At the Café d'Orsay
“Do you remember that girl with a sort of a yellow coat, whom we used to meet so regularly that we spoke of it, just in the middle of the middle arch of the Pont Royal, coming this way, and looking as if she wanted to run ? It was that week that Cuthbert was sick over in the Quartier de l’Europe, and we used to curse him out for living so far away, and tell him that he could have been just as sick in Montparnasse.”
“ Yes, I remember,” said Edgerly; “ but that girl’s coat was n’t really yellow; it only looked so à la lumière, — in fact, there is a whole series of modified colors — ”
“ Now stop it, Ranny,” Overton protested ; “ that will keep till you get back to the expert audience at the Café Vachette, — and besides, I’m telling you a story, and it’s underbred to interrupt.”
“ Oh! ” said Edgerly around the corner of his resumed pipe.
“ I remember it rained that whole beastly week,” Overton went on, “ or at least it seemed as if we were always slopping up the crowning of that bridge in the dusk, just as we met this girl starting down. She looked wet through, and without seeming to know it, and after meeting her seven times in succession, I was never sure, as she passed by the lights on the parapet, whether her face was wet with the rain, or whether she was crying. We calculated, at the pace she held, that she would make about the same time as ourselves; so that the place she left every night must be just as far in one direction from the middle arch of the Pont Royal, as our front door in Montparnasse in the other. I said that ought to start her just about by the Gare St. Lazare, but I remember your quarrelsome nature and poor bump of locality always brought on a discussion.”
Edgerly grinned without interrupting his smoke.
“ Well, what brought this girl to my mind again was this. I stopped for lunch, a few days ago, in a little cabaret next the Gare St. Lazare, and recognized her at the table next me. She had two other girls with her, and she was crying this time all right. I found out the reason.”
“ Oh, you did ! ” said Edgerly. “ I congratulate you on your delicacy, — I forget who was talking about being under bred just now.”
Overton looked at him in pained disgust. “ What was I to do ? they came in, and sat right at my back when I was half through breakfast; I could n’t very well ask her to stop talking till I’d finished. It did n’t amount to much anyway. I merely gathered that her papa had remarried — a lady with a difficult temper, and when our friend arrived home later than half-past six, if only by a few minutes, she was treated not only to reproaches, but to hints that she was late because of clandestine appointments; and this although her new mamma realized that she could not get away from the office, where she works till six or after, and it is almost impossible to make the distance to Montparnasse in so short a time. So you will please note that she did come from close to the Gare St. Lazare as I said, and curiously enough, went to almost where we came from, so that we were making the same trip at the same hour, in opposite directions every night.”
“ Messieurs, on vous attend à la terrasse,” interrupted Antoine; and the men rose to go out. When Antoine stuck closely to the impersonal pronoun in this way. Overton and Edgerly always knew who was meant. It was poor Swathling, of course, and Antoine, with all his astuteness, imitativeness, and amiable impudence, had completely given up even trying to name him. Swathling was an Englishman, and like Overton, studying architecture; but he was almost the only Englishman in that branch of the government school, where Americans were legion. It seemed as if the Gothic tradition was so strong at home as to suffice architectural aspirants, or at least keep them out of the Continental schools.
Antoine was indescribable; he was a satyr in the dingy dress of a garçon de café. His very limp when he walked suggested the cloven hoof, though he explained that he had been shot in the heel during the Commune. “ But how, shot in the heel ? ” Overton had said; “ which way were you running ? ” Antoine looked as grieved as his satyr leer would permit; “ I was quite a child,” he said, ” playing in my mother’s garden — it was a spent bullet.” But he held his own so well with only one heel, that it is a question if the human race could have endured him unhandicapped. He had no mercy on Swathling’s French, and used to repeat his orders at the top of his voice, with a solemn face, for the benefit of the other pensionnaires of the dear old Café d’Orsay, — now extinct. The new railroad Station cumbers its grave, terrasse and all.
A table-d’hôte for boarders was served in the back room on Rue du Bac. The three Anglo-Saxons ate together. At a table on one side of them were two Brazilian medical students; on the other, the colonel of the cavalry regiment quartered in the barracks farther down the Quai d’Orsay,—now also gone. Beyond sat an advocate, and others whom they did not know.
