THE INNOCENCE OF PARIS
This meeting with William and Dora was fortunate from the point of view of my studies; for that very night, as I dined with them en pension, I found that providence, with his usual foresight, had placed me next to a very charming American girl of the type that I was particularly wishful to study. She seemed equally wishful to be studied, and we got on amazingly from the first moment of our acquaintance. By the middle of dinner we were pressing each other's feet under the table, and when coffee and cigarettes had come, we were affianced lovers. "Why should I blush to own I love?" was evidently my quaint little companion's motto; and indeed she didn't blush to own it to the whole table, and publicly to announce that I was the dearest boy, and absolutely the most lovable man she had met. There was nothing she wouldn't do for me. Would she brave the terrors of the Latin Quarter with me, I asked, and introduce me to the terrible Cafe d'Harcourt, about which William and Dora had suffered such searchings of heart? "Why, certainly; there was nothing in that," she said. So we went.
Nothing is more absurd and unjust than those crude labels of national character which label one country virtuous and another vicious, one musical and another literary. Thus France has an unjust reputation for vice, and England an equally unjust reputation for virtue.
I had always, I confess, been brought up to think of Paris as a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah in one. Good Americans might go to Paris, according to the American theory of a future state; but, certainly I had thought, no good Englishman ever went there--except, maybe, on behalf of the Vigilance Society. Well, it may sound an odd thing to say, but what impressed me most of all was the absolute innocence of the place.
I mean this quite seriously. For surely one important condition of innocence is unconsciousness of doing wrong. The poor despised Parisian may be a very wicked and depraved person, but certainly he goes about with an absolute unconsciousness of it upon his gay and kindly countenance.
"Seeing the world" usually means seeing everything in it that most decent people won't look at; but when you come to look at these terrible things and places, what do you find? Why, absolute disappointment!
Have you ever read that most amusing book, "Baedeker on Paris"?
I know nothing more delightful than the notes to the Montmartre and Latin Quarters. The places to which you, as a smug Briton, may or may not take a lady! The scale of wickedness allowed to the waxwork British lady is most charmingly graduated. I had read that the cafe where we were sitting was one of the most terrible places in Paris,--the Cafe d'Harcourt, where the students of the Latin Quarter take their nice little domestic mistresses to supper. But Baedeker was dreadfully Pecksniffian about these poor innocent etudiantes, many of whom love their lovers much more truly than many a British wife loves her husband, and are much better loved in return. If you doubt it, dare to pay attention to one of these young ladies, and you will probably have to fight a duel for it. In fact, these romantic relations are much more careful of honour than conventional ones; for love, and not merely law, keeps guard.
I looked around me. Where were those terrible things I had read of? Where was this hell which I had reasonably expected would gape leagues of sulphur and blue flame beneath the little marble table? I mentally resolved to bring an action against Baedeker for false information. For what did I see? Simply pairs and groups of young men and women chattering amiably in front of their "bocks" or their "Americains." Here and there a student would have his arm round a waist every one else envied him. One student was prettily trying a pair of new gloves upon his little woman's hand. Here and there blithe songs would spring up, from sheer gladness of heart; and never was such a buzz of happy young people, not even at a Sunday-school treat. To me it seemed absolutely Arcadian, and I thought of Daphnis and Chloe and the early world. Nothing indecorous or gross; all perfectly pretty and seemly.
On our way home Semiramis was so sweet to me, in her innocent, artless frankness, that I went to bed with an intoxicating feeling that I must be irresistible indeed, to have so completely conquered so true a heart in so few hours. I was the more flattered because I am not a vain man, and am not, like some, accustomed to take hearts as the Israelites took Jericho with the blast of one's own trumpet.
But, alas! my dream of universal irresistibility was but short-lived, for next afternoon, as William and I sat out at some cafe together, I found myself the object of chaff.
"Well," said William, "how goes the love-affair?"
I flushed somewhat indignantly at his manner with sanctities.
"I see!" he said, "I see! You are already corded and labelled, and will be shipped over by the next mail,--`To Miss Semiramis Wilcox, 1001 99th St., Philadelphia, U.S.A. Man with care.' Well, I did think you'd got an eye in your head. Look here, don't be a fool! I suppose she said you were the first and last. The last you certainly were. There are limits even to the speed of American girls; but the first, my boy! You are more like the twelfth, to my ocular knowledge. Here comes Dubois the poet. He can tell you something about Miss Semiramis.
Eh! Dubois, you know Miss Semiramis Wilcox, don't you?"
