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The woman in the carriage was none other than Madame Lia d'Argeles. She was attired in one of those startling costumes which are the rage nowadays, and which impart the same bold and brazen appearance to all who wear them: so much so, that the most experienced observers are no longer able to distinguish the honest mother of a family from a notorious character. A Dutchman, named Van Klopen, who was originally a tailor at Rotterdam, rightfully ascribes the honor of this progress to himself. One can scarcely explain how it happens that this individual, who calls himself "the dressmaker of the queens of Europe," has become the arbiter of Parisian elegance; but it is an undeniable fact that he does reign over fashion. He decrees the colors that shall be worn, decides whether dresses shall be short or long, whether paniers shall be adopted or discarded, whether ruches and puffs and flowers shall be allowed, and in what form; and his subjects, the so-called elegant women of Paris, obey him implicitly.
Madame d'Argeles would personally have preferred less finery, perhaps, but it would not have done for her to be out of the fashion. She wore an imperceptible hat, balanced on an immense pyramidal chignon, from which escaped a torrent of wavy hair. "What a beautiful woman!" exclaimed the dazzled Chupin, and indeed, seen from this distance, she did not look a day more than thirty-five--an age when beauty possesses all the alluring charm of the luscious fruit of autumn. She was giving orders for the drive, and her coachman, with a rose in his buttonhole, listened while he reined in the spirited horse. "The weather's superb," added Chupin. "She'll no doubt drive round the lakes in the Bois de Boulogne----"
"Ah, she's off!" interrupted M. Fortunat. "Run, Victor, run! and don't be miserly as regards carriage hire; all your expenses shall be liberally refunded you."
Chupin was already far away. Madame d'Argeles's horse went swiftly enough, but the agent's emissary had the limbs and the endurance of a stag, and he kept pace with the victoria without much difficulty. And as he ran along, his brain was busy. "If I don't take a cab," he said to himself, "if I follow the woman on foot, I shall have a perfect right to pocket the forty-five sous an hour--fifty, counting the gratuity--that a cab would cost."
But on reaching the Champ Elysees, he discovered, to his regret, that this plan was impracticable, for on running down the Avenue de l'Imperatrice after the rapidly driven carriage, he could not fail to attract attention. Stifling a sigh of regret, and seeing a cab at a stand near by, he hastily hailed it. "Where do you want to go, sir?" inquired the driver.
"Just follow that blue victoria, in which a handsome lady is seated, my good fellow."
The order did not surprise the cabman, but rather the person who gave it; for in spite of his fine apparel, Chupin did not seem quite the man for such an adventure. "Excuse me," said the Jehu, in a slightly ironical tone, "I----"
"I said exactly what I mean," retorted Chupin, whose pride was severely wounded. "And no more talk--hurry on, or we shall miss the track."
This last remark was correct, for if Madame d'Argeles's coachman had not slackened his horse's speed on passing round the Arc de Triomphe, the woman would have escaped Chupin, for that day at least. However, this circumstance gave the cabman an opportunity to overtake the victoria; and after that the two vehicles kept close together as they proceeded down the Avenue de l'Imperatrice. But at the entrance of the Bois de Boulogne Chupin ordered his driver to stop. "Halt!" he exclaimed; "I shall get out. Pay the extra cab charges for passing beyond the limits of Paris!--never! I'll crawl on my hands and knees first. Here are forty sous for your fare--and good-evening to you."
And, as the blue victoria was already some distance in advance, he started off at the top of his speed to overtake it. This manoeuvre was the result of his meditations while riding along. "What will this fine lady do when she gets to the Bois?" he asked himself. "Why, her coachman will take his place in the procession, and drive her slowly round and round the lakes. Meantime I can trot along beside her without attracting attention-- and it will be good for my health."
His expectations were realized in every respect. The victoria soon turned to the left, and took its place in the long line of equipages which were slowly winding round the lake. Having gained the foot-path which borders the sheet of water, Chupin followed the carriage easily enough, with his hands in his pockets, and his heart jubilant at the thought that he would gain the sum supposed to have been spent in cab hire, in addition to the compensation which had been promised him. "This is a strange way of enjoying one's self," he muttered, as he trotted along. "There can't be much pleasure in going round and round this lake. If ever I'm rich, I'll find some other way of amusing myself."
