Alexander Kielland (Norway)
No one could understand where he got his money from. But the person who marvelled most at the dashing and luxurious life led by Alphonse was his quondam friend and partner.
After they dissolved partnership, most of the custom and the best connection passed by degrees into Charles's hands. This was not because he in any way sought to run counter to his former partner; on the contrary, it arose simply from the fact that Charles was the more capable man of the two. And as Alphonse had now to work on his own account, it was soon clear to any one who observed him closely, that in spite of his promptitude, his amiability, and his prepossessing appearance, he was not fitted to be at the head of an independent business.
And there was one person who DID observe him closely. Charles followed him step by step with his sharp eyes; every blunder, every extravagance, every loss—he knew all to a nicety, and he wondered that Alphonse could keep going so long.
They had as good as grown up together. Their mothers were cousins; the families had lived near each other in the same street; and in a city like Paris proximity is as important as relationship in promoting close intercourse. Moreover, the boys went to the same school.
Thenceforth, as they grew up to manhood, they were inseparable. Mutual adaptation overcame the great differences which originally marked their characters, until at last their idiosyncrasies fitted into each other like the artfully-carved pieces of wood which compose the picture-puzzles of our childhood.
The relation between them was really a beautiful one, such as does not often arise between two young men; for they did not understand friendship as binding the one to bear everything at the hands of the other, but seemed rather to vie with each other in mutual considerateness.
If, however, Alphonse in his relation to Charles showed any high degree of considerateness, he himself was ignorant of it; and if any one had told him of it he would doubtless have laughed loudly at such a mistaken compliment.
For as life on the whole appeared to him very simple and straightforward, the idea that his friendship should in any way fetter him was the last thing that could enter his head. That Charles was his best friend seemed to him as entirely natural as that he himself danced best, rode best, was the best shot, and that the whole world was ordered entirely to his mind.
Alphonse was in the highest degree a spoilt child of fortune; he acquired everything without effort; existence fitted him like an elegant dress, and he wore it with such unconstrained amiability that people forgot to envy him.
And then he was so handsome. He was tall and slim, with brown hair and big open eyes; his complexion was clear and smooth, and his teeth shone when he laughed. He was quite conscious of his beauty, but, as everybody had petted him from his earliest days, his vanity was of a cheerful, good-natured sort, which, after all, was not so offensive. He was exceedingly fond of his friend. He amused himself and sometimes others by teasing him and making fun of him; but he knew Charles's face so thoroughly that he saw at once when the jest was going too far. Then he would resume his natural, kindly tone, until he made the serious and somewhat melancholy Charles laugh till he was ill.
From his boyhood Charles had admired Alphonse beyond measure. He himself was small and insignificant, quiet and shy. His friend's brilliant qualities cast a lustre over him as well, and gave a certain impetus to his life.
His mother often said: "This friendship between the boys is a real blessing for my poor Charles, for without it he would certainly have been a melancholy creature."
When Alphonse was on all occasions preferred to him, Charles rejoiced; he was proud of his friend. He wrote his exercises, prompted him at examination, pleaded his cause with the masters, and fought for him with the boys.
At the commercial academy it was the same story. Charles worked for Alphonse, and Alphonse rewarded him with his inexhaustible amiability and unfailing good-humor.
When subsequently, as quite young men, they were placed in the same banker's office, it happened one day that the principal said to Charles: "From the first of May I will raise your salary."
"I thank you," answered Charles, "both on my own and on my friend's behalf."
"Monsieur Alphonse's salary remains unaltered," replied the chief, and went on writing.
Charles never forgot that morning. It was the first time he had been preferred or distinguished before his friend. And it was his commercial capacity, the quality which, as a young man of business, he valued most, that had procured him this preference; and it was the head of the firm, the great financier, who had himself accorded him such recognition.
The experience was so strange to him that it seemed like an injustice to his friend. He told Alphonse nothing of the occurrence; on the contrary, he proposed that they should apply for two vacant places in the Credit Lyonnais.
Alphonse was quite willing, for he loved change, and the splendid new banking establishment on the Boulevard seemed to him far more attractive than the dark offices in the Rue Bergere. So they removed to the Credit Lyonnais on the first of May. But as they were in the chief's office taking their leave, the old banker said to Charles, when Alphonse had gone out (Alphonse always took precedence of Charles), "Sentiment won't do for a business man."
