recapture much of its presence, for that matter, within our odd relic of a house, the property of an American southerner from whom our parents had briefly hired it and who appeared to divide his time, poor unadmonished gentleman of the eve of the Revolution, between Louisiana and France. What association could have breathed more from the queer graces and the queer incommodities alike, from the diffused glassy polish of floor and perilous staircase, from the redundancy of mirror and clock and ormolu vase, from the irrepressibility of the white and gold panel, from that merciless elegance of tense red damask, above all, which made the gilt-framed backs of sofa and chair as sumptuous, no doubt, but as sumptuously stiff, as the brocaded walls? It was amid these refinements that we presently resumed our studies — even explicitly far from arduous at first, as the Champs–Elysées were perforce that year our summer habitation and some deference was due to the place and the season, lessons of any sort being at best an infraction of the latter. M. Lerambert, who was spare and tightly black-coated, spectacled, pale and prominently intellectual, who lived in the Rue Jacob with his mother and sister, exactly as he should have done to accentuate prophetically his resemblance, save for the spectacles, to some hero of Victor Cherbuliez, and who, in fine, was conscious, not unimpressively, of his authorship of a volume of meditative verse sympathetically mentioned by the Sainte–Beuve of the Causeries in a review of the young poets of the hour (“M. Lerambert too has loved, M. Lerambert too has suffered, M. Lerambert too has sung!” or words to that effect:) this subtle personality, really a high form of sensibility I surmise, and as qualified for other and intenser relations as any Cherbuliez figure of them all, was naturally not to be counted on to lead us gapingly forth as good Mr. Thompson had done; so that my reminiscence of warm somniferous mornings by the windows that opened to the clattery, plashy court is quite, so far as my record goes, relievingly unbroken.

The afternoons, however, glimmer back to me shamelessly different, for our circle had promptly been joined by the all-knowing and all-imposing Mademoiselle Danse aforesaid, her of the so flexible taille and the so salient smiling eyes, than which even those of Miss Rebecca Sharp, that other epic governess, were not more pleasingly green; who provided with high efficiency for our immediate looser needs — mine and Wilky’s and those of our small brother Bob (l’ingénieux petit Robertson as she was to dub him,) and of our still smaller sister at least — our first fine flâneries of curiosity. Her brave Vaudoise predecessor had been bequeathed by us in London to a higher sphere than service with mere earnest nomads could represent; but had left us clinging and weeping and was for a long time afterwards to write to us, faithfully, in the most beautiful copper-plate hand, out of the midst of her “rise”; with details that brought home to us as we had never known it brought the material and institutional difference between the nomadic and the solidly, the spreadingly seated. A couple of years later, on an occasion of our being again for a while in London, she hastened to call on us, and, on departing, amiably invited me to walk back with her, for a gossip — it was a bustling day of June — across a long stretch of the town; when I left her at a glittering portal with the impression of my having in our transit seen much of Society (the old London “season” filled the measure, had length and breadth and thickness, to an extent now foregone,) and, more particularly, achieved a small psychologic study, noted the action of the massive English machinery directed to its end, which had been in this case effectually to tame the presumptuous and “work over” the crude. I remember on that occasion retracing my steps from Eaton Square to Devonshire Street with a lively sense of observation exercised by the way, a perfect gleaning of golden straws. Our guide and philosopher of the summer days in Paris was no such character as that; she had arrived among us full-fledged and consummate, fortunately for the case altogether — as our mere candid humanity would otherwise have had scant practical pressure to bring. Thackeray’s novel contains a plate from his own expressive hand representing Miss Sharp lost in a cynical day-dream while her neglected pupils are locked in a scrimmage on the floor; but the marvel of our exemplar of the Becky type was exactly that though her larger, her more interested and sophisticated views had a range that she not only permitted us to guess but agreeably invited us to follow almost to their furthest limits, we never for a moment ceased to be aware of her solicitude. We might, we must, so tremendously have bored her, but no ironic artist could have caught her at any juncture in the posture of disgust: really, I imagine, because her own ironies would have been too fine for him and too numerous and too mixed. And this remarkable creature vouchsafed us all information for the free enjoyment — on the terms proper to our tender years — of her beautiful city.

