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I was not rich — on the contrary; and I had been told the Pension Beaurepas was cheap. I had further been told that a boarding-house is a capital place for the study of human nature. I was inclined to a literary career and a friend had said to me: “If you mean to write you ought to go and live in a boarding-house: there’s no other such way to pick up material.” I had read something of this kind in a letter addressed by the celebrated Stendhal to his sister: “I have a passionate desire to know human nature, and a great mind to live in a boarding-house, where people can’t conceal their real characters.” I was an admirer of La Chartreuse de Parme, and easily believed one couldn’t do better than follow in the footsteps of its author. I remembered, too, the magnificent boarding-house in Balzac’s Père Goriot— the “pension bourgeoise des deux sexes et autres,” kept by Madame Vauquer, née de Conflans. Magnificent, I mean, as a piece of portraiture; the establishment, as an establishment, was certainly sordid enough, and I hoped for better things from the Pension Beaurepas. This institution was one of the most esteemed in Geneva and, standing in a little garden of its own not far from the lake, had a very homely comfortable sociable aspect. The regular entrance was, as one might say, at the back, which looked upon the street, or rather upon a little place adorned, like every place in Geneva, great or small, with a generous cool fountain. That approach was not prepossessing, for on crossing the threshold you found yourself more or less in the kitchen — amid the “offices” and struck with their assault on your nostril. This, however, was no great matter, for at the Pension Beaurepas things conformed frankly to their nature and the whole mechanism lay bare. It was rather primitive, the mechanism, but it worked in a friendly homely regular way. Madame Beaurepas was an honest little old woman — she was far advanced in life and had been keeping a pension for more than forty years — whose only faults were that she was slightly deaf, that she was fond of a surreptitious pinch of snuff, and that, at the age of seventy-four, she wore stacks of flowers in her cap. There was a legend in the house that she wasn’t so deaf as she pretended and that she feigned this infirmity in order to possess herself of the secrets of her lodgers. I never indeed subscribed to this theory, convinced as I became that Madame Beaurepas had outlived the period of indiscreet curiosity. She dealt with the present and the future in the steady light of a long experience; she had been having lodgers for nearly half a century and all her concern with them was that they should pay their bills, fold their napkins and make use of the doormat. She cared very little for their secrets. “J’en ai vus de toutes les couleurs,” she said to me. She had quite ceased to trouble about individuals; she cared only for types and clear categories. Her large observation had made her acquainted with a number of these and her mind become a complete collection of “heads.” She flattered herself that she knew at a glance where to pigeonhole a new-comer, and if she made mistakes her deportment never betrayed them. I felt that as regards particular persons — once they conformed to the few rules — she had neither likes nor dislikes; but she was capable of expressing esteem or contempt for a species. She had her own ways, I suppose, of manifesting her approval, but her manner of indicating the reverse was simple and unvarying. “Je trouve que c’est déplacé!”— this exhausted her view of the matter. If one of her inmates had put arsenic into the pot-au-feu I believe Madame Beaurepas would have been satisfied to remark that this receptacle was not the place for arsenic. She could have imagined it otherwise and suitably applied. The line of misconduct to which she most objected was an undue assumption of gentility; she had no patience with boarders who gave themselves airs. “When people come chez moi it isn’t to cut a figure in the world; I’ve never so flattered myself,” I remember hearing her say; “and when you pay seven francs a day, tout compris, it comprises everything but the right to look down on the others. Yet there are people who, the less they pay, take themselves the more au sérieux. My most difficult boarders have always been those who’ve fiercely bargained and had the cheapest rooms.”
Madame Beaurepas had a niece, a young woman of some forty odd years; and the two ladies, with the assistance of a couple of thick-waisted red-armed peasant-women, kept the house going. If on your exits and entrances you peeped into the kitchen it made very little difference; as Célestine the cook shrouded herself in no mystery and announced the day’s fare, amid her fumes, quite with the resonance of the priestess of the tripod foretelling the future. She was always at your service with a grateful grin: she blacked your boots; she trudged off to fetch a cab; she would have carried your baggage, if you had allowed her, on her broad little back. She was always tramping in and out between her kitchen and the fountain in the place, where it often seemed to me that a large part of the preparation for our meals went forward — the wringing-out of towels and table-cloths, the washing of potatoes and cabbages, the scouring of saucepans and cleansing of water-bottles. You enjoyed from the door-step a perpetual back-view of Célestine and of her large loose woollen ankles as she craned, from the waist, over into the fountain and dabbled in her various utensils. This sounds as if life proceeded but in a makeshift fashion at the Pension Beaurepas — as if we suffered from a sordid tone. But such was not at all the case. We were simply very bourgeois; we practised the good old Genevese principle of not sacrificing to appearances. Nothing can be better than that principle when the rich real underlies it. We had the rich real at the Pension Beaurepas: we had it in the shape of soft short beds equipped with fluffy duvets; of admirable coffee, served to us in the morning by Célestine in person as we lay recumbent on these downy couches; of copious wholesome succulent dinners, conformable to the best provincial traditions. For myself, I thought the Pension Beaurepas local colour, and this, with me, at that time, was a grand term. I was young and ingenuous and had just come from America. I wished to perfect myself in the French tongue and innocently believed it to flourish by Lake Leman. I used to go to lectures at the Academy, the nursing mother of the present University, and come home with a violent appetite. I always enjoyed my morning walk across the long bridge — there was only one just there in those days — which spans the deep blue out-gush of the lake, and up the dark steep streets of the old Calvinistic city. The garden faced this way, toward the lake and the old town, and gave properest access to the house. There was a high wall with a double gate in the middle and flanked by a couple of ancient massive posts; the big rusty grille bristled with old-fashioned iron-work. The garden was rather mouldy and weedy, tangled and untended; but it contained a small thin-flowing fountain, several green benches, a rickety little table of the same complexion, together with three orange-trees in tubs disposed as effectively as possible in front of the windows of the salon.
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!”
At breakfast I encountered his ladies — his wife and daughter. They were placed, however, at a distance from me, and it was not until the pensionnaires had dispersed and some of them, according to custom, had come out into the garden, that he had an opportunity of carrying out his offer.
“Will you allow me to introduce you to my daughter?” he said, moved apparently by a paternal inclination to provide this young lady with social diversion. She was standing with her mother in one of the paths, where she looked about with no great complacency, I inferred, at the homely characteristics of the place. Old M. Pigeonneau meanwhile hovered near, hesitating apparently between the desire to be urbane and the absence of a pretext. “Mrs. Ruck, Miss Sophy Ruck”— my friend led me up.
Mrs. Ruck was a ponderous light-coloured person with a smooth fair face, a somnolent eye and an arrangement of hair, with forehead-tendrils, water-waves and other complications, that reminded me of those framed “capillary” tributes to the dead which used long ago to hang over artless mantel-shelves between the pair of glass domes protecting wax flowers. Miss Sophy was a girl of one-and-twenty, tiny and pretty and lively, with no more maiden shyness than a feminine terrier in a tinkling collar. Both of these ladies were arrayed in black silk dresses, much ruffled and flounced, and if elegance were all a matter of trimming they would have been elegant.
“Do you think highly of this pension?” asked Mrs. Ruck after a few preliminaries.
“It’s a little rough,” I made answer, “but it seems to me comfortable.”
“Does it take a high rank in Geneva?”
“I imagine it enjoys a very fair fame.”
“I should never dream of comparing it to a New York boarding-house,” Mrs. Ruck pursued.
“It’s quite in a different style,” her daughter observed. Miss Ruck had folded her arms; she held her elbows with a pair of small white hands and tapped the ground with a pretty little foot.
“We hardly expected to come to a pension,” said Mrs. Ruck, who looked considerably over my head and seemed to confide the truth in question, as with an odd austerity or chastity, a marked remoteness, to the general air. “But we thought we’d try; we had heard so much about Swiss pensions. I was saying to Mr. Ruck that I wondered if this is a favourable specimen. I was afraid we might have made a mistake.”
“Well, we know some people who have been here; they think everything of Madame Beaurepas,” said Miss Sophy. “They say she’s a real friend.”
Mrs. Ruck, at this, drew down a little. “Mr. and Mrs. Parker — perhaps you’ve heard her speak of them.”
“Madame Beaurepas has had a great many Americans; she’s very fond of Americans,” I replied.
“Well, I must say I should think she would be if she compares them with some others.”
“Mother’s death on comparing,” remarked Miss Ruck.
“Of course I like to study things and to see for myself,” the elder lady returned. “I never had a chance till now; I never knew my privileges. Give me an American!” And, recovering her distance again, she seemed to impose this tax on the universe.
“Well, I must say there are some things I like over here,” said Miss Sophy with courage. And indeed I could see that she was a young woman of sharp affirmations.
Her father gave one of his ghostly grunts. “You like the stores — that’s what you like most, I guess.”
The young lady addressed herself to me without heeding this charge. “I suppose you feel quite at home here.”
“Oh he likes it — he has got used to the life. He says you can!” Mr. Ruck proclaimed.
“I wish you’d teach Mr. Ruck then,” said his wife. “It seems as if he couldn’t get used to anything.”
“I’m used to you, my dear,” he retorted, but with his melancholy eyes on me.
“He’s intensely restless,” continued Mrs. Ruck. “That’s what made me want to come to a pension. I thought he’d settle down more.”
“Well, lovey,” he sighed, “I’ve had hitherto mainly to settle up!”
In view of a possible clash between her parents I took refuge in conversation with Miss Ruck, who struck me as well out in the open — as leaning, subject to any swing, so to speak, on the easy gate of the house of life. I learned from her that with her companions, after a visit to the British islands, she had been spending a month in Paris and that she thought she should have died on quitting that city. “I hung out of the carriage, when we left the hotel — I assure you I did. And I guess mother did, too.”
“Out of the other window, I hope,” said I.
“Yes, one out of each window”— her promptitude was perfect. “Father had hard work, I can tell you. We hadn’t half-finished — there were ever so many other places we wanted to go to.”
“Your father insisted on coming away?”
“Yes — after we had been there about a month he claimed he had had enough. He’s fearfully restless; he’s very much out of health. Mother and I took the ground that if he was restless in Paris he needn’t hope for peace anywhere. We don’t mean to let up on him till he takes us back.” There was an air of keen resolution in Miss Ruck’s pretty face, of the lucid apprehension of desirable ends, which made me, as she pronounced these words, direct a glance of covert compassion toward her poor recalcitrant sire. He had walked away a little with his wife, and I saw only his back and his stooping patient-looking shoulders, whose air of acute resignation was thrown into relief by the cold serenity of his companion. “He’ll have to take us back in September anyway,” the girl pursued; “he’ll have to take us back to get some things we’ve ordered.”
I had an idea it was my duty to draw her out. “Have you ordered a great many things?”
“Well, I guess we’ve ordered some. Of course we wanted to take advantage of being in Paris — ladies always do. We’ve left the most important ones till we go back. Of course that’s the principal interest for ladies. Mother said she’d feel so shabby if she just passed through. We’ve promised all the people to be right there in September, and I never broke a promise yet. So Mr. Ruck has got to make his plans accordingly.”
