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A Chair on The Boulevard by Leonard Merrick

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"Well, well, of course it is; since when have you joined the realists?
Somebody else's watch--or a clock. Are there no clocks in Paris? You
say, 'I shall give you until the clock strikes the hour.' That is even
more literary--you obtain the solemn note of the clock to mark the
crisis."

"But there is no convict," demurred Tricotrin; "there are clocks, but
there is no convict."

"No convict? The messenger is not a convict?"

"Not at all--he is an apple-cheeked boy."

"Oh, it is a rotten plot," said Lajeunie; "I shall not collaborate in
it!"

"Consider!" cried Tricotrin; "do not throw away the chance of a
lifetime, think what I offer you--you shall hang about the end of a
dark alley, and whistle if anybody comes. How literary again is that!
You may develop it into a novel that will make you celebrated. Pitou
will be at the other end. I and the apple-cheeked boy who is to die--
that is to say, to be duped--will occupy the centre of the stage--I
mean the middle of the alley. And on the morrow, when all Paris rings
with the fame of Claudine Hilairet, I, who adore her, shall have won
her heart!"

"Humph," said Lajeunie. "Well, since the synopsis has a happy ending, I
consent. But I make one condition--I must wear a crêpe mask. Without a
crêpe mask I perceive no thrill in my rôle."

"Madness!" objected Pitou. "Now listen to _me_--I am serious-minded,
and do not commit follies, like you fellows. Crêpe masks are not being
worn this season. Believe me, if you loiter at a street corner with a
crêpe mask on, some passer-by will regard you, he may even wonder what
you are doing there. It might ruin the whole job."

"Pitou is right," announced Tricotrin, after profound consideration.

"Well, then," said Lajeunie, "_you_ must wear a crêpe mask! Put it
on when you attack the boy. I have always had a passion for crêpe
masks, and this is the first opportunity that I find to gratify it. I
insist that somebody wears a crêpe mask, or I wash my hands of the
conspiracy."

"Agreed! In the alley it will do no harm; indeed it will prevent the
boy identifying me. Good, on Thursday night then! In the meantime we
shall rehearse the crime assiduously, and you and Pitou can practise
your whistles."

With what diligence did the poet write each day now! How lovingly he
selected his superlatives! Never in the history of the Press had such
ardent care been lavished on a criticism--truly it was not until
Thursday afternoon that he was satisfied that he could do no more. He
put the pages in his pocket, and, too impatient even to be hungry,
roamed about the quartier, reciting to himself the most hyperbolic of
his periods.

And dusk gathered over Paris, and the lights sprang out, and the tense
hours crept away.

It was precisely half-past eleven when the three conspirators arrived
at the doors of the Comédie Moderne, and lingered near by until the
audience poured forth. Labaregue was among the first to appear. He
paused on the steps to take a cigarette, and stepped briskly into the
noise and glitter of the Boulevard. The young men followed, exchanging
feverish glances. Soon the glow of the Café de l'Europe was visible.
The critic entered, made a sign to a waiter, and seated himself gravely
at a table.

Many persons gazed at him with interest. To those who did not know,
habitués whispered, "There is Labaregue--see, he comes to write his
criticism on the revival of _La Curieuse_!" Labaregue affected
unconsciousness of all this, but secretly he lapped it up. Occasionally
he passed his hand across his brow with a gesture profoundly
intellectual.

Few there remarked that at brief intervals three shabby young men
strolled in, who betrayed no knowledge of one another, and merely
called for bocks. None suspected that these humble customers plotted to
consign the celebrity's criticism to the flames.

Without a sign of recognition, taciturn and impassive, the three young
men waited, their eyes bent upon the critic's movements.

By-and-by Labaregue thrust his "copy" into an envelope that was
provided. Some moments afterwards one of the young men asked another
waiter for the materials to write a letter. The paper he crumpled in
his pocket; in the envelope he placed the forged critique.

A quarter of an hour passed. Then a youth of about sixteen hurried in
and made his way to Labaregue's table. At this instant Lajeunie rose
and left. As the youth received the "copy," Tricotrin also sauntered
out. When the youth again reached the door, it was just swinging behind
Pitou.

The conspirators were now in the right order--Lajeunie pressing
forward, Tricotrin keeping pace with the boy, Pitou a few yards in the
rear.

The boy proceeded swiftly. It was late, and even the Boulevard showed
few pedestrians now; in the side streets the quietude was unbroken.
Tricotrin whipped on his mask at the opening of the passage. When the
messenger was half-way through it, the attack was made suddenly, with
determination.

"Fat one," exclaimed the poet, "I starve--give me five francs!"

"_Comment?_" stammered the youth, jumping; "I haven't five francs,
I!"

"Give me all you have--empty your pockets, let me see! If you obey, I
shall not harm you; if you resist, you are a dead boy!"

The youth produced, with trepidation, a sou, half a cigarette, a piece
of string, a murderous clasp knife, a young lady's photograph, and
Labaregue's notice. The next moment the exchange of manuscripts had
been deftly accomplished.

"Devil take your rubbish," cried the apache; "I want none of it--there!
Be off, or I shall shoot you for wasting my time."

The whole affair had occupied less than a minute; and the three
adventurers skipped to Montmartre rejoicing.

And how glorious was their jubilation in the hour when they opened
_La Voix_ and read Tricotrin's pronouncement over the initials
"J.L."! There it was, printed word for word--the leading lady was
dismissed with a line, the ingénue received a sneer, and for the rest,
the column was a panegyric of the waiting-maid! The triumph of the
waiting-maid was unprecedented and supreme. Certainly, when Labaregue
saw the paper, he flung round to the office furious.

But _La Voix_ did not desire people to know that it had been taken
in; so the matter was hushed up, and Labaregue went about pretending
that he actually thought all those fine things of the waiting-maid.

The only misfortune was that when Tricotrin called victoriously upon
Claudine, to clasp her in his arms, he found her in hysterics on the
sofa--and it transpired that she had not represented the waiting-maid
after all. On the contrary, she had at the last moment been promoted to
the part of the ingénue, while the waiting-maid had been played by a
little actress whom she much disliked.

"It is cruel, it is monstrous, it is heartrending!" gasped Tricotrin,
when he grasped the enormity of his failure; "but, light of my life,
why should you blame _me_ for this villainy of Labaregue's?"

"I do not know," she said; "however, you bore me, you and your
'influence with the Press.' Get out!"

THE DOLL IN THE PINK SILK DRESS

How can I write the fourth Act with this ridiculous thing posed among
my papers? What thing? It is a doll in a pink silk dress--an elaborate
doll that walks, and talks, and warbles snatches from the operas. A
terrible lot it cost! Why does an old dramatist keep a doll on his
study table? I do not keep it there. It came in a box from the
Boulevard an hour ago, and I took it from its wrappings to admire its
accomplishments again--and ever since it has been reminding me that
women are strange beings.

Yes, women are strange, and this toy sets me thinking of one woman in
particular: that woman who sued, supplicated for my help, and then,
when she had all my interest--Confound the doll; here is the incident,
just as it happened!

It happened when all Paris flocked to see my plays and "Paul de
Varenne" was a name to conjure with. Fashions change. To-day I am a
little out of the running, perhaps; younger men have shot forward. In
those days I was still supreme, I was master of the Stage.

Listen! It was a spring morning, and I was lolling at my study window,
scenting the lilac in the air. Maximin, my secretary, came in and said:

"Mademoiselle Jeanne Laurent asks if she can see you, monsieur."

"Who is mademoiselle Jeanne Laurent?" I inquired.

"She is an actress begging for an engagement, monsieur."

"I regret that I am exceedingly busy. Tell her to write."

"The lady has already written a thousand times," he mentioned, going.
"'Jeanne Laurent' has been one of the most constant contributors to our
waste-paper basket."

"Then tell her that I regret I can do nothing for her. Mon Dieu! is it
imagined that I have no other occupation than to interview nonentities?
By the way, how is it you have bothered me about her, why this unusual
embassy? I suppose she is pretty, hein?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"And young?"

"Yes, monsieur."

I wavered. Let us say my sympathy was stirred. But perhaps the lilac
was responsible--lilac and a pretty girl seem to me a natural
combination, like coffee and a cigarette. "Send her in!" I said.

I sat at the table and picked up a pen.

"Monsieur de Varenne--" She paused nervously on the threshold.

Maximin was a fool, she was not "pretty"; she was either plain, or
beautiful. To my mind, she had beauty, and if she hadn't been an
actress come to pester me for a part I should have foreseen a very
pleasant quarter of an hour. "I can spare you only a moment,
mademoiselle," I said, ruffling blank paper.

"It is most kind of you to spare me that."

I liked her voice too. "Be seated," I said more graciously.

"Monsieur, I have come to implore you to do something for me. I am
breaking my heart in the profession for want of a helping hand. Will
you be generous and give me a chance?"

"My dear mademoiselle--er--Laurent," I said, "I sympathise with your
difficulties, and I thoroughly understand them, but I have no
engagement to offer you--I am not a manager."

She smiled bitterly. "You are de Varenne--a word from you would 'make'
me!"

I was wondering what her age was. About eight-and-twenty, I thought,
but alternately she looked much younger and much older.

"You exaggerate my influence--like every other artist that I consent to
see. Hundreds have sat in that chair and cried that I could 'make'
them. It is all bosh. Be reasonable! I cannot 'make' anybody."

