Puslapio vaizdai
[graphic][merged small][merged small]

against his breast. His heart had melted completely away under the flood. "How lucky that I am here to soothe her!" he thought.

Presently she struggled from his


"Oh, monsieur!" she cried, "to think that you you would take advantage of me! And in the very house in which my poor husband at this moment lies dead!"

"In this house!" cried Hippolyte, starting away from her. "Name of a dog!"

He began alternately parting and compressing his lips, as if they had gone stickily dry.

She burst into another flood of tears, but Hippolyte no longer desired to comfort her. He desired only to get out of that house.

"And he was so good," she sobbed, "and so brave-and-and so fond of potatoes in oil, which I cooked for him every d-d-day! And I-I loved him, monsieur. And now I shall never cook potatoes in oil for him again! Oh, monsieur, I am in great troublethe very greatest trouble, for he has left me without a sou to give him decent burial."

Hippolyte glanced apprehensively

lay the corpse"

over his shoulder at nothing at all, opened his pocket-book with panicky fingers, and hurriedly extracted a fiftyfranc note. There was something horrible to him in the atmosphere of a house in which a man lay dead.

"Here, madame," he gasped with dry and husky throat-"here are fifty francs. And now I must go."

He was too nervous to notice that she gave a swift glance at the pocketbook, and that those limpid eyes then lost focus for a momentary calculation.


"Oh, no, monsieur," she begged, "give me nothing at all rather than that! Fifty francs would not purchase a funeral of even the sixth class. you think I would bury such a man as that without even a lambrequin above the door of the church? Oh, sir, you do me grave injustice!"

Hastily opening his pocket-book again, he made a strategic move toward the door.

"Here is a hundred francs," he said hoarsely, and thrust the note desperately into her hand. "And now you must let me go, for I have promised to drink a bock with my friend Ventrillon at the Closerie des Lilas-"

She moved swiftly to cut off his escape.

"Monsieur," she accused in a terrible voice, "how could you! You insult me! You must see that I cannot, without the basest ingratitude, spend less than a thousand francs!”

Hippolyte whistled the letter O. "A thousand francs!" he gasped. "Nom de dieu! I had rather that I had caught cold!"


"Oh, I see what is the matter, sir," she said piteously. "You do not believe me. You think that I am dishonest, and that I am trying to obtain money falsely. Then say it, monsieur -say the ugly word direct, and spare me the humiliation of your hints. Call me liar! Cry it into my face! am strong; I can endure it." She clutched at her breast as if she would with her own hands bare it to the blade. "Ah, but, no, that is useless; I shall convince you. Come!" She caught his hand, and almost with the strength of frenzy dragged him to the double doors, which she flung wide.

Great drops of cold sweat spurted from the pores of his forehead, and he felt the tendons of his limbs grow slack.

Before him, on a stretcher supported between the seats of two chairs, lay the corpse, with only a white sheet for covering. Two candles, stuck to the chair with blobs of wax, guttered and flickered above the bluish pallor of its face, and two others fluttered with a grisly light near where its feet protruded grotesquely beneath the linen.

"Two grains of aspirin!" he said. "Pardieu! the price has gone up."

All that is what would have happened if Hippolyte had not taken a taxi. As it was, he took a taxi, and it did not happen at all.


Now this is what actually did happen to Ventrillon that self-same evening:

At exactly twenty minutes after Hippolyte would have arrived in the rue de Madame if he had not taken a taxi, and about two hours before he poured the tale of what follows into the eager ears of Hippolyte at the Closerie des Lilas, Ventrillon walked up that same gray old street on his way to that very café. In a clear, beautiful baritone he was singing without words, "E lucevan le stelle," from the last act of "Tosca," and becoming quite pleasantly melancholy from the effects of his own music.

Suddenly he stopped short and took off his hat before a dark doorway.

"Bonsoir, madame," he said into it; "I perceive that you are regarding the moon."

"Oh, no, sir," said a sad, weary voice from the shadow of the doorway; "there is no moon."

"And I thought all the while that there was," said Ventrillon. "That, madame, is what it is to have the romantic temperament."

"Ah, yes," said the woman in the

In a panic of horror he flung his doorway, "and that is also what it is to pocket-book into her hands.

"Oh, my God!" he cried, "I cannot bear it!" and fled incontinently from the room. He dashed down the stairs and into the rue de Madame. There he staggered against the side of the house, and slowly drew the back of his hand across his forehead.

have the light heart. But I, monsieur, shall never have the light heart again; for I am in trouble, monsieur, very great trouble. Even now I was waiting for some one to pass whom I might ask to help me. I was glad you spoke, for even in the dark I could see that you are good and kind-"

"And even in the dark," said Ventrillon, "I can see a tear which glistens out of place in those fine eyes. What is the matter, pray, dear madame?"

She hesitated a moment while she timidly inspected him.

"I-I should not like for people to see us talking together in the street," she began uncertainly; "but if—if you could come in quickly where nobody can see "

"I could do anything for those fine eyes," said Ventrillon, impudently.

"Oh, I have been too bold!" said the woman, covering her face in her hands. "One can trust no man."

"Respect my youth, madame," said Ventrillon, seriously; "I assure you that no person has yet known harm from me."

The woman raised her face again. "I think," she said after peering for a space into his eyes, "that I believe you."

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

And she opened the door behind polyandrist and had fifty husbands, I her.

In the pétrole lamplight Ventrillon saw that she was very beautiful, and he thought of photographs he had seen of Mademoiselle Lantelme. He saw the woman's lips quiver as she gathered strength to speak.

should adore helping you bury them all; but, as it happens, I have not a sou."

"Oh," she cried, "you do not believe me! I see that you do not believe me! Then why did you not say it? Why do you not tell me that I lie? That I

"I believe I am going to weep," could bear, but not this!" thought Ventrillon.

