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- The Trespasser, Volume 3. - 4/14 -
Gaston had acted with coolness and common-sense; and when he sat down and began talking of the Englishman's picture again as if nothing had happened, the others followed, and the meal went on cheerfully.
Presently another young English painter entered, and listened to the conversation, which Gaston brought back to Una and the lions. It was his way to force things to his liking, if possible; and he wanted to hear about the woman--why, he did not ask himself. The new arrival, Fancourt by name, kept looking at him quizzically. Gaston presently said that he would visit the menagerie and see this famous dompteuse that afternoon.
"She's a brick," said Bagshot. "I was in debt, a year behind with my Pelletier here, and it took all I got for 'A Passion in the Desert' to square up. I'd nothing to go on with. I spent my last sou in visiting the menagerie. There I got an idea. I went to her, told her how I was fixed, and begged her to give me a chance. By Jingo! she brought the water to my eyes. Some think she's a bit of a devil; but she can be a devil of a saint, that's all I've got to say."
"Zoug-Zoug's responsible for the devil," said Fancourt to Bagshot.
"Shut up, Fan," rejoined Bagshot, hurriedly, and then whispered to him quickly.
Fancourt sent self-conscious glances down the table towards Gaston; and then a young American, newly come to Paris, said:
"Who's Zoug-Zoug, and what's Zoug-Zoug?"
"It's milk for babes, youngster," answered Bagshot quickly, and changed the conversation.
Gaston saw something strange in the little incident; but he presently forgot it for many a day, and then remembered it for many a day, when the wheel had spun through a wild arc.
When they rose from the table, Meyerbeer went to Bagshot, and said:
"Say, who's Zoug-Zoug, anyway?" Bagshot coolly replied:
"I'm acting for another paper. What price?"
"Fifty dollars," in a low voice, eagerly. Bagshot meditated.
"H'm, fifty dollars! Two hundred and fifty francs, or thereabouts. Beggarly!"
"A hundred, then."
Bagshot got to his feet, lighting a cigarette.
"Want to have a pretty story against a woman, and to smutch a man, do you? Well, I'm hard up; I don't mind gossip among ourselves; but sell the stuff to you--I'll see you damned first!"
This was said sufficiently loud; and after that, Meyerbeer could not ask Fancourt, so he departed with Gaston, who courteously dismissed him, to his astonishment and regret, for he had determined to visit the menagerie with his quarry.
Gaston went to his apartments, and cheerily summoned Jacques.
"Now, little man, for a holiday! The menagerie: lions, leopards, and a grand dompteuse; and afterwards dinner with me at the Cafe Blanche. I want a blow-out of lions and that sort. I'd like to be a lion-tamer myself for a month, or as long as might be."
He caught Jacques by the shoulders--he had not done so since that memorable day at Ridley Court. "See, Jacques, we'll do this every year. Six months in England, and three months on the Continent,--in your France, if you like,--and three months in the out-of-the-wayest place, where there'll be big game. Hidalgos for six months, Goths for the rest."
A half-hour later they were in the menagerie. They sat near the doors where the performers entered. For a long time they watched the performance with delight, clapping and calling bravo like boys. Presently the famous dompteuse entered,--Mademoiselle Victorine,--passing just below Gaston. He looked down, interested, at the supple, lithe creature making for the cages of lions in the amphitheatre. The figure struck him as familiar. Presently the girl turned, throwing a glance round the theatre. He caught the dash of the dark, piercing eyes, the luminous look, the face unpainted--in its own natural colour: neither hot health nor paleness, but a thing to bear the light of day. "Andree the gipsy!" he exclaimed in a low tone.
In less than two years this! Here was fame. A wanderer, an Ishmael then, her handful of household goods and her father in the grasp of the Law: to-day, Mademoiselle Victorine, queen of animal-tamers! And her name associated with the Comte Ploare!
With the Comte Ploare? Had it come to that? He remembered the look in her face when he bade her good-bye. Impossible! Then, immediately he laughed.
Why impossible? And why should he bother his head about it? People of this sort: Mademoiselle Cerise, Madame Juliette, Mademoiselle Victorine-- what were they to him, or to themselves?
There flashed through his brain three pictures: when he stood by the bedside of the old dying Esquimaux in Labrador, and took a girl's hand in his; when among the flowers at Peppingham he heard Delia say: "Oh, Gaston! Gaston!" and Alice's face at midnight in the moonlit window at Ridley Court.
