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A Chair on The Boulevard by Leonard Merrick

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he shouted; "what changes are to be seen! The nose of our brave
Silvestre is out of joint now that we are affianced, hein?"

She joined in his laughter against me, and I picked up my brush again
in a vile humour.

Well, as I have said, she was not the kind of woman that I had
contemplated, but these things arrange themselves--I became seriously
enamoured of her. And, recognising that Fate works with her own
instruments, I did not struggle. For months I was at Louise's heels; I
was the sport of her whims, and her slights, sometimes even of her
insults. I actually made her an offer of marriage, at which she snapped
her white fingers with a grimace--and the more she flouted me, the more
fascinated I grew. In that rapturous hour when her insolent eyes
softened to sentiment, when her mocking mouth melted to a kiss, I was
in Paradise. My ecstasy was so supreme that I forgot to triumph at my
approaching vengeance.

So I married Louise; and yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of our
wedding. Berthe? To speak the truth, my plot against her was frustrated
by an accident. You see, before I could communicate my passion to
Grégoire I had to recover from it, and--this invincible Louise!--I have
not recovered from it yet. There are days when she turns her remarkable
back on me now--generally when I am idle--but, mon Dieu! the moments
when she turns her lips are worth working for. Therefore, Berthe has
been all the time quite happy with the good Grégoire--and, since I
possess Louise, upon my word of honour I do not mind!

HERCULES AND APHRODITE

Mademoiselle Clairette used to say that if a danseuse could not throw
a glance to the conductor of the band without the juggler being
jealous, the Variety Profession was coming to a pretty pass. She also
remarked that for a girl to entrust her life's happiness to a jealous
man would be an act of lunacy. And then "Little Flouflou, the Juggling
Genius," who was dying to marry her, would suffer tortures. He tried
hard to conquer his failing, but it must be owned that Clairette's
glances were very expressive, and that she distributed them
indiscriminately. At Chartres, one night, he was so upset that he
missed the umbrella, and the cigar, and the hat one after another, and
instead of condoling with him when he came off the stage, all she said
was "Butter-fingers!"

"Promise to be my wife," he would entreat: "it is not knowing where I
am that gives me the pip. If you consented, I should be as right as
rain--your word is better to me than any Management's contract. I trust
you--it is only myself that I doubt; every time you look at a man I
wonder, 'Am I up to that chap's mark? is my turn as clever as his?
isn't it likely he will cut me out with her?' If you only belonged to
me I should never be jealous again as long as I lived. Straight!"

And Clairette would answer firmly, "Poor boy, you couldn't help it--you
are made like that. There'd be ructions every week; I should be for
ever in hot water. I like you very much, Flouflou, but I'm not going to
play the giddy goat. Chuck it!"

Nevertheless, he continued to worship her--from her tawdry tiara to her
tinselled shoes--and everybody was sure that it would be a match one
day. That is to say, everybody was sure of it until the Strong Man had
joined the troupe.

Hercule was advertised as "The Great Paris Star." Holding himself very
erect, he strutted, in his latticed foot-gear, with stiff little steps,
and inflated lungs, to the footlights, and tore chains to pieces as
easily as other persons tear bills. He lay down and supported a posse
of mere mortals, and a van-load of "properties" on his chest, and
regained his feet with a skip and a smirk. He--but his achievements are
well known. Preceding these feats of force, was a feature of his
entertainment which Hercule enjoyed inordinately. He stood on a
pedestal and struck attitudes to show the splendour of his physique.
Wearing only a girdle of tiger-skin, and bathed in limelight, he felt
himself to be as glorious as a god. The applause was a nightly
intoxication to him. He lived for it. All day he looked forward to the
moment when he could mount the pedestal again and make his biceps jump,
and exhibit the magnificence of his highly developed back to hundreds
of wondering eyes. No woman was ever vainer of her form than was
Hercule of his. No woman ever contemplated her charms more tenderly
than Hercule regarded his muscles. The latter half of his "turn" was
fatiguing, but to posture in the limelight, while the audience stared
open-mouthed and admired his nakedness, that was fine, it was dominion,
it was bliss.

Hercule had never experienced a great passion--the passion of vanity
excepted--never waited in the rain at a street corner for a coquette
who did not come, nor sighed, like the juggler, under the window of a
girl who flouted his declarations. He had but permitted homage to be
rendered to him. So when he fell in love with Clairette, he didn't know
what to make of it.

For Clairette, sprightly as she was, did not encourage Hercule. He at
once attracted and repelled her. When he rent chains, and poised
prodigious weights above his head, she thrilled at his prowess, but the
next time he attitudinised in the tiger-skin she turned up her nose.
She recognised something feminine in the giant. Instinct told her that
by disposition the Strong Man was less manly than Little Flouflou, whom
he could have swung like an Indian club.

No, Hercule didn't know what to make of it. It was a new and painful
thing to find himself the victim instead of the conqueror. For once in
his career, he hung about the wings wistfully, seeking a sign of
approval. For once he displayed his majestic figure on the pedestal
blankly conscious of being viewed by a woman whom he failed to impress.

"What do you think of my turn?" he questioned at last.

"Oh, I have seen worse," was all she granted.

The giant winced.

"I am the strongest man in the world," he proclaimed.

"I have never met a Strong Man who wasn't!" said she.

"But there is someone stronger than I am," he owned humbly. (Hercule
humble!) "Do you know what you have done to me, Clairette? You have
made a fool of me, my dear."

"Don't be so cheeky," she returned. "Who gave you leave to call me
'Clairette,' and 'my dear'? A little more politeness, if you please,
monsieur!" And she cut the conversation short as unceremoniously as if
he had been a super.

Those who have seen Hercule only in his "act"--who think of him superb,
supreme--may find It difficult to credit the statement, but, honestly,
the Great Star used to trot at her heels like a poodle. And she was not
a beauty by any means, with her impudent nose, and her mouth that was
too big to defy criticism. Perhaps it was her carriage that fascinated
him, the grace of her slender figure, which he could have snapped as a
child snaps jumbles. Perhaps it was those eyes which unwittingly
promised more than she gave. Perhaps, above all, it was her
indifference. Yes, on consideration, it must have been her indifferent
air, the novelty of being scorned, that made him a slave.

But, of course, she was more flattered by his bondage than she showed.
Every night he planted himself in the prompt-entrance to watch her
dance and clap his powerful hands in adulation. She could not be
insensible to the compliment, though her smiles were oftenest for
Flouflou, who planted himself, adulating, on the opposite side.
_Adagio! Allegretto! Vivace!_ Unperceived by the audience, the
gaze of the two men would meet across the stage with misgiving. Each
feared the other's attentions to her, each wished with all his heart
that the other would get the sack; they glared at each other horribly.
And, meanwhile, the orchestra played its sweetest, and Clairette
pirouetted her best, and the Public, approving the obvious, saw nothing
of the intensity of the situation.

Imagine the emotions of the little juggler, jealous by temperament,
jealous even without cause, now that he beheld a giant laying siege to
her affections!

And then, on a certain evening, Clairette threw but two smiles to
Flouflou, and three to Hercule.

The truth is that she did not attach so much significance to the smiles
as did the opponents who counted them. But that accident was momentous.
The Strong Man made her a burning offer of marriage within half an
hour; and next, the juggler made her furious reproaches.

Now she had rejected the Strong Man--and, coming when they did, the
juggler's reproaches had a totally different effect from the one that
he had intended. So far from exciting her sympathy towards him, they
accentuated her compassion for Hercule. How stricken he had been by her
refusal! She could not help remembering his despair as he sat huddled
on a hamper, a giant that she had crushed. Flouflou was a thankless
little pig, she reflected, for, as a matter of fact, he had had a good
deal to do with her decision. She had deserved a better reward than to
be abused by him!

Yes, her sentiments towards Hercule were newly tender, and an event of
the next night intensified them. It was Hercule's custom, in every town
that the Constellation visited, to issue a challenge. He pledged
himself to present a "Purse of Gold"--it contained a ten-franc piece--
to any eight men who vanquished him in a tug-of-war. The spectacle was
always an immense success--the eight yokels straining, and tumbling
over one another, while Hercule, wearing a masterful smile, kept his
ten francs intact. A tug-of-war had been arranged for the night
following, and by every law of prudence, Hercule should have abstained
from the bottle during the day.

But he did not. His misery sent discretion headlong to the winds. Every
time that he groaned for the danseuse he took another drink, and when
the time came for him to go to the show, the giant was as drunk as a
lord. The force of habit enabled him to fulfil some of his stereotyped
performance, he emerged from that without disgrace; but when the eight
brawny competitors lumbered on to the boards, his heart sank. The other
artists winked at one another appreciatively, and the manager hopped
with apprehension.

Sure enough, the hero's legs made strange trips to-night. The sixteen
arms pulled him, not only over the chalk line, but all over the stage.
They played havoc with him. And then the manager had to go on and make
a speech, besides, because the "Purse of Gold" aroused dissatisfaction.
The fiasco was hideous.

"Ah, Clairette," moaned the Strong Man, pitifully, "it was all through
you!"

Elsewhere a Strong Man had put forth that plea, and the other lady had
been inexorable. But Clairette faltered.

