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Chapter 7

It may as well be said at once that his prevision was soon made good and
that in the course of a fortnight old Mr. Probert and his daughters
alighted successively at the Hotel de l'Univers et de Cheltenham.
Francie's visit with her intended to Mme. de Brecourt bore exactly the
fruit her admirer had foretold and was followed the very next day by a
call from this lady. She took the girl out with her in her carriage and
kept her the whole afternoon, driving her half over Paris, chattering
with her, kissing her, delighting in her, telling her they were already
sisters, paying her compliments that made Francie envy her art of saying
things as she had never heard things said--for the excellent reason,
among many, that she had never known such things COULD be. After she had
dropped her charge this critic rushed off to her father's, reflecting
with pleasure that at that hour she should probably find her sister
Marguerite there. Mme. de Cliche was with their parent in fact--she had
three days in the week for coming to the Cours la Reine; she sat near
him in the firelight, telling him presumably her troubles, for, Maxime
de Cliche having proved not quite the pearl they had originally
supposed, Mme. de Brecourt knew what Marguerite did whenever she took
that little ottoman and drew it close to the paternal chair: she gave
way to her favourite vice, that of dolefulness, which lengthened her
long face more: it was unbecoming if she only knew it. The family was
intensely united, as we see; but that didn't prevent Mme. de Brecourt's
having a certain sympathy for Maxime: he too was one of themselves, and
she asked herself what SHE would have done had she been a well-
constituted man with a wife whose cheeks were like decks in a high sea.
It was the twilight hour in the winter days, before the lamps, that
especially brought her out; then she began her long stories about her
complicated cares, to which her father listened with angelic patience.
Mme. de Brecourt liked his particular room in the old house in the Cours
la Reine; it reminded her of her mother's life and her young days and
her dead brother and the feelings connected with her first going into
the world. Alphonse and she had had an apartment, by her father's
kindness, under the roof that covered in associations as the door of a
linen-closet preserves herbaceous scents, so that she continued to pop
in and out, full of her fresh impressions of society, just as she had
done when she was a girl. She broke into her sister's confidences now;
she announced her trouvaille and did battle for it bravely.

Five days later--there had been lively work in the meantime; Gaston
turned so pale at moments that she feared it would all result in a
mortal illness for him, and Marguerite shed gallons of tears--Mr.
Probert went to see the Dossons with his son. Mme. de Brecourt paid them
another visit, a real official affair as she deemed it, accompanied by
her husband; and the Baron de Douves and his wife, written to by Gaston,
by his father and by Margaret and Susan, came up from the country full
of anxious participation. M. de Douves was the person who took the
family, all round, most seriously and who most deprecated any sign of
crude or precipitate action. He was a very small black gentleman with
thick eyebrows and high heels--in the country and the mud he wore sabots
with straw in them--who was suspected by his friends of believing that
he looked like Louis XIV. It is perhaps a proof that something of the
quality of this monarch was really recognised in him that no one had
ever ventured to clear up this point by a question. "La famille c'est
moi" appeared to be his tacit formula, and he carried his umbrella--he
had very bad ones, Gaston thought--with something of a sceptral air.
Mme. de Brecourt went so far as to believe that his wife, in
confirmation of this, took herself for a species of Mme. de Maintenon:
she had lapsed into a provincial existence as she might have harked back
to the seventeenth century; the world she lived in seemed about as far
away. She was the largest, heaviest member of the family, and in the
Vendee was thought majestic despite the old clothes she fondly affected
and which added to her look of having come down from a remote past or
reverted to it. She was at bottom an excellent woman, but she wrote roy
and foy like her husband, and the action of her mind was wholly
restricted to questions of relationship and alliance. She had
extraordinary patience of research and tenacity of grasp for a clue, and
viewed people solely in the light projected upon them by others; that is
not as good or wicked, ugly or handsome, wise or foolish, but as
grandsons, nephews, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters-in-law,
cousins and second cousins. You might have supposed, to listen to her,
that human beings were susceptible of no attribute but that of a
dwindling or thickening consanguinity. There was a certain expectation
that she would leave rather formidable memoirs. In Mme. de Brecourt's
eyes this pair were very shabby, they didn't payer de mine--they fairly
smelt of their province; "but for the reality of the thing," she often
said to herself, "they're worth all of us. We're diluted and they're
pure, and any one with an eye would see it." "The thing" was the
legitimist principle, the ancient faith and even a little the right, the
unconscious, grand air.

