CHAPTER XV

Another incident at Marlotte — The American artist — A caricature after dinner — A mysterious departure — An unpleasant surprise for Marlotte — My caricature at the Prefecture de Police — Lost in the Palace of Fontainebleau — Exciting adventure — Unpopularity — An amusing joke

THE other incident which happened whilst I was at Marlotte was not at all of a romantic character, but it was so out of the common that it quite merits being narrated at length.

One day there arrived at the hotel a peculiar looking individual; he was an American artist he said, and as he spoke with a decided twang, and carried a large paint-box, everyone took him at his word. He was about thirty years of age, and had very long hair and an exceptionally big drooping moustache, which gave him somewhat the look of a human walrus. I will not give his name, for reasons which will be obvious. He turned out to be quite a jovial and genial sort of fellow, and gradually made friends with everyone — including even the villagers, with whom he used to chat and joke in his execrable French. Altogether he proved an acquisition to the table d'hôte. Curiously enough, as was remarked afterwards, no one ever saw him do any painting; he always carried his big paint-box slung over his shoulder, and from that it was naturally inferred that he had been or was going sketching, but of his work no one saw anything. As he was an exceptionally good billiard player he soon ingratiated himself with the habitués of the room, and every evening after dinner, and sometimes in the afternoon, one saw him playing and usually winning their sous. He seemed to have taken a particular fancy to De Penne and old Ciceri, and this was reciprocated as he soon was invited to call on them, and became a regular visitor at their houses. To Madame Ciceri in particular he was especially attentive, and used to constantly send her bouquets from a florist at Montigny.

One evening a few of us were in the salle à manger after dinner taking our coffee, and passing the time discussing art and what not — chiefly what not — when it occurred to me to make a caricature of the American. I had already done many whilst at the table, and used to be considered rather good at catching likenesses this way. He somewhat strongly objected at first, but he was eventually persuaded to let me do it, and as I happened to be in the humor I managed to get an amusing but at the same time striking portrait of him. Everybody roared with laughter on seeing it, and said it was better than any photograph of him could be. The reason I lay stress on this will be seen.

A few days later we noticed that he did not turn up at lunch or dinner. At first we took no notice of his absence; then someone asked the patron what had become of him — and learned that he didn't know, but thought he must have gone to Paris.

A week passed, and as he didn't return his room was opened, and on examining his portmanteau it was found to be practically empty. He had taken everything of any value he might have had with him. His paint-box which he left behind him contained nothing whatever, not even a palette. All this would not have mattered much had he not neglected the trifling formality of paying his bill before he departed, and as he had been there several weeks, it amounted to a fair sum. But this was not all, by any means; for it then transpired that he had taken with him several small pictures from the studios of his friends Ciceri and De Penne — pictures which could be immediately converted into cash at any marchand de tableaux in the Rue Lafitte, and this was what he actually did, as we afterwards learned.

The crowning blow of all, however, concerned Madame Ciceri, to whom he had been sending the handsome bouquets — for she received a bill for them from the florist at Montigny, as he had never received a sou from the American. All this was a very unpleasant surprise for the good folk at Marlotte. The police were put on his track, but with no result, as he had left no traces, and when I left the case appeared to have been practically abandoned; but it was not so, for I had only been back in Paris about a week when one day a stranger — an affable, well-dressed gentleman — called on me, and handed me his card, on which was his name. He was an Inspector of the Sureté. He came from the Prefecture de Police to ask me if I would kindly oblige them by lending them for a few days the caricature which they had been informed I had made of the absconding American. Of course I could not refuse; and in due course it was returned to me, together with a photographic reproduction which had been made from it with Prefecture de Police stamped on it. I have it still. This reproduction I afterwards learned was circulated in all of the police stations throughout France, and the missing Yankee was actually traced and eventually caught through its instrumentality. He got a severe sentence for his misdeeds. I have always thought that he must have had some intuitive feeling of misgiving when he so strongly objected to my making the caricature of him that evening at Marlotte. It was shortly after this that I had one of the most curious adventures of my life. (This adventure forms the basis of a story I wrote for the Wide World Magazine, and I am relating it briefly here by courteous permission of the Editor.) It happened in Fontainebleau, where I had gone to spend a week, having obtained permission to sketch in the Palace. The romantic always had a great attraction for me, and I loved to wander through the old building by myself, and spent hours, sketch-book in hand, exploring the place, as my permit allowed me to go where I chose. One wet afternoon when there were hardly any visitors about I was strolling through one of the rooms when I noticed something peculiar in a panel of the wainscoting. On nearer examination I discovered it was a sort of metal catch or lock, and that the panel itself was a secret door. My curiosity was not unnaturally aroused. I tried it and found that it opened inward, and led into a dark, narrow corridor. The spirit of adventure was strong within me and I did not hesitate. Making sure I was unobserved, I went in and pulled the panel to after me. I then discovered that the passage led to a large private suite of rooms which had evidently not been visited for years, judging from the thick coating of dust and the cobwebs everywhere.