Poor Chupin did not know that people do not go to the Bois to enjoy themselves, but rather to torment others. This broad drive is in reality only a field for the airing of vanity--a sort of open-air bazaar for the display of dresses and equipages. People come here to see and to be seen; and, moreover, this is neutral ground, where so-called honest women can meet those notorious characters from whom they are elsewhere separated by an impassable abyss. What exquisite pleasure it must be to the dames of society to find themselves beside Jenny Fancy or Ninette Simplon, or any other of those young ladies whom they habitually call "creatures," but whom they are continually talking of, and whose toilettes, make-up, and jargon, they assiduously copy!
However, Chupin indulged in none of these reflections. He was engaged in noting Madame d'Argeles's evident anxiety and restlessness. She looked eagerly on all sides, sometimes half leaning out of her carriage, and immediately turning her head whenever she heard the gallop of a horseman behind her. She was evidently looking or waiting for some one, but the person did not make his appearance, and so, growing weary of waiting, after driving three times round the lake, she made a sign to her coachman, who at once drew out of line, and turned his horse into a side-path. Chupin hastened after the victoria, keeping it in sight until he was fortunate enough to meet an empty cab, which he at once hired. Madame d'Argeles's coachman, who had received his orders, now drove down the Champs Elysees, again crossed the Place de la Concorde, turned into the boulevards, and stopped short at the corner of the Chaussee d'Antin, where, having tied a thick veil over her face, Madame Lia abruptly alighted and walked away.
This was done so quickly that Chupin barely had time to fling two francs to his driver and rush after her. She had already turned round the corner of the Rue du Helder, and was walking rapidly up the street. It was a little after five o'clock, and dusk was setting in. Madame d'Argeles had taken the side of the street allotted to the uneven numbers. After she had passed the Hotel de Homburg, she slackened her pace, and eagerly scrutinized one of the houses opposite--No. 48. Her examination lasted but a moment, and seemed to be satisfactory. She then turned, and rapidly retraced her steps as far as the boulevard, when, crossing the street to the side of the even numbers, she walked up it again very slowly, stopping before every shop-window.
Convinced that he had almost reached the goal, Chupin also crossed, and followed closely at her heels. He soon saw her start and resume her rapid gait. A young man was coming toward her so quickly indeed that she had not time to avoid him, and a collision ensued, whereupon the young man gave vent to an oath, and hurling an opprobrious epithet in her face, passed on.
Chupin shuddered. "What if that should be her son?" he thought. And while he pretended to be gazing into a shop window, he stealthily watched the poor woman. She had paused, and he was so near that he could almost have touched her. He saw her raise her veil and follow her insulter with a look which it was impossible to misunderstand. "Oh! oh! It was her son that called her that----" said Chupin to himself, quite horrified. And without more ado, he hastened after the young man.
He was between two and four-and-twenty years of age, rather above the medium height, with very light hair and an extremely pale complexion. His slight mustache would have been almost imperceptible if it had not been dyed several shades darker than his hair. He was attired with that studied carelessness which many consider to be the height of elegance, but which is just the reverse. And his bearing, his mustache, and his low hat, tipped rakishly over one ear, gave him an arrogant, pretentious, rowdyish appearance. "Zounds! that fellow doesn't suit my fancy," growled Chupin, as he trotted along. For he was almost running in his efforts to keep pace with Madame d'Argeles's insulter. The latter's haste was soon explained. He was carrying a letter which he wished to have delivered, and no doubt he feared he would not be able to find a commissionaire. Having discovered one at last, he called him, gave him the missive, and then pursued his way more leisurely.
He had reached the boulevard, when a florid-faced youth, remarkably short and stout, rushed toward him with both hands amicably extended, at the same time crying, loud enough to attract the attention of the passers-by: "Is it possible that this is my dear Wilkie?"
"Yes--alive and in the flesh," replied the young man.