The slips in French that Swathling made seemed inspired, and furnished the deepest satisfaction to Antoine, There was one unfortunate twist of the French word for soup, which can hardly be explained here, though it is not so dreadful either, which made poor Overton and Edgerly writhe, which Antoine repeated so loudly that the colonel always ducked a trifle, and glanced sideways at the caissière, and which so took a total stranger by surprise one night that he half swallowed his spoon, to Antoine’s solemn satisfaction.
The three men sat on the terrace in front of their three glasses of coffee, which they had insisted should be very hot, and which they allowed to get very cold, and stared. There was really nothing obvious to stare at. There were the people passing on their own sidewalk, bumping one another, and jostling the little iron tables as they made a détour, for the terrasse of the Café d’Orsay was nothing more nor less than two-thirds of the public sidewalk, and why the public endured it could never be made out. Then there were the people poking among the second-hand book-boxes on the wall of the quai opposite; then the people hanging on the bridge. As these last were always there, and without any excuse that could be divined, Edgerly finally decided that they were trained to supply proper spots in the foreground of the general composition. The Pavilion de Flore at the end of the Louvre formed the second plane on this canvas; and then of course after dinner there was the sunset up over the Quartier de l’Etoile.
They smoked and squinted critically at all this, but Overton’s mind was still otherwise occupied, for he went on to Edgerly: “ It was interesting, all the same, to listen to old Cuthbert’s theories, as he lay there looking up at a corner of the ceiling, I used to call him a transcendentalist, and try to classify him for my own satisfaction and his annoyance, but he would n’t even be annoyed, and he wholly refused to be classified.
“ It is not so much that he denies the physical existence of matter, like so many to-day, who take their first step in company with Bishop Berkeley or some other, and then go forward by themselves; but he feels that its dominance of our daily life, and the hindering conditions which it seems to impose at every turn, are in some way only our belief in, and acceptance of, such conditions, and that we are really much more in control than we believe. He certainly did n’t seem to take much interest himself in what Dr. Bliss told us, on the quiet, was going to be such a nasty fever; and when we kept putting off cabling home, and the fever seemed to peter out, the doctor and ourselves were again the only ones to be surprised or interested.
“ He has no patience with the idea of the supernaturalness of psychic phenomena; and he believes that in a hundred ways, our psychic control over our bodies is inoperative merely from lack of understanding and application. The sudden appearance, so often recorded, of a person in a certain place, is regarded as an apparition only because those seeing it insist that the person is really somewhere else at that time. How can it be shown that this was not itself the apparition ? But of course he puts all this much better than I can repeat it, and he was particularly clear, and at the same time fantastic, that week during which I was with him so much. He would turn my anecdotes and other drivel into examples at once. I was going over for him my impressions of the same hurrying crowd crossing that bridge every night in one direction, and meeting the same hurrying crowd, of which you and I were a part, crossing in the other direction, made up mostly, night after night, of the same individuals, all forced to transfer their weary bodies; the one mass of humanity hurrying to occupy practically the very places that the other mass of humanity were leaving empty, — simply because the end of their day’s employment left them stranded each night at opposite sides of the city. ‘ What a useless waste of time,’ he would say, —
‘ what an ignorant, hopeless waste of life. When shall we come to the understanding of ourselves that will make such stupid physical shortening of our hours unnecessary ! ’
“ He makes no doubt whatever of our arriving some day at the understanding of that control of our physical by our spiritual selves, by which we shall find our bodies always at whatever place our minds, or indeed we ourselves, may need them as physical manifestations of our presence, — for in fact those around us, or at any rate the dullest of them, are only conscious of our being with them through the reaction of our physical selves on their own physical senses of sight and hearing.
“ He admits perfectly our present lack of this understanding, but he thinks that it could be reached, like many spiritual results, by a certain amount of combined effort. For instance, while it seems difficult for any single individual to be always physically manifest at the place he most needs to be, he holds that if it were possible for two or three persons to will at the same time a mutual displacement or interchange of their physical bodies, then in some way the opposition of the older belief would be weakened, and they would find the transfer less difficult than would the individual with his isolated will.
