Mrs. Temperly, by Henry James


‘You must come to us on the 17th; we expect to have a few people and some good music,’ Cousin Maria said to him before he quitted the house; and he wondered whether, the 17th being still ten days off, this might not be an intimation that they could abstain from his society until then. He chose, at any rate, not to take it as such, and called several times in the interval, late in the afternoon, when the ladies would be sure to have come in.

They were always there, and Cousin Maria’s welcome was, for each occasion, maternal, though when he took leave she made no allusion to future meetings — to his coming again; but there were always other visitors as well, collected at tea round the great fire of logs, in the friendly, brilliant drawing-room where the luxurious was no enemy to the casual and Mrs. Temperly’s manner of dispensing hospitality recalled to our young man somehow certain memories of his youthful time: visits in New England, at old homesteads flanked with elms, where a talkative, democratic, delightful farmer’s wife pressed upon her company rustic viands in which she herself had had a hand. Cousin Maria enjoyed the services of a distinguished chef, and delicious petits fours were served with her tea; but Raymond had a sense that to complete the impression hot home-made gingerbread should have been produced.

The atmosphere was suffused with the presence of Madame de Brives. She was either there or she was just coming or she was just gone; her name, her voice, her example and encouragement were in the air. Other ladies came and went — sometimes accompanied by gentlemen who looked worn out, had waxed moustaches and knew how to talk — and they were sometimes designated in the same manner as Madame de Brives; but she remained the Marquise par excellence, the incarnation of brilliancy and renown. The conversation moved among simple but civilised topics, was not dull and, considering that it consisted largely of personalities, was not ill-natured. Least of all was it scandalous, for the girls were always there, Cousin Maria not having thought it in the least necessary, in order to put herself in accord with French traditions, to relegate her daughters to the middle distance. They occupied a considerable part of the foreground, in the prettiest, most modest, most becoming attitudes.

It was Cousin Maria’s theory of her own behaviour that she did in Paris simply as she had always done; and though this would not have been a complete account of the matter Raymond could not fail to notice the good sense and good taste with which she laid down her lines and the quiet bonhomie of the authority with which she caused the tone of the American home to be respected. Scandal stayed outside, not simply because Effie and Tishy were there, but because, even if Cousin Maria had received alone, she never would have received evil-speakers. Indeed, for Raymond, who had been accustomed to think that in a general way he knew pretty well what the French capital was, this was a strange, fresh Paris altogether, destitute of the salt that seasoned it for most palates, and yet not insipid nor innutritive. He marvelled at Cousin Maria’s air, in such a city, of knowing, of recognising nothing bad: all the more that it represented an actual state of mind. He used to wonder sometimes what she would do and how she would feel if some day, in consequence of researches made by the Marquise in the grand monde, she should find herself in possession of a son-in-law formed according to one of the types of which he had impressions. However, it was not credible that Madame de Brives would play her a trick. There were moments when Raymond almost wished she might — to see how Cousin Maria would handle the gentleman.

Dora was almost always taken up by visitors, and he had scarcely any direct conversation with her. She was there, and he was glad she was there, and she knew he was glad (he knew that), but this was almost all the communion he had with her. She was mild, exquisitely mild — this was the term he mentally applied to her now — and it amply sufficed him, with the conviction he had that she was not stupid. She attended to the tea (for Mademoiselle Bourde was not always free), she handed the petits fours, she rang the bell when people went out; and it was in connection with these offices that the idea came to him once — he was rather ashamed of it afterward — that she was the Cinderella of the house, the domestic drudge, the one for whom there was no career, as it was useless for the Marquise to take up her case. He was ashamed of this fancy, I say, and yet it came back to him; he was even surprised that it had not occurred to him before. Her sisters were neither ugly nor proud (Tishy, indeed, was almost touchingly delicate and timid, with exceedingly pretty points, yet with a little appealing, old-womanish look, as if, small — very small — as she was, she was afraid she shouldn’t grow any more); but her mother, like the mother in the fairy-tale, was a femme forte. Madame de Brives could do nothing for Dora, not absolutely because she was too plain, but because she would never lend herself, and that came to the same thing. Her mother accepted her as recalcitrant, but Cousin Maria’s attitude, at the best, could only be resignation. She would respect her child’s preferences, she would never put on the screw; but this would not make her love the child any more. So Raymond interpreted certain signs, which at the same time he felt to be very slight, while the conversation in Mrs. Temperly’s salon (this was its preponderant tendency) rambled among questions of bric-à-brac, of where Tishy’s portrait should be placed when it was finished, and the current prices of old Gobelins. Ces dames were not in the least above the discussion of prices.

