BY KATHERINE CECIL THURSTON
AUTHOR OF "THE MASQUERADER" "THE GAMBLER" ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY FRANK CRAIG
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS NEW YORK AND LONDON MCMX
Published September, 1910.
"I HAVE WAITED ALL MY LIFE FOR THIS"
STANDING AGAIN IN THE OUTER COURT OF A HOUSE IN PETERSBURG
TWO SOULS, DRAWN TOGETHER, TOUCHED IN A FIRST SUBTLE FUSION
"WHY, BOY, THIS IS CLEVER—CLEVER—CLEVER!"
THE IMPRESSION OF A MYSTERY FLOWED BACK UPON HIM
"LOOK! THIS IS WHAT I SHALL DO. THIS!"
THE COMPLETE SEMBLANCE OF THE WOMAN
"C'EST LA VIE! L'ETERNELLE, LA TOUTE-PUISSANTE VIE!"
A night journey is essentially a thing of possibilities. To those who count it as mere transit, mere linking of experiences, it is, of course, a commonplace; but to the imaginative, who by gift divine see a picture in every cloud, a story behind every shadow, it suggests romance—romance in the very making.
Such a vessel of inspiration was the powerful north express as it thundered over the sleeping plains of Germany and France on its night journey from Cologne to Paris. A thing of possibilities indeed, with its varying human freight—stolid Teutons, hard-headed Scandinavians, Slavs whom expediency or caprice had forced to descend upon Paris across the sea of ice. It was the month of January, and an unlikely and unlovely night for long and arduous travel. There were few pleasure-passengers on the express, and if one could have looked through the carriage windows, blurred with damp mist, one would have seen upon almost every face the look—resigned or resolute—of those who fare forth by necessity rather than by choice. In the sleeping-cars all the berths were occupied, but here and them throughout the length of the train an occasional traveller slept on the seat of his carriage, wrapped in coats and rugs, while in the dining-saloon a couple of sleepy waiters lurched to and fro in attendance upon a party of three men whose energy precluded the thought of wasting even the night hours and who were playing cards at one of the small tables. Up and down the whole overheated, swaying train there was the suggestion of mystery, of contrast and effect, and the twinkling eyes of the electric lamps seemed to wink from behind their drawn hoods as though they, worldly wise and watchful, saw the individuality—the inevitable story—behind the drowsy units who sat or lay or lounged unguarded beneath them.
In one carriage, the fifth or sixth from the thundering engine, these lights winked and even laughed one to the other each time the train lurched over the points, and the dark, shrouding hoods quivered, allowing a glimpse at the occupant of the compartment.
It was the figure of a boy upon which the twinkling lamp-eyes flickered—a boy who had as yet scarce passed the barrier of manhood, for the skin of the face was clean and smooth, and the limbs, seen vaguely under a rough overcoat, had the freedom and supple grace that belongs to early youth.
He was sleeping, this solitary traveller—one hand under his head, the other instinctively guarding something that lay deep and snug in the pocket of his overcoat. His attitude was relaxed, but not entirely abandoned to the solace of repose; even in his sleep a something of self-consciousness seemed to cling to him—a need for caution that lay near to the surface of his drowsing senses—for once or twice he started, once or twice his straight, dark eyebrows twitched into a frown, once or twice his fingers tightened nervously upon their treasure. He was subconsciously aware that, deserted though the compartment was, it yet exhaled an alien suggestion, embodied in the rugs, the coats, the hand-baggage of the card-playing travellers, which was heaped upon the seat opposite.
But, despite this physical uneasiness, he was dreaming as the train tore along through the damp, peaceful country—dreaming with that odd confusion of time and scene that follows upon keen excitement, stress of feeling or stress of circumstance.
As he dreamed, he was standing again in the outer court of a house in Petersburg—a house to which he was debtor for one night's shelter; it was early morning and deadly cold. The whole picture was sharp as a cut crystal—the triple court-yard, the stone pavement, the gray well, and frozen pile of firewood. He saw, recognized, lost it, and knew himself to be skimming down the Nevskiy Prospekt and across the Winter Palace Square, where the great angel towers upon its rose-granite monument. Forward, forward he was carried, along the bank of the frozen Neva and over the Troitskiy bridge, the powdered snow stinging his face like pinpoints as it flew up from the nails in his little horse's shoes. Then followed a magnifying of the picture—massed buildings rising from the snow—buildings gold and turquoise-domed, that, even as they materialized, lost splendor and merged into the unpretentious frontage of the Finland station.
The scroll of the dream unwound; the dreamer moved, easing his position, shaking back a lock of dark hair that had fallen across his forehead. He was no longer rocking to the power of the north express; he was standing on the platform at the end of a little train that puffed out of the Finland station—a primitive, miniature train, white with frost and powdered with the ashes of its wood fuel. The vision came and passed a sketch, not a picture—a suggestion of straight tracks, wide snow plains, and the blue, misty blur of fir woods. Then a shifting, a juggling of effects! Abo, the Finnish port, painted itself upon his imagination, and he was embarked upon the lonely sledge-drive, to the harbor. He started in his sleep, shivered and sighed at that remembered drive. The train passed over new points, the hoods of the lamps swayed, the lights blinked and winked, and his mind swung onward in response to the physical jar.
Abo was obliterated. He was on board a ship—a ship ploughing her way through the ice-fields as she neared Stockholm; salt sea air flicked his nostrils, he heard the broken ice tearing the keel like a million files, he was sensible of the crucial sensation—the tremendous quiver—as the vessel slipped from her bondage into the cradle of the sea, a sentient thing welcoming her own element!
The heart of the dreamer leaped to that strange sensation. He drew a long, sharp breath, and sat up, suddenly awake. It was over and done with—the coldness, the rigor, the region of ice bonds! The fingers of the future beckoned to him; the promises of the future lapped his ears as the waves had lapped the ship's sides.
He looked about him, at first excitedly, then confusedly, then a little shamedfacedly, for we are always involuntarily shamed at being tricked by our emotions into a false conception. Drawing his hand from his coat-pocket, he stretched himself with an assumption of ease, as though he saw and recognized the twinkle in the electric lamps and spontaneously rose to its demands.
The train was flying forward at unabated speed. Outside, the raw January air was clinging in a film to the carriage window; inside, the dim light and overheated air made an artificial atmosphere, enervating or stimulating according to the traveller's gifts. To this solitary voyager stimulation was obviously the effect produced, for, try as he might to cheat the inquisitive lamps, interest in every detail of his surroundings was portrayed in his face, in the poise of his head, the quickness of his glance as he gazed round the compartment, verifying the impression that he was alone.
Yes, he was absolutely alone! Everything was as it had been when he settled himself to sleep on the departure of the three strangers. There, on the opposite seat, were their rugs, their fur-lined coats, their illustrated papers—all the impedimenta of prosperous travellers; and there, on the rack above them, was his own modest hand-bag without initials or label—a common little bag that might have belonged to some poor Russian clerk or held the possessions of some needy Polish student. The owner's glance scanned and appraised it, then by suggestion fell to the plain rough overcoat that covered him from his neck to the tops of his high boots, and whose replica was to be seen any day in the meaner streets of Petersburg or Moscow. Like the bag, it was a little strange, a little incongruous in its comfortable surroundings—a little savoring of mystery.
The traveller's pulses quickened, his being lifted to the moment, for in his soul was the spark of adventure, in his eyes the adventurous look—fearless, observant, questioning. In composition, in expression and essence, this boy was that free and fascinating creature, the born adventurer—high of courage, prodigal of emotion, capturer of the world's loot.
The spirit within him shone out in the moment of solitude; he passed his hands down the front, of his coat, revelling in its coarse texture; he rose to his feet, turned to the sheet of gray, misted glass, and, letting down the window, leaned out into the night.
The scene was vague and ghostly, but to eyes accustomed to northern whiteness it was full of suggestion, full of secrecy; to nostrils accustomed to keen, rarefied air there was something poignant and delicious in the scent of turned earth, the savor of vegetation. He could see little or nothing as the train rocked and the landscape tore past, but the atmosphere spoke to him as it speaks to blind men, penetrating his consciousness. Here were open spaces, tracts of country fructifying for the spring to come. A land of promise—of growth—of fulfilment!
He closed his eyes, living in the suggestion, and his spirit sped forward with the onrush of the train. Somewhere beyond the darkness lay the land of his desires! Somewhere behind the veil shone the lights of Paris! With a quick, exulting excitement he laughed; but even as the laugh was caught and scattered to the winds by the thunder of the engine, his bearing changed, the excitement dropped from him, a mask of immobility fell upon his face, and he wheeled round from the window. The card-playing travellers had opened the door of the carriage.
From his shadowy corner the boy eyed them; and they, alert from their game, slightly dazed by the darkness of the carriage, peered back at him, frankly curious. When they had left the compartment he had been a huddled figure demanding no attention; now he was awake and an individual, and human nature prompted interest.
