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I found Louis, during that short drive, most unaccountably silent. Several times I made casual remarks. Once or twice I tried to learn from him what sort of a place this was to which we were bound. He answered me only in monosyllables. I was conscious all the time of a certain subtle but unmistakable change in his manner. Up to the moment of his suggesting this expedition he had remained the suave, perfectly mannered superior servant, accepted into equality for a time by one of his clients, and very careful not to presume in any way upon his position. It is not snobbish to say this, because it was the truth. Louis was chief maitre d'hotel at one of the best restaurants in London. I was an ex-officer in a cavalry regiment, brother of the Earl of Welmington, with a moderate income, and a more than moderate idea of how to spend it. Louis was servant and I was master. It had pleased me to make a companion of him for a short time, and his manner had been a perfect acknowledgment of our relative positions. And now it seemed to me that there was a change. Louis had become more like a man, less like a waiter. There was a strength in his face which I had not previously observed, a darkening anxiety which puzzled me. He treated my few remarks with scant courtesy. He was obviously thinking about something else. It seemed as though, for some inexplicable reason, he had already repented of his suggestion.
"Look here, Louis," I said, "you seem a little bothered about taking me to this place. Perhaps they do not care about strangers there. I am not at all keen, really, and I am afraid I am not fit company for anybody. Better drop me here and go on by yourself. I can amuse myself all right at some of these little out-of-the-way places until I feel inclined to go home."
Louis turned and looked at me. For a moment I thought that he was going to accept my offer. He opened his mouth but said nothing. He looked away into the darkness once more, and then back into my face. By this time I knew that he had made up his mind. He was more like himself again.
"Monsieur Rotherby," he said, "if I have hesitated at all, it was for your sake. You are a gentleman of great position. Afterwards you might feel sorry to think that you had been in such a place, or in such company."
I patted him on the shoulder reassuringly.
"My dear Louis," said I, "you need have no such fears about me. I am a little of an adventurer, a little of a Bohemian. There is no one else who has a claim upon my life, and I do as I please. Can't you tell me a little more about this mysterious cafe?"
"There is so little to tell," Louis said. "Of one thing I can assure you,--you will be disappointed. There is no music, no dancing. The interest is only in the people who go there, and their lives. It may be," he continued thoughtfully, "that you will not find them much different from all the others."
"But there is a difference, Louis?" I asked.
"Wait," he answered. "You shall see."
The cab pulled up in front of a very ordinary-looking cafe in a side street leading from one of the boulevards. Louis dismissed the man and looked for a moment or two up and down the pavement. His caution appeared to be quite needless, for the thoroughfare was none too well lit, and it was almost empty. Then he entered the cafe, motioning me to follow him.
"Don't look around too much," he whispered. "There are many people here who do not care to be spied upon."
My first glance into the place was disappointing. I was beginning to lose faith in Louis. After all, it seemed to me that the end of our adventure would be ordinary enough, that I should find myself in one of those places which the touting guides of the Boulevard speak of in bated breath, which one needs to be very young indeed to find interesting even for a moment. The ground floor of the cafe through which we passed was like a thousand others in different parts of Paris. The floor was sanded, the people were of the lower orders,--rough-looking men drinking beer or sipping cordials; women from whom one instinctively looked away, and whose shrill laughter was devoid of a single note of music. It was all very flat, very uninteresting. But Louis led the way through a swing door to a staircase, and then, pushing his way through some curtains, along a short passage to another door, against which he softly knocked with his knuckles. It was opened at once, and a commissionnaire stood gazing stolidly out at us, a commissionnaire in the usual sort of uniform, but one of the most powerful-looking men whom I had ever seen in my life.
"There are no tables, monsieur, in the restaurant," he said at once. "There is no place at all."
Louis looked at him steadily for a moment. It seemed to me that, although I was unable to discern anything of the sort, some sign must have passed between them. At any rate, without any protest or speech of any sort from Louis the commissionnaire saluted and stood back.
"But your friend, monsieur?" he asked.
"It will be arranged," Louis answered, in a low tone. "We shall speak to Monsieur Carvin."
We were in a dark sort of entresol, and at that moment a further door was opened, and one caught the gleam of lights and the babel of voices. A man came out of the room and walked rapidly toward us. He was of middle height, and dressed in ordinary morning clothes, wearing a black tie with a diamond pin. His lips were thick. He had a slight tawny moustache, and a cast in one eye. He held out both his hands to Louis.
"Dear Louis," he exclaimed, "it is good to see you!"
Louis drew him to one side, and they talked for a few moments in a rapid undertone. More than once the manager of the restaurant, for such I imagined him to be, glanced towards me, and I was fairly certain that I formed the subject of their conversation. When it was finished Louis beckoned, and we all three turned towards the door together, Louis in the centre.