"You could cast me for a part in Paris. You are 'not a manager,' but
any manager will engage a woman that you recommend. Oh, I know that
hundreds appeal to you, I know that I am only one of a crowd; but,
monsieur, think what it means to me! Without help, I shall go on
knocking at the stage doors of Paris and never get inside; I shall go
on writing to the Paris managers and never get an answer. Without help
I shall go on eating my heart out in the provinces till I am old and
tired and done for!"

Her earnestness touched me. I had heard the same tale so often that I
was sick of hearing it, but this woman's earnestness touched me. If I
had had a small part vacant, I would have tried her in it.

"Again," I said, "as a dramatist I fully understand the difficulties of
an actress's career; but you, as an actress, do not understand a
dramatist's. There is no piece of mine going into rehearsal now,
therefore I have no opening for you, myself; and it is impossible for
me to write to a manager or a brother author, advising him to
entrust a part, even the humblest, to a lady of whose capabilities I
know nothing."

"I am not applying for a humble part," she answered quietly.

"Hein?"

"My line is lead."

I stared at her pale face, speechless; the audacity of the reply took
my breath away.

"You are mad," I said, rising.

"I sound so to you, monsieur?"

"Stark, staring mad. You bewail that you are at the foot of the ladder,
and at the same instant you stipulate that I shall lift you at a bound
to the top. Either you are a lunatic, or you are an amateur."

She, too, rose--resigned to her dismissal, it seemed. Then, suddenly,
with a gesture that was a veritable abandonment of despair, she
laughed.

"That's it, I am an amateur!" she rejoined passionately. "I will tell
you the kind of 'amateur' I am, monsieur de Varenne! I was learning my
business in a fit-up when I was six years old--yes, I was playing parts
on the road when happier children were playing games in nurseries. I
was thrust on for lead when I was a gawk of fifteen, and had to wrestle
with half a dozen roles in a week, and was beaten if I failed to make
my points. I have supered to stars, not to earn the few francs I got
by it, for by that time the fit-ups paid me better, but that I might
observe, and improve my method. I have waited in the rain, for hours,
at the doors of the milliners and modistes, that I might note how great
ladies stepped from their carriages and spoke to their footmen--and when
I snatched a lesson from their aristocratic tones I was in heaven, though
my feet ached and the rain soaked my wretched clothes. I have played good
women and bad women, beggars and queens, ingénues and hags. I was born
and bred on the stage, have suffered and starved on it. It is my life and
my destiny." She sobbed. "An 'amateur'!"

I could not let her go like that. She interested me strongly; somehow I
believed in her. I strode to and fro, considering.

"Sit down again," I said. "I will do this for you: I will go to the
country to see your performance. When is your next show?"

"I have nothing in view."

"Bigre! Well, the next time you are playing, write to me."

"You will have forgotten all about me," she urged feverishly, "or your
interest will have faded, or Fate will prevent your coming."

"Why do you say so?"

"Something tells me. You will help me now, or you will never help me--
my chance is to-day! Monsieur, I entreat you--"

"To-day I can do nothing at all, because I have not seen you act."

"I could recite to you."

"Zut!"

"I could rehearse on trial."

"And if you made a mess of it? A nice fool I should look, after
fighting to get you in!"

A servant interrupted us to tell me that my old friend de Lavardens was
downstairs. And now I did a foolish thing. When I intimated to
mademoiselle Jeanne Laurent that our interview must conclude, she
begged so hard to be allowed to speak to me again after my visitor
went, that I consented to her waiting. Why? I had already said all that
I had to say, and infinitely more than I had contemplated. Perhaps she
impressed me more powerfully than I realised; perhaps it was sheer
compassion, for she had an invincible instinct that if I sent her away
at this juncture, she would never hear from me any more. I had her
shown into the next room, and received General de Lavardens in the
study.

Since his retirement from the Army, de Lavardens had lived in his
chateau at St. Wandrille, in the neighbourhood of Caudebec-en-Caux, and
we had met infrequently of late. But we had been at college together; I
had entered on my military service in the same regiment as he; and we
had once been comrades. I was glad to see him.

"How are you, my dear fellow? I didn't know you were in Paris."

"I have been here twenty-four hours," he said. "I have looked you up at
the first opportunity. Now am I a nuisance? Be frank! I told the
servant that if you were at work you weren't to be disturbed. Don't
humbug about it; if I am in the way, say so!"

"You are not in the way a bit," I declared. "Put your hat and cane
down. What's the news? How is Georges?"

"Georges" was Captain de Lavardens, his son, a young man with good
looks, and brains, an officer for whom people predicted a brilliant
future.

"Georges is all right," he said hesitatingly. "He is dining with me
to-night. I want you to come, too, if you can. Are you free?"

"To-night? Yes, certainly; I shall be delighted."

"That was one of the reasons I came round--to ask you to join us." He
glanced towards the table again. "Are you sure you are not in a hurry
to get back to that?"

"Have a cigar, and don't be a fool. What have you got to say for
yourself? Why are you on the spree here?"

"I came up to see Georges," he said. "As a matter of fact, my dear
chap, I am devilish worried."

"Not about Georges?" I asked, surprised.

He grunted. "About Georges."

"Really? I'm very sorry."

"Yes. I wanted to talk to you about it. You may be able to give me a
tip. Georges--the boy I hoped so much for"--his gruff voice quivered--
"is infatuated with an actress."

"Georges?"

"What do you say to that?"

"Are you certain it is true?"

"True? He makes no secret of it. That isn't all. The idiot wants to
marry her!"

"Georges wants to marry an actress?"

"Voilà!"

"My dear old friend!" I stammered.

"Isn't it amazing? One thinks one knows the character of one's own son,
hein? And then, suddenly, a boy--a boy? A man! Georges will soon be
thirty--a man one is proud of, who is distinguishing himself in his
profession, he loses his head about some creature of the theatre and
proposes to mar his whole career."

"As for that, it might not mar it," I said.

"We are not in England, in France gentlemen do not choose their wives
from the stage! I can speak freely to you; you move among these people
because your writing has taken you among them, but you are not of their
breed,"

"Have you reasoned with him?"

"Reasoned? Yes."

"What did he say?"

"Prepare to be amused. He said that 'unfortunately, the lady did not
love him'!"

"What? Then there is no danger?"

"Do you mean to say that it takes you in? You may be sure her
'reluctance' is policy, she thinks it wise to disguise her eagerness to
hook him. He told me plainly that he would not rest till he had won
her. It is a nice position! The honour of the family is safe only till
this adventuress consents, _consents_ to accept his hand! What can
I do? I can retard the marriage by refusing my permission, but I cannot
prevent it, if he summons me.... Of course, if I could arrange matters
with her, I would do it like a shot--at any price!"

"Who is she?"

"A nobody; he tells me she is quite obscure, I don't suppose you have
ever heard of her. But I thought you might make inquiries for me, that
you might ascertain whether she is the sort of woman we could settle
with?"

"I will do all I can, you may depend. Where is she--in Paris?"

"Yes, just now."

"What's her name?"

"Jeanne Laurent."

My mouth fell open: "Hein?"

"Do you know her?"

"She is there!"

"What?"

"In the next room. She just called on business."

"Mon Dieu! That's queer!"

"It's lucky. It was the first time I had ever met her."

"What's she like?"

"Have you never seen her? You shall do so in a minute. She came to beg
me to advance her professionally, she wants my help. This ought to save
you some money, my friend. We'll have her in! I shall tell her who you
are."

"How shall I talk to her?"

"Leave it to me."

I crossed the landing, and opened the salon door. The room was littered
with the illustrated journals, but she was not diverting herself with
any of them--she was sitting before a copy of _La Joconde_,
striving to reproduce on her own face the enigma of the smile: I had
discovered an actress who never missed an opportunity.

"Please come here."

She followed me back, and my friend stood scowling at her.

"This gentleman is General de Lavardens," I said.

She bowed--slightly, perfectly. That bow acknowledged de Lavardens'
presence, and rebuked the manner of my introduction, with all the
dignity of the patricians whom she had studied in the rain.

"Mademoiselle, when my servant announced that the General was
downstairs you heard the name. You did not tell me that you knew his
son."

"Dame, non, monsieur!" she murmured.

"And when you implored me to assist you, you did not tell me that you
aspired to a marriage that would compel you to leave the stage. I never
waste my influence. Good-morning!"

"I do not aspire to the marriage," she faltered, pale as death.

"Rubbish, I know all about it. Of course, it is your aim to marry him
sooner or later, and of course he will make it a condition that you
cease to act. Well, I have no time to help a woman who is playing the
fool! That's all about it. I needn't detain you."

"I have refused to marry him," she gasped. "On my honour! You can ask
him. It is a fact."

"But you see him still," broke in de Lavardens wrathfully; "he is with
you every day! That is a fact, too, isn't it? If your refusal is
sincere, why are you not consistent? why do you want him at your side?"

"Because, monsieur," she answered, "I am weak enough to miss him when
he goes."

"Ah! you admit it. You profess to be in love with him?"

"No, monsieur," she dissented thoughtfully, "I am not in love with him
--and my refusal has been quite sincere, incredible as it may seem that
a woman like myself rejects a man like him. I could never make a
marriage that would mean death to my ambition. I could not sacrifice my
art--the stage is too dear to me for that. So it is evident that I am
not in love with him, for when a woman loves, the man is dearer to her
than all else."

De Lavardens grunted. I knew his grunts: there was some apology in this
one.