Each in turn looked at him, and at each new glance his coldness of demeanor deepened; until, as the eldest of the party came down the carriage and appropriated the seat beside him, he turned away, pulling up the window with resentful haste.
"Don't do that!" said the third man, pausing in the doorway and speaking in French easily and pleasantly. "Don't do that—if you want the air!"
The boy started and looked round.
"I thank you! But I do not need the air!"
The man smiled acquiescence, but as he stepped into the carriage he took a sharp look at the boy's clothes—the common Russian clothes—and a slightly questioning, slightly satirical expression crossed his face. He was a man who knew his world the globe over, and in his bearing lurked the toleration, the kindly scepticism that such knowledge breeds.
"As you please!" he said, settling himself comfortably in the corner by the door, while the elder of his companions—a tall, spare American—crossed his long legs and lighted a thin black cigar, and the younger—a spruce young Englishman wearing an eye-glass and a small mustache—wrapped himself in his rugs, took a clean pocket-handkerchief from his dressing-case, and opened a large bundle of illustrated papers—French, German, and English.
For a space the train rocked on. No one attempted to speak, and the Russian boy continued to stand by the window, pretending to look through the blurred panes, in reality wondering how he could with least commotion pass down the carriage to his own vacated place.
At last the man with the long cigar broke the silence in a slow, cool voice that betrayed his nationality.
"We're well on time, Blake," he remarked, drawing out his watch.
The youth by the window shot an involuntary, fleeting glance at the two younger men, to see which would answer to the name; and the student of human nature noted the fact that he understood English.
"Oh, it's a good service!" he acquiesced, the tolerant look—half sceptical, half humorous—- passing again over his face.
"I don't know! I think we could do with another few kilometres to the hour." The thin man studied his flat gold watch with the loving interest of one to whom time is a sacred thing.
At this point the youngest of the three raised his head.
"Marvellous sight you have, McCutcheon! Wish I could see by this light!"
McCutcheon leaned forward, replacing his watch. "What! Can't you see your picture-books? Let's have the blinkers off!" He rose, his long, spidery figure stretching up like a grotesque shadow, but as his arm went out to the nearest of the shrouded lamps he was compelled to draw back against the seat of the carriage, and an exclamation of surprise escaped him.
Without warning or apology the Russian boy had turned from the window, and stepping down the carriage, had tumbled into his former seat, hunching himself up with his face to the cushions and his back to his fellow-travellers.
It was a sudden and an uncivil proceeding. The man called Blake smiled; the Englishman shrugged his shoulders; the American, with a movement of quiet determination, drew back the lamp hoods.
In the flood of light the carriage lost its air of mystery, and Blake, who had a fancy for the mysterious, dropped back into his corner and took out his cigar-case with a little feeling of regret. In traversing the world's pathways, beaten or wild, he always made a point of seeing the story behind the circumstance; and, had he realized it, a common instinct bound him in a triangular link to the peering, winking lamps, and to the Russian boy lying unsociably wrapped in his heavy coat. All three had an eye for an adventure.
But the lights were up, and the curtain down—it was a theatre between the acts; and presently the calculating voice of McCutcheon broke forth again, as he relapsed into his original attitude, coiling up his long limbs and nursing his cigar to a glow.
"I can't get over that 'four jacks,'" he said. "To think I could have been funked into seeing Billy at fifty!"
Blake laughed. "'Twas the eye-glass did it, Mac! A man shouldn't be allowed to play poker with an eye-glass; it's taking an undue advantage."
McCutcheon smiled his dry smile and shot a quizzical glance at the neat young Englishman, who had become absorbed in one of his papers.
"Solid face, Blake!" he agreed. "Nothing so fine as an eye-glass for sheer bluff. What would Billy be without one? Well, perhaps we won't say. But with it you have no use for doubt—he's a diplomat all the time."
The young man named Billy showed no irritation. With the composure which he wore as a garment, he went on with his occupation.
For a time McCutcheon bore this aloofness, then he opened a new attack. "What are you reading, my son? Makes a man sort of want his breakfast to see that hungry look in your eyes. Share the provender, won't you?"
Billy looked up sedately.
"You fellows think my life's a game," he said. "But I tell you it takes some doing to keep in touch with things."
Blake laughed chaffingly. "And the illustrated weekly papers are an excellent substitute for Blue-books?"
Billy remained undisturbed. "It's all very well to scoff, but one may get a side-light anywhere. In diplomacy nothing's too insignificant to notice."
Again Blake laughed. "The principle on which it offers you a living?"
"Oh, come," said Billy, "that's rather rough! You know very well what I mean. 'Tisn't always in the serious reports you get the color of a fact, just as the gossip of a dinner-table is often more enlightening than a cabinet council."
"I was thinking of this Petersburg affair."
"What? The everlasting Duma business?" McCutcheon drew in a long breath of smoke.
Billy looked superior, as befitted a man who dealt in subtler matters than mere politics. "Not at all," he said. "The disappearance of the Princess Davorska."
Here Blake made a murmur of impatience. "Oh, Billy, don't!" he said. "It's so frightfully banal."
McCutcheon took his cigar from his mouth. "The woman who disappeared on the eve of her marriage?"
"Yes," broke in Blake, "disappeared on the eve of her marriage to elope with some poet or painter, and set society by the ears. Thoroughly modern and banal!"
The young diplomat glanced up once more.
"I don't think there's any suggestion of a lover."
"Fact is more potent than suggestion, Billy. Of course there is a lover. Princesses don't disappear alone."
"You're a Socialist, Ned." Billy's eyes returned to his paper. "Like all good Socialists, crammed to the neck with class bigotry. Nobody is such an individualist as the man who advocates equality!"
Blake smiled. "That seems to sound all right," he said; "but it doesn't remove the lover."
The good-humored scepticism at last forced a way to Billy's susceptibilities.
"Look here," he said, crossly, "if hearing's not believing, perhaps seeing is! Look at these pictures; they're not particularly modern or banal."
He held out his paper, but Blake shook his head.
"No! No, Billy, not for me. If it was some little Rumanian gypsy who had run away from her tribe I'd take her to my heart and welcome. But a Princess Davorska—no!"
At this point McCutcheon stretched out his long arm and took the paper from Billy's hand. "Let's have a squint!" he said. "Lover or no lover, she must be a bit wide awake." And, curling himself up again, he began to read from the paper, in a monotonous murmuring voice: "'The Princess, as well as being a woman of artistic accomplishments, is an ardent sportswoman, having in her early girlhood hunted and shot with keen zest on her father's estates. The above picture shows her at the age of seventeen, carrying a gun.' By the Lord, she is wide awake!" he added, by way of comment. "She is wide awake carrying that gun, but I'd lay my money on the second picture. Say, Billy, she looks a queen in her court finery!"
But here real disgust crossed Blake's face. "Oh, that'll do, Mac! Give us peace about the woman. I'm sick to death of all such nonsense. We're due in a couple of hours. I think I'll try for forty winks." He threw away his cigar and tucked his rug about him.
McCutcheon glanced at him, and, seeing that he was in earnest, handed the paper back to Billy.
"Thanks, Mac!" Blake murmured. "Sorry if I was a bear! Don't switch off the light, it won't bother me." He nodded, smiled, drew his rug closer about his knees, and settled himself to sleep with the ease of the accustomed traveller.
For close upon an hour complete silence reigned in the heated carriage. Blake slept silently and peacefully; Billy went methodically through his papers, dropping them one by one at his feet as he finished with them; McCutcheon smoked, gazing into space with the blank expression of the strenuous man who has learned to utilize his momentary respites; while, stretched along the cushions of the carriage, his face hidden, his eyes wide open and attentive, lay the young Russian, his fingers tentatively caressing the treasure in the pocket of his coat.
But at last the spell was broken. The diplomatic Englishman dropped his last paper, and McCutcheon stretched himself and looked once more at his watch.
"Paris in an hour, Billy! Didn't those loafers in the dining-car promise us coffee somewhat about this time?"
Billy looked up, unruffled of mind and body as in the first moment of the journey. "I believe they did," he said. "Tell you what! You jog their memories, while I go and wash. What about calling Ned?"
At sound of his own name, Blake's eyes opened. His waking was characteristic of him. It was no slow recovery of the senses; he was asleep and then awake—fully, easily awake, with a complete consciousness of his position—a complete, assured grasp of time and place.
"We're getting on, eh?" he said. "I suppose you're going to tub before those fat Belgians in the sleeping-car, Billy? If you are, keep a second place for me, like a good boy. There's nothing more fiendishly triumphant than taking a bath in the basin while the rest of the train is rattling the door-handle. Don't forget! Second place!" Then he turned to the American. "What about the coffee, Mac? I expect those poor devils of waiters have slept your order off."
"I was just about to negotiate that coffee transaction." McCutcheon stood up. "You come too, my son! A little exercise will give you an appetite." He paused to stretch his long, lean body, and incidentally his glance fell upon their travelling companion, and he indicated the recumbent figure with a jerk of the head.
