One day at noon, shortly before the time for which Gaston had announced his return, a note was brought Francie from Mme. de Brecourt. It caused her some agitation, though it contained a clause intended to guard her against vain fears. “Please come to me the moment you’ve received this — I’ve sent the carriage. I’ll explain when you get here what I want to see you about. Nothing has happened to Gaston. We are all here.” The coupe from the Place Beauvau was waiting at the door of the hotel, and the girl had but a hurried conference with her father and sister — if conference it could be called in which vagueness on the one side melted into blankness on the other. “It’s for something bad — something bad,” Francie none the less said while she tied her bonnet, though she was unable to think what it could be. Delia, who looked a good deal scared, offered to accompany her; on which Mr. Dosson made the first remark of a practical character in which he had indulged in relation to his daughter’s alliance.
“No you won’t — no you won’t, my dear. They may whistle for Francie, but let them see that they can’t whistle for all of us.” It was the first sign he had given of being jealous of the dignity of the Dossons. That question had never troubled him.
“I know what it is,” said Delia while she arranged her sister’s garments. “They want to talk about religion. They’ve got the priests; there’s some bishop or perhaps some cardinal. They want to baptise you.”
“Then you’d better take a waterproof!” Francie’s father called after her as she flitted away.
She wondered, rolling toward the Place Beauvau, what they were all there for; that announcement balanced against the reassurance conveyed in the phrase about Gaston. She liked them individually, but in their collective form they made her uneasy. In their family parties there was always something of the tribunal. Mme. de Brecourt came out to meet her in the vestibule, drawing her quickly into a small room — not the salon; Francie knew it as her hostess’s “own room,” a lovely boudoir — in which, considerably to the girl’s relief, the rest of the family were not assembled. Yet she guessed in a moment that they were near at hand — they were waiting. Susan looked flushed and strange; she had a queer smile; she kissed her as if she didn’t know she was doing it. She laughed as she greeted her, but her laugh was extravagant; it was a different demonstration every way from any Francie had hitherto had to reckon with. By the time our young lady had noted these things she was sitting beside her on a sofa and Mme. de Brecourt had her hand, which she held so tight that it almost hurt her. Susan’s eyes were in their nature salient, but on this occasion they seemed to have started out of her head.
“We’re upside down — terribly agitated. A thunderbolt has fallen on the house.”
“What’s the matter — what’s the matter?” Francie asked, pale and with parted lips. She had a sudden wild idea that Gaston might have found out in America that her father had no money, had lost it all; that it had been stolen during their long absence. But would he cast her off for that?
“You must understand the closeness of our union with you from our sending for you this way — the first, the only person — in a crisis. Our joys are your joys and our indignations are yours.”
“What IS the matter, PLEASE?” the girl repeated. Their “indignations” opened up a gulf; it flashed upon her, with a shock of mortification for the belated idea, that something would have come out: a piece in the paper, from Mr. Flack, about her portrait and even a little about herself. But that was only more mystifying, for certainly Mr. Flack could only have published something pleasant — something to be proud of. Had he by some incredible perversity or treachery stated that the picture was bad, or even that SHE was? She grew dizzy, remembering how she had refused him, and how little he had liked it, that day at Saint–Germain. But they had made that up over and over, especially when they sat so long on a bench together (the time they drove) in the Bois de Boulogne.
“Oh the most awful thing; a newspaper sent this morning from America to my father — containing two horrible columns of vulgar lies and scandal about our family, about all of us, about you, about your picture, about poor Marguerite, calling her ‘Margot,’ about Maxime and Leonie de Villepreux, saying he’s her lover, about all our affairs, about Gaston, about your marriage, about your sister and your dresses and your dimples, about our darling father, whose history it professes to relate in the most ignoble, the most revolting terms. Papa’s in the most awful state!” and Mme. de Brecourt panted to take breath. She had spoken with the volubility of horror and passion. “You’re outraged with us and you must suffer with us,” she went on. “But who has done it? Who has done it? Who has done it?”
