A Small Boy and others, by Henry James


I see much of the rest of that particular Paris time in the light of the Institution Fezandié, and I see the Institution Fezandié, Rue Balzac, in the light, if not quite of Alphonse Daudet’s lean asylum for the petits pays chauds, of which I have felt the previous institutions of New York sketchily remind me, at least in that of certain other of his studies in that field of the precarious, the ambiguous Paris over parts of which the great Arch at the top of the Champs–Elysées flings, at its hours, by its wide protective plausible shadow, a precious mantle of “tone.” They gather, these chequered parts, into its vast paternal presence and enjoy at its expense a degree of reflected dignity. It was to the big square villa of the Rue Balzac that we turned, as pupils not unacquainted with vicissitudes, from a scene swept bare of M. Lerambert, an establishment that strikes me, at this distance of time, as of the oddest and most indescribable — or as describable at best in some of the finer turns and touches of Daudet’s best method. The picture indeed should not be invidious — it so little needs that, I feel, for its due measure of the vivid, the queer, the droll, all coming back to me without prejudice to its air as of an equally futile felicity. I see it as bright and loose and vague, as confused and embarrassed and helpless; I see it, I fear, as quite ridiculous, but as wholly harmless to my brothers and me at least, and as having left us with a fund of human impressions; it played before us such a variety of figure and character and so relieved us of a sense of untoward discipline or of the pursuit of abstract knowledge. It was a recreational, or at least a social, rather than a tuitional house; which fact had, I really believe, weighed favourably with our parents, when, bereft of M. Lerambert, they asked themselves, with their considerable practice, how next to bestow us. Our father, like so many free spirits of that time in New York and Boston, had been much interested in the writings of Charles Fourier and in his scheme of the “phalanstery” as the solution of human troubles, and it comes to me that he must have met or in other words heard of M. Fezandié as an active and sympathetic exFourierist (I think there were only exFourierists by that time,) who was embarking, not far from us, on an experiment if not absolutely phalansteric at least inspired, or at any rate enriched, by a bold idealism. I like to think of the Institution as all but phalansteric — it so corrects any fear that such places might be dreary. I recall this one as positively gay — bristling and bustling and resonant, untouched by the strenuous note, for instance, of Hawthorne’s cooperative Blithedale. I like to think that, in its then still almost suburban, its pleasantly heterogeneous quarter, now oppressively uniform, it was close to where Balzac had ended his life, though I question its identity — as for a while I tried not to — with the scene itself of the great man’s catastrophe. Round its high-walled garden at all events he would have come and gone — a throb of inference that had for some years indeed to be postponed for me; though an association displacing today, over the whole spot, every other interest. I in any case can’t pretend not to have been most appealed to by that especial phase of our education from which the pedagogic process as commonly understood was most fantastically absent. It excelled in this respect, the Fezandié phase, even others exceptionally appointed, heaven knows, for the supremacy; and yet its glory is that it was no poor blank, but that it fairly creaked and groaned, heatedly overflowed, with its wealth. We were externes, the three of us, but we remained in general to luncheon; coming home then, late in the afternoon, with an almost sore experience of multiplicity and vivacity of contact. For the beauty of it all was that the Institution was, speaking technically, not more a pensionnat, with prevailingly English and American pupils, than a pension, with mature beneficiaries of both sexes, and that our two categories were shaken up together to the liveliest effect. This had been M. Fezandié‘s grand conception; a son of the south, bald and slightly replete, with a delicate beard, a quick but anxious, rather melancholy eye and a slim, graceful, juvenile wife, who multiplied herself, though scarce knowing at moments, I think, where or how to turn; I see him as a Daudet méridional, but of the sensitive, not the sensual, type, as something of a rolling stone, rolling rather down hill — he had enjoyed some arrested, possibly blighted, connection in America — and as ready always again for some new application of faith and funds. If fondly failing in the least to see why the particular application in the Rue Balzac — the body of pensioners ranging from infancy to hoary eld — shouldn’t have been a bright success could have made it one, it would have been a most original triumph.