On all sides were magnificent old furniture and faded hangings, which gave an uncanny, ghostly look to the place, which was heightened by the old world odor which pervaded the rooms. Here indeed was an adventure, thought I, as I made my way with ecstasy through the quaint apartments. Although not large, there seemed no end to the number of rooms which led from one to another, interminably as it seemed — with all manner of unexpected twists and turns; whilst now and again some dark corridor indicated still further surprises.

But I had no time that afternoon to pursue my explorations as it was getting near dusk, and the time for closing the Palace, so I began to retrace my steps. I forgot to mention that as I came along I had noticed a very beautiful old clock of the eight-day description. I again stopped to admire it, and then passed on. Shortly after I was somewhat surprised to see another clock of precisely the same design; strange, I thought, as I went by it that there should be two similar. A little farther, to my amazement, I came up to yet another exactly like the two previous ones; then it suddenly dawned on me that I had been walking in a circle, that there was only one clock after all, and that I had lost my way.

I stood aghast. In an instant it flashed through my mind that unless I could find my way back to the secret door the chances of anyone coming to my rescue were almost nil, for I was in a part of the vast building which was probably almost unknown. So I set about attempting to retrace my footsteps by means of the furniture and other objects that had attracted me as I had come along; but to no purpose, as I soon discovered. I could not remember the way back. All the windows looked out on gardens which were deserted. It was getting dark, and the Palace was now closed, so I could expect no help from inside, unless the attendant had noticed I had not left the building, and was looking for me.

With this hope in my mind I started walking about rapidly, and shouting at the top of my voice "Au secours." The words echoed and re-echoed through the rooms with ghostly effect, but there was no response. I now began to get seriously alarmed; and had visions of a slow death by starvation. Time was passing, and it would soon be night, so I sat down on a bed to consider my position calmly, as I felt nothing was to be gained by losing my head. How long I sat there I don't remember, as I must have dozed off I fancy; then I discovered it was now quite dark. Suddenly I heard footsteps on the graveled walk outside, and the reflection of a light. Rushing to the nearest window I discovered, to my intense relief, that it was a watchman passing with a lantern. I frantically, by lighting a match and tapping vigorously, managed to attract his attention. The look of surprise on his face as he turned in my direction and discovered me may be imagined.

I bawled out that I was shut in, and how I'd got where I was, and after a few minutes he understood me. Then calling out to me to remain where I was he hurried off. The time now seemed interminable; but at length I heard, to my joy, footsteps resounding through the apartments, and a little group of officials appeared. I was saved. It is unnecessary to add that there was an inquiry the following day, but my explanation satisfied the authorities — for my "permit" did not state that I was not allowed to visit this particular portion of the Palace.

Some years afterwards I was going through the building with a friend to whom I had told my adventure, and wished to show him the secret panel; but it had been masked by a big piece of furniture.

A very amusing joke was played on an artist in a café in Fontainebleau one afternoon whilst I was there. The café was used as a sort of club by its habitués who used to meet there every day for an aperitif, and of an evening for billiards. It was usually crowded about five o'clock in the afternoon. The artist in question, whom I will call Durand — in case he ever reads this — lived a little way out of the town, but seldom missed turning up at the "cercle," as the café was termed, at least once a day. He had somehow managed to make himself extremely unpopular with the other habitués, as he was always putting on " side " — a very bad offence in the eyes of the simple folks of a provincial town.

This had been resented for some time past, and attempts had been made to let him know that he was not accepted at his own valuation, and was not wanted in the café; but to no effect, as he was too wrapped up in his own conceit.

He was a big, pompous man, and his principal weakness was hiis belief in his ability to do anything better than anyone else in the "cercle." On all games or sport he posed as an authority. Billiards were his especial fancy —as he really could play a good game; and he was always waiting an opportunity to inveigle some unsuspecting new-comer into a match, have a bet on, and win his money; which was not considered sportsman-like at all, as may be imagined.

