Rue Barrée - IV
Monday morning at Julian's, students fought for places; students with prior claims drove away others who had been anxiously squatting on coveted tabourets since the door was opened in hopes of appropriating them at roll-call; students squabbled over palettes, brushes, portfolios, or rent the air with demands for Ciceri and bread. The former, a dirty ex-model, who had in palmier days posed as Judas, now dispensed stale bread at one sou and made enough to keep himself in cigarettes. Monsieur Julian walked in, smiled a fatherly smile and walked out. His disappearance was followed by the apparition of the clerk, a foxy creature who flitted through the battling hordes in search of prey.
Three men who had not paid dues were caught and summoned. A fourth was scented, followed, outflanked, his retreat towards the door cut off, and finally captured behind the stove. About that time, the revolution assuming an acute form, howls rose for "Jules!"
Jules came, umpired two fights with a sad resignation in his big brown eyes, shook hands with everybody and melted away in the throng, leaving an atmosphere of peace and good-will. The lions sat down with the lambs, the massiers marked the best places for themselves and friends, and, mounting the model stands, opened the roll-calls.
The word was passed, "They begin with C this week."
Clisson jumped like a flash and marked his name on the floor in chalk before a front seat.
Caron galloped away to secure his place. Bang! went an easel. "Nom de Dieu!" in French,—"Where in h—l are you goin'!" in English. Crash! a paintbox fell with brushes and all on board. "Dieu de Dieu de—" spat! A blow, a short rush, a clinch and scuffle, and the voice of the massier, stern and reproachful:
Then the roll-call was resumed.
The massier paused and looked up, one finger between the leaves of the ledger.
Clifford was not there. He was about three miles away in a direct line and every instant increased the distance. Not that he was walking fast,—on the contrary, he was strolling with that leisurely gait peculiar to himself. Elliott was beside him and two bulldogs covered the rear. Elliott was reading the "Gil Blas," from which he seemed to extract amusement, but deeming boisterous mirth unsuitable to Clifford's state of mind, subdued his amusement to a series of discreet smiles. The latter, moodily aware of this, said nothing, but leading the way into the Luxembourg Gardens installed himself upon a bench by the northern terrace and surveyed the landscape with disfavour. Elliott, according to the Luxembourg regulations, tied the two dogs and then, with an interrogative glance toward his friend, resumed the "Gil Blas" and the discreet smiles.
The day was perfect. The sun hung over Notre Dame, setting the city in a glitter. The tender foliage of the chestnuts cast a shadow over the terrace and flecked the paths and walks with tracery so blue that Clifford might here have found encouragement for his violent "impressions" had he but looked; but as usual in this period of his career, his thoughts were anywhere except in his profession. Around about, the sparrows quarrelled and chattered their courtship songs, the big rosy pigeons sailed from tree to tree, the flies whirled in the sunbeams and the flowers exhaled a thousand perfumes which stirred Clifford with languorous wistfulness. Under this influence he spoke.
"Elliott, you are a true friend—"
"You make me ill," replied the latter, folding his paper. "It's just as I thought,—you are tagging after some new petticoat again. And," he continued wrathfully, "if this is what you've kept me away from Julian's for,—if it's to fill me up with the perfections of some little idiot—"
"Not idiot," remonstrated Clifford gently.
"See here," cried Elliott, "have you the nerve to try to tell me that you are in love again?"
"Yes, again and again and again and—by George have you?"
"This," observed Clifford sadly, "is serious."
For a moment Elliott would have laid hands on him, then he laughed from sheer helplessness. "Oh, go on, go on; let's see, there's Clémence and Marie Tellec and Cosette and Fifine, Colette, Marie Verdier—"
"All of whom are charming, most charming, but I never was serious—"
"So help me, Moses," said Elliott, solemnly, "each and every one of those named have separately and in turn torn your heart with anguish and have also made me lose my place at Julian's in this same manner; each and every one, separately and in turn. Do you deny it?"
"What you say may be founded on facts—in a way—but give me the credit of being faithful to one at a time—"
"Until the next came along."
"But this,—this is really very different. Elliott, believe me, I am all broken up."
Then there being nothing else to do, Elliott gnashed his teeth and listened.
"It's—it's Rue Barrée."
"Well," observed Elliott, with scorn, "if you are moping and moaning over that girl,—the girl who has given you and myself every reason to wish that the ground would open and engulf us,—well, go on!"
"I'm going on,—I don't care; timidity has fled—"
"Yes, your native timidity."
"I'm desperate, Elliott. Am I in love? Never, never did I feel so d—n miserable. I can't sleep; honestly, I'm incapable of eating properly."
"Same symptoms noticed in the case of Colette."
"Listen, will you?"
"Hold on a moment, I know the rest by heart. Now let me ask you something. Is it your belief that Rue Barrée is a pure girl?"
