The Reverberator, by Henry James

Chapter 8

When on coming home again this evening, meanwhile, he complied with his father’s request by returning to the room in which the old man habitually sat, Mr. Probert laid down his book and kept on his glasses. “Of course you’ll continue to live with me. You’ll understand that I don’t consent to your going away. You’ll have the rooms occupied at first by Susan and Alphonse.”

Gaston noted with pleasure the transition from the conditional to the future tense, and also the circumstance that his father had been lost in a book according to his now confirmed custom of evening ease. This proved him not too much off the hinge. He read a great deal, and very serious books; works about the origin of things — of man, of institutions, of speech, of religion. This habit he had taken up more particularly since the circle of his social life had contracted. He sat there alone, turning his pages softly, contentedly, with the lamplight shining on his refined old head and embroidered dressing-gown. He had used of old to be out every night in the week — Gaston was perfectly aware that to many dull people he must even have appeared a little frivolous. He was essentially a social creature and indeed — except perhaps poor Jane in her damp old castle in Brittany — they were all social creatures. That was doubtless part of the reason why the family had acclimatised itself in France. They had affinities with a society of conversation; they liked general talk and old high salons, slightly tarnished and dim, containing precious relics, where winged words flew about through a circle round the fire and some clever person, before the chimney-piece, held or challenged the others. That figure, Gaston knew, especially in the days before he could see for himself, had very often been his father, the lightest and most amiable specimen of the type that enjoyed easy possession of the hearth-rug. People left it to him; he was so transparent, like a glass screen, and he never triumphed in debate. His word on most subjects was not felt to be the last (it was usually not more conclusive than a shrugging inarticulate resignation, an “Ah you know, what will you have?”); but he had been none the less a part of the very prestige of some dozen good houses, most of them over the river, in the conservative faubourg, and several today profaned shrines, cold and desolate hearths. These had made up Mr. Probert’s pleasant world — a world not too small for him and yet not too large, though some of them supposed themselves great institutions. Gaston knew the succession of events that had helped to make a difference, the most salient of which were the death of his brother, the death of his mother, and above all perhaps the demise of Mme. de Marignac, to whom the old boy used still to go three or four evenings out of the seven and sometimes even in the morning besides. Gaston fully measured the place she had held in his father’s life and affection, and the terms on which they had grown up together — her people had been friends of his grandfather when that fine old Southern worthy came, a widower with a young son and several negroes, to take his pleasure in Paris in the time of Louis Philippe — and the devoted part she had played in marrying his sisters. He was quite aware that her friendship and all its exertions were often mentioned as explaining their position, so remarkable in a society in which they had begun after all as outsiders. But he would have guessed, even if he had not been told, what his father said to that. To offer the Proberts a position was to carry water to the fountain; they hadn’t left their own behind them in Carolina; it had been large enough to stretch across the sea. As to what it was in Carolina there was no need of being explicit. This adoptive Parisian was by nature presupposing, but he was admirably urbane — that was why they let him talk so before the fire; he was the oracle persuasive, the conciliatory voice — and after the death of his wife and of Mme. de Marignac, who had been her friend too, the young man’s mother’s, he was gentler, if more detached, than before. Gaston had already felt him to care in consequence less for everything — except indeed for the true faith, to which he drew still closer — and this increase of indifference doubtless helped to explain his present charming accommodation.

“We shall be thankful for any rooms you may give us,” his son said. “We shall fill out the house a little, and won’t that be rather an improvement, shrunken as you and I have become?”

“You’ll fill it out a good deal, I suppose, with Mr. Dosson and the other girl.”

“Ah Francie won’t give up her father and sister, certainly; and what should you think of her if she did? But they’re not intrusive; they’re essentially modest people; they won’t put themselves upon us. They have great natural discretion,” Gaston declared.

“Do you answer for that? Susan does; she’s always assuring one of it,” Mr. Probert said. “The father has so much that he wouldn’t even speak to me.”