“And what are his plans?” I continued, true to my high conception.
“I don’t know; he doesn’t seem able to make any. His great idea was to get to Geneva, but now that he has got here he doesn’t seem to see the point. It’s the effect of bad health. He used to be so bright and natural, but now he’s quite subdued. It’s about time he should improve, anyway. We went out last night to look at the jewellers’ windows — in that street behind the hotel. I had always heard of those jewellers’ windows. We saw some lovely things, but it didn’t seem to rouse father. He’ll get tired of Geneva sooner than he did of Paris.”
“Ah,” said I, “there are finer things here than the jewellers’ windows. We’re very near some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe.”
“I suppose you mean the mountains. Well, I guess we’ve seen plenty of mountains at home. We used to go to the mountains every summer. We’re familiar enough with the mountains. Aren’t we, mother?” my young woman demanded, appealing to Mrs. Ruck, who, with her husband, had drawn near again.
“Aren’t we what?” inquired the elder lady.
“Aren’t we familiar with the mountains?”
“Well, I hope so,” said Mrs. Ruck.
Mr. Ruck, with his hands in his pockets, gave me a sociable wink. “There’s nothing much you can tell them!”
The two ladies stood face to face a few moments, surveying each other’s garments. Then the girl put her mother a question. “Don’t you want to go out?”
“Well, I think we’d better. We’ve got to go up to that place.”
“To what place?” asked Mr. Ruck.
“To that jeweller’s — to that big one.”
“They all seemed big enough — they were too big!” And he gave me another dry wink.
“That one where we saw the blue cross,” said his daughter.
“Oh come, what do you want of that blue cross?” poor Mr. Ruck demanded.
“She wants to hang it on a black velvet ribbon and tie it round her neck,” said his wife.
“A black velvet ribbon? Not much!” cried the young lady. “Do you suppose I’d wear that cross on a black velvet ribbon? On a nice little gold chain, if you please — a little narrow gold chain like an old-fashioned watch-chain. That’s the proper thing for that blue cross. I know the sort of chain I mean; I’m going to look for one. When I want a thing,” said Miss Ruck with decision, “I can generally find it.”
“Look here, Sophy,” her father urged, “you don’t want that blue cross.”
“I do want it — I happen to want it.” And her light laugh, with which she glanced at me, was like the flutter of some gage of battle.
The grace of this demonstration, in itself marked, suggested that there were various relations in which one might stand to Miss Ruck; but I felt that the sharpest of the strain would come on the paternal. “Don’t worry the poor child,” said her mother.
She took it sharply up. “Come on, mother.”
“We’re going to look round a little,” the elder lady explained to me by way of taking leave.
“I know what that means,” their companion dropped as they moved away. He stood looking at them while he raised his hand to his head, behind, and rubbed it with a movement that displaced his hat. (I may remark in parenthesis that I never saw a hat more easily displaced than Mr. Ruck’s.) I supposed him about to exhale some plaint, but I was mistaken. Mr. Ruck was unhappy, but he was a touching fatalist. “Well, they want to pick up something,” he contented himself with recognising. “That’s the principal interest for ladies.”
He distinguished me, as the French say; he honoured me with his esteem and, as the days elapsed, with no small share of his confidence. Sometimes he bored me a little, for the tone of his conversation was not cheerful, tending as it did almost exclusively to a melancholy dirge over the financial prostration of our common country. “No, sir, business in the United States is not what it once was,” he found occasion to remark several times a day. “There’s not the same spring — there’s not the same hopeful feeling. You can see it in all departments.” He used to sit by the hour in the little garden of the pension with a roll of American newspapers in his lap and his high hat pushed back, swinging one of his long legs and reading the New York Herald. He paid a daily visit to the American banker’s on the other side of the Rhône and remained there a long time, turning over the old papers on the green velvet table in the centre of the Salon des Etrangers and fraternising with chance compatriots. But in spite of these diversions the time was heavy on his hands. I used at times to propose him a walk, but he had a mortal horror of any use of his legs other than endlessly dangling or crossing them, and regarded my direct employment of my own as a morbid form of activity. “You’ll kill yourself if you don’t look out,” he said, “walking all over the country. I don’t want to stump round that way — I ain’t a postman!” Briefly speaking, Mr. Ruck had few resources. His wife and daughter, on the other hand, it was to be supposed, were possessed of a good many that couldn’t be apparent to an unobtrusive young man. They also sat a great deal in the garden or in the salon, side by side, with folded hands, taking in, to vague ends, material objects, and were remarkably independent of most of the usual feminine aids to idleness — light literature, tapestry, the use of the piano. They lent themselves to complete displacement, however, much more than their companion, and I often met them, in the Rue du Rhône and on the quays, loitering in front of the jewellers’ windows. They might have had a cavalier in the person of old M. Pigeonneau, who professed a high appreciation of their charms, but who, owing to the absence of a common idiom, was deprived, in the connexion, of the pleasures of intimacy. He knew no English, and Mrs. Ruck and her daughter had, as it seemed, an incurable mistrust of the beautiful tongue which, as the old man endeavoured to impress upon them, was preeminently the language of conversation.
“They have a tournure de princesse — a distinction suprême,” he said to me. “One’s surprised to find them in a little pension bourgeoise at seven francs a day.”
“Oh they don’t come for economy. They must be rich.”
“They don’t come for my beaux yeux — for mine,” said M. Pigeonneau sadly. “Perhaps it’s for yours, young man. Je vous recommande la maman!”
I considered the case. “They came on account of Mr. Ruck because at hotels he’s so restless.”
M. Pigeonneau gave me a knowing nod. “Of course he is, with such a wife as that! — a femme superbe. She’s preserved in perfection — a miraculous fraîcheur. I like those large, fair, quiet women; they’re often, dans l’intimité, the most agreeable. I’ll warrant you that at heart Madame Roque is a finished coquette.” And then as I demurred: “You suppose her cold? Ne vous y fiez pas!”
“It’s a matter in which I’ve nothing at stake.”
“You young Americans are droll,” said M. Pigeonneau; “you never have anything at stake! But the little one, for example; I’ll warrant you she’s not cold. Toute menue as she is she’s admirably made.”
“She’s very pretty.”
“‘She’s very pretty’! Vous dites cela d’un ton! When you pay compliments to Mees Roque I hope that’s not the way you do it.”
“I don’t pay compliments to Miss Ruck.”
“Ah, decidedly,” said M. Pigeonneau, “you young Americans are droll!”
I should have suspected that these two ladies wouldn’t especially commend themselves to Madame Beaurepas; that as a maîtresse de salon, which she in some degree aspired to be, she would have found them wanting in a certain colloquial ease. But I should have gone quite wrong: Madame Beaurepas had no fault at all to find with her new pensionnaires. “I’ve no observation whatever to make about them,” she said to me one evening. “I see nothing in those ladies at all déplacé. They don’t complain of anything; they don’t meddle; they take what’s given them; they leave me tranquil. The Americans are often like that. Often, but not always,” Madame Beaurepas pursued. “We’re to have a specimen tomorrow of a very different sort.”
“An American?” I was duly interested.
“Two Américaines — a mother and a daughter. There are Americans and Americans: when you’re difficiles you’re more so than any one, and when you’ve pretensions — ah, par exemple, it’s serious. I foresee that with this little lady everything will be serious, beginning with her café au lait. She has been staying at the Pension Chamousset — my concurrente, you know, further up the street; but she’s coming away because the coffee’s bad. She holds to her coffee, it appears. I don’t know what liquid Madame Chamousset may dispense under that name, but we’ll do the best we can for her. Only I know she’ll make me des histoires about something else. She’ll demand a new lamp for the salon; vous allez voir cela. She wishes to pay but eleven francs a day for herself and her daughter, tout compris; and for their eleven francs they expect to be lodged like princesses. But she’s very ‘ladylike’— isn’t that what you call it in English? Oh, pour cela, she’s ladylike!”
I caught a glimpse on the morrow of the source of these portents, who had presented herself at our door as I came in from a walk. She had come in a cab, with her daughter and her luggage; and with an air of perfect softness and serenity she now disputed the fare as she stood on the steps and among her boxes. She addressed her cabman in a very English accent, but with extreme precision and correctness. “I wish to be perfectly reasonable, but don’t wish to encourage you in exorbitant demands. With a franc and a half you’re sufficiently paid. It’s not the custom at Geneva to give a pourboire for so short a drive. I’ve made inquiries and find it’s not the custom even in the best families. I’m a stranger, yes, but I always adopt the custom of the native families. I think it my duty to the natives.”
“But I’m a native too, moi!” cried the cabman in high derision.
“You seem to me to speak with a German accent,” continued the lady. “You’re probably from Basel. A franc and a half are sufficient. I see you’ve left behind the little red bag I asked you to hold between your knees; you’ll please to go back to the other house and get it. Very well, si vous me manquez I’ll make a complaint of you tomorrow at the administration. Aurora, you’ll find a pencil in the outer pocket of my embroidered satchel; please write down his number — 87; do you see it distinctly? — in case we should forget it.”
The young lady so addressed — a slight fair girl holding a large parcel of umbrellas — stood at hand while this allocution went forward, but apparently gave no heed to it. She stood looking about her in a listless manner — looking at the front of the house, at the corridor, at Célestine tucking back her apron in the doorway, at me as I passed in amid the disseminated luggage; her mother’s parsimonious attitude seeming to produce in Miss Aurora neither sympathy nor embarrassment. At dinner the two ladies were placed on the same side of the table as myself and below Mrs. Ruck and her daughter — my own position being on the right of Mr. Ruck. I had therefore little observation of Mrs. Church — such I learned to be her name — but I occasionally heard her soft distinct voice.
“White wine, if you please; we prefer white wine. There’s none on the table? Then you’ll please get some and remember to place a bottle of it always here between my daughter and myself.”
“That lady seems to know what she wants,” said Mr. Ruck, “and she speaks so I can understand her. I can’t understand every one over here. I’d like to make that lady’s acquaintance. Perhaps she knows what I want, too: it seems so hard to find out! But I don’t want any of their sour white wine; that’s one of the things I don’t want. I guess she’ll be an addition to the pension.”
Mr. Ruck made the acquaintance of Mrs. Church that evening in the parlour, being presented to her by his wife, who presumed on the rights conferred upon herself by the mutual proximity, at table, of the two ladies. I seemed to make out that in Mrs. Church’s view Mrs. Ruck presumed too far. The fugitive from the Pension Chamousset, as M. Pigeonneau called her, was a little fresh plump comely woman, looking less than her age, with a round bright serious face. She was very simply and frugally dressed, not at all in the manner of Mr. Ruck’s companions, and had an air of quiet distinction which was an excellent defensive weapon. She exhibited a polite disposition to listen to what Mr. Ruck might have to say, but her manner was equivalent to an intimation that what she valued least in boarding-house life was its social opportunities. She had placed herself near a lamp, after carefully screwing it and turning it up, and she had opened in her lap, with the assistance of a large embroidered marker, an octavo volume which I perceived to be in German. To Mrs. Ruck and her daughter she was evidently a puzzle; they were mystified beyond appeal by her frugal attire and expensive culture. The two younger ladies, however, had begun to fraternise freely, and Miss Ruck presently went wandering out of the room with her arm round the waist of Miss Church. It was a warm evening; the long windows of the salon stood wide open to the garden, and, inspired by the balmy darkness, M. Pigeonneau and Mademoiselle Beaurepas, a most obliging little woman who lisped and always wore a huge cravat, declared they would organise a fête de nuit. They engaged in this enterprise, and the fête developed itself on the lines of half a dozen red paper lanterns hung about in the trees, and of several glasses of sirop carried on a tray by the stout-armed Célestine. As the occasion deepened to its climax I went out into the garden, where M. Pigeonneau was master of ceremonies.
