"MONSIEUR is right," the waiter answered, pausing for a moment in his deft arrangement of my table and glancing over his shoulder. "The lady interests us all. There are many who inquire about her."
"She comes often, then?" I asked.
"But yes, monsieur," the man answered. "That table is reserved for her. She comes every evening."
I glanced around the crowded room. Every place was occupied by gorgeously-dressed women and men of every nationality. The strains of the orchestra were mingled with the popping of champagne corks and the murmur of hilarious conversation. A girl in short skirts was dancing down the room. A certain abandon in the atmosphere, an absence of all restraint in the familiarities that floated from table to table, clearly indicated the insistent influence of the demi-monde.
"But she," I said, "she is not like these others, surely?"
"She speaks to no one," the waiter answered. "Still one cannot tell. It is something that she comes alone to a place like this. Every night she has her supper and a small bottle of wine. Then she smokes two or three cigarettes and goes. Pardon, monsieur!"
The man rushed away. I looked again at the woman who had interested me so much. She was apparently young, perfectly dressed, yet with a certain restraint, the more effective in contrast to the elaborate toilettes of the women by whom she was surrounded. Her deep brown hair was arranged in the latest mode, her complexion was pale, but not unhealthily so, her eyes clear and fine. At that moment she was leaning back against the wall, a cigarette between her lips, her eyes fixed upon the door. The room was small, and she was hemmed in among all the other habitues of the place—the men, whose faces were more or less flushed and whose evening clothes, at this hour in the morning, were a little awry—the women, whose laughter and chatter became more and more hysterical. And yet she had unmistakably the air of being far away from them all. Her surroundings never embarrassed her. The most risky joke—and there were many flying about—brought no shadow of disapproval or annoyance to her still somewhat languid face. Once I saw a man stop in front of her table. She knocked the ash from her cigarette and looked at him calmly.
He passed on at once.
For me the hour or so I spent there resolved Itself into a study of her. I learned very little. She watched the dances with a certain languid interest, as though she were somewhat bored but desired to be tolerant. Once she applauded a little dancer who was being given a trial and was evidently nervous. Afterwards she called the girl to her table and spoke a few words. I could not hear what she said, but the girl was evidently pleased. When she dismissed the dancer it was with a little nod of the head, kindly enough, but a trifle imperious. There was none of the familiarity with which the other habitues of the place treated the performers.
One thing only I discovered. She had often the air of watching for someone. Every time the door opened she looked up. She never showed any sign of pleasure or disappointment, but it was obvious that her interest in all newcomers was simply because she hoped or expected someone who never came.
At three o'clock precisely she paid her bill and departed. I watched her move down the room. She was perfectly self-possessed, her figure slimmer and more elegant even than I had imagined. She nodded kindly to the little dancer, and spoke to the leader of the orchestra. The manager himself escorted her to the door. I called him to my table.
"Monsieur Albut, who is the lady who has just gone out?"
Monsieur Albut was amused.
"I do not know, sir," he answered. "She comes every night, and she stays sometimes later than this. She comes alone, and she departs always alone."
"She amuses herself?" I asked doubtfully.
Monsieur Albut shrugged his shoulders.
"She has not the air," he admitted, "but nevertheless, she returns always."
"Perhaps," I suggested, "she is looking for someone?"
"It is possible," the manager answered. "At least, she is an excellent customer. We are careful that she is not annoyed. Pardon!" Monsieur Albut detected symptoms of a disturbance at a table lower down the room and hurried off. Disturbances were never permitted at the Chat Mort. Complaints were invariably decided at once in favor of the customer. He might even depart if he chose without paying his bill. But there was no return. Monsieur Albut saw to that. It was a small room, and one had to pass two commissionaires and Monsieur Albut himself before one gained admission to it. There was a certain list, and if once your name was on it an entrance into Buckingham Palace would have been easier than to have passed into the inner circle of the Chat Mort. I, too, called the waiter and paid my bill. I pointed to the table next to the one where the girl had sat.
"Can you reserve me that table for to-morrow evening?"
