The Pension Beaurepas, by Henry James


As commonly happens in boarding-houses the rustle of petticoats was at the Pension Beaurepas the most familiar form of the human tread. We enjoyed the usual allowance of economical widows and old maids and, to maintain the balance of the sexes, could boast but of a finished old Frenchman and an obscure young American. It hardly made the matter easier that the old Frenchman came from Lausanne. He was a native of that well-perched place, but had once spent six months in Paris, where he had tasted of the tree of knowledge; he had got beyond Lausanne, whose resources he pronounced inadequate. Lausanne, as he said, “manquait d’agrêments.” When obliged, for reasons he never specified, to bring his residence in Paris to a close, he had fallen back on Geneva; he had broken his fall at the Pension Beaurepas. Geneva was after all more like Paris, and at a Genevese boarding-house there was sure to be plenty of Americans who might be more or less counted on to add to the resemblance. M. Pigeonneau was a little lean man with a vast narrow nose, who sat a great deal in the garden and bent his eyes, with the aid of a large magnifying glass, on a volume from the cabinet de lecture.

One day a fortnight after my adoption of the retreat I describe I came back rather earlier than usual from my academic session; it wanted half an hour of the midday breakfast. I entered the salon with the design of possessing myself of the day’s Galignani before one of the little English old maids should have removed it to her virginal bower — a privilege to which Madame Beaurepas frequently alluded as one of the attractions of the establishment. In the salon I found a new-comer, a tall gentleman in a high black hat, whom I immediately recognised as a compatriot. I had often seen him, or his equivalent, in the hotel-parlours of my native land. He apparently supposed himself to be at the present moment in an hotel-parlour; his hat was on his head or rather half off it — pushed back from his forehead and more suspended than poised. He stood before a table on which old newspapers were scattered; one of these he had taken up and, with his eye-glass on his nose, was holding out at arm’s length. It was that honourable but extremely diminutive sheet the Journal de Genève, a newspaper then of about the size of a pocket-handkerchief. As I drew near, looking for my Galignani, the tall gentleman gave me, over the top of his eyeglass, a sad and solemn stare. Presently, however, before I had time to lay my hand on the object of my search, he silently offered me the Journal de Genève.

“It appears,” he said, “to be the paper of the country.”

“Yes,” I answered, “I believe it’s the best.”

He gazed at it again, still holding it at arm’s-length as if it had been a looking-glass. “Well,” he concluded, “I suppose it’s natural a small country should have small papers. You could wrap this one up, mountains and all, in one of our dailies!”

I found my Galignani and went off with it into the garden, where I seated myself on a bench in the shade. Presently I saw the tall gentleman in the hat appear at one of the open windows of the salon and stand there with his hands in his pockets and his legs a little apart. He looked infinitely bored, and — I don’t know why — I immediately felt sorry for him. He hadn’t at all — as M. Pigeonneau, for instance, in his way, had it — the romantic note; he looked just a jaded, faded, absolutely voided man of business. But after a little he came into the garden and began to stroll about; and then his restless helpless carriage and the vague unacquainted manner in which his eyes wandered over the place seemed to make it proper that, as an older resident, I should offer him a certain hospitality. I addressed him some remark founded on our passage of a moment before, and he came and sat down beside me on my bench, clasping one of his long knees in his hands.

“When is it this big breakfast of theirs comes off?” he inquired. “That’s what I call it — the little breakfast and the big breakfast. I never thought I should live to see the time when I’d want to eat two breakfasts. But a man’s glad to do anything over here.”

“For myself,” I dropped, “I find plenty to do.”

He turned his head and glanced at me with an effect of bottomless wonder and dry despair. “You’re getting used to the life, are you?”

“I like the life very much,” I laughed.

“How long have you tried it?”

“Do you mean this place?”

“Well, I mean anywhere. It seems to me pretty much the same all over.”

“I’ve been in this house only a fortnight,” I said.

“Well, what should you say, from what you’ve seen?” my companion asked.

“Oh you can see all there is at once. It’s very simple.”

“Sweet simplicity, eh? Well then I guess my two ladies will know right off what’s the matter with it.”

“Oh everything’s very good,” I hastened to explain. “And Madame Beaurepas is a charming old woman. And then it’s very cheap.”

“Cheap, is it?” my friend languidly echoed.

“Doesn’t it strike you so?” I thought it possible he hadn’t inquired the terms. But he appeared not to have heard me; he sat there, clasping his knee and absently blinking at the sunshine.

“Are you from the United States, sir?” he presently demanded, turning his head again.

