The Street of Our Lady of the Fields - IV
"There is a nouveau here," drawled Laffat, leaning around his easel and addressing his friend Bowles, "there is a nouveau here who is so tender and green and appetizing that Heaven help him if he should fall into a salad bowl."
"Hayseed?" inquired Bowles, plastering in a background with a broken palette-knife and squinting at the effect with approval.
"Yes, Squeedunk or Oshkosh, and how he ever grew up among the daisies and escaped the cows, Heaven alone knows!"
Bowles rubbed his thumb across the outlines of his study to "throw in a little atmosphere," as he said, glared at the model, pulled at his pipe and finding it out struck a match on his neighbour's back to relight it.
"His name," continued Laffat, hurling a bit of bread at the hat-rack, "his name is Hastings. He is a berry. He knows no more about the world,"—and here Mr. Laffat's face spoke volumes for his own knowledge of that planet,—"than a maiden cat on its first moonlight stroll."
Bowles now having succeeded in lighting his pipe, repeated the thumb touch on the other edge of the study and said, "Ah!"
"Yes," continued his friend, "and would you imagine it, he seems to think that everything here goes on as it does in his d——d little backwoods ranch at home; talks about the pretty girls who walk alone in the street; says how sensible it is; and how French parents are misrepresented in America; says that for his part he finds French girls,—and he confessed to only knowing one,—as jolly as American girls. I tried to set him right, tried to give him a pointer as to what sort of ladies walk about alone or with students, and he was either too stupid or too innocent to catch on. Then I gave it to him straight, and he said I was a vile-minded fool and marched off."
"Did you assist him with your shoe?" inquired Bowles, languidly interested.
"He called you a vile-minded fool."
"He was correct," said Clifford from his easel in front.
"What—what do you mean?" demanded Laffat, turning red.
"That," replied Clifford.
"Who spoke to you? Is this your business?" sneered Bowles, but nearly lost his balance as Clifford swung about and eyed him.
"Yes," he said slowly, "it's my business."
No one spoke for some time.
Then Clifford sang out, "I say, Hastings!"
And when Hastings left his easel and came around, he nodded toward the astonished Laffat.
"This man has been disagreeable to you, and I want to tell you that any time you feel inclined to kick him, why, I will hold the other creature."
Hastings, embarrassed, said, "Why no, I don't agree with his ideas, nothing more."
Clifford said "Naturally," and slipping his arm through Hastings', strolled about with him, and introduced him to several of his own friends, at which all the nouveaux opened their eyes with envy, and the studio were given to understand that Hastings, although prepared to do menial work as the latest nouveau, was already within the charmed circle of the old, respected and feared, the truly great.
The rest finished, the model resumed his place, and work went on in a chorus of songs and yells and every ear-splitting noise which the art student utters when studying the beautiful.
Five o'clock struck,—the model yawned, stretched and climbed into his trousers, and the noisy contents of six studios crowded through the hall and down into the street. Ten minutes later, Hastings found himself on top of a Montrouge tram, and shortly afterward was joined by Clifford.
They climbed down at the rue Gay Lussac.
"I always stop here," observed Clifford, "I like the walk through the Luxembourg."
"By the way," said Hastings, "how can I call on you when I don't know where you live?"
"Why, I live opposite you."
"What—the studio in the garden where the almond trees are and the blackbirds—"
"Exactly," said Clifford. "I'm with my friend Elliott."
Hastings thought of the description of the two American artists which he had heard from Miss Susie Byng, and looked blank.
Clifford continued, "Perhaps you had better let me know when you think of coming so,—so that I will be sure to—to be there," he ended rather lamely.
"I shouldn't care to meet any of your model friends there," said Hastings, smiling. "You know—my ideas are rather straitlaced,—I suppose you would say, Puritanical. I shouldn't enjoy it and wouldn't know how to behave."
"Oh, I understand," said Clifford, but added with great cordiality,—"I'm sure we'll be friends although you may not approve of me and my set, but you will like Severn and Selby because—because, well, they are like yourself, old chap."
After a moment he continued, "There is something I want to speak about. You see, when I introduced you, last week, in the Luxembourg, to Valentine—"
"Not a word!" cried Hastings, smiling; "you must not tell me a word of her!"
"No—not a word!" he said gaily. "I insist,—promise me upon your honour you will not speak of her until I give you permission; promise!"
"I promise," said Clifford, amazed.
"She is a charming girl,—we had such a delightful chat after you left, and I thank you for presenting me, but not another word about her until I give you permission."
