The Pupil, by Henry James

Chapter V

But it was during the ensuing time that the real problem came up — the problem of how far it was excusable to discuss the turpitude of parents with a child of twelve, of thirteen, of fourteen. Absolutely inexcusable and quite impossible it of course at first appeared; and indeed the question didn’t press for some time after Pemberton had received his three hundred francs. They produced a temporary lull, a relief from the sharpest pressure. The young man frugally amended his wardrobe and even had a few francs in his pocket. He thought the Moreens looked at him as if he were almost too smart, as if they ought to take care not to spoil him. If Mr. Moreen hadn’t been such a man of the world he would perhaps have spoken of the freedom of such neckties on the part of a subordinate. But Mr. Moreen was always enough a man of the world to let things pass — he had certainly shown that. It was singular how Pemberton guessed that Morgan, though saying nothing about it, knew something had happened. But three hundred francs, especially when one owed money, couldn’t last for ever; and when the treasure was gone — the boy knew when it had failed — Morgan did break ground. The party had returned to Nice at the beginning of the winter, but not to the charming villa. They went to an hotel, where they stayed three months, and then moved to another establishment, explaining that they had left the first because, after waiting and waiting, they couldn’t get the rooms they wanted. These apartments, the rooms they wanted, were generally very splendid; but fortunately they never could get them — fortunately, I mean, for Pemberton, who reflected always that if they had got them there would have been a still scantier educational fund. What Morgan said at last was said suddenly, irrelevantly, when the moment came, in the middle of a lesson, and consisted of the apparently unfeeling words: “You ought to filer, you know — you really ought.”

Pemberton stared. He had learnt enough French slang from Morgan to know that to filer meant to cut sticks. “Ah my dear fellow, don’t turn me off!”

Morgan pulled a Greek lexicon toward him — he used a Greek–German — to look out a word, instead of asking it of Pemberton. “You can’t go on like this, you know.”

“Like what, my boy?”

“You know they don’t pay you up,” said Morgan, blushing and turning his leaves.

“Don’t pay me?” Pemberton stared again and feigned amazement. “What on earth put that into your head?”

“It has been there a long time,” the boy replied rummaging his book.

Pemberton was silent, then he went on: “I say, what are you hunting for? They pay me beautifully.”

“I’m hunting for the Greek for awful whopper,” Morgan dropped.

“Find that rather for gross impertinence and disabuse your mind. What do I want of money?”

“Oh that’s another question!”

Pemberton wavered — he was drawn in different ways. The severely correct thing would have been to tell the boy that such a matter was none of his business and bid him go on with his lines. But they were really too intimate for that; it was not the way he was in the habit of treating him; there had been no reason it should be. On the other hand Morgan had quite lighted on the truth — he really shouldn’t be able to keep it up much longer; therefore why not let him know one’s real motive for forsaking him? At the same time it wasn’t decent to abuse to one’s pupil the family of one’s pupil; it was better to misrepresent than to do that. So in reply to his comrade’s last exclamation he just declared, to dismiss the subject, that he had received several payments.

“I say — I say!” the boy ejaculated, laughing.

“That’s all right,” Pemberton insisted. “Give me your written rendering.”

Morgan pushed a copybook across the table, and he began to read the page, but with something running in his head that made it no sense. Looking up after a minute or two he found the child’s eyes fixed on him and felt in them something strange. Then Morgan said: “I’m not afraid of the stern reality.”

“I haven’t yet seen the thing you are afraid of — I’ll do you that justice!”

This came out with a jump — it was perfectly true — and evidently gave Morgan pleasure. “I’ve thought of it a long time,” he presently resumed.

“Well, don’t think of it any more.”

The boy appeared to comply, and they had a comfortable and even an amusing hour. They had a theory that they were very thorough, and yet they seemed always to be in the amusing part of lessons, the intervals between the dull dark tunnels, where there were waysides and jolly views. Yet the morning was brought to a violent as end by Morgan’s suddenly leaning his arms on the table, burying his head in them and bursting into tears: at which Pemberton was the more startled that, as it then came over him, it was the first time he had ever seen the boy cry and that the impression was consequently quite awful.

The next day, after much thought, he took a decision and, believing it to be just, immediately acted on it. He cornered Mr. and Mrs. Moreen again and let them know that if on the spot they didn’t pay him all they owed him he wouldn’t only leave their house but would tell Morgan exactly what had brought him to it.

“Oh you haven’t told him?” cried Mrs. Moreen with a pacifying hand on her well-dressed bosom.

“Without warning you? For what do you take me?” the young man returned.

Mr. and Mrs. Moreen looked at each other; he could see that they appreciated, as tending to their security, his superstition of delicacy, and yet that there was a certain alarm in their relief. “My dear fellow,” Mr. Moreen demanded, “what use can you have, leading the quiet life we all do, for such a lot of money?” — a question to which Pemberton made no answer, occupied as he was in noting that what passed in the mind of his patrons was something like: “Oh then, if we’ve felt that the child, dear little angel, has judged us and how he regards us, and we haven’t been betrayed, he must have guessed — and in short it’s general!” an inference that rather stirred up Mr. and Mrs. Moreen, as Pemberton had desired it should. At the same time, if he had supposed his threat would do something towards bringing them round, he was disappointed to find them taking for granted — how vulgar their perception had been! — that he had already given them away. There was a mystic uneasiness in their parental breasts, and that had been the inferior sense of it. None the less however, his threat did touch them; for if they had escaped it was only to meet a new danger. Mr. Moreen appealed to him, on every precedent, as a man of the world; but his wife had recourse, for the first time since his domestication with them, to a fine hauteur, reminding him that a devoted mother, with her child, had arts that protected her against gross misrepresentation.