"Yes," said Clifford, turning red.
"Do you love her,—not as you dangle and tiptoe after every pretty inanity—I mean, do you honestly love her?"
"Yes," said the other doggedly, "I would—"
"Hold on a moment; would you marry her?"
Clifford turned scarlet. "Yes," he muttered.
"Pleasant news for your family," growled Elliott in suppressed fury. "'Dear father, I have just married a charming grisette whom I'm sure you'll welcome with open arms, in company with her mother, a most estimable and cleanly washlady.' Good heavens! This seems to have gone a little further than the rest. Thank your stars, young man, that my head is level enough for us both. Still, in this case, I have no fear. Rue Barrée sat on your aspirations in a manner unmistakably final."
"Rue Barrée," began Clifford, drawing himself up, but he suddenly ceased, for there where the dappled sunlight glowed in spots of gold, along the sun-flecked path, tripped Rue Barrée. Her gown was spotless, and her big straw hat, tipped a little from the white forehead, threw a shadow across her eyes.
Elliott stood up and bowed. Clifford removed his head-covering with an air so plaintive, so appealing, so utterly humble that Rue Barrée smiled.
The smile was delicious and when Clifford, incapable of sustaining himself on his legs from sheer astonishment, toppled slightly, she smiled again in spite of herself. A few moments later she took a chair on the terrace and drawing a book from her music-roll, turned the pages, found the place, and then placing it open downwards in her lap, sighed a little, smiled a little, and looked out over the city. She had entirely forgotten Foxhall Clifford.
After a while she took up her book again, but instead of reading began to adjust a rose in her corsage. The rose was big and red. It glowed like fire there over her heart, and like fire it warmed her heart, now fluttering under the silken petals. Rue Barrée sighed again. She was very happy. The sky was so blue, the air so soft and perfumed, the sunshine so caressing, and her heart sang within her, sang to the rose in her breast. This is what it sang: "Out of the throng of passers-by, out of the world of yesterday, out of the millions passing, one has turned aside to me."
So her heart sang under his rose on her breast. Then two big mouse-coloured pigeons came whistling by and alighted on the terrace, where they bowed and strutted and bobbed and turned until Rue Barrée laughed in delight, and looking up beheld Clifford before her. His hat was in his hand and his face was wreathed in a series of appealing smiles which would have touched the heart of a Bengal tiger.
For an instant Rue Barrée frowned, then she looked curiously at Clifford, then when she saw the resemblance between his bows and the bobbing pigeons, in spite of herself, her lips parted in the most bewitching laugh. Was this Rue Barrée? So changed, so changed that she did not know herself; but oh! that song in her heart which drowned all else, which trembled on her lips, struggling for utterance, which rippled forth in a laugh at nothing,—at a strutting pigeon,—and Mr. Clifford.
"And you think, because I return the salute of the students in the Quarter, that you may be received in particular as a friend? I do not know you, Monsieur, but vanity is man's other name;—be content, Monsieur Vanity, I shall be punctilious—oh, most punctilious in returning your salute."
"But I beg—I implore you to let me render you that homage which has so long—"
"Oh dear; I don't care for homage."
"Let me only be permitted to speak to you now and then,—occasionally—very occasionally."
"And if you, why not another?"
"Not at all,—I will be discretion itself."
Her eyes were very clear, and Clifford winced for a moment, but only for a moment. Then the devil of recklessness seizing him, he sat down and offered himself, soul and body, goods and chattels. And all the time he knew he was a fool and that infatuation is not love, and that each word he uttered bound him in honour from which there was no escape. And all the time Elliott was scowling down on the fountain plaza and savagely checking both bulldogs from their desire to rush to Clifford's rescue,—for even they felt there was something wrong, as Elliott stormed within himself and growled maledictions.
When Clifford finished, he finished in a glow of excitement, but Rue Barrée's response was long in coming and his ardour cooled while the situation slowly assumed its just proportions. Then regret began to creep in, but he put that aside and broke out again in protestations. At the first word Rue Barrée checked him.
"I thank you," she said, speaking very gravely. "No man has ever before offered me marriage." She turned and looked out over the city. After a while she spoke again. "You offer me a great deal. I am alone, I have nothing, I am nothing." She turned again and looked at Paris, brilliant, fair, in the sunshine of a perfect day. He followed her eyes.
"Oh," she murmured, "it is hard,—hard to work always—always alone with never a friend you can have in honour, and the love that is offered means the streets, the boulevard—when passion is dead. I know it,—we know it,—we others who have nothing,—have no one, and who give ourselves, unquestioning—when we love,—yes, unquestioning—heart and soul, knowing the end."
She touched the rose at her breast. For a moment she seemed to forget him, then quietly—"I thank you, I am very grateful." She opened the book and, plucking a petal from the rose, dropped it between the leaves. Then looking up she said gently, "I cannot accept."