One day the opportunity presented itself to pay him out. An old habitué of the café, who had been away from Fontainebleau for some months, came back for a few days. He was one of the best amateur billiard players in France, had won the championship, and had often beaten professionals. He was told about all the goings-on of the unpopular painter, and agreed to join in a plot to "rag" him thoroughly. So it was arranged that the following afternoon he should be in the café, and the artist should be led on gradually and drawn into a match with him there and then for a special bet.

The next day the place was crowded, as news of what was going to happen got about. Durand came in as usual, and found himself treated with unusual friendship — invited to drink with men who seldom took any notice of him, and so on. This, of course, only helped to still further elate him in his own estimation; he evidently thought he was a very popular fellow indeed, and his strident voice could be heard all over the café as he laid down the law on every subject he was drawn in to discuss.

Amongst those sitting round was the amateur billiard champion, who was a stranger to him. Very skillfully the conversation was turned on to billiards — and a mock discussion was started by two men, and Durand was invited to decide the question, which of course he did. And then, one thing leading to another, someone mentioned that it was well known that he, the artist, was the best billiard player they had ever had in Fontainebleau. Whereat he preened himself, and admitted that this was so; and that he was prepared to take on anyone in the district for anything he liked to name. At which there were loud cheers. Then someone pretended to take the proposition up seriously, and said that he had a man he would back against the artist; then another rejoined with his choice, but it was pointed out that all these were men whose game was too well known to be taken seriously.

Suddenly, as though by accident, someone said that he'd back Duval (a fictitious name they'd given the champion) to take up the challenge, and several men pretended to agree with him; then followed a heated discussion between the supposed partisans of Durand and those of Duval. Who was Duval? What had he ever done to prove himself a billiard player at all — he was scarcely known in the town. However his backer persisted in his opinion that he could easily beat the other man; and would advise him to take on any bet that was made, and would, moreover, back him himself to any amount. Meanwhile the artist was being egged on to wait, and he could win anything he chose to name, so certain a thing was it; the mere idea of this comparatively unknown man daring to play against him was absurd. At last they advised him what to do, and he jumped up and called out.

"Assez — let's get to work; what's the bet — name your figure, Monsieur."

"I don't play for money," replied the other, with mock humility.

"Play him for his trousers," someone called out to the artist." It will teach him not to fancy himself so much in future." All this had of course been planned.

Everyone crowded round; there was wild talking and gesticulating between the rival partisans, and in the end it was settled that the stake was to be the trousers the loser was wearing. The artist stroked his beard with glee, and called out to his adversary as he took off his coat to start playing, "And don't make any mistake about it, Monsieur. I shall insist on your handing them over to me here in the café." So certain was he of winning.

Well, as had also been arranged, the champion pretended to be very nervous, and missed some very easy shots at the commencement of the game — and the excitement was intense; but with all his bad play he left absolutely nothing each time. He didn't score at all, but Durand, on the other hand, made no headway and began to lose his temper; he was unaccustomed to such unusual difficulty.

Well, this went on for a time amidst a buzz of discussion after each stroke, till at last, after missing what looked like a very easy shot, he turned to Duval and said pompously, as he chalked his cue: "This is the last chance I am going to give you, so you had better make the best of it. I'm going to start playing seriously now." But try all he could, he could not get ahead of his adversary, who won, as arranged, by apparently a brilliant effort, and with a splendid break of eight, if I remember right. The uproar was deafening, and the partisans of the winner carried him round the room in triumph. Now came the moment for settling the bet, and the artist tried all he could to avoid it, for he was no sportsman at heart. He wanted to leave the café, but this had been foreseen, and we all gathered round the door, thus making exit impossible. Then he saw that he had no longer any partisans, that everyone present was against him; " le pari — le pari, enlevez les culottes" was shouted on all sides. In vain did he protest that he would catch cold — no heed was taken; and in the end, to avoid having them taken off by force, he divested himself of the garment amidst roars of laughter and jeers. Then they allowed him to borrow an overcoat, for it was a bleak day, and take his departure; but outside the café the news had spread, and a crowd had assembled to see the novel spectacle of a big man go through the streets in a short overcoat, and with no trousers on, and he had practically to run the gauntlet of the whole town till he got back to his lodgings. An hour later his trousers were returned to him by a messenger, who found him packing up prior to taking his departure from Fontainebleau. He had realized that he was not so popular as he had fondly imagined.



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