Cholmondeley Rowden had invited a select circle of friends to join him in a ``petit diner a la stag,'' as he expressed it.
Eight months of Paris and the cold, cold world had worked a wonderful change in Mr Rowden. For one thing, he had shaved his whiskers and now wore only a mustache. For another, he had learned to like and respect a fair portion of the French students, and in consequence was respected and liked in return.
He had had two fights, in both of which he had contributed to the glory of the British Empire and the prize ring.
He was a better sparrer than Clifford and was his equal in the use of the foils. Like Clifford, he was a capital banjoist, but he insisted that cricket was far superior to baseball, and this was the only bone of contention that ever fell between the two.
Clifford played his shameless jokes as usual, accompanied by the enthusiastic applause of Rowden. Clifford also played ``The Widow Nolan's Goat'' upon his banjo, accompanied by the intricate pizzicatos of Rowden.
Clifford drank numerous bottles of double X with Rowden, and Rowden consumed uncounted egg-flips with Clifford. They were inseparable; in fact, the triumvirate, Clifford, Elliott and Rowden, even went so far as to dress alike, and mean-natured people hinted that they had but one common style in painting. But they did not make the remark to any of the triumvirate. They were very fond of each other, these precious triumvirs, but they did not address each other by nicknames, and perhaps it was because they respected each other enough to refrain from familiarities that this alliance lasted as long as they lived.
It was a beautiful sight, that of the three youths, when they sallied forth in company, hatted, clothed, and gloved alike, and each followed by a murderous-looking bulldog. The animals were of the brindled variety, and each was garnished with a steel spiked collar. Timid people often crossed to the other side of the street on meeting this procession.
Braith laughed at the whole performance, but secretly thought that a little of their spare energy and imagination might have been spent to advantage upon their artistic productions.
Braith was doing splendidly. His last year's picture had been hung on the line and, in spite of his number three, he had received a third class medal and had been praised -- even generously -- by artists and critics, including Albert Wolff. He was hard at work on a large canvas for the coming International Exhibition at Paris; he had sold a number of smaller studies, and besides had pictures well hung in Munich and in more than one gallery at home.
At last, after ten years of hard work, struggles, and disappointments, he began to enjoy a measure of success. He and Gethryn saw little of each other this winter, excepting at Julien's. That last visit to the Rue Monsieur le Prince was never mentioned between them. They were as cordial when they met as ever, but Braith did not visit his young friend any more, and Gethryn never spoke to him of Yvonne.
``Good-bye, old chap!'' Braith would say when they parted, gripping Rex's hand and smiling at him. But Rex did not see Braith's face as he walked away.
Braith felt helpless. The thing he most dreaded for Rex had happened; he believed he could see the end of it all, and yet he could prevent nothing. If he should tell Rex that he was being ruined, Rex would not listen, and -- who was he that he should preach to another man for the same fault by which he had wasted his own life? No, Rex would never listen to him, and he dreaded a rupture of their friendship.
Gethryn had made his debut in the Salon with a certain amount of éclat. True, he had been disappointed in his expectations of a medal, but a first mention had soothed him a little, and, what was more important, it proved to be the needed sop to his discontented aunt. But somehow or other his new picture did not progress rapidly, or in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. In bits and spots it showed a certain amount of feverish brilliancy, yes, even mature solidity; in fact, it was nowhere bad, but still it was not Gethryn and he knew that.
``Confound it!'' he would mutter, standing back from his canvas; but even at such times he could hardly help wondering at his own marvelous technique.
``Technique be damned! Give me stupidity in a pupil every time, rather than cleverness,'' Harrington had said to one of his pupils, and the remark often rang in Gethryn's ears even when his eyes were most blinded by his own wonderful facility.
``Some fools would medal this,'' he thought; ``but what pleasure could a medal bring me when I know how little I deserve it?''
Perhaps he was his own hardest critic, but it was certain that the old, simple honesty, the subtle purity, the almost pathetic effort to tell the truth with paint and brush, had nearly disappeared from Gethryn's canvases during the last eight months, and had given place to a fierce and almost startling brilliancy, never, perhaps, hitting, but always threatening some brutal note of discord.