“But where are those charming young ladies,” he cried, “Mees Roque and the new-comer, l’aimable transfuge? Their absence has been remarked and they’re wanting to the brilliancy of the scene. Voyez, I have selected a glass of syrup — a generous glass — for Mees Roque, and I advise you, my young friend, if you wish to make a good impression, to put aside one which you may offer to the other young lady. What’s her name? Mees Cheurche? I see; it’s a singular name. Ca veut dire ‘église,’ n’est-ce-pas? Voilà, a church where I’d willingly worship!”
Mr. Ruck presently came out of the salon, having concluded his interview with the elder of the pair. Through the open window I saw that accomplished woman seated under the lamp with her German octavo, while Mrs. Ruck, established empty-handed in an armchair near her, fairly glowered at her for fascination.
“Well, I told you she’d know what I want,” he promptly observed to me. “She says I want to go right up to Appenzell, wherever that is; that I want to drink whey and live in a high latitude — what did she call it? — a high altitude. She seemed to think we ought to leave for Appenzell tomorrow; she’d got it all fixed. She says this ain’t a high enough lat — a high enough altitude. And she says I mustn’t go too high either; that would be just as bad; she seems to know just the right figure. She says she’ll give me a list of the hotels where we must stop on the way to Appenzell. I asked her if she didn’t want to go with us, but she says she’d rather sit still and read. I guess she’s a big reader.”
The daughter of this devotee now reappeared, in company with Miss Ruck, with whom she had been strolling through the outlying parts of the garden; and that young lady noted with interest the red paper lanterns. “Good gracious,” she inquired, “are they trying to stick the flower-pots into the trees?”
“It’s an illumination in honour of our arrival,” her companion returned. “It’s a triumph over Madame Chamousset.”
“Meanwhile, at the Pension Chamousset,” I ventured to suggest, “they’ve put out their lights — they’re sitting in darkness and lamenting your departure.”
She smiled at me — she was standing in the light that came from the house. M. Pigeonneau meanwhile, who had awaited his chance, advanced to Miss Ruck with his glass of syrup. “I’ve kept it for you, mademoiselle,” he said; “I’ve jealously guarded it. It’s very delicious!”
Miss Ruck looked at him and his syrup without making any motion to take the glass. “Well, I guess it’s sour,” she dropped with a small shake of her head.
M. Pigeonneau stood staring, his syrup in his hand; then he slowly turned away. He looked about at the rest of us as to appeal from Miss Ruck’s insensibility, and went to deposit his rejected tribute on a bench. “Won’t you give it to me?” asked Miss Church in faultless French. “J’adore le sirop, moi.”
M. Pigeonneau came back with alacrity and presented the glass with a very low bow. “I adore good manners.”
This incident caused me to look at Miss Church with quickened interest. She was not strikingly pretty, but in her charming irregular face was a light of ardour. Like her mother, though in a less degree, she was simply dressed.
“She wants to go to America, and her mother won’t let her”— Miss Sophy explained to me her friend’s situation.
“I’m very sorry — for America,” I responsively laughed.
“Well, I don’t want to say anything against your mother, but I think it’s shameful,” Miss Ruck pursued.
“Mamma has very good reasons. She’ll tell you them all.”
“Well, I’m sure I don’t want to hear them,” said Miss Ruck. “You’ve got a right to your own country; every one has a right to their own country.”
“Mamma’s not very patriotic,” Aurora was at any rate not too spiritless to mention.
“Well, I call that dreadful,” her companion declared. “I’ve heard there are some Americans like that, but I never believed it.”
“Oh there are all sorts of Americans.”
“Aurora’s one of the right sort,” cried Miss Ruck, ready, it seemed, for the closest comradeship.
“Are you very patriotic,” I asked of the attractive exile.
Miss Ruck, however, promptly answered for her. “She’s right down homesick — she’s dying to go. If you were me,” she went on to her friend, “I guess your mother would have to take me.”
“Mamma’s going to take me to Dresden.”
“Well, I never heard of anything so cold-blooded!” said Miss Ruck. “It’s like something in a weird story.”
“I never heard Dresden was so awful a fate,” I ventured to interpose.
Miss Ruck’s eyes made light of me. “Well, I don’t believe you’re a good American,” she smartly said, “and I never supposed you were. You’d better go right in there and talk to Mrs. Church.”
“Dresden’s really very nice, isn’t it?” I asked of her companion.
“It isn’t nice if you happen to prefer New York,” Miss Ruck at once returned. “Miss Church prefers New York. Tell him you’re dying to see New York; it will make him mad,” she went on.
“I’ve no desire to make him mad,” Aurora smiled.
“It’s only Miss Ruck who can do that,” I hastened to state. “Have you been a long time in Europe?” I added.
“As long as I can remember.”
“I call that wicked!” Miss Ruck declared.
“You might be in a worse place,” I continued. “I find Europe very interesting.”
Miss Ruck fairly snorted. “I was just saying that you wanted to pass for a European.”
Well, I saw my way to admit it. “Yes, I want to pass for a Dalmatian.”
Miss Ruck pounced straight. “Then you had better not come home. We know how to treat your sort.”
“Were you born in these countries?” I asked of Aurora Church.
“Oh no — I came to Europe a small child. But I remember America a little, and it seems delightful.”
“Wait till you see it again. It’s just too lovely,” said Miss Ruck.
“The grandest country in all the world,” I added.
Miss Ruck began to toss her head. “Come away, my dear. If there’s a creature I despise it’s a man who tries to say funny things about his own country.”
But Aurora lingered while she all appealingly put it to me. “Don’t you think one can be tired of Europe?”
“Well — as one may be tired of life.”
“Tired of the life?” cried Miss Ruck. “Father was tired of it after three weeks.”
“I’ve been here sixteen years,” her friend went on, looking at me as for some charming intelligence. “It used to be for my education. I don’t know what it’s for now.”
“She’s beautifully educated,” Miss Ruck guaranteed. “She knows four languages.”
“I’m not very sure I know English!”
“You should go to Boston!” said our companion. “They speak splendidly in Boston.”
“C’est mon rêve,” said Aurora, still looking at me. “Have you been all over Europe,” I asked —“in all the different countries?”
She consulted her reminiscences. “Everywhere you can find a pension. Mamma’s devoted to pensions. We’ve lived at one time or another in every pension in Europe — say at some five or six hundred.”
“Well, I should think you had seen about enough!” Miss Ruck exhaled.
“It’s a delightful way of seeing Europe”— our friend rose to a bright high irony. “You may imagine how it has attached me to the different countries. I have such charming souvenirs! There’s a pension awaiting us now at Dresden — eight francs a day, without wine. That’s so much beyond our mark that mamma means to make them give us wine. Mamma’s a great authority on pensions; she’s known, that way, all over Europe. Last winter we were in Italy, and she discovered one at Piacenza — four francs a day. We made economies.”
“Your mother doesn’t seem to mingle much,” observed Miss Ruck, who had glanced through the window at Mrs. Church’s concentration.
“No, she doesn’t mingle, except in the native society. Though she lives in pensions she detests our vulgar life.”
“‘Vulgar’?” cried Miss Ruck. “Why then does she skimp so?” This young woman had clearly no other notion of vulgarity.
“Oh because we’re so poor; it’s the cheapest way to live. We’ve tried having a cook, but the cook always steals. Mamma used to set me to watch her; that’s the way I passed my jeunesse — my belle jeunesse. We’re frightfully poor,” she went on with the same strange frankness — a curious mixture of girlish grace and conscious cynicism. “Nous n’avons pas le sou. That’s one of the reasons we don’t go back to America. Mamma says we could never afford to live there.”
“Well, any one can see that you’re an American girl,” Miss Ruck remarked in a consolatory manner. “I can tell an American girl a mile off. You’ve got the natural American style.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t the natural American clothes,” said Aurora in tribute to the other’s splendour.
“Well, your dress was cut in France; any one can see that.”
“Yes,” our young lady laughed, “my dress was cut in France — at Avranches.”
“Well, you’ve got a lovely figure anyway,” pursued her companion.
“Ah,” she said for the pleasantry of it, “at Avranches, too, my figure was admired.” And she looked at me askance and with no clear poverty of intention. But I was an innocent youth and I only looked back at her and wondered. She was a great deal nicer than Miss Ruck, and yet Miss Ruck wouldn’t have said that in that way. “I try to be the American girl,” she continued; “I do my best, though mamma doesn’t at all encourage it. I’m very patriotic. I try to strike for freedom, though mamma has brought me up à la française; that is as much as one can in pensions. For instance I’ve never been out of the house without mamma — oh never never! But sometimes I despair; American girls do come out so with things. I can’t come out, I can’t rush in, like that. I’m awfully pinched, I’m always afraid. But I do what I can, as you see. Excusez du peu!”
I thought this young lady of an inspiration at least as untrammelled as her unexpatriated sisters, and her despondency in the true note of much of their predominant prattle. At the same time she had by no means caught, as it seemed to me, what Miss Ruck called the natural American style. Whatever her style was, however, it had a fascination — I knew not what (as I called it) distinction, and yet I knew not what odd freedom.
The young ladies began to stroll about the garden again, and I enjoyed their society until M. Pigeonneau’s conception of a “high time” began to languish.
Mr. Ruck failed to take his departure for Appenzell on the morrow, in spite of the eagerness to see him off quaintly attributed by him to Mrs. Church. He continued on the contrary for many days after to hang about the garden, to wander up to the banker’s and back again, to engage in desultory conversation with his fellow boarders, and to endeavour to assuage his constitutional restlessness by perusal of the American journals. But it was at least on the morrow that I had the honour of making Mrs. Church’s acquaintance. She came into the salon after the midday breakfast, her German octavo under her arm, and appealed to me for assistance in selecting a quiet corner.
