A Memorable Date
A blurring rain fell upon Paris that day; a rain so fine and cold that it penetrated the soles of men's shoes and their hearts alike, a dispiriting drizzle through which the pale, acrid smoke of innumerable wood fires faltered upward from the clustering chimney-pots, only to be rent into fragments and beaten down upon the glistening tiles of the mansard roofs. The wide asphalts reflected the horses and carriages and trains and pedestrians in forms grotesque, zigzagging, flitting, amusing, like a shadow-play upon a wrinkled, wind-blown curtain. The sixteenth of June. To Fitzgerald there was something electric in the date, a tingle of that ecstasy which frequently comes into the blood of a man to whom the romance of a great battle is more than its history or its effect upon the destinies of human beings. Many years before, this date had marked the end to a certain hundred days, the eclipse of a sun more dazzling than Rome, in the heyday of her august Caesars, had ever known: Waterloo. A little corporal of artillery; from a cocked hat to a crown, from Corsica to St. Helena: Napoleon.
Fitzgerald, as he pressed his way along the Boulevard des Invalides, his umbrella swaying and snapping in the wind much like the sail of a derelict, could see in fancy that celebrated field whereon this eclipse had been supernally prearranged. He could hear the boom of cannon, the thunder of cavalry, the patter of musketry, now thick, now scattered, and again not unlike the subdued rattle of rain on the bulging silk careening before him. He held the handle of the umbrella under his arm, for the wind had a temper mawling and destructive, and veered into the Place Vauban. Another man, coming with equal haste from the opposite direction, from the entrance of the tomb itself, was also two parts hidden behind an umbrella. The two came together with a jolt as sounding as that of two old crusaders in a friendly joust. Instantly they retreated, lowering their shields.
"I beg your pardon," said Fitzgerald in French.
"It is of no consequence," replied the stranger, laughing. "This is always a devil of a corner on a windy day." His French had a slight German twist to it.
Briefly they inspected each other, as strangers will, carelessly, with annoyance and amusement interplaying in their eyes and on their lips, all in a trifling moment. Then each raised his hat and proceeded, as tranquilly and unconcernedly as though destiny had no ulterior motive in bringing them thus really together. And yet, when they had passed and disappeared from each other's view, both were struck with the fact that somewhere they had met before.
Fitzgerald went into the tomb, his head bared. The marble underfoot bore the imprint of many shoes and rubbers and hobnails, of all sizes and--mayhap--of all nations. He recollected, with a burn on his cheeks, a sacrilege of his raw and eager youth, some twelve years since; he had forgotten to take off his hat. Never would he forget the embarrassment of that moment when the attendant peremptorily bade him remove it. He, to have forgotten! He, who held Napoleon above all heroes! The shame of it!
To-day many old soldiers were gathered meditatively round the heavy circular railing. They were always drawn hither on memorable anniversaries. Their sires and grandsires had carried some of those tattered flags, had won them. The tides of time might ebb and flow, but down there, in his block of Siberian porphyry, slept the hero. There were some few tourists about this afternoon, muttering over their guide-books, when nothing is needed on this spot but the imagination; and that solemn quiet of which the tomb is ever jealous pressed down sadly upon the living. Through the yellow panes at the back of the high altar came a glow suggesting sunshine, baffling the drab of the sky outside; and down in the crypt itself the misty blue was as effective as moonshine.
Napoleon had always been Fitzgerald's ideal hero; but he did not worship him blindly, no. He knew him to have been a brutal, domineering man, unscrupulous in politics, to whom woman was either a temporary toy or a stepping-stone, not over-particular whether she was a dairy-maid or an Austrian princess; in fact, a rascal, but a great, incentive, splendid, courageous one, the kind which nature calls forth every score of years to purge her breast of the petty rascals, to the benefit of mankind in general. Notwithstanding that he was a rascal, there was an inextinguishable glamour about the man against which the bolts of truth, history, letters, biographers broke ineffectually. Oh, but he had shaken up all Europe; he had made precious kings rattle in their shoes; he had redrawn a hundred maps; and men had laughed as they died for him. It is something for a rascal to have evolved the Code Napoleon. What a queer satisfaction it must be, even at this late day, nearly a hundred years removed, to any Englishman, standing above this crypt, to recollect that upon English soil the Great Shadow had never set his iron heel!