Even Elise looked vaguely troubled, though she always smiled brightly at Gethryn's criticism of his own work.
``It is so very wonderful and dazzling, but -- but the color seems to me -- unkind.''
And he would groan and answer, ``Yes, yes, Elise, you're right; oh, I can never paint another like the one of last June!''
``Ah, that!'' she would cry, ``that was delicious -- '' but checking herself, she would add, ``Courage, let us try again; I am not tired, indeed I am not.''
Yvonne never came into the studio when Gethryn had models, but often, after the light was dim and the models had taken their leave, she would slip in, and, hanging lightly over his shoulder, her cheek against his, would stand watching the touches and retouches with which the young artist always eked out the last rays of daylight. And when his hand drooped and she could hardly distinguish his face in the gathering gloom, he would sigh and turn to her, smoothing the soft hair from her forehead, saying: ``Are you happy, Yvonne?'' And Yvonne always answered, ``Yes, Rex, when you are.''
Then he would laugh, and kiss her and tell her he was always happy with La Belle Hélène, and they would stand in the gathering twilight until a gurgle from the now well-grown pups would warn them that the hour of hunger had arrived.
The triumvirate, with Thaxton, Rhodes, Carleton, and the rest, had been frequent visitors all winter at the ``Ménagerie,'' as Clifford's bad pun had named Gethryn's apartment; but, of late, other social engagements and, possibly, a small amount of work, had kept them away. Clifford was a great favorite with Yvonne. Thaxton and Elliott she liked. Rowden she tormented, and Carleton she endured. She captured Clifford by suffering him to play his banjo to her piano. Rowden liked her because she was pretty and witty, though he never got used to her quiet little digs at his own respected and dignified person. Clifford openly avowed his attachment and spent many golden hours away from work, listening to her singing. She had been taught by a good master and her voice was pure and pliant, although as yet only half developed. The little concerts they gave their friends were really charming -- with Clifford's banjo, Gethryn's guitar, Thaxton's violin, Yvonne's voice and piano. Clifford made the programs. They were profusely illustrated, and he spent a great deal of time rehearsing, writing verses, and rehashing familiar airs (he called it ``composing'') which would have been as well devoted to his easel.
In Rowden, Yvonne was delighted to find a cultivated musician. Clifford listened to their talk of chords and keys, went and bought a ``Musical Primer'' on the Quai d'Orsay, spent a wretched hour groping over it, swore softly, and closed the book forever.
But neither the triumvirate nor the others had been to the ``Ménagerie'' for over a fortnight, when Rowden, feeling it incumbent upon him to return some of Gethryn's hospitality, issued very proper cards -- indeed they were very swell cards for the Latin Quarter -- for a ``dinner,'' to be followed by a ``quiet evening'' at the Bal Masqué at the Opera.
The triumvirate had accordingly tied up their brindled bulldogs, ``Spit,'' ``Snap'' and ``Tug''; had donned their white ties and collars of awful altitude, and were fully prepared to please and to be pleased. Although it was nominally a ``stag'' party, the triumvirate would as soon have cut off their tender mustaches as have failed to invite Yvonne. But she had replied to Rowden's invitation by a dainty little note, ending:
"and I am sure that you will understand when I say that this time I will leave you gentlemen in undisturbed possession of the evening, for I know how dearly men love to meet and behave like bears all by themselves. But I shall see you all afterward at the Opera. Au revoir then -- at the Bal Masqué. Y.D."
The first sensation to the young men was one of disappointment. But the second was that Mademoiselle Descartes' tact had not failed her.
The triumvirate were seated upon the sideboard swinging their legs. Rowden cast a satisfied glance at the table laid for fifteen and flicked an imaginary speck from his immaculate shirt front.
``I think it's all right,'' said Elliott, noticing his look, ``eh, Clifford?''
``Is there enough champagne?'' asked that youth, calculating four quart bottles to each person.
``Of course there is. What are you made of?''
``Human flesh,'' acknowledged the other meekly.
At eleven the guests began to arrive, welcomed by the triumvirs with great state and dignity. Rowden, looking about, missed only one -- Gethryn, and he entered at the same moment.