“Why Mr. Flack — Mr. Flack!” Francie quickly replied. She was appalled, overwhelmed; but her foremost feeling was the wish not to appear to disavow her knowledge.
“Mr. Flack? do you mean that awful person —? He ought to be shot, he ought to be burnt alive. Maxime will kill him, Maxime’s in an unspeakable rage. Everything’s at end, we’ve been served up to the rabble, we shall have to leave Paris. How could he know such things? — and they all so infamously false!” The poor woman poured forth her woe in questions, contradictions, lamentations; she didn’t know what to ask first, against what to protest. “Do you mean that wretch Marguerite saw you with at Mr. Waterlow’s? Oh Francie, what has happened? She had a feeling then, a dreadful foreboding. She saw you afterwards — walking with him — in the Bois.”
“Well, I didn’t see her,” the girl said.
“You were talking with him — you were too absorbed: that’s what Margot remembers. Oh Francie, Francie!” wailed Mme. de Brecourt, whose distress was pitiful.
“She tried to interfere at the studio, but I wouldn’t let her. He’s an old friend — a friend of poppa’s — and I like him very much. What my father allows, that’s not for others to criticise!” Francie continued. She was frightened, extremely frightened, at her companion’s air of tragedy and at the dreadful consequences she alluded to, consequences of an act she herself didn’t know, couldn’t comprehend nor measure yet. But there was an instinct of bravery in her which threw her into blind defence, defence even of George Flack, though it was a part of her consternation that on her too he should have practised a surprise — it would appear to be some self-seeking deception.
“Oh how can you bear with such brutes, how can your father —? What devil has he paid to tattle to him?”
“You scare me awfully — you terrify me,” the girl could but plead. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t seen it, I don’t understand it. Of course I’ve talked to Mr. Flack.”
“Oh Francie, don’t say it — don’t SAY it! Dear child, you haven’t talked to him in that fashion: vulgar horrors and such a language!” Mme. de Brecourt came nearer, took both her hands now, drew her closer, seemed to supplicate her for some disproof, some antidote to the nightmare. “You shall see the paper; they’ve got it in the other room — the most disgusting sheet. Margot’s reading it to her husband; he can’t read English, if you can call it English: such a style of the gutter! Papa tried to translate it to Maxime, but he couldn’t, he was too sick. There’s a quantity about Mme. de Marignac — imagine only! And a quantity about Jeanne and Raoul and their economies in the country. When they see it in Brittany — heaven preserve us!”
Francie had turned very white; she looked for a minute at the carpet. “And what does it say about me?”
“Some trash about your being the great American beauty, with the most odious details, and your having made a match among the ‘rare old exclusives.’ And the strangest stuff about your father — his having gone into a ‘store’ at the age of twelve. And something about your poor sister — heaven help us! And a sketch of our career in Paris, as they call it, and the way we’ve pushed and got on and our ridiculous pretensions. And a passage about Blanche de Douves, Raoul’s sister, who had that disease — what do they call it? — that she used to steal things in shops: do you see them reading THAT? And how did he know such a thing? It’s ages ago, it’s dead and buried!”
“You told me, you told me yourself,” said Francie quickly. She turned red the instant she had spoken.
“Don’t say it’s YOU— don’t, don’t, my darling!” cried Mme. de Brecourt, who had stared and glared at her. “That’s what I want, that’s what you must do, that’s what I see you this way for first alone. I’ve answered for you, you know; you must repudiate the remotest connexion; you must deny it up to the hilt. Margot suspects you — she has got that idea — she has given it to the others. I’ve told them they ought to be ashamed, that it’s an outrage to all we know you and love you for. I’ve done everything for the last hour to protect you. I’m your godmother, you know, and you mustn’t disappoint me. You’re incapable, and you must say so, face to face, to my father. Think of Gaston, cherie; HE’LL have seen it over there, alone, far from us all. Think of HIS horror and of HIS anguish and of HIS faith, of what HE would expect of you.” Mme. de Brecourt hurried on, and her companion’s bewilderment deepened to see how the tears had risen to her eyes and were pouring down her cheeks. “You must say to my father, face to face, that you’re incapable — that you’re stainless.”
