The House in Paris

The House in Paris


In a taxi skidding away from the Gare du Norde one dark greasy February morning before the shutters were down, Henrietta sat beside Miss Fisher. She embraced with one arm a plush toy monkey with limp limbs; a paper-leather despatch case lay at her feet. Miss Fisher and she still both wore, pinned to their coats, the cerise cockades which had led them to claim one another, just now, on the platform: they had not met before. For the lady in whose charge Henrietta had made the journey from London, Miss Fisher's cockade, however, had not been enough; she had insisted on seeing Mrs. Arbuthnot's letter which Miss Fisher said she had in her bag. The lady had been fussy; she took every precaution before handing over a little girl to a stranger at such a sinister hour and place. Miss Fisher had looked hurt. Henrietta, mortified and embarrassed, wanted to tell her that the suspicious lady was not a relation, only a friend's friend. Henrietta's trunk was registered straight through to Mentone, so there had been no further trouble about that.

There was just enough light to see. Henrietta, though dazed after her night journey, sat up straight in the taxi, looking out of the window. She had not left England before. She said to herself: This is Paris. The same streets, with implacably shut shops and running into each other at odd angles, seemed to unreel past again and again. She thought she saw the same kiosks. Cafés were lit inside, chairs stacked on the tables: they were swabbing the floors. Men stood at a steamy counter drinking coffee. A woman came out with a tray of mimosa and the raw daylight fell on the yellow pollen: but for that there might have been no sky. These indifferent streets and early morning faces oppressed Henrietta, who was expecting to find Paris more gay and kind.

"A Hundred Thousand Shirts," she read aloud, suddenly.

Miss Fisher put Mrs. Arbuthnot's letter away with a sigh, snapping the clasp of her hand-bag, then leaned rigidly back in the taxi beside Henrietta as though all this had been an effort and she still could not relax. She wore black gloves with white-stitched seams that twisted round on her fingers, and black furs that gave out a camphory smell. At the Gare du Nord, as she stood under the lamps, her hat had cast a deep shadow, in which her eyes in dark sockets moved, melancholy and anxious. Her olive-green coat and skirt, absorbing what light there was, had looked black. She looked like a Frenchwoman with all the animation gone. Her manner had been emotional from the first; there was something emotional now about her tense way of sitting. Henrietta, nervous, tried to make evident, by looking steadily out of the window on her side, that she did not expect to be spoken to. She had been brought up to think it rude to interrupt thought.

But Miss Fisher, making an effort, now touched one of the monkey's stitched felt paws. "You must be fond of your monkey. You play with him, I expect?"

"Not nowadays much," said Henrietta politely. "I just always seem to take him about."

"For company," said Miss Fisher, turning upon the monkey a brooding, absent look.

"I like to think he enjoys things."

"Ah, then you do play with him!"

It was not in Henrietta's power to say: "We really cannot go into all that now " Re-crossing her feet, she lightly kicked the despatch case, which contained what she would want for two night journeys and during the day in Paris: washing things, reading matter, one or two things to eat. Turning away again to look at the street, she was glad to see shutters taken down from one shop: a woman in felt slippers was doing this. A paper-kiosk opened to take its stock in, a lady in deep mourning attempted to stop a bus: the frightening cardboard city was waking up at last. Violent skidding traffic foreignly hooted, and Henrietta wished there were more light.

"Is this a boulevard?"

"Yes. You know, there are many."

"My father told me there would be."

"We cross the river soon."

"How soon will it be daylight?"

Miss Fisher sighed. "The mornings are still so late. How happy you are to be going south, Henrietta. If I were a swallow you would not find me here!"

Henrietta did not know what to say.

"However," Miss Fisher continued, smiling, "to have been met by a swallow would not help you much. It would have been a great disappointment to me to fail your grandmother. Fortunately, my mother is better this morning: she slept better last night."

"I'm sorry your mother is ill," said Henrietta, who had forgotten Miss Fisher had a mother.

"She is constantly ill, but wonderfully full of spirit. She is most anxious to see you, and also hopes to see Leopold."

Miss Fisher's mother was French and they lived in Paris: this accounted, perhaps, for Miss Fisher's peculiar idiom, which made Henrietta giddy. Often when she spoke she seemed to be translating, and translating rustily. No phrase she used was what anyone could quite mean; they were doubtful, as though she hoped they would do. Her state of mind seemed to be foreign also, not able to be explained however much English you had.... This illness made her mother sound most forbidding: Henrietta had a dread of sick-rooms.

Leopold? thought Henrietta. The thought that Miss Fisher might have taken the liberty of re-christening her monkey, whose name was Charles, made her look round askance: she said: "Who is Leopold?"

"Oh, he's a little boy," Miss Fisher said with a strikingly reserved air.

"A little boy where?"

"To-day he is at our house."