``Just in time,'' said Rowden, and made the move to the table. As Gethryn sat down, he noticed that the place on Rowden's right was vacant, and before it stood a huge bouquet of white violets.
``Too bad she isn't here,'' said Rowden, glancing at Gethryn and then at the vacant place.
``That's awfully nice of you, Rowden,'' cried Gethryn, with a happy smile; ``she will have a chance to thank you tonight.''
He leaned over and touched his face to the flowers. As he raised his head again, his eyes met Braith's.
``Hello!'' cried Braith, cordially.
Rex did not notice how pale he was, and called back, ``Hello!'' with a feeling of relief at Braith's tone. It was always so. When they were apart for days, there weighed a cloud of constraint on Rex's mind, which Braith's first greeting always dispelled. But it gathered again in the next interval. It rose from a sullen deposit of self-reproach down deep in Gethryn's own heart. He kept it covered over; but he could not prevent the ghost-like exhalations that gathered there and showed where it was hidden.
Speeches began rather late. Elliott made one -- and offered a toast to ``la plus jolie demoiselle de Paris,'' which was drunk amid great enthusiasm and responded to by Gethryn, ending with a toast to Rowden. Rowden's response was stiff, but most correct. The same could not be said of Clifford's answer to the toast, ``The struggling Artist -- Heaven help him!''
Towards 1 am Mr. Clifford's conversation had become incoherent. But he continued to drink toasts. He drank to Yvonne's health five times, he pledged Rowden and Gethryn and everybody else he could think of, down to Mrs. Gummidge and each separate kitten, and finally pledged himself. By that time he had reached the lachrymose state. Tears, it seemed, did him good. A heart-rending sob was usually the sign of reviving intelligence.
``Well,'' said Gethryn, buttoning his greatcoat, ``I'll see you all in an hour -- at the Opera.''
Braith was not coming with them to the Ball, so Rex shook hands and said ``Good night,'' and calling ``Au revoir'' to Rowden and the rest, ran down stairs three at a time. He hurried into the court and after spending five minutes shouting ``Cordon!'' succeeded in getting out of the door and into the Rue Michelet. From there he turned into the Avenue de l'Observatoire, and cutting through into the Boulevard, came to his hôtel.
Yvonne was standing before the mirror, tying the hood of a white silk domino under her chin. Hearing Gethryn's key in the door, she hurriedly slipped on her little white mask and confronted him.
``Why, who is this?'' cried Gethryn. ``Yvonne, come and tell me who this charming stranger is!''
``You see before you the Princess Hélène, Monsieur, she said, gravely bending the little masked head.''
``Oh, in that case, you needn't come, Yvonne, as I have an engagement with the Princess Hélène of Troy.''
``But you mustn't kiss me!'' she cried, hastily placing the table between herself and Gethryn; ``you have not yet been presented. Oh, Rex! Don't be so -- so idiotic; you'll spoil my dress -- there -- yes, only one, but don't you dare to try -- Oh Rex! Now I am all in wrinkles -- you -- you bear!''
``Bears hug -- that's a fact,'' he laughed. ``Come, are you ready -- or I'll just -- ''
``Don't you dare!'' she cried, whipping off her mask and attempting an indignant frown. She saw the big bunch of white violets in his hand and made a diversion by asking what those were. He told her, and she declared, delightedly, that she should carry them with Rex's roses to the Ball.
``They shall have the preference, Monsieur,'' she said, teasingly. ``Oh, Rex! don't -- please -- '' she entreated.
``All right, I won't,'' he said, drawing her wrap around her; and Yvonne, replacing the mask and gathering up her fluffy skirts, slipped one small gloved hand through his arm and danced down the stairs.
On the corner of the Vaugirard and the Rue de Medicis one always finds a line of cabs, and presently they were bumping and bouncing away down the Rue de Seine to the river.
"Je fais ce que sa fantaisie
Et je puis, s'il lui faut ma vie
La lui donner,"
sang Yvonne, deftly thrusting tierce and quarte with her fan to make Gethryn keep his distance.
``Do you know it is snowing?'' he said presently, peering out of the window as the cab rattled across the Pont Neuf.
