Newman, on his return to Paris, had not resumed the study of French conversation with M. Nioche; he found that he had too many other uses for his time. M. Nioche, however, came to see him very promptly, having learned his whereabouts by a mysterious process to which his patron never obtained the key. The shrunken little capitalist repeated his visit more than once. He seemed oppressed by a humiliating sense of having been overpaid, and wished apparently to redeem his debt by the offer of grammatical and statistical information in small installments. He wore the same decently melancholy aspect as a few months before; a few months more or less of brushing could make little difference in the antique lustre of his coat and hat. But the poor old man's spirit was a trifle more threadbare; it seemed to have received some hard rubs during the summer Newman inquired with interest about Mademoiselle Noemie; and M. Nioche, at first, for answer, simply looked at him in lachrymose silence.
"Don't ask me, sir," he said at last. "I sit and watch her, but I can do nothing."
"Do you mean that she misconducts herself?"
"I don't know, I am sure. I can't follow her. I don't understand her. She has something in her head; I don't know what she is trying to do. She is too deep for me."
"Does she continue to go to the Louvre? Has she made any of those copies for me?"
"She goes to the Louvre, but I see nothing of the copies. She has something on her easel; I suppose it is one of the pictures you ordered. Such a magnificent order ought to give her fairy-fingers. But she is not in earnest. I can't say anything to her; I am afraid of her. One evening, last summer, when I took her to walk in the Champs Elysees, she said some things to me that frightened me."
"What were they?"
"Excuse an unhappy father from telling you," said M. Nioche, unfolding his calico pocket-handkerchief.
Newman promised himself to pay Mademoiselle Noemie another visit at the Louvre. He was curious about the progress of his copies, but it must be added that he was still more curious about the progress of the young lady herself. He went one afternoon to the great museum, and wandered through several of the rooms in fruitless quest of her. He was bending his steps to the long hall of the Italian masters, when suddenly he found himself face to face with Valentin de Bellegarde. The young Frenchman greeted him with ardor, and assured him that he was a godsend. He himself was in the worst of humors and he wanted some one to contradict.
"In a bad humor among all these beautiful things?" said Newman. "I thought you were so fond of pictures, especially the old black ones. There are two or three here that ought to keep you in spirits."
"Oh, to-day," answered Valentin, "I am not in a mood for pictures, and the more beautiful they are the less I like them. Their great staring eyes and fixed positions irritate me. I feel as if I were at some big, dull party, in a room full of people I shouldn't wish to speak to. What should I care for their beauty? It's a bore, and, worse still, it's a reproach. I have a great many ennuis; I feel vicious."
"If the Louvre has so little comfort for you, why in the world did you come here?" Newman asked.
"That is one of my ennuis. I came to meet my cousin--a dreadful English cousin, a member of my mother's family--who is in Paris for a week for her husband, and who wishes me to point out the
'principal beauties.' Imagine a woman who wears a green crape bonnet in December and has straps sticking out of the ankles of her interminable boots! My mother begged I would do something to oblige them. I have undertaken to play valet de place this afternoon. They were to have met me here at two o'clock, and I have been waiting for them twenty minutes. Why doesn't she arrive? She has at least a pair of feet to carry her. I don't know whether to be furious at their playing me false, or delighted to have escaped them."
"I think in your place I would be furious," said Newman, "because they may arrive yet, and then your fury will still be of use to you. Whereas if you were delighted and they were afterwards to turn up, you might not know what to do with your delight."
"You give me excellent advice, and I already feel better. I will be furious; I will let them go to the deuce and I myself will go with you--unless by chance you too have a rendezvous."
"It is not exactly a rendezvous," said Newman. "But I have in fact come to see a person, not a picture."
"A woman, presumably?"
"A young lady."
"Well," said Valentin, "I hope for you with all my heart that she is not clothed in green tulle and that her feet are not too much out of focus."
"I don't know much about her feet, but she has very pretty hands."
Valentin gave a sigh. "And on that assurance I must part with you?"