On the 17th it was easy to see that more lamps than usual had been lighted. They streamed through all the windows of the charming hotel and mingled with the radiance of the carriage-lanterns, which followed each other slowly, in couples, in a close, long rank, into the fine sonorous court, where the high stepping of valuable horses was sharp on the stones, and up to the ruddy portico. The night was wet, not with a downpour, but with showers interspaced by starry patches, which only added to the glitter of the handsome, clean Parisian surfaces. The sergents de ville were about the place, and seemed to make the occasion important and official. These night aspects of Paris in the beaux quartiers had always for Raymond a particularly festive association, and as he passed from his cab under the wide permanent tin canopy, painted in stripes like an awning, which protected the low steps, it seemed to him odder than ever that all this established prosperity should be Cousin Maria’s.

If the thought of how well she did it bore him company from the threshold, it deepened to admiration by the time he had been half an hour in the place. She stood near the entrance with her two elder daughters, distributing the most familiar, most encouraging smiles, together with hand-shakes which were in themselves a whole system of hospitality. If her party was grand Cousin Maria was not; she indulged in no assumption of stateliness and no attempt at graduated welcomes. It seemed to Raymond that it was only because it would have taken too much time that she didn’t kiss every one. Effie looked lovely and just a little frightened, which was exactly what she ought to have done; and he noticed that among the arriving guests those who were not intimate (which he could not tell from Mrs. Temperly’s manner, but could from their own) recognised her as a daughter much more quickly than they recognised Dora, who hung back disinterestedly, as if not to challenge their discernment, while the current passed her, keeping her little sister in position on its brink meanwhile by the tenderest small gesture.

‘May I talk with you a little, later?’ he asked of Dora, with only a few seconds for the question, as people were pressing behind him. She answered evasively that there would be very little talk — they would all have to listen — it was very serious; and the next moment he had received a programme from the hand of a monumental yet gracious personage who stood beyond and who had a silver chain round his neck.

The place was arranged for music, and how well arranged he saw later, when every one was seated, spaciously, luxuriously, without pushing or over-peeping, and the finest talents in Paris performed selections at which the best taste had presided. The singers and players were all stars of the first magnitude. Raymond was fond of music and he wondered whose taste it had been. He made up his mind it was Dora’s — it was only she who could have conceived a combination so exquisite; and he said to himself: ‘How they all pull together! She is not in it, she is not of it, and yet she too works for the common end.’ And by ‘all’ he meant also Mademoiselle Bourde and the Marquise. This impression made him feel rather hopeless, as if, en fin de compte, Cousin Maria were too large an adversary. Great as was the pleasure of being present on an occasion so admirably organised, of sitting there in a beautiful room, in a still, attentive, brilliant company, with all the questions of temperature, space, light and decoration solved to the gratification of every sense, and listening to the best artists doing their best — happily constituted as our young man was to enjoy such a privilege as this, the total effect was depressing: it made him feel as if the gods were not on his side.

‘And does she do it so well without a man? There must be so many details a woman can’t tackle,’ he said to himself; for even counting in the Marquise and Mademoiselle Bourde this only made a multiplication of petticoats. Then it came over him that she was a man as well as a woman — the masculine element was included in her nature. He was sure that she bought her horses without being cheated, and very few men could do that. She had the American national quality — she had ‘faculty’ in a supreme degree. ‘Faculty — faculty,’ the voices of the quartette of singers seemed to repeat, in the quick movement of a composition they rendered beautifully, while they swelled and went faster, till the thing became a joyous chant of praise, a glorification of Cousin Maria’s practical genius.