“Would you very kindly,” she said, “move that large fauteuil a little more this way? Not the largest; the one with the little cushion. The fauteuils here are very insufficient; I must ask Madame Beaurepas for another. Thank you; a little more to the left, please; that will do. Are you particularly engaged?” she inquired after she had seated herself. “If not I should like briefly to converse with you. It’s some time since I’ve met a young American of your — what shall I call it? — affiliations. I’ve learned your name from Madame Beaurepas; I must have known in other days some of your people. I ask myself what has become of all my friends. I used to have a charming little circle at home, but now I meet no one I either know or desire to know. Don’t you think there’s a great difference between the people one meets and the people one would like to meet? Fortunately, sometimes,” my patroness graciously added, “there’s no great difference. I suppose you’re a specimen — and I take you for a good one,” she imperturbably went on —“of modern young America. Tell me, then, what modern young America is thinking of in these strange days of ours. What are its feelings, its opinions, its aspirations? What is its ideal?” I had seated myself and she had pointed this interrogation with the gaze of her curiously bright and impersonal little eyes. I felt it embarrassing to be taken for a superior specimen of modern young America and to be expected to answer for looming millions. Observing my hesitation Mrs. Church clasped her hands on the open page of her book and gave a dismal, a desperate smile. “Has it an ideal?” she softly asked. “Well, we must talk of this,” she proceeded without insisting. “Speak just now for yourself simply. Have you come to Europe to any intelligent conscious end?”
“No great end to boast of,” I said. “But I seem to feel myself study a little.”
“Ah, I’m glad to hear that. You’re gathering up a little European culture; that’s what we lack, you know, at home. No individual can do much, of course; but one mustn’t be discouraged — every little so counts.”
“I see that you at least are doing your part,” I bravely answered, dropping my eyes on my companion’s learned volume.
“Ah yes, I go as straight as possible to the sources. There’s no one after all like the Germans. That is for digging up the facts and the evidence. For conclusions I frequently diverge. I form my opinions myself. I’m sorry to say, however,” Mrs. Church continued, “that I don’t do much to spread the light. I’m afraid I’m sadly selfish; I do little to irrigate the soil. I belong — I frankly confess it — to the class of impenitent absentees.”
“I had the pleasure, last evening,” I said, “of making the acquaintance of your daughter. She tells me you’ve been a long time in Europe.”
She took it blandly. “Can one ever be too long? You see it’s our world, that of us few real fugitives from the rule of the mob. We shall never go back to that.”
“Your daughter nevertheless fancies she yearns!” I replied.
“Has she been taking you into her confidence? She’s a more sensible young lady than she sometimes appears. I’ve taken great pains with her; she’s really — I may be permitted to say it — superbly educated.”
“She seemed to me to do you honour,” I made answer. “And I hear she speaks fluently four languages.”
“It’s not only that,” said Mrs. Church in the tone of one sated with fluencies and disillusioned of diplomas. “She has made what we call de fortes études— such as I suppose you’re making now. She’s familiar with the results of modern science; she keeps pace with the new historical school.”
“Ah,” said I, “she has gone much further than I!”
She seemed to look at me a moment as for the tip of the ear of irony. “You doubtless think I exaggerate, and you force me therefore to mention the fact that I speak of such matters with a certain intelligence.”
“I should never dream of doubting it,” I returned, “but your daughter nevertheless strongly holds that you ought to take her home.” I might have feared that these words would practically represent treachery to the young lady, but I was reassured by seeing them produce in her mother’s placid surface no symptom whatever of irritation.
“My daughter has her little theories,” that lady observed; “she has, I may say, her small fond illusions and rebellions. And what wonder! What would youth be without its Sturm and Drang? Aurora says to herself — all at her ease — that she would be happier in their dreadful New York, in their dreary Boston, in their desperate Philadelphia, than in one of the charming old cities in which our lot is cast. But she knows not what she babbles of — that’s all. We must allow our children their yearning to make mistakes, mustn’t we? But we must keep the mistakes down to as few as possible.”
Her soft sweet positiveness, beneath which I recognised all sorts of really hard rigours of resistance and aggression, somehow breathed a chill on me. “American cities,” I none the less threw off, “are the paradise of the female young.”
“Do you mean,” she inquired, “that the generations reared in those places are angels?”
“Well,” I said resolutely, “they’re the nicest of all girls.”
“This young lady — what’s her odd name? — with whom my daughter has formed a somewhat precipitate acquaintance: is Miss Ruck an angel and one of the nicest of all? But I won’t,” she amusedly added, “force you to describe her as she deserves. It would be too cruel to make a single exception.”
“Well,” I at any rate pleaded, “in America they’ve the easiest lot and the best time. They’ve the most innocent liberty.”
My companion laid her hand an instant on my arm. “My dear young friend, I know America, I know the conditions of life there down to the ground. There’s perhaps no subject on which I’ve reflected more than on our national idiosyncrasies.”
“To the effect, I see, of your holding them in horror,” I said a little roughly.
Rude indeed as was my young presumption Mrs. Church had still her cultivated patience, even her pity, for it. “We’re very crude,” she blandly remarked, “and we’re proportionately indigestible.” And lest her own refined strictures should seem to savour of the vice she deprecated she went on to explain. “There are two classes of minds, you know — those that hold back and those that push forward. My daughter and I are not pushers; we move with the slow considerate steps to which a little dignity may still cling. We like the old trodden paths; we like the old old world.”
“Ah,” said I, “you know what you like. There’s a great virtue in that.”
“Yes, we like Europe; we prefer it. We like the opportunities of Europe; we like the rest. There’s so much in that, you know. The world seems to me to be hurrying, pressing forward so fiercely, without knowing in the least where it’s going. ‘Whither?’ I often ask in my little quiet way. But I’ve yet to learn that any one can tell me.”
“You’re a grand old conservative,” I returned while I wondered whether I myself might have been able to meet her question.
Mrs. Church gave me a smile that was equivalent to a confession. “I wish to retain a wee bit — just a wee bit. Surely we’ve done so much we might rest a while; we might pause. That’s all my feeling — just to stop a little, to wait, to take breath. I’ve seen so many changes. I want to draw in, to draw in — to hold back, to hold back.”
“You shouldn’t hold your daughter back!” I laughed as I got up. I rose not by way of closing our small discussion, for I felt my friend’s exposition of her views to be by no means complete, but in order to offer a chair to Miss Aurora, who at this moment drew near. She thanked me and remained standing, but without at first, as I noticed, really facing her parent.
“You’ve been engaged with your new acquaintance, my dear?” this lady inquired.
“Yes, mamma,” said the girl with a sort of prompt sweet dryness.
“Do you find her very edifying?”
Aurora had a silence; then she met her mother’s eyes. “I don’t know, mamma. She’s very fresh.”
I ventured a respectful laugh. “Your mother has another word for that. But I must not,” I added, “be indigestibly raw.”
“Ah, vous m’en voulez?” Mrs. Church serenely sighed. “And yet I can’t pretend I said it in jest. I feel it too much. We’ve been having a little social discussion,” she said to her daughter. “There’s still so much to be said. And I wish,” she continued, turning to me, “that I could give you our point of view. Don’t you wish, Aurora, that we could give him our point of view?”
“Yes, mamma,” said Aurora.
“We consider ourselves very fortunate in our point of view, don’t we, dearest?” mamma demanded.
“Very fortunate indeed, mamma.”
“You see we’ve acquired an insight into European life,” the elder lady pursued. “We’ve our place at many a European fireside. We find so much to esteem — so much to enjoy. Don’t we find delightful things, my daughter?”
“So very delightful, mamma,” the girl went on with her colourless calm. I wondered at it; it offered so strange a contrast to the mocking freedom of her tone the night before; but while I wondered I desired to testify to the interest at least with which she inspired me.
“I don’t know what impression you ladies may have found at European firesides,” I again ventured, “but there can be very little doubt of the impression you must have made there.”
Mrs. Church got in motion to acknowledge my compliment. “We’ve spent some charming hours. And that reminds me that we’ve just now such an occasion in prospect. We’re to call upon some Genevese friends — the family of the Pasteur Galopin. They’re to go with us to the old library at the Hôtel de Ville, where there are some very interesting documents of the period of the Reformation: we’re promised a glimpse of some manuscripts of poor Servetus, the antagonist and victim, you know, of the dire Calvin. Here of course one can only speak of ce monsieur under one’s breath, but some day when we’re more private”— Mrs. Church looked round the room —“I’ll give you my view of him. I think it has a force of its own. Aurora’s familiar with it — aren’t you, my daughter, familiar with my view of the evil genius of the Reformation?”
“Yes, mamma —very,” said Aurora with docility — and also, as I thought, with subtlety — while the two ladies went to prepare for their visit to the Pasteur Galopin.
“She has demanded a new lamp: I told you she would!” This communication was made me by Madame Beaurepas a couple of days later. “And she has asked for a new tapis de lit, and she has requested me to provide Célestine with a pair of light shoes. I remarked to her that, as a general thing, domestic drudges aren’t shod with satin. That brave Célestine!”
“Mrs. Church may be exacting,” I said, “but she’s a clever little woman.”
“A lady who pays but five francs and a half shouldn’t be too clever. C’est déplacé. I don’t like the type.”
“What type then,” I asked, “do you pronounce Mrs. Church’s?”
“Mon Dieu,” said Madame Beaurepas, “c’est une de ces mamans, comme vous en avez, qui promènent leur fille.”
“She’s trying to marry her daughter? I don’t think she’s of that sort.”
But Madame Beaurepas shrewdly held to her idea. “She’s trying it in her own way; she does it very quietly. She doesn’t want an American; she wants a foreigner. And she wants a mari sérieux. But she’s travelling over Europe in search of one. She would like a magistrate.”
“A gros bonnet of some kind; a professor or a deputy.”
“I’m awfully sorry for the poor girl,” I found myself moved to declare.
“You needn’t pity her too much; she’s a fine mouche— a sly thing.”
“Ah, for that, no!” I protested. “She’s no fool, but she’s an honest creature.”
My hostess gave an ancient grin. “She has hooked you, eh? But the mother won’t have you.”
I developed my idea without heeding this insinuation. “She’s a charming girl, but she’s a shrewd politician. It’s a necessity of her case. She’s less submissive to her mother than she has to pretend to be. That’s in self-defence. It’s to make her life possible.”
“She wants to get away from her mother”— Madame Beaurepas so far confirmed me. “She wants to courir les champs.”
“She wants to go to America, her native country.”
“Precisely. And she’ll certainly manage it.”
“I hope so!” I laughed.
“Some fine morning — or evening — she’ll go off with a young man; probably with a young American.”
“Allons donc!” I cried with disgust.
“That will be quite America enough,” pursued my cynical hostess. “I’ve kept a boarding-house for nearly half a century. I’ve seen that type.”
“Have such things as that happened chez vous?” I asked.
“Everything has happened chez moi. But nothing has happened more than once. Therefore this won’t happen here. It will be at the next place they go to, or the next. Besides, there’s here no young American pour la partie — none except you, monsieur. You’re susceptible but you’re too reasonable.”
“It’s lucky for you I’m reasonable,” I answered. “It’s thanks to my cold blood you escape a scolding!”
