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There was no particular reason why, after having left the Opera House, I should have retraced my steps and taken my place once more amongst the throng of people who stood about in the entresol, exchanging greetings and waiting for their carriages. A backward glance as I had been about to turn into the Place de l'Opera had arrested my somewhat hurried departure. The night was young, and where else was such a sight to be seen? Besides, was it not amongst some such throng as this that the end of my search might come?
I took up my place just inside, close to one of the pillars, and, with an unlit cigarette still in my mouth, watched the flying chausseurs, the medley of vehicles outside, the soft flow of women in their white opera cloaks and jewels, who with their escorts came streaming down the stairs and out of the great building, to enter the waiting carriages and motor-cars drawn up in the privileged space within the enclosure, or stretching right down into the Boulevard. I stood there, watching them drive off one by one. I was borne a little nearer to the door by the rush of people, and I was able, in most cases, to hear the directions of the men as they followed their womankind into the waiting vehicles. In nearly every case their destination was one of the famous restaurants. Music begets hunger in most capitals, and the cafes of Paris are never so full as after a great night at the Opera. To-night there had been a wonderful performance. The flow of people down the stairs seemed interminable. Young women and old,--sleepy-looking beauties of the Southern type, whose dark eyes seemed half closed with a languor partly passionate, partly of pride; women of the truer French type,--brilliant, smiling, vivacious, mostly pale, seldom good-looking, always attractive. A few Germans, a fair sprinkling of Englishwomen, and a larger proportion still of Americans, whose women were the best dressed of the whole company. I was not sorry that I had returned. It was worth watching, this endless stream of varying types.
Towards the end there came out two people who were becoming almost familiar figures to me. The man was one of those whose nationality was not so easily surmised. He was tall and thin, with iron-gray hair, complexion so sallow as to be almost yellow, black moustache and imperial, handsome in his way, distinguished, indescribable. By his side was a girl who had the air of wearing her first long skirt, whose hair was arranged in somewhat juvenile fashion, and whose dark eyes were still glowing with the joy of the music. Her figure, though very slim, was delightful, and she walked as though her feet touched the clouds. Her laugh, which I heard distinctly as she brushed by me only a few feet away, was like music. Of all the people who had passed me, or whom I had come across during my fortnight's stay in Paris, there was no one half so attractive. The girl was absolutely charming; the man, remarkable not only in himself, but for a certain air of repressed emotion, which, while it robbed his features of the dignity of repose, was still, in a way, fascinating. They entered a waiting motor-car splendidly appointed, and I heard the man tell the tall, liveried footman to drive to the Ritz. I leaned forward a little eagerly as they went. I watched the car glide off and disappear, watched it until it was out of sight, and afterwards, even, watched the spot where it had vanished. Then, with a little sigh, I turned back once more into the great hall. There seemed to be no one left now of any interest. The women had become ordinary, the men impossible. With a little sigh I too aimlessly descended the steps, and stood for a moment uncertain which way to turn.
"Monsieur is looking for a light?" a quiet voice said in my ear.
I turned, and found myself confronted by a Frenchman, who had also just issued from the building and was himself lighting a cigarette. He was clean-shaven and pale, so pale that his complexion was almost olive. He had soft, curious-looking eyes. He was of medium height, dark, correctly dressed according to the fashion of his country, although his tie was black and his studs of unusual size. Something about his face struck me from the first as familiar, but for the moment I could not recall having seen him before.
"Thank you very much," I answered, accepting the match which he offered.
The night was clear, and breathlessly still. The full yellow moon was shining in an absolutely cloudless sky. The match--an English wax one, by the way--burned without a flicker. I lit my cigarette, and turning around found my companion still standing by my side.
"Monsieur does not do me the honor to recollect me," he remarked, with a faint smile.
I looked at him steadfastly.
"I am sorry," I said. "Your face is perfectly familiar to me, and yet--No, by Jove, I have it!" I broke off, with a little laugh. "It's Louis, isn't it, from the Milan?"
"Monsieur's memory has soon returned," he answered, smiling. "I have been chief maitre d'hotel in the cafe there for some years. The last time I had the honor of serving monsieur there was only a few weeks ago."
I remembered him perfectly now. I remembered, even, the occasion of my last visit to the cafe. Louis, with upraised hat, seemed as though he would have passed on, but, curiously enough, I felt a desire to continue the conversation. I had not as yet admitted the fact even to myself; but I was bored, weary of my search, weary to death of my own company and the company of my own acquaintances. I was reluctant to let this little man go.
"You visit Paris often?" I asked.