“ I told him that was why he did n’t mind living in such a distant quarter from the rest of us and tried to make the idea look ridiculous. ’In other words,’ I said, ‘ if you should get up some morning, and want to do some work in Ranny’s studio next to me, and I should get up the same morning, and want to see this doctor that lives here under you; by perfectly unconscious coincidental volition, we would find ourselves in one another’s shoes, and save the walk, or ten centimes on the impériale of an omnibus.’ ' Well, yes,’ he replied, smiling at me, ‘ that’s it, crudely.’ ”
They sat silent again for a while, and then the infrequent Swathling said rather thoughtfully, “ He may not be so far off either;” and then, “but Cuthbert is living with you now, is n’t he? ”
“ Yes,” answered Overton, “ he gave way to us at last, and he’s now settled in Montparnasse, — in fact, in my very house.”
“ What does your cousin think of his ideas, Overton?” said Edgerly.
“ Who, Elsie ? Oh, she considers herself the more practical of the two, but she seems to take him ideas and all, and then the mutual opinions of engaged couples are not much of a criterion. I suppose I shall see Elsie soon, and have to tell her more than I know myself about Jim, though the transatlantic mail service has been working overtime to keep her informed from the fountain-head. It’s queer to think that I shall be in little old New York two weeks from tonight.”
They all got up together without any apparent concerted signal, and walked off up Rue du Bac.
Two days after this Overton put his luggage aboard a sapin after lunch, and started for the Gare St. Lazare, for he had several hours of errands and visits on the other side of the Seine to put in before his train left for the Havre at 6.30.
He left Cuthbert in his rooms writing a letter to Elsie Overton for him to take by hand, which, it seemed, was to contain matter of some moment and volume, for even during lunch Cuthbert was a trifle inattentive. But he went downstairs with Overton partly to say good-by, but mostly to remind him to be on the lookout for him at the train, as he might bring the letter at the last moment.
Overton’s afternoon was an uncomfortable one. It was hot for so early in the spring, the banker’s was crowded and the mail clerk slow, and the recipients of his farewell visits seemed to live very far apart. So that it was with a good breath of relief that he found himself at dusk, walking up and down near the Gare St Lazare, just to one side of the lines of cabs rattling in and out. His ticket was in his pocket, his luggage labeled, and he had nothing to do but look at his watch. It was nearly train time, though, after six already, and he began to feel that angry impatience with Cuthbert, with which we regard the prospective lateness of any one at an appointment with ourselves.
It was really pretty dark by now, and the shops were all alight, and he did not dare to leave his corner lamp-post where Cuthbert was to find him. Indeed, he was leaning against the lamp-post, as a door opened on to the sidewalk just above him, and he recognized at once the girl who stepped out into the light of its openness, as the girl who lived in Montparnasse with her unwelcome stepmother.
“ Well,” he thought with satisfaction, “ she does come from near the Gare St. Lazare every evening just as I said; next to it, in fact; so my calculations were right, and she stands at this instant just as far from the middle arch of the Pont Royal, as our door in Montparnasse is from the same arch — By thunder!” he broke out angrily half aloud, “ what if that ass of a Cuthbert is just leaving there now! that would be about like him. — If he is, he can just get the French Postal Department to boost that letter of his along; he’ll not get here in any twelve minutes.” And he put his watch disgustedly in its place.
He had not taken his eyes off the girl, and he became conscious now of her very evident look of hurry and distress. As she almost ran toward his corner, gathering her skirts as she came, her face seemed a concentration of some wish or trouble. That side of the station runs down hill, and she came too hurriedly, for as she reached his lamp-post she struck her foot, and pitched forward.
Overton turned sharply, and jumped for her, — he remembers that perfectly; but nevertheless, when he found himself again leaning against the post, with his lip bleeding a little, and his hands muddy, it. was Cuthbert who was leaning largely down over him, and saying, “ What made you jump at me that way ? You have plenty of time to get aboard, but you’d better hustle a little all the same.”
Overton went rather confusedly into the station, and shook hands hurriedly with Cuthbert on the quai. They were already closing the doors of the compartments
As the Rapide drew out, and shot smoothly toward the faint glow that still held the west, Overton sucked his bleeding lip, and stared into the murkiness of the empty compartment. “ That’s funny,” he said slowly; “ he did n’t seem to know he was n’t there at all.”