During the intermission, in the middle of the concert, people changed places more or less and circulated, so that, walking about at this time, he came upon the Marquise, who, in her sympathetic, demonstrative way, appeared to be on the point of clasping her hostess in her arms. ‘Décidément, ma bonne, il n’y a que vous! C’est une perfection —— ’ he heard her say. To which, gratified but unelated, Cousin Maria replied, according to her simple, sociable wont: ‘Well, it does seem quite a successful occasion. If it will only keep on to the end!’

Raymond, wandering far, found himself in a world that was mainly quite new to him, and explained his ignorance of it by reflecting that the people were probably celebrated: so many of them had decorations and stars and a quiet of manner that could only be accounted for by renown. There were plenty of Americans with no badge but a certain fine negativeness, and they were quiet for a reason which by this time had become very familiar to Raymond: he had heard it so often mentioned that his country-people were supremely ‘adaptable.’ He tried to get hold of Dora, but he saw that her mother had arranged things beautifully to keep her occupied with other people; so at least he interpreted the fact — after all very natural — that she had half a dozen fluttered young girls on her mind, whom she was providing with programmes, seats, ices, occasional murmured remarks and general support and protection. When the concert was over she supplied them with further entertainment in the form of several young men who had pliable backs and flashing breastpins and whom she inarticulately introduced to them, which gave her still more to do, as after this serious step she had to stay and watch all parties. It was strange to Raymond to see her transformed by her mother into a precocious duenna. Him she introduced to no young girl, and he knew not whether to regard this as cold neglect or as high consideration. If he had liked he might have taken it as a sweet intimation that she knew he couldn’t care for any girl but her.

On the whole he was glad, because it left him free — free to get hold of her mother, which by this time he had boldly determined to do. The conception was high, inasmuch as Cousin Maria’s attention was obviously required by the ambassadors and other grandees who had flocked to do her homage. Nevertheless, while supper was going on (he wanted none, and neither apparently did she), he collared her, as he phrased it to himself, in just the right place — on the threshold of the conservatory. She was flanked on either side with a foreigner of distinction, but he didn’t care for her foreigners now. Besides, a conservatory was meant only for couples; it was a sign of her comprehensive sociability that she should have been rambling among the palms and orchids with a double escort. Her friends would wish to quit her but would not wish to appear to give way to each other; and Raymond felt that he was relieving them both (though he didn’t care) when he asked her to be so good as to give him a few minutes’ conversation. He made her go back with him into the conservatory: it was the only thing he had ever made her do, or probably ever would. She began to talk about the great Gregorini — how it had been too sweet of her to repeat one of her songs, when it had really been understood in advance that repetitions were not expected. Raymond had no interest at present in the great Gregorini. He asked Cousin Maria vehemently if she remembered telling him in New York — that night at the hotel, five years before — that when he should have followed them to Paris he would be free to address her on the subject of Dora. She had given him a promise that she would listen to him in this case, and now he must keep her up to the mark. It was impossible to see her alone, but, at whatever inconvenience to herself, he must insist on her giving him his opportunity.

‘About Dora, Cousin Raymond?’ she asked, blandly and kindly — almost as if she didn’t exactly know who Dora was.

‘Surely you haven’t forgotten what passed between us the evening before you left America. I was in love with her then and I have been in love with her ever since. I told you so then, and you stopped me off, but you gave me leave to make another appeal to you in the future. I make it now — this is the only way I have — and I think you ought to listen to it. Five years have passed, and I love her more than ever. I have behaved like a saint in the interval: I haven’t attempted to practise upon her without your knowledge.’

‘I am so glad; but she would have let me know,’ said Cousin Maria, looking round the conservatory as if to see if the plants were all there.

‘No doubt. I don’t know what you do to her. But I trust that to-day your opposition falls — in face of the proof that we have given you of mutual fidelity.’

‘Fidelity?’ Cousin Maria repeated, smiling.

‘Surely — unless you mean to imply that Dora has given me up. I have reason to believe that she hasn’t.’

‘I think she will like better to remain just as she is.’

‘Just as she is?’

‘I mean, not to make a choice,’ Cousin Maria went on, smiling.

Raymond hesitated a moment. ‘Do you mean that you have tried to make her make one?’

At this the good lady broke into a laugh. ‘My dear Raymond, how little you must think I know my child!’