"Through me?" she murmured, with emotion.

"I'm no boozer," muttered Hercule, whom the disaster had sobered. "If I
took too much today, it was because I had got such a hump."

"But why be mashed on me, Hercule?" she said; "why not think of me as a
pal?"

"You're talking silly," grunted Hercule.

"Perhaps so," she confessed. "But I'm awfully sorry the turn went so
rotten."

"Don't kid!"

"Why should I kid about it?"

"If you really meant it, you would take back what you said yesterday."

"Oh!" The gesture was dismayed. "You see! What's the good of gassing?
As soon as I ask anything of you, you dry up. Bah! I daresay you will
guy me just as much as all the rest, I know you!"

"If you weren't in trouble, I'd give you a thick ear for that," she
said. "You ungrateful brute!" She turned haughtily away,

"Clairette!"

"Oh, rats!"

"Don't get the needle! I'm off my rocker to-night."

"Ah! That's all right, cully!" Her hand was swift. "I've been there
myself."

"Clairette!" He caught her close.

"Here, what are you at?" she cried. "Drop it!"

"Clairette! Say 'yes.' I'm loony about you. There's a duck! I'll be a
daisy of a husband. Won't you?"

"Oh, I--I don't know," she stammered.

And thus were they betrothed.

To express what Flouflou felt would be but to harrow the reader's
sensibilities. What he said, rendered into English, was: "I'd rather
you had given me the go-by for any cove in the crowd than that swine!"

They were in the ladies' dressing-room. "The Two Bonbons" had not
finished their duet, and he was alone with her for a moment. She was
pinning a switch into her back hair, in front of the scrap of looking-
glass against the mildewed wall.

"You don't do yourself any good with me Flouflou, by calling Hercule
names," she replied icily.

"So he is!"

"Oh, you are jealous of him," she retorted.

"Of course I am jealous of him," owned Flouflou; "you can't rile me by
saying that. Didn't I love you first? And a lump better than _he_
does."

"Now you're talking through your hat!"

"You usedn't to take any truck of him, yourself, at the beginning. He
only got round you because he was drunk and queered his business. I
have been drunk, too--you didn't say you'd marry _me_. It's not in
him to love any girl for long--he's too sweet on himself."

"Look here," she exclaimed. "I've had enough. Hook it! And don't you
speak to me any more. Understand?" She put the hairpins aside, and
began to whitewash her hands and arms.

"That's the straight tip," said Flouflou, brokenly; "I'm off. Well, I
wish you luck, old dear!"

"Running him down to me like that! A dirty trick, I call it."

"I never meant to, straight; I--Sorry, Clairette." He lingered at the
door. "I suppose I shall have to say 'madame' soon?"

"Footle," she murmured, moved.

"You've not got your knife into me, have you, Clairette? I didn't mean
to be a beast. I'd have gone to hell for you, that's all, and I wish I
was dead."

"Silly kid!" she faltered, blinking. And then "The Two Bonbons" came
back to doff their costumes, and he was turned out.

Never had Hercule been so puffed up. His knowledge of the juggler's
sufferings made the victory more rapturous still. No longer did
Flouflou stand opposite-prompt to watch Clairette's dance; no longer
did he loiter about the passages after the curtain was down, on the
chance of being permitted to escort her to her doorstep. Such
privileges were the Strong Man's alone. She was affianced to him! At
the swelling thought, his chest became Brobdingnagian. His bounce in
company was now colossal; and it afforded the troupe a popular
entertainment to see him drop to servility in her presence. Her frown
was sufficient to reduce him to a cringe. They called him the "Quick-
change artist."

But Hercule scarcely minded cringing to her; at all events he scarcely
minded it in a tête-à-tête; she was unique. He would have run to her
whistle, and fawned at her kick. She had agreed to marry him in a few
weeks' time, and his head swam at the prospect. Visions of the future
dazzled him. When he saw her to her home after the performance, he used
to talk of the joint engagements they would get by-and-by--"not in
snide shows like this, but in first-class halls"--and of how
tremendously happy they were going to be. And then Clairette would
stifle a sigh and say, "Oh, yes, of course!" and try to persuade
herself that she had no regrets.

Meanwhile the Constellation had not been playing to such good business
as the manager had anticipated. He had done a bold thing in obtaining
Hercule--who, if not so famous as the posters pretended, was at least a
couple of rungs above the other humble mountebanks--and the box-office
ought to have yielded better results. Monsieur Blond was anxious. He
asked himself what the Public wanted. Simultaneously he pondered the
idea of a further attraction, and perspired at the thought of further
expense.

At this time the "Living Statuary" turn was the latest craze in the
variety halls of fashion, and one day poor Blond, casting an expert eye
on his danseuse, questioned why she should not be billed, a town or two
ahead, as "Aphrodite, the Animated Statue, Direct from Paris."

To question was to act. The weather was mild, and, though Clairette
experienced pangs of modesty when she learnt that the Statue's
"costume" was to be applied with a sponge, she could not assert that
she would be in danger of taking a chill. Besides, her salary was to be
raised a trifle.

Blond rehearsed her assiduously (madame Blond in attendance), and, to
his joy, she displayed a remarkable gift for adopting the poses, As
"The Bather" she promised to be entrancing, and, until she wobbled, her
"Nymph at the Fountain" was a pure delight. Moreover, thanks to her
accomplishments as a dancer, she did not wobble very badly.

All the same, when the date of her debut arrived, she was extremely
nervous. Elated by his inspiration. Blond had for once been prodigal
with the printing and on her way to the stage door, it seemed to her
that the name of "Aphrodite" flamed from every hoarding in the place.
Hercule met her with encouraging words, but the ordeal was not one that
she wished to discuss with him, and he took leave of her very much
afraid that she would break down.

What was his astonishment to hear her greeted with salvos of applause!
Blond's enterprise had undoubtedly done the trick. The little hall
rocked with enthusiasm, and, cloaked in a voluminous garment,
"Aphrodite" had to bow her acknowledgments again and again. When the
time came for Hercule's own postures, they fell, by comparison, quite
flat.

"Ciel!" she babbled, on the homeward walk; "who would have supposed
that I should go so strong? If I knock them like this next week too, I
shall make Blond spring a bit more!" She looked towards her lover for
congratulations; so far he had been rather unsatisfactory.

"Oh, well," he mumbled, "it was a very good audience, you know, I never
saw a more generous house--you can't expect to catch on like it
anywhere else."

His tone puzzled her. Though she was quite alive to the weaknesses of
her profession, she could not believe that her triumph could give
umbrage to her fiancé. Hercule, her adorer, to be annoyed because she
had received more "hands" than _he_ had? Oh, it was mean of her to
fancy such a thing!

But she was conscious that he had never wished her "pleasant dreams" so
briefly as he did that night, and the Strong Man, on his side, was
conscious of a strange depression. He could not shake it off. The next
evening, too, he felt it. Wherever he went, he heard praises of her
proportions. The dancing girl had, in fact, proved to be beautifully
formed, and it could not be disputed that "Aphrodite" had wiped
"Hercules" out. Her success was repeated in every town. Morosely now
did he make his biceps jump, and exhibit the splendours of his back--
his poses commanded no more than half the admiration evoked by hers.
His muscles had been eclipsed by her graces. Her body had outvied his
own!

Oh, she was dear to him, but he was an "artiste"! There are trials that
an artiste cannot bear. He hesitated to refer to the subject, but when
he nursed her on his lap, he thought what a great fool the Public was
to prefer this ordinary woman to a marvellous man. He derived less
rapture from nursing her. He eyed her critically. His devotion was
cankered by resentment.

And each evening the resentment deepened. And each evening it forced
him to the wings against his will. He stood watching, though every
burst of approval wrung his heart. Soured, and sexless, he watched her.
An intense jealousy of the slim nude figure posturing in the limelight
took possession of him. It had robbed him of his plaudits! He grew to
hate it, to loathe the white loveliness that had dethroned him. It was
no longer the figure of a mistress that he viewed, but the figure of a
rival. If he had dared, he would have hissed her.

Finally, he found it impossible to address her with civility. And
Clairette married Flouflou, after all.

"Clairette," said Flouflou on the day they were engaged, "if you don't
chuck the Statuary turn, I know that one night I shall massacre the
audience! Won't you give it up for me, peach?"

"So you are beginning your ructions already?" laughed Clairette, "I
told you what a handful you would be. Oh, well then, just as you like,
old dear!--in this business a girl may meet with a worse kind of
jealousy than yours."

"PARDON, YOU ARE MADEMOISELLE GIRARD!"

A newsvendor passed along the terrace of the Café d'Harcourt bawling
_La Voix Parisienne_. The Frenchman at my table made a gesture of
aversion. Our eyes met; I said:

"You do not like _La Voix?_"

He answered with intensity:

"I loathe it."

"What's its offence?"

The wastrel frowned; he fiddled with his frayed and filthy collar.

"You revive painful associations; you ask me for a humiliating story,"
he murmured--and regarded his empty glass.

I can take a hint as well as most people.

He prepared his poison reflectively,

"I will tell you all," he said.

One autumn the Editor of _La Voix_ announced to the assistant-editor:
"I have a great idea for booming the paper."