I recover it as for ourselves a beautifully mixed adventure, a brave little seeing of the world on the happy pretext of “lessons.” We had lessons from time to time, but had them in company with ladies and gentlemen, young men and young women of the Anglo–Saxon family, who sat at long boards of green cloth with us and with several of our contemporaries, English and American boys, taking dictées from the head of the house himself or from the aged and most remarkable M. Bonnefons, whom we believed to have been a superannuated actor (he above all such a model for Daudet!) and who interrupted our abashed readings aloud to him of the French classics older and newer by wondrous reminiscences and even imitations of Talma. He moved among us in a cloud of legend, the wigged and wrinkled, the impassioned, though I think alas underfed, M. Bonnefons: it was our belief that he “went back,” beyond the first Empire, to the scenes of the Revolution — this perhaps partly by reason, in the first place, of his scorn of our pronunciation, when we met it, of the sovereign word liberté, the poverty of which, our deplorable “libbeté,” without r’s, he mimicked and derided, sounding the right, the revolutionary form out splendidly, with thirty r’s, the prolonged beat of a drum. And then we believed him, if artistically conservative, politically obnoxious to the powers that then were, though knowing that those so marked had to walk, and even to breathe, cautiously for fear of the mouchards of the tyrant; we knew all about mouchards and talked of them as we do today of aviators or suffragettes — to remember which in an age so candidly unconscious of them is to feel how much history we have seen unrolled. There were times when he but paced up and down and round the long table — I see him as never seated, but always on the move, a weary Wandering Jew of the classe; but in particular I hear him recite to us the combat with the Moors from Le Cid and show us how Talma, describing it, seemed to crouch down on his haunches in order to spring up again terrifically to the height of “Nous nous levons alors!” which M. Bonnefons rendered as if on the carpet there fifty men at least had leaped to their feet. But he threw off these broken lights with a quick relapse to indifference; he didn’t like the Anglo–Saxon — of the children of Albion at least his view was low; on his American specimens he had, I observed, more mercy; and this imperfection of sympathy (the question of Waterloo apart) rested, it was impossible not to feel, on his so resenting the dishonour suffered at our hands by his beautiful tongue, to which, as the great field of elocution, he was patriotically devoted. I think he fairly loathed our closed English vowels and confused consonants, our destitution of sounds that he recognised as sounds; though why in this connection he put up best with our own compatriots, embroiled at that time often in even stranger vocables than now, is more than I can say. I think that would be explained perhaps by his feeling in them as an old equalitarian certain accessibilities quand même. Besides, we of the younger persuasion at least must have done his ear less violence than those earnest ladies from beyond the sea and than those young Englishmen qualifying for examinations and careers who flocked with us both to the plausibly spread and the severely disgarnished table, and on whose part I seem to see it again an effort of anguish to “pick up” the happy idiom that we had unconsciously acquired. French, in the fine old formula of those days, so much diffused, “was the language of the family”; but I think it must have appeared to these students in general a family of which the youngest members were but scantly kept in their place. We piped with a greater facility and to a richer meed of recognition; which sounds as if we might have become, in these strange collocations, fairly offensive little prigs. That was none the less not the case, for there were, oddly enough, a few French boys as well, to whom on the lingual or the “family” ground, we felt ourselves feebly relative, and in comparison with whom, for that matter, or with one of whom, I remember an occasion of my having to sink to insignificance. There was at the Institution little of a staff — besides waiters and bonnes; but it embraced, such as it was, M. Mesnard as well as M. Bonnefons — M. Mesnard of the new generation, instructor in whatever it might be, among the arts, that didn’t consist of our rolling our r’s, and with them, to help us out, more or less our eyes. It is significant that this elegant branch is now quite vague to me; and I recall M. Mesnard, in fine, as no less modern and cheap than M. Bonnefons was rare and unappraiseable. He had nevertheless given me his attention, one morning, doubtless patiently enough, in some corner of the villa that we had for the moment practically to ourselves — I seem to see a small empty room looking on the garden; when there entered to us, benevolently ushered by Madame Fezandié, a small boy of very fair and romantic aspect, as it struck me, a pupil newly arrived. I remember of him mainly that he had a sort of nimbus of light curls, a face delicate and pale and that deeply hoarse voice with which French children used to excite our wonder. M. Mesnard asked of him at once, with interest, his name, and on his pronouncing it sought to know, with livelier attention, if he were then the son of M. Arsène Houssaye, lately director of the Théâtre Français. To this distinction the boy confessed — all to such intensification of our répétiteur’s interest that I knew myself quite dropped, in comparison, from his scheme of things. Such an origin as our little visitor’s affected him visibly as dazzling, and I felt justified after a while, in stealing away into the shade. The beautiful little boy was to live to be the late M. Henry Houssaye, the shining hellenist and historian. I have never forgotten the ecstasy of hope in M. Mesnard’s question — as a light on the reverence then entertained for the institution M. Houssaye the elder had administered.


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