"The position is not fair to my son," he demurred. "You show good sense
in what you say--you are an artist, you are quite right to devote
yourself to your career; but you reject and encourage him at the same
time. If he married you it would be disastrous--to you, and to him; you
would ruin his life, and spoil your own. Enfin, give him a chance to
forget you! Send him away. What do you want to keep seeing him for?"

She sighed. "It is wrong of me, I own!"

"It is highly unnatural," said I.

"No, monsieur; it is far from being unnatural, and I will tell you why
--he is the only man I have ever known, in all my vagabond life, who
realised that a struggling actress might have the soul of a
gentlewoman. Before I met him, I had never heard a man speak to me with
courtesy, excepting on the stage; I had never known a man to take my
hand respectfully when he was not performing behind the footlights....
I met him first in the country; I was playing the Queen in _Ruy
Blas_, and the manager brought him to me in the wings. In everything
he said and did he was different from others. We were friends for
months before he told me that he loved me. His friendship has been the
gift of God, to brighten my miserable lot. Never to see him any more
would be awful to me!"

I perceived that if she was not in love with him she was so dangerously
near to it that a trifle might turn the scale. De Lavardens had the
same thought. His glance at me was apprehensive.

"However, you acknowledge that you are behaving badly!" I exclaimed.
"It is all right for _you_, friendship is enough for you, and you
pursue your career. But for _him_, it is different; he seeks your
love, and he neglects his duties. For him to spend his life sighing for
you would be monstrous, and for him to marry you would be fatal. If you
like him so much, be just to him, set him free! Tell him that he is not
to visit you any more."

"He does not visit me; he has never been inside my lodging."

"Well, that he is not to write there--that there are to be no more
dinners, drives, bouquets!"

"And I do not let him squander money on me. I am not that kind of
woman."

"We do not accuse you, mademoiselle. On the contrary, we appeal to your
good heart. Be considerate, be brave! Say good-bye to him!"

"You are asking me to suffer cruelly," she moaned.

"It is for your friend's benefit. Also, the more you suffer, the better
you will act. Every actress should suffer."

"Monsieur, I have served my apprenticeship to pain."

"There are other things than friendship--you have your prospects to
think about."

"What prospects?" she flashed back.

"Well, I cannot speak definitely to-day, as you know; but you would not
find me unappreciative."

De Lavardens grunted again--emotionally, this time. I checked him with
a frown.

"What use would it be for me to refuse to see him?" she objected
chokily. "When I am playing anywhere, _he_ can always see
_me_. I cannot kill his love by denying myself his companionship.
Besides, he would not accept the dismissal. One night, when I left the
theatre, I should find him waiting there again."

This was unpalatably true.

"If a clever woman desires to dismiss a man, she can dismiss him
thoroughly, especially a clever actress," I said. "You could talk to
him in such a fashion that he would have no wish to meet you again.
Such things have been done."

"What? You want me to teach him to despise me?"

"Much better if he did!"

"To turn his esteem to scorn, hein?"

"It would be a generous action."

"To falsify and degrade myself?"

"For your hero's good!"

"I will not do it!" she flamed. "You demand too much. What have
_you_ done for _me_ that I should sacrifice myself to please
you? I entreat your help, and you give me empty phrases; I cry that I
despair this morning, and you answer that by-and-by, some time, in the
vague future, you will remember that I exist. I shall not do this for
you--I keep my friend!"

"Your rhetoric has no weight with me," I said. "I do not pretend that I
have a claim on you. In such circumstances a noble woman would take the
course I suggest, not for my sake, not for the sake of General de
Lavardens, but for the sake of the man himself. You will 'keep your
friend'? Bien! But you will do so because you are indifferent to his
welfare and too selfish to release him."

She covered her face. There were tears on it. The General and I
exchanged glances again.

I went on:

"You charge me with giving you only empty phrases. That is undeserved.
I said all that was possible, and I meant what I said. I could not
pledge myself to put you into anything without knowing what you are
capable of doing; but, if you retain my good will, I repeat that I will
attend your next performance."

"And then?" she queried.

"Then--if I think well of it--you shall have a good part."

"Lead?"

"Bigre! I cannot say that. A good part, in Paris!"

"It is a promise?"

"Emphatically--if I think well of your performance."

"Of my next--the very next part I play?"

"Of the very next part you play."

She paused, reflecting. The pause lasted so long that it began to seem
to my suspense as if none of us would ever speak again. I took a
cigarette, and offered the box, in silence, to de Lavardens. He shook
his head without turning it to me, his gaze was riveted on the woman.

"All right," she groaned, "I agree!"

"Ah! good girl!"

"All you require is that Captain de Lavardens shall no longer seek me
for his wife. Is that it?"

"That's it."

"Very well. I know what would repel him--it shall be done to-night.
But you, gentlemen, will have to make the opportunity for me; you will
have to bring him to my place--both of you. You can find some reason
for proposing it? Tonight at nine o'clock. He knows the address."

She moved weakly to the door.

De Lavardens took three strides and grasped her hands. "Mademoiselle,"
he stuttered, "I have no words to speak my gratitude. I am a father,
and I love my son, but--mon Dieu! if--if things had been different,
upon my soul, I should have been proud to call you my daughter-in-law!"

Oh, how she could bow, that woman--the eloquence of her ill-fed form!

"Au revoir, gentlemen," she said.

Phew! We dropped into chairs.

"Paul," he grunted at me, "we have been a pair of brutes!"

"I know it. But you feel much relieved?"

"I feel another man. What is she going to say to him? I wish it were
over. _I_ should find it devilish difficult to propose going to
see her, you know! It will have to be _your_ suggestion. And
supposing he won't take us?"

"He will take us right enough," I declared, "and rejoice at the chance.
Hourra! hourra! hourra!" I sprang up and clapped him on the back. "My
friend, if that woman had thrown herself away on Georges it might have
been a national calamity."

"What?" he roared, purpling.

"Oh, no slight to Georges! I think--I think--I am afraid to say what I
think, I am afraid to think it!" I paced the room, struggling to
control myself. "Only, once in a blue moon, Jules, there is a woman
born of the People with a gift that is a blessing, and a curse--and her
genius makes an epoch, and her name makes theatrical history. And if a
lover of the stage like me discovers such a woman, you stodgy old
soldier, and blazes her genius in his work, he feels like Cheops,
Chephrenus, and Asychis rearing the Pyramids for immortality!"

My excitement startled him. "You believe she is a genius? Really?"

"I dare not believe," I panted. "I refuse to let myself believe, for I
have never seen blue moons. But--but--I wonder!"

We dined at Voisin's. It had been arranged that he should make some
allusion to the courtship; and I said to Georges, "I hope you don't
mind your father having mentioned the subject to me--we are old
friends, you know?" The topic was led up to very easily. It was
apparent that Georges thought the world of her. I admired the way he
spoke. It was quiet and earnest. As I feigned partial sympathy with his
matrimonial hopes, I own that I felt a Judas.

"I, too, am an artist," I said. "To me social distinctions naturally
seem somewhat less important than they do to your father."

"Indeed, monsieur," he answered gravely, "mademoiselle Laurent is
worthy of homage. If she were willing to accept me, every man who knew
her character would think me fortunate. Her education has not qualified
her to debate with professors, and she has no knowledge of society
small-talk, but she is intelligent, and refined, and good."

It was child's play. A sudden notion, over the liqueurs: "Take us to
see her! Come along, mon ami!" Astonishment (amateurish); persuasion
(masterly); Georges's diffidence to intrude, but his obvious delight at
the thought of the favourable impression she would create. He had
"never called there yet--it would be very unconventional at such an
hour?" "Zut, among artists! My card will be a passport, I assure you."
Poor fellow, the trap made short work of him! At half-past eight we
were all rattling to the left bank in a cab.

The cab stopped before a dilapidated house in an unsavoury street. I
knew that the aspect of her home went to his heart. "Mademoiselle
Laurent has won no prize in her profession," he observed, "and she is
an honest girl." Well said!

In the dim passage a neglected child directed us to the fourth floor.
On the fourth floor a slattern, who replied at last to our persistent
tapping, told us shortly that mademoiselle was out. I realised that we
had committed the error of being before our time; and the woman,
evidently unprepared for our visit, did not suggest our going in. It
seemed bad stage-management.

"Will it be long before mademoiselle is back?" I inquired, annoyed.

"Mais non."

"We will wait," I said, and we were admitted sulkily to a room, of
which the conspicuous features were a malodorous lamp, and a brandy-
bottle. I had taken the old drab for a landlady rather the worse for
liquor, but, more amiably, she remarked now: "It's a pity Jeanne didn't
know you were coming."

At the familiar "Jeanne" I saw Georges start.

"Mademoiselle is a friend of yours?" I asked, dismayed.

"A friend? She is my daughter." She sat down.

By design the girl was out! The thought flashed on me. It flashed on me
that she had plotted for her lover to learn what a mother-in-law he
would have. The revelation must appal him. I stole a look--his face was
blanched. The General drew a deep breath, and nodded to himself. The
nod said plainly, "He is saved. Thank God!"

"Will you take a little drop while you are waiting, gentlemen?"

"Nothing for us, thank you."