"Say, Ned, ought we to wake our unsociable friend?" Blake cast one quick glance at the huddled form, then he answered, tersely: "Let him alone! He's not asleep—and, anyway, he understands English."
At which McCutcheon made a comprehending grimace, and the two left the carriage.
* * * * *
For many minutes the young Russian did not move; then, when positive certainty of his solitude had grown into his mind, he lifted himself on one elbow and looked cautiously about him.
A change had passed over his face in the last hour—an interesting change. The smooth cheek that the night air had cooled to paleness was now flushed, and there was a spark of anger in the bright eyes. Unquestionably this boy had a temper and a spirit of his own, and both had been aroused. There was a certain arrogance, a certain contempt in his glance now as it swept the inoffensive coats and rugs of the departed travellers, a certain antagonism as he sat up, tossed back the lock of hair that had again fallen across his forehead, and turned his eyes to the heap of papers lying upon the carriage floor.
For long he gazed upon these papers, as though they exercised a magnetic influence, and at last, with a swift impulse, extremely characteristic, he stretched out his arm and drew forth the lowest of the heap.
He regained his former position with a quick, lithe movement of the body, and in an instant he was poring over the paper, the pages turning with incredible speed under the eagerness of his touch. At last he reached the page he sought, the page that had offered ground for discussion to the three voyagers an hour earlier.
His eyes flashed, his fingers tightened, his dark head was bent lower over the paper. Two pictures confronted him. The first was of a woman in Russian court dress, who wore her jewels and her splendor of apparel with an air of pride and careless supremacy that had in it something magnificent, something semi-barbaric. The boy looked at this curious and arresting picture, but only for a moment; by some affinity, some subtle attraction, his eyes turned instantly to the second portrait—the girl carrying the gun—and as if in answer to some secret sympathy, some silent comprehension, the frown upon his brows relaxed and his lips parted.
It was still the woman of the jewels and the splendid apparel, but it was a woman infinitely free, infinitely unhampered. The plain, serviceable clothes fitted the slight figure as though they had been long worn and loved; the hair was closely coiled, so that the young face looked out upon the world frank and unadorned as a boy's. Here, as in the first picture, the eyes looked forth with a curious, proud directness; but beneath the directness was a glint of humor, a flash of daring absent in the other face; the mouth smiled, seeming to anticipate life's secrets, the ungloved hand held the gun with a touch peculiarly caressing, peculiarly firm.
The traveller looked, looked again, and then, with a deliberation odd in so slight a circumstance, folded the paper, rose, and stepped to the window of the carriage.
The night mist beat in, still raw and cold, but somewhere behind the darkness was the stirring, the vague presage of the day to come. He leaned out, fingers close about the paper, lips and nostrils breathing in the suggestive, vaporous air. For a moment he stood, steadying himself to the motion of the train, palpitating to his secret thoughts; then, with a little theatricality all for his own edification, he opened his fingers and, freeing the paper, watched it swirl away, hang for a second like a moth against the lighted window, and vanish into the night.
'Journeys end in lovers' meeting.' The phrase conjures a picture. The court-yard of some inn, glowing ripe in the tints of the setting sun—open doors—an ancient coach disgorging its passengers! This—or, perhaps, some quay alive with sound and movement—cries of command in varying tongues—crowded gangways—rigging massed against the sky—all the paraphernalia of romance and travel. But the real journey—the journey of adventure itself—is frequently another matter: often gray, often loverless, often demanding from the secret soul of the adventurer spirit and inspiration, lest the blood turn cold in sick dismay, and the brain cloud under its weight of nostalgia.
Paris in the dawn of a wet day is a sorry sight; the Gare du Nord in the hours of early morning is a place of infinite gloom. As the north express thundered into its recesses, waking strange and hollow echoes, the long sweep of the platform brought a shudder to more than one tired mind. A string of sleepy porters—gray silhouettes against a gray background—was the only sign of life. Colors there were none, lovers there were none, Parisian joy of living there was not one vestige.
Paris! The murmur crept through the train, stirring the weariest to mechanical action. Paris! Heads were thrust through the windows, wraps and hand-bags passed out to the shadowy, mysterious porters who received them in a silence born of the godless hour and the penetrating, chilling dampness of the atmosphere.
In the carriage fifth or sixth from the engine the three fellow-travellers greeted the arrival in the orthodox way. The tall American stretched his long limbs and groaned wearily as he got his belongings together, while the dapper young Englishman thrust his head out of the window and withdrew it as rapidly.
"Beastly morning!" he announced. "Paris on a wet day is like a woman with draggled skirts."
"Get rid of our belongings first, Billy, make epigrams after!" The man called Blake pushed him quietly aside and, stepping to the window, dropped a leather bag into the hands of a porter.
Of the three, his manner was the most indifferent, his temper the most unruffled; and of the three, he alone remembered the fourth occupant of the carriage, for, being relieved of his bag, he turned with his hand still upon the window, and his eyes sought the youthful figure drawn with lonely isolation into its corner.
"Do you want a porter?" he asked.
The question was unexpected. The boy started and sat straighter in his seat. For one moment he seemed to sway between two impulses, then, with a new determination, he looked straight at his questioner with his clear eyes.
"No," he said, speaking slowly and with a grave deliberation, "I do not need a porter. I have no luggage—but this." He rose, as if to prove the truth of his declaration, and lifted his valise from the rack.
It was a simple movement, simple as the question and answer that had preceded it, but it held interest for Blake. He could not have analyzed the impression, but something in the boy's air touched him, something in the young figure so plainly clad, so aloof, stood out with sharp appeal in the grayness and unreality of the dawn. A feeling that was neither curiosity nor pity, and yet savored of both, urged him to further speech. As his two companions, anxious to be free of the train, passed out into the corridor, he glanced once more at the slight figure, at the high Russian boots, the long overcoat, the fur cap drawn down over the dark hair.
"Look here! you aren't alone in Paris?" he asked in the easy, impersonal way that spoke his nationality. "You have people—friends to meet you?"
For an instant the look that had possessed the boy's face during the journey—the look of suspicion akin to fear—leaped up, but on the moment it was conquered. The well-poised head was thrown back, and again the eyes met Blake's in a deliberate gaze.
"Why do you ask, monsieur?"
The words were clipped, the tone proud and a little cold.
Another man might have hesitated to reply truthfully, but Blake was an Irishman and used to self-expression.
"I ask," he said, simply, "because you are so young."
A new expression—a new daring—swept the boy's mobile face. A spirit of raillery gleamed in his eyes, and he smiled for the first time.
"How old, monsieur?"
The question, the smile touched Blake anew. He laughed involuntarily with a sudden sense of friendliness.
The boy, still smiling, shook his head.
"Guess again, monsieur."
Blake's interest flashed out. Here, in the gray station, in this damp hour of dawn, he had touched something magnetic—some force that drew and held him. A quality intangible and indescribable seemed to emanate from this unknown boy, some strange radiance of vitality that flooded his surroundings as with sunshine.
"Eighteen, then!" He laughed once more, with a curious sense of pleasure.
But from the corridor outside a slow voice was borne back on the damp, close air, forbidding further parley.
"Blake! I say, Blake! For the Lord's sake, get a move on!"
The spell was broken, the moment of companionship passed. Blake drifted toward the carriage door, the boy following.
Outside in the corridor they were sucked into the stream of departing passengers—that odd medley of men and women, unadorned, jaded, careless, that a night train disgorges. Slowly, step by step, the procession made its way, each unit that composed it glancing involuntarily into the empty carriages that he passed—the carriages that, in their dimmed light, their airlessness, their debris of papers, seemed to be a reflection of his own exhausted condition; then a gust of chilly air told of the outer world, and one by one the travellers slid through the narrow doorway, each instinctively pausing to brace himself against the biting cold before stepping down upon the platform.
At last it was Blake's turn. He, too, paused; then he, too, took the final plunge, shivered, glanced at where McCutcheon and the Englishman were talking to their porters, then turned to watch the Russian boy swing himself lithely down from the high step of the train.
All about him was the consciousness of the awakening crowd, conveyed by the jostling of elbows, the deepening hum of voices.
"Look here!" he said again, in response to his original impulse. "You have somebody to meet you?"
The boy glanced up, a secret emotion burning in his eyes. "No, monsieur."
"You are quite alone?"
"And why are you here—to play or to work?"
The question was unwarrantable, but an Irishman can dispense with warranty in a manner unknown to other men. It had ever been Blake's way to ask what he desired to know.
This time no offence showed itself in the boy's face.
"In part to work, in part to play, monsieur," he answered, gravely; "in part to learn life."
The reply was strange to Blake's ears—strange in its grave sincerity, stranger still in its quiet fearlessness.
"But you are such a child!" he cried, impulsively. "You—"
Imperceptibly the slight figure stiffened, the proud look flashed again into the eyes.
"Many thanks, monsieur, but I am older than you think—and very independent. I have the honor monsieur, to wish you good-bye."