“He didn’t, poor dear man, know what to say.”

“How then shall I know what to say to HIM?”

“Ah you always know!” Gaston smiled.

“How will that help us if he doesn’t know what to answer?”

“You’ll draw him out. He’s full of a funny little shade of bonhomie.”

“Well, I won’t quarrel with your bonhomme,” said Mr. Probert —“if he’s silent there are much worse faults; nor yet with the fat young lady, though she’s evidently vulgar — even if you call it perhaps too a funny little shade. It’s not for ourselves I’m afraid; it’s for them. They’ll be very unhappy.”

“Never, never!” said Gaston. “They’re too simple. They’ll remain so. They’re not morbid nor suspicious. And don’t you like Francie? You haven’t told me so,” he added in a moment.

“She talks about ‘Parus,’ my dear boy.”

“Ah to Susan too that seemed the great barrier. But she has got over it. I mean Susan has got over the barrier. We shall make her speak French; she has a real disposition for it; her French is already almost as good as her English.”

“That oughtn’t to be difficult. What will you have? Of course she’s very pretty and I’m sure she’s good. But I won’t tell you she is a marvel, because you must remember — you young fellows think your own point of view and your own experience everything — that I’ve seen beauties without number. I’ve known the most charming women of our time — women of an order to which Miss Francie, con rispetto parlando, will never begin to belong. I’m difficult about women — how can I help it? Therefore when you pick up a little American girl at an inn and bring her to us as a miracle, feel how standards alter. J’ai vu mieux que ca, mon cher. However, I accept everything today, as you know; when once one has lost one’s enthusiasm everything’s the same and one might as well perish by the sword as by famine.”

“I hoped she’d fascinate you on the spot,” Gaston rather ruefully remarked.

“‘Fascinate’— the language you fellows use! How many times in one’s life is one likely to be fascinated?”

“Well, she’ll charm you yet.”

“She’ll never know at least that she doesn’t: I’ll engage for that,” said Mr. Probert handsomely.

“Ah be sincere with her, father — she’s worth it!” his son broke out.

When the elder man took that tone, the tone of vast experience and a fastidiousness justified by ineffable recollections, our friend was more provoked than he could say, though he was also considerably amused, for he had a good while since, made up his mind about the element of rather stupid convention in it. It was fatuous to miss so little the fine perceptions one didn’t have: so far from its showing experience it showed a sad simplicity not to FEEL Francie Dosson. He thanked God she was just the sort of imponderable infinite quantity, such as there were no stupid terms for, that he did feel. He didn’t know what old frumps his father might have frequented — the style of 1830, with long curls in front, a vapid simper, a Scotch plaid dress and a corsage, in a point suggestive of twenty whalebones, coming down to the knees — but he could remember Mme. de Marignac’s Tuesdays and Thursdays and Fridays, with Sundays and other days thrown in, and the taste that prevailed in that milieu: the books they admired, the verses they read and recited, the pictures, great heaven! they thought good, and the three busts of the lady of the house in different corners (as a Diana, a Druidess and a Croyante: her shoulders were supposed to make up for her head), effigies the public ridicule attaching to which today would — even the least bad, Canova’s — make their authors burrow in holes for shame.

“And what else is she worth?” Mr. Probert asked after a momentary hesitation.

“How do you mean, what else?”

“Her immense prospects, that’s what Susan has been putting forward. Susan’s insistence on them was mainly what brought over Jane. Do you mind my speaking of them?”

Gaston was obliged to recognise privately the importance of Jane’s having been brought over, but he hated to hear it spoken of as if he were under an obligation to it. “To whom, sir?” he asked.

“Oh only to you.”

“You can’t do less than Mr. Dosson. As I told you, he waived the question of money and he was splendid. We can’t be more mercenary than he.”

“He waived the question of his own, you mean?” said Mr. Probert.

“Yes, and of yours. But it will be all right.” The young man flattered himself that this was as near as he was willing to go to any view of pecuniary convenience.