He smiled a little doubtfully. "But yes, monsieur," he said. "It shall be reserved."
His smile was very eloquent. He wished to let me know that I was laying up for myself a store of disappointment. Yet I fancied that his uneasiness went even further than this, and I was right. He followed me out of the room. "Monsieur will pardon me," he said, "but if I were he I would keep the same table. It is a very nice table—and there is an excellent view of the dancing—and everybody."
"Agreed," I said. "But for to-morrow night I prefer the other."
"It is as monsieur wishes, of course," he answered respectively. "Monsieur has been a generous patron, or I would not take the liberty. There have been many others who have desired to reserve that table, yet now it is occupied by chance comers."
"They found mademoiselle unapproachable," I remarked.
"Not only so, monsieur," the man answered. "The table has ill- fortune. It is the unlucky table of the place. Not one of these ladies"—he indicated them with a sweep of the arm—"would think of sitting there."
"Tell me," I said smiling, "how unlucky?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Monsieur desires it? Very well, then. First a young Englishman sat there. Madame Rosa made his acquaintance. In three weeks the young Englishman was in the Seine. Then a stranger took it. He made the acquaintance of Mademoiselle Lenant, who does not come here now, and he robbed her of all her jewellery and savings. Then the young Baron de Jammapes sat there. He spoke to mademoiselle several times in vain. One night he lost his temper after a rebuff and left the place hurriedly. Outside he was run over by an automobile, and he goes now on crutches."
I laughed heartily.
"It is an appalling list, Jules," I declared, handing him a five-franc piece, "but I will tempt Fate. Keep the table for me to-morrow. I shall arrive about midnight."
The opportunity for which I had sought came at last. A passer- by moved with his elbow the ice pail upon her table. The bottle was upon the point of falling. I rescued it.
"Pardon, mademoiselle," I said. "Your wine was in danger."
"Thank you very much," she answered in excellent English.
"Mademoiselle speaks English," I ventured to observe.
The word was almost chilly, but I was getting desperate. This was my fifth night, and positively the first opportunity I had found of speaking a word. I felt hot and cold by turns, but I blundered on.
"The place is full to-night," I said.
"It is," she answered calmly.
I stuck to it blindly. At least she was answering me.
"One wonders," I remarked, "why so many people come here. The performance is amusing, but scarcely more, and there are so many other cafes."
"Why do you come?" she asked calmly—"five nights following, I believe?"
"And mademoiselle," I ventured, "a great many more than five."
She turned her head and regarded me critically, even thoughtfully. I honestly believe that it was the first time she had taken that trouble. I felt myself as nervous as a boy. She said nothing. The conversation was perishing and I was desperate.
"Mademoiselle is never lonely—here—always by herself?" I faltered.
"Never, when I am by myself," she answered calmly, and turning away went on with her supper.
I swore to myself silently, and followed her example. Yet the Fates were to befriend me that night. A few minutes later a man entered and came strolling up the room—a middle-aged Frenchman, a typical boulevardier. He paused in front of her table.
"Mademoiselle permits?" he asked, bending toward her and touching the back of the chair which fronted her.
"This table is engaged, monsieur," she answered quietly.
"Mademoiselle will at least permit," he added in a lower tone, "that I seat myself for a moment. It is dull to be alone."
I leaned over toward him.
"Monsieur," I said, "this lady is my companion. Your presence here is an intrusion."
He looked me up and down. Perhaps he read the thoughts which were in my mind. He shrugged his shoulders and passed on. Still mademoiselle continued her supper calmly and said nothing. But my reward was to come. Suddenly she addressed me.
"Monsieur!" she said.
I started as though I had been shot. She had finished her supper and was leaning back, an unlighted cigarette in her mouth.
"Can I trouble you for a light?" she asked.
I struck a match with trembling fingers. I fancied that she smiled slightly as she accepted it.
"I am much obliged to you for your interference just now," she said. "It was unnecessary, for Monsieur Albut looks after me very well. But I thank you none the less."
"It was only—a pleasure," I murmured.
