In the Quarter, by Robert W. Chambers


Rain was falling steadily. The sparrows huddled under the eaves, or hopped disconsolately along the windowsills, uttering short, ill-tempered chirps. The wind was rising, blowing in quick, sharp gusts and sweeping the forest of rain spears, rank upon rank, in mad dashes against the glass-roofed studio.

Gethryn, curled up in a corner of his sofa, listlessly watched the showers of pink and white blossoms which whirled and eddied down from the rocking chestnuts, falling into the windy court in little heaps. One or two stiff-legged flies crawled rheumatically along the window glass, only to fall on their backs and lie there buzzing.

The two bull pups had silently watched the antics of these maudlin creatures, but their interest changed to indignation when one sodden insect attempted a final ascent and fell noisily upon the floor under their very noses. Then they rose as one dog and leaped madly upon the intruder, or meant to; but being pups, and uncertain in their estimation of distances, they brought up with startled yelps against the wall. Gethryn took them in his arms, where they found consolation in chewing the buttons off his coat. The parrot had driven the raven nearly crazy by turning upside down and staring at him for fifteen minutes of insulting silence. Mrs Gummidge was engaged in a matronly and sedate toilet, interrupting herself now and then to bestow a critical glance upon the parrot. She heartily approved of his attitude toward the raven, and although the old cynic cared nothing for Mrs Gummidge’s opinion, he found a sour satisfaction in warning her of her enemy’s hostile intentions. This he always did with a croak, causing Mrs Gummidge to look up just in time, and the raven to hop back disconcerted.

The rain beat a constant tattoo on the roof, and this, mingling with the drowsy purr of the cat, who was now marching to and fro with tail erect in front of Gethryn, exercised a soothing influence, and presently a snore so shocked the parrot that he felt obliged to relieve his mind by a series of intricate gymnastics upon his perch.

Gethryn was roused by a violent hammering on his door. The room had grown dark, and night had come on while he slept.

“All right — coming,” he shouted, groping his way across the room. Slipping the bolt, he opened the door and looked out, but could see nothing in the dark hallway. Then he felt himself seized and hugged and dragged back into his studio, where he was treated to a heavy slap on the shoulder. Then someone struck a match and presently, by the light of a candle, he saw Clifford and Elliott, and farther back in the shade another form which he thought he knew.

Clifford began, “Here you are! We thought you were dead — killed through my infernal fooling.” He turned very red, and stammered, “Tell him, Elliott.”

“Why, you see,” said Elliott, “we’ve been hunting for you high and low since the fight yesterday afternoon. Clifford was nearly crazy. He said it was his fault. We went to the Morgue and then to the hospitals, and finally to the police — “ A knock interrupted him, and a policeman appeared at the door.

Clifford looked sheepish.

“The young gentleman who is missing — this is his room?” inquired the policeman.

“Oh, he’s found — he’s all right,” said Clifford, hurriedly. The officer stared.

“Here he is,” said Elliott, pointing to Rex.

The man transferred his stare to Gethryn, but did not offer to move.

“I am the supposed deceased,” laughed Rex, with a little bow.

“But how am I to know?” said the officer.

“Why, here I am.”

“But,” said the man, suspiciously, “I want to know how I am to know?”

“Nonsense,” said Elliott, laughing.

“But, Monsieur,” expostulated the officer, politely.

“This is Reginald Gethryn, artist, I tell you!”

The policeman shrugged his shoulders. He was noncommittal and very polite.

“Messieurs,” he said, “my orders are to lock up this room.”

“But it’s my room, I can’t spare my room,” laughed Gethryn. “From whom did you take your orders?”

“From Monsieur the Prefect of the Seine.”

“Oh, it is all right, then,” said Gethryn. “Take a seat.”

He went to his desk, wrote a hasty note, and then called the man. “Read that, if you please, Monsieur Sergeant de Ville.”