The assistant-editor gazed at him respectfully. "I propose to prove, in
the public interest, the difficulty of tracing a missing person. I
shall instruct a member of the staff to disappear. I shall publish his
description, and his portrait; and I shall offer a prize to the first
stranger who identifies him."

The assistant-editor had tact and he did not reply that the idea had
already been worked in London with a disappearing lady. He replied:

"What an original scheme!"

"It might be even more effective that the disappearing person should be
a lady," added the chief, like one inspired.

"That," cried the assistant-editor, "is the top brick of genius!"

So the Editor reviewed the brief list of his lady contributors, and
sent for mademoiselle Girard.

His choice fell upon mademoiselle Girard for two reasons. First, she
was not facially remarkable--a smudgy portrait of her would look much
like a smudgy portrait of anybody else. Second, she was not widely
known in Paris, being at the beginning of her career; in fact she was
so inexperienced that hitherto she had been entrusted only with
criticism.

However, the young woman had all her buttons on; and after he had
talked to her, she said cheerfully:

"Without a chaperon I should be conspicuous, and without a fat purse I
should be handicapped. So it is understood that I am to provide myself
with a suitable companion, and to draw upon the office for expenses?"

"Mademoiselle," returned the Editor, "the purpose of the paper is to
portray a drama of life, not to emulate an opera bouffe. I shall
explain more fully. Please figure to yourself that you are a young girl
in an unhappy home. Let us suppose that a stepmother is at fault. You
feel that you can submit to her oppression no longer--you resolve to be
free, or to end your troubles in the Seine. Weeping, you pack your
modest handbag; you cast a last, lingering look at the oil painting of
your own dear mother who is with the Angels in the drawing-room; that
is to say, of your own dear mother in the drawing-room, who is with the
Angels. It still hangs there--your father has insisted on it. Unheard,
you steal from the house; the mysterious city of Paris stretches before
your friendless feet. Can you engage a chaperon? Can you draw upon an
office for expenses? The idea is laughable. You have saved, at a
liberal computation, forty francs; it is necessary for you to find
employment without delay. But what happens? Your father is distracted
by your loss, the thought of the perils that beset you frenzies him; he
invokes the aid of the police. Well, the object of our experiment is to
demonstrate that, in spite of an advertised reward, in spite of a
published portrait, in spite of the Public's zeal itself, you will be
passed on the boulevards and in the slums by myriads of unsuspecting
eyes for weeks."

The girl inquired, much less blithely:

"How long is this experiment to continue?"

"It will continue until you are identified, of course. The longer the
period, the more triumphant our demonstration."

"And I am to have no more than forty francs to exist on all the time?
Monsieur, the job does not call to me."

"You are young and you fail to grasp the value of your opportunity,"
said the Editor, with paternal tolerance. "From such an assignment you
will derive experiences that will be of the highest benefit to your
future. Rejoice, my child! Very soon I shall give you final
instructions."

* * * * *

The Frenchman lifted his glass, which was again empty.

"I trust my voice does not begin to grate upon you?" he asked
solicitously. "Much talking affects my uvula."

I made a trite inquiry.

He answered that, since I was so pressing, he would!

"Listen," he resumed, after a sip.

* * * * *

I am not in a position to say whether the young lady humoured the
Editor by rejoicing, but she obeyed him by going forth. Her portrait
was duly published, _La Volx_ professed ignorance of her
whereabouts from the moment that she left the rue Louis-le-Grand, and a
prize of two thousand francs was to reward the first stranger who said
to her, "Pardon, you are mademoiselle Girard!" In every issue the
Public were urged towards more strenuous efforts to discover her, and
all Paris bought the paper, with amusement, to learn if she was found
yet.

At the beginning of the week, misgivings were ingeniously hinted as to
her fate. On the tenth day the Editor printed a letter (which he had
written himself), hotly condemning him for exposing a poor girl to
danger. It was signed "An Indignant Parent," and teemed with the most
stimulating suggestions. Copies of _La Voix_ were as prevalent as
gingerbread pigs at a fair. When a fortnight had passed, the prize was
increased to three thousand francs, and many young men resigned less
promising occupations, such as authorship and the fine arts, in order
to devote themselves exclusively to the search.

Personally, I had something else to do. I am an author, as you may have
divined by the rhythm of my impromptu phrases, but it happened at that
time that a play of mine had been accepted at the Grand Guignol,
subject to an additional thrill being introduced, and I preferred
pondering for a thrill in my garret to hunting for a pin in a haystack,

Enfin, I completed the drama to the Management's satisfaction, and
received a comely little cheque in payment. It was the first cheque
that I had seen for years! I danced with joy, I paid for a shampoo, I
committed no end of follies.

How good is life when one is rich--immediately one joins the optimists!
I feared the future no longer; I was hungry, and I let my appetite do
as it liked with me. I lodged in Montmartre, and it was my custom to
eat at the unpretentious Bel Avenir, when I ate at all; but that
morning my mood demanded something resplendent. Rumours had reached me
of a certain Café Eclatant, where for one-franc-fifty one might
breakfast on five epicurean courses amid palms and plush. I said I
would go the pace, I adventured the Café Eclatant.

The interior realised my most sanguine expectations. The room would
have done no discredit to the Grand Boulevard. I was so much
exhilarated, that I ordered a half bottle of barsac, though I noted
that here it cost ten sous more than at the Bel Avenir, and I prepared
to enjoy the unwonted extravagance of my repast to the concluding
crumb.

Monsieur, there are events in life of which it is difficult to speak
without bitterness. When I recall the disappointment of that déjeuner
at the Café Eclatant, my heart swells with rage. The soup was slush,
the fish tasted like washing, the meat was rags. Dessert consisted of
wizened grapes; the one thing fit to eat was the cheese.

As I meditated on the sum I had squandered, I could have cried with
mortification, and, to make matters more pathetic still, I was as
hungry as ever. I sat seeking some caustic epigram to wither the dame-
de-comptoir; and presently the door opened and another victim entered.
Her face was pale and interesting. I saw, by her hesitation, that the
place was strange to her. An accomplice of the chief brigand pounced on
her immediately, and bore her to a table opposite. The misguided girl
was about to waste one-franc-fifty. I felt that I owed a duty to her in
this crisis. The moment called for instant action; before she could
decide between slush and hors d'oeuvres, I pulled an envelope from my
pocket, scribbled a warning, and expressed it to her by the robber who
had brought my bill.

I had written, "The déjeuner is dreadful. Escape!"

It reached her in the nick of time. She read the wrong side of the
envelope first, and was evidently puzzled. Then she turned it over. A
look of surprise, a look of thankfulness, rendered her still more
fascinating. I perceived that she was inventing an excuse--that she
pretended to have forgotten something. She rose hastily and went out.
My barsac was finished--shocking bad tipple it was for the money!--and
now I, too, got up and left. When I issued into the street, I found her
waiting for me.

"I think you are the knight to whom my gratitude is due, monsieur?" she
murmured graciously.

"Mademoiselle, you magnify the importance of my service," said I.

"It was a gallant deed," she insisted. "You have saved me from a great
misfortune--perhaps greater than you understand. My finances are at
their lowest ebb, and to have beggared myself for an impossible meal
would have been no joke. Thanks to you, I may still breakfast
satisfactorily somewhere else. Is it treating you like Baedeker's Guide
to the Continent if I ask you to recommend a restaurant?"

"Upon my word, I doubt if you can do better than the Bel Avenir," I
said. "A moment ago I was lacerated with regret that I had not gone
there. But there is a silver lining to every hash-house, and my choice
of the Eclatant has procured me the glory of your greeting."

She averted her gaze with a faint smile. She had certainly charm.
Admiration and hunger prompted me to further recklessness. I said:
"This five-course swindle has left me ravenous, and I am bound for the
Avenir myself. May I beg for the rapture of your company there?"

"Monsieur, you overwhelm me with chivalries," she replied; "I shall be
enchanted." And, five minutes later, the Incognita and I were polishing
off smoked herring and potato salad, like people who had no time to
lose.

"Do you generally come here?" she asked, when we had leisure.

"Infrequently--no oftener than I have a franc in my pocket. But details
of my fasts would form a poor recital, and I make a capital listener."

"You also make a capital luncheon," she remarked.

"Do not prevaricate," I said severely. "I am consumed with impatience
to hear the history of your life. Be merciful and communicative."

"Well, I am young, fair, accomplished, and of an amiable disposition,"
she began, leaning her elbows on the table.

"These things are obvious. Come to confidences! What is your
profession?"

"By profession I am a clairvoyante and palmist," she announced.

I gave her my hand at once, and I was in two minds about giving her my
heart. "Proceed," I told her; "reveal my destiny!"

Her air was profoundly mystical.

"In the days of your youth," she proclaimed, "your line of authorship
is crossed by many rejections."

"Oh, I am an author, hein? That's a fine thing in guesses!"

"It is written!" she affirmed, still scrutinising my palm. "Your
dramatic lines are--er--countless; some of them are good. I see danger;
you should beware of--I cannot distinguish!" she clasped her brow and
shivered. "Ah, I have it! You should beware of hackneyed situations."

"So the Drama is 'written,' too, is it?"