‘Perhaps, if you haven’t tried to make her, you have tried to prevent her. Haven’t you told her I am unsuccessful, I am poor?’

She stopped him, laying her hand with unaffected solicitude on his arm. ‘Are you poor, my dear? I should be so sorry!’

‘Never mind; I can support a wife,’ said the young man.

‘It wouldn’t matter, because I am happy to say that Dora has something of her own,’ Cousin Maria went on, with her imperturbable candour. ‘Her father thought that was the best way to arrange it. I had quite forgotten my opposition, as you call it; that was so long ago. Why, she was only a little girl. Wasn’t that the ground I took? Well, dear, she’s older now, and you can say anything to her you like. But I do think she wants to stay —— ’ And she looked up at him, cheerily.

‘Wants to stay?’

‘With Effie and Tishy.’

‘Ah, Cousin Maria,’ the young man exclaimed, ‘you are modest about yourself!’

‘Well, we are all together. Now is that all? I must see if there is enough champagne. Certainly — you can say to her what you like. But twenty years hence she will be just as she is to-day; that’s how I see her.’

‘Lord, what is it you do to her?’ Raymond groaned, as he accompanied his hostess back to the crowded rooms.

He knew exactly what she would have replied if she had been a Frenchwoman; she would have said to him, triumphantly, overwhelmingly: ‘Que voulez-vous? Elle adore sa mère!’ She was, however, only a Californian, unacquainted with the language of epigram, and her answer consisted simply of the words: ‘I am sorry you have ideas that make you unhappy. I guess you are the only person here who hasn’t enjoyed himself to-night.’

Raymond repeated to himself, gloomily, for the rest of the evening, ‘Elle adore sa mère — elle adore sa mère!’ He remained very late, and when but twenty people were left and he had observed that the Marquise, passing her hand into Mrs. Temperly’s arm, led her aside as if for some important confabulation (some new light doubtless on what might be hoped for Effie), he persuaded Dora to let the rest of the guests depart in peace (apparently her mother had told her to look out for them to the very last), and come with him into some quiet corner. They found an empty sofa in the outlasting lamp-light, and there the girl sat down with him. Evidently she knew what he was going to say, or rather she thought she did; for in fact, after a little, after he had told her that he had spoken to her mother and she had told him he might speak to her, he said things that she could not very well have expected.

‘Is it true that you wish to remain with Effie and Tishy? That’s what your mother calls it when she means that you will give me up.’

‘How can I give you up?’ the girl demanded. ‘Why can’t we go on being friends, as I asked you the evening you dined here?’

‘What do you mean by friends?’

‘Well, not making everything impossible.’

‘You didn’t think anything impossible of old,’ Raymond rejoined, bitterly. ‘I thought you liked me then, and I have even thought so since.’

‘I like you more than I like any one. I like you so much that it’s my principal happiness.’

‘Then why are there impossibilities?’

‘Oh, some day I’ll tell you!’ said Dora, with a quick sigh. ‘Perhaps after Tishy is married. And meanwhile, are you not going to remain in Paris, at any rate? Isn’t your work here? You are not here for me only. You can come to the house often. That’s what I mean by our being friends.’

Her companion sat looking at her with a gloomy stare, as if he were trying to make up the deficiencies in her logic.

‘After Tishy is married? I don’t see what that has to do with it. Tishy is little more than a baby; she may not be married for ten years.’

‘That is very true.’

‘And you dispose of the interval by a simple “meanwhile”? My dear Dora, your talk is strange,’ Raymond continued, with his voice passionately lowered. ‘And I may come to the house — often? How often do you mean — in ten years? Five times — or even twenty?’ He saw that her eyes were filling with tears, but he went on: ‘It has been coming over me little by little (I notice things very much if I have a reason), and now I think I understand your mother’s system.’

‘Don’t say anything against my mother,’ the girl broke in, beseechingly.

‘I shall not say anything unjust. That is if I am unjust you must tell me. This is my idea, and your speaking of Tishy’s marriage confirms it. To begin with she has had immense plans for you all; she wanted each of you to be a princess or a duchess — I mean a good one. But she has had to give you up.’

‘No one has asked for me,’ said Dora, with unexpected honesty.