"Oh," murmured Clifford.
"Remember your promise," he smiled, as he turned into his gateway.
Clifford strolled across the street and, traversing the ivy-covered alley, entered his garden.
He felt for his studio key, muttering, "I wonder—I wonder,—but of course he doesn't!"
He entered the hallway, and fitting the key into the door, stood staring at the two cards tacked over the panels.
RICHARD OSBORNE ELLIOTT
"Why the devil doesn't he want me to speak of her?"
He opened the door, and, discouraging the caresses of two brindle bull-dogs, sank down on the sofa.
Elliott sat smoking and sketching with a piece of charcoal by the window.
"Hello," he said without looking around.
Clifford gazed absently at the back of his head, murmuring, "I'm afraid, I'm afraid that man is too innocent. I say, Elliott," he said, at last, "Hastings,—you know the chap that old Tabby Byram came around here to tell us about—the day you had to hide Colette in the armoire—"
"Yes, what's up?"
"Oh, nothing. He's a brick."
"Yes," said Elliott, without enthusiasm.
"Don't you think so?" demanded Clifford.
"Why yes, but he is going to have a tough time when some of his illusions are dispelled."
"More shame to those who dispel 'em!"
"Yes,—wait until he comes to pay his call on us, unexpectedly, of course—"
Clifford looked virtuous and lighted a cigar.
"I was just going to say," he observed, "that I have asked him not to come without letting us know, so I can postpone any orgie you may have intended—"
"Ah!" cried Elliott indignantly, "I suppose you put it to him in that way."
"Not exactly," grinned Clifford. Then more seriously, "I don't want anything to occur here to bother him. He's a brick, and it's a pity we can't be more like him."
"I am," observed Elliott complacently, "only living with you—"
"Listen!" cried the other. "I have managed to put my foot in it in great style. Do you know what I've done? Well—the first time I met him in the street,—or rather, it was in the Luxembourg, I introduced him to Valentine!"
"Did he object?"
"Believe me," said Clifford, solemnly, "this rustic Hastings has no more idea that Valentine is—is—in fact is Valentine, than he has that he himself is a beautiful example of moral decency in a Quarter where morals are as rare as elephants. I heard enough in a conversation between that blackguard Loffat and the little immoral eruption, Bowles, to open my eyes. I tell you Hastings is a trump! He's a healthy, clean-minded young fellow, bred in a small country village, brought up with the idea that saloons are way-stations to hell—and as for women—"
"Well?" demanded Elliott
"Well," said Clifford, "his idea of the dangerous woman is probably a painted Jezabel."
"Probably," replied the other.
"He's a trump!" said Clifford, "and if he swears the world is as good and pure as his own heart, I'll swear he's right."
Elliott rubbed his charcoal on his file to get a point and turned to his sketch saying, "He will never hear any pessimism from Richard Osborne E."
"He's a lesson to me," said Clifford. Then he unfolded a small perfumed note, written on rose-coloured paper, which had been lying on the table before him.
He read it, smiled, whistled a bar or two from "Miss Helyett," and sat down to answer it on his best cream-laid note-paper. When it was written and sealed, he picked up his stick and marched up and down the studio two or three times, whistling.
"Going out?" inquired the other, without turning.
"Yes," he said, but lingered a moment over Elliott's shoulder, watching him pick out the lights in his sketch with a bit of bread.
"To-morrow is Sunday," he observed after a moment's silence.
"Well?" inquired Elliott.
"Have you seen Colette?"
"No, I will to-night. She and Rowden and Jacqueline are coming to Boulant's. I suppose you and Cécile will be there?"
"Well, no," replied Clifford. "Cécile dines at home to-night, and I—I had an idea of going to Mignon's."
Elliott looked at him with disapproval.
"You can make all the arrangements for La Roche without me," he continued, avoiding Elliott's eyes.
"What are you up to now?"
"Nothing," protested Clifford.
"Don't tell me," replied his chum, with scorn; "fellows don't rush off to Mignon's when the set dine at Boulant's. Who is it now?—but no, I won't ask that,—what's the use!" Then he lifted up his voice in complaint and beat upon the table with his pipe. "What's the use of ever trying to keep track of you? What will Cécile say,—oh, yes, what will she say? It's a pity you can't be constant two months, yes, by Jove! and the Quarter is indulgent, but you abuse its good nature and mine too!"
Presently he arose, and jamming his hat on his head, marched to the door.
