The morning of the inquiry found M. le Baron in Paris, in his old rooms at the Montesquieu. He was in very good spirits, smiling and buoyant, and not at all conscience-smitten over Tiis desertion of his servant in his hour of need. 'It will be a not unwholesome lesson for the little fanfaron,' he thought, ' teaching him in the future to keep a guard on his tongue and temper.' He foresaw, be it observed, that certain issue, and felt no anxiety about it. But his face fell somewhat to an added reflection : ' I wonder if they have committed him for trial by now. Poor girl!' and he shrugged his shoulders with a tiny sigh.
Having crossed by the night boat from Southampton, one might have looked for a certain staleness in the Baron's aspect. On the contrary, he was as chirpy as a sparrow, having slept well throughout a pretty bad crossing, and since had a refreshing tub and brush-up. He sat down--though very late, with an excellent appetite--to his petit pain and rich coffee and brioche, and, having consumed them, took snuff at short intervals for half an hour, and then prepared to go out.
M. le Baron's movements seemed carelessly casual, but he had, in fact, a definite objective, and he made for it at his leisure. It lay on the left bank of the river, in or near the district calling itself loosely the Latin or Students' Quarter. He crossed the river by the Pont des Arts, and went straight down the Rue de Seine as far as the Rue de Tournon, where he turned off in the direction of St Sulpice. The great bell up in the high tower was crashing and booming for a funeral, and its enormous reverberations swayed like Atlantic rollers across the fields of air. In all the world St Sulpice bell is the death-bell, so solemn, so deep, and so overwhelming it sounds. M. le Baron paused to listen a moment. 'Is it an omen ?' thought he,' and am I going to hear bad news?'
Somewhere at the back of the church, in a little street called the Rue Bourbon-le-Chateau, he came to the shop of a small dealer in prayer-books and holy pictures and pious images. It was a poor shop in a faded district, and suggestive of scant returns and lean commons for its inmates. A door, as gaunt and attenuated in appearance, stood open to one side of the shop, and by this the visitor entered, with the manner of one who knew the place. A flight of bare wooden stairs rose before him, and up these he went, to the first, to the second floor, where he paused, a little breathless, to knock on a door. 'Que diableJ' cried a hoarse voice from within. 'Who's that?'
For answer the Baron turned the handle and presented himself. It was a ragged, comfortless room he entered, frowzy, chill, without a carpet and with dirty whitewashed walls. A table stood in the dingy window, and at it was seated the solitary figure of a man--emaciated, melancholy eyed- Ribault his name, a designer on the staff of the Petit Courrier des Dames. Some of his work lay before him now: he looked up from it with a startled exclamation, and rose to his feet. Those were clad in list slippers : for the rest he wore a rusty frock-coat, and at his neck a weeping black bow.
' M. le Baron !' he exclaimed, in wonder and welcome. ' Who would have thought to see you again !'
'Am I that sort, then?' answered Le Sage with a smile. 'I am sorry I left so poor an impression'.
' Ah, but what an impression !' cried the other fervently. 'An angel of goodness; a Samaritan; a comforter, and a healer in one !'
'Well, well, M. Ribault!' said the Baron. 'You are still at the old toil, I observe?'
'Always at it, Monsieur; but in my plodding, uninspired way--not like my friend's. Ah, he was a great artist was Jean'.
'Truly, he had a wonderful facility. Has he left you?'
'But for the grave, Monsieur. We had not otherwise been parted'.
Tears gathered in the poor creature's eyes; he sighed, with a forlorn, resigned gesture. Hearing his words, a shadow crossed the visitor's face. ' That foreboding bell!' he muttered. He was genuinely concerned, and not for one only reason. 'You will tell me all about it, perhaps, M. Ribault?' he said.
' He was never himself again after that accident,' answered the designer. 'All your tenderness, your care, your disinterested help could do no more than earn for him a little respite from a sentence already pronounced. He was virtually a dying man when you last left him, Monsieur. The light of your healing presence withdrawn, the shadow came out and was visible to me. Ah, but he would talk of you often and often, and of how you had smoothed the bitter way for him. He confided in you much : he told you his little history? *
'Something of it, Ribault.'
'It was the history of a brave man, Monsieur : of patient merit eternally struggling against adversity; of conscious power having to submit itself to necessity. There was that in him could he but have indulged it-ah, if you had only seen !'
'Seen what, my poor friend?'