The Marquis de Cliche did his duty with his wife, who mopped the decks,
as Susan said, for the occasion, and was entertained in the red-satin
drawing-room by Mr. Dosson, Delia and Francie. Mr. Dosson had wanted and
proposed to be somewhere else when he heard of the approach of Gaston's
relations, and the fond youth had to instruct him that this wouldn't do.
The apartment in question had had a range of vision, but had probably
never witnessed stranger doings than these laudable social efforts.
Gaston was taught to feel that his family had made a great sacrifice for
him, but in a very few days he said to himself that now they knew the
worst he was safe. They made the sacrifice, they definitely agreed to
it, but they thought proper he should measure the full extent of it.
"Gaston must never, never, never be allowed to forget what we've done
for him:" Mme. de Brecourt told him that Marguerite de Cliche had
expressed herself in that sense at one of the family conclaves from
which he was absent. These high commissions sat for several days with
great frequency, and the young man could feel that if there was help for
him in discussion his case was promising. He flattered himself that he
showed infinite patience and tact, and his expenditure of the latter
quality in particular was in itself his only reward, for it was
impossible he should tell Francie what arts he had to practise for her.
He liked to think however that he practised them successfully; for he
held that it was by such arts the civilised man is distinguished from
the savage. What they cost him was made up simply in this--that his
private irritation produced a degree of adoptive heat in regard to Mr.
Dosson and Delia, whom he could neither justify nor coherently account
for nor make people like, but whom he had ended after so many days of
familiar intercourse by liking extremely himself. The way to get on with
them--it was an immense simplification--was just to love them: one could
do that even if one couldn't converse with them. He succeeded in making
Mme. de Brecourt seize this nuance; she embraced the idea with her quick
inflammability. "Yes," she said, "we must insist on their positive, not
on their negative merits: their infinite generosity, their untutored,
their intensely native and instinctive delicacy. Ah their charming
primitive instincts--we must work those!" And the brother and sister
excited each other magnanimously to this undertaking. Sometimes, it must
be added, they exchanged a look that seemed to sound with a slight alarm
the depth of their responsibility.

On the day Mr. Probert called at the Hotel de l'Univers et de Cheltenham
with his son the pair walked away together, back to the Cours la Reine,
without immediate comments. The only words uttered were three or four of
Mr. Probert's, with Gaston's rejoinder, as they crossed the Place de la
Concorde.

"We should have to have them to dinner." The young man noted his
father's conditional, as if his assent to the strange alliance were not
yet complete; but he guessed all the same that the sight of them had not
made a difference for the worse: they had let the old gentleman down
more easily than was to have been feared. The call had had above all the
immense luck that it hadn't been noisy--a confusion of underbred sounds;
which was very happy, for Mr. Probert was particular in this: he could
bear French noise but couldn't for the life of him bear American. As for
English he maintained that there was no such thing: England was a
country with the straw down in all the thoroughfares of talk. Mr. Dosson
had scarcely spoken and yet had remained perfectly placid, which was
exactly what Gaston would have chosen. No hauteur could have matched it
--he had gone so little out of his way. Francie's lover knew moreover--
though he was a little disappointed that no charmed exclamation should
have been dropped as they quitted the hotel--that the girl's rare spell
had worked: it was impossible the old man shouldn't have liked her.

"Ah do ask them, and let it be very soon," he replied. "They'll like it
so much."

"And whom can they meet--who can meet THEM?"

"Only the family--all of us: au complet. Other people we can have
later."