From that day forward a change went on in Charles. He not only worked as industriously and conscientiously as before, but developed such energy and such an amazing faculty for labor as soon attracted to him the attention of his superiors. That he was far ahead of his friend in business capacity was soon manifest; but every time he received a new mark of recognition he had a struggle with himself. For a long time, every advancement brought with it a certain qualm of conscience; and yet he worked on with restless ardor.
One day Alphonse said, in his light, frank way: "You are really a smart fellow, Charlie! You're getting ahead of everybody, young and old—not to mention me. I'm quite proud of you."
Charles felt ashamed. He had been thinking that Alphonse must feel wounded at being left on one side, and now he learned that his friend not only did not grudge him his advancement, but was even proud of him. By degrees his conscience was lulled to rest, and his solid worth was more and more appreciated.
But if he was in reality the more capable, how came it that he was so entirely ignored in society, while Alphonse remained everybody's darling? The very promotions and marks of appreciation which he had won for himself by hard work were accorded him in a dry, business manner; while every one, from the directors to the messengers, had a friendly word or a merry greeting for Alphonse.
In the different offices and departments of the bank they intrigued to obtain possession of Monsieur Alphonse; for a breath of life and freshness followed ever in the wake of his handsome person and joyous nature. Charles, on the other hand, had often remarked that his colleagues regarded him as a dry person, who thought only of business and of himself.
The truth was that he had a heart of rare sensitiveness, with no faculty for giving it expression.
Charles was one of those small, black Frenchmen whose beard begins right under the eyes; his complexion was yellowish and his hair stiff and splintery. His eyes did not dilate when he was pleased and animated, but they flashed around and glittered. When he laughed the corners of his mouth turned upward, and many a time, when his heart was full of joy and good-will, he had seen people draw back, half-frightened by his forbidding exterior. Alphonse alone knew him so well that he never seemed to see his ugliness; every one else misunderstood him. He became suspicious, and retired more and more within himself.
In an insensible crescendo the thought grew in him: Why should he never attain anything of that which he most longed for—intimate and cordial intercourse and friendliness which should answer to the warmth pent up within him? Why should every one smile to Alphonse with out-stretched hands, while he must content himself with stiff bows and cold glances?
Alphonse knew nothing of all this. He was joyous and healthy, charmed with life and content with his daily work. He had been placed in the easiest and most interesting branch of the business, and, with his quick brain and his knack of making himself agreeable, he filled his place satisfactorily.
His social circle was very large—every one set store by his acquaintance, and he was at least as popular among women as among men.
For a time Charles accompanied Alphonse into society, until he was seized by a misgiving that he was invited for his friend's sake alone, when he at once drew back.
When Charles proposed that they should set up in business together, Alphonse had answered: "It is too good of you to choose me. You could easily find a much better partner."
Charles had imagined that their altered relations and closer association in work would draw Alphonse out of the circles which Charles could not now endure, and unite them more closely. For he had conceived a vague dread of losing his friend.
He did not himself know, nor would it have been easy to decide, whether he was jealous of all the people who flocked around Alphonse and drew him to them, or whether he envied his friend's popularity.
They began their business prudently and energetically, and got on well.
It was generally held that each formed an admirable complement to the other. Charles represented the solid, confidence-inspiring element, while the handsome and elegant Alphonse imparted to the firm a certain lustre which was far from being without value.
Every one who came into the counting-house at once remarked his handsome figure, and thus it seemed quite natural that all should address themselves to him.
Charles meanwhile bent over his work and let Alphonse be spokesman. When Alphonse asked him about anything, he answered shortly and quietly without looking up.
Thus most people thought that Charles was a confidential clerk, while
Alphonse was the real head of the house.
As Frenchmen, they thought little about marrying, but as young
Parisians they led a life into which erotics entered largely.
Alphonse was never really in his element except when in female society. Then all his exhilarating amiability came into play, and when he leaned back at supper and held out his shallow champagne-glass to be refilled, he was as beautiful as a happy god.
He had a neck of the kind which women long to caress, and his soft, half-curling hair looked as if it were negligently arranged, or carefully disarranged, by a woman's coquettish hand.
Indeed, many slim white fingers had passed through those locks; for Alphonse had not only the gift of being loved by women, but also the yet rarer gift of being forgiven by them.
