' Not at all. I am all eagerness to hear'.
'Well, it occurs to me that you have a leading title to the information, if you care to claim it, since it was in your company that I found my first clue to the riddle'.
'Was it, indeed, Baron? You excite me immensely. What was that?'
'Let us all go in here, and I will tell you'.
They entered the summer-house, and seated themselves on the semi-hexagonal bench which enclosed a stout rustic table.
'Now,' said Sir Francis, his eyes sparkling, 'out with it every bit, Baron, and give our hungering souls to feed.'
Le Sage took a pinch of snuff, laid the box handy, dusted his plump knees with his handkerchief, and, leaning back and loosely twining his fingers before him, began:-
'I have this, my friends, to say to you both before I start. What I have to tell, my story--and not the most creditable part of it-is fundamentally concerned with one about whom, it might be thought, my obligations as his guest should keep me silent. That would be quite true, were it not for a single consideration so vital as to constitute in itself a complete moral justification of my candour. In a few days, or weeks, the whole will be common property, and that figure subjected, I fear, to a Pharisaic criticism, which will be none the more bitter for his friends having anticipated it and rallied about him. Moreover, he himself has bound me to no sort of silence in the matter, but, on the contrary, has rather intimated to me that he leaves to my discretion the choice and manner of his defence-or apologia. It may be admitted, perhaps, that he does not see these things quite from our point of view: he derives from another generation and another code of morals: but for what he is, or has been, he has paid a very severe penalty, and we must judge him now by what he has suffered rather than by what he has deserved.
'So much for this confidence; which, I beg you to consider, is still, though unenforced, a confidence, due to you, Sir Francis, through your coming matrimonial connexion with the family'-(Mr Bickerdike, with a start and a positive gape, which lifted his eyebrows, looked across at the young Baronet, who grinned and nodded)-'and to you, my friend, for your unshakable loyalty to a much-tried member of it. And with that I will quit grace and get to the joint'.
The Macuba came once more into action, the box was again laid aside, and the two settled down finally to listen.
'In the following narrative,' said M. le Baron, 'what was and remains conjectural it must be left to events to substantiate. I claim so much, though, for myself, I entertain no doubt as to the truth'.
'My story opens in the Cafe l'Univers in Paris, where we two, Mr Bickerdike, strangers to one another, were sitting one September afternoon precisely a year ago. We got into talk on the subject of a neighbour, an artist, and an object of interest to us both, who was busily engaged in sketching into a book pencil-memoranda of the more noticeable hats worn by passing ladies. He worked fast and cleverly, and was manifestly an adept at his craft. Presently, after having watched him for some time, I asked you if you had observed anything peculiar about his hands. You had not, it seemed, and no more was said. But there Ws a peculiarity, and it was this : when he lifted his right hand, as artists will do, to measure the perspective value of an object, it was always the second finger of the hand which he interposed before his eye. I watched him do it over and over again, and it was persistently the same. Why, I found myself asking myself? Was the trick due to some malformation of the first finger, or to some congenital impulse? Not to the first, I was presently able to convince myself. To the alternative proposition I was fated to receive an answer both affirmative and illuminating : but it was not to come just yet.
'You remember what followed. The stranger suddenly closed his book, rose, started to cross the road, and was promptly knocked down and run over by a passing cab. I hurried to his assistance, and found that he was pretty badly injured. He was lifted into the cab, and, accompanied by myself and a gendarme, was conveyed to the St Antoine tlospital, in which he remained for some weeks. Both there, and in his own apartments after his discharge, I visited him frequently, and was able to show him some small attentions, such as, in our relative positions, mere humanity demanded of me. He was poor, in his art an enthusiast, and very little sympathy was needed to win his general confidence. His name was John Ridgway'.
The two listeners glanced at one another, in a puzzled, questioning way; but neither would venture to interrupt, and the Baron continued :-
'He was John, and Ridgway-pronounced Reedsvay--but for the sake of a necessary distinction I will call him henceforth Jean.
'Jean lived with a friend, Caliste Ribault, in two rooms in the Rue Bourbon - le - Chateau, a little dull out-of-the-way street in the Latin Quarter. They both worked for a living on the Petit Courrier des Dames; but with Jean it was a weariness and a humiliation, and always he had before his eyes the prospect of . ultimate manumission and recognition. He was an artist from his soul outwards to his finger-tips. But, alas ! his immortality was destined to be of sooner arrival. He never properly overcame the effects of his accident, and last June he succumbed to them and left his friend alone.
'Now, in the course of our conversations, Jean had told me a strange story about himself--a story which I never knew at the time whether to credit, or to part credit, or to attribute entirely to the invention of an imaginative nature. Born ostensibly of humble parentage, he was in reality, he said, the legitimate son of an English officer of wealth and distinction, whose name he could claim, and whose heir he could prove himself to be, contingent on the production of certain documentary evidence which he knew to exist, but which, since it remained in the possession of the putative father, it was impossible to cite. This alleged evidence touched upon the question of a sham marriage, a clerical impost or officiating, which had turned out to be a true marriage; and the names of the contracting parties were recorded, with that of the clergyman in question as witness, on the fly-leaf of a little Roman Catholic vade-mecum, which had belonged to Jean's mother but of which her would-be wronger had secured possession, and which he retained to this day.