"I am not certain of finding my young lady," said Newman, "and I am not quite prepared to lose your company on the chance. It does not strike me as particularly desirable to introduce you to her, and yet I should rather like to have your opinion of her."
"Is she pretty?"
"I guess you will think so."
Bellegarde passed his arm into that of his companion. "Conduct me to her on the instant! I should be ashamed to make a pretty woman wait for my verdict."
Newman suffered himself to be gently propelled in the direction in which he had been walking, but his step was not rapid. He was turning something over in his mind. The two men passed into the long gallery of the Italian masters, and Newman, after having scanned for a moment its brilliant vista, turned aside into the smaller apartment devoted to the same school, on the left. It contained very few persons, but at the farther end of it sat Mademoiselle Nioche, before her easel. She was not at work; her palette and brushes had been laid down beside her, her hands were folded in her lap, and she was leaning back in her chair and looking intently at two ladies on the other side of the hall, who, with their backs turned to her, had stopped before one of the pictures. These ladies were apparently persons of high fashion; they were dressed with great splendor, and their long silken trains and furbelows were spread over the polished floor. It was at their dresses Mademoiselle Noemie was looking, though what she was thinking of I am unable to say. I hazard the supposition that she was saying to herself that to be able to drag such a train over a polished floor was a felicity worth any price. Her reflections, at any rate, were disturbed by the advent of Newman and his companion. She glanced at them quickly, and then, coloring a little, rose and stood before her easel.
"I came here on purpose to see you," said Newman in his bad French, offering to shake hands. And then, like a good American, he introduced Valentin formally: "Allow me to make you acquainted with the Comte Valentin de Bellegarde."
Valentin made a bow which must have seemed to Mademoiselle Noemie quite in harmony with the impressiveness of his title, but the graceful brevity of her own response made no concession to underbred surprise. She turned to Newman, putting up her hands to her hair and smoothing its delicately-felt roughness. Then, rapidly, she turned the canvas that was on her easel over upon its face. "You have not forgotten me?" she asked.
"I shall never forget you," said Newman. "You may be sure of that."
"Oh," said the young girl, "there are a great many different ways of remembering a person." And she looked straight at Valentin de Bellegarde, who was looking at her as a gentleman may when a "verdict" is expected of him.
"Have you painted anything for me?" said Newman. "Have you been industrious?"
"No, I have done nothing." And taking up her palette, she began to mix her colors at hazard.
"But your father tells me you have come here constantly."
"I have nowhere else to go! Here, all summer, it was cool, at least."
"Being here, then," said Newman, "you might have tried something."
"I told you before," she answered, softly, "that I don't know how to paint."
"But you have something charming on your easel, now," said Valentin, "if you would only let me see it."
She spread out her two hands, with the fingers expanded, over the back of the canvas--those hands which Newman had called pretty, and which, in spite of several paint-stains, Valentin could now admire. "My painting is not charming," she said.
"It is the only thing about you that is not, then, mademoiselle," quoth Valentin, gallantly.
She took up her little canvas and silently passed it to him. He looked at it, and in a moment she said, "I am sure you are a judge."
"Yes," he answered, "I am."
"You know, then, that that is very bad."
"Mon Dieu," said Valentin, shrugging his shoulders "let us distinguish."
"You know that I ought not to attempt to paint," the young girl continued.
"Frankly, then, mademoiselle, I think you ought not."
She began to look at the dresses of the two splendid ladies again--a point on which, having risked one conjecture, I think I may risk another. While she was looking at the ladies she was seeing Valentin de Bellegarde. He, at all events, was seeing her. He put down the roughly-besmeared canvas and addressed a little click with his tongue, accompanied by an elevation of the eyebrows, to Newman.
"Where have you been all these months?" asked Mademoiselle Noemie of our hero. "You took those great journeys, you amused yourself well?"
"Oh, yes," said Newman. "I amused myself well enough."
"I am very glad," said Mademoiselle Noemie with extreme gentleness, and she began to dabble in her colors again. She was singularly pretty, with the look of serious sympathy that she threw into her face.