"Heaven alone knows why any one puts up with your antics, but they all do and so do I. If I were Cécile or any of the other pretty fools after whom you have toddled and will, in all human probabilities, continue to toddle, I say, if I were Cécile I'd spank you! Now I'm going to Boulant's, and as usual I shall make excuses for you and arrange the affair, and I don't care a continental where you are going, but, by the skull of the studio skeleton! if you don't turn up to-morrow with your sketching-kit under one arm and Cécile under the other,—if you don't turn up in good shape, I'm done with you, and the rest can think what they please. Good-night."
Clifford said good-night with as pleasant a smile as he could muster, and then sat down with his eyes on the door. He took out his watch and gave Elliott ten minutes to vanish, then rang the concierge's call, murmuring, "Oh dear, oh dear, why the devil do I do it?"
"Alfred," he said, as that gimlet-eyed person answered the call, "make yourself clean and proper, Alfred, and replace your sabots with a pair of shoes. Then put on your best hat and take this letter to the big white house in the Rue de Dragon. There is no answer, mon petit Alfred."
The concierge departed with a snort in which unwillingness for the errand and affection for M. Clifford were blended. Then with great care the young fellow arrayed himself in all the beauties of his and Elliott's wardrobe. He took his time about it, and occasionally interrupted his toilet to play his banjo or make pleasing diversion for the bull-dogs by gambling about on all fours. "I've got two hours before me," he thought, and borrowed a pair of Elliott's silken foot-gear, with which he and the dogs played ball until he decided to put them on. Then he lighted a cigarette and inspected his dress-coat. When he had emptied it of four handkerchiefs, a fan, and a pair of crumpled gloves as long as his arm, he decided it was not suited to add éclat to his charms and cast about in his mind for a substitute. Elliott was too thin, and, anyway, his coats were now under lock and key. Rowden probably was as badly off as himself. Hastings! Hastings was the man! But when he threw on a smoking-jacket and sauntered over to Hastings' house, he was informed that he had been gone over an hour.
"Now, where in the name of all that's reasonable could he have gone!" muttered Clifford, looking down the street.
The maid didn't know, so he bestowed upon her a fascinating smile and lounged back to the studio.
Hastings was not far away. The Luxembourg is within five minutes' walk of the rue Notre Dame des Champs, and there he sat under the shadow of a winged god, and there he had sat for an hour, poking holes in the dust and watching the steps which lead from the northern terrace to the fountain. The sun hung, a purple globe, above the misty hills of Meudon. Long streamers of clouds touched with rose swept low on the western sky, and the dome of the distant Invalides burned like an opal through the haze. Behind the Palace the smoke from a high chimney mounted straight into the air, purple until it crossed the sun, where it changed to a bar of smouldering fire. High above the darkening foliage of the chestnuts the twin towers of St. Sulpice rose, an ever-deepening silhouette.
A sleepy blackbird was carolling in some near thicket, and pigeons passed and repassed with the whisper of soft winds in their wings. The light on the Palace windows had died away, and the dome of the Pantheon swam aglow above the northern terrace, a fiery Valhalla in the sky; while below in grim array, along the terrace ranged, the marble ranks of queens looked out into the west.
From the end of the long walk by the northern façade of the Palace came the noise of omnibuses and the cries of the street. Hastings looked at the Palace clock. Six, and as his own watch agreed with it, he fell to poking holes in the gravel again. A constant stream of people passed between the Odéon and the fountain. Priests in black, with silver-buckled shoes; line soldiers, slouchy and rakish; neat girls without hats bearing milliners' boxes, students with black portfolios and high hats, students with bérets and big canes, nervous, quick-stepping officers, symphonies in turquoise and silver; ponderous jangling cavalrymen all over dust, pastry cooks' boys skipping along with utter disregard for the safety of the basket balanced on the impish head, and then the lean outcast, the shambling Paris tramp, slouching with shoulders bent and little eye furtively scanning the ground for smokers' refuse;—all these moved in a steady stream across the fountain circle and out into the city by the Odeon, whose long arcades were now beginning to flicker with gas-jets. The melancholy bells of St Sulpice struck the hour and the clock-tower of the Palace lighted up. Then hurried steps sounded across the gravel and Hastings raised his head.
"How late you are," he said, but his voice was hoarse and only his flushed face told how long had seemed the waiting.
She said, "I was kept—indeed, I was so much annoyed—and—and I may only stay a moment."
She sat down beside him, casting a furtive glance over her shoulder at the god upon his pedestal.
"What a nuisance, that intruding cupid still there?"
"Wings and arrows too," said Hastings, unheeding her motion to be seated.