One morning about this time, instead of coming back to breakfast at the pension after my lectures at the Academy, I went to partake of this meal with a fellow student at an ancient eating-house in the collegiate quarter. On separating from my friend I took my way along that charming public walk known in Geneva as the Treille, a shady terrace, of immense elevation, overhanging a stretch of the lower town. Here are spreading trees and well-worn benches, and over the tiles and chimneys of the ville basse a view of the snow-crested Alps. On the other side, as you turn your back to the view, the high level is overlooked by a row of tall sober-faced hôtels, the dwellings of the local aristocracy. I was fond of the place, resorting to it for stimulation of my sense of the social scene at large. Presently, as I lingered there on this occasion, I became aware of a gentleman seated not far from where I stood, his back to the Alpine chain, which this morning was all radiant, and a newspaper unfolded in his lap. He wasn’t reading, however; he only stared before him in gloomy contemplation. I don’t know whether I recognised first the newspaper or its detainer; one, in either case, would have helped me to identify the other. One was the New York Herald— the other of course was Mr. Ruck. As I drew nearer he moved his eyes from the stony succession, the grey old high-featured house-masks, on the other side of the terrace, and I knew by the expression of his face just how he had been feeling about these distinguished abodes. He had made up his mind that their proprietors were a “mean” narrow-minded unsociable company that plunged its knotted roots into a superfluous past. I endeavoured therefore, as I sat down beside him, to strike a pleasanter note.
“The Alps, from here, do make a wondrous show!”
“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Ruck without a stir, “I’ve examined the Alps. Fine thing in its way, the view — fine thing. Beauties of nature — that sort of thing. We came up on purpose to look at it.”
“Your ladies then have been with you?”
“Yes — I guess they’re fooling round. They’re awfully restless. They keep saying I’m restless, but I’m as quiet as a sleeping child to them. It takes,” he added in a moment dryly, “the form of an interest in the stores.”
“And are the stores what they’re after now?”
“Yes — unless this is one of the days the stores don’t keep. They regret them, but I wish there were more of them! They told me to sit here a while and they’d just have a look. I generally know what that means — it’s their form of scenery. But that’s the principal interest for ladies,” he added, retracting his irony. “We thought we’d come up here and see the cathedral; Mrs. Church seemed to think it a dead loss we shouldn’t see the cathedral, especially as we hadn’t seen many yet. And I had to come up to the banker’s anyway. Well, we certainly saw the cathedral. I don’t know as we’re any the better for it, and I don’t know as I should know it again. But we saw it anyway, stone by stone — and heard about it century by century. I don’t know as I should want to go there regularly, but I suppose it will give us in conversation a kind of hold on Mrs. Church, hey? I guess we want something of that kind. Well,” Mr. Ruck continued, “I stepped in at the banker’s to see if there wasn’t something, and they handed me out an old Herald.”
“Well, I hope the Herald’s full of good news,” I returned.
“Can’t say it is. Damned bad news.”
“Political,” I inquired, “or commercial?”
“Oh hang politics! It’s business, sir. There ain’t any business. It’s all gone to —” and Mr. Ruck became profane. “Nine failures in one day, and two of them in our locality. What do you say to that?”
“I greatly hope they haven’t inconvenienced you,” was all I could gratify him with.
“Well, I guess they haven’t affected me quite desirably. So many houses on fire, that’s all. If they happen to take place right where you live they don’t increase the value of your own property. When mine catches I suppose they’ll write and tell me — one of these days when they get round to me. I didn’t get a blamed letter this morning; I suppose they think I’m having such a good time over here it’s a pity to break in. If I could attend to business for about half an hour I’d find out something. But I can’t, and it’s no use talking. The state of my health was never so unsatisfactory as it was about five o’clock this morning.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” I said, “and I recommend you strongly not to think of business.”
“I don’t,” Mr. Ruck replied. “You can’t make me. I’m thinking of cathedrals. I’m thinking of the way they used to chain you up under them or burn you up in front of them — in those high old times. I’m thinking of the beauties of nature too,” he went on, turning round on the bench and leaning his elbow on the parapet. “You can get killed over there I suppose also”— and he nodded at the shining crests. “I’m thinking of going over — because, whatever the danger, I seem more afraid not to. That’s why I do most things. How do you get over?” he sighed.
“Over to Chamouni?”
“Over to those hills. Don’t they run a train right up?”
“You can go to Chamouni,” I said. “You can go to Grindelwald and Zermatt and fifty other places. You can’t go by rail, but you can drive.”
“All right, we’ll drive — you can’t tell the difference in these cars. Yes,” Mr. Ruck proceeded, “Chamouni’s one of the places we put down. I hope there are good stores in Chamouni.” He spoke with a quickened ring and with an irony more pointed than commonly served him. It was as if he had been wrought upon, and yet his general submission to fate was still there. I judged he had simply taken, in the face of disaster, a sudden sublime resolution not to worry. He presently twisted himself about on his bench again and began to look out for his companions. “Well, they are taking a look,” he resumed; “I guess they’ve struck something somewhere. And they’ve got a carriage waiting outside of that archway too. They seem to do a big business in archways here, don’t they? They like to have a carriage to carry home the things — those ladies of mine. Then they’re sure they’ve got ’em.” The ladies, after this, to do them justice, were not very long in appearing. They came toward us from under the archway to which Mr. Ruck had somewhat invidiously alluded, slowly and with a jaded air. My companion watched them as they advanced. “They’re right down tired. When they look like that it kind o’ foots up.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Ruck, “I’m glad you’ve had some company.” Her husband looked at her, in silence, through narrowed eyelids, and I suspected that her unusually gracious observation was prompted by the less innocent aftertaste of her own late pastime.
Her daughter glanced at me with the habit of straighter defiance. “It would have been more proper if we had had the company. Why didn’t you come after us instead of sneaking there?” she asked of Mr. Ruck’s companion.
“I was told by your father,” I explained, “that you were engaged in sacred rites.” If Miss Ruck was less conciliatory it would be scarcely, I felt sure, because she had been more frugal. It was rather because her conception of social intercourse appeared to consist of the imputation to as many persons as possible — that is to as many subject males — of some scandalous neglect of her charms and her claims. “Well, for a gentleman there’s nothing so sacred as ladies’ society,” she replied in the manner of a person accustomed to giving neat retorts.
“I suppose you refer to the cathedral,” said her mother. “Well, I must say we didn’t go back there. I don’t know what it may be for regular attendants, but it doesn’t meet my idea of a really pleasant place of worship. Few of these old buildings do,” Mrs. Ruck further mentioned.
“Well, we discovered a little lace-shop, where I guess I could regularly attend!” her daughter took occasion to announce without weak delay.
Mr. Ruck looked at his child; then he turned about again, leaning on the parapet and gazing away at the “hills.”
“Well, the place was certainly not expensive,” his wife said with her eyes also on the Alps.
“We’re going up to Chamouni,” he pursued. “You haven’t any call for lace up there.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you’ve decided to go somewhere,” Mrs. Ruck returned. “I don’t want to be a fixture at an old pension.”
“You can wear lace anywhere,” her daughter reminded us, “if you put it on right. That’s the great thing with lace. I don’t think they know how to wear lace in Europe. I know how I mean to wear mine; but I mean to keep it till I get home.”
Mr. Ruck transferred his melancholy gaze to her elaborately-appointed little person; there was a great deal of very new-looking detail in Miss Ruck’s appearance. Then in a tone of voice quite out of consonance with his facial despondency, “Have you purchased a great deal?” he inquired.
“I’ve purchased enough for you to make a fuss about.”
“He can’t make a fuss about that,” said Mrs. Ruck.
“Well, you’ll see!”— the girl had unshaken confidence.
The subject of this serenity, however, went on in the same tone: “Have you got it in your pocket? Why don’t you put it on — why don’t you hang it round you?”
“I’ll hang it round you if you don’t look out!” cried Miss Ruck.
“Don’t you want to show it off to this gentleman?” he sociably continued.
“Mercy, how you do carry on!” his wife sighed.
“Well, I want to be lively. There’s every reason for it. We’re going up to Chamouni.”
“You’re real restless — that’s what’s the matter with you.” And Mrs. Ruck roused herself from her own repose.
“No, I ain’t,” said her husband. “I never felt so quiet. I feel as peaceful as a little child.”
Mrs. Ruck, who had no play of mind, looked at her daughter and at me. “Well, I hope you’ll improve,” she stated with a certain flatness.
“Send in the bills,” he went on, rising to match. “Don’t let yourself suffer from want, Sophy. I don’t care what you do now. We can’t be more than gay, and we can’t be worse than broke.”
Sophy joined her mother with a little toss of her head, and we followed the ladies to the carriage, where the younger addressed her father. “In your place, Mr. Ruck, I wouldn’t want to flaunt my meanness quite so much before strangers.”
He appeared to feel the force of this rebuke, surely deserved by a man on whom the humiliation of seeing the main ornaments of his hearth betray the ascendency of that character had never yet been laid. He flushed and was silent; his companions got into their vehicle, the front seat of which was adorned with a large parcel. Mr. Ruck gave the parcel a poke with his umbrella and turned to me with a grimly penitent smile. “After all, for the ladies, that’s the principal interest.”
Old M. Pigeonneau had more than once offered me the privilege of a walk in his company, but his invitation had hitherto, for one reason or another, always found me hampered. It befell, however, one afternoon that I saw him go forth for a vague airing with an unattended patience that attracted my sympathy. I hastily overtook him and passed my hand into his venerable arm, an overture that produced in the good old man so rejoicing a response that he at once proposed we should direct our steps to the English Garden: no scene less consecrated to social ease was worthy of our union. To the English Garden accordingly we went; it lay beyond the bridge and beside the lake. It was always pretty and now was really recreative; a band played furiously in the centre and a number of discreet listeners sat under the small trees on benches and little chairs or strolled beside the blue water. We joined the strollers, we observed our companions and conversed on obvious topics. Some of these last, of course, were the pretty women who graced the prospect and who, in the light of M. Pigeonneau’s comprehensive criticism, appeared surprisingly numerous. He seemed bent upon our making up our minds as to which might be prettiest, and this was an innocent game in which I consented to take a hand.
Suddenly my companion stopped, pressing my arm with the liveliest emotion. “La voilà, la voilà, the prettiest!” he quickly murmured; “coming toward us in a blue dress with the other.” It was at the other I was looking, for the other, to my surprise, was our interesting fellow pensioner, the daughter of the most systematic of mothers. M. Pigeonneau meanwhile had redoubled his transports — he had recognised Miss Ruck. “Oh la belle rencontre, nos aimables convives — the prettiest girl in the world in effect!” And then after we had greeted and joined the young ladies, who, like ourselves, were walking arm in arm and enjoying the scene, he addressed himself to the special object of his admiration, Mees Roque. “I was citing you with enthusiasm to my young friend here even before I had recognised you, mademoiselle.”
“I don’t believe in French compliments,” remarked Miss Sophy, who presented her back to the smiling old man.
“Are you and Miss Ruck walking alone?” I asked of her companion. “You had better accept M. Pigeonneau’s gallant protection, to say nothing of mine.”
Aurora Church had taken her hand from Miss Ruck’s arm; she inclined her head to the side and shone at me while her open parasol revolved on her shoulder. “Which is most improper — to walk alone or to walk with gentlemen that one picks up? I want to do what’s most improper.”
“What perversity,” I asked, “are you, with an ingenuity worthy of a better cause, trying to work out?”
“He thinks you can’t understand him when he talks like that,” said Miss Ruck. “But I do understand you,” she flirted at me —“always!”
“So I’ve always ventured to hope, my dear Miss Ruck.”