She drank alone, and seemed to forget that we were present. None of us
spoke. I began to wonder if we need remain. Then, drinking, she grew
garrulous. It was of Jeanne she talked. She gave us her maternal views,
and incidentally betrayed infamies of her own career. I am a man of the
world, but I shuddered at that woman. The suitor who could have risked
making her child his wife would have been demented, or sublime. And
while she maundered on, gulping from her glass, and chuckling at her
jests, the ghastliness of it was that, in the gutter face before us, I
could trace a likeness to Jeanne; I think Georges must have traced it,
too. The menace of heredity was horrible. We were listening to Jeanne
wrecked, Jeanne thirty years older--Jeanne as she might become!

Ciel! To choose a bride with this blood in her--a bride from the dregs!

"Let us go, Georges," I murmured. "Courage! You will forget her. We'll
be off."

He was livid. I saw that he could bear no more.

But the creature overheard, and in those bleary eyes intelligence
awoke.

"What? Hold on!" she stammered. "Is one of you the toff that wants to
marry her? Ah!... I've been letting on finely, haven't I? It was a
plant, was it? You've come here ferreting and spying?" She turned
towards me in a fury: "You!"

Certainly I had made a comment from time to time, but I could not see
why she should single me out for her attack. She lurched towards me
savagely. Her face was thrust into mine. And then, so low that only I
could hear, and like another woman, she breathed a question:

"Can I act?"

Jeanne herself! Every nerve in me jumped. The next instant she was back
in her part, railing at Georges.

I took a card from my case, and scribbled six words.

"When your daughter comes in, give her that!" I said. I had scribbled:
"I write you a star rôle!"

She gathered the message at a glance, and I swear that the moroseness
of her gaze was not lightened by so much as a gleam. She was
representing a character; the actress sustained the character even
while she read words that were to raise her from privation to renown.

"Not that I care if I _have_ queered her chance," she snarled. "A
good job, too, the selfish cat! I've got nothing to thank her for.
Serve her right if you do give her the go-by, my Jackanapes, _I_
don't blame you!"

"Madame Laurent," Georges answered sternly, and his answer vibrated
through the room, "I have never admired, pitied, or loved Jeanne so
much as now that I know that she has been--motherless."

All three of us stood stone-still. The first to move was she. I saw
what was going to happen. She burst out crying.

"It's I, Jeanne!--I love you! I thought I loved the theatre best--I was
wrong." Instinctively she let my card fall to the ground. "Forgive me--
I did it for your sake, too. It was cruel, I am ashamed. Oh, my own, if
my love will not disgrace you, take me for your wife! In all the world
there is no woman who will love you better--in all my heart there is no
room for anything but you!"

They were in each other's arms. De Lavardens, whom the proclamation of
identity had electrified, dragged me outside. The big fool was
blubbering with sentiment.

"This is frightful," he grunted.

"Atrocious!" said I.

"But she is a woman in a million."

"She is a great actress," I said reverently.

"I could never approve the marriage," he faltered. "What do you think?"

"Out of the question! I have no sympathy with either of them."

"You humbug! Why, there is a tear running down your nose!"

"There are two running down yours," I snapped; "a General should know
better."

And why has the doll in the pink silk dress recalled this to me? Well,
you see, to-morrow will be New Year's Day and the doll is a gift for my
godchild--and the name of my godchild's mother is "Jeanne de
Lavardens." Oh, I have nothing to say against her as a mother, the
children idolise her! I admit that she has conquered the General, and
that Georges is the proudest husband in France. But when I think of the
parts I could have written for her, of the lustre the stage has lost,
when I reflect that, just to be divinely happy, the woman deliberately
declined a worldwide fame--Morbleu! I can never forgive her for it,
never--the darling!

THE LAST EFFECT

Jean Bourjac was old and lazy. Why should he work any more? In his
little cottage he was content enough. If the place was not precisely
gay, could he not reach Paris for a small sum? And if he had no
neighbours to chat with across the wall, weren't there his flowers to
tend in the garden? Occasionally--because one cannot shake off the
interests of a lifetime--he indulged in an evening at the Folies-
Bergère, or Olympia, curious to witness some Illusion that had made a
hit.

At such times old Bourjac would chuckle and wag his head sagely, for he
saw no Illusions now to compare with those invented by himself when he
was in the business.

And there were many persons who admitted that he had been supreme in
his line. At the Folies-Bergère he was often recognised and addressed
as "Maître."

One summer evening, when old Bourjac sat reading _Le Journal_,
Margot, the housekeeper, who had grown deaf and ancient in his service,
announced a stranger.

She was a girl with a delicate oval face, and eyes like an angel's.

"Monsieur Bourjac," she began, as if reciting a speech that she had
studied, "I have come out here to beg a favour of you. I thirst for a
career behind the footlights. Alas! I cannot sing, or dance, or act.
There is only one chance for me--to possess an Illusion that shall take
Paris by storm. I am told that there is nothing produced to-day fit to
hold a candle to the former 'Miracles Bourjac.' Will you help me? Will
you design for me the most wonderful Illusion of your life?"

"Mademoiselle," said Bourjac, with a shrug, "I have retired."

"I implore you!" she urged. "But I have not finished; I am poor, I am
employed at a milliner's, I could not pay down a single franc. My offer
is a share of my salary as a star. I am mad for the stage. It is not
the money that I crave for, but the applause. I would not grudge you
even half my salary! Oh, monsieur, it is in your power to lift me from
despair into paradise. Say you consent."

Bourjac mused. Her offer was very funny; if she had been of the
ordinary type, he would have sent her packing, with a few commercial
home-truths. Excitement had brought a flush to the oval face, her
glorious eyes awoke in him emotions which he had believed extinct. She
was so captivating that he cast about him for phrases to prolong the
interview. Though he could not agree, he didn't want her to go yet.

And when she did rise at last, he murmured, "Well, well, see me again
and we will talk about it. I have no wish to be hard, you understand."

Her name was Laure. She was in love with a conjurer, a common, flashy
fellow, who gave his mediocre exhibitions of legerdemain at such places
as Le Jardin Extérieur, and had recently come to lodge at her mother's.
She aspired to marry him, but did not dare to expect it. Her homage was
very palpable, and monsieur Eugéne Legrand, who had no matrimonial
intentions, would often wish that the old woman did not keep such a
sharp eye upon her.

Needless to say, Bourjac's semi-promise sent her home enraptured. She
had gone to him on impulse, without giving her courage time to take
flight; now, in looking back, she wondered at her audacity, and that
she had gained so much as she had. "I have no wish to be hard," he had
said. Oh, the old rascal admired her hugely! If she coaxed enough, he
would end by giving in. What thumping luck! She determined to call upon
him again on Sunday, and to look her best.

Bourjac, however, did not succumb on Sunday. Fascinating as he found
her, he squirmed at the prospect of the task demanded of him. His
workshop in the garden had been closed so long that rats had begun to
regard it as their playroom; the more he contemplated resuming his
profession, the less inclined he felt to do it.

She paid him many visits and he became deeply infatuated with her; yet
he continued to maintain that he was past such an undertaking--that she
had applied to him too late.

Then, one day, after she had flown into a passion, and wept, and been
mollified, he said hesitatingly:

"I confess that an idea for an Illusion has occurred to me, but I do
not pledge myself to execute it. I should call it 'A Life.' An empty
cabinet is examined; it is supported by four columns--there is no stage
trap, no obscurity, no black velvet curtain concealed in the dark, to
screen the operations; the cabinet is raised high above the ground, and
the lights are full up. You understand?" Some of the inventor's
enthusiasm had crept into his voice. "You understand?"

"Go on," she said, holding her breath.

"Listen. The door of the cabinet is slammed, and in letters of fire
there appears on it, 'Scene I.' Instantly it flies open again and
discloses a baby. The baby moves, it wails--in fine, it is alive. Slam!
Letters of fire, 'Scene II.' Instantly the baby has vanished; in its
place is a beautiful girl--you! You smile triumphantly at your
reflection in a mirror, your path is strewn with roses, the world is at
your feet. Slam! 'Scene III.' In a moment twenty years have passed;
your hair is grey, you are matronly, stout, your face is no longer
oval; yet unmistakably it is you yourself, the same woman. Slam! 'Scene
IV.' You are enfeebled, a crone, toothless, tottering on a stick. Once
more! It is the last effect--the door flies open and reveals a
skeleton."

"You can make this?" she questioned.

"I could make it if I chose," he answered.

"Will you?"

"It depends."

"On what?"

"On you!"

"Take any share you want," she cried. "I will sign anything you like!
After all, would not the success be due to you?"

"So you begin to see that?" said the old man drily. "But, I repeat, it
depends! In spite of everything, you may think my terms too high."

"What do you want me to do?" she stammered.

"Marry me!" said Bourjac.

He did not inquire if she had any affection for him; he knew that if
she said "Yes" it would be a lie. But he adored this girl, who, of a
truth, had nothing but her beauty to recommend her, and he persuaded
himself that his devotion would evoke tenderness in her by degrees. She
found the price high indeed. Not only was she young enough to be his
granddaughter--she had given her fancy to another man. Immediately she
could not consent. When she took leave of him, it was understood that
she would think the offer over; and she went home and let Legrand hear
that Bourjac had proposed for her hand. If, by any chance, the news
piqued Legrand into doing likewise--?

But Legrand said nothing to the point. Though he was a little chagrined
by the intelligence, it never even entered his mind to attempt to cut
the inventor out. How should it? She was certainly an attractive girl,
but as to marrying her--He thought Bourjac a fool. As for himself, if
he married at all, it would be an artist who was drawing a big salary
and who would be able to provide him with some of the good things of
life. "I pray you will be very happy, mademoiselle," he said, putting
on a sentimental air.