When the friends were together at gay supper-parties, Alphonse paid no particular heed to Charles. He kept no account of his own love-affairs, far less of those of his friend. So it might easily happen that a beauty on whom Charles had cast a longing eye fell into the hands of Alphonse.
Charles was used to seeing his friend preferred in life; but there are certain things to which men can scarcely accustom themselves. He seldom went with Alphonse to his suppers, and it was always long before the wine and the general exhilaration could bring him into a convivial humor.
But then, when the champagne and the bright eyes had gone to his head, he would often be the wildest of all; he would sing loudly with his harsh voice, laugh and gesticulate so that his stiff black hair fell over his forehead; and then the merry ladies shrank from him, and called him the "chimney-sweep."
—As the sentry paces up and down in the beleaguered fortress, he sometimes hears a strange sound in the silent night, as if something were rustling under his feet. It is the enemy, who has undermined the outworks, and to-night or to-morrow night there will be a hollow explosion, and armed men will storm in through the breach.
If Charles had kept close watch over himself he would have heard strange thoughts rustling within him. But he would not hear—he had only a dim foreboding that sometime there must come an explosion.
—And one day it came.
It was already after business hours; the clerks had all left the outer office, and only the principals remained behind.
Charles was busily writing a letter which he wished to finish before he left.
Alphonse had drawn on both his gloves and buttoned them. Then he had brushed his hat until it shone, and now he was walking up and down and peeping into Charles's letter every time he passed the desk.
They used to spend an hour every day before dinner in a cafe on the great Boulevard, and Alphonse was getting impatient for his newspapers.
"Will you never have finished that letter?" he said, rather irritably.
Charles was silent a second or two, then he sprang up so that his chair fell over: "Perhaps Alphonse imagined that he could do it better? Did he not know which of them was really the man of business?" And now the words streamed out with that incredible rapidity of which the French language is capable when it is used in fiery passion.
But it was a turbid stream, carrying with it many ugly expressions, upbraidings, and recriminations; and through the whole there sounded something like a suppressed sob.
As he strode up and down the room, with clenched hands and dishevelled hair, Charles looked like a little wiry-haired terrier barking at an elegant Italian grayhound. At last he seized his hat and rushed out.
Alphonse had stood looking at him with great wondering eyes. When he was gone, and there was once more silence in the room, it seemed as though the air was still quivering with the hot words. Alphonse recalled them one by one, as he stood motionless beside the desk.
"Did he not know which was the abler of the two?" Yes, assuredly! he had never denied that Charles was by far his superior.
"He must not think that he would succeed in winning everything to himself with his smooth face." Alphonse was not conscious of ever having deprived his friend of anything.
"I don't care for your cocottes" Charles had said.
Could he really have been interested in the little Spanish dancer? If Alphonse had only had the faintest suspicion of such a thing he would never have looked at her. But that was nothing to get so wild about; there were plenty of women in Paris.
And at last: "As sure as to-morrow comes, I will dissolve partnership!"
Alphonse did not understand it at all. He left the counting-house and walked moodily through the streets until he met an acquaintance. That put other thoughts into his head; but all day he had a feeling as if something gloomy and uncomfortable lay in wait, ready to seize him so soon as he was alone.
When he reached home, late at night, he found a letter from Charles. He opened it hastily; but it contained, instead of the apology he had expected, only a coldly-worded request to M. Alphonse to attend at the counting-house early the next morning "in order that the contemplated dissolution of partnership might be effected as quickly as possible."
Now, for the first time, did Alphonse begin to understand that the scene in the counting-house had been more than a passing outburst of passion; but this only made the affair more inexplicable.
And the longer he thought it over, the more clearly did he feel that Charles had been unjust to him. He had never been angry with his friend, nor was he precisely angry even now. But as he repeated to himself all the insults Charles had heaped upon him, his good-natured heart hardened; and the next morning he took his place in silence, after a cold "Good morning."
Although he arrived a whole hour earlier than usual, he could see that Charles had been working long and industriously. There they sat, each on his side of the desk; they spoke only the most indispensable words; now and then a paper passed from hand to hand, but they never looked each other in the face.
In this way they both worked—each more busily than the other—until twelve o'clock, their usual luncheon-time.