“I should misrepresent you grossly if I accused you of common honesty!” our friend replied; but as he closed the door behind him sharply, thinking he had not done himself much good, while Mr. Moreen lighted another cigarette, he heard his hostess shout after him more touchingly:

“Oh you do, you do, put the knife to one’s throat!”

The next morning, very early, she came to his room. He recognised her knock, but had no hope she brought him money; as to which he was wrong, for she had fifty francs in her hand. She squeezed forward in her dressing-gown, and he received her in his own, between his bath-tub and his bed. He had been tolerably schooled by this time to the “foreign ways” of his hosts. Mrs. Moreen was ardent, and when she was ardent she didn’t care what she did; so she now sat down on his bed, his clothes being on the chairs, and, in her preoccupation, forgot, as she glanced round, to be ashamed of giving him such a horrid room. What Mrs. Moreen’s ardour now bore upon was the design of persuading him that in the first place she was very good-natured to bring him fifty francs, and that in the second, if he would only see it, he was really too absurd to expect to be paid. Wasn’t he paid enough without perpetual money — wasn’t he paid by the comfortable luxurious home he enjoyed with them all, without a care, an anxiety, a solitary want? Wasn’t he sure of his position, and wasn’t that everything to a young man like him, quite unknown, with singularly little to show, the ground of whose exorbitant pretensions it had never been easy to discover? Wasn’t he paid above all by the sweet relation he had established with Morgan — quite ideal as from master to pupil — and by the simple privilege of knowing and living with so amazingly gifted a child; than whom really (and she meant literally what she said) there was no better company in Europe? Mrs. Moreen herself took to appealing to him as a man of the world; she said “Voyons, mon cher,” and “My dear man, look here now”; and urged him to be reasonable, putting it before him that it was truly a chance for him. She spoke as if, according as he should be reasonable, he would prove himself worthy to be her son’s tutor and of the extraordinary confidence they had placed in him.

After all, Pemberton reflected, it was only a difference of theory and the theory didn’t matter much. They had hitherto gone on that of remunerated, as now they would go on that of gratuitous, service; but why should they have so many words about it? Mrs. Moreen at all events continued to be convincing; sitting there with her fifty francs she talked and reiterated, as women reiterate, and bored and irritated him, while he leaned against the wall with his hands in the pockets of his wrapper, drawing it together round his legs and looking over the head of his visitor at the grey negations of his window. She wound up with saying: “You see I bring you a definite proposal.”

“A definite proposal?”

“To make our relations regular, as it were — to put them on a comfortable footing.”

“I see — it’s a system,” said Pemberton. “A kind of organised blackmail.”

Mrs. Moreen bounded up, which was exactly what he wanted. “What do you mean by that?”

“You practise on one’s fears — one’s fears about the child if one should go away.”

“And pray what would happen to him in that event?” she demanded, with majesty.

“Why he’d be alone with you.”

“And pray with whom should a child be but with those whom he loves most?”

“If you think that, why don’t you dismiss me?”

“Do you pretend he loves you more than he loves us?” cried Mrs. Moreen.

“I think he ought to. I make sacrifices for him. Though I’ve heard of those you make I don’t see them.”

Mrs. Moreen stared a moment; then with emotion she grasped her inmate’s hand. “Will you make it — the sacrifice?”

He burst out laughing. “I’ll see. I’ll do what I can. I’ll stay a little longer. Your calculation’s just — I do hate intensely to give him up; I’m fond of him and he thoroughly interests me, in spite of the inconvenience I suffer. You know my situation perfectly. I haven’t a penny in the world and, occupied as you see me with Morgan, am unable to earn money.”

Mrs. Moreen tapped her undressed arm with her folded bank-note. “Can’t you write articles? Can’t you translate as I do?”

“I don’t know about translating; it’s wretchedly paid.”

“I’m glad to earn what I can,” said Mrs. Moreen with prodigious virtue.

“You ought to tell me who you do it for.” Pemberton paused a moment, and she said nothing; so he added: “I’ve tried to turn off some little sketches, but the magazines won’t have them — they’re declined with thanks.”

“You see then you’re not such a phoenix,” his visitor pointedly smiled — “to pretend to abilities you’re sacrificing for our sake.”

“I haven’t time to do things properly,” he ruefully went on. Then as it came over him that he was almost abjectly good-natured to give these explanations he added: “If I stay on longer it must be on one condition — that Morgan shall know distinctly on what footing I am.”

Mrs. Moreen demurred. “Surely you don’t want to show off to a child?”

“To show you off, do you mean?”

Again she cast about, but this time it was to produce a still finer flower. “And you talk of blackmail!”

“You can easily prevent it,” said Pemberton.

“And you talk of practising on fears,” she bravely pushed on.

“Yes, there’s no doubt I’m a great scoundrel.”

His patroness met his eyes — it was clear she was in straits. Then she thrust out her money at him. “Mr. Moreen desired me to give you this on account.”

“I’m much obliged to Mr. Moreen, but we have no account.”

“You won’t take it?”

“That leaves me more free,” said Pemberton.

“To poison my darling’s mind?” groaned Mrs. Moreen.

“Oh your darling’s mind —!” the young man laughed.

She fixed him a moment, and he thought she was going to break out tormentedly, pleadingly: “For God’s sake, tell me what is in it!” But she checked this impulse — another was stronger. She pocketed the money — the crudity of the alternative was comical — and swept out of the room with the desperate concession: “You may tell him any horror you like!”

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