So, after she had cried with mortification, Laure promised to be old
Bourjac's wife.

A few weeks later they were married; and in that lonely little cottage
she would have been bored to death but for the tawdry future that she
foresaw. The man's dream of awakening her tenderness was speedily
dispelled; he had been accepted as the means to an end, and he was held
fast to the compact. She grudged him every hour in which he idled by
her side. Driven from her arms by her impatience, old Bourjac would
toil patiently in the workroom: planning, failing--surmounting
obstacles atom by atom, for the sake of a woman whose sole interest in
his existence was his progress with the Illusion that was to gratify
her vanity.

He worshipped her still. If he had not worshipped her, he would sooner
or later have renounced the scheme as impracticable; only his love for
her supported him in the teeth of the impediments that arose. Of these
she heard nothing. For one reason, her interest was so purely selfish
that she had not even wished to learn how the cabinet was to be
constructed. "All those figures gave her a headache," she declared. For
another, when early in the winter he had owned himself at a deadlock,
she had sneered at him as a duffer who was unable to fulfil his boasts.
Old Bourjac never forgot that--his reputation was very dear to him--he
did not speak to her of his difficulties again.

But they often talked of the success she was to achieve. She liked to
go into a corner of the parlour and rehearse the entrance that she
would make to acknowledge the applause. "It will be the great moment,"
she would say, "when I reappear as myself and bow."

"No, it will be expected; that will not surprise anybody," Bourjac
would insist. "The climax, the last effect, will be the skeleton!"

It was the skeleton that caused him the most anxious thought of all. In
order to compass it, he almost feared that he would be compelled to
sacrifice one of the preceding scenes. The babe, the girl, the matron,
the crone, for all these his mechanism provided; but the skeleton, the
"last effect," baffled his ingenuity. Laure began to think his task
eternal.

Ever since the wedding, she had dilated proudly to her mother and
Legrand on her approaching début, and it angered her that she could
never say when the début was to be. Now that there need be no question
of his marrying her, Legrand's manner towards her had become more
marked. She went to the house often. One afternoon, when she rang, the
door was opened by him; he explained that the old woman was out
marketing.

Laure waited in the kitchen, and the conjurer sat on the table, talking
to her.

"How goes the Illusion?" he asked.

"Oh, big!" she said. "It's going to knock them, I can tell you!" Her
laugh was rather derisive. "It's a rum world; the shop-girl will become
an artist, with a show that draws all Paris. We expect to open at the
Folies-Bergère." She knew that Legrand could never aspire to an
engagement at the Folies-Bergère as long as he lived.

"I hope you will make a hit," he said, understanding her resentment
perfectly.

"You did not foresee me a star turn, hein?"

He gave a shrug. "How could I foresee? If you had not married Bourjac,
of course it would not have happened?"

"I suppose not," she murmured. She was sorry he realised that; she
would have liked him to feel that she might have had the Illusion
anyhow, and been a woman worth his winning.

"Indeed," added Legrand pensively, rolling a cigarette, "you have done
a great deal to obtain a success. It is not every girl who would go to
such lengths."

"What?" She coloured indignantly.

"I mean it is not every girl who would break the heart of a man who
loved her."

They looked in each other's eyes for a moment. Then she turned her head
scornfully away.

"Why do you talk rot to me? Do you take me for a kid?"

He decided that a pained silence would be most effective.

"If you cared about me, why didn't you say so?" she flashed, putting
the very question he had hoped for.

"Because my position prevented it," he sighed. "I could not propose, a
poor devil like me! Do I lodge in an attic from choice? But you are the
only woman I ever wanted for my wife."

After a pause, she said softly, "I never knew you cared."

"I shall never care for anybody else," he answered. And then her mother
came in with the vegetables.

It is easy to believe what one wishes, and she wished to believe
Legrand's protestations. She began to pity herself profoundly, feeling
that she had thrown away the substance for the shadow. In the
sentimentality to which she yielded, even the prospect of being a star
turn failed to console her; and during the next few weeks she invented
reasons for visiting at her mother's more frequently than ever.

After these visits, Legrand used to smirk to himself in his attic. He
reflected that the turn would, probably, earn a substantial salary for
a long time to come. If he persuaded her to run away with him when the
show had been produced, it would be no bad stroke of business for him!
Accordingly, in their conversations, he advised her to insist on the
Illusion being her absolute property.

"One can never tell what may occur," he would say. "If the managers
arranged with Bourjac, not with you, you would always be dependent on
your husband's whims for your engagements." And, affecting
unconsciousness of his real meaning, the woman would reply, "That's
true; yes, I suppose it would be best--yes, I shall have all the
engagements made with _me_."

But by degrees even such pretences were dropped between them; they
spoke plainly. He had the audacity to declare that it tortured him to
think of her in old Bourjac's house--old Bourjac who plodded all day to
minister to her caprice! She, no less shameless, acknowledged that her
loneliness there was almost unendurable. So Legrand used to call upon
her, to cheer her solitude, and while Bourjac laboured in the workroom,
the lovers lolled in the parlour, and talked of the future they would
enjoy together when his job was done.

"See, monsieur--your luncheon!" mumbled Margot, carrying a tray into
the workroom on his busiest days.

"And madame, has madame her luncheon?" shouted Bourjac. Margot was very
deaf indeed.

"Madame entertains monsieur Legrand again," returned the housekeeper,
who was not blind as well.

Bourjac understood the hint, and more than once he remonstrated with
his wife. But she looked in his eyes and laughed suspicion out of him
for the time: "Eugène was an old friend, whom she had known from
childhood! Enfin, if Jean objected, she would certainly tell him not to
come so often. It was very ridiculous, however!"

And afterwards she said to Legrand, "We must put up with him in the
meanwhile; be patient, darling! We shall not have to worry about what
he thinks much longer."

Then, as if to incense her more, Bourjac was attacked by rheumatism
before the winter finished; he could move only with the greatest
difficulty, and took to his bed. Day after day he lay there, and she
fumed at the sight of him, passive under the blankets, while his work
was at a standstill.

More than ever the dullness got on her nerves now, especially as
Legrand had avoided the house altogether since the complaint about the
frequency of his visits. He was about to leave Paris to fulfil some
engagements in the provinces. It occurred to her that it would be a
delightful change to accompany him for a week. She had formerly had an
aunt living in Rouen, and she told Bourjac that she had been invited to
stay with her for a few days.

Bourjac made no objection. Only, as she hummed gaily over her packing,
he turned his old face to the wall to hide his tears.

Her luggage was dispatched in advance, and by Legrand's counsel, it was
labelled at the last minute with an assumed name. If he could have done
so without appearing indifferent to her society, Legrand would have
dissuaded her from indulging in the trip, for he had resolved now to be
most circumspect until the Illusion was inalienably her own. As it was,
he took all the precautions possible. They would travel separately; he
was to depart in the evening, and Laure would follow by the next train.
When she arrived, he would be awaiting her.

With the removal of her trunk, her spirits rose higher still. But the
day passed slowly. At dusk she sauntered about the sitting-room,
wishing that it were time for her to start. She had not seen Legrand
since the previous afternoon, when they had met at a café to settle the
final details. When the clock struck again, she reckoned that he must
be nearly at his destination; perhaps he was there already, pacing the
room as she paced this one? She laughed. Not a tinge of remorse
discoloured the pleasure of her outlook--her "au revoir" to her husband
was quite careless. The average woman who sins longs to tear out her
conscience for marring moments which would otherwise be perfect. This
woman had absolutely no conscience.

The shortest route to the station was by the garden gate; as she raised
the latch, she was amazed to see Legrand hurriedly approaching.

"Thank goodness, I have caught you!" he exclaimed--"I nearly went round
to the front."

"What has happened?"

"Nothing serious; I am not going, that is all--they have changed my
date. The matter has been uncertain all day, or I would have let you
know earlier. It is lucky I was in time to prevent your starting."

She was dumb with disappointment.

"It is a nuisance about your luggage," he went on; "we must telegraph
about it. Don't look so down in the mouth--we shall have our trip next
week instead."

"What am I to say to Jean--he will think it so strange? I have said
good-bye to him."

"Oh, you can find an excuse--you 'missed your train.' Come out for half
an hour, and we can talk." His glance fell on the workroom. "Is that
fastened up?"

"I don't know. Do you want to see what he has done?"

"I may as well." He had never had an opportunity before--Bourjac had
always been in there.

"No, it isn't locked," she said; "come on then! Wait till I have shut
it after us before you strike a match--Margot might see the light."

A rat darted across their feet as they lit the lamp, and he dropped the
matchbox. "Ugh!"

"The beastly things!" she shivered, "Make haste!"

On the floor stood a cabinet that was not unlike a gloomy wardrobe in
its outward aspect. Legrand examined it curiously.

"Too massive," he remarked. "It will cost a fortune for carriage--and
where are the columns I heard of?" He stepped inside and sounded the
walls. "Humph, of course I see his idea. The fake is a very old one,
but it is always effective." Really, he knew nothing about it, but as
he was a conjurer, she accepted him as an authority.

"Show me! Is there room for us both?" she said, getting in after him.
And as she got in, the door slammed.

Instantaneously they were in darkness, black as pitch, jammed close
together. Their four hands flew all over the door at once, but they
could touch no handle. The next moment, some revolving apparatus that
had been set in motion, flung them off their feet. Round and round it
swirled, striking against their bodies and their faces. They grovelled
to escape it, but in that awful darkness their efforts were futile;
they could not even see its shape.