Near to Fitzgerald stood an elderly man and a girl. The old fellow was a fine type of manhood; perhaps in the sixties, white-haired, and the ruddy enamel on his cheeks spoke eloquently of sea changes and many angles of the sun. There was a button in the lapel of his coat, and from this Fitzgerald assumed that he was a naval officer, probably retired.
The girl rested upon the railing, her hands folded, and dreamily her gaze wandered from trophy to trophy; from the sarcophagus to the encircling faces, from one window to another, and again to the porphyry beneath. And Fitzgerald's gaze wandered, too. For the girl's face was of that mold which invariably draws first the eye of a man, then his intellect, then his heart, and sometimes all three at once. The face was as lovely as a rose of Taormina. Dark brown were her eyes, dark brown was her hair. She was tall and lithe, too, with the subtle hint of the woman. There were good taste and sense in her garments. A bunch of Parma violets was pinned against her breast.
"A well-bred girl," was the grateful spectator's silent comment. "No new money there. I wish they'd send more of them over here. But it appears that, with few exceptions, only freaks can afford to travel."
Between Fitzgerald and the girl was a veteran. He had turned eighty if a day. His face was powder-blown, an empty sleeve, was folded across his breast, and the medal of the Legion of Honor fell over the Sleeve. As the girl and her elderly escort, presumably her father, turned about to leave, she unpinned the flowers and offered them impulsively to the aged hero.
"Take these, mon brave," she said lightly; "you have fought for France."
The old man was confused and his faded eyes filled. "For me, mademoiselle?"
"Thanks, mademoiselle, thanks! I saw him when they brought him back from St. Helena, and the Old Guard waded out into the Seine. Those were days. Thanks, mademoiselle; an old soldier salutes you!" And the time-bent, withered form grew tall.
Fitzgerald cleared his throat, for just then something hard had formed there. Why, God bless her! She was the kind of girl who became the mother of soldiers.
With her departure his present interest here began to wane. He wondered who she might be and what part of his native land she adorned when not gracing European capitals. Well, this was no time for mooning. He had arrived from London the day proceeding, and was leaving for Corfu on the morrow, and perforce he must crowd many things into this short grace of time. He was only moderately fond of Paris as a city; the cafes and restaurants and theaters amused him, to be sure; but he was always hunting for romance here and never finding it. The Paris of his Dumas and Leloir no longer existed. In one way or another, the Louvre did not carry him back to the beloved days; he could not rouse his fancy to such height that he could see D'Artagnan ruffling it on the staircase, or Porthos sporting a gold baldric, which was only leather, under his cloak. So then, the tomb of Napoleon and the articles of clothing and warfare which had belonged to him and the toys of the poor little king of Rome were far more to him than all the rest of Paris put together. These things of the first great empire were tangible, visible, close to the touch of his hand. Therefore, never he came to Paris that he failed to visit the tomb and the two museums.
To-day his sight-seeing ended in the hall of Turenne, before the souvenirs of the Duc de Reichstadt, so-called the king of Rome. Poor, little lead soldiers, tarnished and broken; what a pathetic history! Abused, ignored, his childish aspirations trampled on, the name and glory of his father made sport of; worried as cruel children worry a puppy; tantalized; hoping against hope that this night or the next his father would dash in at the head of the Old Guard and take him back to Paris. A plaything for Metternich! Who can gaze upon these little toys without a thrill of pity?
"Poor little codger!" Fitzgerald murmured aloud.