"French?" pursued Henrietta.

"Oh, hardly French: not really. You will see for yourself. You will think," Miss Fisher said, with the anxious smile again, "that we have a depôt for young people crossing Paris, but that is not so: this is quite a coincidence. Leopold is not crossing Paris, either; he came to us late last night by the train from Spezia, and will return, we expect, to-morrow or the day after. He is in Paris for family reasons; he has someone to meet."

"Where's Spezia?"

"On the Italian coast."

"Oh! Then he's Italian?"

"No, he is not Italian.... I have been wanting to ask you, Henrietta, to be a little considerate with Leopold when you meet him this morning: you may find him agitated and shy,"--her agitation came on at the very idea, making her knit her gloved fingers, twisting the seams round further.

"Why? Do journeys upset him?"

"No, no; it is not that. I think I had better explain to you, Henrietta--it is Leopold's mother he is going to meet. And he has not met her before--that is, since he can remember. The circumstances are very strange and sad.... I am only telling you this much, Henrietta, in order that you may not ask any more. I beg you will not ask more, and I specially beg you to ask Leopold nothing. Simply play with him naturally. No doubt you will find some game you can both play. He is in an excited state and I do not wish him to talk. It is for the morning only: his mother will be arriving early this afternoon and before that, naturally, I shall take you out. I did not anticipate this when I promised your grandmother that you should spend the day here between your trains. Leopold's coming to us was arranged since that, very suddenly, and I was most anxious not to disappoint your dear grandmother when she had been at such pains to arrange everything. I believe she will not blame me for the coincidence. It appeared impossible that Leopold's mother should be in Paris on any other day--I was equally anxious not to put her out, for you can see what importance she must attach to this meeting. It has all been very difficult. To-morrow, I am intending to write to your grandmother, explaining the matter to her as far as I may. I feel sure she will not blame me. But I feel sure she would not wish you to ask Leopold questions; it is all sad, and she might not wish you to know. By questioning him you would only distress yourself and agitate him: there is much, as a matter of fact, that Leopold does not know. I know how much above the world your grandmother is in her thoughts, but I should not like to upset her, or feel she might misunderstand."

Henrietta, who had listened to most of this pretty blankly, said: "I don't suppose she would bother. Where does Leopold live, then?"

"Oh, you see, near Spezia, with a most charming family who have a villa there--You must show him your monkey. I am sure he will like that."

"I never ask people things," said Henrietta coldly.

Miss Fisher went on looking wretchedly undecided. One of her troubles was, quite clearly, being unaccustomed to children. Henrietta had the advantage of her, for, as almost an only child--she had one married sister--she was only too well accustomed to grown-ups. "Perhaps," Miss Fisher plunged on, "I should not have told you so much. It is hard to know what is best: it is all difficult for me, when my mother is too ill to consult."

Henrietta regretted that Leopold was not a girl: she did not like boys much. Last night's shaken broken sleep, now the stress of being in Paris, made her thoughts over-clear, and everything had echoes. Tossing her longish fair hair back she exclaimed: "I expect that will be all right."

They crossed the river while Miss Fisher was speaking In a sort of slow flash, Henrietta had her first open view of Paris--watery sky, wet light, light water, frigid, dark-inky buildings, spans of bridges, trees. This open light gash across Paris faded at each end. It was not exactly raining. Then, passing long grinding trams, their taxi darted uphill: the boulevard was wide, in summer there would be shade here. They swerved right, round the dark railings of a statuey leafless garden--"Look, Henrietta, the Luxembourg!"--then engaged in a complex of deep streets, fissures in the crazy gloomy height. Windows with strong grilles looked ready for an immediate attack (Henrietta had heard how much blood has been shed in Paris); doors had grim iron patterns across their glass; dust-grey shutters were almost all bolted fast... Miss Fisher, by reaching down for Henrietta's case, made it clear that they were arriving. The taxi stopped; Miss Fisher got out and paid; Henrietta got out and looked up and down the street.

The Fishers' house, opposite which the taxi stopped, looked miniature, like a dolls' house: it stood clapped to the flank of a six-storied building with balconies. On its other side was a wall, with branches, that in summer would toss gaily, showing over the top. Up and down the narrow uphill street the houses were all heights: none so small as the Fishers'. At each end, the street bent out of sight: it was exceedingly quiet and seemed, though charged with meaning, to lead nowhere. Unbright light struck between the flanks of the houses, making their inequality odder still: some were trim and bright, some faded, crazy or sad. Henrietta's exact snobbishness could not "place" this street--was it mean or grand?--in the unsmiling light it had unity. She saw spaces of wall, with shut grey gates and tree-tops, over which towered buildings in other streets. It was exceedingly silent, though you heard in the distance Paris still going on; the height all around would have made it darkish at any hour. A maid was shaking a mat out of one window; elsewhere, shutters were unwakingly shut. In fact, it was early for people to be about--there were no shops, nothing to get to work. But it would not really have surprised Henrietta if no one had ever walked down that street again.