The tone was absolutely courteous, but it was final. He bowed with easy foreign grace, raised his fur cap, and, turning, swung down the platform and out of sight.
Blake stood watching him—watching until the high head, the straight shoulders, the lithe, swinging body were but a memory; then he turned with a start, as a hand was laid upon his shoulder, and the pleasant, prosaic voice of the young Englishman assailed his ears.
"My dear chap, what in the world are you doing? Not day-dreaming with the mercury at thirty?"
"Foolish—but I was!" Blake answered, calmly. "I was watching that young Russian stalk away into the unknown, and I was wondering—"
He smiled a little cynically. "I was wondering, Billy, what type of individual and what particular process fate will choose to let him break himself upon."
* * * * *
The most splendid moment of an adventure is not always the moment of fulfilment, not even the moment of conception, but the moment of first accomplishment, when the adventurer deliberately sets his face toward the new road, knowing that his boats are burned.
Nothing could have been less inspiring than the dreary Gare du Nord, nothing less inviting than the glimpse of Paris to be caught through its open doorways; but had the whole world laughed him a welcome, the young Russian's step could not have been more elastic, his courage higher, his heart more ready to pulse to the quick march of his thoughts, as he strode down the gray platform and out into the open.
In the open he paused to study his surroundings. As yet the full tale of passengers had not emerged, and only an occasional wayfarer, devoid of baggage as himself, had fared forth into the gloom. Outside, the artificial light of the station ceased to do battle with nature, and only an occasional street lamp gave challenge to the gloomy dawn. The damp mist that all night had enshrouded Paris still clung about the streets like ragged grave-clothes, and at the edge of the pavement half a dozen fiacres were ranged in a melancholy line, the wretched horses dozing as they stood, the drivers huddled into their fur capes and numbed by the clinging cold. Everywhere was darkness and chill and the listless misery of a winter dawn, when vitality is at its lowest ebb and the passions of man are sunk in lethargy.
Only a creature infinitely young could have held firm in face of such dejection, only eyes as alert and wakeful as those of this wayfaring boy could possibly have looked undaunted at the shabby streets with their flaunting travesty of joy exhibited in the dripping awnings of the deserted cafes, that offered Biere, Billard, and yet again Biere to an impassive world.
But the eyes were wakeful, the soul of the adventurer was infinitely young. He looked at it all with a certain steadfastness that seemed to say, "Yes, I see you! You are hideous, slatternly, unfriendly; but through all the disguise I recognize you. Through the mask I trace the features—subtle, alluring, fascinating. You are Paris! Paris!"
The idea quickened action as a draught of wine might quicken thought; his hand involuntarily tightened upon his valise, his body braced itself afresh, and, as if resigning himself finally to chance, that deity loved of all true adventurers, he stepped from the pavement into the greasy roadway.
Seeing him move, a loafer, crouching in the shadow of the station, slunk reluctantly into the open and offered to procure him a fiacre; but the boy's shake of the head was determined, and, crossing the road, he turned to the left, gazing up with eager interest at the many hotels that rub shoulders in that uninteresting region.
One after the other he reviewed and rejected them, moving onward with the excitement that is born of absolute uncertainty. Onward he went, without pause, until the pavement was intersected by a side-street, and peering up through the misty light he read the legend, "rue de Dunkerque."
Rue de Dunkerque! It conveyed nothing to his mind. But was he not seeking the unknown? Again his head went up, again his shoulders stiffened, and, smiling to himself at some secret thought, he swung round the corner and plunged into the unexplored.
Half way down the rue de Dunkerque stands the Hotel Railleux. It is a tall and narrow house, somewhat dirty and entirely undistinguished; there is nothing to recommend it save perhaps an air of privacy, a certain insignificance that wedges it between the surrounding buildings in a manner tempting to one anxious to avoid his fellows.
This quality it was that caught the boy's attention. He paused and studied the Hotel Railleux with an attention that he had denied to the large and common hostelries that front the station. He looked at it long and meditatively, then very slowly and thoughtfully he walked to the end of the street. At the end of the street he turned, his mind made up, and, hurrying back, went straight into the hall of the hotel as though thirsting to pledge himself irrevocably to his decision.
It is impossible for the sensible individual to see romance in this entry into a third-rate Parisian hotel—to see daring or to see danger—but the boy's heart was beating fast as the glass door swung behind him, and his tongue was dry as he stepped into the little office on the right of the poor hall.
Here in the office the story of the streets was repeated. A dingy gas-jet shed a faint light, as though reluctantly awake; behind a small partition, half counter, half desk, a wan and sleepy—looking man was cowering over a stove. As the boy entered he looked up uncertainly, then he rose and smiled, for your Parisian is exhausted indeed when he fails to conjure up a smile.
The words were a travesty in view of the miserable dawn, but the boy took heart. There was greeting in the tone. He moistened his lips, which felt dry as his tongue in his momentary nervousness, then he stepped closer to the counter.
"Good-day, monsieur! I require a bedroom."
"A bedroom? But certainly, monsieur!" The shrewd though tired eyes of the man passed over his visitor's clothes and the valise in his hand. "We can give you a most excellent room at"—he raised his eyebrows in tactful hesitation—"at five francs?"
The boy's eyes opened in genuine, instant surprise. "For so little?" he exclaimed. Then, covered with confusion, he reddened furiously and stammered, "For—for so much, I mean?"
The man in the office was all smooth, politeness, anxious to cover a foreigner's slip of speech. 'But certainly, no! If five francs was more than monsieur cared to pay, then for three francs there was a most charming, a most agreeable room on the fifth floor. True, it did not look upon the street, but then perhaps monsieur preferred quiet. If monsieur would give himself the trouble of mounting—'
Monsieur, still confused by his own mistake, and nervously anxious to insist upon his position, repeated again that five francs was out of the question, and that, without giving himself the trouble of mounting, he would then and there decide upon the agreeable and quiet room at three francs.
'But certainly! It was understood!' The guardian of the office, now fully awake and aroused to interest in this princely transaction, disappeared from behind the counter into the back regions of the hotel, and could be heard calling "Jean! Jean!" in a high, insistent tone.
After some moments of silence he returned, followed by a large and amiable individual in a dirty blue blouse, who had apparently but lately arisen from sleep.
'Now if monsieur would intrust his baggage to the valet—'
The guardian of the office took a key from a nail in the wall. Jean stepped forward, pleased and self-conscious, and took the valise from the boy's hand. Then all three smiled and bowed.
It was one of those foolish little comedies—utterly unnecessary, curiously pleasant—that occur twenty times a day in Parisian life. Involuntarily the adventurer's heart warmed to the pallid clerk and to the dirty hotel porter. He had arrived here without luggage, shabby, unrecommended, yet no princely compatriot of his own could have been made more sensible of welcome. He stepped out of the office and followed his guide, conscious that, if only for an instant, Paris had lifted her mask and smiled—the radiant, anticipated smile.
There is no such unnecessary luxury as a lift in the Hotel Railleux. At the back of the hall the spiral staircase begins its steep ascent, mounting to unimagined heights.
Jean, breathing audibly, led the way, pausing at every landing to assure monsieur that the ascent was nothing—a mere nothing, and that before another thought could pass through monsieur's mind the fifth floor would be reached. The boy followed, climbing and ever climbing, until the meagre hand-rail appeared to lengthen into dream-like coils, and the threadbare, drab-hued carpet, with its vivid red border, to assume the proportions of some confusing scroll.
But at length the end was reached, and Jean, beaming and triumphant, announced their goal.
'This way! If monsieur would have the goodness to take two steps in this direction!' He dived into a long, dark corridor, illuminated by a single flickering gas-jet, twin brother to that which lighted the office below; and, still eager, still breathing loudly, he ushered the guest toward what in his humble soul he believed to be the luxurious, the impressive bedroom supplied by the Hotel Railleux at three francs a night.
The boy looked about him as he passed down the dim corridor. Apparently he and Jean alone were awake in this gloomy maze of closed doors and sleeping passages. One sign of humanity—and one alone—came to his senses with a suggestion of sordid drama. On the floor, at the closed door of one of the rooms, stood a battered black tray on which reposed an empty champagne bottle and two soiled glasses.
Life! His quick imagination conjured a picture—conjured and shrank from it. He turned away with a sense of sharp disgust and almost ran down the corridor to where Jean was fitting a key into the door of his prospective bedroom.
"The room, monsieur!" Jean's voice was full of pride. He had lived for ten years in the Hotel Railleux, working as six men and six women together would not have worked in the fashionable quarter, and he had never been shaken in his belief that Paris held no more inviting hostelry.
The boy obediently stepped forward into the tiny apartment, in which a big wooden bedstead loomed out of all proportion. His movements were hasty, as though he desired to escape from some impression; his voice, when he spoke, was vague.
"Very nice! Very nice!" he said. "And—and what is the view?"
"The view? Oh, but monsieur will like the view!" Jean stepped to the window, drew back the heavy cretonne curtains, and threw open the long window, admitting a breath of chilling cold. "The court-yard! See, monsieur! The court-yard!"