"It is written, and I discern that it is already accepted," she said.
"For at the juncture where the Eclatant is eclipsed by the Café du Bel
Avenir, there is a distinct manifestation of cash."

"Marvellous!" I exclaimed. "And will the sybil explain why she surmised
that I was a dramatic author?"

"Even so!" she boasted. "You wrote your message to me on an envelope
from the Dramatic Authors' Society, What do you think of my palmistry?"

"I cannot say that I think it is your career. You are more likely an
author yourself, or an actress, or a journalist. Perhaps you are
mademoiselle Girard. Mon Dieu! What a piece of luck for me if I found
mademoiselle Girard!"

"And what a piece of luck for her!"

"Why for her?"

"Well, she cannot be having a rollicking time. It would not break her
heart to be found, one may be certain."

"In that case," I said, "she has only to give some one the tip."

"Oh, that would be dishonourable--she has a duty to fulfil to _La
Voix_, she must wait till she is identified. And, remember, there
must be no half measures--the young man must have the intuition to say
firmly, 'Pardon, you are mademoiselle Girard!'"

Her earnest gaze met mine for an instant.

"As a matter of fact," I said, "I do not see how anyone can be expected
to identify her in the street. The portrait shows her without a hat,
and a hat makes a tremendous difference."

She sighed.

"What is your trouble?" I asked.

"Man!"

"Man? Tell me his address, that I may slay him."

"The whole sex. Its impenetrable stupidity. If mademoiselle Girard is
ever recognised it will be by a woman. Man has no instinct."

"May one inquire the cause of these flattering reflections?"

Her laughter pealed.

"Let us talk of something else!" she commanded. "When does your play
come out, monsieur Thibaud Hippolyte Duboc? You see I learnt your name,
too."

"You have all the advantages," I complained. "Will you take a second
cup of coffee, mademoiselle--er--?"

"No, thank you, monsieur," she said.

"Well, will you take a liqueur, mademoiselle--er--?"

"Mademoiselle Er will not take a liqueur either," she pouted.

"Well, will you take a walk?"

In the end we took an omnibus, and then we proceeded to the Buttes-
Chaumont--and very agreeable I found it there. We chose a seat in the
shade, and I began to feel that I had known her all my life. More
precisely, perhaps, I began to feel that I wished to know her all my
life. A little breeze was whispering through the boughs, and she lifted
her face to it gratefully.

"How delicious," she said. "I should like to take off my hat."

"Do, then!"

"Shall I?"

"Why not?"

She pulled the pins out slowly, and laid the hat aside, and raised her
eyes to me, smiling.

"Well?" she murmured.

"You are beautiful."

"Is that all?"

"What more would you have me say?"

The glare of sunshine mellowed while we talked; clocks struck unheeded
by me. It amazed me at last, to discover how long she had held me
captive. Still, I knew nothing of her affairs, excepting that she was
hard up--that, by comparison, I was temporarily prosperous. I did not
even know where she meant to go when we moved, nor did it appear
necessary to inquire yet, for the sentiment in her tones assured me
that she would dismiss me with no heartless haste.

Two men came strolling past the bench, and one of them stared at her so
impudently that I burned with indignation. After looking duels at him,
I turned to her, to deprecate his rudeness. Judge of my dismay when I
perceived that she was shuddering with emotion! Jealousy blackened the
gardens to me.

"Who is that man?" I exclaimed.

"I don't know," she faltered.

"You don't know? But you are trembling?"

"Am I?"

"I ask you who he is? How he dared to look at you like that?"

"Am I responsible for the way a loafer looks?"

"You are responsible for your agitation; I ask you to explain it!"

"And by what right, after all?"

"By what right? Wretched, false-hearted girl! Has our communion for
hours given me no rights? Am I a Frenchman or a flounder? Answer; you
are condemning me to tortures! Why did you tremble under that man's
eyes?"

"I was afraid," she stammered.

"Afraid?"

"Afraid that he had recognised me."

"Mon Dieu! Of what are you guilty?"

"I am not guilty."

"Of what are you accused?"

"I can tell you nothing," she gasped.

"You shall tell me all!" I swore. "In the name of my love I demand it
of you. Speak! Why did you fear his recognition?"

Her head drooped pitifully.

"Because I wanted _you_ to recognise me first!"

For a tense moment I gazed at her bewildered. In the next, I cursed
myself for a fool--I blushed for my suspicions, my obtuseness--I sought
dizzily the words, the prescribed words that I must speak.

"Pardon," I shouted, "you are mademoiselle Girard!"

She sobbed.

"What have I done?"

"You have done a great and generous thing! I am humbled before you. I
bless you. I don't know how I could have been such a dolt as not to
guess!"

"Oh, how I wish you had guessed! You have been so kind to me, I longed
for you to guess! And now I have betrayed a trust. I have been a bad
journalist."

"You have been a good friend. Courage! No one will ever hear what has
happened. And, anyhow, it is all the same to the paper whether the
prize is paid to me, or to somebody else."

"Yes," she admitted. "That is true. Oh, when that man turned round and
looked at me, I thought your chance had gone! I made sure it was all
over! Well"--she forced a smile--"it is no use my being sorry, is it?
Mademoiselle Girard is 'found'!"

"But you must not be sorry," I said. "Come, a disagreeable job is
finished! And you have the additional satisfaction of knowing the money
goes to a fellow you don't altogether dislike. What do I have to do
about it, hein?"

"You must telegraph to _La Voix_ at once that you have identified
me. Then, in the morning you should go to the office. I can depend upon
you, can't I? You will never give me away to a living soul?"

"Word of honour!" I vowed. "What do you take me for? Do tell me you
don't regret! There's a dear. Tell me you don't regret."

She threw back her head dauntlessly.

"No," she said, "I don't regret. Only, in justice to me, remember that
I was treacherous in order to do a turn to you, not to escape my own
discomforts. To be candid, I believe that I wish we had met in two or
three weeks' time, instead of to-day!"

"Why that?"

"In two or three weeks' time the prize was to be raised to five
thousand francs, to keep up the excitement."

"Ciel!" I cried. "Five thousand francs? Do you know that positively?"

"Oh, yes!" She nodded. "It is arranged."

Five thousand francs would have been a fortune to me.

Neither of us spoke for some seconds. Then, continuing my thoughts
aloud, I said:

"After all, why should I telegraph at once? What is to prevent
_my_ waiting the two or three weeks?"

"Oh, to allow you to do that would be scandalous of me," she demurred;
"I should be actually swindling _La Voix_."

"_La Voix_ will obtain a magnificent advertisement for its outlay,
which is all that it desires," I argued; "the boom will be worth five
thousand francs to _La Voix_, there is no question of swindling.
Five thousand francs is a sum with which one might--"

"It can't be done," she persisted.

"To a man in my position," I said, "five thousand francs--"

"It is impossible for another reason! As I told you, I am at the end of
my resources. I rose this morning, praying that I should be identified.
My landlady has turned me out, and I have no more than the price of one
meal to go on with."

"You goose!" I laughed. "And if I were going to net five thousand
francs by your tip three weeks hence, don't you suppose it would be
good enough for me to pay your expenses in the meanwhile?"

She was silent again. I understood that her conscience was a more
formidable drawback than her penury.

Monsieur, I said that you had asked me for a humiliating story--that I
had poignant memories connected with _La Voix_. Here is one of
them: I set myself to override her scruples--to render this girl false
to her employers.

Many men might have done so without remorse. But not a man like me; I
am naturally high-minded, of the most sensitive honour. Even when I
conquered at last, I could not triumph. Far from it. I blamed the force
of circumstances furiously for compelling me to sacrifice my principles
to my purse. I am no adventurer, hein?

Enfin, the problem now was, where was I to hide her? Her portmanteau
she had deposited at a railway station. Should we have it removed to
another bedroom, or to a pension de famille? Both plans were open to
objections--a bedroom would necessitate her still challenging discovery
in restaurants; and at a pension de famille she would run risks on the
premises. A pretty kettle of fish if someone spotted her while I was
holding for the rise!

We debated the point exhaustively. And, having yielded, she displayed
keen intelligence in arranging for the best. Finally she declared:

"Of the two things, a pension de famille is to be preferred. Install me
there as your sister! Remember that people picture me a wanderer and
alone; therefore, a lady who is introduced by her brother is in small
danger of being recognized as mademoiselle Girard."

She was right, I perceived it. We found an excellent house, where I was
unknown. I presented her as "mademoiselle Henriette Delafosse, my
sister." And, to be on the safe side, I engaged a private sitting-room
for her, explaining that she was somewhat neurasthenic.

Good! I waited breathless now for every edition of _La Voix_,
thinking that her price might advance even sooner. But she closed at
three thousand francs daily. Girard stood firm, but there was no upward
tendency. Every afternoon I called on her. She talked about that
conscience of hers again sometimes, and it did not prove quite so
delightful as I had expected, when I paid a visit. Especially when I
paid a bill as well.

Monsieur, my disposition is most liberal. But when I had been mulcted
in the second bill, I confess that I became a trifle downcast. I had
prepared myself to nourish the girl wholesomely, as befitted the
circumstances, but I had said nothing of vin supérieur, and I noted
that she had been asking for it as if it were cider in Normandy. The
list of extras in those bills gave me the jumps, and the charges made
for scented soap were nothing short of an outrage.