``Tant mieux!'' cried the girl; ``I shall make a snowball -- a -- '' she opened her blue eyes impressively, ``a very, very large one, and -- ''
``Drop it on the head of Mr. Rowden,'' she announced, with cheerful decision.
``I'll warn poor Rowden of your intention,'' he laughed, as the cab rolled smoothly up the Avenue de l'Opera, across the Boulevard des Italiens, and stopped before the glittering pile of the great Opera.
She sprang lightly to the curbstone and stood tapping her little feet against the pavement while Gethryn fumbled about for his fare.
The steps of the Opera and the Plaza were covered with figures in dominoes, blue, red or black, many grotesque and bizarre costumes, and not a few sober claw hammers. The great flare of yellow light which bathed and flooded the shifting, many-colored throng, also lent a strangely weird effect to the now heavily falling snowflakes. Carriages and cabs kept arriving in countless numbers. It was half past two, and nobody who wanted to be considered anybody thought of arriving before that hour. The people poured in a steady stream through the portals. Groups of English and American students in their irreproachable evening attire, groups of French students in someone else's doubtful evening attire, crowds of rustling silken dominoes, herds of crackling muslin dominoes, countless sad-faced Pierrots, fewer sad-faced Capuchins, now and then a slim Mephistopheles, now and then a fat, stolid Turk, 'Arry, Tom, and Billy, redolent of plum pudding and Seven Dials, Gontran, Gaston and Achille, savoring of brasseries and the Sorbonne. And then, from the carriages and fiacres: Mademoiselle Patchouli and good old Monsieur Bonvin, Mademoiselle Nitouche and bad young Monsieur de Sacrebleu, Mademoiselle Moineau and Don Cæsar Imberbe; and the pink silk domino of "La Pataude'' -- mais n'importe!
Allons, Messieurs, Mesdames, to the cloak room -- to the foyer! To the escalier! or you, Madame la Comtesse, to your box, and smooth out your crumpled domino; as for "La Pataude,'' she is going to dance tonight.
Gethryn, with Yvonne clinging tightly to his arm, entered the great vestibule and passed through the railed lanes to the broad inclined aisle which led to the floor.
``Do you want to take a peep before we go to our box?'' he asked, leading her to the doorway.
Yvonne's little heart beat faster as she leaned over and glanced at the dazzling spectacle.
``Come, hurry -- let us go to the box!'' she whispered, dragging Gethryn after her up the stairway.
He followed, laughing at her excitement, and in a few minutes they found the door of their lodge and slipped in.
Gethryn lighted a cigarette and began to unstrap his field glasses.
``Take these, Yvonne,'' he said, handing them to her while he adjusted her own tiny gold ones.
Yvonne's cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled under the little mask, as she leaned over the velvet railing and gazed at the bewildering spectacle below. Great puffs of hot, perfumed air bore the crash of two orchestras to their ears, mixed with the distant clatter and whirl of the dancers, and the shouts and cries of the maskers.
At the end of the floor, screened by banks of palms, sat the musicians, and round about, rising tier upon tier, the glittering boxes were filled with the elite of the demimonde, who ogled and gossiped and sighed, entirely content with the material and social barriers which separate those who dance for ten francs from those who look on for a hundred.
But there were others there who should not by any means be confounded with their sisters of the "half-world.''
The Faubourg St. Germain, the Champs Elysées, and the Parc Monceau were possibly represented among those muffled and disguised beauties, who began the evening with their fans so handy in case of need. Ah, well -- now they lay their fans down quite out of reach in case of emergency, and who shall say if disappointment lurks under these dainty dominoes, that there is so little to bring a blush to modest cheeks -- alas! few emergencies.
And you over there -- you of the "American Colony,'' who are tossed like shuttlecocks in the social whirl, you, in your well-appointed masks and silks, it is all very new and exciting -- yes, but why should you come? American women, brought up to think clean thoughts and see with innocent eyes, to exact a respectful homage from men and enjoy a personal dignity and independence unknown to women anywhere else -- why do you want to come here? Do you not know that the foundations of that liberty which makes you envied in the old world are laid in the respect and confidence of men? Undermine that, become wise and cynical, learn the meaning of doubtful words and gestures whose significance you never need have suspected, meet men on the same ground where they may any day meet fast women of the continent, and fix at that moment on your free limbs the same chains which corrupt society has forged for the women of Europe.