The boy came forward into the biting air and gazed down into the well-like depths of gloom, at the bottom of which could be discerned a small flagged court, ornamented by a couple of dwarfed and frost-bitten trees in painted tubs.
Jean, watchful of the visitor's face, broke forth anew with inexhaustible tact.
'It was a fine view—monsieur would admit that! But, naturally, it was not the street! Now No. 107, across the corridor—at five francs—?'
Monsieur was aroused. "No! No! certainly not. The view was of no consequence. The bed looked all right."
'The bed!' Here Jean spoke with deep feeling. 'There was no better bed in Paris. Had he not himself put clean sheets on it that day?' He turned from the window, and with the hand of an expert displayed the beauties of the sparse blankets, the cotton sheets, and the mountainous double mattress.
'But monsieur was anxious to retire? Doubtless monsieur would sleep until dejeuner? A most excellent dejeuner was served in the salle-a-manger on the second floor.'
The words flowed forth in a stream—agreeable, monotonous, reminiscent of the far-away province that had long ago bred this good creature. Suddenly the exhaustion of the long journey, the sleep so long denied rose about the traveller like a misty vapor. He longed for solitude; he pined for rest.
"I am satisfied with everything," he said, abruptly. "Leave me. I have not been in bed for two nights."
A flood of sympathy overspread Jean's face: he threw up his hands. "Poor boy! Poor boy! What a terrible thing!" With a touch as light as a woman's his work-worn fingers smoothed the pillow invitingly, and, tiptoeing to the door, he disappeared in tactful and silent comprehension of the situation.
Vaguely the boy was conscious of his departure. A great lassitude was falling upon him, making him value the isolation of his three-franc room with a deep gratitude, turning his gaze toward the unpromising bed with an indescribable longing. Mechanically, as the door closed, he threw off his heavy overcoat, kicked off his high boots, discarded his coat and trousers, and, without waiting to search in his bag for another garment, stepped into bed and curled himself up in the flannel shirt he had worn all day.
The bed was uncomfortable with that extraordinary discomfort of the old-fashioned French bed, that feels as though it were padded with cotton wool of indescribable heaviness. The sheets were coarse, the multitudinous clothes were weighty without being warm, but no prince on his bed of roses ever rested with more luxury of repose than did this young adventurer as, drawing the blankets to his chin, he stretched his limbs with the slow, delicious enjoyment born of long travel.
Jean had drawn the cretonne curtains, but through their chinks streaks of bluish, shadowy light presaged the coming day. From his lair the boy looked out at these ghostly fingers of the morning, then his eyes travelled round the dark room until at last they rested upon his clothes lying, as he had thrown them, on the floor. He looked at them—the boots, the coat and trousers, the heavy overcoat—and suddenly some imperative thought banished sleep from his eyes. He sat up in bed; he shivered as the cold air nipped his shoulder; then, unhesitatingly, he slipped from between the sheets and slid out upon the floor.
The room was small; the clothes lay within an arm's length. He shivered again, stooped, and, picking up the overcoat, dived his hand into the deep pocket, and drew forth the packet that he had guarded so tenaciously in the train.
For a moment he stood looking at it in the blue light of the dawn—a thick brown packet, seven or eight inches long, tied with string and sealed. Once or twice he looked at it, seemingly lost in reflection; once or twice he turned it about in his hand as if to make certain it was intact; then, with a deep sigh indicative of satisfaction, he stepped back into bed, slipped the packet under his pillow and, with his fingers faithfully enlaced in the string, fell asleep.
It was eleven o'clock when the boy woke. All the excitement of the past days had culminated in the great exhaustion of the night before.
He had slept as a child might sleep—dreamlessly, happily, unthinkingly. In that silent hour Nature had drawn him into her wide embrace, lulling him with a mother's gentleness; and now, in the moment of waking, it seemed that again the same beneficent agency was dispensing love and favor, for he opened his eyes upon a changed world. A magician's wand had been waved over the city during his hours of sleep; the mist and oppression of the night had disappeared with the darkness. Paris was under the dominion of the frost.
Instinctively, even before his eyelids lifted, the northern soul within him apprised him of this change. He inhaled the crisp coldness of the air with a vague familiarity; he opened his eyes slowly and stared about the unknown room in an instant of hesitating doubt; then, with a great leap of the spirit, he recognized his position. Last night—the days and nights that had preceded it—flooded his consciousness, and in a moment he was out of bed and pulling back the drab-hued curtains that hid the window.
Having freed the daylight, he leaned out, peering greedily down into the well-like court, where even the stunted trees in their painted tubs were coated white with rime; then, with another impulse, as quickly conceived, as quickly executed, he drew back into the room, fired with the desire to be out and about in this newly created world.
By day, the details of the room stood out with a prominence that had been denied them in the dim candle-light of the night before, and he realized now, what had escaped him then, that there was neither dressing-table, wardrobe, nor chest of drawers, that the entire space of the small apartment was filled by the clumsy bed, a folding wash-stand, and two ponderous arm-chairs covered in shabby red velvet. These, with a dingy gold-framed mirror hanging above the tiny corner fireplace, and a gilt clock under a glass shade, formed the comforts purchasable for three francs.
He studied it all solemnly and attentively, not omitting the gray wall-paper of melancholy design, and content that he had acquitted himself dutifully toward his surroundings, he unpacked his valise, and proceeded to dress for the day's happenings.
The contents of the valise were not imposing—a change of linen, a soft felt hat, a pair of shoes, and a well-worn blue serge suit. The boy looked at each article as he drew it forth with a quaint attentiveness quite disproportionate to either its appearance or its value. But the process seemed to please him, and he lingered over it, ceasing almost reluctantly to appraise his belongings, and beginning to dress.
This morning he discarded the high Russian boots and the fur cap of yesterday, and arrayed himself instead, and with much precision, in the serge suit. Worn as this suit was, it evidently retained a pristine value in its owner's eyes, for no sooner had he fastened the last button of the coat than he looked instinctively for the mirror in which to study the effect.
The mirror unfortunately was high and, crane his neck as he might, he could see nothing beyond the waves of his short, dark hair and his eager, questioning eyes. But the effect must be observed, and, with an anxiety in seeming contrast to his nature, he pulled one of the massive velvet chairs to the fireplace and, mounting upon it, surveyed himself at every angle with deep intentness. At last, satisfied, he jumped to the ground, and taking the brown-paper packet from the hiding-place where it had reposed all night, bestowed it again in the pocket of his overcoat and, picking up the felt hat, left the room.
The corridor, despite the advent of the day, was still dark, save where an occasional door stood ajar and a shaft of sun from the outer world shot across the drab carpet; but Jean had been over the floor with his broom while the hotel slept, and the battered tray with its suggestion of sordid festivity had been removed. Even here the electric air of the morning had made entry, and, yielding to its seduction, the boy gave rein to his eagerness as he hurried forward to the head of the stairs and laid his hand upon the meagre banister.
From the hall below the white light of the day ascended with subtle invitation, while outside the world hummed with possibilities. He began the descent, light as a Mercury, his feet scarcely touching the steps that last night had offered so toilsome a progress, and on the third floor he encountered Jean, bearing another tray laden with plates and covered dishes.
At sight of the young face, the good creature's smile broke forth irresistibly.
'Ah, but monsieur had slept!' The little eyes ran over the face and figure of the guest with visible pleasure.
The boy laughed—the full, light-hearted laugh that belongs to the beginning of things.
"Yes, I have slept; and now, you may believe, I have an appetite!"
Jean echoed the laugh with a spontaneity that held no disrespect. He lingered, drawn, as the Irishman in the train had been drawn, by something original, something vital, in the youthful personality.
'His faith! But monsieur had the spirit as well as the appetite!'
"Ah, the spirit!" For a fleeting second the boy's eyes looked away beyond Jean—untidy, attentive, comprehending—beyond the neutral-tinted walls and the shabby carpet of the Hotel Railleux, seeing in vision the things that were to come. Then, with his swift impulsiveness, he flung his dream from him. What mattered the future? What mattered the past? He was here in the present—in the moment; and the moment, great or small, demanded living.
"Never mind the spirit, Jean! Let us consider the flesh! Where is the salle-a-manger?"
'The salle-a-manger was on the second floor.'
'The second floor? But of course! Had not Jean mentioned that fact last night?' With a nod and a smile, he was away down the intervening steps and at the door of the eating-room before Jean could balance his tray for his renewed ascent.
The room that the boy entered was in keeping with the rest of the house—old-fashioned and in ill-repair. The floor was devoid of covering, the ceiling low, the only furniture a dozen small tables meagrely set out for dejeuner. On the moment of his entry eleven of these tables were unoccupied, but at the twelfth an eager young waiter attended upon a stout provincial Frenchwoman who was partaking heartily of a pungently smelling stew.
On the opening of the door the waiter glanced round in strained anticipation, and the lady of the stew looked up and bowed a greeting to the new-comer.