"All of us au complet--that makes eight. And the three of THEM," said
Mr. Probert. Then he added: "Poor creatures!" The fine ironic humane
sound of it gave Gaston much pleasure; he passed his hand into his
father's arm. It promised well; it made the intelligent, the tender
allowance for the dear little Dossons confronted with a row of fierce
French critics, judged by standards they had never even heard of. The
meeting of the two parents had not made the problem of their commerce
any more clear; but our youth was reminded afresh by his elder's hinted
pity, his breathed charity, of the latent liberality that was really
what he had built on. The dear old governor, goodness knew, had
prejudices and superstitions, but if they were numerous, and some of
them very curious, they were not rigid. He had also such nice
inconsistent feelings, such irrepressible indulgences, such humorous
deviations, and they would ease everything off. He was in short an old
darling, and with an old darling in the long run one was always safe.
When they reached the house in the Cours la Reine Mr. Probert said: "I
think you told me you're dining out."

"Yes, with our friends."

"'Our friends'? Comme vous y allez! Come in and see me then on your
return; but not later than half-past ten."

From this the young man saw he had swallowed the dose; if he had found
it refuse to go down he would have cried for relief without delay. This
reflexion was highly agreeable, for Gaston perfectly knew how little he
himself would have enjoyed a struggle. He would have carried it through,
but he couldn't bear to think of that, and the sense of the further
arguments he was spared made him feel at peace with all the world. The
dinner at the hotel became the gayest of banquets in honour of this
state of things, especially as Francie and Delia raved, as they said,
about his poppa.

"Well, I expected something nice, but he goes far beyond!" Delia
declared. "That's my idea of a real gentleman."

"Ah for that--!" said Gaston.

"He's too sweet for anything. I'm not a bit afraid of him," Francie
contributed.

"Why in the world should you be?"

"Well, I am of you," the girl professed.

"Much you show it!" her lover returned.

"Yes, I am," she insisted, "at the bottom of all."

"Well, that's what a lady should be--afraid of her lord and master."

"Well, I don't know; I'm more afraid than that. You'll see."

"I wish you were afraid of talking nonsense," said happy Gaston.

Mr. Dosson made no observation whatever about their grave bland visitor;
he listened in genial unprejudiced silence. It was a sign of his
prospective son-in-law's perfect comprehension of him that Gaston knew
this silence not to be in any degree restrictive: it didn't at all mean
he hadn't been pleased. Mr. Dosson had nothing to say because nothing
had been given him; he hadn't, like his so differently-appointed young
friend, a sensitive plate for a brain, and the important events of his
life had never been personal impressions. His mind had had absolutely no
history with which anything occurring in the present connexion could be
continuous, and Mr. Probert's appearance had neither founded a state nor
produced a revolution. If the young man had asked him how he liked his
father he would have said at the most: "Oh I guess he's all right!" But
what was more touchingly candid even than this in Gaston's view was the
attitude of the good gentleman and his daughters toward the others,
Mesdames de Douves, de Brecourt and de Cliche and their husbands, who
had now all filed before them. They believed the ladies and the
gentlemen alike to have covered them with frank endearments, to have
been artlessly and gushingly glad to make their acquaintance. They had
not in the least seen what was manner, the minimum of decent profession,
and what the subtle resignation of old races who have known a long
historical discipline and have conventional forms and tortuous channels
and grimacing masks for their impulses--forms resembling singularly
little the feelings themselves. Francie took people at their word when
they told her that the whole maniere d'etre of her family inspired them
with an irresistible sympathy: that was a speech of which Mme. de Cliche
had been capable, speaking as if for all the Proberts and for the old
noblesse of France. It wouldn't have occurred to the girl that such
things need have been said as for mere frilling and finish. Her lover,
whose life affected her as a picture, of high price in itself but set in
a frame too big and too heavy for it, and who therefore might have taken
for granted any amount of gilding, yet made his reflexions on it now; he
noticed how a manner might be a very misleading symbol, might cover
pitfalls and bottomless gulfs, when it had reached that perfection and
corresponded so little to fact. What he had wanted was that his people
should be as easy as they could see their way to being, but with such a
high standard of compliment where after all was sincerity? And without
sincerity how could people get on together when it came to their
settling down to common life? Then the Dossons might have surprises, and
the surprises would be painful in proportion as their present innocence
was great. As to the high standard itself there was no manner of doubt:
there ought to be preserved examples of that perfection.

Henry James

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