“Well, I guess I am, sir,” I felt it indicated to reply; and I mentioned the place of my nativity.

“I presumed you were American or English. I’m from the United States myself — from New York City. Many of our people here?” he went on.

“Not so many as I believe there have sometimes been. There are two or three ladies.”

“Well,” my interlocutor observed, “I’m very fond of ladies’ society. I think when it’s really nice there’s nothing comes up to it. I’ve got two ladies here myself. I must make you acquainted with them.” And then after I had rejoined that I should be delighted and had inquired of him if he had been long in Europe: “Well, it seems precious long, but my time’s not up yet. We’ve been here nineteen weeks and a half.”

“Are you travelling for pleasure?” I hazarded.

Once more he inclined his face to me — his face that was practically so odd a comment on my question, and I so felt his unspoken irony that I soon also turned and met his eyes. “No, sir. Not much, sir,” he added after a considerable interval.

“Pardon me,” I said; for his desolation had a little the effect of a rebuke.

He took no notice of my appeal; he simply continued to look at me. “I’m travelling,” he said at last, “to please the doctors. They seemed to think they’d enjoy it.”

“Ah, they sent you abroad for your health?”

“They sent me abroad because they were so plaguey muddled they didn’t know what else to do.”

“That’s often the best thing,” I ventured to remark.

“It was a confession of medical bankruptcy; they wanted to stop my run on them. They didn’t know enough to cure me, as they had originally pretended they did, and that’s the way they thought they’d get round it. I wanted to be cured — I didn’t want to be transported. I hadn’t done any harm.” I could but assent to the general proposition of the inefficiency of doctors, and put to my companion that I hoped he hadn’t been seriously ill. He only shook his foot at first, for some time, by way of answer; but at last, “I didn’t get natural rest,” he wearily observed.

“Ah, that’s very annoying. I suppose you were overworked.”

“I didn’t have a natural appetite — nor even an unnatural, when they fixed up things for me. I took no interest in my food.”

“Well, I guess you’ll both eat and sleep here,” I felt justified in remarking.

“I couldn’t hold a pen,” my neighbour went on. “I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t walk from my house to the cars — and it’s only a little way. I lost my interest in business.”

“You needed a good holiday,” I concluded.

“That’s what the doctors said. It wasn’t so very smart of them. I had been paying strict attention to business for twenty-three years.”

“And in all that time you had never let up?” I cried in horror.

My companion waited a little. “I kind o’ let up Sundays.”

“Oh that’s nothing — because our Sundays themselves never let up.”

“I guess they do over here,” said my friend.

“Yes, but you weren’t over here.”

“No, I wasn’t over here. I shouldn’t have been where I was three years ago if I had spent my time travelling round Europe. I was in a very advantageous position. I did a very large business. I was considerably interested in lumber.” He paused, bending, though a little hopelessly, about to me again. “Have you any business interests yourself?” I answered that I had none, and he proceeded slowly, mildly and deliberately. “Well, sir, perhaps you’re not aware that business in the United States is not what it was a short time since. Business interests are very insecure. There seems to be a general falling-off. Different parties offer different explanations of the fact, but so far as I’m aware none of their fine talk has set things going again.” I ingeniously intimated that if business was dull the time was good for coming away; whereupon my compatriot threw back his head and stretched his legs a while. “Well, sir, that’s one view of the matter certainly. There’s something to be said for that. These things should be looked at all round. That’s the ground my wife took. That’s the ground,” he added in a moment, “that a lady would naturally take.” To which he added a laugh as ghostly as a dried flower.

“You think there’s a flaw in the reasoning?” I asked.

“Well, sir, the ground I took was that the worse a man’s business is the more it requires looking after. I shouldn’t want to go out to recreation — not even to go to church — if my house was on fire. My firm’s not doing the business it was; it’s like a sick child — it requires nursing. What I wanted the doctors to do was to fix me up so that I could go on at home. I’d have taken anything they’d have given me, and as many times a day. I wanted to be right there; I had my reasons; I have them still. But I came off all the same,” said my friend with a melancholy smile.

I was a great deal younger than he, but there was something so simple and communicative in his tone, so expressive of a desire to fraternise and so exempt from any theory of human differences, that I quite forgot his seniority and found myself offering him paternal advice. “Don’t think about all that. Simply enjoy yourself, amuse yourself, get well. Travel about and see Europe. At the end of a year, by the time you’re ready to go home, things will have improved over there, and you’ll be quite well and happy.”

He laid his hand on my knee; his wan kind eyes considered me, and I thought he was going to say “You’re very young!” But he only brought out: “You’ve got used to Europe anyway!”

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