"You have appeared," she continued, "anxious to converse with me. I am afraid that I have been rather rude."
"On the contrary, I had no right to speak to you at all."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I am not so sure about that," she answered. "Other places, other manners. We are at the Chat Mort."
"To me," I said, looking at her earnestly, "that is the most extraordinary part of it all."
She blew away the cigarette smoke from around her face.
"I suppose," she said, "like all the rest of them, you are consumed with curiosity to know why I come here."
"It is not exactly curiosity," I answered. "I admit that I should like to know why you do come. I have wondered why since the first evening I saw you. But I should not call it curiosity."
She looked set me mockingly.
"A deeper interest?"
"I think that you know," I answered gravely. After that she was silent for a few moments. "And you," she asked, "you, too, keep yourself aloof from the others. What pleasure do you find in seeing how the devil calls to his own? Do you see that there is sunlight outside those shutters—sunlight and the freshness of the morning? Yet you, too, stay and breathe the poison."
"Mademoiselle," I answered, "I am a writer and a traveller. I have been away from France for two years, and I will admit that on my return my first visit is always here. The place has few attractions for me, yet I think that the knowledge of it adds to the sum total of one's knowledge of life."—"You defend yourself admirably," she declared. "Yet—five nights following."
"You, too," I answered, looking at her, "have been here for five nights following."
It was close upon the hour of her going. She closed her little cigarette ease with a sharp snap and rose to her feet.
"You will permit," I said, rising, "that I see you to your carriage."
She shook her head.
"Forgive me," she said, "but it is my whim to leave this place always as I enter it—alone. Good-night."
She left me, and I sat there with my pulses tingling and my blood all in a fever. People looked at me curiously and whispered to one another. I was the only man with whom mademoiselle had ever spoken.
Four nights afterwards she took me by surprise.
"I think," she said, "that I am going to tell you why I come here."
"If you do," I answered, "I shall value the knowledge more as a proof of your confidence than anything else." She looked at me and sighed. I think that my secret must have been perfectly obvious to her.
"You are a very foolish person," she said, "but you shall know. Come to No. 77 Rue de Martine to-morrow afternoon at four o'clock. Can you remember that?"
Could I remember! Such an absurdity needed no reply.
"I shall be there," I answered.
The moment I entered her studio I knew who she was. I recognised at once two of her paintings, which I had seen in the Salon.
"You are Lucille!" I exclaimed. She nodded.
"I sign all my work so," she admitted. "I am Mademoiselle Lucille de St. Creux—at your services."
I bowed over her outstretched hand. It was the first time I had touched it.
"But why does no one recognise you there?" I said wonderingly.
"Because scarcely anyone knows me," she answered. "I go out nowhere; I find my work absorbing—altogether absorbing. Then I have been in Paris only 12 months. I studied in Milan and London. Society does not attract me in the least."
A great canvas stood upon an easel in the north end of the room. I pointed toward it.
"May I not see what you are doing?"
She smiled as we moved side by side toward it. "It will tell you my secret," she said—"or rather part of it." She swept aside the covering and I bent forward with a little gasp. It was the interior of the Chat Mort. Men and women sat at the small tables, waiters were hurrying backward and forward. One could almost hear the pop of the champagne corks. But over the whole was spread a lurid effect. It was a picture of arrested motion. Every face was turned toward the door; waiters, pausing in their tasks, were looking backward; the little dancing girl stood still with one foot in the air. Women craned their necks; those at the hindmost tables were leaning forward. And the faces of all of them! It was a warm afternoon, but I stood still and shivered.
"You see what has produced the effect," she said. "Someone entering has thrown back the blinds from the east window, and the sun is shining in."
I put out my hands. I did not wish her to speak for the moment. The horror of that sunlight effect was almost paralysing. God's light upon the Devil's children! it was merciless, indescribable. The rouge cracked upon the faces of the women, their eyes were lit with terror, and from the faces of the men outshone the beast, hideous, unmistakable, uncompromising. Red- lipped, pale-faced, with eyes all aglare and hungry for the foul things of life, they stared at me from the canvas, dumb, mocking faces. The blood turned to ice in my veins. They were my fellow- creatures! My face even might be there. I could have cried in sheer horror.