"Well, and what the devil have you been doing with yourself? Last Sunday, at the races, I looked for you everywhere, and not a vestige of Wilkie was to be found. However, you were wise not to go. I am three hundred louis out of pocket. I staked everything on Domingo, the Marquis de Valorsay's horse. I thought I was sure to win--yes, sure. Well, Domingo came in third. Can you understand that? If every one didn't know that Valorsay was a millionaire, it might be supposed there had been some foul play-- yes, upon my word--that he had bet against his own horse, and forbidden his jockey to win the race." But the speaker did not really believe this, so he continued, more gayly: "Fortunately, I shall retrieve my losses to-morrow, at Vincennes. Shall we see you there?"
"Then good-by, until to-morrow."
Thereupon they shook hands, and each departed on his way.
Chupin had not lost a word of this conversation. "Valorsay a millionaire!" he said to himself. "That's good! Ah, well! now I know my little gamecock's name, and I also know that he goes to the races. Wilkie that must be an English name; I like the name of d'Argeles better. But where the devil is he going now?"
M. Wilkie had simply paused to replenish his cigar-case at the tobacco office of the Grand Hotel; and, after lighting a cigar, he came out again, and walked up the boulevard in the direction of the Faubourg Montmartre. He was no longer in a hurry now; he strolled along in view of killing time, displaying his charms, and staring impudently at every woman who passed. With his shoulders drawn up on a level with his ears, and his chest thrown back, he dragged his feet after him as if his limbs were half paralyzed; he was indeed doing his best to create the impression that he was used up, exhausted, broken down by excesses and dissipation. For that is the fashion--the latest fancy--chic!
"Will you never have done?" growled Chupin.
"You shall pay for this, you little wretch!" He was so indignant that the gamin element in his nature stirred again under his fine broadcloth, and he had a wild longing to throw stones at M. Wilkie. He would certainly have trodden on his heels, and have picked a quarrel with him, had it not been for a fear of failing in his mission, and thereby losing his promised reward.
He followed his man closely, for the crowd was very great. Light was coming on, and the gas was lit on all sides. The weather was very mild, and there was not an unoccupied table in front of the cafes, for it was now the absinthe hour. How does it happen that every evening, between five and seven o'clock, every one in Paris who is known--who is somebody or something--can be found between the Passage de l'Opera and the Passage Jouffroy? Hereabout you may hear all the latest news and gossip of the fashionable world, the last political canards--all the incidents of Parisian life which will be recorded by the papers on the following morning. You may learn the price of stocks, and obtain tips for to-morrow's Bourse; ascertain how much Mademoiselle A's necklace cost, and who gave it to her; with the latest news from Prussia; and the name of the bank chairman or cashier who has absconded during the day, and the amount he has taken with him.
The crowd became more dense as the Faubourg Montmartre was approached, but Wilkie made his way through the throng with the ease of an old boulevardier. He must have had a large circle of acquaintances, for he distributed bows right and left, and was spoken to by five or six promenaders. He did not pass the Terrasse Jouffroy, but, pausing there, he purchased an evening paper, retraced his steps, and about seven o'clock reached the Cafe Riche, which he entered triumphantly. He did not even touch the rim of his hat on going in--that would have been excessively bad form; but he called a waiter, in a very loud voice, and imperiously ordered him to serve dinner on a table near the window, where he could see the boulevard--and be seen.
"And now my little fighting-cock is going to feed," thought Chupin. He, too, was hungry; and he was trying to think of some modest restaurant in the neighborhood, when two young men passed near him and glanced into the cafe.
"Look, there's Wilkie!" observed one of them.
"That's so, upon my word!" responded the other. "And he has money, too; fortune has smiled upon him."
"How do you know that?"
"Why, by watching the fellow; one can tell the condition of his purse as correctly as he could himself. If his funds are low, he has his meals brought to his room from a cook-shop where he has credit; his mustache droops despondingly; he is humble even to servility with his friends, and he brushes his hair over his forehead. When he is in average circumstances, he dines at Launay's, waxes his mustache, and brushes his hair back from his face. But when he dines at the Cafe Riche, my boy, when he has dyed his mustache, and tips his hat over his ear, and deports himself in that arrogant fashion, why, he has at least five or six thousand francs in his pocket, and all is well with him."