This hour of dejeuner was the favorite time of both. Their custom was to have it served in their office, and when the old housekeeper announced that lunch was ready, they would both rise at once, even if they were in the midst of a sentence or of an account.
They used to eat standing by the fireplace, or walking up and down in the warm, comfortable office. Alphonse had always some piquant stories to tell, and Charles laughed at them. These were his pleasantest hours.
But that day, when madame said her friendly "Messieurs, on a servi" they both remained sitting. She opened her eyes wide, and repeated the words as she went out, but neither moved.
At last Alphonse felt hungry, went to the table, poured out a glass of wine and began to eat his cutlet. But as he stood there eating, with his glass in his hand, and looked round the dear old office where they had spent so many pleasant hours, and then thought that they were to lose all this and imbitter their lives for a whim, a sudden burst of passion, the whole situation appeared to him so preposterous that he almost burst out laughing.
"Look here, Charles," he said, in the half-earnest, half-joking tone which always used to make Charles laugh, "it will really be too absurd to advertise: 'According to an amicable agreement, from such and such a date the firm of—'"
"I have been thinking," interrupted Charles, quietly, "that we will put: 'According to MUTUAL agreement.'"
Alphonse laughed no more; he put down his glass, and the cutlet tasted bitter in his mouth.
He understood that friendship was dead between them, why or wherefore he could not tell; but he thought that Charles was hard and unjust to him. He was now stiffer and colder than the other.
They worked together until the business of dissolution was finished; then they parted.
A considerable time passed, and the two quondam friends worked each in his own quarter in the great Paris. They met at the Bourse, but never did business with each other. Charles never worked against Alphonse; he did not wish to ruin him; he wished Alphonse to ruin himself.
And Alphonse seemed likely enough to meet his friend's wishes in this respect. It is true that now and then he did a good stroke of business, but the steady industry he had learned from Charles he soon forgot. He began to neglect his office, and lost many good connections.
He had always had a taste for dainty and luxurious living, but his association with the frugal Charles had hitherto held his extravagances in check. Now, on the contrary, his life became more and more dissipated. He made fresh acquaintances on every hand, and was more than ever the brilliant and popular Monsieur Alphonse; but Charles kept an eye on his growing debts.
He had Alphonse watched as closely as possible, and, as their business was of the same kind, could form a pretty good estimate of the other's earnings. His expenses were even easier to ascertain, and he soon assured himself of the fact that Alphonse was beginning to run into debt in several quarters.
He cultivated some acquaintances about whom he otherwise cared nothing, merely because through them he got an insight into Alphonse's expensive mode of life and rash prodigality. He sought the same cafes and restaurants as Alphonse, but at different times; he even had his clothes made by the same tailor, because the talkative little man entertained him with complaints that Monsieur Alphonse never paid his bills.
Charles often thought how easy it would be to buy up a part of Alphonse's liabilities and let them fall into the hands of a grasping usurer. But it would be a great injustice to suppose that Charles for a moment contemplated doing such a thing himself. It was only an idea he was fond of dwelling upon; he was, as it were, in love with Alphonse's debts.
But things went slowly, and Charles became pale and sallow while he watched and waited.
He was longing for the time when the people who had always looked down upon him should have their eyes opened, and see how little the brilliant and idolized Alphonse was really fit for. He wanted to see him humbled, abandoned by his friends, lonely and poor; and then—!
Beyond that he really did not like to speculate; for at this point feelings stirred within him which he would not acknowledge.
He WOULD hate his former friend; he WOULD have revenge for all the coldness and neglect which had been his own lot in life; and every time the least thought in defence of Alphonse arose in his mind he pushed it aside, and said, like the old banker, "Sentiment won't do for a business man."
One day he went to his tailor's; he bought more clothes in these days than he absolutely needed.
The nimble little man at once ran to meet turn with a roll of cloth: "See, here is the very stuff for you. Monsieur Alphonse has had a whole suit made of it, and Monsieur Alphonse is a gentleman who knows how to dress."
"I did not think that Monsieur Alphonse was one of your favorite customers," said Charles, rather taken by surprise.
"Oh, mon Dieu!" exclaimed the little tailor, "you mean because I have once or twice mentioned that Monsieur Alphonse owed me a few thousand francs. It was very stupid of me to speak so. Monsieur Alphonse has not only paid me the trifle he was owing, but I know that he has also satisfied a number of other creditors. I have done ce cher beau monsieur great injustice, and I beg you never to give him a hint of my stupidity."
