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Chapter 8

When on coming home again this evening, meanwhile, he complied with his
father's request by returning to the room in which the old man
habitually sat, Mr. Probert laid down his book and kept on his glasses.
"Of course you'll continue to live with me. You'll understand that I
don't consent to your going away. You'll have the rooms occupied at
first by Susan and Alphonse."

Gaston noted with pleasure the transition from the conditional to the
future tense, and also the circumstance that his father had been lost in
a book according to his now confirmed custom of evening ease. This
proved him not too much off the hinge. He read a great deal, and very
serious books; works about the origin of things--of man, of
institutions, of speech, of religion. This habit he had taken up more
particularly since the circle of his social life had contracted. He sat
there alone, turning his pages softly, contentedly, with the lamplight
shining on his refined old head and embroidered dressing-gown. He had
used of old to be out every night in the week--Gaston was perfectly
aware that to many dull people he must even have appeared a little
frivolous. He was essentially a social creature and indeed--except
perhaps poor Jane in her damp old castle in Brittany--they were all
social creatures. That was doubtless part of the reason why the family
had acclimatised itself in France. They had affinities with a society of
conversation; they liked general talk and old high salons, slightly
tarnished and dim, containing precious relics, where winged words flew
about through a circle round the fire and some clever person, before the
chimney-piece, held or challenged the others. That figure, Gaston knew,
especially in the days before he could see for himself, had very often
been his father, the lightest and most amiable specimen of the type that
enjoyed easy possession of the hearth-rug. People left it to him; he was
so transparent, like a glass screen, and he never triumphed in debate.
His word on most subjects was not felt to be the last (it was usually
not more conclusive than a shrugging inarticulate resignation, an "Ah
you know, what will you have?"); but he had been none the less a part of
the very prestige of some dozen good houses, most of them over the
river, in the conservative faubourg, and several to-day profaned
shrines, cold and desolate hearths. These had made up Mr. Probert's
pleasant world--a world not too small for him and yet not too large,
though some of them supposed themselves great institutions. Gaston knew
the succession of events that had helped to make a difference, the most
salient of which were the death of his brother, the death of his mother,
and above all perhaps the demise of Mme. de Marignac, to whom the old
boy used still to go three or four evenings out of the seven and
sometimes even in the morning besides. Gaston fully measured the place
she had held in his father's life and affection, and the terms on which
they had grown up together--her people had been friends of his
grandfather when that fine old Southern worthy came, a widower with a
young son and several negroes, to take his pleasure in Paris in the time
of Louis Philippe--and the devoted part she had played in marrying his
sisters. He was quite aware that her friendship and all its exertions
were often mentioned as explaining their position, so remarkable in a
society in which they had begun after all as outsiders. But he would
have guessed, even if he had not been told, what his father said to
that. To offer the Proberts a position was to carry water to the
fountain; they hadn't left their own behind them in Carolina; it had
been large enough to stretch across the sea. As to what it was in
Carolina there was no need of being explicit. This adoptive Parisian was
by nature presupposing, but he was admirably urbane--that was why they
let him talk so before the fire; he was the oracle persuasive, the
conciliatory voice--and after the death of his wife and of Mme. de
Marignac, who had been her friend too, the young man's mother's, he was
gentler, if more detached, than before. Gaston had already felt him to
care in consequence less for everything--except indeed for the true
faith, to which he drew still closer--and this increase of indifference
doubtless helped to explain his present charming accommodation.

"We shall be thankful for any rooms you may give us," his son said. "We
shall fill out the house a little, and won't that be rather an
improvement, shrunken as you and I have become?"

"You'll fill it out a good deal, I suppose, with Mr. Dosson and the
other girl."

"Ah Francie won't give up her father and sister, certainly; and what
should you think of her if she did? But they're not intrusive; they're
essentially modest people; they won't put themselves upon us. They have
great natural discretion," Gaston declared.

"Do you answer for that? Susan does; she's always assuring one of it,"
Mr. Probert said. "The father has so much that he wouldn't even speak to
me."

