In the Quarter, by Robert W. Chambers

Six

It was the first day of June. In the Luxembourg Gardens a soft breeze stirred the tender chestnut leaves, and blew sparkling ripples across the water in the Fountain of Marie de Medicis.

The modest little hothouse flowers had quite recovered from the shock of recent transplanting and were ambitiously pushing out long spikes and clusters of crimson, purple and gold, filling the air with spicy perfume, and drawing an occasional battered butterfly, gaunt and seedy, from his long winter’s sleep, but still remembering the flowery days of last season’s brilliant debut.

Through the fresh young leaves the sunshine fell, dappling the glades and thickets, bathing the gray walls of the Palais du Sénat, and almost warming into life the queer old statues of long departed royalty, which for so many years have looked down from the great terrace to the Palace of the King.

Through every gate the people drifted into the gardens, and the winding paths were dotted and crowded with brightly-colored, slowly-moving groups.

Here a half dozen meager, black-robed priests strolled silently amid the tender verdure; here a noisy crowd of children, gamboling awkwardly in the wake of a painted rubber ball, made day hideous with their yells.

Now a slovenly company of dragoons shuffled by, their big shapeless boots covered with dust, and their whalebone plumes hanging in straight points to the middle of their backs; now a group of strutting students and cocottes passed noisily, the girls in spotless spring plumage, the students vying with each other in the display of blinking eyeglasses, huge bunchy neckties, and sleek checked trousers. Policemen, trim little grisettes (for whatever is said to the contrary, the grisette is still extant in Paris), nurse girls with turbaned heads and ugly red streamers, wheeling ugly red babies; an occasional stray zouave or turco in curt Turkish jacket and white leggings; grave old gentlemen with white mustache and military step; gay, baggy gentlemen from St Cyr, looking like newly-painted wooden soldiers; students from the Ecole Polytechnique; students from the Lycée St Louis in blue and red; students from Julien’s and the Beaux Arts with a plentiful sprinkling of berets and corduroy jackets; and group after group of jingling artillery officers in scarlet and black, or hussars and chasseurs in pale turquoise, strolled and idled up and down the terrace, or watched the toy yachts braving the furies of the great fountain.

Over by the playgrounds, the Polichinel nuisance drummed and squeaked to an appreciative audience of tender years. The “Jeu de paume” was also in full swing, a truly exasperating spectacle for a modern tennis player.

The old man who feeds the sparrows in the afternoon, and beats his wife at night, was intent on the former cheerful occupation, and smiled benevolently upon the little children who watched him, open mouthed. The numerous waterfowl — mallard, teal, red-head, and dusky — waddled and dived and fought the big mouse-colored pigeons for a share of the sparrow’s crumbs.

A depraved and mongrel pointer, who had tugged at his chain in a wild endeavor to point the whole heterogeneous mass of feathered creatures from sparrow to swan, lost his head and howled dismally until dragged off by the lean-legged student who was attached to the other end of the chain.

Gethryn, sprawling on a bench in the sunshine, turned up his nose. Braith grunted scornfully.

A man passed in the crowd, stopped, stared, and then hastily advanced toward Gethryn.

“You?” said Rex, smiling and shaking hands. “Mr Clifford, this is Mr Bulfinch; Mr Braith,” — but Mr Bulfinch was already bowing to Braith and offering his hand, though with a curious diminution of his first beaming cordiality. Braith’s constraint was even more marked. He had turned quite white. Bulfinch and Gethryn, who had risen to receive him, remained standing side by side, stranded on the shoals of an awkward situation. The little Mirror man made a grab at a topic which he thought would float them off, and laid hold instead on one which upset them altogether.

“I hope Mrs Braith is well. She met you all right at Vienna?”

Braith bowed stiffly, without answering.

Rex gave him a quick look, and turning on his heel, said carelessly:

“I see you and Mr Braith are old acquaintances, so I won’t scruple to leave you with him for a moment. Bring Mr Bulfinch over to the music stand, Braith.” And smiling, as if he were assisting at a charming reunion, he led Clifford away. The latter turned, as he departed, an eye of delighted intelligence upon Braith.

To renew his acquaintance with Mr Bulfinch was the last thing Braith desired, but since the meeting had been thrust upon him he thanked Gethryn’s tact for removing such a witness of it as Clifford would have been. He had no intention, however, of talking with the little Mirror man, and maintained a profound silence, smoking steadily. This conduct so irritated the other that he determined to force an explanation of the matter which seemed so distasteful to his ungracious companion. He certainly thought he had his own reasons for resenting the sight of Braith upon a high horse, and he resumed the conversation with all the jaunty ease which the calling of newspaper correspondent is said to cultivate.