Charles was no longer listening to the chatter of the garrulous tailor. He soon left the shop, and went up the street, quite absorbed in the one thought that Alphonse had paid.
He thought how foolish it really was of him to wait and wait for the other's ruin. How easily might not the adroit and lucky Alphonse come across many a brilliant business opening, and make plenty of money without a word of it reaching Charles's ears. Perhaps, after all, he was getting on well. Perhaps it would end in people saying, "See, at last Monsieur Alphonse shows what he is fit for, now that he is quit of his dull and crabbed partner!"
Charles went slowly up the street with his head bent. Many people jostled him, but he heeded not. His life seemed to him so meaningless, as if he had lost all that he had ever possessed—or had he himself cast it from him? Just then some one ran against him with more than usual violence. He looked up. It was an acquaintance from the time when he and Alphonse had been in the Credit Lyonnais.
"Ah, good-day, Monsieur Charles!" cried he, "It is long since we met. Odd, too, that I should meet you to-day. I was just thinking of you this morning."
"Why, may I ask?" said Charles, half absently.
"Well, you see, only to-day I saw up at the bank a paper—a bill for thirty or forty thousand francs—bearing both your name and that of Monsieur Alphonse. It astonished me, for I thought that you two—hm!—had done with each other."
"No, we have not quite done with each other yet," said Charles slowly.
He struggled with all his might to keep his face calm, and asked, in as natural a tone as he could command, "When does the bill fall due? I don't quite recollect."
"To-morrow or the day after, I think," answered the other, who was a hard-worked business man, and was already in a hurry to be off. "It was accepted by Monsieur Alphonse."
"I know that," said Charles; "but could you not manage to let ME redeem the bill to-morrow? It is a courtesy—a favor I am anxious to do."
"With pleasure. Tell your messenger to ask for me personally at the bank to-morrow afternoon. I will arrange it; nothing easier. Excuse me; I'm in a hurry. Good-bye!" and with that he ran on.
Next day Charles sat in his counting-house waiting for the messenger who had gone up to the bank to redeem Alphonse's bill.
At last a clerk entered, laid a folded blue paper by his principal's side, and went out again.
Not until the door was closed did Charles seize the draft, look swiftly round the room, and open it. He stared for a second or two at his name, then lay back in his chair and drew a deep breath. It was as he had expected—the signature was a forgery.
He bent over it again. For long he sat, gazing at his own name, and observing how badly it was counterfeited.
While his sharp eyes followed every line in the letters of his name, he scarcely thought. His mind was so disturbed, and his feelings so strangely conflicting, that it was some time before he became conscious how much they betrayed—these bungling strokes on the blue paper.
He felt a strange lump in his throat, his nose began to tickle a little, and, before he was aware of it, a big tear fell on the paper.
He looked hastily around, took out his pocket-handkerchief, and carefully wiped the wet place on the bill. He thought again of the old banker in the Rue Bergere.
What did it matter to him that Alphonse's weak character had at last led him to crime, and what had he lost? Nothing, for did he not hate his former friend? No one could say it was his fault that Alphonse was ruined—he had shared with him honestly, and never harmed him.
Then his thoughts tamed to Alphonse. He knew him well enough to be sure that when the refined, delicate Alphonse had sunk so low, he must have come to a jutting headland in life, and he prepared to leap out of it rather than let disgrace reach him.
At this thought Charles sprang up. That must not be. Alphonse should not have time to send a bullet through his bead and hide his shame in the mixture of compassion and mysterious horror which follows the suicide. Thus Charles would lose his revenge, and it would be all to no purpose that he had gone and nursed his hatred until he himself had become evil through it. Since he had forever lost his friend, he would at least expose his enemy, so that all should see what a miserable, despicable being was this charming Alphonse.
He looked at his watch; it was half-past four. Charles knew the cafe in which he would find Alphonse at this hour; he pocketed the bill and buttoned his coat.
But on the way he would call at a police-station, and hand over the bill to a detective, who at a sign from Charles should suddenly advance into the middle of the cafe where Alphonse was always surrounded by his friends and admirers, and say loudly and distinctly so that all should hear it:
"Monsieur Alphonse, you are charged with forgery."