Valentin took advantage of her downcast eyes to telegraph again to his companion. He renewed his mysterious physiognomical play, making at the same time a rapid tremulous movement in the air with his fingers. He was evidently finding Mademoiselle Noemie extremely interesting; the blue devils had departed, leaving the field clear.
"Tell me something about your travels," murmured the young girl.
"Oh, I went to Switzerland,--to Geneva and Zermatt and Zurich and all those places you know; and down to Venice, and all through Germany, and down the Rhine, and into Holland and Belgium--the regular round. How do you say that, in French--the regular round?" Newman asked of Valentin.
Mademoiselle Nioche fixed her eyes an instant on Bellegarde, and then with a little smile, "I don't understand monsieur," she said, "when he says so much at once. Would you be so good as to translate?"
"I would rather talk to you out of my own head," Valentin declared.
"No," said Newman, gravely, still in his bad French, "you must not talk to Mademoiselle Nioche, because you say discouraging things. You ought to tell her to work, to persevere."
"And we French, mademoiselle," said Valentin, "are accused of being false flatterers!"
"I don't want any flattery, I want only the truth. But I know the truth."
"All I say is that I suspect there are some things that you can do better than paint," said Valentin.
"I know the truth--I know the truth," Mademoiselle Noemie repeated. And, dipping a brush into a clot of red paint, she drew a great horizontal daub across her unfinished picture.
"What is that?" asked Newman.
Without answering, she drew another long crimson daub, in a vertical direction, down the middle of her canvas, and so, in a moment, completed the rough indication of a cross. "It is the sign of the truth," she said at last.
The two men looked at each other, and Valentin indulged in another flash of physiognomical eloquence. "You have spoiled your picture," said Newman.
"I know that very well. It was the only thing to do with it. I had sat looking at it all day without touching it. I had begun to hate it. It seemed to me something was going to happen."
"I like it better that way than as it was before," said Valentin. "Now it is more interesting. It tells a story. Is it for sale?"
"Everything I have is for sale," said Mademoiselle Noemie.
"How much is this thing?"
"Ten thousand francs," said the young girl, without a smile.
"Everything that Mademoiselle Nioche may do at present is mine in advance," said Newman. "It makes part of an order I gave her some months ago. So you can't have this."
"Monsieur will lose nothing by it," said the young girl, looking at Valentin. And she began to put up her utensils.
"I shall have gained a charming memory," said Valentin. "You are going away? your day is over?"
"My father is coming to fetch me," said Mademoiselle Noemie.
She had hardly spoken when, through the door behind her, which opens on one of the great white stone staircases of the Louvre, M. Nioche made his appearance. He came in with his usual even, patient shuffle, and he made a low salute to the two gentlemen who were standing before his daughter's easel. Newman shook his hands with muscular friendliness, and Valentin returned his greeting with extreme deference. While the old man stood waiting for Noemie to make a parcel of her implements, he let his mild, oblique gaze hover toward Bellegarde, who was watching Mademoiselle Noemie put on her bonnet and mantle. Valentin was at no pains to disguise his scrutiny. He looked at a pretty girl as he would have listened to a piece of music. Attention, in each case, was simple good manners. M. Nioche at last took his daughter's paint-box in one hand and the bedaubed canvas, after giving it a solemn, puzzled stare, in the other, and led the way to the door. Mademoiselle Noemie made the young men the salute of a duchess, and followed her father.
"Well," said Newman, "what do you think of her?"
"She is very remarkable. Diable, diable, diable!" repeated M. de Bellegarde, reflectively; "she is very remarkable."
"I am afraid she is a sad little adventuress," said Newman.
"Not a little one--a great one. She has the material." And Valentin began to walk away slowly, looking vaguely at the pictures on the walls, with a thoughtful illumination in his eye. Nothing could have appealed to his imagination more than the possible adventures of a young lady endowed with the "material" of Mademoiselle Nioche. "She is very interesting," he went on. "She is a beautiful type."
"A beautiful type? What the deuce do you mean?" asked Newman.
"I mean from the artistic point of view. She is an artist,--outside of her painting, which obviously is execrable."