Well, there was but one more week to bear now, and during the week I
allowed her to revel. This, though I was approaching embarrassments
_re_ the rent of my own attic!

How strange is life! Who shall foretell the future? I had wrestled with
my self-respect, I had nursed an investment which promised stupendous
profits were I capable of carrying my scheme to a callous conclusion.
But could I do it? Did I claim the prize, which had already cost me so
much? Monsieur, you are a man of the world, a judge of character: I ask
you, did I claim the prize, or did I not?

He threw himself back in the chair, and toyed significantly with his
empty glass.

I regarded him, his irresolute mouth, his receding chin, his
unquenchable thirst for absinthe. I regarded him and I paid him no
compliments. I said:

"You claimed the prize."

"You have made a bloomer," he answered. "I did not claim it. The prize
was claimed by the wife of a piano-tuner, who had discovered
mademoiselle Girard employed in the artificial flower department of the
Printemps. I read the bloodcurdling news at nine o'clock on a Friday
evening; and at 9:15, when I hurled myself, panic-stricken, into the
pension de famille, the impostor who had tricked me out of three weeks'
board and lodging had already done a bolt. I have never had the joy of
meeting her since."

HOW TRICOTKIN SAW LONDON

One day Tricotrin had eighty francs, and he said to Pitou, who was no
less prosperous, "Good-bye to follies, for we have arrived at an epoch
in our careers! Do not let us waste our substance on trivial pleasures,
or paying the landlord--let us make it a provision for our future!"

"I rejoice to hear you speak for once like a business-man," returned
Pitou. "Do you recommend gilt-edged securities, or an investment in
land?"

"I would suggest, rather, that we apply our riches to some educational
purpose, such as travel," explained the poet, producing a railway
company's handbill. "By this means we shall enlarge our minds, and
somebody has pretended that 'knowledge is power'--it must have been the
principal of a school. It is not for nothing that we have l'Entente
Cordiale--you may now spend a Sunday in London at about the cost of one
of Madeleine's hats."

"These London Sunday baits may be a plot of the English Government to
exterminate us; I have read that none but English people can survive a
Sunday in London."

"No, it is not that, for we are offered the choice of a town called
'Eastbourne,' Listen, they tell me that in London the price of
cigarettes is so much lower than with us that, to a bold smuggler, the
trip is a veritable economy. Matches too! Matches are so cheap in
England that the practice of stealing them from café tables has not
been introduced."

"Well, your synopsis will be considered, and reported on in due
course," announced the composer, after a pause; "but at the moment of
going to press we would rather buy a hat for Madeleine."

And as Madeleine also thought that this would be better for him, it was
decided that Tricotrin should set forth alone.

His departure for a foreign country was a solemn event. A small party
of the Montmartrois had marched with him to the station, and more than
once, in view of their anxious faces, the young man acknowledged
mentally that he was committed to a harebrained scheme. "Heaven
protect thee, my comrade!" faltered Pitou. "Is thy vocabulary safely in
thy pocket? Remember that 'un bock' is 'glass of beer.'"

"Here is a small packet of chocolate," murmured Lajeunie, embracing
him; "in England, nothing to eat can be obtained on Sunday, and
chocolate is very sustaining."

"And listen!" shouted Sanquereau; "on no account take off thy hat to
strangers, nor laugh in the streets; the first is 'mad' over there, and
the second is 'immoral.' May le bon Dieu have thee in His keeping! We
count the hours till thy return!"

Then the train sped out into the night, and the poet realised that home
and friends were left behind.

He would have been less than a poet if, in the first few minutes, the
pathos of the situation had not gripped him by the throat. Vague,
elusive fancies stirred his brain; he remembered the franc that he owed
at the Café du Bel Avenir, and wondered if madame would speak gently of
him were he lost at sea. Tender memories of past loves dimmed his eyes,
and he reflected how poignant it would be to perish before the papers
would give him any obituary notices. Regarding his fellow passengers,
he lamented that none of them was a beautiful girl, for it was an
occasion on which woman's sympathy would have been sweet; indeed he
proceeded to invent some of the things that they might have said to
each other. Inwardly he was still resenting the faces of his travelling
companions when the train reached Dieppe.

"It is material for my biography," he soliloquised, as he crept down
the gangway. "Few who saw the young man step firmly on to the good
ship's deck conjectured the emotions that tore his heart; few
recognised him to be Tricotrin, whose work was at that date practically
unknown.'" But as a matter of fact he did arouse conjectures of a kind,
for when the boat moved from the quay, he could not resist the
opportunity to murmur, "My France, farewell!" with an appropriate
gesture.

His repose during the night was fitful, and when Victoria was reached
at last, he was conscious of some bodily fatigue. However, his mind was
never slow to receive impressions, and at the sight of the scaffolding,
he whipped out his note-book on the platform. He wrote, "The English
are extraordinarily prompt of action. One day it was discerned that la
gare Victoria was capable of improvement--no sooner was the fact
detected than an army of contractors was feverishly enlarging it."
Pleased that his journey was already yielding such good results, the
poet lit a Caporal, and sauntered through the yard.

Though the sky promised a fine Sunday, his view of London at this early
hour was not inspiriting. He loitered blankly, debating which way to
wander. Presently the outlook brightened--he observed a very dainty
pair of shoes and ankles coming through the station doors. Fearing that
the face might be unworthy of them, he did not venture to raise his
gaze until the girl had nearly reached the gate, but when he took the
risk, he was rewarded by the discovery that her features were as
piquant as her feet.

She came towards him slowly, and now he remarked that she had a grudge
against Fate; her pretty lips were compressed, her beautiful eyes
gloomy with grievance, the fairness of her brow was darkened by a
frown. "Well," mused Tricotrin, "though the object of my visit is
educational, the exigencies of my situation clearly compel me to ask
this young lady to direct me somewhere. Can I summon up enough English
before she has passed?"

It was a trying moment, for already she was nearly abreast of him.
Forgetful of Sanquereau's instructions, as well as of most of the
phrases that had been committed to memory, the poet swept off his hat,
and stammered, "Mees, I beg your pardon!"

She turned the aggrieved eyes to him inquiringly. Although she had
paused, she made no answer. Was his accent so atrocious as all that?
For a second they regarded each other dumbly, while a blush of
embarrassment mantled the young man's cheeks. Then, with a little
gesture of apology, the girl said in French--

"I do not speak English, monsieur."

"Oh, le bon Dieu be praised!" cried Tricotrin, for all the world as if
he had been back on the boulevard Rochechouart. "I was dazed with
travel, or I should have recognized you were a Frenchwoman. Did you,
too, leave Paris last night, mademoiselle?"

"Ah, no," said the girl pensively. "I have been in London for months. I
hoped to meet a friend who wrote that she would arrive this morning,
but,"--she sighed--"she has not come!"

"She will arrive to-night instead, no doubt; I should have no anxiety.
You may be certain she will arrive to-night, and this contretemps will
be forgotten."

She pouted. "I was looking forward so much to seeing her! To a stranger
who cannot speak the language, London is as triste as a tomb. Today, I
was to have had a companion, and now--"

"Indeed, I sympathise with you," replied Tricotrin. "But is it really
so--London is what you say? You alarm me. I am here absolutely alone.
Where, then, shall I go this morning?"

"There are churches," she said, after some reflection.

"And besides?"

"W-e-ll, there are other churches."

"Of course, such things can be seen in Paris also," demurred Tricotrin.
"It is not essential to go abroad to say one's prayers. If I may take
the liberty of applying to you, in which direction would you recommend
me to turn my steps? For example, where is Soho--is it too far for a
walk?"

"No, monsieur, it is not very far--it is the quarter in which I lodge."

"And do you return there now?" he asked eagerly.

"What else is there for me to do? My friend has not come, and--"

"Mademoiselle," exclaimed the poet, "I entreat you to have mercy on a
compatriot! Permit me, at least, to seek Soho in your company--do not,
I implore you, leave me homeless and helpless in a strange land! I
notice an eccentric vehicle which instinct whispers is an English
'hansom.' For years I have aspired to drive in an English hansom once.
It is in your power to fulfil my dream with effulgence. Will you
consent to instruct the acrobat who is performing with a whip, and to
take a seat in the English hansom beside me?"

"Monsieur," responded the pretty girl graciously, "I shall be charmed;"
and, romantic as the incident appears, the next minute they were
driving along Victoria Street together.

"The good kind fairies have certainly taken me under their wings,"
declared Tricotrin, as he admired his companion's profile. "It was
worth enduring the pangs of exile, to meet with such kindness as you
have shown me."

"I am afraid you will speedily pronounce the fairies fickle," said she,
"for our drive will soon be over, and you will find Soho no fairyland."

"How comes it that your place of residence is so unsuitable to you,
mademoiselle?"

