" Mais oui, goose. He sleeps in there," said Blanche. " The shares had slipped thy mind ? Ah, but listen, thou dwellest overmuch on thy work—in the end thou wilt have a breakdown".
" But no, but no, little woman. On the contrary, never have I felt more fit. I have just seen something that is positively inspiring," he announced. " I have seen a suggestion for a short story that is exquisite".
" So ? " We were all attention.
" Quite by accident. I had been walking aimlessly, wandering without noting where I turned, when in the twilight I found myself in a long street of decay that struck a chill to my heart. The slatternly, forbidding houses had an air of hopelessness, of evil that made me shudder. I tried to classify the denizens, but well as I know Paris, I was baffled. I had the impression of entering a street of mysteries. It was as if, behind each of those morose, darkling windows, lowering upon me in their hundreds, there lurked gruesome things. Suddenly, on the foul ledge of a ground-floor window, dim with dirt, behind which some nameless stuff was looped, further to hide the secrets of the room, I saw blooming—a pot of pansies ! I cannot tell you how infinitely fresh its fairness looked in these surroundings, how divinely incongruous! I stood gazing at it a full minute, lost in conjecture. Who, in that sinister house, retained the sensibility to tend a pot of pansies? What message did it yield her ? How did she come to be there ? ' Mon Dieu,' I said, ' a story ! A great story ! ' I was enraptured. When I reached a decent quarter, I sat down on a bench, and lit a cigarette, and prepared to welcome the delicious plot that I foresaw emerging from my reverie".
" Tell it to us," we begged him.
The fervour of Jacques' tones abated. They were flat when he replied.
" Strange to say, it did not emerge," he said. " I have not been able to find it yet".
" It will arrive," we cried, with conviction. " There should be an excellent story in that".
" Ah, certainly it will arrive. My only misgiving is that I am not worthy to treat it. It should be a gem, that story, a masterpiece. It should be a story that will live. . . . All the same, it piques me that, with such a stimulus to write, I should have to wait, even for an hour. I am athirst to begin".
" You will strike the idea before you go to bed,"
I assured him. " Even I, though fiction is not my line, can see a story there".
" You can see it? " he inquired eagerly.
" I do not mean that I see the plot. But I see the prospects".
" Ah, yes, that is how it is with me" he said. "The prospects are magnificent, aren't they? What delight I shall take in this ! I may not be capable of handling it as well as it deserves, but you are going to see the best short story I have ever done, mon vieux".
Well, changes in the staff transferred me abruptly to London soon after that, and I had no further conversation on the subject with Jacques till nearly five months had passed. The interval had threatened to be longer still, but one must eat. Why can't you cut an English cook's throat ? If you don't know the answer you are unaware that in England they placidly consume anything that is put on their plates. Because there are no English cooks. I should like frequently to sojourn in the beautiful countryside of England, if it were not so painful to see vegetables growing there. When I looked at those verdant young things, so full of flavour and nutriment, and thought of the fate before them—reflected that they were destined to be drowned in hogsheads of water, and served as an unpalatable pulp, the sight of them used to wring my heart. I overtook Jacques in the Champs Elysees one day, as I was on my way to call on Henri and Elise, and we strolled along together. I said : "I rather thought you would send me a copy of that story you were speaking of before I went. What paper was it published in ? "
To my amazement, he replied gloomily : "It is not written. I am seeking the plot for it".
" What? " I exclaimed. " Not written? After five months? If you could turn out other stories in the meantime, why not that one? "
" I have not turned out other stories in the meantime," he told me. " I am concentrating my imagination on the pot of pansies".
I stopped and stared at him. " Ah, 9a ! Are you in earnest ? Mon Dieu! It looked very promising, but if you mean to spend the rest of your life trying to write it, the promise will cost you dear".
" I know it is unpractical of me," he owned distressfully. " I have eaten up a pretty penny. I reproach myself. But the fascination is overwhelming. I cannot withstand it. The thing has become an obsession. I have been back a dozen times, in all weathers, to look at the house again. But the course has not advanced me. In desperation, I even rang the bell and asked to see the occupant of that room, but the crone who opened the street-door was either so deaf, or so artful, that it was impossible to make her understand what I said. Let us talk about it! There are only three points to resolve. Who, in a house like that, has still the sensibility to tend a pot of pansies ? What does it say to her ? By what circumstances is she there? "
" I remember, I remember," I said. " I am not provided with answers to such conundrums at any moment of the day. But I could have answered them in less than five months, I'll swear." I added, " If you like, I will find the plot for you, in a quarter of an hour, some time, when I have nothing else to do." I did not mean it very seriously, and, of course, I am a busy man.
At this juncture, we saw Henri approaching— a deuce of a swell in his frock-overcoat and chamois gloves, though his figure was more protruberant than it had been in the period when he was among the Great Unacted. He Hailed us with : " You rascals, you negligent knaves ! If you greet me once in a century, it is by chance. How are you, darlings? "