Some few years ago, in the month of September, I happened to be kicking my heels in Paris, awaiting the arrival there of my friend Hugo Kennett. We had both been due from the south, I from Vaucluse and Kennett from the Riviera, and the arrangement had been that we should meet together for a week in the capital before returning home. Enfants perdus! Kennett was never anything but unpunc-tual, and he failed to turn up to time, or anywhere near it, at the rendezvous. I was a trifle hipped, as I had come to the end of my circular notes, and had rather looked to him to help me through with a passing difficulty; but there was nothing for it but to wait philosophically on, and to get, pending his appearance, what enjoyment I could out of life. It was not very much. The Parisian may be a saving man, but Paris is no city to save in. It is surprising how dull an empty purse can make it. It had come to this after two days, either that I must shift my quarters from the Ritz into cheaper lodgings, or abandon my engagement altogether and go back alone.
1 Found in manuscript.
One afternoon, aimless and thirsty, I turned into the Cafe l'Univers in the Place du Palais Royal, and sat down at one of the little tables under the awning where was a vacant chair. This is a busy spot, upon which many streets converge, and one may rest there idly and study an infinite variety of human types. There was a man seated not far from me, against the glass side of the verandah whose occupation caught my attention. He was making very rapidly in a minute-book pencil notes of all the conspicuous ladies' hats that passed him. It was extraordinary to observe the speed and fidelity with which he secured his transcripts. A few, apparently random, sweeps of the pencil in his thin nervous fingers, and there, in the flitting of a figure, was some unconscious head ravished of its most individual idea. It reminded me of the 'wig-snatching' of the eighteenth century; yet I could not but admire the dexterity of the thief, as, sitting behind him, I followed his skilful movements.
' A clever dog that, sir,' said a throaty voice beside me.
It came from a near neighbour, whom I had not much observed until now-a large-faced, clean-shaved gentleman of a very full body and a comfortable complacent expression. He was dressed in a baggy light-grey suit, wore a loose Panama hat on his head, and smelt, pleasantly and cleanly, of snuff. On the table before him stood a tumbler of grenadine and soda stuffed with lumps of ice, and with a couple of straws sticking from it.
'Most,' I answered. 'What would you take him to be?'
'Eh?' said the stranger. 'Without prejudice, now, a milliner's pander--will that do?'
I thought it an admissible term, and said so, adding, 'or a fashion-plate artist?'
'Surely,' replied the stranger. 'A distinction without a difference, is it not ?'
No more was said for the moment, while I sat covertly studying the speaker. He reminded me a little of the portraits of Thiers, only without the spectacles. A placid, well-nourished benevolence had been his prominent feature, were it not somehow for the qualification of the eyes. Those were as perpetually alert, busy, observant, as the rest was seemingly supine. They appeared to 'peck' for interests among the moving throng, as a hen pecks for scattered grain.
'Wonderful hands,' he said suddenly, coming back to the artist. ' Do you notice anything characteristic about them now?'
'No,'I said. 'What?'
He did not answer, but applied for a refreshing moment or two to his grenadine.
' Ah !' he said, leaning back again, with a relishing motion of his lips. 'A comfortable seat and a cool glass, and we have here the best cafe-chantant in the world'.
'Well, it suits me,' I agreed-'to pass the time'
'Ah !' he said, 'your friend is unpunctual?' I yawned inexcusably.
'He always is. What would you think of an appointment, sir, three days overdue ?'
' I should think of it with philosophy, having the Ritz cuisine and cellar to fall back upon'.
I turned to him interestedly, my hands behind my head.
'No, but you,' said he.
I was a bit puzzled and amused; but curious, too.
' You are not staying at the Ritz ?' I asked. He shook his head good-humouredly. 'Then how do you know I am?'
'There is not much mystery in that,' said he. ' You happened to be standing on the steps when I happened to be passing. The rest you have admitted'.
'And among all these'-I waved my hand comprehensively-'you could remember me from that one glimpse?'
He laughed, but again ignored my question.
'How did you know,' I persisted, 'that my friend was a man ?'
'You yourself,' said he, 'supplied the gender'.
'But not in the first instance'.
'No, not in the first instance,' he agreed, and said no more.
' You don't like the Ritz ?' I asked after an interval, just to talk and be talked to. I was horribly bored, that is the truth, by my own society; and here was at least a compatriot to share some of its burden with me.
' I never said so,' he answered. ' But I confess it is too sumptuous for me. I lodge at the Hotel Montesquieu, if you would know.' 'Where is that, may I ask?'
'It is in the Rue Montesquieu, but a step from here'.
' I should like, if you don't mind, to hear something of it. I am at the Ritz, true, but in a furiously economical mood'.