"I lodge in the neighbourhood of the coiffeur's where I am employed,
monsieur--where I handle the tails and transformations. Our specialty
is artificial eyelashes; the attachment is quite invisible--and the
result absolutely ravishing! No," she added hurriedly; "I am not
wearing a pair myself, these are quite natural, word of honour! But we
undertake to impart to any eyes the gaze soulful, or the twinkle
coquettish, as the customer desires--as an artist, I assure you that
these expressions are due, less to the eyes themselves than to the
shade, and especially the curve, of the lashes. Many a woman has
entered our saloon entirely insignificant, and turned the heads of all
the men in the street when she left."

"You interest me profoundly," said Tricotrin, "At the same time, I
shall never know in future whether I am inspired by a woman's eyes, or
the skill of her coiffeur. I say 'in future.' I entertain no doubt as
to the source of my sensations now."

She rewarded him for this by a glance that dizzied him, and soon
afterwards the hansom came to a standstill amid an overpowering odour
of cheese.

"We have arrived!" she proclaimed; "so it is now that we part,
monsieur. For me there is the little lodging--for you the enormous
London. It is Soho--wander where you will! There are restaurants
hereabouts where one may find coffee and rolls at a modest price.
Accept my thanks for your escort, and let us say bonjour."

"Are the restaurants so unsavoury that you decline to honour them?" he
questioned.

"_Comment?"_

"Will you not bear me company? Or, better still, will you not let me
command a coffee-pot for two to be sent to your apartment, and invite
me to rest after my voyage?"

She hesitated. "My apartment is very humble," she said, "and--well, I
have never done a thing like that! It would not be correct. What would
you think of me if I consented?"

"I will think all that you would have me think," vowed Tricotrin.
"Come, take pity on me! Ask me in, and afterwards we will admire the
sights of London together. Where can the coffee-pot be ordered?"

"As for that," she said, "there is no necessity--I have a little
breakfast for two already prepared. Enfin, it is understood--we are to
be good comrades, and nothing more? Will you give yourself the trouble
of entering, monsieur?"

The bedroom to which they mounted was shabby, but far from
unattractive. The mantelshelf was brightened with flowers, a piano was
squeezed into a corner, and Tricotrin had scarcely put aside his hat
when he was greeted by the odour of coffee as excellent as was ever
served in the Café de la Régence.

"If this is London," he cried, "I have no fault to find with it! I own
it is abominably selfish of me, but I cannot bring myself to regret
that your friend failed to arrive this morning; indeed, I shudder to
think what would have become of me if we had not met. Will you mention
the name that is to figure in my benisons?"

"My name is Rosalie Durand, monsieur."

"And mine is Gustave Tricotrin, mademoiselle--always your slave. I do
not doubt that in Paris, at this moment, there are men who picture me
tramping the pavement, desolate. Not one of them but would envy me from
his heart if he could see my situation!"

"It might have fallen out worse, I admit," said the girl. "My own day
was at the point of being dull to tears--and here I am chattering as if
I hadn't a grief in the world! Let me persuade you to take another
croissant!"

"Fervently I wish that appearances were not deceptive!" said Tricotrin,
who required little persuasion. "Is it indiscreet to inquire to what
griefs you allude? Upon my word, your position appears a very pretty
one! Where do those dainty shoes pinch you?"

"They are not easy on foreign soil, monsieur. When I reflect that you
go back to-night, that to-morrow you will be again in Paris, I could
gnash my teeth with jealousy."

"But, ma foi!" returned Tricotrin, "to a girl of brains, like yourself,
Paris is always open. Are there no customers for eyelashes in France?
Why condemn yourself to gnash with jealousy when there is a living to
be earned at home?"

"There are several reasons," she said; "for one thing, I am an
extravagant little hussy and haven't saved enough for a ticket."

"I have heard no reason yet! At the moment my pocket is nicely lined--
you might return with me this evening,"

"Are you mad by any chance?" she laughed.

"It seems to me the natural course."

"Well, I should not be free to go like that, even if I took your money.
I am a business woman, you see, who does not sacrifice her interests to
her sentiment. What is your own career, monsieur Tricotrin?"

"I am a poet, And when I am back in Paris I shall write verse about
you. It shall be an impression of London--the great city as it reveals
itself to a stranger whose eyes are dazzled by the girl he loves."

"Forbidden ground!" she cried, admonishing him with a finger. "No
dazzle!"

"I apologise," said Tricotrin; "you shall find me a poet of my word.
Why, I declare," he exclaimed, glancing from the window, "it has begun
to rain!"

"Well, fortunately, we have plenty of time; there is all day for our
excursion and we can wait for the weather to improve. If you do not
object to smoking while I sing, monsieur, I propose a little music to
go on with."

And it turned out that this singular assistant of a hairdresser had a
very sympathetic voice, and no contemptible repertoire. Although the
sky had now broken its promise shamefully and the downpour continued,
Tricotrin found nothing to complain of. By midday one would have said
that they had been comrades for years. By luncheon both had ceased even
to regard the rain. And before evening approached, they had confided to
each other their histories from the day of their birth.

Ascertaining that the basement boasted a smudgy servant girl, who was
to be dispatched for entrées and sauterne, Tricotrin drew up the menu
of a magnificent dinner as the climax. It was conceded that at this
repast he should be the host; and having placed him on oath behind a
screen, Rosalie proceeded to make an elaborate toilette in honour of
his entertainment.

Determined, as he had said, to prove himself a poet of his word, the
young man remained behind the screen as motionless as a waxwork, but
the temptation to peep was tremendous, and at the whispering of a silk
petticoat he was unable to repress a groan.

"What ails you?" she demanded, the whispering suspended.

"I merely expire with impatience to meet you again."

"Monsieur, I am hastening to the trysting-place, And my costume will be
suitable to the occasion, believe me!"

"In that case, if you are not quick, you will have to wear crape.
However, proceed, I can suffer with the best of them.... Are you
certain that I can be of no assistance? I feel selfish, idling here
like this. Besides, since I am able to see--"

"See?" she screamed.

"--see no reason why you should refuse my aid, my plight is worse
still. What are you doing now?"

"My hair," she announced.

"Surely it would not be improper for me to view a head of hair?"

"Perhaps not, monsieur; but my head is on my shoulders--which makes a
difference."

"Mademoiselle," sighed Tricotrin, "never have I known a young lady
whose head was on her shoulders more tightly. May I crave one
indulgence? My imprisonment would be less painful for a cigarette, and
I cannot reach the matches--will you consent to pass them round the
screen?"

"It is against the rules. But I will consent to throw them over the
top. Catch! Why don't you say 'thank you'?"

"Because your unjust suspicion killed me; I now need nothing but
immortelles, and at dinner I will compose my epitaph. If I am not
mistaken, I already smell the soup on the stairs."

And the soup had scarcely entered when his guest presented herself.
Paquin and the Fairy Godmother would have approved her gown; as to her
coiffure, if her employer could have seen it, he would have wanted to
put her in his window. Tricotrin gave her his arm with stupefaction.
"Upon my word," he faltered, "you awe me. I am now overwhelmed with
embarrassment that I had the temerity to tease you while you dressed.
And what shall I say of the host who is churl enough to welcome you in
such a shabby coat?"

The cork went pop, their tongues went nineteen to the dozen, and the
time went so rapidly that a little clock on the chest of drawers became
a positive killjoy.

"By all the laws of dramatic effect," remarked the poet, as they
trifled with the almonds and raisins, "you will now divulge that the
fashionable lady before me is no 'Rosalie Durand,' of a hairdresser's
shop, but madame la comtesse de Thrilling Mystery. Every novel reader
would be aware that at this stage you will demand some dangerous
service of me, and that I shall forthwith risk my life and win your
love."

"Bien sûr! That is how it ought to be," she agreed.

"Is it impossible?"

"That I can be a countess?"

"Well, we will waive the 'countess'; and for that matter I will not
insist on risking my life; but what about the love?"

"Without the rest," she demurred, "the situation would be too
commonplace. When I can tell you that I am a countess I will say also
that I love you; to-night I am Rosalie Durand, a friend. By the way,
now I come to think of it, I shall be all that you have seen in
London!"

"Why, I declare, so you will!" exclaimed Tricotrin. "Really this is a
nice thing! I come to England for the benefit of my education--and when
it is almost time for me to return, I find that I have spent the whole
of the day in a room."

"But you have, at least, had a unique experience in it?" she queried
with a whimsical smile.

"Well, yes; my journey has certainly yielded an adventure that none of
my acquaintances would credit! Do you laugh at me?"

"Far from it; by-and-by I may even spare a tear for you--if you do not
spoil the day by being clumsy at the end."

"Ah, Rosalie," cried the susceptible poet, "how can I bear the parting?
What is France without you? I am no longer a Frenchman--my true home is
now England! My heart will hunger for it, my thoughts will stretch
themselves to it across the sea; banished to Montmartre, I shall mourn
daily for the white cliffs of Albion, for Soho, and for you!"

"I, too, shall remember," she murmured. "But perhaps one of these days
you will come to England again?"

"If the fare could be paid with devotion, I would come every Sunday,
but how can I hope to amass enough money? Such things do not happen
twice. No, I will not deceive myself--this is our farewell. See!" He
rose, and turned the little clock with its face to the wall. "When that
clock strikes, I must go to catch my train--in the meantime we will
ignore the march of time. Farewells, tears, regrets, let us forget that
they exist--let us drink the last glass together gaily, mignonne!"