"He didn't, poor dear man, know what to say."

"How then shall I know what to say to HIM?"

"Ah you always know!" Gaston smiled.

"How will that help us if he doesn't know what to answer?"

"You'll draw him out. He's full of a funny little shade of bonhomie."

"Well, I won't quarrel with your bonhomme," said Mr. Probert--"if he's
silent there are much worse faults; nor yet with the fat young lady,
though she's evidently vulgar--even if you call it perhaps too a funny
little shade. It's not for ourselves I'm afraid; it's for them. They'll
be very unhappy."

"Never, never!" said Gaston. "They're too simple. They'll remain so.
They're not morbid nor suspicious. And don't you like Francie? You
haven't told me so," he added in a moment.

"She talks about 'Parus,' my dear boy."

"Ah to Susan too that seemed the great barrier. But she has got over it.
I mean Susan has got over the barrier. We shall make her speak French;
she has a real disposition for it; her French is already almost as good
as her English."

"That oughtn't to be difficult. What will you have? Of course she's very
pretty and I'm sure she's good. But I won't tell you she is a marvel,
because you must remember--you young fellows think your own point of
view and your own experience everything--that I've seen beauties without
number. I've known the most charming women of our time--women of an
order to which Miss Francie, con rispetto parlando, will never begin to
belong. I'm difficult about women--how can I help it? Therefore when you
pick up a little American girl at an inn and bring her to us as a
miracle, feel how standards alter. J'ai vu mieux que ca, mon cher.
However, I accept everything to-day, as you know; when once one has lost
one's enthusiasm everything's the same and one might as well perish by
the sword as by famine."

"I hoped she'd fascinate you on the spot," Gaston rather ruefully
remarked.

"'Fascinate'--the language you fellows use! How many times in one's life
is one likely to be fascinated?"

"Well, she'll charm you yet."

"She'll never know at least that she doesn't: I'll engage for that,"
said Mr. Probert handsomely.

"Ah be sincere with her, father--she's worth it!" his son broke out.

When the elder man took that tone, the tone of vast experience and a
fastidiousness justified by ineffable recollections, our friend was more
provoked than he could say, though he was also considerably amused, for
he had a good while since, made up his mind about the element of rather
stupid convention in it. It was fatuous to miss so little the fine
perceptions one didn't have: so far from its showing experience it
showed a sad simplicity not to FEEL Francie Dosson. He thanked God she
was just the sort of imponderable infinite quantity, such as there were
no stupid terms for, that he did feel. He didn't know what old frumps
his father might have frequented--the style of 1830, with long curls in
front, a vapid simper, a Scotch plaid dress and a corsage, in a point
suggestive of twenty whalebones, coming down to the knees--but he could
remember Mme. de Marignac's Tuesdays and Thursdays and Fridays, with
Sundays and other days thrown in, and the taste that prevailed in that
milieu: the books they admired, the verses they read and recited, the
pictures, great heaven! they thought good, and the three busts of the
lady of the house in different corners (as a Diana, a Druidess and a
Croyante: her shoulders were supposed to make up for her head), effigies
the public ridicule attaching to which to-day would--even the least bad,
Canova's--make their authors burrow in holes for shame.

"And what else is she worth?" Mr. Probert asked after a momentary
hesitation.

"How do you mean, what else?"

"Her immense prospects, that's what Susan has been putting forward.
Susan's insistence on them was mainly what brought over Jane. Do you
mind my speaking of them?"

Gaston was obliged to recognise privately the importance of Jane's
having been brought over, but he hated to hear it spoken of as if he
were under an obligation to it. "To whom, sir?" he asked.

"Oh only to you."

"You can't do less than Mr. Dosson. As I told you, he waived the
question of money and he was splendid. We can't be more mercenary than
he."

"He waived the question of his own, you mean?" said Mr. Probert.

"Yes, and of yours. But it will be all right." The young man flattered
himself that this was as near as he was willing to go to any view of
pecuniary convenience.