"Wings," she murmured, "oh, yes—to fly away with when he's tired of his play. Of course it was a man who conceived the idea of wings, otherwise Cupid would have been insupportable."
"Do you think so?"
"Ma foi, it's what men think."
"Oh," she said, with a toss of her small head, "I really forget what we were speaking of."
"We were speaking of love," said Hastings.
"I was not," said the girl. Then looking up at the marble god, "I don't care for this one at all. I don't believe he knows how to shoot his arrows—no, indeed, he is a coward;—he creeps up like an assassin in the twilight. I don't approve of cowardice," she announced, and turned her back on the statue.
"I think," said Hastings quietly, "that he does shoot fairly—yes, and even gives one warning."
"Is it your experience, Monsieur Hastings?"
He looked straight into her eyes and said, "He is warning me."
"Heed the warning then," she cried, with a nervous laugh. As she spoke she stripped off her gloves, and then carefully proceeded to draw them on again. When this was accomplished she glanced at the Palace clock, saying, "Oh dear, how late it is!" furled her umbrella, then unfurled it, and finally looked at him.
"No," he said, "I shall not heed his warning."
"Oh dear," she sighed again, "still talking about that tiresome statue!" Then stealing a glance at his face, "I suppose—I suppose you are in love."
"I don't know," he muttered, "I suppose I am."
She raised her head with a quick gesture. "You seem delighted at the idea," she said, but bit her lip and trembled as his eyes met hers. Then sudden fear came over her and she sprang up, staring into the gathering shadows.
"Are you cold?" he said.
But she only answered, "Oh dear, oh dear, it is late—so late! I must go—good-night."
She gave him her gloved hand a moment and then withdrew it with a start.
"What is it?" he insisted. "Are you frightened?"
She looked at him strangely.
"No—no—not frightened,—you are very good to me—"
"By Jove!" he burst out, "what do you mean by saying I'm good to you? That's at least the third time, and I don't understand!"
The sound of a drum from the guard-house at the palace cut him short. "Listen," she whispered, "they are going to close. It's late, oh, so late!"
The rolling of the drum came nearer and nearer, and then the silhouette of the drummer cut the sky above the eastern terrace. The fading light lingered a moment on his belt and bayonet, then he passed into the shadows, drumming the echoes awake. The roll became fainter along the eastern terrace, then grew and grew and rattled with increasing sharpness when he passed the avenue by the bronze lion and turned down the western terrace walk. Louder and louder the drum sounded, and the echoes struck back the notes from the grey palace wall; and now the drummer loomed up before them—his red trousers a dull spot in the gathering gloom, the brass of his drum and bayonet touched with a pale spark, his epaulettes tossing on his shoulders. He passed leaving the crash of the drum in their ears, and far into the alley of trees they saw his little tin cup shining on his haversack. Then the sentinels began the monotonous cry: "On ferme! on ferme!" and the bugle blew from the barracks in the rue de Tournon.
"On ferme! on ferme!"
"Good-night," she whispered, "I must return alone to-night."
He watched her until she reached the northern terrace, and then sat down on the marble seat until a hand on his shoulder and a glimmer of bayonets warned him away.
She passed on through the grove, and turning into the rue de Medici, traversed it to the Boulevard. At the corner she bought a bunch of violets and walked on along the Boulevard to the rue des Écoles. A cab was drawn up before Boulant's, and a pretty girl aided by Elliott jumped out.
"Valentine!" cried the girl, "come with us!"
"I can't," she said, stopping a moment—"I have a rendezvous at Mignon's."
"Not Victor?" cried the girl, laughing, but she passed with a little shiver, nodding good-night, then turning into the Boulevard St. Germain, she walked a tittle faster to escape a gay party sitting before the Café Cluny who called to her to join them. At the door of the Restaurant Mignon stood a coal-black negro in buttons. He took off his peaked cap as she mounted the carpeted stairs.
"Send Eugene to me," she said at the office, and passing through the hallway to the right of the dining-room stopped before a row of panelled doors. A waiter passed and she repeated her demand for Eugene, who presently appeared, noiselessly skipping, and bowed murmuring, "Madame."
"Who is here?"
"No one in the cabinets, madame; in the half Madame Madelon and Monsieur Gay, Monsieur de Clamart, Monsieur Clisson, Madame Marie and their set." Then he looked around and bowing again murmured, "Monsieur awaits madame since half an hour," and he knocked at one of the panelled doors bearing the number six.
Clifford opened the door and the girl entered.