It struck the boy as curious—this welcome from a total stranger, but it woke anew the pleasant warmth, the agreeable sense of friendliness. With the tingling sensation of doing a daring deed, he glanced round the empty room, scanned the two long windows on which the cold, bright sun played laughingly, and through which the rattle and hum of the rue de Dunkerque penetrated like an exhilarating accompaniment, then, he walked straight to the table of the lady, smiled and, in his own turn, bowed.
'Would madame permit him to sit at her table? It was sad to be alone upon so fine a morning.'
A woman of any other nationality might have looked at him askance; but madame was French. She was fifty years of age, she was fat, she was ugly—but she was French. The sense of a pleasant encounter—the appreciation of romance was in her blood. She smiled at the debonair boy with as agreeable a self-consciousness as though she had been a young girl.
'But certainly, if monsieur desired. The pleasure was for her.'
Again an interchange of bows and smiles, sympathetically repeated by the interested young waiter. Then the boy, laying his hat and coat aside, seated himself at the table and entered upon the business of the hour, while madame became tactfully absorbed in her odoriferous stew.
'What did monsieur desire?' The waiter stood anxiously attentive, his head inclining gravely to one side, his dirty napkin swinging from his left hand.
The boy glanced up.
'What could the Hotel Railleux offer?'
The waiter met his eye steadfastly. 'Anything that monsieur cared to order.'
The boy encountered the steadfast look, and a little gleam of humor shot into his eyes.
'Well, then, to begin with, should they say Sole Waleska?'
The waiter's glance wavered, he threw the weight of his body from one foot to the other. Involuntarily madame looked up.
The boy buried himself behind an expression of profound seriousness.
"Yes! Sole Waleska! Or, perhaps, Coulibiac a la Russe!"
The waiter's mouth opened in a desperate resolve to meet the worst. Madame's eyes discreetly sought her plate.
The boy threw back his head and laughed aloud at his own small jest. "Bring me two eggs en cocotte," he substituted, and laughed again in sheer pleasure at the waiter's sudden smile, his sudden restoration to dignity, as he hurried away to put a seal upon an order that permitted the hotel to retain its self-respect.
Again madame looked up. 'Monsieur was fond of his little pleasantry! This waiter was a good boy, but slow. They did not keep a sufficiency of servants at the Hotel Railleux. But doubtless monsieur had noticed that?'
The boy met her inquisitive glance with disarming frankness, but his words when he answered gave little information.
'No. He had not as yet had time to notice anything.'
'But of course! Monsieur was a new arrival? He had come—when was it—?' Madame appeared to search her memory.
'But of course. Yesterday! And what a day it had been! What weather for a long journey! It had been a long journey, had it not?'
The boy looked vague. 'Oh, it had been of a sufficient length!'
Madame toyed with the remnants of her stew. 'It had, perhaps, been a journey from England? Monsieur was not French, although he had so charming a fluency in the language?' Her eyes, her whole provincial, inquisitive face begged for information, but the boy was firm.
'We are each of the country God has given us!' he informed her. Then he added with convincing certainty that madame was without doubt Parisienne.
Madame bridled at the soothing little falsehood.
'Alas! nothing so interesting. She was of the provinces.'
At once the ice was broken; at once they were on the footing of friends, and madame's soul poured forth its secret vanities.
'Monsieur was too kind. No, she was provincial—though, of a truth, Paris was so well known to her that she might almost claim to be Parisienne.'
The boy's interest was undiminished. 'Might he venture to ask if it was pleasure alone that had brought madame to the capital—or had business—?' He left the sentence discreetly unfinished.
Madame pushed her empty plate away and took a toothpick from the table.
'How observant was monsieur!' She eyed the bright young face with growing approval. 'Yes, business, alas, was the pivot of her visit! This terrible business—exacting so much, giving so little in return!' She heaved a weighty sigh, then her fat face melted into smiles. 'But after all, what would you?' She shrugged her ample shoulders, and the toothpick came into full play.
'What would you, indeed?' The boy began to feel a little disconcerted under her glance of slow approval, and a swift sense of relief passed through him as the door opened and the waiter reappeared, carrying the two eggs.
'What would you, indeed? One must live!' Madame, disregarding the waiter, continued to study the boyish face—the curious dark-gray eyes, in which the morning sun was discovering little flecks of gold. 'And every year conditions were becoming harder, as monsieur doubtless knew.'
Monsieur nodded his head sagely, and began to eat his eggs with keen zest.
Madame looked slowly round at the waiter and ordered coffee, then her glance returned to the boy.
'How good, how refreshing it was to see him eat! How easy to comprehend that he was young!' She sighed again, this time more softly. 'Youth was a marvellous thing—and Paris was the city of the young! Was monsieur making a long stay at the Hotel Railleux?'
The waiter again appeared and placed the coffee upon the table. Monsieur, suddenly and unaccountably uneasy, finished his eggs hastily and pushed his plate aside.
'Did monsieur desire coffee?' Madame leaned forward. 'If so, it would be but the matter of a moment to procure a second cup; and, as her coffee-pot was quite full—' She raised the lid coquettishly, and again her eyes lingered upon the short dark hair and the straight brows above the gray eyes.
The waiter with ready tact departed in search of the second cup; madame replaced the lid of the coffee-pot.
'Now that they were alone, would it be an unpardonable liberty to ask how old monsieur really was?'
'How old would madame suppose?'
Madame laughed. 'Oh, it was difficult to say! One might imagine from those bright eyes that monsieur had nineteen years; but, again, it was impossible to suppose that a razor had ever touched that soft cheek.' There was another little laugh, lower this time and more subtle in tone; and madame, with a movement wonderfully swift considering her years and her proportions, leaned across the table and touched the boy's face.
The effect was instant. A tide of color rushed into his cheeks, he rose with an alacrity that was comic.
'He—he was much older than madame supposed!'
Madame laughed delightedly. 'How charming! How ingenuous! He positively must sit down again. It was assured that they would become friends! Where was that waiter? Where was that second coffee-cup?'
But monsieur remained standing.
Madame's eyes, now alive with interest, literally danced to her thoughts.
'Come! Come! They must not allow the coffee to become cold!'
But monsieur picked up his hat and coat.
'What! He was not going? Oh, it was impossible! He could not be so unkind!' Her face expressed dismay.
But her only answer was a stiff little bow, and a second later the door had closed and the boy was running down the stairs of the hotel as though some enemy were in hot pursuit.
The mind of the boy was very full as he passed out of the hotel, so full that he scarcely noticed the whip of cold air that stung his face or the white mantle that lay upon the streets, wrapping in a silver sheath all that was sordid, all that was dirty and unpicturesque in that corner of Paris. The human note had been touched in that moment in the salle-a-manger, and his ears still tingled to its sound. Alarm, disgust, and a strange exultant satisfaction warred within him in a manner to be comprehended by his own soul alone.
As he stepped out into the rue de Dunkerque he scarcely questioned in what direction his feet should carry him. North, south, east, or west were equal on that first day. Everywhere was promise—everywhere a call. Nonchalantly and without intention he turned to the left and found himself once more in face of the Gare du Nord.
It is a good thing to rejoice in spite of the world; it is an infinitely better thing to rejoice in company with it. With solitude and freedom, the alarm, the disgust receded, and as he went forward the exultation grew, until once again his mercurial spirits lifted him as upon wings.
The majority of passers-by at this morning hour were workers—work-girls out upon their errands, business men going to or from the cafes; but here and there was to be seen an artist, consciously indifferent to appearances; here and there an artisan, unconsciously picturesque in his coarse working-clothes; here and there a well-dressed woman, sunning herself in the cold, bright air like a bird of gay plumage. It was the world in miniature, and it stirred and piqued his interest. A wish to stop one of these people, and to pour forth his longings, his hopes, his dreams, surged within him in a glow of fellowship and, smiling to himself at the pleasant wildness of the thought, he made his way through the wider spaces of the Place Lafayette and the Square Montholon into the long, busy rue Lafayette.
Here, in the rue Lafayette, the gloomy aspects of the district he had made his own dropped behind him, and a wealth of bustle and gayety greeted and fascinated him. Here the sun seemed fuller, the traffic was more dense, and the shops offered visions to please every sense. Wine shops were here, curio shops, shops all golden and tempting with cheeses and butter, and hat shops that foretold the spring in a glitter of blues and greens. He passed on, jostling the crowd good-humoredly, being jostled in the same spirit, hugging his freedom with a silent joy.
Down the rue Halevy he went and on into the Place de l'Opera; but here he slackened his pace, and something of his insouciance dropped from him. The wide space filled with its cosmopolitan crowd, the opera-house itself, so aloof in its dark splendor, spoke to him of another Paris—the Paris that might be Vienna, Petersburg, London, for all it has to say of individual life. His mood changed; he paused and looked back over his shoulder in the direction from whence he had come. But the hesitation was fleeting; a quick courage followed on the doubt. The adventurer must take life in every aspect—must face all questions, all moments! He turned up the collar of his coat, as though preparing to face a chillier region, and went forward boldly as before.