The Frenchman smiled and shrugged.
"Un peu," he said.
"Don't be an ass and get angry," William continued; "it's all for your own good."
"The little Semiramis has been seducing my susceptible friend here. Like many of us, he has been captivated by her naturalness, her naivete, her clear good eyes,--that look of nature that is always art! May I relate the idyl of your tragic passion, dear Dubois, as an object lesson?"
The Frenchman bowed, and signed William to proceed.
"You dined with us one evening, and you thus met for the first time. You sat together at table. What happened with the fish?"
"She swore I was the most beautiful man she had ever seen,--and I am not beautiful, as you perceive."
If not beautiful, the poet was certainly true.
"What happened at the entree?"
"Oh, long before that we were pressing our feet under the table."
"And the coffee--"
"Mon Dieu! we were Tristram and Yseult, we were all the great lovers in the Pantheon of love."
"And what then?"
"Oh, we went to the Cafe d'Harcourt--mon ami."
"Did she wear a veil?" I asked.
"And did you say, `Why do you wear a veil,--setting a black cloud before the eyes and gates of heaven'?"
"The very words," said the Frenchman.
"And did she say, `Yes, but the veil can be raised?' "
"She did, mon pauvre ami," said the poet.
"And did you raise it?"
"I did," said the poet.
"And so did I," I answered. And as I spoke, there was a crash of white marble in my soul, and lo! Love had fallen from his pedestal and been broken into a thousand pieces,--a heavy, dead thing he lay upon the threshold of my heart.
We had appointed a secret meeting in the salon of the pension that afternoon. I was not there! (Nor, as I afterwards learnt, was Semiramis.) When we did meet, I was brutally cold. I evaded all her moves; but when at last I decided to give her a hearing, I confess it needed all my cynicism to resist her air of innocence, of pathetic devotion.
If I couldn't love her, she said, might she go on loving me? Might she write to me sometimes? She would be content if now and again I would send her a little word. Perhaps in time I would grow to believe in her love, etc.
The heart-broken abandonment with which she said this was a sore trial to me; but though love may be deceived, vanity is ever vigilant, and vanity saved me. Yet I left her with an aching sense of having been a brute, and on the morning of my departure from Paris, as I said good-bye to William and Dora, I spoke somewhat seriously of Semiramis. Dora, Dora-like, had believed in her all along,--not having enjoyed William's opportunities of studying her,--and she reproached me with being rather hard-hearted.
"Nonsense," said William, "if she really cared, wouldn't she have been up to bid you good-bye?"
The words were hardly gone from his lips when there came a little knock at the door. It was Semiramis; she had come to say good- bye. Was it in nature not to be touched? "Good-bye," she said, as we stood a moment alone in the hall. "I shall always think of you; you shall not be to me as a ship that has passed in the night, though to me you have behaved very like an iceberg."
We parted in tears and kisses, and I lived for some weeks with that sense of having been a Nero, till two months after I received a much glazed and silvered card to the usual effect.
And so I ceased to repine for the wound I had made in the heart of Semiramis Wilcox.
Of another whom I met and loved in that brief month in Paris, I cherish tenderer memories. Prim little Pauline Deschapelles! How clearly I can still see the respectable brass plate on the door of your little flat-- "Mademoiselle Deschapelles--Modes et Robes;" and indeed the "modes et robes" were true enough. For you were in truth a very hard-working little dressmaker, and I well remember how impressed I was to sit beside you, as you plied your needle on some gown that must be finished by the evening, and meditate on the quaint contrast between your almost Puritanic industry and your innocent love of pleasure. I don't think I ever met a more conscientious little woman than little Pauline Deschapelles.
There was but one drawback to our intercourse. She didn't know a word of English, and I couldn't speak a word of French. So we had to make shift to love without either language. But sometimes Pauline would throw down her stitching in amused impatience, and, going to her dainty secretaire, write me a little message in the simplest baby French--which I would answer in French which would knit her brows for a moment or two, and then send her off in peals of laughter.
It WAS French! I know. Among the bric-a-brac of my heart I still cherish some of those little slips of paper with which we made international love--question and answer.
"Vous allez m'oublier, et ne plus penser a moi--ni me voir. Les hommes--egoistes-- menteurs, pas dire la verite . . ." so ran the questions, considerably devoid of auxiliary verbs and such details of construction.
"Je serais jamais t'oublier," ran the frightful answers!
Dear Pauline! Shall I ever see her again? She was but twenty-six. She may still live.Next