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To the west of Castel-le-Gachis four rows of venerable lime-trees formed, in this starry night, a twilit avenue with two side aisles of pitch darkness. Here and there stone benches were disposed between the trunks. There was not a breath of wind; a heavy atmosphere of perfume hung about the alleys; and every leaf stood stock-still upon its twig. Hither, after vainly knocking at an inn or two, the Berthelinis came at length to pass the night. After an amiable contention, Leon insisted on giving his coat to Elvira, and they sat down together on the first bench in silence. Leon made a cigarette, which he smoked to an end, looking up into the trees, and, beyond them, at the constellations, of which he tried vainly to recall the names. The silence was broken by the church bell; it rang the four quarters on a light and tinkling measure; then followed a single deep stroke that died slowly away with a thrill; and stillness resumed its empire.
"One," said Leon. "Four hours till daylight. It is warm; it is starry; I have matches and tobacco. Do not let us exaggerate, Elvira - the experience is positively charming. I feel a glow within me; I am born again. This is the poetry of life. Think of Cooper's novels, my dear."
"Leon," she said fiercely, "how can you talk such wicked, infamous nonsense? To pass all night out-of-doors - it is like a nightmare! We shall die."
"You suffer yourself to be led away," he replied soothingly. "It is not unpleasant here; only you brood. Come, now, let us repeat a scene. Shall we try Alceste and Celimene? No? Or a passage from the 'Two Orphans'? Come, now, it will occupy your mind; I will play up to you as I never have played before; I feel art moving in my bones."
"Hold your tongue," she cried, "or you will drive me mad! Will nothing solemnise you - not even this hideous situation?"
"Oh, hideous!" objected Leon. "Hideous is not the word. Why, where would you be? 'Dites, la jeune belle, ou voulez-vous aller?'" he carolled. "Well, now," he went on, opening the guitarcase, "there's another idea for you - sing. Sing 'Dites, la jeune belle!' It will compose your spirits, Elvira, I am sure."
And without waiting an answer he began to strum the symphony. The first chords awoke a young man who was lying asleep upon a neighbouring bench.
"Hullo!" cried the young man, "who are you?"
"Under which king, Bezonian?" declaimed the artist. "Speak or die!"
Or if it was not exactly that, it was something to much the same purpose from a French tragedy.
The young man drew near in the twilight. He was a tall, powerful, gentlemanly fellow, with a somewhat puffy face, dressed in a grey tweed suit, with a deer-stalker hat of the same material; and as he now came forward he carried a knapsack slung upon one arm.
"Are you camping out here too?" he asked, with a strong English accent. "I'm not sorry for company."
Leon explained their misadventure; and the other told them that he was a Cambridge undergraduate on a walking tour, that he had run short of money, could no longer pay for his night's lodging, had already been camping out for two nights, and feared he should require to continue the same manoeuvre for at least two nights more.
"Luckily, it's jolly weather," he concluded.
"You hear that, Elvira," said Leon. "Madame Berthelini," he went on, "is ridiculously affected by this trifling occurrence. For my part, I find it romantic and far from uncomfortable; or at least," he added, shifting on the stone bench, "not quite so uncomfortable as might have been expected. But pray be seated."
"Yes," returned the undergraduate, sitting down, "it's rather nice than otherwise when once you're used to it; only it's devilish difficult to get washed. I like the fresh air and these stars and things."
"Aha!" said Leon, "Monsieur is an artist."
"An artist?" returned the other, with a blank stare. "Not if I know it!"
"Pardon me," said the actor. "What you said this moment about the orbs of heaven - "
"Oh, nonsense!" cried the Englishman. "A fellow may admire the stars and be anything he likes."
"You have an artist's nature, however, Mr.- I beg your pardon; may I, without indiscretion, inquire your name?" asked Leon.
"My name is Stubbs," replied the Englishman.
