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Chapter 1

I was not rich--on the contrary; and I had been told the Pension
Beaurepas was cheap. I had, moreover, been told that a boarding-
house is a capital place for the study of human nature. I had a
fancy for a literary career, and a friend of mine had said to me, "If
you mean to write you ought to go and live in a boarding-house; there
is no other such place to pick up material." I had read something of
this kind in a letter addressed by Stendhal to his sister: "I have a
passionate desire to know human nature, and have a great mind to live
in a boarding-house, where people cannot conceal their real
characters." I was an admirer of La Chartreuse de Parme, and it
appeared to me that one could not do better than follow in the
footsteps of its author. I remembered, too, the magnificent
boarding-house in Balzac's Pere Goriot,--the "pension bourgeoise des
deux sexes et autres," kept by Madame Vauquer, nee 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 fountain. This
fact was not prepossessing, for on crossing the threshold you found
yourself more or less in the kitchen, encompassed with culinary
odours. This, however, was no great matter, for at the Pension
Beaurepas there was no attempt at gentility or at concealment of the
domestic machinery. The latter was of a very simple sort. Madame
Beaurepas was an excellent little old woman--she was very far
advanced in life, and had been keeping a pension for 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-
three, she wore flowers in her cap. There was a tradition in the
house that she was not so deaf as she pretended; that she feigned
this infirmity in order to possess herself of the secrets of her
lodgers. But I never subscribed to this theory; I am convinced that
Madame Beaurepas had outlived the period of indiscreet curiosity.
She was a philosopher, on a matter-of-fact basis; she had been having
lodgers for forty years, and all that she asked of them was that they
should pay their bills, make use of the door-mat, and fold their
napkins. She cared very little for their secrets. "J'en ai vus de
toutes les couleurs," she said to me. She had quite ceased to care
for individuals; she cared only for types, for categories. Her large
observation had made her acquainted with a great number, and her mind
was a complete collection of "heads." She flattered herself that she
knew at a glance where to pigeon-hole a new-comer, and if she made
any mistakes her deportment never betrayed them. I think that, as
regards individuals, 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 deplace"--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 contented herself with remarking that the
proceeding was out of place. 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 is not to cut a figure in the world; I have never had
that illusion," I remember hearing her say; "and when you pay seven
francs a day, tout compris, it comprises everything but the right to
look down upon the others. But there are people who, the less they
pay, the more they take themselves au serieux. My most difficult
boarders have always been those who have had the little 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; for Celestine, the cook, had no pretension to be an
invisible functionary or to deal in occult methods. 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 dinner 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
doorstep, a perpetual back-view of Celestine 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 went on
in a very make-shift fashion at the Pension Beaurepas--as if the tone
of the establishment were sordid. 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. This is an excellent
principle--when you have the reality. We had the reality 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 Celestine 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 picturesque, and this, with me, at that time was a great
word. I was young and ingenuous: I had just come from America. I
wished to perfect myself in the French tongue, and I innocently
believed that it flourished by Lake Leman. I used to go to lectures
at the Academy, 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 this was
the pleasantest approach to the house. There was a high wall, with a
double gate in the middle, flanked by a couple of ancient massive
posts; the big rusty grille contained some old-fashioned iron-work.
The garden was rather mouldy and weedy, tangled and untended; but it
contained a little thin--flowing fountain, several green benches, a
rickety little table of the same complexion, and three orange-trees,
in tubs, which were deposited as effectively as possible in front of
the windows of the salon.

Henry James

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