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The fourth was
mainly plate-glass window, one on either side of the main entrance.

Back of the tables were wall-seats upholstered in red plush, dusty and
threadbare; and, above, a frieze of mirrors. The floor of the restaurant
was a patternless mosaic of small hexagonal tiles, bare in warm weather, in
the winter covered by a thick but well-worn Brussels carpet of peculiarly
repulsive design. The windows wore half-curtains of net which, after
nightfall, were reinforced by ruffled draperies of rep silk. Through the
net curtains, by day, the name of the restaurant was shadowed in reverse by
plain white-enamel letters glued to the glass:

CAFÉ DES EXILES

The girl stared so constantly at these letters, during the off hours of the
day, that she sometimes wondered if they were not indelibly stamped upon
her brain, like this:

[Reverse: CAFÉ DES EXILES]

She gazed in the direction of the windows as a matter of habit, because
Mama Thérèse objected to her reading at the desk (all the same, sometimes
she did it on the sly) because the glimpses she caught, above the
half-curtains, of heads of passersby gave her idle imagination something to
play with, but mostly because it was difficult otherwise to seem
unconscious of the stares that converged toward her from every table
occupied by a masculine patron, whether regular or casual--unless the
patron happened to be accompanied by a lady, in which unhappy event he had
to content himself with furtive, sidelong glances, not always furtive
enough by half.

The feminine patrons stared, too, but from quite another angle of view.

Sofia knew why. If she hadn't, the mirror across the room would have
enlightened even a woman without vanity; which paradox this thoroughly
human young person was not.

She was, indeed, healthily vain; and when she wasn't focussing dream-dark
eyes upon the windows, or verifying additions and making change, she was as
likely as not to be stealing consultations with the mirror opposite, making
sure she hadn't, in the last few minutes, gone off in her looks. Not that
her comeliness bade fair ever to prove the cause of any real excitement.
Mama Thérèse made a first-rate dragon: she was very much on the job of
discouraging enterprising young men, and this without respect for union
hours or overtime. And when she wasn't functioning as the ubiquitous
wet-blanket, Papa Dupont understudied for her, and did it most efficiently,
too. If anything he was more vigilant and enthusiastic when it came to
administering the snub sufficient than even Mama Thérèse; in Sofia's sight,
indeed, he betrayed some personal feeling in the business; he seemed to
consider alien admiration of his charge an encroachment upon his private
prerogatives, to be resented accordingly.

Sofia understood. At eighteen--thanks to the comprehensive visual education
in the business of life which she could hardly have failed to assimilate
from a coign of vantage overlooking every table of a Soho restaurant--there
were precious few things she didn't understand. But her insight into Papa
Dupont's mind in respect of herself was wholly devoid of sympathy. She was
just a little bit afraid of him, and she despised him without measure. And
this contempt was founded on something more than his weakness for taking
numerous and surreptitious nips (surreptitious, at least, until they became
numerous) while presiding over the zinc in the pantry between the
restaurant proper and the kitchen; and on something more than his
reluctance to let Mama Thérèse make an honest man of him, although these
two had squabbled openly for so many years that most of the house staff
believed them to be married hard and fast enough.

For the matter of that, Sofia herself might have been the dupe of this
popular delusion--which Mama Thérèse did her best to encourage by never
referring to Dupont save as "mon mari"--had they been less imprudent in
recriminations which had passed between them in private when Sofia was of
an age so tender that she was presumed to be safely immature of mind.
Whereas she had always been precocious, if rather a self-contained child.
Almost from infancy she had been conversant with many things which she knew
it wouldn't do to talk about.

Such sympathy as Sofia wasted on the couple was all for Mama Thérèse. What
with keeping an eye on Papa Dupont that prevented his drinking himself to
death seven times per calendar week, and an eye on Sofia that was fondly
credited with being largely responsible for her failure to run away with
each and every presentable man who ogled her, and browbeating the waiters
and frustrating their attempts to cheat the house out of its fair dues, and
supervising the marketing and the cuisine: believe it or not, Mama Thérèse
led a tolerably busy life and deserved whatever gratification she got out
of it, to say nothing of highest commendation for industry, fidelity, and
frugality. But that did nothing to prevent Sofia from not liking her.

Her inability to play up to the relationship in which she stood to Mama
Thérèse in the manner prescribed by sentimentalists worried Sofia more than
a little. She was as hungry to give affection as to receive it; and surely
she ought to be fond of Mama Thérèse, who (Sofia was forever being
reminded) had in the goodness of her great heart adopted her as the
orphaned offspring of a cousin far-removed, and had brought her up at her
own expense, expecting no return (excepting humility, gratitude,
unquestioning affection, and uncomplaining acceptance of a life of
incessant toil at tasks uncongenial when not downright unsavoury, without
spending money or hours of untrammelled liberty in which to spend it).