“I hope Mrs Braith found no difficulty in meeting you in Vienna?”

“Madame was not my wife, and we did not meet in Vienna,” said Braith shortly.

Bulfinch began to stare, and to feel a little less at ease.

“She told me — that is, her courier came to me and — ”

“Her courier? Mr Bulfinch, will you please explain what you are talking about?” Braith turned square around and looked at him in a way that caused a still further diminution of his jauntiness and a proportionate increase of respect.

“Oh — I’ll explain, if I know what you want explained. We were at Brindisi, were we not?”

“Yes.”

“On our way to Cairo?”

“Yes.”

“In the same hotel?”

“Yes.”

“But I had no acquaintance with madame, and had only exchanged a word or two with you, when you were suddenly summoned to Paris by a telegram.”

Braith bowed. He remembered well the false dispatch that had drawn him out of the way.

“Well, and when you left you told her you would be obliged to give up going to Cairo, and asked her to meet you in Vienna, whither you would have to go from Paris?”

“Oh, did I?”

“And you recommended a courier to her whom you knew very well, and in whom you had great confidence.”

“Ah! And what was that courier’s name?”

“Emanuel Pick. I wasn’t fond of Emanuel myself,” with a sharp glance at Braith’s eyes, “but I supposed you knew something in his favor, or you would not have left — er — the lady in his charge.”

Braith was silent.

“I understood him to be your agent,” said the little man, cautiously.

“He was not.”

“Oh!”

A long silence followed, during which Mr Bulfinch sought and found an explanation of several things. After a while he said musingly:

“I should like to meet Mr Pick again.”

“Why should you want to meet him?”

“I wish to wring his nose two hundred times, one for each franc I lent him.”

“How was that?” said Braith, absently.

“It was this way. He came to me and told me what I have repeated to you, and that you desired madame to go on at once and wait for you in Vienna, which you expected to reach in a few days after her arrival. That you had bought tickets — one first class for madame, two second class for him and for her maid — before you left, and had told her you had placed plenty of money for the other expenses in her dressing case. But this morning, on looking for the money, none could be found. Madame was sure it had not been stolen. She thought you must have meant to put it there, and forgotten afterwards. If she only had a few francs, just to last as far as Naples! Madame was well known to the bankers on the Santa Lucia there! etc. Well, I’m not such an ass that I didn’t first see madame and get her to confirm his statement. But when she did confirm it, with such a charming laugh — she was very pretty — I thought she was a lady and your wife — ”

In the midst of his bitterness, Braith could not help smiling at the thought of Nina with a maid and a courier. He remembered the tiny apartment in the Latin Quarter which she had been glad to occupy with him until conducted by her courier into finer ones. He made a gesture of disgust, and his face burned with the shame of a proud man who has received an affront from an inferior — and who knows it to be his own fault.

“I can at least have the satisfaction of setting that right,” he said, holding two notes toward the little Mirror man, “and I can’t thank you enough for giving me the opportunity.”

Bulfinch drew back and stammered, “You don’t think I spoke for that! You don’t think I’d have spoken at all if I had known — ”

“I do not. And I’m very glad you did not know, for it gives me a chance to clear myself. You must have thought me strangely forgetful, Mr Bulfinch, when the money was not repaid in due time.”

“I— I didn’t relish the manner in which you met me just now, I confess, but I’m very much ashamed of myself. I am indeed.”

“Shake hands,” said Braith, with one of his rare smiles.

The notes were left in Mr Bulfinch’s fingers, and as he thrust them hastily out of sight, as if he truly was ashamed, he said, blinking up at Braith, “Do you — er — would you — may I offer you a glass of whiskey?” adding hastily, “I don’t drink myself.”

“Why, yes,” said Braith, “I don’t mind, but I won’t drink all alone.”

“Coffee is my tipple,” said the other, in a faint voice.

“All right; suit yourself. But I should think that rather hot for such a day.”

“Oh, I’ll take it iced.”

“Then let us walk over to the Café by the bandstand. We shall find the others somewhere about.”

They strolled through the grove, past the music-stand, and sat down at one of the little iron tables under the trees. The band of the Garde Republicaine was playing. Bulfinch ordered sugar and Eau de selz for Braith, and iced coffee for himself.

Braith looked at the program: No. 1, Faust; No. 2, La Belle Hélène.

“Rex ought to be here, he’s so fond of that.”