“Stainless?” Francie bleated it like a bewildered interrogative lamb. But the sheep-dog had to be faced. “Of course I knew he wanted to write a piece about the picture — and about my marriage.”
“About your marriage — of course you knew? Then, wretched girl, you’re at the bottom of ALL!” cried Mme. de Brecourt, flinging herself away, falling back on the sofa, prostrate there and covering her face with her hands.
“He told me — he told me when I went with him to the studio!” Francie asseverated loud. “But he seems to have printed more.”
“MORE? I should think so!” And Mme. de Brecourt rebounded, standing before her. “And you LET him — about yourself? You gave him preposterous facts?”
“I told him — I told him — I don’t know what. It was for his paper — he wants everything. It’s a very fine paper,” said the girl.
“A very fine paper?” Mme. de Brecourt flushed, with parted lips. “Have you SEEN, have you touched the hideous sheet? Ah my brother, my brother!” she quavered again, turning away.
“If your brother were here you wouldn’t talk to me this way — he’d protect me, Gaston would!” cried Francie, on her feet, seizing her little muff and moving to the door.
“Go away, go away or they’ll kill you!” her friend went on excitedly. “After all I’ve done for you — after the way I’ve lied for you!” And she sobbed, trying to repress her sobs.
Francie, at this, broke out into a torrent of tears. “I’ll go home. Poppa, poppa!” she almost shrieked, reaching the door.
“Oh your father — he has been a nice father, bringing you up in such ideas!” These words followed her with infinite scorn, but almost as Mme. de Brecourt uttered them, struck by a sound, she sprang after the girl, seized her, drew her back and held her a moment listening before she could pass out. “Hush — hush — they’re coming in here, they’re too anxious! Deny — deny it — say you know nothing! Your sister must have said things — and such things: say it all comes from HER!”
“Oh you dreadful — is that what YOU do?” cried Francie, shaking herself free. The door opened as she spoke and Mme. de Brecourt walked quickly to the window, turning her back. Mme. de Cliche was there and Mr. Probert and M. de Brecourt and M. de Cliche. They entered in silence and M. de Brecourt, coming last, closed the door softly behind him. Francie had never been in a court of justice, but if she had had that experience these four persons would have reminded her of the jury filing back into their box with their verdict. They all looked at her hard as she stood in the middle of the room; Mme. de Brecourt gazed out of the window, wiping her tears; Mme. de Cliche grasped a newspaper, crumpled and partly folded. Francie got a quick impression, moving her eyes from one face to another, that old Mr. Probert was the worst; his mild ravaged expression was terrible. He was the one who looked at her least; he went to the fireplace and leaned on the mantel with his head in his hands. He seemed ten years older.
“Ah mademoiselle, mademoiselle, mademoiselle!” said Maxime de Cliche slowly, impressively, in a tone of the most respectful but most poignant reproach.
“Have you seen it — have they sent it to you —?” his wife asked, thrusting the paper toward her. “It’s quite at your service!” But as Francie neither spoke nor took it she tossed it upon the sofa, where, as it opened, falling, the girl read the name of the Reverberator. Mme. de Cliche carried her head very far aloft.
“She has nothing to do with it — it’s just as I told you — she’s overwhelmed,” said Mme. de Brecourt, remaining at the window.
“You’d do well to read it — it’s worth the trouble,” Alphonse de Brecourt remarked, going over to his wife. Francie saw him kiss her as he noted her tears. She was angry at her own; she choked and swallowed them; they seemed somehow to put her in the wrong.