It was not by the common measure then so beautiful as now; the second Empire, too lately installed, was still more or less feeling its way, with the great free hand soon to be allowed to Baron Haussmann marked as yet but in the light preliminary flourish. Its connections with the past, however, still hung thickly on; its majesties and symmetries, comparatively vague and general, were subject to the happy accident, the charming lapse and the odd extrusion, a bonhomie of chance composition and colour now quite purged away. The whole region of the Champs–Elysées, where we must after all at first have principally prowled, was another world from the actual huge centre of repeated radiations; the splendid Avenue, as we of course already thought it, carried the eye from the Tuileries to the Arch, but pleasant old places abutted on it by the way, gardens and terraces and hôtels of another time, pavilions still braver than ours, cabarets and cafés of homely, almost of rural type, with a relative and doubtless rather dusty ruralism, spreading away to the River and the Wood. What was the Jardin d’Hiver, a place of entertainment standing quite over against us and that looped itself at night with little coloured oil-lamps, a mere twinkling grin upon the face of pleasure? Dim my impression of having been admitted — or rather, I suppose, conducted, though under conductorship now vague to me — to view it by colourless day, when it must have worn the stamp of an auction-room quite void of the “lots.” More distinct on the other hand the image of the bustling barrière at the top of the Avenue, on the hither side of the Arch, where the old loose-girt banlieue began at once and the two matched lodges of the octroi, highly, that is expressly even if humbly, architectural, guarded the entrance, on either side, with such a suggestion of the generations and dynasties and armies, the revolutions and restorations they had seen come and go. But the Avenue of the Empress, now, so much more thinly, but of the Wood itself, had already been traced, as the Empress herself, young, more than young, attestedly and agreeably new, and fair and shining, was, up and down the vista, constantly on exhibition; with the thrill of that surpassed for us, however, by the incomparable passage, as we judged it, of the baby Prince Imperial borne forth for his airing or his progress to Saint–Cloud in the splendid coach that gave a glimpse of appointed and costumed nursing breasts and laps, and beside which the cent-gardes, all light-blue and silver and intensely erect quick jolt, rattled with pistols raised and cocked. Was a public holiday ever more splendid than that of the Prince’s baptism at Notre Dame, the fête of Saint–Napoléon, or was any ever more immortalised, as we say, than this one was to be by the wonderfully ample and vivid picture of it in the Eugène Rougon of Emile Zola, who must have taken it in, on the spot, as a boy of about our own number of years, though of so much more implanted and predestined an evocatory gift? The sense of that interminable hot day, a day of hanging about and waiting and shuffling in dust, in crowds, in fatigue, amid booths and pedlars and performers and false alarms and expectations and renewed reactions and rushes, all transfigured at the last, withal, by the biggest and brightest illumination up to that time offered even the Parisians, the blinding glare of the new Empire effectually symbolised — the vision of the whole, I say, comes back to me quite in the form of a chapter from the Rougon–Macquart, with its effect of something long and dense and heavy, without shades or undertones, but immensely kept-up and done. I dare say that for those months our contemplations, our daily exercise in general, strayed little beyond the Champs–Elysées, though I recall confusedly as well certain excursions to Passy and Auteuil, where we foregathered with small resident compatriots the easy gutturalism of whose French, an unpremeditated art, was a revelation, an initiation, and whence we roamed, for purposes of picnic, into parts of the Bois de Boulogne that, oddly enough, figured to us the virgin forest better than anything at our own American door had done.

It was the social aspect of our situation that most appealed to me, none the less — for I detect myself, as I woo it all back, disengaging a social aspect again, and more than ever, from the phenomena disclosed to my reflective gape or to otherwise associated strolls; perceptive passages not wholly independent even of the occupancy of two-sous chairs within the charmed circle of Guignol and of Gringalet. I suppose I should have blushed to confess it, but Polichinelle and his puppets, in the afternoons, under an umbrage sparse till evening fell, had still their spell to cast — as part and parcel, that is, of the general intensity of animation and variety of feature. The “amusement,” the æsthetic and human appeal, of Paris had in those days less the air of a great shining conspiracy to please, the machinery in movement confessed less to its huge purpose; but manners and types and traditions, the detail of the scene, its pointed particulars, went their way with a straighter effect, as well as often with a homelier grace — character, temper and tone had lost comparatively little of their emphasis. These scattered accents were matter for our eyes and ears — not a little even already for our respective imaginations; though it is only as the season waned and we set up our fireside afresh and for the winter that I connect my small revolution with a wider field and with the company of W. J. Again for that summer he was to be in eclipse to me; Guignol and Gringalet failed to claim his attention, and Mademoiselle Danse, I make out, deprecated his theory of exact knowledge, besides thinking him perhaps a little of an ours— which came to the same thing. We adjourned that autumn to quarters not far off, a wide-faced apartment in the street then bravely known as the Rue d’Angoulême-St.-Honoré and now, after other mutations, as the Rue La Boëtie; which we were again to exchange a year later for an abode in the Rue Montaigne, this last after a summer’s absence at Boulogne-sur-Mer; the earlier migration setting up for me the frame of a considerably animated picture. Animated at best it was with the spirit and the modest facts of our family life, among which I number the cold finality of M. Lerambert, reflected in still other testimonies — that is till the date of our definite but respectful rupture with him, followed as the spring came on by our ineluctable phase at the Institution Fezandié in the Rue Balzac; of which latter there will be even more to say than I shall take freedom for. With the Rue d’Angoulême came extensions — even the mere immediate view of opposite intimacies and industries, the subdivided aspects and neat ingenuities of the applied Parisian genius counting as such: our many-windowed premier, above an entresol of no great height, hung over the narrow and, during the winter months, not a little dusky channel, with endless movement and interest in the vivid exhibition it supplied. What faced us was a series of subjects, with the baker, at the corner, for the first — the impeccable dispenser of the so softly-crusty crescent-rolls that we woke up each morning to hunger for afresh, with our weak café-au-lait, as for the one form of “European” breakfast-bread fit to be named even with the feeblest of our American forms. Then came the small crêmerie, white picked out with blue, which, by some secret of its own keeping, afforded, within the compass of a few feet square, prolonged savoury meals to working men, white-frocked or blue-frocked, to uniformed cabmen, stout or spare, but all more or less audibly bavards and discernibly critical; and next the compact embrasure of the écaillère or oyster-lady, she and her paraphernalia fitted into their interstice much as the mollusc itself into its shell; neighboured in turn by the marchand-debois, peeping from as narrow a cage, his neat faggots and chopped logs stacked beside him and above him in his sentry-box quite as the niches of saints, in early Italian pictures, are framed with tightly-packed fruits and flowers. Space and remembrance fail me for the rest of the series, the attaching note of which comes back as the note of diffused sociability and domestic, in fact more or less æsthetic, ingenuity, with the street a perpetual parlour or household centre for the flitting, pausing, conversing little bourgeoise or ouvrière to sport, on every pretext and in every errand, her fluted cap, her composed head, her neat ankles and her ready wit. Which is to say indeed but that life and manners were more pointedly and harmoniously expressed, under our noses there, than we had perhaps found them anywhere save in the most salient passages of “stories”; though I must in spite of it not write as if these trifles were all our fare.

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