"This," he said to me, "is Monsieur Carvin, the manager of the Cafe des Deux Epingles. He has been explaining to me how difficult it is to find even a corner in his restaurant, but there will be a small table for us."
Monsieur Carvin bowed.
"For any friend of Louis," he said, "one would do much. But indeed, monsieur, people seem to find my little restaurant interesting, and it is, alas, so very small."
We entered the room almost as he spoke. It was larger than I had expected to find it, and the style of its decorations and general appearance were absolutely different from the cafe below. The coloring was a little sombre for a French restaurant, and the illuminations a little less vivid. The walls, however, were panelled with what seemed to be a sort of dark mahogany, and on the ceiling was painted a great allegorical picture, the nature of which I could not at first surmise. The guests, of whom the room was almost full, were all well-dressed and apparently of the smart world. The tourist element was lacking. There were a few men there in morning clothes, but these were dressed with the rigid exactness of the Frenchman, who often, from choice, affects this style of toilet. From the first I felt that the place possessed an atmosphere. I could not describe it, but, quite apart from Louis' few words concerning it, I knew that it had a clientele of its own, and that within its four walls were gathered together people who were in some way different from the butterfly crowd who haunt the night cafes in Paris. Monsieur Carvin himself led us to a small table against the wall, and not far inside the room. The vestiaire relieved us of our coats and hats. A suave maitre d'hotel bent over us with suggestions for supper, and an attendant sommelier waited by his side. Monsieur Carvin waved them away.
"The gentlemen have probably supped," he remarked. "A bottle of the Pommery, Gout Anglais, and some biscuits. Is that right, Louis?"
We both hastened to express our approval. Monsieur Carvin was called by some one at the other end of the room and hurried away. Louis turned to me. There was a curious expression in his eyes.
"You are disappointed?" he asked. "You see nothing here different? It is all the same to you."
"Not in the least," I answered. "For one thing, it seems strange to find a restaurant de luxe up here, when below there is only a cafe of the worst. Are they of the same management?"
"Up here," he said, "come the masters, and down there the servants. Look around at these people, monsieur. Look around carefully. Tell me whether you do not see something different here from the other places."
I followed Louis' advice. I looked around at the people with an interest which grew rather than abated, and for which I could not at first account. Soon, however, I began to realize that although this was, at first appearance, merely a crowd of fashionably dressed men and women, yet they differed from the ordinary restaurant crowd in that there was something a little out of the common in the faces of nearly every one of them. The loiterers through life seemed absent. These people were relaxing freely enough,--laughing, talking, and making love,--but behind it all there seemed a note of seriousness, an intentness in their faces which seemed to speak of a career, of things to be done in the future, or something accomplished in the past. The woman who sat at the opposite table to me--tall, with yellow hair, and face as pale as alabaster--was a striking personality anywhere. Her blue eyes were deep-set, and she seemed to have made no effort to conceal the dark rings underneath, which only increased their luminosity. A magnificent string of turquoises hung from her bare neck, a curious star shone in her hair. Her dress was of the newest mode. Her voice, languid but elegant, had in it that hidden quality which makes it one of a woman's most attractive gifts. By her side was a great black-moustached giant, a pale-faced man, with little puffs of flesh underneath his eyes, whose dress was a little too perfect and his jewelry a little too obvious.
"Tell me," I asked, "who is that man?"
Louis leaned towards me, and his voice sunk to the merest whisper.
"That, monsieur," said he, "is one of the most important persons in the room. He is the man whom they call the uncrowned king. He was a saddler once by profession. Look at him now."
"How has he made his money?" I asked.
Louis smiled--a queer little contraction of his thin lips.
"It is not wise," he said, "to ask that question of any whom you meet here. Henri Bartot was one of the wildest youths in Paris. It was he who started the first band of thieves, from which developed the present hoard of apaches."
"And now?" I asked.
"He is their unrecognized, unspoken-of leader," Louis whispered. "The man who offends him to-night would be lucky to find himself alive to-morrow."
I looked across the room curiously. There was not a single redeeming feature in the man's face except, perhaps, the suggestion of brute, passionate force which still lingered about his thick, straight lips and heavy jaw. The woman by his side seemed incomprehensible. I saw now that she had eyes of turquoise blue and a complexion almost waxenlike. She lifted her arms, and I saw that they, too, were covered with bracelets of light-blue stones. Louis, following my eyes, touched me on the arm.
"Don't look at her," he said warningly. "She belongs to him--Bartot. It is not safe to flirt with her even at this distance."
I laughed softly and sipped my wine.
"Louis," I said, "it is time you got back to London. You are living here in too imaginative an atmosphere."
