A Bundle of Letters by Henry James


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Page 2

I have been thinking some of taking a teacher, but I am well acquainted
with the grammar already, and teachers always keep you bothering over the
verbs. I was a good deal troubled, for I felt as if I didn't want to go
away without having, at least, got a general idea of French conversation.
The theatre gives you a good deal of insight, and as I told you in my
last, I go a good deal to places of amusement. I find no difficulty
whatever in going to such places alone, and am always treated with the
politeness which, as I told you before, I encounter everywhere. I see
plenty of other ladies alone (mostly French), and they generally seem to
be enjoying themselves as much as I. But at the theatre every one talks
so fast that I can scarcely make out what they say; and, besides, there
are a great many vulgar expressions which it is unnecessary to learn. But
it was the theatre, nevertheless, that put me on the track. The very
next day after I wrote to you last I went to the Palais Royal, which is
one of the principal theatres in Paris. It is very small, but it is very
celebrated, and in my guide-book it is marked with _two stars_, which is
a sign of importance attached only to _first-class_ objects of interest.
But after I had been there half an hour I found I couldn't understand a
single word of the play, they gabbled it off so fast, and they made use
of such peculiar expressions. I felt a good deal disappointed and
troubled--I was afraid I shouldn't gain all I had come for. But while I
was thinking it over--thinking what I _should_ do--I heard two gentlemen
talking behind me. It was between the acts, and I couldn't help
listening to what they said. They were talking English, but I guess they
were Americans.

"Well," said one of them, "it all depends on what you are after. I'm
French; that's what I'm after."

"Well," said the other, "I'm after Art."

"Well," said the first, "I'm after Art too; but I'm after French most."

Then, dear mother, I am sorry to say the second one swore a little. He
said, "Oh, damn French!"

"No, I won't damn French," said his friend. "I'll acquire it--that's
what I'll do with it. I'll go right into a family."

"What family'll you go into?"

"Into some French family. That's the only way to do--to go to some place
where you can talk. If you're after Art, you want to stick to the
galleries; you want to go right through the Louvre, room by room; you
want to take a room a day, or something of that sort. But, if you want
to acquire French, the thing is to look out for a family. There are lots
of French families here that take you to board and teach you. My second
cousin--that young lady I told you about--she got in with a crowd like
that, and they booked her right up in three months. They just took her
right in and they talked to her. That's what they do to you; they set
you right down and they talk _at_ you. You've got to understand them;
you can't help yourself. That family my cousin was with has moved away
somewhere, or I should try and get in with them. They were very smart
people, that family; after she left, my cousin corresponded with them in
French. But I mean to find some other crowd, if it takes a lot of
trouble!"

I listened to all this with great interest, and when he spoke about his
cousin I was on the point of turning around to ask him the address of the
family that she was with; but the next moment he said they had moved
away; so I sat still. The other gentleman, however, didn't seem to be
affected in the same way as I was.

"Well," he said, "you may follow up that if you like; I mean to follow up
the pictures. I don't believe there is ever going to be any considerable
demand in the United States for French; but I can promise you that in
about ten years there'll be a big demand for Art! And it won't be
temporary either."

That remark may be very true, but I don't care anything about the demand;
I want to know French for its own sake. I don't want to think I have
been all this while without having gained an insight . . . The very next
day, I asked the lady who kept the books at the hotel whether she knew of
any family that could take me to board and give me the benefit of their
conversation. She instantly threw up her hands, with several little
shrill cries (in their French way, you know), and told me that her
dearest friend kept a regular place of that kind. If she had known I was
looking out for such a place she would have told me before; she had not
spoken of it herself, because she didn't wish to injure the hotel by
being the cause of my going away. She told me this was a charming
family, who had often received American ladies (and others as well) who
wished to follow up the language, and she was sure I should be delighted
with them. So she gave me their address, and offered to go with me to
introduce me. But I was in such a hurry that I went off by myself; and I
had no trouble in finding these good people. They were delighted to
receive me, and I was very much pleased with what I saw of them. They
seemed to have plenty of conversation, and there will be no trouble about
that.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 18th Aug 2019, 20:03