"Yes, yes!" agreed a voice in good English, over his shoulder; "who will ever realize the misery of that boy?"
Fitzgerald at once recognized his jousting opponent of the previous hour. Further, this second appearance refreshed his memory. He knew now where he had met the man; he even recalled his name.
"Are you not Karl Breitmann?" he asked with directness.
"Yes. And you are--let me think. Yes; I have it. You are the American correspondent, Fitzgerald."
"And we met in Macedonia during the Greek war."
"Right. And you and I, with a handful of other scribblers, slept that night under the same tent."
"I did not recall you when we bumped a while ago; but once I had gone by you, your face became singularly familiar."
"Funny, isn't it?" And Fitzgerald took hold of the extended hand. "The sight of these toys always gets into my heart."
"Into mine also. Who can say what might have been had they not crushed out the great spirit lying dormant in his little soul? I saw Bernhardt and Coquelin recently in L'Aiglon. Ah, but they play it! It drove me here to-day. But this three-cornered hat holds me longest," with a quick gesture toward the opposite wall. "Can't you see the lean face under it, the dark eyes, the dark hair falling upon his collar? What thoughts have run riot under this piece of felt? The brain, the brain! A lieutenant at this time; a short, wiry, cold-blooded youngster, but dreaming the greatest dream in the world!"
Fitzgerald smiled. "You are an enthusiast like myself."
"Who wouldn't be who has, visited every battlefield, who has spent days wandering about Corsica, Elba, St. Helena? But you?"
"My word, I have done the same things."
They exchanged smiles.
"What written tale can compare with this living one?" continued Breitmann, his eyes brilliant, his voice eager and the tone rich. "Ah! How many times have I berated the day I was born! To have lived in that day, to have been a part of that bewildering war panorama; from Toulon to Waterloo! Pardon; perhaps I bore you?"
"By George, no! I'm as bad, if not worse. I shall never forgive one of my forebears for serving under Wellington."
"Nor I one of mine for serving under Blücher!"
They laughed aloud this time. It is always pleasant to meet a person who waxes enthusiastic over the same things as oneself. And Fitzgerald was drawn toward this comparative stranger, who was not ashamed to speak from his heart. They drifted into a long conversation, and fought a dozen battles, compared this general and that, and built idle fancies upon what the outcome would have been had Napoleon won at Waterloo. This might have gone on indefinitely had not the patient attendant finally dandled his keys and yawned over his watch. It was four o'clock, and they had been talking for a full hour. They exchanged cards, and Fitzgerald, with his usual disregard of convention, invited Breitmann to dine with him that evening at the Meurice.
He selected a table by the window, dining at seven-thirty. Breitmann was prompt. In evening clothes there was something distinctive about the man. Fitzgerald, who was himself a wide traveler and a man of the world, instantly saw and was agreeably surprised that he had asked a gentleman to dine. Fitzgerald was no cad; he would have been just as much interested in Breitmann had he arrived in a cutaway sack. But chance acquaintances, as a rule, are rudimental experiments.
They sat down. Breitmann was full of surprises; and as the evening wore on, Fitzgerald remembered having seen Breitmann's name at the foot of big newspaper stories. The man had traveled everywhere, spoke five languages, had been a war correspondent, a sailor in the South Seas, and Heaven knew what else. He had ridden camels and polo ponies in the Soudan; he had been shot in the Greece-Turkish war, shortly after his having met Fitzgerald; he had played a part in the recent Spanish-American, and had fought against the English in the Transvaal.
"And now I am resting," he concluded, turning his chambertin round and round, giving the effect of a cluster of rubies on the table linen. "And all my adventures have been as profitable as these," indebted for the moment to the phantom rubies. "But it's all a great stage, whether you play behind the wings or before the lights. I am thirty-eight; into twenty of those years I have crowded a century."
"You don't look it."