“Well, if I didn’t it wouldn’t be much loss!” cried this young lady.
“Allons, en marche!” trumpeted M. Pigeonneau, all gallant urbanity and undiscouraged by her impertinence. “Let us make together the tour of the garden.” And he attached himself to Miss Ruck with a respectful elderly grace which treated her own lack even of the juvenile form of that attraction as some flower of alien modesty, and was ever sublimely conscious of a mission to place modesty at its ease. This ill-assorted couple walked in front, while Aurora Church and I strolled along together.
“I’m sure this is more improper,” said my companion; “this is delightfully improper. I don’t say that as a compliment to you,” she added. “I’d say it to any clinging man, no matter how stupid.”
“Oh I’m clinging enough,” I answered; “but I’m as stupid as you could wish, and this doesn’t seem to me wrong.”
“Not for you, no; only for me. There’s nothing that a man can do that’s wrong, is there? En morale, you know, I mean. Ah, yes, he can kill and steal; but I think there’s nothing else, is there?”
“Well, it’s a nice question. One doesn’t know how those things are taken till after one has done them. Then one’s enlightened.”
“And you mean you’ve never been enlightened? You make yourself out very good.”
“That’s better than making one’s self out very bad, as you do.”
“Ah,” she explained, “you don’t know the consequences of a false position.”
I was amused at her great formula. “What do you mean by yours being one?”
“Oh I mean everything. For instance, I’ve to pretend to be a jeune fille. I’m not a jeune fille; no American girl’s a jeune fille; an American girl’s an intelligent responsible creature. I’ve to pretend to be idiotically innocent, but I’m not in the least innocent.”
This, however, was easy to meet. “You don’t in the least pretend to be innocent; you pretend to be — what shall I call it? — uncannily wise.”
“That’s no pretence. I am uncannily wise. You could call it nothing more true.”
I went along with her a little, rather thrilled by this finer freedom. “You’re essentially not an American girl.”
She almost stopped, looking at me; there came a flush to her cheek. “Voilà!” she said. “There’s my false position. I want to be an American girl, and I’ve been hideously deprived of that immense convenience, that beautiful resource.”
“Do you want me to tell you?” I pursued with interest. “It would be utterly impossible to an American girl — I mean unperverted, and that’s the whole point — to talk as you’re talking to me now.”
The expressive eagerness she showed for this was charming. “Please tell me then! How would she talk?”
“I can’t tell you all the things she’d say, but I think I can tell you most of the things she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t reason out her conduct as you seem to me to do.”
Aurora gave me the most flattering attention. “I see. She would be simpler. To do very simply things not at all simple — that’s the American girl!”
I greatly enjoyed our intellectual relation. “I don’t know whether you’re a French girl, or what you are, but, you know, I find you witty.”
“Ah, you mean I strike false notes!” she quite comically wailed. “See how my whole sense for such things has been ruined. False notes are just what I want to avoid. I wish you’d always tell me.”
The conversational union between Miss Ruck and her neighbour, in front of us, had evidently not borne fruit. Miss Ruck suddenly turned round to us with a question. “Don’t you want some ice-cream?”
“She doesn’t strike false notes,” I declared.
We had come into view of a manner of pavilion or large kiosk, which served as a café and at which the delicacies generally procurable at such an establishment were dispensed. Miss Ruck pointed to the little green tables and chairs set out on the gravel; M. Pigeonneau, fluttering with a sense of dissipation, seconded the proposal, and we presently sat down and gave our order to a nimble attendant. I managed again to place myself next Aurora; our companions were on the other side of the table.
My neighbour rejoiced to extravagance in our situation. “This is best of all — I never believed I should come to a café with two strange and possibly depraved men! Now you can’t persuade me this isn’t wrong.”
“To make it wrong,” I returned, “we ought to see your mother coming down that path.”
“Ah, my mother makes everything wrong,” she cried, attacking with a little spoon in the shape of a spade the apex of a pink ice. And then she returned to her idea of a moment before. “You must promise to tell me — to warn me in some way — whenever I strike a false note. You must give a little cough, like that — ahem!”
“You’ll keep me very busy and people will think I’m in a consumption.”
“Voyons,” she continued, “why have you never talked to me more? Is that a false note? Why haven’t you been ‘attentive’? That’s what American girls call it; that’s what Miss Ruck calls it.”
I assured myself that our companions were out of ear-shot and that Miss Ruck was much occupied with a large vanilla cream. “Because you’re always interlaced with that young lady. There’s no getting near you.”
Aurora watched her friend while the latter devoted herself to her ice. “You wonder, no doubt, why I should care for her at all. So does mamma; elle s’y perd. I don’t like her particularly; je n’en suis pas folle. But she gives me information; she tells me about her — your — everything but my— extraordinary country. Mamma has always tried to prevent my knowing anything about it, and I’m all the more devoured with curiosity. And then Miss Ruck’s so very fresh.”
“I may not be so fresh as Miss Ruck,” I said, “but in future, when you want information, I recommend you to come to me for it.”
“Ah, but our friend offers to take me there; she invites me to go back with her, to stay with her. You couldn’t do that, could you?” And my companion beautifully faced me on it. “Bon, a false note! I can see it by your face; you remind me of an outraged maître de piano.”
“You overdo the character — the poor American girl,” I said. “Are you going to stay with that delightful family?”
“I’ll go and stay with any one who will take me or ask me. It’s a real nostalgie. She says that in New York — in Thirty–Seventh Street near Fourth Avenue — I should have the most lovely time.”
“I’ve no doubt you’d enjoy it.”
“Absolute liberty to begin with.”
“It seems to me you’ve a certain liberty here,” I returned.
“Ah, this? Oh I shall pay for this. I shall be punished by mamma and lectured by Madame Galopin.”
“The wife of the pasteur?”
“His digne épouse. Madame Galopin, for mamma, is the incarnation of European opinion. That’s what vexes me with mamma, her thinking so much of people like Madame Galopin. Going to see Madame Galopin — mamma calls that being in European society. European society! I’m so sick of that expression; I’ve heard it since I was six years old. Who’s Madame Galopin — who the devil thinks anything of her here? She’s nobody; she’s the dreariest of frumps; she’s perfectly third-rate. If I like your America better than mamma I also know my Europe better.”
“But your mother, certainly,” I objected a trifle timidly — for my young lady was excited and had a charming little passion in her eye —“your mother has a great many social relations all over the continent.”
“She thinks so, but half the people don’t care for us. They’re not so good as we and they know it — I’ll do them that justice — so that they wonder why we should care for them. When we’re polite to them they think the less of us; there are plenty of people like that. Mamma thinks so much of them simply because they’re foreigners. If I could tell you all the ugly stupid tenth-rate people I’ve had to talk to for no better reason than that they were de leur pays! — Germans, French, Italians, Turks, everything. When I complain mamma always says that at any rate it’s practice in the language. And she makes so much of the most impossible English too; I don’t know what that’s practice in.”
Before I had time to suggest an hypothesis as regards this latter point I saw something that made me rise — I fear with an undissimulated start — from my chair. This was nothing less than the neat little figure of Mrs. Church — a perfect model of the femme comme il faut — approaching our table with an impatient step and followed most unexpectedly in her advance by the preeminent form of Mr. Ruck, whose high hat had never looked so high. She had evidently come in search of her daughter, and if she had commanded this gentleman’s attendance it had been on no more intimate ground than that of his unenvied paternity to her guilty child’s accomplice. My movement had given the alarm and my young friend and M. Pigeonneau got up; Miss Ruck alone didn’t, in the local phrase, derange herself. Mrs. Church, beneath her modest little bonnet, looked thoroughly resolute though not at all agitated; she came straight to her daughter, who received her with a smile, and then she took the rest of us in very fixedly and tranquilly and without bowing. I must do both these ladies the justice that neither of them made the least little “scene.”
“I’ve come for you, dearest,” said the mother.
“Yes, dear mamma.”
“Come for you — come for you,” Mrs. Church repeated, looking down at the relics of our little feast, on which she seemed somehow to shed at once the lurid light of the disreputable. “I was obliged to appeal to Mr. Ruck’s assistance. I was much perplexed. I thought a long time.”
“Well, Mrs. Church, I was glad to see you perplexed once in your life!” cried Mr. Ruck with friendly jocosity. “But you came pretty straight for all that. I had hard work to keep up with you.”
“We’ll take a cab, Aurora,” Mrs. Church went on without heeding this pleasantry —“a closed one; we’ll enter it at once. Come, ma fille.”
“Yes, dear mamma.” The girl had flushed for humiliation, but she carried it bravely off; and her grimace as she looked round at us all and her eyes met mine didn’t keep her, I thought, from being beautiful. “Good-bye. I’ve had a ripping time.”
“We mustn’t linger,” said her mother; “it’s five o’clock. We’re to dine, you know, with Madame Galopin.”
“I had quite forgotten,” Aurora declared. “That will be even more charming.”
“Do you want me to assist you to carry her back, ma’am?” asked Mr. Ruck.
Mrs. Church covered him for a little with her coldest contemplation. “Do you prefer then to leave your daughter to finish the evening with these gentlemen?”
Mr. Ruck pushed back his hat and scratched the top of his head. “Well, I don’t know. How’d you like that, Sophy?”
“Well, I never!” gasped Sophy as Mrs. Church marched off with her daughter.
I had half-expected a person of so much decision, and above all of so much consistency, would make me feel the weight of her disapproval of my own share in that little act of revelry by the most raffish part of the lakeside. But she maintained her claim to being a highly reasonable woman — I couldn’t but admire the justice of this pretension — by recognising my practical detachment. I had taken her daughter as I found her, which was, according to Mrs. Church’s view, in a very equivocal position. The natural instinct of a young man in such a situation is not to protest but to profit; and it was clear to Mrs. Church that I had had nothing to do with Miss Aurora’s appearing in public under the compromising countenance, as she regarded the matter, of Miss Ruck. Besides, she liked to converse, and she apparently did me the honour to consider that of all the inmates of the Pension Beaurepas I was the best prepared for that exercise. I found her in the salon a couple of evenings after the incident I have just narrated, and I approached her with a view to making my peace with her if this should prove necessary. But Mrs. Church was as gracious as I could have desired; she put her marker into her inveterate volume and folded her plump little hands on the cover. She made no specific allusion to the English Garden; she embarked rather on those general considerations in which her cultivated mind was so much at home.
“Always at your deep studies, Mrs. Church,” I didn’t hesitate freely to observe.
“Que voulez-vous, monsieur? To say studies is to say too much; one doesn’t study in the parlour of a boarding-house of this character. But I do what I can; I’ve always done what I can. That’s all I’ve ever claimed.”
“No one can do more, and you appear to have done a great deal.”
“Do you know my secret?” she asked with an air of brightening confidence. And this treasure hung there a little temptingly before she revealed it. “To care only for the best! To do the best, to know the best — to have, to desire, to recognise, only the best. That’s what I’ve always done in my little quiet persistent way. I’ve gone through Europe on my devoted little errand, seeking, seeing, heeding, only the best. And it hasn’t been for myself alone — it has been for my daughter. My daughter has had the best. We’re not rich, but I can say that.”