Mr Bulfinch was mixing, in a surprisingly scientific manner for a man who didn’t drink himself, something which the French call a “coquetelle”; a bit of ice, a little seltzer, a slice of lemon, and some Canadian Club whiskey. Braith eyed the well-worn flask.

“I see you don’t trust to the Café‘s supplies.”

“I only keep this for medicinal purposes,” said the other, blinking nervously, “and — and I don’t usually produce it when there are any newspapermen around.”

“But you,” said Braith, sipping the mixture with relish, “do you take none yourself?”

“I don’t drink,” said the other, and swallowed his coffee in such a hurry as to bring on a fit of coughing. Beads of perspiration clustered above his canary-colored eyebrows as he set down the glass with a gasp.

Braith was watching the crowd. Presently he exclaimed:

“There’s Rex now,” and rising, waved his glass and his cane and called Gethryn’s name. The people sitting at adjacent tables glanced at one another resignedly. “More crazy English!”

“Rex! Clifford!” Braith shouted, until at last they heard him. In a few moments they had made their way through the crowd and sat down, mopping their faces and protesting plaintively against the heat.

Gethryn’s glance questioned Braith, who said, “Mr Bulfinch and I have had the deuce of a time to make you fellows hear. You’d have been easier to call if you knew what sort of drink he can brew.”

Clifford was already sniffing knowingly at the glass and turning looks of deep intelligence on Bulfinch, who responded gayly, “Hope you’ll have some too,” and with a sidelong blink at Gethryn, he produced the bottle, saying, “I don’t drink myself, as Mr Gethryn knows.”

Rex said, “Certainly not,” not knowing what else to say. But the fondness of Clifford’s gaze was ineffable.

Braith, who always hated to see Clifford look like that, turned to Gethryn. “Favorite of yours on the program.”

Rex looked.

“Oh,” he cried, “Belle Hélène.” Next moment he flushed, and feeling as if the others saw it, crimsoned all the deeper. This escaped Clifford, however, who was otherwise occupied. But he joined in the conversation, hoping for an argument.

“Braith and Rex go in for the Meistersinger, Walküre, and all that rot — but I like some tune to my music.”

“Well, you’re going to get it now,” said Braith; “the band are taking their places. Now for La Belle Hélène.” He glanced at Gethryn, who had turned aside and leaned on the table, shading his eyes with his program.

The leader of the band stood wiping his mustache with one hand while he turned the leaves of his score with the other. The musicians came in laughing and chattering, munching their bit of biscuit or smacking their lips over lingering reminiscences of the intermission.

They hung their bayonets against the wall, and at the rat-tat of attention, came to order, standing in a circle with bugles and trombones poised and eyes fixed on the little gold-mounted baton.

A slow wave of the white-gloved hand, a few gentle tips of the wand, and then a sweep which seemed to draw out the long, rich opening chord of the Dream Song and set it drifting away among the trees till it lost itself in the rattle and clatter of the Boulevard St Michel.

Braith and Bulfinch set down their glasses and listened. Clifford silently blew long wreaths of smoke into the branches overhead. Gethryn leaned heavily on the table, one hand shading his eyes.

Oui c’est un rêve;

Un rêve doux d’amour —

The music died away in one last throb. Bulfinch sighed and blinked sentimentally, first on one, then on the other of his companions.

Suddenly the little Mirror man’s eyes bulged out, he stiffened and grasped Braith’s arm; his fingers were like iron.

“What the deuce!” began Braith, but, following the other’s eyes, he became silent and stern.

“Talk of the devil — do you see him — Pick?”

“I see,” growled Braith.

“And — and excuse me, but can that be madame? So like, and yet — ”

Braith leaned forward and looked steadily at a couple who were slowly moving toward them in deep conversation.

“No,” he said at last; and leaning back in his seat he refused to speak again.

Bulfinch chattered on excitedly, and at last he brought his fist down on the table at his right, where Clifford sat drawing a caricature on the marble top.

“I’d like,” cried Bulfinch, “to take it out of his hide!”

“Hello!” said Clifford, disturbed in his peaceful occupation, “whose hide are you going to tan?”

“Nobody’s,” said Braith, sternly, still watching the couple who had now almost reached their group.

Clifford’s start had roused Gethryn, who stirred and slowly looked up; at the same moment, the girl, now very near, raised her head and Rex gazed full into the eyes of Yvonne.

Her glance fell and the color flew to her temples. Gethryn’s face lost all its color.

“Pretty girl,” drawled Clifford, “but what a dirty little beggar she lugs about with her.”