"Stop it!" she gasped.

"I don't know how," he panted.

After a few seconds the whir grew fainter, the gyrations stopped
automatically. She wiped the blood from her face, and burst into
hysterical weeping. The man, cursing horribly, rapped to find the
spring that she must have pressed as she entered. It seemed to them
both that there could be no spot he did not rap a thousand times, but
the door never budged.

His curses ceased; he crouched by her, snorting with fear.

"What shall we do?" she muttered.

He did not answer her.

"Eugène, let us stamp! Perhaps the spring is in the floor."

Still he paid no heed--he was husbanding his breath. When a minute had
passed, she felt his chest distend, and a scream broke from him--
"_Help!_"

"Mon Dieu!" She clutched him, panic-stricken. "We mustn't be found
here, it would ruin everything. Feel for the spring! Eugène, feel for
the spring, don't call!"

"_Help!_"

"Don't you understand? Jean will guess--it will be the end of my hopes,
I shall have no career!"

"I have myself to think about!" he whimpered. And pushing away her
arms, he screamed again and again. But there was no one to hear him, no
neighbours, no one passing in the fields--none but old Bourjac, and
deaf Margot, beyond earshot, in the house.

The cabinet was, of course, ventilated, and the danger was, not
suffocation, but that they would be jammed here while they slowly
starved to death. Soon her terror of the fate grew all-powerful in the
woman, and, though she loathed him for having been the first to call,
she, too, shrieked constantly for help now. By turns, Legrand would
yell, distraught, and heave himself helplessly against the door--they
were so huddled that he could bring no force to bear upon it.

In their black, pent prison, like a coffin on end the night held a
hundred hours. The matchbox lay outside, where it had fallen, and
though they could hear his watch ticking in his pocket, they were
unable to look at it. After the watch stopped, they lost their sense of
time altogether; they disputed what day of the week it was.

* * * * *

Their voices had been worn to whispers now; they croaked for help.

In the workroom, the rats missed the remains of old Bourjac's
luncheons; the rats squeaked ravenously.... As she strove to scream,
with the voice that was barely audible, she felt that she could resign
herself to death were she but alone. She could not stir a limb nor draw
a breath apart from the man. She craved at last less ardently for life
than for space--the relief of escaping, even for a single moment, from
the oppression of contact. It became horrible, the contact, as
revolting as if she had never loved him. The ceaseless contact maddened
her. The quaking of his body, the clamminess of his flesh, the smell of
his person, poisoning the darkness, seemed to her the eternities of
Hell.

* * * * *

Bourjac lay awaiting his wife's return for more than a fortnight. Then
he sent for her mother, and learnt that the "aunt in Rouen" had been
buried nearly three years.

The old man was silent.

"It is a coincidence," added the visitor hesitatingly, "that monsieur
Legrand has also disappeared. People are always ringing my bell to
inquire where he is."

As soon as he was able to rise, Bourjac left for Paris; and, as the
shortest route to the station was by the garden gate, he passed the
workroom on his way. He nodded, thinking of the time that he had wasted
there, but he did not go inside--he was too impatient to find Laure,
and, incidentally, to shoot Legrand.

Though his quest failed, he never went back to the cottage; he could
not have borne to live in it now. He tried to let it, but the little
house was not everybody's money, and it stood empty for many years;
indeed, before it was reoccupied Bourjac was dead and forgotten.

When the new owners planned their renovations, they had the curiosity
to open a mildewed cabinet in an outhouse, and uttered a cry of dismay.
Not until then was the "last effect" attained; but there were two
skeletons, instead of one.

AN INVITATION TO DINNER

The creators of Eau d'Enfer invited designs for a poster calling the
attention of the world to their liqueur's incomparable qualities. It
occurred to Théodose Goujaud that this was a first-class opportunity to
demonstrate his genius.

For an article with such a glistening name it was obvious that a poster
must be flamboyant--one could not advertise a "Water of Hell" by a
picture of a village maiden plucking cowslips--and Goujaud passed
wakeful nights devising a sketch worthy of the subject. He decided at
last upon a radiant brunette sharing a bottle of the liqueur with his
Satanic Majesty while she sat on his knee.

But where was the girl to be found? Though his acquaintance with the
models of Paris was extensive, he could think of none with a face to
satisfy him. One girl's arms wreathed themselves before his mind,
another girl's feet were desirable, but the face, which was of supreme
importance, eluded his most frenzied search.

"Mon Dieu," groaned Goujaud, "here I am projecting a poster that would
conquer Paris, and my scheme is frustrated by the fact that Nature
fails to produce women equal to the heights of my art! It is such
misfortunes as this that support the Morgue."

"I recommend you to travel," said Tricotrin; "a tour in the East might
yield your heart's desire."

"It's a valuable suggestion," rejoined Goujaud; "I should like a couple
of new shirts also, but I lack the money to acquire them."

"Well," said Tricotrin, "the Ball of the Willing Hand is nearer. Try
that!"

Goujaud looked puzzled. "The Ball of the Willing Hand?" he repeated; "I
do not know any Ball of the Willing Hand."

"Is it possible?" cried the poet; "where do you live? Why, the Willing
Hand, my recluse, is the most fascinating resort in Paris. I have been
familiar with it for fully a week. It is a bal de barrière where the
criminal classes enjoy their brief leisure. Every Saturday night they
frisk. The Cut-throats' Quadrille is a particularly sprightly measure,
and the damsels there are often striking."

"And their escorts, too--if one of the willing hands planted a knife in
my back, there would be no sprightliness about _me!_"

"In the interests of art one must submit to a little annoyance. Come,
if you are conscientious I will introduce you to the place, and give
you a few hints. For example, the company have a prejudice against
collars, and, assuming for a moment that you possessed more than a
franc, you would do well to leave the surplus at home."

Goujaud expanded his chest.

"As a matter of fact," he announced languidly, "I possess five hundred
francs." And so dignified was his air that Tricotrin came near to
believing him.

"You possess five hundred francs? You? How? No, such things do not
occur! Besides, you mentioned a moment since that you were short of
shirts."

"It is true that I am short of shirts, but, nevertheless, I have five
hundred francs in my pocket. It is like this. My father, who is not
artistic, has always desired to see me renounce my profession and sink
to commerce. Well, I was at the point of yielding--man cannot live by
hope alone, and my pictures were strangely unappreciated. Then, while
consent trembled on my lips, up popped this Eau d'Enfer! I saw my
opportunity, I recognised that, of all men in Paris, I was the best
qualified to execute the poster. You may divine the sequel? I addressed
my father with burning eloquence, I persuaded him to supply me with the
means to wield my brush for a few months longer. If my poster succeeds,
I become a celebrity. If it fails, I become a pétrole merchant. This
summer decides my fate. In the meanwhile I am a capitalist; but it
would be madness for me to purchase shirts, for I shall require every
son to support existence until the poster is acclaimed."

"You have a practical head!" exclaimed Tricotrin admiringly; "I foresee
that you will go far. Let us trust that the Willing Hand will prove the
ante-chamber to your immortality."

"I have no faith in your Willing Hand," demurred the painter; "the
criminal classes are not keen on sitting for their portraits--the
process has unpleasant associations to them. Think again! I can spare
half an hour this morning. Evolve a further inspiration on the
subject!"

"Do you imagine I have nothing to do but to provide you with a model?
My time is fully occupied; I am engaged upon a mystical play, which is
to be called _The Spinster's Prayer or the Goblin Child's Mother_,
and take Paris by storm. A propos--yes, now I come to think of it,
there is something in _Comoedia_ there that might suit you."

"My preserver!" returned Goujaud. "What is it?"

Tricotrin picked the paper up and read:

WANTED: A HUNDRED LADIES FOR THE STAGE.--Beauty more essential than
talent. No dilapidations need apply. _Agence_ Lavalette, rue Baba,
Thursday, 12 to 5.

"Mon Dieu! Now you are beginning to talk," said Goujaud. "A hundred!
One among them should be suitable, hein? But, all the same--" He
hesitated. "'Twelve to five'! It will be a shade monotonous standing on
a doorstep from twelve to five, especially if the rain streams."

"Do you expect a Cleopatra to call at your attic, or to send an eighty
horse-power automobile, that you may cast your eye over her? Anyhow,
there may be a café opposite; you can order a bock on the terrace, and
make it last."

"You are right. I shall go and inspect the spot at once. A hundred
beauties! I declare the advertisement might have been framed to meet my
wants. How fortunate that you chanced to see it! To-morrow evening you
shall hear the result--dine with me at the Bel Avenir at eight o'clock.
For one occasion I undertake to go a buster, I should be lacking in
gratitude if I neglected to stuff you to the brim."

"Oh, my dear chap!" said Tricotrin. "The invitation is a godsend, I
have not viewed the inside of a restaurant for a week. While our pal
Pitou is banqueting with his progenitors in Chartres, _I_ have
even exhausted my influence with the fishmonger--I did not so much as
see my way to a nocturnal herring in the garret. Mind you are not late.
I shall come prepared to do justice to your hospitality, I promise
you."

"Right, cocky!" said the artist. And he set forth, in high spirits, to
investigate the rue Baba.

He was gratified to discover a café in convenient proximity to the
office. And twelve o'clock had not sounded next day when he took a seat
at one of the little white-topped tables, his gaze bent attentively
upon the agent's step.