The garçon bowed her in, and whispering, "Will Monsieur have the goodness to ring?" vanished.
He helped her off with her jacket and took her hat and umbrella. When she was seated at the little table with Clifford opposite she smiled and leaned forward on both elbows looking him in the face.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Waiting," he replied, in accents of adoration.
For an instant she turned and examined herself in the glass. The wide blue eyes, the curling hair, the straight nose and short curled lip flashed in the mirror an instant only, and then its depths reflected her pretty neck and back. "Thus do I turn my back on vanity," she said, and then leaning forward again, "What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you," repeated Clifford, slightly troubled.
"Now don't, Valentine—"
"Do you know," she said calmly, "I dislike your conduct?"
He was a little disconcerted, and rang for Eugene to cover his confusion.
The soup was bisque, and the wine Pommery, and the courses followed each other with the usual regularity until Eugene brought coffee, and there was nothing left on the table but a small silver lamp.
"Valentine," said Clifford, after having obtained permission to smoke, "is it the Vaudeville or the Eldorado—or both, or the Nouveau Cirque, or—"
"It is here," said Valentine.
"Well," he said, greatly flattered, "I'm afraid I couldn't amuse you—"
"Oh, yes, you are funnier than the Eldorado."
"Now see here, don't guy me, Valentine. You always do, and, and,—you know what they say,—a good laugh kills—"
"Er—er—love and all that."
She laughed until her eyes were moist with tears. "Tiens," she cried, "he is dead, then!"
Clifford eyed her with growing alarm.
"Do you know why I came?" she said.
"No," he replied uneasily, "I don't."
"How long have you made love to me?"
"Well," he admitted, somewhat startled,—"I should say,—for about a year."
"It is a year, I think. Are you not tired?"
He did not answer.
"Don't you know that I like you too well to—to ever fall in love with you?" she said. "Don't you know that we are too good comrades,—too old friends for that? And were we not,—do you think that I do not know your history, Monsieur Clifford?"
"Don't be—don't be so sarcastic," he urged; "don't be unkind, Valentine."
"I'm not. I'm kind. I'm very kind,—to you and to Cécile."
"Cécile is tired of me."
"I hope she is," said the girl, "for she deserves a better fate. Tiens, do you know your reputation in the Quarter? Of the inconstant, the most inconstant,—utterly incorrigible and no more serious than a gnat on a summer night. Poor Cécile!"
Clifford looked so uncomfortable that she spoke more kindly.
"I like you. You know that. Everybody does. You are a spoiled child here. Everything is permitted you and every one makes allowance, but every one cannot be a victim to caprice."
"Caprice!" he cried. "By Jove, if the girls of the Latin Quarter are not capricious—"
"Never mind,—never mind about that! You must not sit in judgment—you of all men. Why are you here to-night? Oh," she cried, "I will tell you why! Monsieur receives a little note; he sends a little answer; he dresses in his conquering raiment—"
"I don't," said Clifford, very red.
"You do, and it becomes you," she retorted with a faint smile. Then again, very quietly, "I am in your power, but I know I am in the power of a friend. I have come to acknowledge it to you here,—and it is because of that that I am here to beg of you—a—a favour."
Clifford opened his eyes, but said nothing.
"I am in—great distress of mind. It is Monsieur Hastings."
"Well?" said Clifford, in some astonishment.
"I want to ask you," she continued in a low voice, "I want to ask you to—to—in case you should speak of me before him,—not to say,—not to say,—"
"I shall not speak of you to him," he said quietly.
"Can—can you prevent others?"
"I might if I was present. May I ask why?"
"That is not fair," she murmured; "you know how—how he considers me,—as he considers every woman. You know how different he is from you and the rest. I have never seen a man,—such a man as Monsieur Hastings."
He let his cigarette go out unnoticed.
"I am almost afraid of him—afraid he should know—what we all are in the Quarter. Oh, I do not wish him to know! I do not wish him to—to turn from me—to cease from speaking to me as he does! You—you and the rest cannot know what it has been to me. I could not believe him,—I could not believe he was so good and—and noble. I do not wish him to know—so soon. He will find out—sooner or later, he will find out for himself, and then he will turn away from me. Why!" she cried passionately, "why should he turn from me and not from you?"
Clifford, much embarrassed, eyed his cigarette.
The girl rose, very white. "He is your friend—you have a right to warn him."
"He is my friend," he said at length.
They looked at each other in silence.
Then she cried, "By all that I hold to me most sacred, you need not warn him!"
"I shall trust your word," he said pleasantly.