"You see what I am waiting for," she said, suddenly dropping the covering. "I am waiting for the face of the man who lifts the blind. That is why I go to the Chat Mort. I want to see him come in. Now let me give you some tea."
The relief of that dropped covering! Once more the world seemed a real place. Between the Mademoiselle de Creux, whose conversation was all the while womanly and gentle, and mademoiselle of the Chat Mort there seemed no possible affinity. Before I went I spoke something of my mind.
"I wish that you would seek elsewhere for your model."
"You are out of place there," I declared. "I cannot bear to see you in such—company. Besides, the incongruity of the thing is obvious. The man who would lift the blind will never come into the Chat Mort. There are a hundred places where you might seek him with a better chance of success."
"It is true, my friend," she answered, for in those days we seemed to be drifting into a sort of familiarity which filled me with hope. "And yet I have an idea that he will come—and come there. Perhaps I have dreamt it. I cannot tell! But I believe that he will come, and I would ten thousand times rather see him, as I have fancied, walk into the midst of that scene in his proper place than meet him anywhere else."
"I shall see you to-night, then," I said, feeling some scant consolation at the thought.
"To-night," she repeated.
And that night it happened.
She had stayed later than usual. It must have been nearly four o'clock when I saw her suddenly start and lean forward eagerly. A man, fair, tall, and slim, was standing in the middle of the room, looking about him. Even I, who knew his history and his character, who knew him to be the biggest blackguard in France, could not deny the beauty of his face. Heaven knows what devil's tricks he had made use of, but his skin was as fair as a girl's, his eyes as clear and soft, the poise of his head almost noble. He looked around with a faint frown of disapprobation, and a sickening fear seized me. I bent toward my neighbor.
"It is the Vicomte D'Aurnay," I mattered.
"You have heard of him."
But I might as well have saved my breath. Their eyes met, and I saw in her face what no one had ever seen there before in this place—a slight, insidious smile of invitation. The Vicomte D'Aurnay was not the man to ignore it. In a moment he was bowing before her table.
"Mademoiselle permits?" he asked, softly drawing out the vacant chair.
And mademoiselle permitted.
They talked in whispers. Their heads were close together, and people throughout the room were interested and amused. As for me, I could not sit still. I could not leave the place, I could not remain near them. I hung about in an agony which presently reached its climax. For the first time Mademoiselle de St. Creux did not leave the place alone!
It was seven months afterward when, uncured, haggard from illness and altogether miserable, I found myself once more in the Chat Mort.
It seemed to me that Monsieur Albut greeted me a little nervously and glanced quickly toward a corner table. My old friend the waiter nearly dropped a bottle of wine, and I saw a look pass between him and Monsieur Albut. I sat down idly at a small table and took up the wine-card.
"Garcon——" I began, and then I said no more.
Around the lights whirled, and up and down the faces bobbed and swayed like pieces in a kaleidoscope. Horror and faintness pressed me hard, but Monsieur Albut brought me brandy and I found strength to raise my head. She was dressed—like the others. She sat with a famous lady—two men completed the party. Their laughter seemed to me the most awful thing I had ever heard in my life, her face the most terrible I had ever seen. There was rouge upon her cheeks, the hard glitter of joyless mirth in her eyes, hell in her face. And while I sat there fighting for my breath—for I was only three days out of bed from my illness—the rest happened.
He came in exactly as before. He paused between the tables and looked critically around—as before. But this time I saw her rise to meet him. I saw her face. God grant that I but some day forget it.
He turned his head and their eyes met.
There was a moment's intense silence. Everybody expected something, they scarcely knew what. Then there was a sharp unfamiliar sound, and a little puff of blue smoke floated lastly up to the ceiling.
He died where he fell, and she threw the little ivory-handled revolver at his prostrate body. Then she leaned back in her chair and laughed. The laugh, too! May I some day forget that!
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