For the earliest arrival he had not long to wait. A dumpy girl with an
enormous nose approached, swinging her _sac à main_. She cast a
complacent glance at the name on the door, opened the bag, whipped out
a powder-puff, and vanished.

"Morbleu!" thought the painter. "If she is a fair sample, I have
squandered the price of a bock!" He remained in a state of depression
for two or three minutes, and then the girl reappeared, evidently in a
very bad temper.

"Ah!" he mused, rubbing his hands. "Monsieur Lavalette is plainly a
person of his word. No beauty, no engagement! This is going to be all
right, Where is the next applicant? A sip to Venus!"

Venus, however, did not irradiate the street yet. The second young
woman was too short in the back, and at sight of her features he shook
his head despondently. "No good, my dear," he said to himself. "Little
as you suspect it, there is a disappointment for you inside, word of
honour! Within three minutes, I shall behold you again."

And, sure enough, she made her exit promptly, looking as angry as the
other.

"I am becoming a dramatic prophet!" soliloquised Goujaud; "if I had
nothing more vital to do, I might win drinks, betting on their chances,
with the proprietor of the café. However, I grow impatient for the bevy
of beauty--it is a long time on the road."

As if in obedience to his demand, girls now began to trip into the rue
Baba so rapidly that he was kept busy regarding them. By twos, and
threes, and in quartettes they tripped--tall girls, little girls, plain
girls, pretty girls, girls shabby, and girls chic. But though many of
them would have made agreeable partners at a dance, there was none who
possessed the necessary qualifications for The Girl on Satan's Knee. He
rolled a cigarette, and blew a pessimistic puff. "Another day lost!"
groaned Goujaud. "All is over, I feel it. Posterity will never praise
my poster, the clutch of Commerce is upon me--already the smell of the
pétrole is in my nostrils!"

And scarcely had he said it when his senses reeled.

For, stepping from a cab, disdainfully, imperially, was his Ideal. Her
hair, revealing the lobes of the daintiest ears that ever listened to
confessions of love, had the gleam of purple grapes. Her eyes were a
mystery, her mouth was a flower, her neck was an intoxication. So
violently was the artist affected that, during several moments, he
forgot his motive for being there. To be privileged merely to
contemplate her was an ecstasy. While he sat transfixed with
admiration, her dainty foot graced the agent's step, and she entered.

Goujaud caught his breath, and rose. The cab had been discharged. Dared
he speak to her when she came out? It would be a different thing
altogether from speaking to the kind of girl that he had foreseen. But
to miss such a model for lack of nerve, that would be the regret of a
lifetime! Now the prospect of the poster overwhelmed him, and he felt
that he would risk any rebuff, commit any madness to induce her to
"sit."

The estimate that he had, by this time, formed of monsieur Lavalette's
taste convinced him that her return would not be yet. He sauntered to
and fro, composing a preliminary and winning phrase. What was his
surprise, after a very few seconds, to see that she had come out
already, and was hastening away!

He overtook her in a dozen strides, and with a bow that was eloquent of
his homage, exclaimed:

"Mademoiselle!"

"Hein?" she said, turning. "Oh, it's all right--there are too many
people there; I've changed my mind, I shan't wait."

He understood that she took him for a minion of the agent's, and he
hesitated whether to correct her mistake immediately. However, candour
seemed the better course.

"I do not bring a message from monsieur Lavalette, mademoiselle," he
explained.

"No?"

"No."

"What then?"

"I have ventured to address you on my own account--on a matter of the
most urgent importance."

"I have no small change," she said curtly, making to pass.

"Mademoiselle!" His outraged dignity was superb. "You mistake me first
for an office-boy, and then for a beggar. I am a man of means, though
my costume may be unconventional. My name is Théodosc Goujaud."

Her bow intimated that the name was not significant; but her exquisite
eyes had softened at the reference to his means.

"For weeks I have been seeking a face for a picture that I have
conceived," he went on; "a face of such peculiar beauty that I
despaired of finding it! I had the joy to see you enter the agency, and
I waited, trembling with the prayer that I might persuade you to come
to my aid. Mademoiselle, will you do me the honour to allow me to
reproduce the magic of your features on my canvas? I entreat it of you
in the sacred name of Art!"

During this appeal, the lady's demeanour had softened more still. A
faint smile hovered on her lips; her gaze was half gratified, half
amused.

"Oh, you're a painter?" she said; "you want me to sit to you for the
Salon? I don't know, I'm sure."

"It is not precisely for the Salon," he acknowledged. "But I am
absorbed by the scheme--it will be the crown of my career. I will
explain. It is a long story. If--if we could sit down?"

"Where?"

"There appears to be a café close to the agency," said Goujaud timidly.

"Oh!" She dismissed the café's pretensions with her eyebrows.

"You are right," he stammered. "Now that I look at it again, I see that
it is quite a common place. Well, will you permit me to walk a little
way with you?"

"We will go to breakfast at Armenonville, if you like," she said
graciously, "where you can explain to me at your leisure." It seemed
to Goujaud that his heart dropped into his stomach and turned to a
cannon-ball there. Armenonville? What would such a breakfast cost?
Perhaps a couple of louis? Never in his life had he contemplated
breakfasting at Armenonville.

She smiled, as if taking his consent for granted. Her loveliness and
air of fashion confused him dreadfully. And if he made excuses, there
would be no poster! Oh, he must seize the chance at any price!

"Oh course--I shall be enchanted," he mumbled. And before he half
realised that the unprecedented thing had happened they were rattling
away, side by side in a fiacre.

It was astounding, it was breathless, it was an episode out of a novel!
But Goujaud felt too sick, in thinking of the appalling expense, to
enjoy his sudden glory. Accustomed to a couple of louis providing meals
for three weeks, he was stupefied by the imminence of scattering the
sum in a brief half-hour. Even the cab fare weighed upon him; he not
infrequently envied the occupants of omnibuses.

It was clear that the lady herself was no stranger to the restaurant.
While he blinked bewildered on the threshold, she was referring to her
"pet table," and calling a waiter "Jules." The menu was a fresh
embarrassment to the bohemian, but she, and the deferential waiter,
relieved him of that speedily, and in five minutes an epicurean
luncheon had been ordered, and he was gulping champagne.

It revived his spirits. Since he had tumbled into the adventure of his
life, by all means let him savour the full flavour of it! His
companion's smiles had become more frequent, her eyes were more
transcendental still.

"How funnily things happen!" she remarked presently. "I had not the
least idea of calling on Lavalette when I got up this morning. If I had
not had a tiff with somebody, and decided to go on the stage to spite
him, I should never have met you."

"Oh, you are not on the stage yet, then?"

"No. But I have often thought about it, and the quarrel determined me.
So I jumped into a cab, drove off, and then--well, there was such a
crowd of girls there, and they looked so vulgar; I changed my mind."

"Can an angel quarrel?" demanded Goujaud sentimentally. "I cannot
imagine you saying an angry word to anyone."

"Oh!" she laughed. "Can't I, though! I'm a regular demon when I'm
cross. People shouldn't vex me."

"Certainly not," he agreed. "And no one but a brute would do so.
Besides, some women are attractive even in a rage. On the whole, I
think I should like to see you in a rage with _me_, providing
always that you 'made it up' as nicely as I should wish."

"Do you fancy that I could?" she asked, looking at the table-cloth.

"My head swims, in fancying!"

Her laughter rippled again, and her fascination was so intense that the
poor fellow could scarcely taste a mouthful of his unique repast. "Talk
to me," she commanded, "sensibly I mean! Where do you live?"

"I am living in the rue Ravignan."

"The rue Ravignan? Where is that?"

"Montmartre."

"Oh, really?" She seemed chilled. "It is not a very nice quarter in the
daytime, is it?"

"My studio suits me," murmured Goujaud, perceiving his fall in her
esteem. "For that reason I am reluctant to remove. An artist becomes
very much attached to his studio. And what do I care for fashion, I?
You may judge by my coat!"

"You're eccentric, aren't you?"

"Hitherto I have lived only for Art. But now I begin to realise that
there may be something more potent and absorbing still."

"What is that?"

"Love!" added Goujaud, feeling himself the embodiment of all the heroes
of romance.

"Oh?" Her glance mocked, encouraged. "I am dying to hear about your
picture, though! What is the subject?"

"It is not exactly what you mean by a 'picture.'" He fiddled with his
glass. "It is, in fact, a poster that I project."

"A poster?" she exclaimed. "And you ask _me_ to--oh, no, I
couldn't possibly!"

"Mademoiselle!"

"I really don't think I could. A poster? Ah, no!"

"To save me!" he implored. "Because my whole life depends on your
decision!"

"How can a poster matter so much to you? The proposal is absurd." She
regarded her pêche Melba with a frown.

"If you think of becoming an actress, remember what a splendid
advertisement it would be!" he urged feverishly.

"Oh, flûte!" But she had wavered at that.

"All Paris would flock to your debut. They would go saying, 'Can she be
as beautiful as her portrait?' And they would come back saying, 'She is
lovelier still!' Let me give you some more wine."

"No more; I'll have coffee, and a grand marnier--red."

"Doubtless the more expensive colour!" reflected Goujaud. But the time
had passed for dwelling on minor troubles. "Listen," he resumed; "I
shall tell you my history. You will then realise to what an abyss of
despair your refusal will plunge me--to what effulgent heights I may be
raised by your consent. You cannot be marble! My father--"

"Indeed, I am not marble," she put in. "I am instinct with sensibility
--it is my great weakness."