The Fishers' house looked small because of its narrowness. It was three stories high, and also, stepping back, Henrietta saw another couple of windows, mansard windows, peering down from above. Its cream front was a strip marbled with fine dark cracks; it just held, below the mansards, five wide-awake windows with grey shutters fixed back; two, then two, then a window beside the door--around these pairs of windows the house made a thin frame. Miss Fisher put her latch-key into the door, which was grained brown and had a knob in the middle. Henrietta thought: Perhaps it is not really so small inside? Or perhaps it stretches back.... The house, with its clean tight blinds across inside darkness, managed to look as proud as any in the street; there was nothing "bijou" about it; it looked stern. Henrietta heard later that the site was valuable; Mme Fisher was, in spite of her poverty, most obstinate in refusing to sell.

Miss Fisher's key turned and she pushed the door open. Henrietta took a last look at the outside of the house, which she never saw in daylight again. Shifting Charles up her arm, she followed Miss Fisher in.

The hall was dark, it had a clean close smell. Miss Fisher switched on the light, showing a red flock wallpaper; indoors, her manner became more assured and commanding. "Now, dear," she said, "I expect you would like a bath."

"No, thank you," said Henrietta, who did not want to undress here.

Miss Fisher was disappointed. "Oh, dear," she said, "I had the bath heated specially. Don't you think, Henrietta, your grandmother would like you to?"

As a matter of fact, Henrietta's grandmother, Mrs. Arbuthnot, seldom looked beyond her finger-nails, except once or twice when she had peered into her ears to see if they could be waxy; when Henrietta did not at once answer a question or reply to an observation, kindness led her to think that the child must be getting deaf. Henrietta, though already a little vain, did not yet like washing; she repeated firmly: "No, thank you; I feel too sleepy to have a bath."

"Poor Henrietta--look, you shall go to bed!"

"No, thank you, I'm too sleepy to have a bath but not sleepy enough to sleep," Henrietta explained--glancing, meanwhile, at the shut doors, then up the staircase, wondering where Leopold might be. Was he, with some excitement, hearing her arrive? It made her jealous to think his unknown mother must be most in his thoughts, if he were awake, so that her own arrival must mean less. If he woke up excited, the cause would not be Henrietta; he might be thinking about her without curiosity, or perhaps not even thinking about her at all. Already, she longed to occupy people's fancies, speculations and thoughts.

It was agreed by Miss Fisher, after some more discussion, that Henrietta should wash as much as she liked, then come down to the salon for coffee, rolls and butter, then lie on the salon sofa to sleep or not, as she wished. She should be quiet in there, nobody should disturb her. Turning warningly at the foot of the steep stairs Miss Fisher put a finger to her lips, to remind Henrietta someone was ill somewhere. So up they crept like thieves. You saw no windows; the hall and stairs were undraughty, lit by electric light. The inside of this house--with its shallow door-panels, lozenge door-knobs, polished brass ball on the end of the bannisters, stuffy red matt paper with stripes so artfully shadowed as to appear bars--was more than simply novel to Henrietta, it was antagonistic, as though it had been invented to put her out. She felt the house was acting, nothing seemed to be natural; objects did not wait to be seen but came crowding in on her, each with what amounted to its aggressive cry. Bumped all over the senses by these impressions, Henrietta thought: If this is being abroad...

They went through Miss Fisher's room, where the bed was not yet made and which smelled of Miss Fisher and eau-de-cologne, into her cabinet de toilette. Here a window opened on steep roofs; raw town air came in. The cabinet with its unexpected fittings enchanted Henrietta, who thereupon decided that Miss Fisher's humility could have nothing to do with money; she was clearly well off. Henrietta had once crossed London with a "distressed lady" and had not failed to observe her jotting down what she spent in a little pocket-book as they went along. Miss Fisher, more lordly, had omitted to do thisÉ. Henrietta chased a cake of sandal-wood soap in the foreign water, feeling it lap her wrists. Rubbing round the rim of her face with a fringed towel she thought: I am washing in Paris...

Behind one of those landing doors, the sick French lady lay. And which would be Leopold's? Or was he a floor higher? Hearing china clink, Henrietta went downstairs, to follow the fragrance of coffee into the salon. Here at a round table Miss Fisher sat pouring out, moving cups in a placid, settled way. Now she had her hat off, daylight through the white windowblind showed up her face in its true proportion and character. Her hair was dark, with a dullish gloss on it; she wore it bound round her head in two plain bands. Her rather fine forehead added sense and solidity to the rest of her over-mobile face: agitation must count for less than had first appeared. In bony sockets still full of brown shadow her eyes had an incalculable depth. Her prominent, not beautiful mouth had lines round it that looked patient, not grim or ironic. She was thin all over. She enjoyed pouring out coffee: when she was calm she was perfectly calm. She had led Henrietta to think her a greater fool than she was. Henrietta had no way of estimating her age, which turned out later to be about thirty-nine.