"Monsieur," she said at last, "yesterday the kindest, the tenderest, the noblest man in all the world-died." She could scarcely continue further, and began to sob into her handkerchief. "Of the Spanish grippe, monsieur, which settled in his lungs."

"Your husband, madame?" said Ventrillon, gouging something from his right eye with his knuckle, only to find that his left required attention also.

"Your surmise, madame, is correct,' said Ventrillon. "I do not believe a single word which has passed those exquisite lips in the course of our all too brief acquaintance. But in your acting I believe as I do in all great art. Hence my tears."

"Then look!" she cried in a terrible voice, and flung wide the double doors.

The body lay straight and still beneath its covering sheet, and the candles cast pale shadows, which flickered and fled strangely upon that blue

white mask of death. The effect was ghastly, and Ventrillon shivered.

"Wonderful!" he thought. "But how he can remain so completely motionless is a thing which I cannot understand. I wonder if he really is her husband. In these cases one never knows."

"Now," said the woman, "do you not experience a lively regret for your doubts of me?"

"Truly, madame," said Ventrillon, "I experience instead a lively desire to tickle this young gentleman in the ribs. I believe I might effect a miracle and raise the dead."

"No!" she cried, "no! You will not dare! It is sacrilege!"

"Do not attempt to prevent me," said Ventrillon, and, striding quickly

"Nom de dieu de dieu de dieu!' swore Ventrillon, softly"

through the double doors, he grasped the shoulder of the body and shook it vigorously.

"Get up from there, old fellow!" he cried. "I 've heard of this trick before."

The body slid sickeningly from the stretcher and, stiff and unresponsive, bumped with a grisly thud to the floor. Two of the candles tottered, luckily extinguishing themselves as they fell.

"Thunder of God!" cried Ventrillon, hoarsely. Unable even to cover his eyes with his hands, he stood horrified and aghast at what he had done.

"Now, pardieu!" screamed the woman, "you will pay! Thou camel! Voyou! Saligaud! That cheek will never look natural again. It is impossible to mend it! Oh, why did I ever allow this species of housebreaker into my house!"

Horrible to say, a thick, triangular chunk of the cheek lay upon the carpet, and a gaping black hole was all too visible in the face of the corpse.

"Nom de dieu de dieu de dieu!" swore Ventrillon, softly, and stooped to touch the fragment gingerly with the ends of his fingers. "Wax! Pardieu!"

"Yes it is wax," cried the woman, shrilly, "and not a finer piece was in all Tussaud's. It is simply that it became a little worn in the dusting, and the management was ready to discard it. But that was barely noticeable. Now a great hole like that, when my husband brought it all the way from London at great expense! Oh, you'll pay! You won't leave here until you do. And a present to my husband it was. You see, it has sentimental value also. And now you have broken it! The parting gift of the management of Tussaud's waxworks to my husband before he went to war! The souvenir

of his happy days as faithful caretaker! Oh, you need not think you will leave without paying for breakage! You'll pay!" It seemed as if her tirade would never end.

"Poiasse!” cried Ventrillon, employing an epithet so terrible that it exists in no dictionary and has no meaning whatever. "Let me pass!"

She flung herself against the hall door, and confronted him with her arms outspread against it.

"You force me to violence," said Ventrillon, and caught one of her wrists in a frightful grip.

"Antoine!" shrieked the woman. "Antoine!"

Ventrillon turned to face a man who sprang through the double doors from another room, and found a revolver leveled at his eyes.

"How dare you!" thundered the man. "How dare you attack my widow!"

Ventrillon became gray-white, but he drew himself firmly erect. "Let me tell you, my friend," he said, speaking with the terrible calm of great fear, "that you will get just as much from me living as when I am dead, for I have not a sou. Shoot!"

That was the last speech in the world which the man who held the revolver had expected. His hand began to waver uncertainly, and it was plain that he knew not what to do. But the rest of it we have already heard Ventrillon tell Hippolyte while the beer was going flat at the Closerie des Lilas. Nevertheless, he did not tell that when he reached the street again he said, "I hope that Hippolyte Raton will be at the Closerie des Lilas, for he will buy me a beer, and the good God knows that I am thirsty."

In fact, his mouth was parching.

Ventrillon gazed pityingly at his friend across the table between them.

"You would have walked," he said. "O, Hippolyte, you do not understand these things. And you say that your life is dull. Listen to me, Hippolyte, my friend; the life of any man is the most thrilling thing in all the world. Only consider into what abysses you might have sunk, to what pinnacles you might have soared, if upon a certain day, instead of shaving, you had gone unshaved; or, instead of taking a clean handkerchief, you had left it in the armoire. Never will you know what peril you have escaped by salting your egg at luncheon instead of leaving it unsalted. O, Hippolyte, Hippolyte, if you had not taken a taxi, you say you would have walked. No wonder you consider that your life is dull. But now it is long past midnight, and we are almost alone. Let us hail a taxi, and you can go by the rue Jacob and leave me at my door. It is not far out of your way-"

Hippolyte sprang to his feet.

"No, Ventri," he cried, his little eyes aflame with inspiration; "no, this time I shall not take a taxi!”

"Then I shall have to walk home," said Ventrillon, "unless, perhaps I wonder if you could spare me a fivefranc note?"

"Willingly," said Hippolyte, and Ventrillon watched him with sinking heart as he counted past all notes of a larger denomination until he found one little blue one of the amount specified. Ventrillon accepted it gracefully and went away to find a taxi, while Hippolyte paid a sleepy waiter the amount of the stack of saucers.

Now this is what happened to Hippolyte when he did not take a taxi: He followed the rue d'Assas as far

« AnkstesnisTęsti »