The man’s eyes grew round. “Certainly, Monsieur, I will take the note to the Prefect,” he said; “Monsieur will pardon the intrusion.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Rex, smiling, and slipped a franc into his big red fist. The officer pocketed it with a demure “Merci, Monsieur,” and presently the clank of his bayonet died away on the stairs.

“Well,” said Elliott, “you’re found.” Clifford was beginning again with self-reproaches and self-abasement, but Rex broke in: “You fellows are awfully good — I do assure you I appreciate it. But I wasn’t in any more danger than the rest of you. What about Thaxton and the Colossus and Carleton?” He grew anxious as he named them.

“We all got off with no trouble at all, only we missed you — and then the troops fired, and they chased us over the bridge and scattered us in the Quarter, and we all drifted one by one into the Café des Écoles. And then you didn’t come, and we waited till after dinner, and finally came here to find your door locked — ”

“Oh!” burst out Clifford, “I tell you, Rex — damn it! I will express my feelings!”

“No, you won’t,” said Rex; “drop ’em, old boy, don’t express ’em. Here we are — that’s enough, isn’t it, Shakespeare?”

The bird had climbed to Gethryn’s shoulder and was cocking his eye fondly at Clifford. They were dear friends. Once he had walked up Clifford’s arm and had grabbed him by the ear, for which Clifford, more in sorrow than in anger, soaked him in cold water. Since that, their mutual understanding had been perfect.

“Where are you going to, you old fiend?” said Clifford, tickling the parrot’s throat.

“Hell!” shrieked the bird.

“Good Heavens! I never taught him that,” said Gethryn.

Clifford smiled, without committing himself.

“But where were you, Rex?” asked Elliott.

Rex flushed. “Hullo,” cried Clifford, “here’s Reginald blushing. If I didn’t know him better I’d swear there’s a woman in it.” The dark figure at the end of the room rose and walked swiftly over, and Rex saw that it was Braith, as he had supposed.

“I swear I forgot him,” laughed Elliott. “What a queer bird you are, Braith, squatting over there as silent as a stuffed owl!”

“He has been walking his legs off after you,” began Clifford, but Braith cut him short with a brusque —

“Where were you, Rex?”

Gethryn winced. “I’d rather — I think” — he began, slowly —

“Excuse me — it’s not my business,” growled Braith, throwing himself into a seat and beginning to rub Mrs Gummidge the wrong way. “Confound the cat!” he added, examining some red parallel lines which suddenly decorated the back of his hand.

“She won’t stand rubbing the wrong way,” said Rex, smiling uneasily.

“Like the rest of us,” said Elliott.

“More fool he who tries it,” said Braith, and looked at Gethryn with an affectionate smile that made him turn redder than before.

“Rex,” began Clifford again, with that fine tact for which he was celebrated, “own up! You spent last night warbling under the windows of Lisette.”

“Or Frisette,” said Elliott, “or Cosette.”

“Or Babette, Lisette, Frisette, Cosette, Babette!” chanted the two young men in a sort of catch.

Braith so seldom swore, that the round oath with which he broke into their vocal exercises stopped them through sheer astonishment. But Clifford, determined on self-assertion and loving an argument, especially out of season, turned on Braith and began:

“Why should not Youth love?”

“Love! Bah!” said Braith.

“Why Bah?” he persisted, stimulated by the disgust of Braith. “Now if a man — take Elliott, for example — ”

“Take yourself,” cried the other.

“Well — myself, for example. Suppose when my hours of weary toil are over — returning to my lonely cell, I encounter the blue eyes of Ninette on the way, or the brown eyes of Cosette, or perhaps the black eyes of — ”

Braith stamped impatiently.

“Lisette,” said Clifford, sweetly. “Why should I not refresh my drooping spirits by adoring Lisette — Cos —— ”

“Oh, come, you said that before,” said Gethryn. “You’re getting to be a bore, Clifford.”

“You at least can no longer reproach me,” said the other, with a quick look that increased Gethryn’s embarrassment.