"Ah, one does not need to dissipate to live quickly. The life I have led has kept me in health and vigor. But you? You are not a man who travels without gaining material."
"I have had a few adventures, something like yours, only not so widely diversified. I wrote some successful short stories about China once. I have had some good sport, too, here and there."
"You live well for a newspaper correspondent," suggested Breitmann, nodding at the bottle of twenty-eight-year-old Burgundy.
"Oh, it's a habit we Americans have," amiably. "We rough it for a few months on bacon and liver, and then turn our attention to truffles and old wines and Cabanas at two-francs-fifty. We are collectively, a good sort of vagabond. I have a little besides my work; not much, but enough to loaf on when no newspaper or magazine cares to pay my expenses in Europe. Anyhow, I prefer this work to staying home to be hampered by intellectual boundaries. My vest will never reach the true proportions which would make me successful in politics."
"You are luckier than I am," Breitmann replied. He sipped his wine slowly and with relish. How long was it since he had tasted a good chambertin?
Perhaps Fitzgerald had noticed it when Breitmann came in. The latter's velvet collar was worn; there was a suspicious gloss at the elbows; the cuff buttons were of cheap metal; his fingers were without rings. But the American readily understood. There are lean years and fat years in journalism, and he himself had known them. For the present this man was a little down on his luck; that was all.
A party came in and took the near table. There were four; two elderly men, an elderly woman, and a girl. Fitzgerald, as he side-glanced, was afforded a shiver of pleasure. He recognized the girl. It was she who had given the flowers to the veteran.
"That is a remarkably fine young woman," said Breitmann, echoing Fitzgerald's thought.
The waiter opened the champagne.
"Yes. I saw her give some violets this afternoon to an old soldier in the tomb. It was a pretty scene."
"Well," said Breitmann, raising his glass, "a pretty woman and a bottle!"
It was the first jarring note, and Fitzgerald frowned.
"Pardon me," added Breitmann, observing the impression he had made, smiling, and when he smiled the student slashes in his cheeks weren't so noticeable. "What I should have said is, a good woman and a good bottle. For what greater delight than to sip a rare vintage with a woman of beauty and intellect opposite? One glass is enough to loose her laughter, her wit, her charm. Bah! A man who knows how to drink his wine, a woman who knows when to laugh, a story-teller who stops when his point is told; these trifles add a little color as we pass. Will you drink to my success?"
"In what?" with Yankee caution.
"In whatever the future sees fit to place under my hand."
"With pleasure! And by the same token you will wish me the same?"
Their glasses touched lightly; and then their glances, drawn by some occult force, half-circled till they paused on the face of the girl, who, perhaps compelled by the same invisible power, had leveled her eyes in their direction. With well-bred calm her interest returned to her companions, and the incident was, to all outward sign, closed. Whatever took place behind that beautiful but indifferent mask no one else ever learned; but simultaneously in the minds of these two adventurers--and surely, to call a man an adventurer does not necessarily imply that he is a chevalier d'industrie--a thought, tinged with regret and loneliness, was born; to have and to hold a maid like that. Love at first sight is the false metal sometimes offered by poets as gold, in quatrains, distiches, verses, and stanzas, tolerated because of the license which allows them to give passing interest the name of love. If these two men thought of love it was only as bystanders, witnessing the pomp and panoply--favored phrase!--of Venus and her court from a curbstone, might have thought of it. Doubtless they had had an affair here and there, over the broad face of the world, but there had never been any barbs on the arrows, thus easily plucked out. "Sometimes, knowing that I shall never be rich, I have desired a title," remarked Fitzgerald humorously.
"And what would you do with it?" curiously.
"Oh, I'd use it against porters, and waiters, and officials. There's nothing like it. I have observed a good deal. It has a magic sound, like Orpheus' lyre; the stiffest back becomes supine at the first twinkle of it."