"But she is not beautiful. I don't even think her very pretty."
"She is quite pretty enough for her purposes, and it is a face and figure on which everything tells. If she were prettier she would be less intelligent, and her intelligence is half of her charm."
"In what way," asked Newman, who was much amused at his companion's immediate philosophization of Mademoiselle Nioche, "does her intelligence strike you as so remarkable?"
"She has taken the measure of life, and she has determined to BE something--to succeed at any cost. Her painting, of course, is a mere trick to gain time. She is waiting for her chance; she wishes to launch herself, and to do it well. She knows her Paris. She is one of fifty thousand, so far as the mere ambition goes; but I am very sure that in the way of resolution and capacity she is a rarity. And in one gift--perfect heartlessness--I will warrant she is unsurpassed. She has not as much heart as will go on the point of a needle. That is an immense virtue. Yes, she is one of the celebrities of the future."
"Heaven help us!" said Newman, "how far the artistic point of view may take a man! But in this case I must request that you don't let it take you too far. You have learned a wonderful deal about Mademoiselle Noemie in a quarter of an hour. Let that suffice; don't follow up your researches."
"My dear fellow," cried Bellegarde with warmth, "I hope I have too good manners to intrude."
"You are not intruding. The girl is nothing to me. In fact, I rather dislike her. But I like her poor old father, and for his sake I beg you to abstain from any attempt to verify your theories."
"For the sake of that seedy old gentleman who came to fetch her?" demanded Valentin, stopping short. And on Newman's assenting, "Ah no, ah no," he went on with a smile. "You are quite wrong, my dear fellow; you needn't mind him."
"I verily believe that you are accusing the poor gentleman of being capable of rejoicing in his daughter's dishonor."
"Voyons," said Valentin; "who is he? what is he?"
"He is what he looks like: as poor as a rat, but very high-toned."
"Exactly. I noticed him perfectly; be sure I do him justice. He has had losses, des malheurs, as we say. He is very low-spirited, and his daughter is too much for him. He is the pink of respectability, and he has sixty years of honesty on his back. All this I perfectly appreciate. But I know my fellow-men and my fellow-Parisians, and I will make a bargain with you." Newman gave ear to his bargain and he went on. "He would rather his daughter were a good girl than a bad one, but if the worst comes to the worst, the old man will not do what Virginius did. Success justifies everything. If Mademoiselle Noemie makes a figure, her papa will feel--well, we will call it relieved. And she will make a figure. The old gentleman's future is assured."
"I don't know what Virginius did, but M. Nioche will shoot Miss Noemie," said Newman. "After that, I suppose his future will be assured in some snug prison."
"I am not a cynic; I am simply an observer," Valentin rejoined. "Mademoiselle Noemie interests me; she is extremely remarkable. If there is a good reason, in honor or decency, for dismissing her from my thoughts forever, I am perfectly willing to do it. Your estimate of the papa's sensibilities is a good reason until it is invalidated. I promise you not to look at the young girl again until you tell me that you have changed your mind about the papa. When he has given distinct proof of being a philosopher, you will raise your interdict. Do you agree to that?"
"Do you mean to bribe him?"
"Oh, you admit, then, that he is bribable? No, he would ask too much, and it would not be exactly fair. I mean simply to wait. You will continue, I suppose, to see this interesting couple, and you will give me the news yourself."
"Well," said Newman, "if the old man turns out a humbug, you may do what you please. I wash my hands of the matter. For the girl herself, you may be at rest. I don't know what harm she may do to me, but I certainly can't hurt her. It seems to me," said Newman, "that you are very well matched. You are both hard cases, and M. Nioche and I, I believe, are the only virtuous men to be found in Paris."
Soon after this M. de Bellegarde, in punishment for his levity, received a stern poke in the back from a pointed instrument. Turning quickly round he found the weapon to be a parasol wielded by a lady in green gauze bonnet. Valentin's English cousins had been drifting about unpiloted, and evidently deemed that they had a grievance. Newman left him to their mercies, but with a boundless faith in his power to plead his cause.Next