"Where does he get his money from?"
"Who can tell?"
"Is he rich?"
"He must have plenty of money--I lent him ten louis once, and he paid me back."
"Zounds! He's a very honorable fellow, then." Thereupon the two young men laughed, and passed on.
Chupin had been greatly edified. "Now I know you as well as if I were your concierge," he muttered, addressing the unconscious Wilkie; "and when I've followed you home, and learned your number, I shall have richly earned the fifty francs M. Fortunat promised me." As well as he could judge through the windowpane, M. Wilkie was eating his dinner with an excellent appetite. "Ah!" he exclaimed, not without envy, "these fighting-cocks take good care of their stomachs. He's there for an hour at least, and I shall have time to run and swallow a mouthful myself."
So saying, Chupin hastened to a small restaurant in a neighboring street, and magnificently disbursed the sum of thirty-nine sous. Such extravagance was unusual on his part, for he had lived very frugally since he had taken a vow to become rich. Formerly, when he lived from hand to mouth--to use his own expression--he indulged in cigars and in absinthe; but now he contented himself with the fare of an anchorite, drank nothing but water, and only smoked when some one gave him a cigar. Nor was this any great privation to him, since he gained a penny by it--and a penny was another grain of sand added to the foundation of his future wealth. However, this evening he indulged in the extravagance of a glass of wine, deciding in his own mind that he had fairly earned it.
When he returned to his post in front of the Cafe Riche, M. Wilkie was no longer alone at his table. He was finishing his coffee in the company of a man of his own age, who was remarkably good- looking--almost too good-looking, in fact--and a glance at whom caused Chupin to exclaim: "What! what! I've seen that face somewhere before--". But he racked his brain in vain in trying to remember who this newcomer was, in trying to set a name on this face, which was positively annoying in its classical beauty, and which he felt convinced had occupied a place among the phantoms of his past. Irritated beyond endurance by what he termed his stupidity, he was trying to decide whether he should enter the cafe or not, when he saw M. Wilkie take his bill from the hands of a waiter, glance at it, and throw a louis on the table. His companion had drawn out his pocketbook for the ostensible purpose of paying for the coffee he had taken; but Wilkie, with a cordial gesture, forbade it, and made that magnificent, imperious sign to the waiter, which so clearly implies: "Take nothing! All is paid! Keep the change." Thereupon the servant gravely retired, more than ever convinced of the fact that vanity increases the fabulous total of Parisian gratuities by more than a million francs a year.
"My gallant youths are coming out," thought Chupin. "I must keep my ears open." And approaching the door, he dropped on one knee, and pretended to be engaged in tying his shoestrings. This is one of the thousand expedients adopted by spies and inquisitive people. And when a man is foolish enough to tell his secrets in the street, he should at least be wise enough to distrust the people near him who pretend to be absorbed in something else; for in nine cases out of ten these persons are listening to him, possibly for pay, or possibly from curiosity.
However, the young men whom Chupin was watching were far from suspecting that they were under surveillance. M. Wilkie came out first, talking very loud, as often happens when a man has just partaken of a good dinner, and is blessed with an excellent digestion. "Come, Coralth, my good fellow, you won't desert me in this way? I have a box for the Varietes, and you must go with me. We'll see if Silly imitates Theresa as perfectly as they say."
"But I have an appointment."
"Oh, well, let it wait. Come, viscount, is it agreed?"
"Ah, you do with me just as you like."
"Good! But, first of all let us take a glass of beer to finish our cigars. And do you know whom you will find in my box?"
At this moment they passed, and Chupin rose to his feet. "Coralth," he muttered, "Viscount de Coralth. He's not one of our clients. Let me see, Coralth. This is certainly the first time I have ever heard the name. Can it be that I'm mistaken? Impossible!"
The more he reflected, the more thoroughly he became convinced of the accuracy of his first impression, consoling himself with the thought that a name has but a slight significance after all. His preoccupation had at least the advantage of shortening the time which he spent in promenading to and fro, while the friends sat outside a cafe smoking and drinking. It was still M. Wilkie who monopolized the conversation, while his companion listened with his elbow resting on the table, occasionally nodding his head in token of approbation. One thing that incensed Chupin was that they loitered there, when one of them had a ticket for a box at the theatre in his pocket.