"I should like to travel with you, Mr. Fitzgerald," said Breitmann musingly. "You would be good company. Some day, perhaps, I'll try your prescription; but I'm only a poor devil of a homeless, landless baron."
Fitzgerald sat up. "You surprise me."
"Yes. However, neither my father nor my grandfather used it, and as the pitiful few acres which went with it is a sterile Bavarian hillside, I have never used it, either. Besides, neither the Peerage nor the Almanac de Gotha make mention of it; but still the patent of nobility was legal, and I could use it despite the negligence of those two authorities."
"You could use it in America. There are not many 'Burke's' there."
"It amuses me to think that I should confide this secret to you. The wine is good, and perhaps--perhaps I was hungry. Accept what I have told you as a jest."
They both became untalkative as the coffee came. Fitzgerald was musing over the impulse which had seized him in asking Breitmann to share his dinner. He was genuinely pleased that he had done so, however; but it forced itself upon him that sometime or other these impulses would land him in difficulties. On his part the recipient of this particular impulse was also meditating; Napoleon had been utterly forgotten, verbally at least. Well, perhaps they had threshed out that interesting topic during the afternoon. Finally he laid down the end of his cigarette.
"I have to thank you very much for a pleasant evening, Mr. Fitzgerald."
"Glad I ran into you. It has done me no end of good. I leave for the East to-morrow. Is there any possibility of seeing you in the Balkans this fall?"
"No. I am going to try my luck in America again."
"My club address you will find on my card. You must go? It's only the shank of the evening."
"I have a little work to do. Some day I hope I may be able to set as good a dinner before you."
"Better have a cigar."
"No, thank you."
And Fitzgerald liked him none the less for his firmness. So he went as far as the entrance with him.
"Don't bother about calling a cab," said Breitmann. "It has stopped raining, and the walk will tone me up. Good night and good luck."
And they parted, neither ever expecting to see the other again, and equally careless whether they did or not.
Breitmann walked rapidly toward the river, crossed, and at length entered a gloomy old pension over a restaurant frequented by bargemen, students, and human driftwood. As he climbed the badly lighted stairs, a little, gray-haired man, wearing spectacles, passed him, coming down. A "pardon" was mumbled, and the little man proceeded into the restaurant, picked a Figaro from the table littered with newspapers, ensconced himself in a comfortable chair, and ordered coffee. No one gave him more than a cursory glance. The quarter was indigent, but ordinarily respectable; and it was only when some noisy Americans invaded the place that the habitues took any unusual interest in the coming and going of strangers.
Up under the mansard roof there was neither gas nor electricity. Breitmann lighted his two candles, divested himself of his collar, tie, and coat, and flung them on the bed.
"Threadbare, almost! Ah, but I was hungry to-night. Did he know it? Why the devil should I care? To work! Up to this night I have tried to live more or less honestly. I have tried to take the good that is in me and to make the most of it. And," ironically, "this is the result. I have failed. Now we'll see what I can accomplish in the way of being a great rascal."
He knelt before a small steamer trunk, battered and plentifully labeled, and unscrewed the lock. From a cleverly concealed pocket he brought forth a packet of papers. These he placed on the table and unfolded with almost reverent care. Sometimes he shrugged, as one does who is confronted by huge obstacles, sometimes he laughed harshly, sometimes his jaws hardened and his fingers writhed. When he had done--and many and many a time he had repeated this performance, studied the faded ink, the great seal, the watermarks--he hid them away in the trunk again.
He now approached the open window and leaned out. Glittering Paris, wonderful city! How the lights from the bridges twinkled on the wind-wrinkled Seine! Over there lay the third wealth of the world; luxury, vice, pleasure. Eh, well, he could not fight it, but he could curse it deeply and violently, which he did.
"Wait, Moloch, wait; you and I are not done with each other yet! Wait! I shall come back, and when I do, look to yourself! Two million francs, and every one of them mine!"
He laid his head on his hands. It ached dully. Perhaps it was the wine.