It was raining in Paris. The day had been foggy, raw, and cold; and well on in the afternoon it had begun to rain. It was not a downpour—the water did not fall from the clouds in regular drops—but the clouds themselves had, as it were, laid themselves down in the streets of Paris and there slowly condensed into water.
No matter how people might seek to shelter themselves, they got wet on all sides. The moisture slid down the back of your neck, laid itself like a wet towel about your knees, penetrated into your boots and far up your trousers.
A few sanguine ladies were standing in the portes cocheres, with their skirts tucked up, expecting it to clear; others waited by the hour in the omnibus stations. But most of the stronger sex hurried along under their umbrellas; only a few had been sensible enough to give up the battle, and had turned up their collars, stuck their umbrellas under their arms, and their hands in their pockets.
Although it was early in the autumn it was already dusk at five o'clock. A few gas-jets lighted in the narrowest streets, and in a shop here and there strove to shine out in the thick wet air.
People swarmed as usual in the streets, jostled one another off the pavement, and ruined one another's umbrellas. All the cabs were taken up; they splashed along and bespattered the foot passengers to the best of their ability, while the asphalt glistened in the dim light with a dense coating of mud.
The cafes were crowded to excess; regular customers went round and scolded, and the waiters ran against each other in their hurry. Ever and anon, amid the confusion, could be heard the sharp little ting of the bell on the buffet; it was la dame du comptoir summoning a waiter, while her calm eyes kept a watch upon the whole cafe.
A lady sat at the buffet of a large restaurant on the Boulevard Sebastopol. She was widely known for her cleverness and her amiable manners.
She had glossy black hair, which, in spite of the fashion, she wore parted in the middle of her forehead in natural curls. Her eyes were almost black and her mouth full, with a little shadow of a moustache.
Her figure was still very pretty, although, if the truth were known, she had probably passed her thirtieth year; and she had a soft little hand, with which she wrote elegant figures in her cashbook, and now and then a little note. Madame Virginie could converse with the young dandies who were always hanging about the buffet, and parry their witticisms, while she kept account with the waiters and had her eye upon every corner of the great room.
She was really pretty only from five till seven in the afternoon—that being the time at which Alphonse invariably visited the cafe. Then her eyes never left him; she got a fresher color, her mouth was always trembling into a smile, and her movements became somewhat nervous. That was the only time of the day when she was ever known to give a random answer or to make a mistake in the accounts; and the waiters tittered and nudged each other.
For it was generally thought that she had formerly had relations with
Alphonse, and some would even have it that she was still his mistress.
She herself best knew how matters stood; but it was impossible to be angry with Monsieur Alphonse. She was well aware that he cared no more for her than for twenty others; that she had lost him—nay, that he had never really been hers. And yet her eyes besought a friendly look, and when he left the cafe without sending her a confidential greeting, it seemed as though she suddenly faded, and the waiters said to each other: "Look at madame; she is gray tonight."
Over at the windows it was still light enough to read the papers; a couple of young men were amusing themselves with watching the crowds which streamed past. Seen through the great plate-glass windows, the busy forms gliding past one another in the dense, wet, rainy air looked like fish in an aquarium. Further back in the cafe, and over the billiard-tables, the gas was lighted. Alphonse was playing with a couple of friends.
He had been to the buffet and greeted Madame Virginie, and she, who had long noticed how Alphonse was growing paler day by day, had—half in jest, half in anxiety—reproached him with his thoughtless life.
Alphonse answered with a poor joke and asked for absinthe.
How she hated those light ladies of the ballet and the opera who enticed Monsieur Alphonse to revel night after night at the gaming-table, or at interminable suppers! How ill he had been looking these last few weeks! He had grown quite thin, and the great gentle eyes had acquired a piercing, restless look. What would she not give to be able to rescue him out of that life that was dragging him down! She glanced in the opposite mirror and thought she had beauty enough left.
Now and then the door opened and a new guest came in, stamped his feet, and shut his wet umbrella. All bowed to Madame Virginie, and almost all said, "What horrible weather!"
When Charles entered, he saluted shortly and took a seat in the corner beside the fireplace.
Alphonse's eyes had indeed become restless. He looked towards the door every time any one came in; and when Charles appeared, a spasm passed over his face and he missed his stroke.
"Monsieur Alphonse is not in the vein to-day," said an onlooker.
