On a lovely day in May, 1868, Christopher Newman sits down on a circular divan in the center of the Salon Carré in the Louvre. He is the "superlative American": healthy, robust, clear-eyed, strong in the "easy magnificence of his manhood." Newman, who ordinarily is not easily fatigued, has spent the entire day looking at every single picture in the museum marked as noteworthy in his guidebook. Finding this sort of rarefied adventure exhausting, he sits down with an aesthetic headache.
As Newman rests, his eye wanders to the dimpled mademoiselle, Noémie Nioche, who is copying Murillo's Madonna. His interest caught, he approaches her to watch her work, at which she puts on a great show of intently painting. After some time, Newman abruptly asks "Combien?" In broken French and English, they manage to agree that Newman will buy the picture, once finished, for two thousand francs. Though Noémie's price is evidently steep, the girl emphasizes her fine workmanship, and Newman admires her beauty and charm enough to pay it.
Monsieur Nioche, Noémie's father, appears to take her home. He is an old, timid, beaten-down aristocrat who has fallen on hard times. Noémie introduces M. Nioche to Newman, explains her stroke of extraordinary luck to her father in French. Showing her intuitive savvy, Noémie demands that her father offer to give Newman French lessons. M. Nioche is stunned by both the sum of 2,000 francs and his daughter's scheming, but he manages to offer lessons in his rusty English. Happily, Newman is taken by the idea of learning to speak to the natives. They arrange the French lessons to begin when M. Nioche calls on Newman at his hotel with the finished painting.
With Noémie and her father gone, Newman scans the gallery for other promising young artists and recognizes an old friend across the room. It is Tom Tristram, an acquaintance of Newman's from the Civil War. Tristram has spent the last six years living in Paris with his wife and children, during which time he has been to the Louvre for only one quick visit. Today, Tristram has entered on a whim and is eager to leave again. He takes Newman to the Palais Royal, where Tristram can smoke and the two can catch up.
Prompted to explain his trip to Europe, Newman reveals that, as poverty forced him to begin work at fourteen, he has been devoted to making money for quite a long time now. Naturally broad-minded, Newman has been involved in a number of business ventures in various fields, with the exception of the four tedious years he spent serving in the Civil War. Having now made a sizable some of money, Newman is looking to do something with it.
Newman recounts the story of a curious turning point in his life, which occurred several months before. He was rushing to New York on business, having been given the chance to get ahead in a $500,000 business transaction that would cause the ruin of another man who had beat him in a previous deal "out of clever meanness." En route, Newman fell asleep in the cab and awoke suddenly in Manhattan with an extraordinary change of heart, full of mortal disgust at the whole business. Instead of taking his revenge, he asked his driver to take him to the country for the day. Shortly thereafter, he settled his affairs and sailed for Europe. Now in Europe, Newman wants to see and do everything he has ignored during his years of making money, "the biggest kind of entertainment a man can get." Tom promises to introduce Newman to his wife, who should have lots of ideas for him.