They pledged each other with brave smiles, hand in hand. And now their
chatter became fast and furious, to drown the clock's impatient tick.

The clockwork wheezed and whirred.

"'Tis going to part us," shouted Tricotrin; "laugh, laugh, Beloved, so
that we may not hear!"

"Kiss me," she cried; "while the hour sounds, you shall hold me in your
arms!"

"Heaven," gasped the young man, as the too brief embrace concluded,
"how I wish it had been striking midnight!"

The next moment came the separation. He descended the stairs; at the
window she waved her hand to him. And in the darkness of an "English
hansom" the poet covered his face and wept.

* * * * *

"From our hearts we rejoice to have thee safely back!" they chorused in
Montmartre. "And what didst thou see in London?"

"Oh, mon Dieu, what noble sights!" exclaimed Tricotrin. "The Lor' Maire
blazes with jewels like the Shah of Persia; and compared with
Peeccadeelly, the Champs Elysées are no wider than a hatband. Vive
l'Entente! Positively my brain whirls with all the splendours of London
I have seen!"

THE INFIDELITY OF MONSIEUR NOULENS

Whenever they talk of him, whom I will call "Noulens"--of his novels,
his method, the eccentricities of his talent--someone is sure to say,
"But what comrades, he and his wife!"--you are certain to hear it. And
as often as I hear it myself, I think of what he told me that evening
--I remember the shock I had.

At the beginning, I had expected little. When I went in, his wife said,
"I fear he will be poor company; he has to write a short story for
_La Voix,_ and cannot find a theme--he has been beating his brains
all day." So far, from anticipating emotions, I had proposed dining
there another night instead, but she would not allow me to leave.
"Something you say may suggest a theme to him," she declared, "and he
can write or dictate the story in an hour, when you have gone."

So I stayed, and after dinner he lay on the sofa, bewailing the fate
that had made him an author. The salon communicated with his study, and
through the open door he had the invitation of his writing-table--the
little sheaf of paper that she had put in readiness for him, the
lighted lamp, the pile of cigarettes. I knew that she hoped the view
would stimulate him, but it was soon apparent that he had ceased to
think of a story altogether. He spoke of one of the latest murders in
Paris, one sensational enough for the Paris Press to report a murder
prominently--of a conference at the Université des Annales, of the
artistry of Esther Lekain, of everything except his work. Then, in the
hall, the telephone bell rang, and madame Noulens rose to receive the
message. "Allô! Allô!"

She did not come back. There was a pause, and presently he murmured:

"I wonder if a stranger has been moved to telephone a plot to me?"

"What?" I said.

"It sounds mad, hein? But it once happened--on just such a night as
this, when my mind was just as blank. Really! Out of the silence a
woman told me a beautiful story. Of course, I never used it, nor do I
know if she made use of it herself; but I have never forgotten. For
years I could not hear a telephone bell without trembling. Even now,
when I am working late, I find myself hoping for her voice."

"The story was so wonderful as that?"

He threw a glance into the study, as if to assure himself that his wife
had not entered it from the hall.

"Can you believe that a man may learn to love--tenderly and truly love
--a woman he has never met?" he asked me.

"I don't think I understand you."

"There has been only one woman in my life who was all in all to me," he
said--"and I never saw her."

How was I to answer? I looked at him.

"After all, what is there incredible in it?" he demanded. "Do we give
our love to a face, or to a temperament? I swear to you that I could
not have known that woman's temperament more intimately if we had made
our confidences in each other's arms. I knew everything of her, except
the trifles which a stranger learns in the moment of being presented--
her height, her complexion, her name, whether she was married or
single. No, those things I never knew. But her tastes, her sympathies,
her soul, these, the secret truths of the woman, were as familiar to me
as to herself."

He hesitated.

"I am in a difficulty. If I seem to disparage my wife, I shall be a
cad; if I let you think we have been as happy together as people
imagine, you will not understand the importance of what I am going to
tell you. I will say this: before our honeymoon was over, I bored her
fearfully. While we were engaged, I had talked to her of my illusions
about herself; when we were married, I talked to her of my convictions
about my art. The change appalled her. She was chilled, crushed,
dumfounded. I looked to her to share my interests. For response, she
yawned--and wept.

"Oh, her tears! her hourly tears! the tears that drowned my love!

"The philosopher is made, not born; in the first few years I rebelled
furiously. I wanted a companion, a confidant, and I had never felt so
desperately alone.

"We had a flat in the rue de Sontay then, and the telephone was in my
workroom. One night late, as I sat brooding there, the bell startled
me; and a voice--a woman's voice, said:

"'I am so lonely; I want to talk to you before I sleep.'

"I cannot describe the strangeness of that appeal, reaching me so
suddenly out of the distance. I knew that it was a mistake, of course,
but it was as if, away in the city, some nameless soul had echoed the
cry in my own heart. I obeyed an impulse; I said:

"'I, too, am very lonely--I believe I have been waiting for you.'

"There was a pause, and then she asked, dismayed:

"'Who are you?'

"'Not the man you thought,' I told her. 'But a very wistful one.'

"I heard soft laughter, 'How absurd!' she murmured.

"'Be merciful,' I went on; 'we are both sad, and Fate clearly intends
us to console each other. It cannot compromise you, for I do not even
know who you are. Stay and talk to me for five minutes.'

"'What do you ask me to talk about?'

"'Oh, the subject to interest us both--yourself.'

"After a moment she answered, 'I am shaking my head.'

"'It is very unfeeling of you,' I said. 'And I have not even the
compensation of seeing you do it.'

"Imagine another pause, and then her voice in my ear again:

"'I will tell you what I can do for you--I can tell you a story.'

"'The truth would please me more,' I owned. 'Still, if my choice must
be made between your story and your silence, I certainly choose the
story.'

"'I applaud your taste,' she said. 'Are you comfortable--are you
sitting down?'

"I sat down, smiling. 'Madame--'

"She did not reply.

"Then, 'Mademoiselle--'

"Again no answer.

"'Well, say at least if I have your permission to smoke while I listen
to you?'

"She laughed: 'You carry courtesy far!'

"'How far?' I asked quickly.

"But she would not even hint from what neighbourhood she was speaking
to me. 'Attend!' she commanded--and began:

"'It is a story of two lovers,' she said, 'Paul and Rosamonde. They
were to have married, but Rosamonde died too soon. When she was dying,
she gave him a curl of the beautiful brown hair that he used to kiss.
"Au revoir, dear love," she whispered; "it will be very stupid in
Heaven until you come. Remember that I am waiting for you and be
faithful. If your love for me fades, you will see that curl of mine
fade too."

"'Every day through the winter Paul strewed flowers on her tomb, and
sobbed. And in the spring he strewed flowers and sighed. And in the
summer he paid that flowers might be strewn there for him. Sometimes,
when he looked at the dead girl's hair, he thought that it was paler
than it had been, but, as he looked at it seldom now, he could easily
persuade himself that he was mistaken.

"'Then he met a woman who made him happy again; and the wind chased the
withered flowers from Rosamonde's grave and left it bare. One day
Paul's wife found a little packet that lay forgotten in his desk. She
opened it jealously, before he could prevent her. Paul feared that the
sight would give her pain, and watched her with anxious eyes. But in a
moment she was laughing. "What an idiot I am," she exclaimed--"I was
afraid that it was the hair of some girl you had loved!" The curl was
snow-white.'

"Her fantastic tale," continued Noulens, "which was told with an
earnestness that I cannot reproduce, impressed me very much. I did not
offer any criticism, I did not pay her any compliment; I said simply:

"'Who are you?'

"'That,' she warned me, 'is a question that you must not ask. Well, are
you still bored?'

"'No.'

"'Interested, a little?'

"'Very much so.'

"'I, too, am feeling happier than I did. And now, bonsoir!'

"'Wait,' I begged. 'Tell me when I shall speak to you again.'

"She hesitated; and I assure you that I had never waited for a woman's
answer with more suspense while I held her hand, than I waited for the
answer of this woman whom I could not see. 'To-morrow?' I urged. 'In
the morning?'

"'In the morning it would be difficult.'

"'The afternoon?'

"'In the afternoon it would be impossible,'

"'Then the evening--at the same hour?'

"'Perhaps,' she faltered--'if I am free.'

"'My number,' I told her, 'is five-four-two, one-nine. Can you write it
now?'

"'I have written it.'

"'Please repeat, so that there may be no mistake.'

"'Five-four-two, one-nine. Correct?'

"'Correct. I am grateful.'

"'Good-night.'

"'Good-night. Sleep well.'

"You may suppose that on the morrow I remembered the incident with a
smile, that I ridiculed the emotion it had roused in me? You would be
wrong. I recalled it more and more curiously: I found myself looking
forward to the appointment with an eagerness that was astonishing. We
had talked for about twenty minutes, hidden from each other--half
Paris, perhaps, dividing us; I had nothing more tangible to expect this
evening. Yet I experienced all the sensations of a man who waits for an
interview, for an embrace. What did it mean? I was bewildered. The
possibility of love at first sight I understood; but might the spirit
also recognise an affinity by telephone?