Yvonne leaned back in her box with a little gasp.
``But I can't make out anyone at all,'' she said; ``it's all a great, sparkling sea of color.''
``Try the field glasses,'' replied Gethryn, giving them to her again, at the same time opening her big plumy fan and waving it to and fro beside the flushed cheek.
Presently she cried out, ``Oh, look! There is Mr. Elliott and Mr. Rowden, and I think Mr. Clifford -- but I hope not.''
He leaned forward and swept the floor with the field glass.
"It's Clifford, sure enough,'' he muttered; ``what on earth induces him to dance in that set?''
It was Clifford.
At that moment he was addressing Elliott in pleading, though hazy, phrases.
"Come 'long, Elliott, don't be so -- so uncomf't'ble 'n' p'tic'lar! W't's use of be'ng shnobbish?'' he urged, clinging hilariously to his partner, a pigeon-toed ballet girl. But Elliott only laughed and said:
"No; waltzes are all I care for. No quadrille for me -- ''
The crash of the orchestra drowned his voice, and Clifford, turning and bowing gravely to his partner, and then to his vis-à-vis, began to perform such antics and cut such pigeonwings that his pigeon-toed partner glared at him through the slits of her mask in envious astonishment. The door was dotted with numerous circles of maskers, ten or fifteen deep, all watching and applauding the capers of the hilarious couples in the middle.
But Clifford's set soon attracted a large and enthusiastic audience, who were connoisseurs enough to distinguish a voluntary dancer from a hired one; and when the last thundering chords of Offenbach's "March into Hell'' scattered the throng into a delirious waltz, Clifford reeled heavily into the side scenes and sat down, rather unexpectedly, in the lap of Mademoiselle Nitouche, who had crept in there with the Baron Silberstein for a nice, quiet view of a genuine cancan.
Mademoiselle did not think it funny, but the Baron did, and when she boxed Clifford's ears he thought it funnier still.
Rowden and Elliot, who were laboriously waltzing with a twin pair of flat-footed Watteau Shepherdesses, immediately ran to his assistance; and later, with a plentiful application of cold water and still colder air, restored Mr Clifford to his usual spirits.
"You're not a beauty, you know,'' said Rowden, looking at Clifford's hair, which was soaked into little points and curls; "you're certainly no beauty, but I think you're all right now -- don't you, Elliott? ''
"Certainly,'' laughed the triumvir, producing a little silver pocket-comb and presenting it to the woebegone Clifford, who immediately brought out a hand glass and proceeded to construct a "bang'' of wonderful seductiveness.
In ten minutes they sallied forth from the dressing room and wended their way through the throngs of masks to the center of the floor. They passed Thaxton and Rhodes, who, each with a pretty nun upon his arm, were trying to persuade Bulfinch into taking the third nun, who might have been the Mother Superior or possibly a resuscitated 14th century abbess.
"No,'' he was saying, while he blinked painfully at the ci-devant abbess, `" can't go that; upon my word, don't ask me, fellows -- I -- I can't.''
"Oh, come,'' urged Rhodes, "what's the odds?''
"You can take her and I'll take yours,'' began the wily little man, but neither Rhodes nor Thaxton waited to argue longer.
"No catacombs for me,'' growled Bulfinch, eyeing the retreating nuns, but catching sight of the triumvirate, his face regained its bird-like felicity of expression.
"Glad to see you -- indeed I am! That Colossus is too disinterested in securing partners for his friends; he is, I assure you. If you're looking for a Louis Quatorze partner, warranted genuine, go to Rhodes.''
"Rex ought to be here by this time,'' said Rowden; "look in the boxes on that side and Clifford and I will do the same on this.''
"No need,'' cried Elliott, "I see him with a white domino there in the second tier. Look! he's waving his hand to us and so is the domino.''
"Come along,'' said Clifford, pushing his way toward the foyer, "I'll find them in a moment. Let me see,'' -- a few minutes later, pausing outside a row of white and gilt doors -- "let me see, seventh box, second tier -- here we are,'' he added, rapping loudly.
Yvonne ran and opened the door.
