PARIS, like Troy – has been! That is to say, at least, that the Bois de Boulogne – that wonderful garden of the world, wherein so lately Paris used to drive and promenade, and dance, and sing, and skate, and make love, wherein all the year round a People were wont to play under the great shady trees and among the dainty fairy like isles and lawns – the Eden of our modern earth, – is lost, laid waste and desecrated. The French nation has tasted once more of that dangerous Tree (do they call it the Tree of Liberty? – the Old Serpent did), whose fruit is madness, and death, and division; within their Paradise they have seen the dread presence of the Angel of Famine, and at the gates of their despoiled garden the glare of the fatal flaming sword. But Paradise will be regained. Already the men and women who last week were wearing crape and devouring rats, are feasting at the Café Riche, and dancing the cancan in the Maison Rouge.
It happened, while the Prussian army lay at the doors of Paris, and the hours of the doomed city were at their darkest, that I spoke to a French lady whom the disasters of the war had driven to England. She smiled at the sensation articles in the newspapers. “Ah,” said she ineffably: “tout ça ne fait rien! Ce n’est q’une petite malheur qui est arrivée à Ia France!” Yet this woman had lost two sons on the day of Sedan! These Parisians are madmen, or children, if you will. But they are Spartan children, and it is the insanity of the ancient King Leonidas that flashes in their veins.
However, in the year of which we now write, the charming Wood of Boulogne was intact; the “Wacht am Rhein” was not so familiar a
strain in the world’s mouth as it has since become, and the Parisian grandes dames still wore the “couleur Bismarck,” and petted the Prince Imperial.
The season was young yet in the gay city, but the Opera was open, and the salons of the British Ambassador were already well-filled with guests, among whose many illustrious names were included those of Cairnsmuir, Brabazon, and Stern.
On a particular evening, early in November, there was a reception of unusual brilliance at Lord and Lady Cowley’s. The wide, lofty-walled apartments of the Embassy House glittered with scintillating wheels of light and burning waxen tapers; but the huge windows of the drawing-rooms, which, in warm weather, are usually open to the charming quadrangular garden, were on this occasion closed and heavily draped, for the chill November atmosphere rigorously precluded any sylvian arrangements with fountains, orange trees, or Chinese lanterns.
Within, however, the luminant air was laden with the odour of a thousand rare flowers. Great jars of tall, tropical-looking ferns and blossoming shrubs, oleanders, climbing stephanotis, and cape jasmines, adorned every available nook; graceful, feathery grasses, and stately, vast-leaved plants of the palm tribe, intensely green and redolent of the South, reared their colossal forms above the heads of the moving, bejewelled throng that surged through the salons. All was dazzle, and quiver, and tremulous, prismatic sparkle – a scene out of the Arabian Nights, a vision of oriental light and beauty. In the very centre and focus of the fairy pageant, where the radiance seemed brightest and the susurrating murmur liveliest, sat Adelheid Stern, attired wholly in white of some sheeny, soft material, and crowned only by her hair of gold; like a St. Joseph’s lily with its petals of snow, and its shining, aureoled coronal.
Close beside her was the vivacious Miss Diana, severe of coiffure and
brave of speech, disseminating her verbal pellets and quaint, amusing mots among the numerous “monde,” masculine and feminine, of her protégée’s admirers.
Suddenly there was a little stir in the talkative group, and two new knights-errant entered the lists and advanced towards the fauteuil occupied by the presiding Lady of Beauty.
They were Vivian Brabazon and Tristan Le Rodeur.
“Fräulein Stern,” said Vivian, “allow me to make you acquainted with M. Le Rodeur; an artist like yourself, and a friend of Lady Cairnsmuir. Two such devout adorers of nature as you and he, ought not to remain unknown to each other.”
With the Nixie smile upon her lips Adelheid turned her crystal eyes upon Tristan, and as he met the glance, a perceptible start and flutter agitated the people surrounding the beautiful singer. “Good heavens!” thought everybody at the same instant, “what a wonderful likeness between the Fräulein and M. Le Rodeur!!”
And so there was – just for that moment – but no more. The sudden odic light that had flashed from Adelheid to Tristan when they first looked at each other, sank, and the strange illusion faded with it. Everybody wondered what they could have been thinking of – Adelheid and Tristan were literally “as different as light and darkness.”
Vivian dropped into a seat beside his sister and she handed him her bouquet to keep him there. “So you have found a new acquaintance for our Adelheid, Vi! A splendid face! Come – I must hear all about him!”
“Well, Di, you know Lady Cairnsmuir, don’t you?”
“Her daughter, Lady Ella, introduced me to the Countess this very evening.”
“Exactly, and she introduced me too. And thereafter it followed naturally that the Countess in her turn presented to me her protégé – this Le Rodeur – whom she has just brought from Rome. I was greatly
struck with the young fellow’s face – it is not only uncommonly handsome, but meteoric in look, there is a perplexing contrariety in it, a ‘je ne sais quoi’ which took my fancy at once.”
