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- The Beautiful Lady - 2/10 -
produced in me, giving me a look of forty years instead of twenty-four, so that my oldest friend must take at least three stares to know me. Also, my costume would disguise me from the few acquaintances I had in Paris (if they chanced to cross the Seine), as they had only seen me in the shabbiest; while, at my last meeting with Antonio, I had been as fine in the coat as now.
Yet my encouragement was not so joyful that my gaze lifted often. On the very last day, in the afternoon when my observances were most and noisiest, I lifted my eyes but once during the final half-hour--but such a one that was!
The edge of that beautiful grey pongee skirt came upon the lid of my lowered eyelid like a cool shadow over hot sand. A sergent had just made many of the people move away, so there remained only a thin ring of the laughing pantaloons about me, when this divine skirt presented its apparition to me. A pair of North- American trousers accompanied it, turned up to show the ankle- bones of a rich pair of stockings; neat, enthusiastic and humorous, I judged them to be; for, as one may discover, my only amusement during my martyrdom--if this misery can be said to possess such alleviatings--had been the study of feet, pantaloons, and skirts. The trousers in this case detained my observation no time. They were but the darkest corner of the chiaroscuro of a Rembrandt--the mellow glow of gold was all across the grey skirt.
How shall I explain myself, how make myself understood? Shall I be thought sentimentalistic or but mad when I declare that my first sight of the grey pongee skirt caused me a thrill of excitation, of tenderness, and--oh-i-me!--of self- consciousness more acute than all my former mortifications. It was so very different from all other skirts that had shown themselves to me those sad days, and you may understand that, though the pantaloons far outnumbered the skirts, many hundreds of the latter had also been objects of my gloomy observation.
This skirt, so unlike those which had passed, presented at once the qualifications of its superiority. It had been constructed by an artist, and it was worn by a lady. It did not pine, it did not droop; there was no more an atom of hanging too much than there was a portion inflated by flamboyancy; it did not assert itself; it bore notice without seeking it. Plain but exquisite, it was that great rarity--goodness made charming.
The peregrination of the American trousers suddenly stopped as they caught sight of me, and that precious skirt paused, precisely in opposition to my little table. I heard a voice, that to which the skirt pertained. It spoke the English, but not in the manner of the inhabitants of London, who seem to sing undistinguishably in their talking, although they are comprehensible to each other. To an Italian it seems that many North-Americans and English seek too often the assistance of the nose in talking, though in different manners, each equally unagreeable to our ears. The intelligent among our lazzaroni of Naples, who beg from tourists, imitate this, with the purpose of reminding the generous traveller of his home, in such a way to soften his heart. But there is some difference: the Italian, the Frenchman, or German who learns English sometimes misunderstands the American: the Englishman he sometimes understands.
This voice that spoke was North-American. Ah, what a voice! Sweet as the mandolins of Sorento! Clear as the bells of Capri! To hear it, was like coming upon sight of the almond-blossoms of Sicily for the first time, or the tulip-fields of Holland. Never before was such a voice!
"Why did you stop, Rufus?" it said.
"Look!" replied the American trousers; so that I knew the pongee lady had not observed me of herself.
Instantaneously there was an exclamation, and a pretty grey parasol, closed, fell at my feet. It is not the pleasantest to be an object which causes people to be startled when they behold you; but I blessed the agitation of this lady, for what caused her parasol to fall from her hand was a start of pity.
"Ah!" she cried. "The poor man!"
She had perceived that I was a gentleman.
I bent myself forward and lifted the parasol, though not my eyes I could not have looked up into the face above me to be Caesar! Two hands came down into the circle of my observation; one of these was that belonging to the trousers, thin, long, and white; the other was the grey-gloved hand of the lady, and never had I seen such a hand--the hand of an angel in a suede glove, as the grey skirt was the mantle of a saint made by Doucet. I speak of saints and angels; and to the large world these may sound like cold words.--It is only in Italy where some people are found to adore them still.