"There is a phrase in feuilletons that had always irritated me--'To his
impatience it seemed that the clock had stopped.' It had always struck
me as absurd. Since that evening I have never condemned the phrase, for
honestly, I thought more than once that the clock had stopped. By-and-by,
to increase the tension, my wife, who seldom entered my workroom,
opened the door. She found me idle, and was moved to converse with me.
Mon Dieu! Now that the hour approached at last, my wife was present,
with the air of having settled herself for the night!

"The hands of the clock moved on--and always faster now. If she
remained till the bell rang, what was I to do? To answer that I had
'someone with me' would be intelligible to the lady, but it would sound
suspicious to my wife. To answer that I was 'busy' would sound innocent
to my wife, but it would be insulting to the lady. To disregard the
bell altogether would be to let my wife go to the telephone herself! I
tell you I perspired.

"Under Providence, our cook rescued me. There came a timid knock, and
then the figure of the cook, her eyes inflamed, her head swathed in
some extraordinary garment. She had a raging toothache--would madame
have the kindness to give her a little cognac? The ailments of the cook
always arouse in human nature more solicitude than the ailments of any
other servant. My wife's sympathy was active--I was saved!

"The door had scarcely closed when _tr-rr-r-ng_ the signal came.

"'Good-evening,' from the voice. 'So you are here to meet me.'

"'Good-evening,' I said. 'I would willingly go further to meet you,'

"'Be thankful that the rendez-vous was your flat--listen to the rain!
Come, own that you congratulated yourself when it began! "Luckily I can
be gallant without getting wet," you thought. Really, I am most
considerate--you keep a dry skin, you waste no time in reaching me, and
you need not even trouble to change your coat.'

"'It sounds very cosy,' I admitted, 'but there is one drawback to it
all--I do not see you.'

"'That may be more considerate of me still! I may be reluctant to
banish your illusions. Isn't it probable that I am elderly--or, at
least plain? I may even be a lady novelist, with ink on her fingers.
By-the-bye, monsieur, I have been rereading one of your books since
last night.'

"'Oh, you know my name now? I am gratified to have become more than a
telephonic address to you. May I ask if we have ever met?'

"'We never spoke till last night, but I have seen you often,'

"'You, at any rate, can have no illusions to be banished. What a
relief! I have endeavoured to talk as if I had a romantic bearing; now
that you know how I look, I can be myself.'

"'I await your next words with terror,' she said. 'What shock is in
store for me? Speak gently.'

"'Well, speaking gently, I am very glad that you were put on to the
wrong number last night. At the same time, I feel a constraint, a
difficulty; I cannot talk to you frankly, cannot be serious--it is as
if I showed my face while you were masked.'

"'Yes, it is true--I understand,' she said. 'And even if I were to
swear that I was not unworthy of your frankness, you would still be
doubtful of me, I suppose?'

"'Madame--'

"'Oh, it is natural! I know very well how I must appear to you,' she
exclaimed; 'a coquette, with a new pastime--a vulgar coquette, besides,
who tries to pique your interest by an air of mystery. Believe me,
monsieur, I am forbidden to unmask. Think lightly of me if you must--I
have no right to complain--but believe as much as that! I do not give
you my name, simply because I may not.'

"'Madame,' I replied, 'so far from wishing to force your confidences, I
assure you that I will never inquire who you are, never try to find
out.'

"'And you will talk frankly, unconstrainedly, all the same?'

"'Ah, you are too illogical to be elderly and plain,' I demurred. 'You
resolve to remain a stranger to me, and I bow to your decision; but, on
the other hand, a man makes confidences only to his friends.'

"There was a long pause; and when I heard the voice again, it trembled:

"'Adieu, monsieur.'

"'Adieu, madame,' I said.

"No sooner had she gone than I would have given almost anything to
bring her back. For a long while I sat praying that she would ring
again. I watched the telephone as if it had been her window, the door
of her home--something that could yield her to my view. During the next
few days I grudged every minute that I was absent from the room--I took
my meals in it. Never had I had the air of working so indefatigably,
and in truth I did not write a line, 'I suppose you have begun a new
romance?' said my wife. In my soul I feared that I had finished it!"

Noulens sighed; he clasped his hands on his head. The dark hair, the
thin, restless fingers were all that I could see of him where I sat.
Some seconds passed; I wondered whether there would be time for me to
hear the rest before his wife returned.

* * * * *

"In my soul I feared that I had finished it," he repeated.
"Extraordinary as it appears, I was in love with a woman I had never
seen. Each time that bell sounded, my heart seemed to try to choke me.
It had been my grievance, since we had the telephone installed, that we
heard nothing of it excepting that we had to make another payment for
its use; but now, by a maddening coincidence, everybody that I had ever
met took to ringing me up about trifles and agitating me twenty times a
day.

"At last, one night--when expectation was almost dead--she called to me
again. Oh, but her voice was humble! My friend, it is piteous when we
love a woman, to hear her humbled. I longed to take her hands, to fold
my arms about her. I abased myself, that she might regain her pride.
She heard how I had missed and sorrowed for her; I owned that she was
dear to me.

"And then began a companionship--strange as you may find the word--
which was the sweetest my life has held. We talked together daily. This
woman, whose whereabouts, whose face, whose name were all unknown to
me, became the confidant of my disappointments and my hopes. If I
worked well, my thoughts would be, 'Tonight I shall have good news to
give her;' if I worked ill--'Never mind, by-and-by she will encourage
me!' There was not a page in my next novel that I did not read to her;
never a doubt beset me in which I did not turn for her sympathy and
advice.

"'Well, how have you got on?'

"'Oh, I am so troubled this evening, dear!'

"'Poor fellow! Tell me all about it. I tried to come to you sooner, but
I couldn't get away.'

"Like that! We talked as if she were really with me. My life was no
longer desolate--the indifference in my home no longer grieved me. All
the interest, the love, the inspiration I had hungered for, was given
to me now by a woman who remained invisible."

Noulens paused again. In the pause I got up to light a cigarette, and--
I shall never forget it--I saw the bowed figure of his wife beyond the
study door! It was only a glimpse I had, but the glimpse was enough to
make my heart stand still--she leant over the table, her face hidden by
her hand.

I tried to warn, to signal to him--he did not see me. I felt that I
could do nothing, nothing at all, without doubling her humiliation by
the knowledge that I had witnessed it. If he would only look at me!

"Listen," he went on rapidly. "I was happy, I was young again--and
there was a night when she said to me, 'It is for the last time.'

"Six words! But for a moment I had no breath, no life, to answer them.

"'Speak!' she cried out. 'You are frightening me!'

"'What has happened?' I stammered. 'Trust me, I implore you!'

"I heard her sobbing--and minutes seemed to pass. It was horrible. I
thought my heart would burst while I shuddered at her sobs--the sobbing
of a woman I could not reach.

"'I can tell you nothing,' she said, when she was calmer; 'only that we
are speaking together for the last time.'

"'But why--why? Is it that you are leaving France?'

"'I cannot tell you,' she repeated. 'I have had to swear that to
myself.'

"Oh, I raved to her! I was desperate. I tried to wring her name from
her then--I besought her to confess where she was hidden. The space
between us frenzied me. It was frightful, it was like a nightmare, that
struggle to tear the truth from a woman whom I could not clasp or see.

"'My dear,' she said, 'there are some things that are beyond human
power. They are not merely difficult, or unwise, or mad--they are
impossible. _You_ have begged the impossible of _me_. You
will never hear me again, it is far from likely we shall ever meet--and
if one day we do, you will not even know that it is I. But I love you.
I should like to think that you believe it, for I love you very dearly.
Now say good-bye to me. My arms are round your neck, dear heart--I
kiss you on the lips.'

"It was the end. She was lost. A moment before, I had felt her presence
in my senses; now I stood in an empty room, mocked by a futile
apparatus. My friend, if you have ever yearned to see a woman whose
whereabouts you did not know--ever exhausted yourself tramping some
district in the hope of finding her--you may realise what I feel; for
remember that by comparison your task was easy--I am even ignorant of
this woman's arrondissement and appearance. She left me helpless. The
telephone had given her--the telephone had taken her away. All that
remained to me was the mechanism on a table."

* * * * *

Noulens turned on the couch at last--and, turning, he could not fail to
see his wife. I was spellbound.

"'Mechanism on a table,' he repeated, with a prodigious yawn of relief.
'That is all, my own.'"

"Good!" said madame Noulens cheerily. She bustled in, fluttering pages
of shorthand. "But, old angel, the tale of Paul and Rosamonde is thrown
away--it is an extravagance, telling two stories for the price of one!"

"My treasure, thou knowest I invented it months ago and couldn't make
it long enough for it to be of any use."

"True. Well, we will be liberal, then--we will include it." She noticed
my amazement. "What ails our friend?"

Noulens gave a guffaw. "I fear our friend did not recognize that I was
dictating to you. By-the-bye, it was fortunate someone rang us up just
now--that started my plot for me! Who was it?"

"It was _La Voix_" she laughed, "inquiring if the story would be
done in time!"

* * * * *

Yes, indeed, they are comrades!--you are certain to hear it. And as
often as I hear it myself, I think of what he told me that evening--I
remember how he took me in.

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