'Certainly,' he answered, with perfect good-humour. ' It would not suit all people; it does not even figure in the guides ; but for those of an unexacting disposition-well it might serve-to pass the time. You can have your good bedroom there and your adequate petit dejeuner--nothing more. For meals, there is a Duval's across the road, or, more particularly, the Restaurant au Boeuf a la mode in the Rue de Valois close by, where such delicacies may be tasted as sole a la Russe, or noisettes d'agneau d la Rejane. Try it'.
I was half thinking I would, and wondering how I could express my sense of obligation to my new acquaintance, when a sudden crash and scream in the road brought us both to our feet. The hat-sketcher, having finished with his task and gone, had stepped thoughtlessly off the kerb right under the shafts of a passing cab.
For a tranquil body, my companion showed the most curious excitement over the accident. Uttering broken exclamations of reproof and concern, he hurried down, as fast as his bulk would permit him, to the scene of the mishap, about which a crowd was already swarming. I could see little of what followed; but, the press after a time dispersing, I made shift to inquire of an onlooker as to the nature of the victim's hurt, and was told that the man had been taken off to the St. Antoine Hospital in the very cab which had run him down, my friend of the Panama hat accompanying him. And so there for the moment our acquaintance ended.
But we met again at the Montesquieu-whither I had actually transferred my quarters in the interval- a day or two later. He came down into the hall just as I had entered it from the street, and greeted me and pressed my arm paternally.
'But this will not do at all,' he said. 'This will not do at all,' and summoned the hotelier from his little dark room off the passage.
' I am sorry, Monsieur,' he said, when the bowing goodman appeared, ' to find such scant respect paid to my recommendation. If this is the treatment accorded to my patronage, I must convey it elsewhere'.
The proprietor was quite amazed, shocked, confounded. What had he done to merit this severe castigation from M. Le Sage ? If M. le Baron would but condescend to particularise his offence, the resources of his establishment were at M. le Baron's command to remedy it.
'That is easily specified,' was M. le Baron's answer 'I sing the modest praises of your hotel to my friend, Mr Bickerdike; on the strength of these my friend decides to give you a trial. What is the result? You put him into number 19, where the aspect is gloomy, where the paper peels off the wall; where to my certain suspicion there are bugs'.
I laughed, not quite liking this appropriation, but the landlord was profuse in his apologies. Not for a moment had he guessed that I was a friend of M. le Baron Le Sage; I had not informed him of the fact; it was a mere question of expediency: Number 19 happened to be the only room vacant at the moment; but since-in short, I was transferred straightway to a very good appartement in the front, where were ample space and comfort, and a powder-closet to poke my head into if I wished, and invoke the ghosts of the dead lords of Montesquieu, whose Hotel this had once been.
Now I should have been grateful for M. le Baron's friendly offices, and I hope I was, but with a dash of reservation. I did not know what to make of him, in fact, and the uncertainty kept me on my guard. Nor was I the more reassured upon his commiserating me presently on the fact of my friend, Mr Kennett, not having yet turned up. So he had found out my friend's name ? That might be possible through an inquiry at the Ritz, where Kennett was expected. But why was he interested in inquiring at all? Then, as to my own name; he might have ascertained that, of course, of my present landlord- a pardonable curiosity, only somehow coloured by his unauthorised examination of my room. What had he wanted in there in the first instance? On the other hand, he was evidently held, for whatever reason, in high respect by the proprietor; and if the reason itself was to seek for me, I had certainly no grounds for suspecting its adequate claims. He appeared to be a man of education and some distinction, not to speak of his title, which, however, might be territorial and of small account. And, assuredly, he did not seem French, unless by deliberate adoption. His speech, appearance, habit of mind, were all as English as the shoes he wore on his feet.
I asked him, on that day of his service to me, how it had gone with the poor hat-sketcher whom, I had understood, he had accompanied to the hospital. He seemed to regard my question as if for a moment it puzzled him, and then he answered :-
'O, the artist! O, yes, to be sure. I accompanied him, did I? Yes, yes. An old house this, Mr Bickerdike-a fragment of old Paris. If there is nothing more I can do for you, I think I will be going'.
So it always was on the few further occasions which brought us together. He could not, or would not, answer a direct question directly; he seemed to love secrecy and evasion for their own sake, and for the opportunity they gave him for springing some valueless surprises on the unsuspecting. Well, he should not have his little vanity for me. There is nothing so tiresome as that habit of meaningless reserve, of hoarding information which there can be no possible objection to disseminating; but some people seem to have it. I responded by asking no more questions of M. le Baron, and I only hope my incuriosity disappointed him. The next day, or the day after, Kennett turned up, and I left the Montesquieu for my original quarters.