"Well, it's your affair--or your sisters'," his father returned.

"It's their idea that we see where we are and that we make the best of
it."

"It's very good of them to make the best of it and I should think they'd
be tired of their own chatter," Gaston impatiently sighed.

Mr. Probert looked at him a moment in vague surprise, but only said: "I
think they are. However, the period of discussion's closed. We've taken
the jump." He then added as to put the matter a little less dryly:
"Alphonse and Maxime are quite of your opinion."

"Of my opinion?"

"That she's charming."

"Confound them then, I'm not of theirs!" The form of this rejoinder was
childishly perverse, and it made Mr. Probert stare again; but it
belonged to one of the reasons for which his children regarded him as an
old darling that Gaston could suppose him after an instant to embrace
it. The old man said nothing, but took up his book, and his son, who had
been standing before the fire, went out of the room. His abstention from
protest at Gaston's petulance was the more generous as he was capable,
for his part, of feeling it to make for a greater amenity in the whole
connexion that ces messieurs should like the little girl at the hotel.
Gaston didn't care a straw what it made for, and would have seen himself
in bondage indeed had he given a second thought to the question. This
was especially the case as his father's mention of the approval of two
of his brothers-in-law appeared to point to a possible disapproval on
the part of the third. Francie's lover cared as little whether she
displeased M. de Brecourt as he cared whether she pleased Maxime and
Raoul. Mr. Probert continued to read, and in a few moments Gaston was
with him again. He had expressed surprise, just before, at the wealth of
discussion his sisters had been ready to expend in his interest, but he
managed to convey now that there was still a point of a certain
importance to be made. "It seems rather odd to me that you should all
appear to accept the step I'M about to take as a necessity disagreeable
at the best, when I myself hold that I've been so exceedingly
fortunate."

Mr. Probert lowered his book accommodatingly and rested his eyes on the
fire. "You won't be content till we're enthusiastic. She seems an
amiable girl certainly, and in that you're fortunate."

"I don't think you can tell me what would be better--what you'd have
preferred," the young man said.

"What I should have preferred? In the first place you must remember that
I wasn't madly impatient to see you married."

"I can imagine that, and yet I can't imagine that as things have turned
out you shouldn't be struck with my felicity. To get something so
charming and to get it of our own species!" Gaston explained.

"Of our own species? Tudieu!" said his father, looking up.

"Surely it's infinitely fresher and more amusing for me to marry an
American. There's a sad want of freshness--there's even a provinciality
--in the way we've Gallicised."

"Against Americans I've nothing to say; some of them are the best thing
the world contains. That's precisely why one can choose. They're far
from doing all like that."

"Like what, dear father?"

"Comme ces gens-la. You know that if they were French, being otherwise
what they are, one wouldn't look at them."

"Indeed one would; they would be such rare curiosities."

"Well, perhaps they'll do for queer fish," said Mr. Probert with a
little conclusive sigh.

"Yes, let them pass at that. They'll surprise you."

"Not too much, I hope!" cried the old man, opening his volume again.

The complexity of things among the Proberts, it needn't nevertheless
startle us to learn, was such as to make it impossible for Gaston to
proceed to the celebration of his nuptial, with all the needful
circumstances of material preparation and social support, before some
three months should have expired. He chafed however but moderately under
this condition, for he remembered it would give Francie time to endear
herself to his whole circle. It would also have advantages for the
Dossons; it would enable them to establish by simple but effective arts
some modus vivendi with that rigid body. It would in short help every
one to get used to everything. Mr. Dosson's designs and Delia's took no
articulate form; what was mainly clear to Gaston was that his future
wife's relatives had as yet no sense of disconnexion. He knew that Mr.
Dosson would do whatever Delia liked and that Delia would like to
"start" her sister--this whether or no she expected to be present at the
rest of the race. Mr. Probert notified Mr. Dosson of what he proposed to
"do" for his son, and Mr. Dosson appeared more quietly amused than
anything else at the news. He announced in return no intentions in
regard to Francie, and his strange silence was the cause of another
convocation of the house of Probert. Here Mme. de Brecourt's bold front
won another victory; she maintained, as she let her brother know, that
it was too late for any policy but a policy of confidence. "Lord help
us, is that what they call confidence?" the young man gasped, guessing
the way they all had looked at each other; and he wondered how they
would look next at poor Mr. Dosson himself. Fortunately he could always
fall back, for reassurance, on the perfection of their "forms"; though
indeed he thoroughly knew that these forms would never appear so
striking as on the day--should such a day fatally come--of their
meddling too much.