Soon after a strange gentleman came in. Charles looked up from his paper and nodded slightly; the stranger raised his eyebrows a little and looked at Alphonse.
He dropped his cue on the floor.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, I'm not in the mood for billiards to-day," said he, "permit me to leave off. Waiter, bring me a bottle of seltzer-water and a spoon—I must take my dose of Vichy salts."
"You should not take so much Vichy salts, Monsieur Alphonse, but rather keep to a sensible diet," said the doctor, who sat a little way off playing chess.
Alphonse laughed, and seated himself at the newspaper-table. He seized the JOURNAL AMUSANT, and began to make merry remarks upon the illustrations. A little circle quickly gathered round him, and he was inexhaustible in racy stories and whimsicalities.
While he rattled on under cover of the others' laughter, he poured out a glass of seltzer-water and took from his pocket a little box on which was written, in large letters, "Vichy Salts."
He shook the powder out into the glass and stirred it round with a spoon. There was a little cigar-ash on the floor in front of his chair; he whipped it off with his pocket-handkerchief, and then stretched out his hand for the glass.
At that moment he felt a hand on his arm. Charles had risen and hurried across the room he now bent down over Alphonse.
Alphonse turned his head towards him so that none but Charles could see his face. At first he let his eyes travel furtively over his old friend's figure; then he looked up, and, gazing straight at Charles, he said, half aloud, "Charlie!"
It was long since Charles had heard that old pet name. He gazed into the well-known face and now for the first time saw how it had altered of late. It seemed to him as though he were reading a tragic story about himself.
They remained thus far a second or two and there glided over Alphonse's features that expression of imploring helplessness which Charles knew so well from the old school-days, when Alphonse came bounding in at the last moment and wanted his composition written.
"Have you done with the JOURNAL AMUSANT?" asked Charles, with a thick utterance.
"Yes; pray take it," answered Alphonse, hurriedly. He reached him the paper, and at the same time got hold of Charles's thumb. He pressed it and whispered, "Thanks," then—drained the glass.
Charles went over to the stranger who sat by the door: "Give me the bill."
"You don't need our assistance, then?"
"So much the better," said the stranger, handing Charles a folded blue paper. Then he paid for his coffee and went.
Madame Virginie rose with a little shriek: "Alphonse! Oh, my God!
Monsieur Alphonse is ill."
He slipped off his chair; his shoulders went up and his head fell on one side. He remained sitting on the floor, with his back against the chair.
There was a movement among those nearest; the doctor sprang over and knelt beside him. When he looked in Alphonse's face he started a little. He took his hand as if to feel his pulse, and at the same time bent down over the glass which stood on the edge of the table.
With a movement of the arm he gave it a slight push, so that it fell on the floor and was smashed. Then he laid down the dead man's hand and bound a handkerchief round his chin.
Not till then did the others understand what had happened. "Dead? Is he dead, doctor? Monsieur Alphonse dead?"
"Heart disease," answered the doctor.
One came running with water, another with vinegar. Amid laughter and noise, the balls could be heard cannoning on the inner billiard-table.
"Hush!" some one whispered. "Hush!" was repeated; and the silence spread in wider and wider circles round the corpse, until all was quite still.
"Come and lend a hand," said the doctor.
The dead man was lifted up; they laid him on a sofa in a corner of the room, and the nearest gas-jets were put out.
Madame Virginie was still standing up; her face was chalk-white, and she held her little soft hand pressed against her breast. They carried him right past the buffet. The doctor had seized him under the back, so that his waistcoat slipped up and a piece of his fine white shirt appeared.
She followed with her eyes the slender, supple limbs she knew so well, and continued to stare towards the dark corner.
Most of the guests went away in silence. A couple of young men entered noisily from the street; a waiter ran towards them and said a few words. They glanced towards the corner, buttoned their coats, and plunged out again into the fog.
The half-darkened cafe was soon empty; only some of Alphonse's nearest friends stood in a group and whispered. The doctor was talking with the proprietor, who had now appeared on the scene.
The waiters stole to and fro, making great circuits to avoid the dark corner. One of them knelt and gathered up the fragments of the glass on a tray. He did his work as quietly as he could; but for all that it made too much noise.
"Let that alone until by and by," said the host, softly.
Leaning against the chimney-piece, Charles looked at the dead man. He slowly tore the folded paper to pieces, while he thought of his friend.