'Monsieur, he died in June; but before he died, he drew in pastel on that wall, on that bare wall, a face that was hke the fine blossom of the aloe, crowning and vindicating with its immortal beauty the harsh and thorny ugliness of those long necessitous years. It was his testament, his swan-song. Less than its perfection would have made a smaller artist; and it was produced by him from memory, as he sat there dying in his chair'.
'From a memory of whom, Ribault?'
'I will teU you. One day, shortly before his death, there had come to see him a step-brother of his, an Englishman, of whom I had never heard nor he spoken. He had a lady with him, this brother, one of the most beautiful you could picture, and her loveliness entered into Jean's heart. He could not forget it; he had no ease from it until his art came to dispossess him of its naunting. I watched him at work; it was marvellous: the waU broke into song and flower under my eyes. That was the man, Monsieur; that was the man; it was his own soul blossoming; and, having done what he must, he grew once more at peace. Two days later he was dead'.
' I see no face on the wall, Ribault'.
' Alas, no, Monsieur ! Alas, alas, no ! When he returned, this strange relation, this vandal, after his brother's death, to arrange for the funeral and dispose of his effects, he saw the drawing and he denounced it. He did more: in his anger he seized a cloth, and, before I could interpose, that miracle, that dream, was but a featureless smudge upon the wall. And even then he would not be satisfied until the last rainbow tints had vanished'.
The frown on M. le Baron's brow was again darkening its habitual placidity.
' What excuse had the man to offer for an act so outrageous?' he demanded-warmly.
The designer shrugged his shoulders. 'What excuse but of the jealous and coarse-grained ! He said that the lady's permission should have been asked first; that anyhow the artist being dead it could not matter, and that he had no idea of leaving the portrait there to become the cynosure of common eyes. He was a hard man, Monsieur, and we came to words'.
The visitor grunted. 'M. Ribault, what was the name of this Goth?'
'It was the name of my friend, Monsieur'.
'What! Christian and surname the same?'
'Precisely one, Monsieur. They were beaux-freres, no more. With such it may be'.
'Indubitably. And the lady's name?'
'I could show you sooner than pronounce it. It was written by Jean under the portrait'.
' But the portrait is lost!'
'Nevertheless, it is not altogether forgotten. Before it was destroyed I had borrowed a camera from a friend and achieved a reproduction of it. Alas, Monsieur! but a cold shadow of the original--a sadness, a reflection, but, such as it is, a record I would not willingly let perish'.
The Baron's brow was smoother again; his eyes had recovered their good humour.
'But this is interesting, my friend,' he said. ' Might I be permitted to see it ?'
' Who sooner !' cried the designer. ' Monsieur has only to command'.
He went to a cupboard, and presently produced from it a photograph mounted on brown paper, which he presented to his visitor.
'You must not judge from it,' he said, 'more than you would from the shadow of an apple tree the colour of its blossom. But is it not a beautiful face, Monsieur?'
'Beautiful, indeed.' answered Le Sage, profoundly pre-occupied. ' And did the brother know you had secured this transcript?' he asked presently.
' Of a truth not, Monsieur. Sooner would I have died than tell him'.
' Ah !' For minutes longer the Baron stood absorbed in contemplation of the photograph. Then suddenly he looked up.
'I want you to part with this to me, my friend'.
'Monsieur, it is yours. There is none to whom I would sooner confide it.'
'You have the negative?'
'Keep it, and print no more from it for the present. Above all, keep the knowledge of your possessing it from the Goth'.
Between wonder and sympathy the Frenchman acquiesced.
'No doubt he would want to destroy that too,' he said.
'Exactly.' answered Le Sage. 'Now, listen, my friend. I have a commission for you'.
It was a very handsome commission, the nature of which need not be specified, since it was in effect merely a delicate acknowledgment of a service rendered. And if the acknowledgment was out of all proportion with the service, that was M. le Baron's way, and one not to be resented by a poor man who was also a reasonably proud man. So the two parted very good friends, and the Baron went back to his hotel, in high good humour with himself and all the world. On the following night he was in London, ensconced in rooms in a private hotel in Bloomsbury, where he learnt from the papers of the latest startling development in what had come to be known as the 'Wildshott Murder Case.' 'So,' he thought, 'it works according to plan.'
He had managed to procure, while in Paris, a personal introduction from a certain eminent official to a corresponding dignitary in the Metropolis; but for the present he kept that in his pocket. There were some smaller fry to be dealt with first: aids to the great approach.