"Idiots!" he growled; "they'll wait till the play's half over before they go in. And then they'll let the doors slam behind them for the express purpose of disturbing everybody. Fools, go!"
As if they had heard the command, they rose suddenly, and an instant after they entered the Varietes. They entered, but Chupin remained on the pavement, scratching his head furiously, in accordance with his habit whenever he wished to develop his powers of imagination. He was trying to think how he might procure admission to the theatre without paying for it. For several years he had seen every play put upon the stage in Paris, without spending a sou, and he felt that it would be actually degrading to purchase a ticket at the office now. "Pay to see a farce!" he thought. "Not I. I must know some one here--I'll wait for the entr'acte."
The wisdom of this course became apparent when among those who left the theatre at the close of the first act he recognized an old acquaintance, who was now working on the claque,* and who at once procured him a ticket of admission for nothing. "Well, it is a good thing to have friends everywhere," he muttered, as he took the seat assigned him.
* The body of hired applauders who are employed at most Parisian theatres to stimulate the enthusiasm of the audience.--[Trans.]
It was a very good place they had given him--a seat in the second gallery commanding an excellent view of the house. The first glance around told him that his "customers," as he styled them, were in a box exactly opposite. They were now in the company of two damsels in startling toilettes, with exceedingly dishevelled yellow hair, who moved restlessly about, and giggled and stared, and tried in every possible way to attract attention. And their stratagem succeeded. However, this did not seem to please the Viscount de Coralth, who kept himself as far back in the shade as he possibly could. But young Wilkie was evidently delighted, and seemed manifestly proud of the attention which the public was compelled to bestow upon his box. He offered himself as much as possible to the gaze of the audience; moved about, leaned forward, and made himself fully as conspicuous as his fair companions. Less than ever did Chupin now forgive Wilkie for the insult he had cast in the face of Madame Lia d'Argeles, who was probably his mother.
As for the play, M. Fortunat's emissary did not hear twenty words of it. He was so overcome with fatigue that he soon fell asleep. The noise and bustle of each entr'acte aroused him a little, but he did not thoroughly wake up until the close of the performance. His "customers" were still in their box, and M. Wilkie was gallantly wrapping the ladies in their cloaks and shawls. In the vestibule, he and M. de Coralth were joined by several other young men, and the whole party adjourned to a neighboring cafe. "These people are certainly afflicted with an unquenchable thirst," growled Chupin. "I wonder if this is their everyday life?"
He, too, was thirsty after his hastily eaten dinner; and necessity prevailing over economy, he seated himself at a table outside the cafe, and called for a glass of beer, in which he moistened his parched lips with a sigh of intense satisfaction. He sipped the beverage slowly, in order to make it last the longer, but this did not prevent his glass from becoming dry long before M. Wilkie and his friends were ready to leave. "It seems to me we are going to stay here all night," he thought, angrily.
His ill-humor was not strange under the circumstances, for it was one o'clock in the morning; and after carrying all the tables and chairs round about, inside, a waiter came to ask Chupin to go away. All the other cafes were closing too, and the fastening of bolts or the clanking of shutter chains could be heard on every side. On the pavement stood groups of waiters in their shirt- sleeves, stretching and yawning, and inhaling the fresh night air with delight. The boulevard was fast becoming deserted--the men were going off in little groups, and female forms could be seen gliding along in the dark shadow cast by the houses. The police were watching everywhere, with a word of menace ever ready on their lips; and soon the only means of egress from the cafes were the narrow, low doorways cut in the shutters through which the last customers--the insatiable, who are always ordering one thimbleful more to finish--passed out.
It was through a portal of this sort that M. Wilkie and his companions at last emerged, and on perceiving them, Chupin gave a grunt of satisfaction. "At last," he thought, "I can follow the man to his door, take his number, and go home."
But his joy was short-lived, for M. Wilkie proposed that the whole party should go and take supper. M. de Coralth demurred to the idea, but the others over-ruled his objections, and dragged him away with them.
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