“Let him talk his talk of bewitching grisettes, and gay students,” said Braith, more angry than Rex had ever seen him. “He’s never content except when he’s dangling after some fool worse than himself. Damn this ‘Bohemian love’ rot! I’ve been here longer than you have, Clifford,” he said, suddenly softening and turning half apologetically to the latter, who nodded to intimate that he hadn’t taken offense. “I’ve seen all that shabby romance turn into such reality as you wouldn’t like to face. I’ve seen promising lives go out in ruin and disgrace — here in this very street — in this very house — lives that started exactly on the lines that you are finding so mighty pleasant just now.”

Clifford was in danger of being silenced. That would never do.

“Papa Braith,” he smiled, “is it that you too have been through the mill? Shall I present your compliments to the miller? I’m going. Come, Elliott.”

Elliott took up his hat and followed.

“Braith,” he said, “we’ll drink your health as we go through the mill.”

“Remember that the mill grinds slowly but surely,” said Braith.

“He speaks in parables,” laughed Clifford, halfway downstairs, and the two took up the catch they had improvised, singing, “Lisette — Cosette — Ninette — “ in thirds more or less out of tune, until Gethryn shut the door on the last echoes that came up from the hall below.

Gethryn came back and sat down, and Braith took a seat beside him, but neither spoke. Braith had his pipe and Rex his cigarette.

When the former was ready, he began to speak. He could not conceal the effort it cost him, but that wore away after he had been talking a while.

“Rex,” he began, “when I say that we are friends, I mean, for my own part, that you are more to me than any man alive; and now I am going to tell you my story. Don’t interrupt me. I have only just courage enough; if any of it oozes out, I may not be able to go on. Well, I have been through the mill. Clifford was right. They say it is a phase through which all men must pass. I say, must or not, if you pass through it you don’t come out without a stain. You’re never the same man after. Don’t imagine I mean that I was brutally dissolute. I don’t want you to think worse of me than I deserve. I kept a clean tongue in my head — always. So do you. I never got drunk — neither do you. I kept a distance between myself and the women whom those fellows were celebrating in song just now — so do you. How much is due in both of us to principle, and how much to fastidiousness, Rex? I found out for myself at last, and perhaps your turn will not be long in coming. After avoiding entanglements for just three years — “ He looked at Rex, who dropped his head — “I gave in to a temptation as coarse, vulgar and silly as any I had ever despised. Why? Heaven knows. She was as vulgar a leech as ever fastened on a calf like myself. But I didn’t think so then. I was wildly in love with her. She said she was madly in love with me.” Braith made a grimace of such disgust that Rex would have laughed, only he saw in time that it was self-disgust which made Braith’s mouth look so set and hard.

“I wanted to marry her. She wouldn’t marry me. I was not rich, but what she said was: ‘One hates one’s husband.’ When I say vulgar, I don’t mean she had vulgar manners. She was as pretty and trim and clever — as the rest of them. An artist, if he sees all that really exists, sometimes also sees things which have no existence at all. Of these were the qualities with which I invested her — the moral and mental correspondencies to her blonde skin and supple figure. She justified my perspicacity one day by leaving me for a loathsome little Jew. The last time I heard of her she had been turned out of a gambling hell in his company. His name is Emanuel Pick. Is not this a shabby romance? Is it not enough to make a self-respecting man hang his head — to know that he has once found pleasure in the society of the mistress of Mr Emanuel Pick?”

A long silence followed, during which the two men smoked, looking in opposite directions. At last Braith reached over and shook the ashes out of his pipe. Rex lighted a fresh cigarette at the same time, and their eyes met with a look of mutual confidence and goodwill. Braith spoke again, firmly this time.

“God keep you out of the mire, Rex; you’re all right thus far. But it is my solemn belief that an affair of that kind would be your ruin as an artist; as a man.”

“The Quarter doesn’t regard things in that light,” said Gethryn, trying hard to laugh off the weight that oppressed him.

“The Quarter is a law unto itself. Be a law unto yourself, Rex — Good night, old chap.”

“Good night, Braith,” said Gethryn slowly.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52