"But naturally, monsieur," Louis answered, accepting my unspoken invitation by keeping pace with me as we strolled towards the Boulevard. "Once every six weeks I come over here. I go to the Ritz, Paillard's, the Cafe de Paris,--to the others also. It is an affair of business, of course. One must learn how the Frenchman eats and what he eats, that one may teach the art."
"But you are a Frenchman yourself, Louis," I remarked.
"But, monsieur," he answered, "I live in London. Voila tout. One cannot write menus there for long, and succeed. One needs inspiration."
"And you find it here?" I asked.
Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"Paris, monsieur," he answered, "is my home. It is always a pleasure to me to see smiling faces, to see men and women who walk as though every footstep were taking them nearer to happiness. Have you never noticed, monsieur," he continued, "the difference? They do not plod here as do your English people. There is a buoyancy in their footsteps, a mirth in their laughter, an expectancy in the way they look around, as though adventures were everywhere. I cannot understand it, but one feels it directly one sets foot in Paris."
I nodded--a little bitterly, perhaps.
"It is temperament," I answered. "We may envy, but we cannot acquire it."
"It seems strange to see monsieur alone here," Louis remarked. "In London, it is always so different. Monsieur has so many acquaintances."
I was silent for a moment.
"I am here in search of some one," I told Louis. "It isn't a very pleasant mission, and the memory of it is always with me."
"A search!" Louis repeated thoughtfully. "Paris is a large place, monsieur."
"On the contrary," I answered, "it is small enough if a man will but play the game. A man, who knows his Paris, must be in one of half-a-dozen places some time during the day."
"It is true," Louis admitted. "Yet monsieur has not been successful."
"It has been because some one has warned the man of whom I am in search!" I declared.
"There are worse places," he remarked, "in which one might be forced to spend one's time."
"In theory, excellent, Louis," I said. "In practice, I am afraid I cannot agree with you. So far," I declared, gloomily, "my pilgrimage has been an utter failure. I cannot meet, I cannot hear of, the man who I know was flaunting it before the world three weeks ago."
Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"Monsieur can do no more than seek," he remarked. "For the rest, one may leave many burdens behind in the train at the Gare du Nord."
I shook my head.
"One cannot acquire gayety by only watching other people who are gay," I declared. "Paris is not for those who have anxieties, Louis. If ever I were suffering from melancholia, for instance, I should choose some other place for a visit."
Louis laughed softly.
"Ah! Monsieur," he answered, "you could not choose better. There is no place so gay as this, no place so full of distractions."
I shrugged my shoulders.
"It is your native city," I reminded him.
"That goes for nothing," Louis answered. "Where I live, there always I make my native city. I have lived in Vienna and Berlin, Budapest and Palermo, Florence and London. It is not an affair of the place. Yet of all these, if one seeks it, there is most distraction to be found here. Monsieur does not agree with me," he added, glancing into my face. "There is one thing more which I would tell him. Perhaps it is the explanation. Paris, the very home of happiness and gayety, is also the loneliest and the saddest city in the world for those who go alone."
"There is truth in what you say, Louis," I admitted.
"The very fact," he continued slowly, "that all the world amuses itself, all the world is gay here, makes the solitude of the unfortunate who has no companion a thing more triste, more keenly to be felt. Monsieur is alone?"
"I am alone," I admitted, "except for the companions of chance whom one meets everywhere."
We had been walking for some time slowly side by side, and we came now to a standstill. Louis held up his hand and called a taximeter.
"Monsieur goes somewhere to sup, without a doubt," he remarked.
I remained upon the pavement.
"Really, I don't know," I answered undecidedly. "There is a great deal of truth in what you have been saying. A man alone here, especially at night, seems to be looked upon as a sort of pariah. Women laugh at him, men pity him. It is only the Englishman, they think, who would do so foolish a thing."
Louis hesitated. There was a peculiar smile at the corners of his lips which I did not quite understand.
"If monsieur would honor me," he said apologetically, "I am going to-night to visit one or perhaps two of the smallest restaurants up in the Montmartre. They are by way of being fashionable now, and they tell me that there is an Homard Speciale with a new sauce which must be tasted at the Abbaye."
All the apology in Louis' tone was wasted. It troubled me not in the least that my companion should be a maitre d'hotel. I did not hesitate for a second.
"I'll come with pleasure, Louis," I said, "on condition that I am host. It is very good of you to take pity upon me. We will take this taximeter, shall we?"
Louis bowed. Once more I fancied that there was something in his face which I did not altogether understand.
"It is an honor, monsieur," he said. "We will start, then, with the Abbaye."
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