“She has had you, madam,” I pronounced finely.
“Certainly, such as I am, I’ve been devoted. We’ve got something everywhere; a little here, a little there. That’s the real secret — to get something everywhere; you always can if you are devoted. Sometimes it has been a little music, sometimes a little deeper insight into the history of art; sometimes into that of literature, politics, economics: every little counts, you know. Sometimes it has been just a glimpse, a view, a lovely landscape, a mere impression. We’ve always been on the look-out. Sometimes it has been a valued friendship, a delightful social tie.”
“Here comes the ‘European society,’ the poor daughter’s bugbear,” I said to myself. “Certainly,” I remarked aloud — I admit rather hypocritically —“if you’ve lived a great deal in pensions you must have got acquainted with lots of people.”
Mrs. Church dropped her eyes an instant; taking it up, however, as one for whom discrimination was always at hand. “I think the European pension system in many respects remarkable and in some satisfactory. But of the friendships that we’ve formed few have been contracted in establishments of this stamp.”
“I’m sorry to hear that!” I ruefully laughed.
“I don’t say it for you, though I might say it for some others. We’ve been interested in European homes.”
“Ah there you’re beyond me!”
“Naturally”— she quietly assented. “We have the entrée of the old Genevese society. I like its tone. I prefer it to that of Mr. Ruck,” added Mrs. Church calmly; “to that of Mrs. Ruck and Miss Ruck. To that of Miss Ruck in particular.”
“Ah the poor Rucks have no tone,” I pleaded. “That’s just the point of them. Don’t take them more seriously than they take themselves.”
Well, she would see what she could do. But she bent grave eyes on me. “Are they really fair examples?”
“Examples of what?”
“Of our American tendencies.”
“‘Tendencies’ is a big word, dear lady; tendencies are difficult to calculate.” I used even a greater freedom. “And you shouldn’t abuse those good Rucks, who have been so kind to your daughter. They’ve invited her to come and stay with them in Thirty–Seventh Street near Fourth Avenue.”
“Aurora has told me. It might be very serious.”
“It might be very droll,” I said.
“To me,” she declared, “it’s all too terrible. I think we shall have to leave the Pension Beaurepas. I shall go back to Madame Chamousset.”
“On account of the Rucks?” I asked.
“Pray why don’t they go themselves? I’ve given them some excellent addresses — written down the very hours of the trains. They were going to Appenzell; I thought it was arranged.”
“They talk of Chamouni now,” I said; “but they’re very helpless and undecided.”
“I’ll give them some Chamouni addresses. Mrs. Ruck will send for a chaise à porteurs; I’ll give her the name of a man who lets them lower than you get them at the hotels. After that they must go.”
She had thoroughly fixed it, as we said; but her large assumptions ruffled me. “I nevertheless doubt,” I returned, “if Mr. Ruck will ever really be seen on the Mer de Glace — great as might be the effect there of that high hat. He’s not like you; he doesn’t value his European privileges. He takes no interest. He misses Wall Street all the time. As his wife says, he’s deplorably restless, but I guess Chamouni won’t quiet him. So you mustn’t depend too much on the effect of your addresses.”
“Is it, in its strange mixture of the barbaric and the effete, a frequent type?” asked Mrs. Church with all the force of her noble appetite for knowledge.
“I’m afraid so. Mr. Ruck’s a broken-down man of business. He’s broken-down in health and I think he must be broken-down in fortune. He has spent his whole life in buying and selling and watching prices, so that he knows how to do nothing else. His wife and daughter have spent their lives, not in selling, but in buying — with a considerable indifference to prices — and they on their side know how to do nothing else. To get something in a ‘store’ that they can put on their backs — that’s their one idea; they haven’t another in their heads. Of course they spend no end of money, and they do it with an implacable persistence, with a mixture of audacity and of cunning. They do it in his teeth and they do it behind his back; the mother protects the daughter, while the daughter eggs on the mother. Between them they’re bleeding him to death.”
“Ah what a picture!” my friend calmly sighed. “I’m afraid they’re grossly illiterate.”
“I share your fears. We make a great talk at home about education, but see how little that ideal has ever breathed on them. The vision of fine clothes rides them like a fury. They haven’t an idea of any sort — not even a worse one — to compete with it. Poor Mr. Ruck, who’s a mush of personal and private concession — I don’t know what he may have been in the business world — strikes me as a really tragic figure. He’s getting bad news every day from home; his affairs may be going to the dogs. He’s unable, with his lost nerve, to apply himself; so he has to stand and watch his fortunes ebb. He has been used to doing things in a big way and he feels ‘mean’ if he makes a fuss about bills. So the ladies keep sending them in.”
“But haven’t they common sense? Don’t they know they’re marching to ruin?”
“They don’t believe it. The duty of an American husband and father is to keep them going. If he asks them how, that’s his own affair. So by way of not being mean, of being a good American husband and father, poor Ruck stands staring at bankruptcy.”
Mrs. Church, with her cold competence, picked my story over. “Why, if Aurora were to go to stay with them she mightn’t even have a good nourriture.”
“I don’t on the whole recommend,” I smiled, “that your daughter should pay a visit to Thirty–Seventh Street.”
She took it in — with its various bearings — and had after all, I think, to renounce the shrewd view of a contingency. “Why should I be subjected to such trials — so sadly éprouveé?” From the moment nothing at all was to be got from the Rucks — not even eventual gratuitous board — she washed her hands of them altogether. “Why should a daughter of mine like that dreadful girl?”
“Does she like her?”
She challenged me nobly. “Pray do you mean that Aurora’s such a hypocrite?”
I saw no reason to hesitate. “A little, since you inquire. I think you’ve forced her to be.”
“I?”— she was shocked. “I never force my daughter!”
“She’s nevertheless in a false position,” I returned. “She hungers and thirsts for her own great country; she wants to ‘come out’ in New York, which is certainly, socially speaking, the El Dorado of young ladies. She likes any one, for the moment, who will talk to her of that and serve as a connecting-link with the paradise she imagines there. Miss Ruck performs this agreeable office.”
“Your idea is, then, that if she were to go with such a person to America she could drop her afterwards?”
I complimented Mrs. Church on her quickly-working mind, but I explained that I prescribed no such course. “I can’t imagine her — when it should come to the point — embarking with the famille Roque. But I wish she might go nevertheless.”
Mrs. Church shook her head lucidly — she found amusement in my inappropriate zeal. “I trust my poor child may never be guilty of so fatal a mistake. She’s completely in error; she’s wholly unadapted to the peculiar conditions of American life. It wouldn’t please her. She wouldn’t sympathise. My daughter’s ideal’s not the ideal of the class of young women to which Miss Ruck belongs. I fear they’re very numerous; they pervade the place, they give the tone.”
“It’s you who are mistaken,” I said. “There are plenty of Miss Rucks, and she has a terrible significance — though largely as the product of her weak-kneed sire and his ‘absorption in business.’ But there are other forms. Go home for six months and see.”
“I’ve not, unfortunately, the means to make costly experiments. My daughter,” Mrs. Church pursued, “has had great advantages — rare advantages — and I should be very sorry to believe that au fond she doesn’t appreciate them. One thing’s certain: I must remove her from this pernicious influence. We must part company with this deplorable family. If Mr. Ruck and his ladies can’t be induced to proceed to Chamouni — a journey from which no traveller with the smallest self-respect can dispense himself — my daughter and I shall be obliged to retire from the field. We shall go to Dresden.”
“To Dresden?” I submissively echoed.
“The capital of Saxony. I had arranged to go there for the autumn, but it will be simpler to go immediately. There are several works in the gallery with which Aurora has not, I think, sufficiently familiarised herself. It’s especially strong in the seventeenth-century schools.”
As my companion offered me this information I caught sight of Mr. Ruck, who lounged in with his hands in his pockets and his elbows making acute angles. He had his usual anomalous appearance of both seeking and avoiding society, and he wandered obliquely toward Mrs. Church, whose last words he had overheard. “The seventeenth-century schools,” he said as if he were slowly weighing some very small object in a very large pair of scales. “Now do you suppose they had schools at that period?”
Mrs. Church rose with a good deal of majesty, making no answer to this incongruous jest. She clasped her large volume to her neat little bosom and looked at our luckless friend more in pity than in anger, though more in edification than in either. “I had a letter this morning from Chamouni.”
“Well,” he made answer, “I suppose you’ve got friends all round.”
“I’ve friends at Chamouni, but they’re called away. To their great regret.” I had got up too; I listened to this statement and wondered. I’m almost ashamed to mention my wanton thought. I asked myself whether this mightn’t be a mere extemporised and unestablished truth — a truth begotten of a deep desire; but the point has never been cleared. “They’re giving up some charming rooms; perhaps you’d like them. I would suggest your telegraphing. The weather’s glorious,” continued Mrs. Church, “and the highest peaks are now perceived with extraordinary distinctness.”
Mr. Ruck listened, as he always listened, respectfully. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know as I want to go up Mount Blank. That’s the principal attraction, ain’t it?”
“There are many others. I thought I would offer you an exceptional opportunity.”
“Well,” he returned, “I guess you know, and if I could let you fix me we’d probably have some big times. But I seem to strike opportunities — well, in excess of my powers. I don’t seem able to respond.”
“It only needs a little decision,” remarked Mrs. Church with an air that was a perfect example of this virtue. “I wish you good-night, sir.” And she moved noiselessly away.
Mr. Ruck, with his long legs apart, stood staring after her; then he transferred his perfectly quiet eyes to me. “Does she own a hotel over there? Has she got any stock in Mount Blank?” Indeed in view of the way he had answered her I thought the dear man — to whom I found myself becoming hourly more attached — had beautiful manners.
The next day Madame Beaurepas held out to me with her own venerable fingers a missive which proved to be a telegram. After glancing at it I let her know that it appeared to call me away. My brother had arrived in England and he proposed I should meet him there; he had come on business and was to spend but three weeks in Europe. “But my house empties itself!” the old woman cried on this. “The famille Roque talks of leaving me and Madame Cheurche nous fait la réverénce.”
“Mrs. Church is going away?”
“She’s packing her trunk; she’s a very extraordinary person. Do you know what she asked me this morning? To invent some combination by which the famille Roque should take itself off. I assured her I was no such inventor. That poor famille Roque! ‘Oblige me by getting rid of them,’ said Madame Cheurche — quite as she would have asked Célestine to remove a strong cheese. She speaks as if the world were made for Madame Cheurche. I hinted that if she objected to the company there was a very simple remedy — and at present elle fait ses paquets.”
“She really asked you to get the Rucks out of the house?”
“She asked me to tell them that their rooms had been let three months ago to another family. She has an aplomb!”
Mrs. Church’s aplomb caused me considerable diversion; I’m not sure that it wasn’t in some degree to laugh at my leisure that I went out into the garden that evening to smoke a cigar. The night was dark and not particularly balmy, and most of my fellow pensioners, after dinner, had remained indoors. A long straight walk conducted from the door of the house to the ancient grille I’ve described, and I stood here for some time looking through the iron bars at the silent empty street. The prospect was not enlivening and I presently turned away. At this moment I saw in the distance the door of the house open and throw a shaft of lamplight into the darkness. Into the lamplight stepped the figure of an apparently circumspect female, as they say in the old stories, who presently closed the door behind her. She disappeared in the dusk of the garden and I had seen her but an instant; yet I remained under the impression that Aurora Church, on the eve of departure, had come out to commune, like myself, with isolation.