“Have you had no idea that any such monstrosity would be perpetrated?” Mme. de Cliche went on, coming nearer to her. She had a manner of forced calmness — as if she wished it to be understood that she was one of those who could be reasonable under any provocation, though she were trembling within — which made Francie draw back. “C’est pourtant rempli de choses — which we know you to have been told of — by what folly, great heaven! It’s right and left — no one’s spared — it’s a deluge of the lowest insult. My sister perhaps will have told you of the apprehensions I had — I couldn’t resist them, though I thought of nothing so awful as this, God knows — the day I met you at Mr. Waterlow’s with your journalist.”
“I’ve told her everything — don’t you see she’s aneantie? Let her go, let her go!” cried Mme. de Brecourt all distrustfully and still at the window.
“Ah your journalist, your journalist, mademoiselle!” said Maxime de Cliche. “I’m very sorry to have to say anything in regard to any friend of yours that can give you so little pleasure; but I promise myself the satisfaction of administering him with these hands a dressing he won’t forget, if I may trouble you so far as to ask you to let him know it!”
M. de Cliche fingered the points of his moustache; he diffused some powerful scent; his eyes were dreadful to Francie. She wished Mr. Probert would say something kind to her; but she had now determined to be strong. They were ever so many against one; Gaston was far away and she felt heroic. “If you mean Mr. Flack — I don’t know what you mean,” she said as composedly as possible to M. de Cliche. “Mr. Flack has gone to London.”
At this M. de Brecourt gave a free laugh and his brother-inlaw replied: “Ah it’s easy to go to London.”
“They like such things there; they do them more and more. It’s as bad as America!” Mme. de Cliche declared.
“Why have you sent for me — what do you all want me to do? You might explain — I’m only an American girl!” said Francie, whose being only an American girl didn’t prevent her pretty head from holding itself now as high as Mme. de Cliche’s.
Mme. de Brecourt came back to her quickly, laying her hand on her arm. “You’re very nervous — you’d much better go home. I’ll explain everything to them — I’ll make them understand. The carriage is here — it had orders to wait.”
“I’m not in the least nervous, but I’ve made you all so,” Francie brought out with the highest spirit.
“I defend you, my dear young lady — I insist that you’re only a wretched victim like ourselves,” M. de Brecourt remarked, approaching her with a smile. “I see the hand of a woman in it, you know,” he went on to the others; “for there are strokes of a vulgarity that a man doesn’t sink to — he can’t, his very organisation prevents him — even if he be the dernier des goujats. But please don’t doubt that I’ve maintained that woman not to be you.”
“The way you talk! I don’t know how to write,” Francie impatiently quavered.
“My poor child, when one knows you as I do —!” murmured Mme. de Brecourt with an arm round her.
“There’s a lady who helps him — Mr. Flack has told me so,” the girl continued. “She’s a literary lady — here in Paris — she writes what he tells her. I think her name’s Miss Topping, but she calls herself Florine — or Dorine,” Francie added.
“Miss Dosson, you’re too rare!” Marguerite de Cliche exclaimed, giving a long moan of pain which ended in an incongruous laugh. “Then you’ve been three to it,” she went on; “that accounts for its perfection!”
Francie disengaged herself again from Mme. de Brecourt and went to Mr. Probert, who stood looking down at the fire with his back to her. “Mr. Probert, I’m very sorry for what I’ve done to distress you; I had no idea you’d all feel so badly. I didn’t mean any harm. I thought you’d like it.”
The old man turned a little, bending his eyes on her, but without taking her hand as she had hoped. Usually when they met he kissed her. He didn’t look angry now, he only looked very ill. A strange, inarticulate sound, a chorus of amazement and mirth, came from the others when she said she thought they’d like it; and indeed poor Francie was far from being able to measure the droll effect of that speech. “Like it — LIKE IT?” said Mr. Probert, staring at her as if a little afraid of her.
“What do you mean? She admits — she admits!” Mme. de Cliche exulted to her sister. “Did you arrange it all that day in the Bois — to punish me for having tried to separate you?” she pursued to the poor child, who stood gazing up piteously at the old man.
“I don’t know what he has published — I haven’t seen it — I don’t understand. I thought it was only to be a piece about me,” she said to him.