One or two narrow streets brought him out upon the Place de Rivoli, where Joan of Arc sat astride her golden horse, and where great heaps of flowers were stacked at the street corners—mimosa, lilac, violets. He halted irresistibly to glance at these flowers breathing of the south, and to glance at the shining statue. Then he crossed the rue de Rivoli and, passing through the garden of the Tuileries, emerged upon the Place de la Concorde.
On the Place de la Concorde the cool, clean hand of the morning had drawn its most striking picture; here, in the great, unsheltered spaces, the frost had fallen heavily, softening and beautifying to an inconceivable degree. The suggestion of modernity that ordinarily hangs over the place was veiled, and the subtle hints of history stole forth, binding the imagination. It needed but a touch to materialize the dream as the boy crossed the white roadway, shadowed by the white statuary, and with an odd appropriateness the touch was given.
One moment his mind was a sea of shifting visions, the next it was caught and held by an inevitably thrilling sound—the sound of feet tramping to a martial tune. The touch had been given: the vague visions of tradition and history crystallized into a picture, and his heart leaped to the pulsing, steady tramp, to the clash of fife and drum ringing out upon the fine cold air.
All humanity is drawn by the sight of soldiers. There is a primitive exhilaration in the idea of marching men that will last while the nations live. Stung by the same impulse that affected every man and woman in the Place de la Concorde, the boy paused—his head up, his pulses quickened, his eyes and ears strained toward the sound.
It was a regiment of infantry marching down the Cours la Reine and defiling out upon the Place de la Concorde toward the rue de Rivoli. By a common impulse he paused, and by an equally common desire to be close to the object of interest, he ran forward to where a little crowd had gathered in the soldiers' route.
The French soldier is not individually interesting, and this body of men looked insignificant enough upon close inspection. Yet it was a regiment; it stirred the fancy; and the boy gazed with keen interest at the small figures in the ill-fitting uniforms and at the faces, many as young as his own, that denied past him in confusing numbers. On and on the regiment wound, a coiling line of dull red and bluish-gray against the frosty background, the feet tramping steadily, the fifes and drums beating out with an incessant clamor.
Then, without warning, a new interest touched the knot of watchers, a thrill passed from one member of the crowd to another, and hats were raised. The colors were being borne by: Frenchmen were saluting their flag.
The knowledge sprang to the boy's mind with the swiftness and poignancy of an inspiration. This body of men might be insignificant, but it represented the army of France—a thing of infinite tradition, of infinite romance. The blood mounted to his face, his heart beat faster, and with a strange, half-shy sense of participating in some fine moment, his hand went up to his hat.
Unconsciously he made a picture as he stood there, his dark hair stirred by the light, early air, his young face beautiful in its sudden enthusiasm; and to one pair of eyes in the little crowd it seemed better worth watching than the passing soldiers.
The owner of these eyes had been observant of him from the moment that he had run forward, drawn by the rattle of the drums; and now, as if in acceptance of an anticipated opportunity, he forced a way through the knot of people and, pausing behind the boy, addressed him in an easy, familiar voice, as one friend might address another.
"Isn't it odd," he said, "to look at those insignificant creatures, and to think that the soldiers of France have kissed the women and thrashed the men the world over?"
Had a gun been discharged close to his car the boy could not have started more violently. Fear leaped into his eyes, he wheeled round; then a sharp, nervous laugh of relief escaped him.
"How you frightened me!" he exclaimed. "Oh, how you frightened me!" Then he laughed again.
His travelling companion of the night before smiled down on him from his superior height, and the boy noted for the first time that this smile had a peculiarly attractive way of communicating itself from the clean-shaven lips to the grayish-green eyes of the stranger, banishing the slightly satirical look that marked his face in repose.
"Well?" The Irishman was still studying him.
"Well? We're all on the knees of the gods, you see! 'Twas written that we were to meet; you can't avoid me."
The flag had been carried past; the boy replaced his hat, glad of a moment in which to collect his thoughts. What must he do? The question beat in his brain. Wisdom whispered avoidance of this stranger. To-day was the first day; was it wise to bring into it anything from yesterday? No, it was not wise—reason upheld wisdom. He pulled his hat into place, his lips came together in an obstinate line, and he raised his eyes.
The sun was dancing on a silvery world, from the rue de Rivoli the fifes and drums still rattled out their march, close beside him the Irishman was looking at him with his pleasant smile.
Suddenly, as a daring horseman might give rein to a young horse, rejoicing in the risk, the boy discarded wisdom and its whispering curb; his nature leaped forth in sudden comradeship, and impulsively he held out his hand.
"Monsieur, forgive me!" he said. "The gods know best!"
He said the words in English, perfectly, easily, with that faintest of all foreign intonations—the intonation that clings to the Russian voice.
So the step was taken, and two souls, drawn together from different countries, different races, touched in a first subtle fusion. With an ease kindled by the fine and stinging air, stimulated by the crisp summons of the flutes and the martial rattle of the drums, they bridged the thousand preliminaries that usually hedge a friendship, and arrived in a moment of intuition at that consciousness of fellowship that is the most divine of human gifts.
As though the affair had been prearranged through countless ages, they turned by one accord and forced a way through the crowd that still encompassed them. Across the Place de la Concorde they went, past the white statues, past the open space through which the soldiers were still defiling like a dark stream in a snowbound country. Each was drawn instinctively toward the Cours la Reine—the point from whence the stream was pouring, the point where the crowd of loiterers was sparsest, where the bare and frosted trees caught the sun in a million dancing facets. Reaching it, the boy looked up into the stranger's face with his fascinating look of question and interest.
"Monsieur, tell me something! How did you know me again? And why did you speak to me?"
The question was grave, with the charming gravity that was wont to cross his gayety as shadows chase each other across a sunlit pool. His lips were parted naively, his curious slate-gray eyes demanded the truth.
The Irishman recognized the demand, and answered it.
"Now that you put it to me," he said, thoughtfully, "I'm not sure that I can tell you. There's something about you—" His thoughtfulness deepened, and he studied the boy through narrowed eyes. "It isn't that you're odd in any way."
The boy reddened.
"It isn't that you're odd," he insisted, "but somehow you're such a slip of a boy—" His voice grew meditative and he recurred to his native trick of phrasing, as he always did when interested or moved.
"But why did you speak to me? I'm not interesting."
"Oh yes, you are!"
"How am I interesting?" There was a flash in the gray eyes that revealed new flecks of gold.
The Irishman hesitated.
"Well, I can't explain it," he said, slowly, "unless I tell you that you throw a sort of spell—and that sounds absurd. You see, I've knocked about the world a bit, east and west, but at the back of everything I'm an Irishman; I have a fondness for the curious and the poetical and the mysterious, and somehow you seemed to me last night to be mystery itself, with your silence and your intentness." He dropped his voice to the meditative key, unconsciously enjoying its soft, half-melancholy cadences, and as he spoke the boy felt some chord in his own personality vibrate to the mind that had asked for no introduction, demanded no credentials, that had decreed their friendship and materialized it.
"No," the Irishman mused on, "there's no explaining it. You were mystery itself, and you fired my imagination, because I happen to come from a country of dreams. We Irish are born dreamers; sometimes we never wake up at all, and then we're counted failures. But, I tell you what, when all's said and done, we see what other men don't see. For instance, what do you think my two friends saw in you last night?"
The boy shook his head, and there was a tremor of nervousness about his mouth.
"They saw something dangerous—something to be avoided. Yet Mac is a millionaire several times over, and Billy is distinctly a diplomatist with a future."
The boy forced a smile; he was beginning to shrink from the pleasant scrutiny, to wish that the vaporous fog of last night might dim the searching light of the morning.
"What did they see?" he asked.
The Irishman looked at him humorously. "I hardly like to tell it to you," he said, "but they marked you for an anarchist. An anarchist, for all the world! As if any anarchist alive would travel first-class in third-class clothes! You see, I'm blunt."
The boy, studying him, half in fear, half in doubt, laughed suddenly in quick relief and amusement.
"An anarchist! How droll!"
"Wasn't it? I told them so. I also told them—"
"My own beliefs."
"And your beliefs?"
"No! No! You won't draw me! But I'll tell you this much, for I've told it before. I knew you were no common creature of intrigue; I accepted you as mystery personified."
"And now you would solve me?" In his returning confidence the boy's eyes danced.
"God forbid!" The vehemence of the reply was comic, and the Irishman himself laughed as the words escaped him. "Oh no!" he added, soberly. "Keep your mask! I don't want to tear it from you. Later on, perhaps, I'll take a peep behind; but I can accept mysteries and miracles—I was born into the Roman Catholic Church."
"And I into the Greek."
"Ah! My first peep!"
"And what do you see?"
"Do you know, I see a queer thing. I see a boy who has thought. You have thought. Don't deny it!"
"On religion—and other things; you acknowledge it in one look."
The boy laughed, like a child who has been caught at some forbidden game.
"Perhaps it was your imagination."
"Perhaps! But, look here, we can't stand all day discoursing in the Cours la Reine! Where shall we wander—left or right?" He nodded first in the direction of the river, then toward the large building that faced them on the right, from the roof of which an array of small flags fluttered an invitation.
The boy's eyes followed his movement. "Pictures!" he exclaimed. "I didn't know there was an exhibition open."
"Live and learn! Come along!"
Together they stepped into the roadway, where the frosty surface was scarred by the soldiers' feet, and together they reached the doorway of the large building and read the legend, "Soctiete Peintres et Sculpteurs Francais."
The Irishman read the words with the faintly humorous, faintly sceptical glance that he seemed to bestow upon the world at large.
"Remember I'm throwing out no bait, but I expect 'twill be value for a couple of francs."
They entered the bare hall and, mounting a cold and rigid staircase, found themselves confronted by a turnstile.
The Irishman was in the act of laying a two-franc piece in the hand of the custodian when the boy plucked him by the sleeve and, turning, he saw the curious eyes full of a sudden anxiety.
"Monsieur, pardon me! You know Paris well?"
"I live here for five months out of the twelve."
"Then you can tell me if—if this exhibition will be well attended. I want with all my heart to see the pictures, but I—I dislike crowds—fashionable crowds." His voice was agitated; it was as if he had suddenly awakened from his pleasant dream of Bohemian comradeship to a remembrance of the Paris that lay about him.
The Irishman expressed no surprise: his only reply was to move nearer to the guardian of the turnstile.
"Monsieur," he said in French, "have the goodness to inform me how many persons have passed through the turnstile this morning?"
The man looked at him without interest, though with some surprise. 'Not many of the world were to be seen at such an hour,' he informed him. 'So far, he had admitted two gentlemen—artists, and three ladies—American.'
The Irishman waved his hand toward the turnstile.
"In with you! The world forgetting, by the world forgot!"
His ease of manner was contagious. Whatever misgivings had assailed the boy were banished with this reassurance, and his confidence flowed back as the custodian took the two-franc piece and the turnstile clicked twice, making them free of the long, bare galleries that opened in front of them.
Inured as he was to cold, he shivered as they passed into the first of these long rooms, and involuntarily buried his chin in the collar of his coat. The chill of the place was vaultlike; the cold, gray light that penetrated it held nothing of the sun's comfort, while the small, black stove set in the middle of the room was a mere travesty of warmth.
"God bless my soul!" began the Irishman, "this is art for art's sake—"
But there he stopped, for his companion, with the impetuosity of his temperament, had suddenly caught sight of a picture that interested him, and had darted across the room, leaving him to his own reflections.
The boy was standing perfectly still, entirely engrossed, when he came silently up behind him, and paused to look over his shoulder. They were alone in the vast and chilly room save for one attendant who dozed over some knitting in a corner near the door. Away into the distance stretched the other rooms, bound one to the other like links in a chain. From the third of these came the penetrating voices of the American ladies, descanting unhesitatingly upon the pictures; while in the second the two artists could be seen flitting from one canvas to another with a restless, nervous activity.
These facts came subconsciously to the Irishman, for his eyes and his thoughts were for the boy and the subject of the boy's interest—a picture curiously repulsive, yet curiously binding in its realism of conception. It was a large canvas that formed one of a group of five or six studies by a particular artist. The details of the picture scarcely held the mind, for the imagination of the beholder was instantly caught and enchained by the central figure—the figure of a great ape, painted with cruel and extraordinary truth. The animal was squatting upon the ground, devouring a luscious fruit; its small and greedy eyes were alight with gluttony; in its unbridled appetite, its hairy fingers crushed the fruit against its sharp teeth, while the juice dripped from its mouth.
The intimate, undisguised portrayal of greed shocked the susceptibilities, but it was the hideous human attributes patent in the brute that disgusted the imagination. With a terrible cunning of mind and brush the artist had laid bare a vice that civilization cloaks.
For two or three minutes the boy stood immovable, then he looked back over his shoulder, and the man behind him was surprised at the expression that had overspread his face, the sombre light that glowed in his eyes. In a moment the adventurer was lost, another being had come uppermost—a strange, unexpected being.
"What do you think of this picture?"
The Irishman did not answer for a moment, then his eyes returned to the canvas and his tongue was loosed.
"If you want to know," he said, "I think it's the most damnable thing I've ever seen. When the Gallic mind runs to morbidity there's nothing to touch it for filth."
"Why filth? My dear boy, look at this—and this!" He pointed to the other pictures, each a study of monkey life, each a travesty of some human passion.
The boy obeyed, conscientiously and slowly, then once more his eyes challenged his companion's.
"I say again, why filth?"
"Because there is enough of the beast in every man without advertising it."
"You admit that there is something of the beast in every man?"
"Then why fear to see it?" The boy's face was pale, his eyes still challenged.
The other made a gesture of impatience. "It isn't a question of fear; it is a question of—well, of taste."
"Taste!" The boy tossed the word to scorn.
"What would you substitute?"
"Truth." There was a tremor in his voice, a veil seemed to fall upon his youth, arresting its carelessness, sobering its vitality.
The Irishman raised his brows. "Truth, eh?"
"Yes. It is only possible to live when we know life truly, see it and value it truly."
"There may be perverted truth."
"You say that because this truth we speak of displeases you; yet this is no more a perversion of the truth than"—he glanced round the walls—"than that, for example; yet you would approve of that."
He waved his hand toward another painting, a delicate and charming conception of a half-clothed woman, a picture in which the flesh-tints, the drapery, the lights all harmonized with exquisite art.
"You would approve of that because it pleases your eye and soothes your senses, yet you know that all womankind is not slim and graciou—that all life is not lived in boudoirs."
"Neither is man all beast."
"Ah, that is it! If we are to be students of human nature we must not be swayed in one direction or the other; and that is the difficulty—to be dispassionate. Sometimes it is—very difficult!"
It came with a charm indescribable, this sudden admission of weakness, accompanied by a deprecating, pleading glance, and the Irishman was filled with a sudden sense of having recovered something personal and precious.
"What are you?" he cried. "It's my turn to seek the truth now. What are you, you incomprehensible being?"
The boy laughed, the old careless, light-hearted laugh of the creature infinitely free.
"Do not ask! Do not ask!" he said. "A riddle is only interesting while it is unsolved."
With the laugh the personal moment passed. Henceforward it was the technique of the pictures, the individualism of the artists that claimed the boy's attention, and in this new field he proved himself yet another being—a creature of quick perception and curiously mature judgment, appreciative and observant, critical and generous.
In warm and interested discussion they made the tour of the rooms, and when they emerged again into the frosty morning air and were greeted by the dazzle of the sun, each was conscious of a deeper understanding. A new expression of interest and something of respect was visible in the Irishman's face as he looked down on the puzzling, elusive being whom he had picked up from the skirts of chance as he might have filched a jewel or a coin.
"Look here, boy!" he said, "we mustn't say good-bye just yet. Come across the river, and let's find some little place where we can get a seat and a cup of coffee."
The boy's only answer was to turn obediently, as the other slipped his hand through his arm, and to allow himself to be guided back across the Cours la Reine and over the Pont Alexandre III.
The bridge looked almost as impressive as the Place de la Concorde under its white garment, and his glance ranged from the high columns, topped by the winged horses, to the thronging bronze lamps, while the sense of breath and freedom fitted with his secret thoughts.
Leaving the river behind them, they made their way onward across the Esplanade des Invalides, through the serried lines of trees, stark and formal against the January sky, to the rue Fabert. Here, in the rue Fabert, lay that note of contrast that is bound into the very atmosphere of Paris—the note that touches the imagination to so acute an interest. Here shabby, broken-down shops rubbed shoulders with fine old entries, entries that savored of other times in the hint of roomy court-yard and green garden to be caught behind their gateways; here were creameries that conjured the country to the eager senses, and laundries that exhaled a very aroma of work in the hot steam that poured through their windows and in the babble of voices that arose from the women who stood side by side, iron in hand, bending over the long, spotless tables piled with linen.
It was a touch of Parisian life, small in itself, but subtle and suggestive as the premonition of spring awakened by the twittering of the sparrows in the tall, leafless trees, and the throbbing song of a caged canary that floated down from a window above a shop. It was suggestive of that Parisian life that is as restless as the sea, as uncontrollable, as possessed of hidden currents.
Involuntarily the boy paused and glanced up at the bird in its cage—the bird that, regardless of the garden of greenstuffs pushed through its bars, was pouring forth its heart to the pale sun in a frenzy of worship.
"How strange that is!" he said. "If I were a bird and saw the great sky, knowing myself imprisoned, I should beat my life out against my cage."
The Irishman looked down upon him. "I wonder!" he said, slowly.
The quick, gray eyes flashed up to his. "You doubt it?"
"I don't know! 'On my soul, I don't know!"
"Would you not beat your life out against a cage?"