How strange this figure--spangled, gaudy, standing among her lions-- seemed by these. To think of her, his veins thumping thus, was an insult to all three: to Delia, one unpardonable. And yet he could not take his eyes off her. Her performance was splendid. He was interested, speculative. She certainly had flown high; for, again, why should not a dompteuse be a decent woman? And here were money, fame of a kind, and an occupation that sent his blood bounding. A dompteur! He had tamed moose, and young mountain lions, and a catamount, and had had mad hours with pumas and arctic bears; and he could understand how even he might easily pass from M.P. to dompteur. It was not intellectual, but it was power of a kind; and it was decent, and healthy, and infinitely better than playing the Jew in business, or keeping a tavern, or "shaving" notes, and all that. Truly, the woman was to be admired, for she was earning an honest living; and no doubt they lied when they named her with Count Ploare. He kept coming back to that--Count Ploare! Why could they not leave these women alone? Did they think none of them virtuous? He would stake his life that Andree--he would call her that--was as straight as the sun.
"What do you think of her, Jacques?" he said suddenly.
"It is grand. Mon Dieu, she is wonderful--and a face all fire!"
Presently she came out of the cage, followed by two great lions. She walked round the ring, a hand on the head of each: one growling, the other purring against her, with a ponderous kind of affection. She talked to them as they went, giving occasionally a deep purring sound like their own. Her talk never ceased. She looked at the audience, but only as in a dream. Her mind was all with the animals. There was something splendid in it: she, herself, was a noble animal; and she seemed entirely in place where she was. The lions were fond of her, and she of them; but the first part of her performance had shown that they could be capricious. A lion's love is but a lion's love after all--and hers likewise, no doubt! The three seemed as one in their beauty, the woman superbly superior. Meyerbeer, in a far corner, was still on the trail of his sensation. He thought that he might get an article out of it--with the help of Count Ploare and Zoug-Zoug. Who was Zoug-Zoug? He exulted in her picturesqueness, and he determined to lie in wait. He thought it a pity that Comte Ploare was not an Englishman or an American; but it couldn't be helped. Yes, she was, as he said to himself, "a stunner." Meanwhile he watched Gaston, noted his intense interest.
Presently the girl stopped beside the cage. A chariot was brought out, and the two lions were harnessed to it. Then she called out another larger lion, which came unwillingly at first. She spoke sharply, and then struck him. He growled, but came on. Then she spoke softly to him, and made that peculiar purr, soft and rich. Now he responded, walked round her, coming closer, till his body made a half-circle about her, and his head was at her knees. She dropped her hand on it. Great applause rang through the building. This play had been quite accidental. But there lay one secret of the girl's success. She was original; she depended greatly on the power of the moment for her best effects, and they came at unexpected times.
It was at this instant that, glancing round the theatre in acknowledgment of the applause, her eyes rested mechanically on Gaston's box. There was generally some one important in that box: from a foreign prince to a young gentleman whose proudest moment was to take off his hat in the Bois to the queen of a lawless court. She had tired of being introduced to princes. What could it mean to her? And for the young bloods, whose greatest regret was that they could not send forth a daughter of joy into the Champs Elysee in her carriage, she had ever sent them about their business. She had no corner of pardon for them. She kissed her lions, she hugged the lion's cub that rode back and forth with her to the menagerie day by day--her companion in her modest apartments; but sell one of these kisses to a young gentleman of Paris, whose ambition was to master all the vices, and then let the vices master him!--she had not come to that, though, as she said in some bitter moments, she had come far.
Count Ploare--there was nothing in that. A blase man of the world, who had found it all not worth the bothering about, neither code nor people-- he saw in this rich impetuous nature a new range of emotions, a brief return to the time when he tasted an open strong life in Algiers, in Tahiti. And he would laugh at the world by marrying her--yes, actually marrying her, the dompteuse! Accident had let him render her a service, not unimportant, once at Versailles, and he had been so courteous and considerate afterwards, that she had let him see her occasionally, but never yet alone. He soon saw that an amour was impossible. At last he spoke of marriage. She shook her head. She ought to have been grateful, but she was not. Why should she be? She did not know why he wished to marry her; but, whatever the reason, he was selfish. Well, she would be selfish. She did not care for him. If she married him, it would be because she was selfish: because of position, ease; for protection in this shameless Paris; and for a home, she who had been a wanderer since her birth.
It was mere bargaining. But at last her free, independent nature revolted. No: she had had enough of the chain, and the loveless hand of man, for three months that were burned into her brain--no more! If ever she loved--all; but not the right for Count Ploare to demand the affection she gave her lions freely.
The manager of the menagerie had tried for her affections, had offered a
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