Pick heard and turned, his eyes falling first on Gethryn, who met his look with one that was worse than a kick. He glanced next at Braith, and then he turned green under the dirty yellow of the skin. Braith’s eyes seemed to strike fire; his mouth was close set. The Jew’s eyes shifted, only to fall on the pale, revengeful glare of T. Hoppley Bulfinch, who was half rising from his chair with all sorts of possibilities written on every feature.

“Let him go,” whispered Braith, and turned his back.

Bulfinch sat down, his eyes like saucers. “I’d like — but not now!” he sputtered in a weird whisper.

Clifford had missed the whole thing. He had only eyes for the girl.

Gethryn sat staring after the couple, who were at that moment passing the gate into the Boulevard St Michel. He saw Yvonne stop and hastily thrust something into the Jew’s hand, then, ignoring his obsequious salute, leave him and hurry down the Rue de Medicis.

The next Gethryn knew, Braith was standing beside him.

“Rex, will you join us at the Golden Pheasant for dinner?” was what he said, but his eyes added, “Don’t let people see you look like that.”

“I— I— don’t know,” said Gethryn. “Yes, I think so,” with an effort.

“Come along, then!” said Braith to the others, and hurried them away.

Rex sat still till they were out of sight, then he got up and turned into the Avenue de l’Observatoire. He stopped and drank some cognac at a little café, and then started on, but he had no idea where he was going.

Presently he found himself crossing a bridge, and looked up. The great pile of Notre Dame de Paris loomed on his right. He crossed the Seine and wandered on without any aim — but passing the Tour St Jacques, and wishing to avoid the Boulevard, he made a sharp detour to the right, and after long wandering through byways and lanes, he crossed the foul, smoky Canal St Martin, and bore again to the right — always aimlessly.

Twilight was falling when his steps were arrested by fatigue. Looking up, he found himself opposite the gloomy mass of La Roquette prison. Sentinels slouched and dawdled up and down before the little painted sentry boxes under the great gate.

Over the archway was some lettering, and Gethryn stopped to read it:

La Roquette
Prison of the Condemned

He looked up and down the cheerless street. It was deserted save by the lounging sentinels and one wretched child, who crouched against the gateway.

“Fiche moi le camp! Allons! En route!” growled one of the sentinels, stamping his foot and shaking his fist at the bundle of rags.

Gethryn walked toward him.

“What’s the matter with the little one?” he asked.

The soldier dropped the butt of his rifle with a ring, and said deferentially:

“Pardon, Monsieur, but the gamin has been here every day and all day for two weeks. It’s disgusting.”

“Is he hungry?”

“Ma foi? I can’t tell you,” laughed the sentry, shifting his weight to his right foot and leaning on the cross of his bayonet.

“Are you hungry, little one?” called Gethryn, pleasantly.

The child raised his head, with a wolfish stare, then sank it again and murmured: “I have seen him and touched him.”

Gethryn turned to the soldier.

“What does he mean by that?” he demanded.

The sentry shrugged his shoulders. “He means he saw a hunchback. They say when one sees a hunchback and touches him, it brings good luck, if the hunchback is neither too old nor too young. Dame! I don’t say there’s nothing in it, but it can’t save Henri Rigaud.”

“And who is Henri Rigaud?”

“What! Monsieur has not heard of the affair Rigaud? Rigaud who did the double murder!”

“Oh, yes! In the Faubourg du Temple.”

The sentry nodded. “He dies this week.”

“And the child?”

“Is his.”

Gethryn looked at the dirty little bundle of tatters.

“No one knows the exact day set for the affair, but,” the sentry sank his voice to a whisper, “between you and me, I saw the widow going into the yard just before dinner, and Monsieur de Paris is here. That means tomorrow morning — click!”

“The — the widow?” repeated Gethryn.

“The guillotine. It will be over before this time tomorrow and the gamin there, who thinks the bossu will give him back his father — he’ll find out his mistake, all in good time — all in good time!” and shouldering his rifle, the sentry laughed and resumed his slouching walk before the gateway.

Gethryn nodded to the soldier’s salute and went up to the child, who stood leaning sullenly against the wall.

“Do you know what a franc is?” he asked.

The gamin eyed him doggedly.

“But I saw him,” he said.

“Saw what?” said Gethryn, gently.

“The bossu,” repeated the wretched infant vacantly.

“See here,” said Gethryn, “listen to me. What would you do with twenty francs?”

“Eat, all day long, forever!”

Rex slipped two twenty-franc pieces into the filthy little fist.

“Eat,” he murmured, and turned away.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06