"I thank you," returned Leon. "Mine is Berthelini - Leon Berthelini, ex-artist of the theatres of Montrouge, Belleville, and Montmartre. Humble as you see me, I have created with applause more than one important ROLE. The Press were unanimous in praise of my Howling Devil of the Mountains, in the piece of the same name. Madame, whom I now present to you, is herself an artist, and I must not omit to state, a better artist than her husband. She also is a creator; she created nearly twenty successful songs at one of the principal Parisian music-halls. But, to continue, I was saying you had an artist's nature, Monsieur Stubbs, and you must permit me to be a judge in such a question. I trust you will not falsify your instincts; let me beseech you to follow the career of an artist."
"Thank you," returned Stubbs, with a chuckle. "I'm going to be a banker."
"No," said Leon, "do not say so. Not that. A man with such a nature as yours should not derogate so far. What are a few privations here and there, so long as you are working for a high and noble goal?"
"This fellow's mad," thought Stubbs; "but the woman's rather pretty, and he's not bad fun himself, if you come to that." What he said was different. "I thought you said you were an actor?"
"I certainly did so," replied Leon. "I am one, or, alas! I was."
"And so you want me to be an actor, do you?" continued the undergraduate. "Why, man, I could never so much as learn the stuff; my memory's like a sieve; and as for acting, I've no more idea than a cat."
"The stage is not the only course," said Leon. "Be a sculptor, be a dancer, be a poet or a novelist; follow your heart, in short, and do some thorough work before you die."
"And do you call all these things ART?" inquired Stubbs.
"Why, certainly!" returned Leon. "Are they not all branches?"
"Oh! I didn't know," replied the Englishman. "I thought an artist meant a fellow who painted."
The singer stared at him in some surprise.
"It is the difference of language," he said at last. "This Tower of Babel, when shall we have paid for it? If I could speak English you would follow me more readily."
"Between you and me, I don't believe I should," replied the other. "You seem to have thought a devil of a lot about this business. For my part, I admire the stars, and like to have them shining it's so cheery - but hang me if I had an idea it had anything to do with art! It's not in my line, you see. I'm not intellectual; I have no end of trouble to scrape through my exams., I can tell you! But I'm not a bad sort at bottom," he added, seeing his interlocutor looked distressed even in the dim starshine, "and I rather like the play, and music, and guitars, and things."
Leon had a perception that the understanding was incomplete. He changed the subject.
"And so you travel on foot?" he continued. "How romantic! How courageous! And how are you pleased with my land? How does the scenery affect you among these wild hills of ours?"
"Well, the fact is," began Stubbs - he was about to say that he didn't care for scenery, which was not at all true, being, on the contrary, only an athletic undergraduate pretension; but he had begun to suspect that Berthelini liked a different sort of meat, and substituted something else - "The fact is, I think it jolly. They told me it was no good up here; even the guide-book said so; but I don't know what they meant. I think it is deuced pretty upon my word, I do."
At this moment, in the most unexpected manner, Elvira burst into tears.
"My voice!" she cried. "Leon, if I stay here longer I shall lose my voice!"
"You shall not stay another moment," cried the actor. "If I have to beat in a door, if I have to burn the town, I shall find you shelter."
With that he replaced the guitar, and comforting her with some caresses, drew her arm through his.
"Monsieur Stubbs," said he, taking of his hat, "the reception I offer you is rather problematical; but let me beseech you to give us the pleasure of your society. You are a little embarrassed for the moment; you must, indeed, permit me to advance what may be necessary. I ask it as a favour; we must not part so soon after having met so strangely."
"Oh, come, you know," said Stubbs, "I can't let a fellow like you " And there he paused, feeling somehow or other on a wrong tack.
"I do not wish to employ menaces," continued Leon, with a smile; "but if you refuse, indeed I shall not take it kindly."
"I don't quite see my way out of it," thought the undergraduate; and then, after a pause, he said, aloud and ungraciously enough, "All right. I - I'm very much obliged, of course." And he proceeded to follow them, thinking in his heart, "But it's bad form, all the same, to force an obligation on a fellow."
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER V