Mrs. Temperly, by Henry James


‘Only just ourselves,’ her note had said; and he arrived, in his natural impatience, a few moments before the hour. He remembered his Cousin Maria’s habitual punctuality, but when he entered the splendid salon in the quarter of the Parc Monceau — it was there that he had found her established — he saw that he should have it, for a little, to himself. This was pleasing, for he should be able to look round — there were admirable things to look at. Even to-day Raymond Bestwick was not sure that he had learned to paint, but he had no doubt of his judgment of the work of others, and a single glance showed him that Mrs. Temperly had ‘known enough’ to select, for the adornment of her walls, half a dozen immensely valuable specimens of contemporary French art. Her choice of other objects had been equally enlightened, and he remembered what Dora had said to him five years before — that her mother wished them to have the best. Evidently, now they had got it; if five years was a long time for him to have delayed (with his original plan of getting off so soon) to come to Paris, it was a very short one for Cousin Maria to have taken to arrive at the highest good.

Rather to his surprise the first person to come in was Effie, now so complete a young lady, and such a very pretty girl, that he scarcely would have known her. She was fair, she was graceful, she was lovely, and as she entered the room, blushing and smiling, with a little floating motion which suggested that she was in a liquid element, she brushed down the ribbons of a delicate Parisian toilette de jeune fille. She appeared to expect that he would be surprised, and as if to justify herself for being the first she said, ‘Mamma told me to come; she knows you are here; she said I was not to wait.’ More than once, while they conversed, during the next few moments, before any one else arrived, she repeated that she was acting by her mamma’s directions. Raymond perceived that she had not only the costume but several other of the attributes of a jeune fille. They talked, I say, but with a certain difficulty, for Effie asked him no questions, and this made him feel a little stiff about thrusting information upon her. Then she was so pretty, so exquisite, that this by itself disconcerted him. It seemed to him almost that she had falsified a prophecy, instead of bringing one to pass. He had foretold that she would be like this; the only difference was that she was so much more like it. She made no inquiries about his arrival, his people in America, his plans; and they exchanged vague remarks about the pictures, quite as if they had met for the first time.

When Cousin Maria came in Effie was standing in front of the fire fastening a bracelet, and he was at a distance gazing in silence at a portrait of his hostess by Bastien–Lepage. One of his apprehensions had been that Cousin Maria would allude ironically to the difference there had been between his threat (because it had been really almost a threat) of following them speedily to Paris and what had in fact occurred; but he saw in a moment how superficial this calculation had been. Besides, when had Cousin Maria ever been ironical? She treated him as if she had seen him last week (which did not preclude kindness), and only expressed her regret at having missed his visit the day before, in consequence of which she had immediately written to him to come and dine. He might have come from round the corner, instead of from New York and across the wintry ocean. This was a part of her ‘cosiness,’ her friendly, motherly optimism, of which, even of old, the habit had been never to recognise nor allude to disagreeable things; so that to-day, in the midst of so much that was not disagreeable, the custom would of course be immensely confirmed.

Raymond was perfectly aware that it was not a pleasure, even for her, that, for several years past, things should have gone so ill in New York with his family and himself. His father’s embarrassments, of which Marian’s silly husband had been the cause and which had terminated in general ruin and humiliation, to say nothing of the old man’s ‘stroke’ and the necessity, arising from it, for a renunciation on his own part of all present thoughts of leaving home again and even for a partial relinquishment of present work, the old man requiring so much of his personal attention — all this constituted an episode which could not fail to look sordid and dreary in the light of Mrs. Temperly’s high success. The odour of success was in the warm, slightly heavy air, which seemed distilled from rare old fabrics, from brocades and tapestries, from the deep, mingled tones of the pictures, the subdued radiance of cabinets and old porcelain and the jars of winter roses standing in soft circles of lamp-light. Raymond felt himself in the presence of an effect in regard to which he remained in ignorance of the cause — a mystery that required a key. Cousin Maria’s success was unexplained so long as she simply stood there with her little familiar, comforting, upward gaze, talking in coaxing cadences, with exactly the same manner she had brought ten years ago from California, to a tall, bald, bending, smiling young man, evidently a foreigner, who had just come in and whose name Raymond had not caught from the lips of the maître d’hôtel. Was he just one of themselves — was he there for Effie, or perhaps even for Dora? The unexplained must preponderate till Dora came in; he found he counted upon her, even though in her letters (it was true that for the last couple of years they had come but at long intervals) she had told him so little about their life. She never spoke of people; she talked of the books she read, of the music she had heard or was studying (a whole page sometimes about the last concert at the Conservatoire), the new pictures and the manner of the different artists.

When she entered the room three or four minutes after the arrival of the young foreigner, with whom her mother conversed in just the accents Raymond had last heard at the hotel in the Fifth Avenue (he was obliged to admit that she gave herself no airs; it was clear that her success had not gone in the least to her head); when Dora at last appeared she was accompanied by Mademoiselle Bourde. The presence of this lady — he didn’t know she was still in the house — Raymond took as a sign that they were really dining en famille, so that the young man was either an actual or a prospective intimate. Dora shook hands first with her cousin, but he watched the manner of her greeting with the other visitor and saw that it indicated extreme friendliness — on the part of the latter. If there was a charming flush in her cheek as he took her hand, that was the remainder of the colour that had risen there as she came toward Raymond. It will be seen that our young man still had an eye for the element of fascination, as he used to regard it, in this quiet, dimly-shining maiden.

He saw that Effie was the only one who had changed (Tishy remained yet to be judged), except that Dora really looked older, quite as much older as the number of years had given her a right to: there was as little difference in her as there was in her mother. Not that she was like her mother, but she was perfectly like herself. Her meeting with Raymond was bright, but very still; their phrases were awkward and commonplace, and the thing was mainly a contact of looks — conscious, embarrassed, indirect, but brightening every moment with old familiarities. Her mother appeared to pay no attention, and neither, to do her justice, did Mademoiselle Bourde, who, after an exchange of expressive salutations with Raymond began to scrutinise Effie with little admiring gestures and smiles. She surveyed her from head to foot; she pulled a ribbon straight; she was evidently a flattering governess. Cousin Maria explained to Cousin Raymond that they were waiting for one more friend — a very dear lady. ‘But she lives near, and when people live near they are always late — haven’t you noticed that?’

‘Your hotel is far away, I know, and yet you were the first,’ Dora said, smiling to Raymond.

‘Oh, even if it were round the corner I should be the first — to come to you!’ the young man answered, speaking loud and clear, so that his words might serve as a notification to Cousin Maria that his sentiments were unchanged.

‘You are more French than the French,’ Dora returned.

‘You say that as if you didn’t like them: I hope you don’t,’ said Raymond, still with intentions in regard to his hostess.

‘We like them more and more, the more we see of them,’ this lady interposed; but gently, impersonally, and with an air of not wishing to put Raymond in the wrong.

Mais j’espère bien!’ cried Mademoiselle Bourde, holding up her head and opening her eyes very wide. ‘Such friendships as we form, and, I may say, as we inspire! Je m’en rapporte à Effie’, the governess continued.

‘We have received immense kindness; we have established relations that are so pleasant for us, Cousin Raymond. We have the entrée of so many charming homes,’ Mrs. Temperly remarked.

‘But ours is the most charming of all; that I will say,’ exclaimed Mademoiselle Bourde. ‘Isn’t it so, Effie?’

‘Oh yes, I think it is; especially when we are expecting the Marquise,’ Effie responded. Then she added, ‘But here she comes now; I hear her carriage in the court.’

The Marquise too was just one of themselves; she was a part of their charming home.

‘She is such a love!’ said Mrs. Temperly to the foreign gentleman, with an irrepressible movement of benevolence.

To which Raymond heard the gentleman reply that, Ah, she was the most distinguished woman in France.

‘Do you know Madame de Brives?’ Effie asked of Raymond, while they were waiting for her to come in.

She came in at that moment, and the girl turned away quickly without an answer.

‘How in the world should I know her?’ That was the answer he would have been tempted to give. He felt very much out of Cousin Maria’s circle. The foreign gentleman fingered his moustache and looked at him sidewise. The Marquise was a very pretty woman, fair and slender, of middle age, with a smile, a complexion, a diamond necklace, of great splendour, and a charming manner. Her greeting to her friends was sweet and familiar, and was accompanied with much kissing, of a sisterly, motherly, daughterly kind; and yet with this expression of simple, almost homely sentiment there was something in her that astonished and dazzled. She might very well have been, as the foreign young man said, the most distinguished woman in France. Dora had not rushed forward to meet her with nearly so much empressement as Effie, and this gave him a chance to ask the former who she was. The girl replied that she was her mother’s most intimate friend: to which he rejoined that that was not a description; what he wanted to know was her title to this exalted position.

‘Why, can’t you see it? She is beautiful and she is good.’

‘I see that she is beautiful; but how can I see that she is good?’

‘Good to mamma, I mean, and to Effie and Tishy.’

‘And isn’t she good to you?’

‘Oh, I don’t know her so well. But I delight to look at her.’

‘Certainly, that must be a great pleasure,’ said Raymond. He enjoyed it during dinner, which was now served, though his enjoyment was diminished by his not finding himself next to Dora. They sat at a small round table and he had at his right his Cousin Maria, whom he had taken in. On his left was Madame de Brives, who had the foreign gentleman for a neighbour. Then came Effie and Mademoiselle Bourde, and Dora was on the other side of her mother. Raymond regarded this as marked — a symbol of the fact that Cousin Maria would continue to separate them. He remained in ignorance of the other gentleman’s identity, and remembered how he had prophesied at the hotel in New York that his hostess would give up introducing people. It was a friendly, easy little family repast, as she had said it would be, with just a marquise and a secretary of embassy — Raymond ended by guessing that the stranger was a secretary of embassy — thrown in. So far from interfering with the family tone Madame de Brives directly contributed to it. She eminently justified the affection in which she was held in the house; she was in the highest degree sociable and sympathetic, and at the same time witty (there was no insipidity in Madame de Brives), and was the cause of Raymond’s making the reflection — as he had made it often in his earlier years — that an agreeable Frenchwoman is a triumph of civilisation. This did not prevent him from giving the Marquise no more than half of his attention; the rest was dedicated to Dora, who, on her side, though in common with Effie and Mademoiselle Bourde she bent a frequent, interested gaze on the splendid French lady, very often met our young man’s eyes with mute, vague but, to his sense, none the less valuable intimations. It was as if she knew what was going on in his mind (it is true that he scarcely knew it himself), and might be trusted to clear things up at some convenient hour.

Madame de Brives talked across Raymond, in excellent English, to Cousin Maria, but this did not prevent her from being gracious, even encouraging, to the young man, who was a little afraid of her and thought her a delightful creature. She asked him more questions about himself than any of them had done. Her conversation with Mrs. Temperly was of an intimate, domestic order, and full of social, personal allusions, which Raymond was unable to follow. It appeared to be concerned considerably with the private affairs of the old French noblesse, into whose councils — to judge by the tone of the Marquise — Cousin Maria had been admitted by acclamation. Every now and then Madame de Brives broke into French, and it was in this tongue that she uttered an apostrophe to her hostess: ‘Oh, you, ma toute-bonne, you who have the genius of good sense!’ And she appealed to Raymond to know if his Cousin Maria had not the genius of good sense — the wisdom of the ages. The old lady did not defend herself from the compliment; she let it pass, with her motherly, tolerant smile; nor did Raymond attempt to defend her, for he felt the justice of his neighbour’s description: Cousin Maria’s good sense was incontestable, magnificent. She took an affectionate, indulgent view of most of the persons mentioned, and yet her tone was far from being vapid or vague. Madame de Brives usually remarked that they were coming very soon again to see her, she did them so much good. ‘The freshness of your judgment — the freshness of your judgment!’ she repeated, with a kind of glee, and she narrated that Eléonore (a personage unknown to Raymond) had said that she was a woman of Plutarch. Mrs. Temperly talked a great deal about the health of their friends; she seemed to keep the record of the influenzas and neuralgias of a numerous and susceptible circle. He did not find it in him quite to agree — the Marquise dropping the statement into his ear at a moment when their hostess was making some inquiry of Mademoiselle Bourde — that she was a nature absolutely marvellous; but he could easily see that to world-worn Parisians her quiet charities of speech and manner, with something quaint and rustic in their form, might be restorative and salutary. She allowed for everything, yet she was so good, and indeed Madame de Brives summed this up before they left the table in saying to her, ‘Oh, you, my dear, your success, more than any other that has ever taken place, has been a succès de bonté! Raymond was greatly amused at this idea of Cousin Maria’s succès de bonté: it seemed to him delightfully Parisian.

Before dinner was over she inquired of him how he had got on ‘in his profession’ since they last met, and he was too proud, or so he thought, to tell her anything but the simple truth, that he had not got on very well. If he was to ask her again for Dora it would be just as he was, an honourable but not particularly successful man, making no show of lures and bribes. ‘I am not a remarkably good painter,’ he said. ‘I judge myself perfectly. And then I have been handicapped at home. I have had a great many serious bothers and worries.’

‘Ah, we were so sorry to hear about your dear father.’

The tone of these words was kind and sincere; still Raymond thought that in this case her bonté might have gone a little further. At any rate this was the only allusion that she made to his bothers and worries. Indeed, she always passed over such things lightly; she was an optimist for others as well as for herself, which doubtless had a great deal to do (Raymond indulged in the reflection) with the headway she made in a society tired of its own pessimism.

After dinner, when they went into the drawing-room, the young man noted with complacency that this apartment, vast in itself, communicated with two or three others into which it would be easy to pass without attracting attention, the doors being replaced by old tapestries, looped up and offering no barrier. With pictures and curiosities all over the place, there were plenty of pretexts for wandering away. He lost no time in asking Dora whether her mother would send Mademoiselle Bourde after them if she were to go with him into one of the other rooms, the same way she had done — didn’t she remember? — that last night in New York, at the hotel. Dora didn’t admit that she remembered (she was too loyal to her mother for that, and Raymond foresaw that this loyalty would be a source of irritation to him again, as it had been in the past), but he perceived, all the same, that she had not forgotten. She raised no difficulty, and a few moments later, while they stood in an adjacent salon (he had stopped to admire a bust of Effie, wonderfully living, slim and juvenile, the work of one of the sculptors who are the pride of contemporary French art), he said to her, looking about him, ‘How has she done it so fast?’

‘Done what, Raymond?’

‘Why, done everything. Collected all these wonderful things; become intimate with Madame de Brives and every one else; organised her life — the life of all of you — so brilliantly.’

‘I have never seen mamma in a hurry,’ Dora replied.

‘Perhaps she will be, now that I have come,’ Raymond suggested, laughing.

The girl hesitated a moment ‘Yes, she was, to invite you — the moment she knew you were here.’

‘She has been most kind, and I talk like a brute. But I am liable to do worse — I give you notice. She won’t like it any more than she did before, if she thinks I want to make up to you.’

‘Don’t, Raymond — don’t!’ the girl exclaimed, gently, but with a look of sudden pain.

‘Don’t what, Dora? — don’t make up to you?’

‘Don’t begin to talk of those things. There is no need. We can go on being friends.’

‘I will do exactly as you prescribe, and heaven forbid I should annoy you. But would you mind answering me a question? It is very particular, very intimate.’ He stopped, and she only looked at him, saying nothing. So he went on: ‘Is it an idea of your mother’s that you should marry — some person here?’ He gave her a chance to reply, but still she was silent, and he continued: ‘Do you mind telling me this? Could it ever be an idea of your own?’

‘Do you mean some Frenchman?’

Raymond smiled. ‘Some protégé of Madame de Brives.’

Then the girl simply gave a slow, sad head-shake which struck him as the sweetest, proudest, most suggestive thing in the world. ‘Well, well, that’s all right,’ he remarked, cheerfully, and looked again a while at the bust, which he thought extraordinarily clever. ‘And haven’t you been done by one of these great fellows?’

‘Oh dear no; only mamma and Effie. But Tishy is going to be, in a month or two. The next time you come you must see her. She remembers you vividly.’

‘And I remember her that last night, with her reticule. Is she always pretty?’

Dora hesitated a moment. ‘She is a very sweet little creature, but she is not so pretty as Effie.’

‘And have none of them wished to do you — none of the painters?’

‘Oh, it’s not a question of me. I only wish them to let me alone.’

‘For me it would be a question of you, if you would sit for me. But I daresay your mother wouldn’t allow that.’

‘No, I think not,’ said Dora, smiling.

She smiled, but her companion looked grave. However, not to pursue the subject, he asked, abruptly, ‘Who is this Madame de Brives?’

‘If you lived in Paris you would know. She is very celebrated.’

‘Celebrated for what?’

‘For everything.’

‘And is she good — is she genuine?’ Raymond asked. Then, seeing something in the girl’s face, he added: ‘I told you I should be brutal again. Has she undertaken to make a great marriage for Effie?’

‘I don’t know what she has undertaken,’ said Dora, impatiently.

‘And then for Tishy, when Effie has been disposed of?’

‘Poor little Tishy!’ the girl continued, rather inscrutably.

‘And can she do nothing for you?’ the young man inquired.

Her answer surprised him — after a moment. ‘She has kindly offered to exert herself, but it’s no use.’

‘Well, that’s good. And who is it the young man comes for — the secretary of embassy?’

‘Oh, he comes for all of us,’ said Dora, laughing.

‘I suppose your mother would prefer a preference,’ Raymond suggested.

To this she replied, irrelevantly, that she thought they had better go back; but as Raymond took no notice of the recommendation she mentioned that the secretary was no one in particular. At this moment Effie, looking very rosy and happy, pushed through the portière with the news that her sister must come and bid good-bye to the Marquise. She was taking her to the Duchess’s — didn’t Dora remember? To the bal blanc — the sauterie de jeunes filles.

‘I thought we should be called,’ said Raymond, as he followed Effie; and he remarked that perhaps Madame de Brives would find something suitable at the Duchess’s.

‘I don’t know. Mamma would be very particular,’ the girl rejoined; and this was said simply, sympathetically, without the least appearance of deflection from that loyalty which Raymond deplored.

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