I lifted the parasol toward that glove as I would have moved to set a candle on an altar. Then, at a thought, I placed it not in the glove, but in the thin hand of the gentleman. At the same time the voice of the lady spoke to me--I was to have the joy of remembering that this voice had spoken four words to me.
"Je vous remercie, monsieur," it said.
"Pas de quoi!" I murmured.
The American trousers in a loud tone made reference in the idiom to my miserable head: "Did you ever see anything to beat it?"
The beautiful voice answered, and by the gentleness of her sorrow for me I knew she had no thought that I might understand. "Come away. It is too pitiful!"
Then the grey skirt and the little round-toed shoes beneath it passed from my sight, quickly hidden from me by the increasing crowd; yet I heard the voice a moment more, but fragmentarily: "Don't you see how ashamed he is, how he must have been starving before he did that, or that someone dependent on him needed--"
I caught no more, but the sweetness that this beautiful lady understood and felt for the poor absurd wretch was so great that I could have wept. I had not seen her face; I had not looked up --even when she went.
"Who is she?" cried a scoundrel voyous, just as she turned. "Madame of the parasol? A friend of monsieur of the ornamented head?"
"No. It is the first lady in waiting to his wife, Madame la Duchesse," answered a second. "She has been sent with an equerry to demand of monseigneur if he does not wish a little sculpture upon his dome as well as the colour decorations!"
"'Tis true, my ancient?" another asked of me.
I made no repartee, continuing to sit with my chin dependent upon my cravat, but with things not the same in my heart as formerly to the arrival of that grey pongee, the grey glove, and the beautiful voice.
Since King Charles the Mad, in Paris no one has been completely free from lunacy while the spring-time is happening. There is something in the sun and the banks of the Seine. The Parisians drink sweet and fruity champagne because the good wines are already in their veins. These Parisians are born intoxicated and remain so; it is not fair play to require them to be like other human people. Their deepest feeling is for the arts; and, as everyone had declared, they are farceurs in their tragedies, tragic in their comedies. They prepare the last epigram in the tumbril; they drown themselves with enthusiasm about the alliance with Russia. In death they are witty; in war they have poetic spasms; in love they are mad.
The strangest of all this is that it is not only the Parisians who are the insane ones in Paris; the visitors are none of them in behaviour as elsewhere. You have only to go there to become as lunatic as the rest. Many travellers, when they have departed, remember the events they have caused there as a person remembers in the morning what he has said and thought in the moonlight of the night.
In Paris it is moonlight even in the morning; and in Paris one falls in love even more strangely than by moonlight.
It is a place of glimpses: a veil fluttering from a motor-car, a little lace handkerchief fallen from a victoria, a figure crossing a lighted window, a black hat vanishing in the distance of the avenues of the Tuileries. A young man writes a ballade and dreams over a bit of lace. Was I not, then, one of the least extravagant of this mad people? Men have fallen in love with photographs, those greatest of liars; was I so wild, then, to adore this grey skirt, this small shoe, this divine glove, the golden-honey voice--of all in Paris the only one to pity and to understand? Even to love the mystery of that lady and to build my dreams upon it?--to love all the more because of the mystery? Mystery is the last word and the completing charm to a young man's passion. Few sonnets have been written to wives whose matrimony is more than five years of age--is it not so?
When my hour was finished and I in liberty to leave that horrible corner, I pushed out of the crowd and walked down the boulevard, my hat covering my sin, and went quickly. To be in love with my mystery, I thought, that was a strange happiness! It was enough. It was romance! To hear a voice which speaks two sentences of pity and silver is to have a chime of bells in the heart. But to have a shaven head is to be a monk! And to have a shaven head with a sign painted upon it is to be a pariah. Alas! I was a person whom the Parisians laughed at, not with!
Now that at last my martyrdom was concluded, I had some shuddering, as when one places in his mouth a morsel of unexpected flavour. I wondered where I had found the courage to bear it, and how I had resisted hurling myself into the river, though, as is known, that is no longer safe, for most of those who attempt it are at once rescued, arrested, fined, and imprisoned for throwing bodies into the Seine, which is forbidden.
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