“Well, it’s your affair — or your sisters’,” his father returned.

“It’s their idea that we see where we are and that we make the best of it.”

“It’s very good of them to make the best of it and I should think they’d be tired of their own chatter,” Gaston impatiently sighed.

Mr. Probert looked at him a moment in vague surprise, but only said: “I think they are. However, the period of discussion’s closed. We’ve taken the jump.” He then added as to put the matter a little less dryly: “Alphonse and Maxime are quite of your opinion.”

“Of my opinion?”

“That she’s charming.”

“Confound them then, I’m not of theirs!” The form of this rejoinder was childishly perverse, and it made Mr. Probert stare again; but it belonged to one of the reasons for which his children regarded him as an old darling that Gaston could suppose him after an instant to embrace it. The old man said nothing, but took up his book, and his son, who had been standing before the fire, went out of the room. His abstention from protest at Gaston’s petulance was the more generous as he was capable, for his part, of feeling it to make for a greater amenity in the whole connexion that ces messieurs should like the little girl at the hotel. Gaston didn’t care a straw what it made for, and would have seen himself in bondage indeed had he given a second thought to the question. This was especially the case as his father’s mention of the approval of two of his brothers-inlaw appeared to point to a possible disapproval on the part of the third. Francie’s lover cared as little whether she displeased M. de Brecourt as he cared whether she pleased Maxime and Raoul. Mr. Probert continued to read, and in a few moments Gaston was with him again. He had expressed surprise, just before, at the wealth of discussion his sisters had been ready to expend in his interest, but he managed to convey now that there was still a point of a certain importance to be made. “It seems rather odd to me that you should all appear to accept the step I’M about to take as a necessity disagreeable at the best, when I myself hold that I’ve been so exceedingly fortunate.”

Mr. Probert lowered his book accommodatingly and rested his eyes on the fire. “You won’t be content till we’re enthusiastic. She seems an amiable girl certainly, and in that you’re fortunate.”

“I don’t think you can tell me what would be better — what you’d have preferred,” the young man said.

“What I should have preferred? In the first place you must remember that I wasn’t madly impatient to see you married.”

“I can imagine that, and yet I can’t imagine that as things have turned out you shouldn’t be struck with my felicity. To get something so charming and to get it of our own species!” Gaston explained.

“Of our own species? Tudieu!” said his father, looking up.

“Surely it’s infinitely fresher and more amusing for me to marry an American. There’s a sad want of freshness — there’s even a provinciality — in the way we’ve Gallicised.”

“Against Americans I’ve nothing to say; some of them are the best thing the world contains. That’s precisely why one can choose. They’re far from doing all like that.”

“Like what, dear father?”

“Comme ces gens-la. You know that if they were French, being otherwise what they are, one wouldn’t look at them.”

“Indeed one would; they would be such rare curiosities.”

“Well, perhaps they’ll do for queer fish,” said Mr. Probert with a little conclusive sigh.

“Yes, let them pass at that. They’ll surprise you.”

“Not too much, I hope!” cried the old man, opening his volume again.

The complexity of things among the Proberts, it needn’t nevertheless startle us to learn, was such as to make it impossible for Gaston to proceed to the celebration of his nuptial, with all the needful circumstances of material preparation and social support, before some three months should have expired. He chafed however but moderately under this condition, for he remembered it would give Francie time to endear herself to his whole circle. It would also have advantages for the Dossons; it would enable them to establish by simple but effective arts some modus vivendi with that rigid body. It would in short help every one to get used to everything. Mr. Dosson’s designs and Delia’s took no articulate form; what was mainly clear to Gaston was that his future wife’s relatives had as yet no sense of disconnexion. He knew that Mr. Dosson would do whatever Delia liked and that Delia would like to “start” her sister — this whether or no she expected to be present at the rest of the race. Mr. Probert notified Mr. Dosson of what he proposed to “do” for his son, and Mr. Dosson appeared more quietly amused than anything else at the news. He announced in return no intentions in regard to Francie, and his strange silence was the cause of another convocation of the house of Probert. Here Mme. de Brecourt’s bold front won another victory; she maintained, as she let her brother know, that it was too late for any policy but a policy of confidence. “Lord help us, is that what they call confidence?” the young man gasped, guessing the way they all had looked at each other; and he wondered how they would look next at poor Mr. Dosson himself. Fortunately he could always fall back, for reassurance, on the perfection of their “forms”; though indeed he thoroughly knew that these forms would never appear so striking as on the day — should such a day fatally come — of their meddling too much.