"My mother still feels well," she said as Henrietta sat down. "She had been asleep again."

"I hope I didn't wake her?"

"No, she was ready to wake. When she woke, she asked at once if you had come."

Henrietta's heart sank slightly: she felt like a meal being fattened up for a lion. However, she buttered a roll and ate: Miss Fisher, meanwhile, broke a croissant in two and dipped it with perfect naturalness into her coffee, smiling away to herself for some interior reason and not observing Henrietta's surprise. Henrietta was sure you did not do this with bread: travel had still to do much for her priggishness about table manners. To-day was to do much to disintegrate Henrietta's character, which, built up by herself, for herself, out of admonitions and axioms (under the growing stress of: If I am Henrietta, then what is Henrietta?), was a mosaic of all possible kinds of prejudice. She was anxious to be someone, and, no one having ever voiced a prejudice in her hearing without impressing her, had come to associate prejudice with identity. You could not be a someone without disliking things.... Now she sat biting precisely into her half of roll, wondering how one could bear to eat soppy bread.

The tight-scrolled crimson sofa backed on the wall opposite the window, having its head to the door. The room had a satiny paper, striped yellow and grey, and a scrolled grey marble mantelpiece with an iron shutter pulled down inside: any heat in here came from hot water pipes. Against the wall opposite the mantelpiece stood a chiffonier with gilt beadings and marble ornaments; next to the window, facing the sofa, a consol table with no mirror behind. There were four green velvet armchairs, like doll's-house furniture magnified, and the round centre table on which the tray stood. Any space round the walls was filled up with upright chairs. The curtains draped stiffly round the muslin-masked window clearly did not draw. The parquet was bare and waxed: the room smelled of this.

When breakfast was over, Miss Fisher spread a sheet of Le Matin across the end of the sofa for Henrietta's feet, then Henrietta lay down with her feet on the newspaper. A small satin bolster, hard as a Japanese head-rest, supported her head; she lay stretched straight out in alarmed passivity, as though on an operating table. Miss Fisher having carried away the coffee tray, everything immobilised in the salon but the clock's pendulum, which Henrietta watched.

Miss Fisher looked back to say: "Can you sleep in daylight?"

"There's not much light," Henrietta said in a far-away voice.

The room, at the back of the house, looked on to a courtyard like a well between walls, with one tree whose outline showed through the blind.

"Then try to sleep, Henrietta," said Miss Fisher. "Remember, you will be travelling again to-night."

"I want to go out soon."

"Paris won't run away," said Miss Fisher. Her voice trailed off; she melted out of the room.

That image of streets in furtive chaotic flight, and of the Seine panorama being rolled up, was frightening for the first minute; then a lassitude in which reedy fantasies wavered began like smoke to fill Henrietta's brain. She relaxed more on the sofa, shutting her eyes. But she could not hear the clock without seeing the pendulum, with that bright hypnotic disc at its tip, which set the beat of her thoughts till they were not thoughts. Steps crossed the ceiling and stopped somewhere: was Miss Fisher standing by her sick mother's bed? She can't be dying, she wants to know about me. The stern dying go on out without looking back; sleepers go out a short way, never not hearing the vibration of Paris, a sea-like stirring, horns, echoes indoors, electric bells making stars in the grey swinging silence that never perfectly settles in volutions of streets and empty courts of stone.

Henrietta, waking, opened her eyes.

Leopold said, "I didn't know you were in here."

He had come well into the room, and might have been there some time. He was still part of the dream she had not quite had.

"Have I been asleep long?"

"I don't know when you went to sleep."

"Soon after I came here."

"Yes, I heard you come. About three hours ago."

"Then where did you think I was?"

"I thought I would find out."

Going back to shut the door, which was open, Leopold added, "As a matter of fact, she told me not to come in here."

Having shut the door, Leopold walked across to the mantelpiece, which he stood with his back to, looking at Henrietta with no signs of shyness, in a considering way. He had a nervous manner, but was clearly too much taken up with himself to be frightened of anyone. She saw a dark-eyed, very slight little boy who looked either French or Jewish; his nose had a high, fine bridge and his hair grew up in a crest, then lay down again; he had the stately waxen impersonal air of a royal child in a picture centuries old. He wore a bunchy stiff dark blue sailor blouse, blue knickerbockers and rather ugly black socks.... Henrietta, sitting up on the sofa, pushed into place more firmly the semi-circular comb that held back her hair.

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Excerpted from The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen. Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.