Surely such nobility ought to be requited with nothing less than love!

Nevertheless, the plain, and to Sofia disquieting, truth was: it wasn't.

She was fond of Mama Thérèse after a fashion. No one was ever more ready to
acknowledge the woman's good qualities. But her faults, which included
avarice, bad temper, gluttony, native cruelty of inclination, and simple
inability to give a damn for anybody but herself, forbade satisfaction of
Sofia's yearnings to give her affections freely through bestowing them upon
the abundant and florid person of Mama Thérèse.

Still, she made no murmur. There was more than a trace of fatalism in the
composition of her spirit. As she conceived it, in this life either things
were or they were not; and as a rule they uncompromisingly were not: one
couldn't have everything.

She was not happy, it would be stretching the truth to say she was content,
but she was resigned, she was patient, she waited not altogether without
confidence....

All the same, sometimes, as she sat, day in day out, on her high stool,
looking down on familiar aspects of life's fermentation as it manifests in
public restaurants, or peering out of the windows to catch tantalizing
glimpses of its freer, ampler, and--alas!--more recondite phases--sometimes
Sofia wondered whether there were not grimly cynic innuendo in those three
words which the mystery of choice had affixed to the window-panes and
graven so deep into her soul.

CAFÉ DES EXILES

For surely she was in exile there, an exile from all the fun and frolic
and, fury of life, marooned in weary isolation, on a high stool, in a
frowsty table d'hôte, in the living heart of London.



II

MASKS AND FACES


Quite naturally she became acquainted with Faces....

She grew adept at a game which consisted mostly in keeping close watch upon
those who for this reason or that engaged her attention, without giving
them the slightest reason to suspect she was doing anything of the sort.

One could not always be staring in abstraction at nothing in particular as
it passed to and fro on the sidewalk in front of the Café des Exiles; one
could not often or for long at a time succeed in reading a book held open
in one's lap, below the level of the cashier's desk, Mama Thérèse was too
brisk for that; one had to do something with one's mind; and it was
sometimes diverting to watch and speculate about people who looked
interesting.

There were so many Faces, they came and went so constantly, like bubbles in
a tideway, that to Sofia most of them seemed indistinguishable one from
another, mere blurs of flesh colour studded with staring eyes and slitted
by apertures which automatically and alternately gaped to receive gobbets
of food and goblets of drink and closed to gulp them down. A man needed to
be remarkable for something in his looks, not necessarily pulchritude, or
for uncommon individuality, for Sofia to favour him with more than one of
her seemingly casual glances or to remember him if he visited the café a
second time.

But those there were who stood out from the rank and file, for whom she
watched, whom she missed if they failed to put in appearance at their
accustomed hours, about whom her idle but able imagination wove wonderful
fantasies, enduing them with histories and environments as far removed from
fact as the drab dreams of the realists are from the picturesque
commonplaces of everyday.

And there were others who came once and never again, but whom she never
forgot. But for some of these last, indeed, she would never have remembered
some of the former. The brown-eyed youngster with the sentimental
expression and the funny little moustache, for example, lurked in the ruck
a long time before the one and only visit of a bird of passage dignified
him in the sight of the girl on the high stool.

On the occasion of his first appearance (but that was long ago, Sofia
couldn't remember how long) the slender young man with the soulful eyes and
the insignificant moustache had commended himself to her somewhat derisive
attention by seeming uncommonly exquisite for that atmosphere.

The Café des Exiles was little haunted by the world of fashion; its diner á
prix fixe (2/6), although excellent, surprisingly well done for the money,
did not much seduce the clientèle of the Carlton and the Ritz. Now and
again its remoteness, promising freedom from embarrassing encounters save
through unlikely mischance, would bring it the custom of a clandestine
couple from the West End, who would for a time make it an almost daily
rendezvous, meeting nervously, sitting if possible in the most shadowy
corner, the farthest from the door, and holding hands when they mistakenly
assumed that nobody was looking--until the affair languished or some
contretemps frightened them away.

Aside from such visitations, however, the great world coldly passed the
café by; although it couldn't complain for lack of patronage, and in fact
prospered exceedingly if without ostentation on the half-crowns of loyal
Soho and more fickle suburbia.

The Sohobohemian on its native heath and the City clerk on the loose,
however, were not prone to such vestments as young Mr.



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