"So much the better. Be weak to _me_. My father--"

"Oh, let us get out of this first!" she suggested, "You can talk to me
as we drive."

And the attentive Jules presented the discreetly folded bill.

For fully thirty seconds the Pavilion d'Armenonville swirled round the
unfortunate painter so violently that he felt as if he were on a
roundabout at a fair. He feared that the siren must hear the pounding
of his heart. To think that he had dreaded paying two louis! Two louis?
Why, it would have been a bagatelle! Speechlessly he laid a fortune on
the salver. With a culminating burst of recklessness he waved four
francs towards Jules, and remarked that that personage eyed the tip
with cold displeasure. "What a lucrative career, a waiter's!" moaned
the artist; "he turns up his nose at four francs!"

Well, he had speculated too heavily to accept defeat now! Bracing
himself for the effort, Goujaud besought the lady's help with such a
flood of blandishment during the drive that more than once she seemed
at the point of yielding. Only one difficult detail had he withheld--
that he wished to pose her on the knee of Mephistopheles--and to
propitiate her further, before breaking the news, he stopped the cab at
a florist's.

She was so good-humoured and tractable after the florist had pillaged
him that he could scarcely be callous when she showed him that she had
split her glove. But, to this day, he protests that, until the glove-shop
had been entered, it never occurred to him that it would be
necessary to present her with more than one pair. As they came out--
Goujaud moving beside her like a man in a trance--she gave a faint
start.

"Mon Dieu!" she muttered. "There's my friend--he has seen us--I must
speak to him, or he will think I am doing wrong. Wait a minute!" And a
dandy, with a monocle, was, indeed, casting very supercilious glances
at the painter.

At eight o'clock that evening, monsieur Tricotrin, with a prodigious
appetite, sat in the Café du Bel Avenir, awaiting the arrival of his
host. When impatience was mastering him, there arrived, instead, a
petit bleu. The impecunious poet took it from the proprietress, paling,
and read:

"I discovered my Ideal--she ruined, and then deserted me! To-morrow
there will be a painter the less, and a petrole merchant the more.
Pardon my non-appearance--I am spending my last sous on this message."

"Monsieur will give his order now?" inquired the proprietress.

"Er--thank you, I do not dine to-night," said Tricotrin.

THE JUDGMENT OF PARIS

In the summer of the memorable year ----, but the date doesn't matter,
Robichon and Quinquart both paid court to mademoiselle Brouette,
Mademoiselle Brouette was a captivating actress, Robichon and Quinquart
were the most comic of comedians, and all three were members of the
Théâtre Suprême.

Robichon was such an idol of the public's that they used to laugh
before he uttered the first word of his rôle; and Quinquart was so
vastly popular that his silence threw the audience into convulsions.

Professional rivalry apart, the two were good friends, although they
were suitors for the same lady, and this was doubtless due to the fact
that the lady favoured the robust Robichon no more than she favoured
the skinny Quinquart. She flirted with them equally, she approved them
equally--and at last, when each of them had plagued her beyond
endurance, she promised in a pet that she would marry the one that was
the better actor. Tiens! Not a player on the stage, not a critic on
the Press could quite make up his mind which the better actor was. Only
Suzanne Brouette could have said anything so tantalising.

"But how shall we decide the point, Suzanne?" stammered Robichon
helplessly. "Whose pronouncement will you accept?"

"How can the question be settled?" queried Quinquart, dismayed. "Who
shall be the judge?"

"Paris shall be the judge," affirmed Suzanne. "We are the servants of
the public--I will take the public's word!"

Of course she was as pretty as a picture, or she couldn't have done
these things.

Then poor Quinquart withdrew, plunged in reverie. So did Robichon.
Quinquart reflected that she had been talking through her expensive
hat. Robichon was of the same opinion. The public lauded them both, was
no less generous to one than to the other--to wait for the judgment of
Paris appeared equivalent to postponing the matter _sine die_. No
way out presented itself to Quinquart. None occurred to Robichon.

"Mon vieux," said the latter, as they sat on the terrace of their
favourite café a day or two before the annual vacation, "let us discuss
this amicably. Have a cigarette! You are an actor, therefore you
consider yourself more talented than I. I, too, am an actor, therefore
I regard you as less gifted than myself. So much for our artistic
standpoints! But we are also men of the world, and it must be obvious
to both of us that we might go on being funny until we reached our
death-beds without demonstrating the supremacy of either. Enfin, our
only hope lies in versatility--the conqueror must distinguish himself
in a solemn part!" He viewed the other with complacence, for the quaint
Quinquart had been designed for a droll by Nature.

"Right!" said Quinquart. He contemplated his colleague with
satisfaction, for it was impossible to fancy the fat Robichon in
tragedy.

"I perceive only one drawback to the plan," continued Robichon, "the
Management will never consent to accord us a chance. Is it not always
so in the theatre? One succeeds in a certain line of business and one
must be resigned to play that line as long as one lives. If my earliest
success had been scored as a villain of melodrama, it would be believed
that I was competent to enact nothing but villains of melodrama; it
happened that I made a hit as a comedian, wherefore nobody will credit
that I am capable of anything but being comic."

"Same here!" concurred Quinquart. "Well, then, what do you propose?"

Robichon mused. "Since we shall not be allowed to do ourselves justice
on the stage, we must find an opportunity off it!"

"A private performance? Good! Yet, if it is a private performance, how
is Paris to be the judge?"

"Ah," murmured Robichon, "that is certainly a stumbling-block."

They sipped their apéritifs moodily. Many heads were turned towards the
little table where they sat. "There are Quinquart and Robichon, how
amusing they always are!" said passers-by, little guessing the anxiety
at the laughter-makers' hearts.

"What's to be done?" sighed Quinquart at last.

Robichon shrugged his fat shoulders, with a frown.

Both were too absorbed to notice that, after a glance of recognition,
one of the pedestrians had paused, and was still regarding them
irresolutely. He was a tall, burly man, habited in rusty black, and the
next moment, as if finding courage, he stepped forward and spoke:

"Gentlemen, I ask pardon for the liberty I take--impulse urges me to
seek your professional advice! I am in a position to pay a moderate
fee. Will you permit me to explain myself?"

"Monsieur," returned Robichon, "we are in deep consideration of our
latest parts. We shall be pleased to give you our attention at some
other time."

"Alas!" persisted the newcomer, "with me time presses. I, too, am
considering my latest part--and it will be the only speaking part I
have ever played, though I have been 'appearing' for twenty years."

"What? You have been a super for twenty years?" said Quinquart, with a
grimace.

"No, monsieur," replied the stranger grimly. "I have been the public
executioner; and I am going to lecture on the horrors of the post I
have resigned."

The two comedians stared at him aghast. Across the sunlit terrace
seemed to have fallen the black shadow of the guillotine.

"I am Jacques Roux," the man went on, "I am 'trying it on the dog' at
Appeville-sous-Bois next week, and I have what you gentlemen call
'stage fright'--I, who never knew what nervousness meant before! Is it
not queer? As often as I rehearse walking on to the platform, I feel
myself to be all arms and legs--I don't know what to do with them.
Formerly, I scarcely remembered my arms and legs; but, of course, my
attention used to be engaged by the other fellow's head. Well, it
struck me that you might consent to give me a few hints in deportment.
Probably one lesson would suffice."

"Sit down," said Robichon. "Why did you abandon your official
position?"

"Because I awakened to the truth," Roux answered. "I no longer agree
with capital punishment: it is a crime that should be abolished."

"The scruples of conscience, hein?"

"That is it."

"Fine!" said Robichon. "What dramatic lines such a lecture might
contain! And of what is it to consist?"

"It is to consist of the history of my life--my youth, my poverty, my
experiences as Executioner, and my remorse."

"Magnificent!" said Robichon. "The spectres of your victims pursue you
even to the platform. Your voice fails you, your eyes start from your
head in terror. You gasp for mercy--and imagination splashes your
outstretched hands with gore. The audience thrill, women swoon, strong
men are breathless with emotion." Suddenly he smote the table with his
big fist, and little Quinquart nearly fell off his chair, for he
divined the inspiration of his rival. "Listen!" cried Robichon, "are
you known at Appeville-sous-Bois?"

"My name is known, yes."

"Bah! I mean are you known personally, have you acquaintances there?"

"Oh, no. But why?"

"There will be nobody to recognize you?"

"It is very unlikely in such a place."

"What do you estimate that your profits will amount to?"

"It is only a small hall, and the prices are very cheap. Perhaps two
hundred and fifty francs."

"And you are nervous, you would like to postpone your début?"

"I should not be sorry, I admit. But, again, why?"

"I will tell you why--I offer you five hundred francs to let me take
your place!"

"Monsieur!"

"Is it a bargain?"

"I do not understand!"

"I have a whim to figure in a solemn part. You can explain next day
that you missed your train--that you were ill, there are a dozen
explanations that can be made; you will not be supposed to know that I
personated you--the responsibility for that is mine. What do you say?"

"It is worth double the money," demurred the man.

"Not a bit of it! All the Press will shout the story of my practical
joke--Paris will be astounded that I, Robichon, lectured as Jacques
Roux and curdled an audience's blood. Millions will speak of your
intended lecture tour who otherwise would never have heard of it. I am
giving you the grandest advertisement, and paying you for it, besides.
Enfin, I will throw a deportment lesson in! Is it agreed?"

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