"Bon soir, Messieurs,'' she said, with a demure curtsy.
Clifford gallantly kissed the little glove and then shook hands with Gethryn.
"How is it on the floor?'' asked the latter, as Elliott and Rowden came forward to the edge of the box. "I want to take Yvonne out for a turn and perhaps a waltz, if it isn't too crowded.''
"Oh, it's pretty rough just now, but it will be better in half an hour,'' replied Rowden, barricading the champagne from Clifford.
"We saw you dancing, Mr. Clifford,'' observed Yvonne, with a wicked glance at him from under her mask.
"I -- I don't make an ass of myself but once a year, you know,'' he said, with a deprecatory look at Elliott.
"Oh,'' murmured the latter, doubtfully, "glad to hear it.''
Clifford gazed at him in meek reproof and then made a flank movement upon the champagne, but was again neatly foiled by Rowden.
Yvonne looked serious, but presently leaned over and filled one of the long-stemmed goblets.
"Only one, Mr Clifford; one for you to drink my health, but you must promise me truthfully not to take any more wine this evening!''
Clifford promised with great promptness, and taking the glass from her hand with a low bow, sprang recklessly upon the edge of the box and raised the goblet.
"A la plus belle demoiselle de Paris!'' he cried, with all the strength of his lungs, and drained the goblet.
A shout from the crowd below answered his toast. A thousand faces were turned upward, and people leaned over their boxes, and looked at the party from all parts of the house.
Mademoiselle Nitouche turned to Monsieur de Sacrebleu.
"What audacity!'' she murmured.
Mademoiselle Goujon smiled at the Baron Silberstein.
"Tiens!'' she cried, "the gayety has begun, I hope.''
Little Miss Ducely whispered to Lieutenant Faucon:
"Those are American students,'' she sighed; "how jolly they seem to be, especially Mr. Clifford! I wonder if she is so pretty!''
Half a dozen riotous Frenchmen in the box opposite jumped to their feet and waved their goblets at Clifford.
"A la plus jolie femme du monde!'' they roared.
Clifford seized another glass and filled it.
"She is here!'' he shouted, and sprang to the edge again. But Gethryn pulled him down.
"That's too dangerous,'' he laughed; "you could easily fall.''
"Oh, pshaw!'' cried Clifford, draining the glass, and shaking it at the opposite box.
Yvonne put her hand on Gethryn's arm.
"Don't let him have any more,'' she whispered.
"Give us the goblet!'' yelled the Frenchmen.
"Le voila!'' shouted Clifford, and stepping back, hurled the glass with all his strength across the glittering gulf. It fell with a crash in the box it was aimed at, and a howl of applause went up from the floor.
Yvonne laughed nervously, but coming to the edge of the box buried her mask in her bouquet and looked down.
"A rose! A rose!'' cried the maskers below; "a rose from the most charming demoiselle in Paris!''
She half turned to Gethryn, but suddenly stepping forward, seized a handful of flowers from the middle of the bouquet and flung them into the crowd.
There was a shout and a scramble, and then she tore the bouquet end from end, sending a shower of white buds into the throng.
"None for me?'' sighed Clifford, watching the fast-dwindling bouquet.
She laughed brightly as she tossed the last handful below, and then turned and leaned over Gethryn's chair.
"You destructive little wretch!'' he laughed, "this is not the season for the Battle of Flowers. But white roses mean nothing, so I'm not jealous.''
"Ah, mon ami, I saved the red rose for you,'' she whispered; and fastened it upon his breast.
And at his whispered answer her cheeks flushed crimson under the white mask. But she sprang up laughing.
"I would so like to go onto the floor,'' she cried, pulling him to his feet, and coaxing him with a simply irresistible look; "don't you think we might -- just for a minute, Mr. Rowden?'' she pleaded. "I don't mind a crowd -- indeed I don't, and I am masked so perfectly.''
"What's the harm, Rex?'' said Rowden; "she is well masked.''
"And when we return it will be time for supper, won't it?''
"Yes, I should think so!'' murmured Clifford.
"Where do we go then?''