I lingered near the gate, keeping the red tip of my cigar turned toward the house, and before long a slight but interesting figure emerged from among the shadows of the trees and encountered the rays of a lamp that stood just outside the gate. My fellow solitary was in fact Aurora Church, who acknowledged my presence with an impatience not wholly convincing.
“Ought I to retire — to return to the house?”
“If you ought,” I replied, “I should be very sorry to tell you so.”
“But we’re all alone. There’s no one else in the garden.”
“It’s not the first time, then, that I’ve been alone with a young lady. I’m not at all terrified.”
“Ah, but I?” she wailed to extravagance. “I’ve never been alone —!” Quickly, however, she interrupted herself. “Bon, there’s another false note!”
“Yes, I’m obliged to admit that one’s very false.”
She stood looking at me. “I’m going away tomorrow; after that there will be no one to tell me.”
“That will matter little,” I presently returned. “Telling you will do no good.”
“Ah, why do you say that?” she all ruefully asked.
I said it partly because it was true, but I said it for other reasons, as well, which I found hard to define. Standing there bareheaded in the night air, in the vague light, this young lady took on an extreme interest, which was moreover not diminished by a suspicion on my own part that she had come into the garden knowing me to be there. I thought her charming, I thought her remarkable and felt very sorry for her; but as I looked at her the terms in which Madame Beaurepas had ventured to characterise her recurred to me with a certain force. I had professed a contempt for them at the time, but it now came into my head that perhaps this unfortunately situated, this insidiously mutinous young creature was in quest of an effective preserver. She was certainly not a girl to throw herself at a man’s head, but it was possible that in her intense — her almost morbid — desire to render operative an ideal charged perhaps after all with as many fallacies as her mother affirmed, she might do something reckless and irregular — something in which a sympathetic compatriot, as yet unknown, would find his profit. The image, unshaped though it was, of this sympathetic compatriot filled me with a semblance of envy. For some moments I was silent, conscious of these things; after which I answered her question. “Because some things — some differences — are felt, not learned. To you liberty’s not natural; you’re like a person who has bought a repeating watch and is, in his satisfaction, constantly taking it out of his pocket to hear it sound. To a real American girl her liberty’s a very vulgarly-ticking old clock.”
“Ah, you mean then,” said my young friend, “that my mother has ruined me?”
“She has so perverted my mind that when I try to be natural I’m necessarily indecent.”
I threw up hopeless arms. “That again’s a false note!”
She turned away. “I think you’re cruel.”
“By no means,” I declared; “because, for my own taste, I prefer you as — as —”
On my hesitating she turned back. “As what?”
“As you are!”
She looked at me a while again, and then she said in a little reasoning tone that reminded me of her mother’s, only that it was conscious and studied, “I wasn’t aware that I’m under any particular obligation to please you!” But she also gave a clear laugh, quite at variance with this stiffness. Suddenly I thought her adorable.
“Oh there’s no obligation,” I said, “but people sometimes have preferences. I’m very sorry you’re going away.”
“What does it matter to you? You are going yourself.”
“As I’m going in a different direction, that makes all the greater separation.”
She answered nothing; she stood looking through the bars of the tall gate at the empty dusky street. “This grille is like a cage,” she said at last.
“Fortunately it’s a cage that will open.” And I laid my hand on the lock.
“Don’t open it”; and she pressed the gate close. “If you should open it I’d go out. There you’d be, monsieur — for I should never return.”
I treated it as wholly thrilling, and indeed I quite found it so. “Where should you go?”
“Somehow or other. I’d go to the American consul. I’d beg him to give me money — to help me.”
I received this assertion without a smile; I was not in a smiling humour. On the contrary I felt singularly excited and kept my hand on the lock of the gate. I believed, or I thought I believed, what my companion said, and I had — absurd as it may appear — an irritated vision of her throwing herself on consular tenderness. It struck me for a moment that to pass out of that gate with this yearning straining young creature would be to pass to some mysterious felicity. If I were only a hero of romance I would myself offer to take her to America.
In a moment more perhaps I should have persuaded myself that I was one, but at this juncture I heard a sound hostile to the romantic note. It was nothing less than the substantial tread of Célestine, the cook, who stood grinning at us as we turned about from our colloquy.
“I ask bien pardon,” said Célestine. “The mother of mademoiselle desires that mademoiselle should come in immediately. M. le Pasteur Galopin has come to make his adieux to ces dames.”
Aurora gave me but one glance, the memory of which I treasure. Then she surrendered to Célestine, with whom she returned to the house.
The next morning, on coming into the garden, I learned that Mrs. Church and her daughter had effectively quitted us. I was informed of this fact by old M. Pigeonneau, who sat there under a tree drinking his café-au-lait at a little green table.
“I’ve nothing to envy you,” he said; “I had the last glimpse of that charming Mees Aurore.”
“I had a very late glimpse,” I answered, “and it was all I could possibly desire.”
“I’ve always noticed,” rejoined M. Pigeonneau, “that your desires are more under control than mine. Que voulez-vous? I’m of the old school. Je crois que cette race se perd. I regret the departure of that attractive young person; she has an enchanting smile. Ce sera une femme d’esprit. For the mother, I can console myself. I’m not sure she was a femme d’esprit, though she wished so prodigiously to pass for one. Round, rosy, potelée, she yet had not the temperament of her appearance; she was a femme austère — I made up my mind to that. I’ve often noticed that contradiction in American ladies. You see a plump little woman with a speaking eye and the contour and complexion of a ripe peach, and if you venture to conduct yourself in the smallest degree in accordance with these indices, you discover a species of Methodist — of what do you call it? — of Quakeress. On the other hand, you encounter a tall lean angular form without colour, without grace, all elbows and knees, and you find it’s a nature of the tropics! The women of duty look like coquettes, and the others look like alpenstocks! However, we’ve still la belle Madame Roque — a real femme de Rubens, celle-là. It’s very true that to talk to her one must know the Flemish tongue!”
I had determined in accordance with my brother’s telegram to go away in the afternoon; so that, having various duties to perform, I left M. Pigeonneau to his ethnic studies. Among other things I went in the course of the morning to the banker’s, to draw money for my journey, and there I found Mr. Ruck with a pile of crumpled letters in his lap, his chair tipped back and his eyes gloomily fixed on the fringe of the green plush table-cloth. I timidly expressed the hope that he had got better news from home; whereupon he gave me a look in which, considering his provocation, the habit of forlorn patience was conspicuous.
He took up his letters in his large hand and, crushing them together, held it out to me. “That stack of postal matter,” he said, “is worth about five cents. But I guess,” he added, rising, “that I know where I am by this time.” When I had drawn my money I asked him to come and breakfast with me at the little brasserie, much favoured by students, to which I used to resort in the old town. “I couldn’t eat, sir,” he frankly pleaded, “I couldn’t eat. Bad disappointments strike at the seat of the appetite. But I guess I’ll go with you, so as not to be on show down there at the pension. The old woman down there accuses me of turning up my nose at her food. Well, I guess I shan’t turn up my nose at anything now.”
We went to the little brasserie, where poor Mr. Ruck made the lightest possible dejeuner. But if he ate very little he still moved his lean jaws — he mumbled over his spoilt repast of apprehended facts; strange tough financial fare into which I was unable to bite. I was very sorry for him, I wanted to ease him off; but the only thing I could do when we had breakfasted was to see him safely back to the Pension Beaurepas. We went across the Treille and down the Corraterie, out of which we turned into the Rue du Rhône. In this latter street, as all the world knows, prevail those shining shop-fronts of the watchmakers and jewellers for its long list of whom Geneva is famous. I had always admired these elegant exhibitions and never passed them without a lingering look. Even on this occasion, preoccupied as I was with my impending departure and with my companion’s troubles, I attached my eyes to the precious tiers that flashed and twinkled behind the huge clear plates of glass. Thanks to this inveterate habit I recorded a fresh observation. In the largest and most irresistible of these repositories I distinguished two ladies, seated before the counter with an air of absorption which sufficiently proclaimed their identity. I hoped my companion wouldn’t see them, but as we came abreast of the door, a little beyond, we found it open to the warm summer air. Mr. Ruck happened to glance in, and he immediately recognised his wife and daughter. He slowly stopped, his eyes fixed on them; I wondered what he would do. A salesman was in the act of holding up a bracelet before them on its velvet cushion and flashing it about in a winsome manner.
Mr. Ruck said nothing, but he presently went in; whereupon, feeling that I mustn’t lose him, I did the same. “It will be an opportunity,” I remarked as cheerfully as possible, “for me to bid good-bye to the ladies.”
They turned round on the approach of their relative, opposing an indomitable front. “Well, you’d better get home to breakfast — that’s what you’d better do,” his wife at once remarked. Miss Sophy resisted in silence; she only took the bracelet from the attendant and gazed at it all fixedly. My friend seated himself on an empty stool and looked round the shop. “Well, we’ve been here before, and you ought to know it,” Mrs. Ruck a trifle guiltily contended. “We were here the first day we came.”
The younger lady held out to me the precious object in her hand. “Don’t you think that’s sweet?”
I looked at it a moment. “No, I think it’s ugly.”
She tossed her head as at a challenge to a romp. “Well, I don’t believe you’ve any taste.”
“Why, sir, it’s just too lovely,” said her mother.
“You’ll see it some day on me, anyway,” piped Miss Ruck.
“Not very much,” said Mr. Ruck quietly.
“It will be his own fault, then,” Miss Sophy returned.
“Well, if we’re going up to Chamouni we want to get something here,” said Mrs. Ruck. “We mayn’t have another chance.”
Her husband still turned his eyes over the shop, whistling half under his breath. “We ain’t going up to Chamouni. We’re going back to New York City straight.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” she made answer. “Don’t you suppose we want to take something home?”
“If we’re going straight back I must have that bracelet,” her daughter declared. “Only I don’t want a velvet case; I want a satin case.”
“I must bid you good-bye,” I observed all irrelevantly to the ladies. “I’m leaving Geneva in an hour or two.”
“Take a good look at that bracelet, so you’ll know it when you see it,” was hereupon Miss Sophy’s form of farewell to me.
“She’s bound to have something!” her mother almost proudly attested.
Mr. Ruck still vaguely examined the shop; he still just audibly whistled. “I’m afraid he’s not at all well,” I took occasion to intimate to his wife.
She twisted her head a little and glanced at him; she had a brief but pregnant pause. “Well, I must say I wish he’d improve!”
“A satin case, and a nice one!” cried Miss Ruck to the shopman.
I bade her other parent good-bye. “Don’t wait for me,” he said, sitting there on his stool and not meeting my eye. “I’ve got to see this thing through.”
I went back to the Pension Beaurepas, and when an hour later I left it with my luggage these interesting friends had not returned.
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