“‘About me’!” M. de Cliche repeated in English. “Elle est divine!” He turned away, raising his shoulders and hands and then letting them fall.
Mme. de Brecourt had picked up the newspaper; she rolled it together, saying to Francie that she must take it home, take it home immediately — then she’d see. She only seemed to wish to get her out of the room. But Mr. Probert had fixed their flushed little guest with his sick stare. “You gave information for that? You desired it?”
“Why I didn’t desire it — but Mr. Flack did.”
“Why do you know such ruffians? Where was your father?” the old man groaned.
“I thought he’d just be nice about my picture and give pleasure to Mr. Waterlow,” Francie went on. “I thought he’d just speak about my being engaged and give a little account; so many people in America would be interested.”
“So many people in America — that’s just the dreadful thought, my dear,” said Mme. de Brecourt kindly. “Foyons, put it in your muff and tell us what you think of it.” And she continued to thrust forward the scandalous journal.
But Francie took no notice of it; she looked round from Mr. Probert at the others. “I told Gaston I’d certainly do something you wouldn’t like.”
“Well, he’ll believe it now!” cried Mme. de Cliche.
“My poor child, do you think he’ll like it any better?” asked Mme. de Brecourt.
Francie turned upon her beautiful dilated eyes in which a world of new wonders and fears had suddenly got itself reflected. “He’ll see it over there — he has seen it now.”
“Oh my dear, you’ll have news of him. Don’t be afraid!” broke in high derision from Mme. de Cliche.
“Did HE send you the paper?” her young friend went on to Mr. Probert.
“It was not directed in his hand,” M. de Brecourt pronounced. “There was some stamp on the band — it came from the office.”
“Mr. Flack — is that his hideous name? — must have seen to that,” Mme. de Brecourt suggested.
“Or perhaps Florine,” M. de Cliche interposed. “I should like to get hold of Florine!”
“I DID— I did tell him so!” Francie repeated with all her fevered candour, alluding to her statement of a moment before and speaking as if she thought the circumstance detracted from the offence.
“So did I— so did we all!” said Mme. de Cliche.
“And will he suffer — as you suffer?” Francie continued, appealing to Mr. Probert.
“Suffer, suffer? He’ll die!” cried the old man. “However, I won’t answer for him; he’ll tell you himself, when he returns.”
“He’ll die?” echoed Francie with the eyes of a child at the pantomime who has found the climax turning to demons or monsters or too much gunpowder.
“He’ll never return — how can he show himself?” said Mme. de Cliche.
“That’s not true — he’ll come back to stand by me!” the girl flashed out.
“How couldn’t you feel us to be the last — the very last?” asked Mr. Probert with great gentleness. “How couldn’t you feel my poor son to be the last —?”
“C’est un sens qui lui manque!” shrilled implacably Mme. de Cliche.
“Let her go, papa — do let her go home,” Mme. de Brecourt pleaded. “Surely. That’s the only place for her today,” the elder sister continued.
“Yes, my child — you oughtn’t to be here. It’s your father — he ought to understand,” said Mr. Probert.
“For God’s sake don’t send for him — let it all stop!” And Mme. de Cliche made wild gestures.
Francie looked at her as she had never looked at any one in her life, and then said: “Good-bye, Mr. Probert — good-bye, Susan.”
“Give her your arm — take her to the carriage,” she heard Mme. de Brecourt growl to her husband. She got to the door she hardly knew how — she was only conscious that Susan held her once more long enough to kiss her. Poor Susan wanted to comfort her; that showed how bad — feeling as she did — she believed the whole business would yet be. It would be bad because Gaston, Gaston —! Francie didn’t complete that thought, yet only Gaston was in her mind as she hurried to the carriage. M. de Brecourt hurried beside her; she wouldn’t take his arm. But he opened the door for her and as she got in she heard him murmur in the strangest and most unexpected manner: “You’re charming, mademoiselle — charming, charming!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10