“So you brought the enigma to Adelheid to solve for you! Well, she will do it if anyone can.”
“That was not precisely my motive for making the introduction. Lady Cairnsmuir spoke highly of Le Rodeur's talents as an artist, and it occurred to me that while he and Fräulein Stern remained in the same city, perhaps I might induce her – I mean – perhaps you would like––”
“Excellent!” said Miss Brabazon, pouncing at once on the unspoken idea, that is the Very thing! But is Le Rodeur a portrait painter?”
“I have not mentioned my notion to the Countess, because I fancied it would come more gracefully from you. But at any rate, the first step, it occurred to me, would be an introduction between Le Rodeur and the Fräulein.”
“Take me to Lady Cairnsmuir,” said the impetuous Diana, springing from her seat; “while these two inaugurate their acquaintance, I will talk to the Countess about the chef d’œuvre her protégé must paint for me! Only conceive, Vi, how divine a picture our Adelheid will make!”
And linking her plump arm in Vivian's she rustled across the salon. My Lady was seated in the most deserted comer of the rooms fanning herself with a languid uninterested gesture, and occasionally interchanging a few words with her daughter, for whom these brilliant crowds and gorgeous displays had ceased their attractions. Like Tristan, she felt that she had become old.
Diana alighted like a bird of prey upon the nearest ottoman and swooped down at once on her quarry.
“Lady Cairnsmuir! Do you know I’ve come here to be so inquisitive! I want you to tell me what is M. Le Rodeur’s particular branch of art!
Is it landscape, for example, or flowers, or still-life, or what? Pray, pardon my abruptness, your charming protégé interests me wonderfully!”
For some indefinite reason this torrent of loquacity annoyed Lady Ella. She had always considered Diana Brabazon too pronounced, and the sudden attack of interest which that vivacious lady now professed for Tristan was curiously irritating and repugnant to his sister. She moved away slowly, to join her father and a group of stately causeurs at a little distance.
“Indeed, Miss Brabazon,” responded my Lady, in her own particular unapproachable style of serenity, “I cannot undertake to answer your question with certainly; Le Rodeur’s talent is undoubtedly great, but he is extremely young, and his scanty practice and experience have not yet wedded him to any special class of subjects. I brought him to Paris with the idea that the thing he most needs at present is opportunity of observation. He has hitherto passed an isolated life, and as I have a theory that in order to succeed in the world, it is necessary to know something of it, I advised Le Rodeur – at least for a short time – to study men more, and Nature less. Too hasty a choice in art, as in social life, is a grave error, the consequences of which it is often impossible to retrieve. For this reason and for others of a similar character I thought it wise that Le Rodeur should learn early how the world judges, criticises, and decides; what particular combinations determine success, and what failure. No one can arrive at a fair estimate of himself and his performances until he is launched upon the social sea, has mingled familiarly with other people, and thereby disidealized himself and found his own level. But I am glad, Miss Brabazon,” added my Lady, checking herself, “that you are already interested in young Le Rodeur.”
“It is impossible to look indifferently upon such a face as his!” cried Miss Di. “Yet I must own indeed to some disappointment at the account you give me of M. Le Rodeur’s pursuits in art. You must
know, Lady Cairnsmuir, that I had hoped –––” But at this moment Diana suddenly paused, and an expression of keen surprise overspread her face. Tristan himself stood before her, with Adelheid upon his arm.
“Miss Brabazon,” said he eagerly, “you must consider me already introduced to you, if you please for I have a favour to ask at your hands. I made my request first to Fräulein Stern, but she immediately referred me to you, since, without your permission and acquiescence, she tells me, her own consent is never given to any proposal. So I do hope, Miss Brabazon, that you will not be hard-hearted on this occasion, for I assure you that the pleasure it is reserved for you to give me is very great, in proportion as my desire for it is violent. And you dear Countess,” added he, excitedly, turning to my Lady, “your sanction also is necessary for the realization of my scheme! I feel myself transported with a longing that increases even while I speak. A longing so earnest and intense, that it resembles a passion, – a mania, – an uncontrollable furore! I am seized by an impulse altogether new to me; a magnetic fever, which inspires me with a thousand singular hopes and prognostications – a desire in short – to achieve!”
My Lady, leaning back in her fauteuil, fixed upon him a look of peculiar meaning. “What, Le Rodeur?” said she, wickedly, “have you then already outgrown your old age?”
“Already, chère madame,” he answered, with a scarcely perceptible glance at the beautiful actress, whom Diana had beckoned to a place beside her on the ottoman.
“But, M. Le Rodeur,” expostulated Miss Di, with some natural impatience, “this favour you covet with so much ardour, this frantic desire – you have yet to give it a name! We wait for an explanation of your new-born enthusiasm!”
“It is then ––” began Tristan, but suddenly he paused and hesitated.
“Only, – to paint my picture,” concluded Adelheid, with a divine smile.