Mr. Probert’s property was altogether in the United States: he resembled other discriminating persons for whom the only good taste in America was the taste of invested and paying capital. The provisions he was engaging to make for his son’s marriage rendered advisable some attention, on the spot, to interests with the management of which he was acquainted only by report. It had long been his conviction that his affairs beyond the sea needed looking into; they had gone on and on for years too far from the master’s eye. He had thought of making the journey in the cause of that vigilance, but now he was too old and too tired and the effort had become impossible. There was nothing therefore but for Gaston to go, and go quickly, though the time so little fostered his absence from Paris. The duty was none the less laid upon him and the question practically faced; then everything yielded to the consideration that he had best wait till after his marriage, when he might be so auspiciously accompanied by his wife. Francie would be in many ways so propitious an introducer. This abatement would have taken effect had not a call for an equal energy on Mr. Dosson’s part suddenly appeared to reach and to move that gentleman. He had business on the other side, he announced, to attend to, though his starting for New York presented difficulties, since he couldn’t in such a situation leave his daughters alone. Not only would such a proceeding have given scandal to the Proberts, but Gaston learned, with much surprise and not a little amusement, that Delia, in consequence of changes now finely wrought in her personal philosophy, wouldn’t have felt his doing so square with propriety. The young man was able to put it to her that nothing would be simpler than, in the interval, for Francie to go and stay with Susan or Margaret; she herself in that case would be free to accompany her father. But Delia declared at this that nothing would induce her to budge from Paris till she had seen her sister through, and Gaston shrank from proposing that she too should spend five weeks in the Place Beauvau or the Rue de Lille. There was moreover a slight element of the mystifying for him in the perverse unsociable way in which Francie took up a position of marked disfavour as yet to any “visiting.” AFTER, if he liked, but not till then. And she wouldn’t at the moment give the reasons of her refusal; it was only very positive and even quite passionate.

All this left her troubled suitor no alternative but to say to Mr. Dosson: “I’m not, my dear sir, such a fool as I look. If you’ll coach me properly, and trust me, why shouldn’t I rush across and transact your business as well as my father’s?” Strange as it appeared, Francie offered herself as accepting this separation from her lover, which would last six or seven weeks, rather than accept the hospitality of any member of his family. Mr. Dosson, on his side, was grateful for the solution; he remarked “Well, sir, you’ve got a big brain” at the end of a morning they spent with papers and pencils; and on this Gaston made his preparations to sail. Before he left Paris Francie, to do her justice, confided to him that her objection to going in such an intimate way even to Mme. de Brecourt’s had been founded on a fear that in close quarters she might do something that would make them all despise her. Gaston replied, in the first place, ardently, that this was the very delirium of delicacy, and that he wanted to know in the second if she expected never to be at close quarters with “tous les siens.” “Ah yes, but then it will be safer,” she pleaded; “then we shall be married and by so much, shan’t we? be beyond harm.” In rejoinder to which he had simply kissed her; the passage taking place three days before her lover took ship. What further befell in the brief interval was that, stopping for a last word at the Hotel de l’Univers et the Cheltenham on his way to catch the night express to London — he was to sail from Liverpool — Gaston found Mr. George Flack sitting in the red-satin saloon. The correspondent of the Reverberator had come back.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56