"Come along, then, Mademoiselle Destructiveness!'' cried Gethryn, tossing his mask and field glass onto a chair, where they were appropriated by Clifford, who spent the next half hour in staring across at good old Colonel Toddlum and his frisky companion -- an attention which drove the poor old gentleman almost frantic with suspicion, for he was a married man, bless his soul! -- and a pew-holder in the American Church.
"My love,'' said the frisky one, "who is the gentleman in the black mask who stares?''
"I don't know,'' muttered the dear old man, in a cold sweat, "I don't know, but I wish I did.''
And the frisky one shrugged her shoulders and smiled at the mask.
"What are they looking at?'' whispered Yvonne, as she tripped along, holding very tightly to Gethryn's arm.
"Only a quadrille -- `La Pataude' is dancing. Do you want to see it?''
She nodded, and they approached the circle in the middle of which 'La Pataude' and 'Grille d'Egout' were holding high carnival. At every ostentatious display of hosiery the crowd roared.
"Brava! Bis!'' cried an absinthe-soaked old gentleman; "vive La Pataude!''
For answer the lady dexterously raised his hat from his head with the point of her satin slipper.
The crowd roared again. "Brava! Brava, La Pataude!''
Yvonne turned away.
"I don't like it. I don't find it amusing,'' she said, faintly.
Gethryn's hand closed on hers.
"Nor I,'' he said.
"But you and your friends used to go to the students' ball at 'Bullier's,''' she began, a little reproachfully.
"Only as Nouveaux, and then, as a rule, the high-jinks are pretty genuine there -- at least, with the students. We used to go to keep cool in spring and hear the music; to keep warm in winter; and amuse ourselves at Carnival time.''
"But -- Mr. Clifford knows all the girls at 'Bullier's.' Do -- do you?''
"How many?'' she said, pettishly.
"None -- now.''
A pause. Yvonne was looking down.
"See here, little goose, I never cared about any of that crowd, and I haven't been to the Bullier since -- since last May.''
She turned her face up to his; tears were stealing down from under her mask.
"Why, Yvonne!'' he began, but she clung to his shoulder, as the orchestra broke into a waltz.
"Don't speak to me, Rex -- but dance! Dance!''
They danced until the last bar of music ceased with a thundering crash.
"Tired?'' he asked, still holding her.
She smiled breathlessly and stepped back, but stopped short, with a little cry.
"Oh! I'm caught -- there, on your coat!''
He leaned over her to detach the shred of silk.
"Where is it? Oh! here!''
And they both laughed and looked at each other, for she had been held by the little golden clasp, the fleur-de-lis.
"You see,'' he said, "it will always draw me to you.''
But a shadow fell on her fair face, and she sighed as she gently took his arm.
When they entered their box, Clifford was still tormenting the poor Colonel.
"Old dog thinks I know him,'' he grinned, as Yvonne and Rex came in. Yvonne flung off her mask and began to fan herself.
"Time for supper, you know,'' suggested Clifford.
Yvonne lay back in her chair, smiling and slowly waving the great plumes to and fro.
"Who are those people in the next box?'' she asked him. "They do make such a noise.''
"There are only two, both masked.''
"But they have unmasked now. There are their velvets on the edge of the box. I'm going to take a peep,'' she whispered, rising and leaning across the railing.
"Don't; I wouldn't -- '' began Gethryn, but he was too late.
Yvonne leaned across the gilded cornice and instantly fell back in her chair, deathly pale.
"My God! Are you ill, Yvonne?''
"Oh, Rex, Rex, take me away -- home -- ''
Then came a loud hammering on the box door. A harsh, strident voice called, "Yvonne! Yvonne!''
Clifford thoughtlessly threw it open, and a woman in evening dress, very decolletée, swept by him into the box, with a waft of sickly scented air.
Yvonne leaned heavily on Gethryn's shoulder; the woman stopped in front of them.
"Ah! here you are, then!''
Yvonne's face was ghastly.
"Nina,'' she whispered, "why did you come?''
"Because I wanted to make you a little surprise,'' sneered the woman; "a pleasant little surprise. We love each other enough, I hope.'' She stamped her foot.
"Go,'' said Yvonne, looking half dead.
"Go!'' mimicked the other. "But certainly! Only first you must introduce me to these gentlemen who are so kind to you.''