"I speak the truth, monsieur," he answered grimly. "She, too,--she is not safe. She finds pleasure in making fools of men. The suffering which comes to them appeals to her vanity. There was a young Englishman once, he sent a note to her--not here, but at the Cafe de Paris--at luncheon time one morning. He was to have left Paris the next day. He did not leave. He has never been heard of since!"
There was no doubt that Louis himself, at any rate, believed what he was saying. I looked away from the young lady a little reluctantly. As though she understood Louis' warning, her lips parted for a moment in a faint, contemptuous smile. She leaned over and touched the man Bartot on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear. When I next looked in their direction I found his eyes fixed upon mine in a steady, malignant stare.
"Monsieur will remember," Louis whispered in my ear softly, "that I am responsible for his coming here."
"Of course," I answered reassuringly. "I have not the slightest wish to run up against any of these people. I will not look at them any more. She knew what she was doing, though, Louis, when she hung blue stones about her with eyes like that, eh?"
"She is beautiful," Louis admitted. "There are very many who admire her. But after all, what is the use? One has little pleasure of the things which one may not touch."
We were silent for several minutes. Suddenly my fingers gripped Louis' arm. Had I been blind all this time that they had escaped my notice? Then I saw that they were sitting at an extra table which had been hastily arranged, and I knew that they could have only just arrived.
"Tell me, Louis," I demanded eagerly, "who are those two at the small round table on the left,--the two who seem to have just come in,--a man and a girl?"
Louis turned his head, and I saw his lips come together--saw the quick change in his face from indifference to seriousness. For some reason or other my interest in these two seemed to be a matter of some import to him.
"Why does monsieur ask?" he said.
"The idlest curiosity," I assured him. "I know nothing about them except that they are distinctive, and one cannot fail, of course, to admire the young lady."
"You have seen them often?" Louis asked, in a low tone.
"I told you, Louis," I answered, "that my mission in Paris is of the nature of a search. For ten days I have haunted all the places where one goes,--the Race Course, the Bois, the Armenonville and Pre Catelan, the Rue de la Paix, the theatres. I have seen them nearly every day. To-night they were at the Opera."
"You know nothing of them beyond that?" Louis persisted.
"Nothing whatever," I declared. "I am not a boulevarder, Louis," I continued slowly, "and in England, you know, it is not the custom to stare at women as these Frenchmen seem to do with impunity. But I must confess that I have watched that girl."
"You find her attractive," murmured Louis.
"I find her delightful," I assented, "only she seems scarcely old enough to be about in such places as these."
"The man," Louis said slowly, "is a Brazilian. His name is Delora."
"Does he live in Paris?" I asked.
"By no means," Louis answered. "He is a very rich coffee-planter, and has immense estates somewhere in his own country. He comes over here every year to sell his produce on the London market. I believe that he is on his way there now."
"And the girl?" I asked.
"She is his niece," Louis answered. "She has been brought up in France at a convent somewhere in the south, I believe. I think I heard that this time she was to return to Brazil with her uncle."
"I wonder," I asked, "if she is going to London with him?"
"Probably," Louis answered, "and if monsieur continues to patronize me," he continued, "he will certainly see more of them, for Monsieur Delora is a client who is always faithful to me."
Notwithstanding its somewhat subdued air, there was all the time going on around us a cheerful murmur of conversation, the popping of corks, the laughter of women, the hurrying to and fro of waiters,--all the pleasant disturbance of an ordinary restaurant at the most festive hour of the night. But there came, just at this moment, a curious interruption, an interruption curious not only on its own account, but on account of the effect which it produced. From somewhere in the centre of the room there commenced ringing, softly at first, and afterwards with a greater volume, a gong, something like the siren of a motor-car, but much softer and more musical. Instantly a dead silence seemed to fall upon the place. Conversation was broken off, laughter was checked, even the waiters stood still in their places. The eyes of every one seemed turned towards the door. One or two of the men rose, and in the faces of these was manifest a sudden expression in which was present more or less of absolute terror. Bartot for a moment shrank back in his chair as though he had been struck, only to recover himself the next second; and the lady with the turquoises bent over and whispered in his ear. One person only left his place,--a young man who had been sitting at a table at the other end of the room with one of the gayest parties. At the very first note of alarm he had sprung to his feet. A few seconds later, with swift, silent movements and face as pale as a ghost, he had vanished into the little service room from which the waiters issued and returned. With his disappearance the curious spell which seemed to have fallen upon these other people passed away. The waiters resumed their tasks. The room was once more hilariously gay. Upon the threshold a newcomer was standing, a tall man in correct morning dress, with a short gray beard and a tiny red ribbon in his button-hole. He stood there smiling slightly--an unobtrusive entrance, such as might have befitted any habitue of the place. Yet all the time his eyes were travelling restlessly up and down the room. As he stood there, one could fancy there was not a face into which he did not look during those few minutes.
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