‘I don’t believe it. Dozens of fellows have asked for you, and you have shaken your head in that divine way (divine for me, I mean) in which you shook it the other night.’

‘My mother has never said an unkind word to me in her life,’ the girl declared, in answer to this.

‘I never said she had, and I don’t know why you take the precaution of telling me so. But whatever you tell me or don’t tell me,’ Raymond pursued, ‘there is one thing I see very well — that so long as you won’t marry a duke Cousin Maria has found means to prevent you from marrying till your sisters have made rare alliances.’

‘Has found means?’ Dora repeated, as if she really wondered what was in his thought.

‘Of course I mean only through your affection for her. How she works that, you know best yourself.’

‘It’s delightful to have a mother of whom every one is so fond,’ said Dora, smiling.

‘She is a most remarkable woman. Don’t think for a moment that I don’t appreciate her. You don’t want to quarrel with her, and I daresay you are right.’

‘Why, Raymond, of course I’m right!’

‘It proves you are not madly in love with me. It seems to me that for you I would have quarrelled —— ’

‘Raymond, Raymond!’ she interrupted, with the tears again rising.

He sat looking at her, and then he said, ‘Well, when they are married?’

‘I don’t know the future — I don’t know what may happen.’

‘You mean that Tishy is so small — she doesn’t grow — and will therefore be difficult? Yes, she is small.’ There was bitterness in his heart, but he laughed at his own words. ‘However, Effie ought to go off easily,’ he went on, as Dora said nothing. ‘I really wonder that, with the Marquise and all, she hasn’t gone off yet. This thing, to-night, ought to do a great deal for her.’

Dora listened to him with a fascinated gaze; it was as if he expressed things for her and relieved her spirit by making them clear and coherent. Her eyes managed, each time, to be dry again, and now a somewhat wan, ironical smile moved her lips. ‘Mamma knows what she wants — she knows what she will take. And she will take only that.’

‘Precisely — something tremendous. And she is willing to wait, eh? Well, Effie is very young, and she’s charming. But she won’t be charming if she has an ugly appendage in the shape of a poor unsuccessful American artist (not even a good one), whose father went bankrupt, for a brother-in-law. That won’t smooth the way, of course; and if a prince is to come into the family, the family must be kept tidy to receive him.’ Dora got up quickly, as if she could bear his lucidity no longer, but he kept close to her as she walked away. ‘And she can sacrifice you like that, without a scruple, without a pang?’

‘I might have escaped — if I would marry,’ the girl replied.

‘Do you call that escaping? She has succeeded with you, but is it a part of what the Marquise calls her succès de bonté?’

‘Nothing that you can say (and it’s far worse than the reality) can prevent her being delightful.’

‘Yes, that’s your loyalty, and I could shoot you for it!’ he exclaimed, making her pause on the threshold of the adjoining room. ‘So you think it will take about ten years, considering Tishy’s size — or want of size?’ He himself again was the only one to laugh at this. ‘Your mother is closeted, as much as she can be closeted now, with Madame de Brives, and perhaps this time they are really settling something.’

‘I have thought that before and nothing has come. Mamma wants something so good; not only every advantage and every grandeur, but every virtue under heaven, and every guarantee. Oh, she wouldn’t expose them!’

‘I see; that’s where her goodness comes in and where the Marquise is impressed’ He took Dora’s hand; he felt that he must go, for she exasperated him with her irony that stopped short and her patience that wouldn’t stop. ‘You simply propose that I should wait?’ he said, as he held her hand.

‘It seems to me that you might, if I can.’ Then the girl remarked, ‘Now that you are here, it’s far better.’

There was a sweetness in this which made him, after glancing about a moment, raise her hand to his lips. He went away without taking leave of Cousin Maria, who was still out of sight, her conference with the Marquise apparently not having terminated. This looked (he reflected as he passed out) as if something might come of it. However, before he went home he fell again into a gloomy forecast. The weather had changed, the stars were all out, and he walked the empty streets for an hour. Tishy’s perverse refusal to grow and Cousin Maria’s conscientious exactions promised him a terrible probation. And in those intolerable years what further interference, what meddlesome, effective pressure, might not make itself felt? It may be added that Tishy is decidedly a dwarf and his probation is not yet over.

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