"You will leave the box,'' said Gethryn, in a low voice, holding open the door.
The woman turned on him. She was evidently in a prostitute's tantrum of malicious deviltry. Presently she would begin to lash herself into a wild rage.
"Ah! this is the one!'' she sneered, and raising her voice, she called, "Mannie, Mannie, come in here, quick!''
A sidling step approached from the next box, and the face of Mr Emanuel Pick appeared at the door.
"This is the one,'' cried the woman, shrilly. "Isn't he pretty?''
Mr Pick looked insolently at Gethryn and opened his mouth, but he did not say anything, for Rex took him by the throat and kicked him headlong into his own box. Then he locked the door, and taking out the key, returned and presented it to the woman.
"Follow him!'' he said, and quietly, but forcibly, urged her toward the lobby.
"Mannie! Mannie!'' she shrieked, in a voice choked by rage and dissipation, "come and kill him! He's insulting me!''
Getting no response, she began to pour forth shriek upon shriek, mingled with oaths and ravings. "I shall speak to my sister! Who dares prevent me from speaking to my sister! You -- '' she glared at Yvonne and ground her teeth. "You, the good one. You! the mother's pet! Ran away from home! Took up with an English hog!''
Yvonne sprang to her feet again.
"Leave the box,'' she gasped.
"Ha! ha! Mais oui! leave the box! and let her dance while her mother lies dying!''
Yvonne gave a cry.
"Ah! Ah!'' said her sister, suddenly speaking very slowly, nodding at every word. "Ah! Ah! go back to your room and see what is there -- in the room of your lover -- the little letter from Vernon. She wants you. She wants you. That is because you are so good. She does not want me. No, it is you who must come to see her die. I -- I dance at the Carnival!''
Then, suddenly turning on Gethryn with a devilish grin, "You! tell your mistress her mother is dying!'' She laughed hatefully, but preserved her pretense of calm, walked to the door, and as she reached it swung round and made an insulting gesture to Gethryn.
"You! I will remember you!''
The door slammed and a key rattled in the next box.
Clinging to Gethryn, Yvonne passed down the long corridor to the vestibule, while Elliott and Rowden silently gathered up the masks and opera glasses. Clifford stood holding her crushed and splintered fan. He looked at Elliott, who looked gloomily back at him, as Braith entered hurriedly.
"What's the matter? I saw something was wrong from the floor. Rex ill?''
"Ill at ease,'' said Clifford, grimly. "There's a sister turned up. A devil of a sister.''
Braith spoke very low. "Yvonne's sister?''
"Yes, a she-devil.''
"Did you hear her name?''
Braith went quietly out again. Passing blindly down the lobby, he ran against Mr. Bulfinch. Mr. Bulfinch was in charge of a policeman.
"Hello, Braith!'' he called, hilariously.
Braith was going on with a curt nod when the other man added:
"I've taken it out of Pick,'' and he stopped short. "I got my two hundred francs worth,'' the artist of the London Mirror proceeded, "and now I shall feel bound to return you yours -- the first time I have it,'' he ended, vaguely.
Braith made an impatient gesture.
"Are you under arrest?''
"Yes, I am. He couldn't help it,'' smiling agreeably at the Sergeant de Ville. "He saw me hit him.''
The policeman looked stolid.
"But what excuse?'' began Braith.
"Oh! none! Pick just passed me, and I felt as if I couldn't stand it any longer, so I pitched in.''
"Well, and now you're in for fine and imprisonment.''
"I suppose so,'' said Bulfinch, beaming.
"Have you any money with you?''
"No, unless I have some in your pocket?'' said the little man, with a mixture of embarrassment and bravado that touched Braith, who saw what the confession cost him.
"Lots!'' said he, cordially. "But first let us try what we can do with Bobby. Do you ever drink a petit verre, Monsieur le Sergeant de Ville?'' with a winning smile to the wooden policeman.
The latter looked at the floor.
"No,'' said he.
"Well, I was only thinking that over on the Corner of the Rue Taitbout one finds excellent wine at twenty francs.''
The officer now gazed dreamily at the ceiling.
"Mine costs forty,'' he said.
And a few minutes later the faithful
stood in front of the Opera house quite alone.
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