Mr. Probert's property was altogether in the United States: he resembled
other discriminating persons for whom the only good taste in America was
the taste of invested and paying capital. The provisions he was engaging
to make for his son's marriage rendered advisable some attention, on the
spot, to interests with the management of which he was acquainted only
by report. It had long been his conviction that his affairs beyond the
sea needed looking into; they had gone on and on for years too far from
the master's eye. He had thought of making the journey in the cause of
that vigilance, but now he was too old and too tired and the effort had
become impossible. There was nothing therefore but for Gaston to go, and
go quickly, though the time so little fostered his absence from Paris.
The duty was none the less laid upon him and the question practically
faced; then everything yielded to the consideration that he had best
wait till after his marriage, when he might be so auspiciously
accompanied by his wife. Francie would be in many ways so propitious an
introducer. This abatement would have taken effect had not a call for an
equal energy on Mr. Dosson's part suddenly appeared to reach and to move
that gentleman. He had business on the other side, he announced, to
attend to, though his starting for New York presented difficulties,
since he couldn't in such a situation leave his daughters alone. Not
only would such a proceeding have given scandal to the Proberts, but
Gaston learned, with much surprise and not a little amusement, that
Delia, in consequence of changes now finely wrought in her personal
philosophy, wouldn't have felt his doing so square with propriety. The
young man was able to put it to her that nothing would be simpler than,
in the interval, for Francie to go and stay with Susan or Margaret; she
herself in that case would be free to accompany her father. But Delia
declared at this that nothing would induce her to budge from Paris till
she had seen her sister through, and Gaston shrank from proposing that
she too should spend five weeks in the Place Beauvau or the Rue de
Lille. There was moreover a slight element of the mystifying for him in
the perverse unsociable way in which Francie took up a position of
marked disfavour as yet to any "visiting." AFTER, if he liked, but not
till then. And she wouldn't at the moment give the reasons of her
refusal; it was only very positive and even quite passionate.

All this left her troubled suitor no alternative but to say to Mr.
Dosson: "I'm not, my dear sir, such a fool as I look. If you'll coach me
properly, and trust me, why shouldn't I rush across and transact your
business as well as my father's?" Strange as it appeared, Francie
offered herself as accepting this separation from her lover, which would
last six or seven weeks, rather than accept the hospitality of any
member of his family. Mr. Dosson, on his side, was grateful for the
solution; he remarked "Well, sir, you've got a big brain" at the end of
a morning they spent with papers and pencils; and on this Gaston made
his preparations to sail. Before he left Paris Francie, to do her
justice, confided to him that her objection to going in such an intimate
way even to Mme. de Brecourt's had been founded on a fear that in close
quarters she might do something that would make them all despise her.
Gaston replied, in the first place, ardently, that this was the very
delirium of delicacy, and that he wanted to know in the second if she
expected never to be at close quarters with "tous les siens." "Ah yes,
but then it will be safer," she pleaded; "then we shall be married and
by so much, shan't we? be beyond harm." In rejoinder to which he had
simply kissed her; the passage taking place three days before her lover
took ship. What further befell in the brief interval was that, stopping
for a last word at the Hotel de l'Univers et the Cheltenham on his way
to catch the night express to London--he was to sail from Liverpool--
Gaston found Mr. George Flack sitting in the red-satin saloon. The
correspondent of the Reverberator had come back.


Henry James

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