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What he is to-day, that was I in
mine--omnibus, scullion, valet-de-chambre, butt and scapegoat-in-general to
the establishment, scavenger of food that no one else would eat.... I
suffered there, at Troyon's."

"You, sir?" Karslake exclaimed in astonishment. "Whoever would have thought
that you ... How did you escape?"

"It occurred to me, one day, I was less than half alive and never would be
better while I stayed on in that servitude. So I walked out--into life."

"I wish you'd tell me, sir," Karslake ventured, eagerly.

"Some day, perhaps, when I get back. But now"--he looked at his
watch--"I've got just time enough to taxi to my hotel, pack, and catch the
boat train."

"Don't wait for me," Karslake suggested, signalling the waiter.

"Perhaps it would be as well if I didn't."

They shook hands, and the older man got up, secured his hat and stick, and
started out toward the door, moving leisurely, still looking about him with
the narrowed eyes and smile of reminiscence.

Of a sudden that look was abolished utterly. He had caught sight of Sofia.

Her interest had been so excited by the singular confidences she had
overheard that the girl had quite forgotten herself and her professional
pose of blank neutrality. She was bending forward a little, forearms
resting on the desk, frankly staring.

The man's stride checked, his smile faded, his eyes grew wide and cloudy
with bewilderment. For a moment Sofia thought him on the point of bowing,
as one might on unexpectedly encountering an acquaintance after many years:
there was that hint of impulse hindered by uncertainty. And in that moment
the girl was conscious of a singular sensation of breathlessness, as if
something impended whose issue might change all the courses of her life. A
feeling quite insane and unaccountable, to be sure; and nothing came of it
whatever. With a readiness so instant that the break in his walk must have
been imperceptible to anybody but Sofia, the man recollected himself,
composed his face, and proceeded to the door.

Confounded with inexplicable disappointment, Sofia sat unstirring.

In the open doorway the man turned and looked back, not at her, but at
Karslake, as if of half a mind to return and say something more to the
younger man. But he didn't.

He never came back.



III

THE AGONY COLUMN


Sofia dated from that afternoon the first stirrings of a discontent which
grew in her throughout the summer till everything related to her lot seemed
abominable in her sight.

Even without this subjective inquietude it would have been an unpleasant
summer. All the world was at sixes and sevens, the social unrest stirred up
by the war showed no signs of subsiding, but indeed, quite the contrary,
there was trouble in the very air--ominous portents of a storm whose dull,
grim growling down the horizon could be heard only too clearly by those who
did not wilfully close their ears, grin fatuous complacence, and bleat like
brainless sheep: "All's well!"

High-spirited youth and witless wealth a-lust for strange new pleasures
turned from the long strain of conflict to indulgence in endless orgies of
extravagance like nothing ever witnessed by a world long since surfeited
with contemplation of weird excesses: daily that wild dance of death
attained wilder stages of saturnalia, the bands blaring ever louder to
drown the mutter of savage elemental forces working underneath the crust.

And ever and anon a lull would fall and the world would shudder to the
iteration of a word that spelled calamity to all things fair and sweet and
lovable in life, the word _Bolshevism_....

In the Café des Exiles there was endless discord and strife.

For several reasons trade was not what it had been, even for the slack
season of summer it was poor. The cost of everything had gone up, waiters
were insubordinate and unreasonable in their demands, Mama Thérèse had been
constrained to increase the fixed price of the dinner, old customers took
umbrage at this and their patronage elsewhere.

Mama Thérèse cultivated a temper that grew day by day more vile, Papa
Dupont displayed new artfulness in the matter of sneaking his daily toll of
drink and showed it; the two squabbled incessantly.

One of the chefs, surmising the irregularity of their relations and
foreseeing an imminent break, sought to turn it to his own profit by making
amorous overtures to Mama Thérèse, who for reasons of her own, probably
hoping to make Papa Dupont jealous, encouraged the idiot. And, as if this
were not sickening enough, Papa Dupont, far from resenting this menace to
the pseudo-peace of the ménage, ignored if he did not welcome it, and daily
displayed new tenderness for Sofia. He kept near her as constantly as he
could, he would even interrupt a wrangle with Mama Thérèse to favour the
girl with a languishing glance or a term of endearment; he was forever
caressing her disgustingly with his eyes.

The swing door between the café and the pantry had warped on its hinges and
would not stay quite shut. Normally it stuck in a position which permitted
whoever was at the zinc an uninterrupted view of the desk of la dame du
comptoir. Instead of having it fixed, Papa Dupont put off that duty from
day to day and developed a fond attachment for the place at the zinc. For
hours on end Sofia, on her high stool, would be conscious of his gloating
regard, his glances that lingered on the sweet lines of her throat, the
roundness of her pretty arms.

She dared make no sign to show that she knew and resented, to do so would
be merely to draw upon herself the spite of Mama Thérèse.

But she simmered with indignation, and contemplated futile
plans--especially in the long, empty hours of the afternoon, between
luncheon and the hour of the apertifs--countless vain plans for abolishing
these intolerable conditions.

She thought a great deal of the strange man who had talked with young Mr.
Karslake, and wondered about him. Somehow she seemed unable to forget him;
never before had any one she didn't know made such a lasting impression
upon her imagination.

Sometimes she wasted time trying to explain to herself why the man had
seemed, for that brief instant, to think he knew her, only to dismiss such
speculations eventually with the assurance that she probably resembled in
moderate degree somebody whom he had once known.

But mostly she was preoccupied with pondering the strangeness of it, that
he who seemed so brilliant and brave a figure of the great world should,
according to his own confession, have risen from beginnings as lowly as her
own. All that he had suffered in the days of his youth, in that place in
Paris which he called Troyon's, Sofia had suffered here and in large part
continued to suffer without prospect of alleviation or hope of escape. And
remembering what he had said, that his own trials had come to an end only
when he awakened to the fact that he was, as he had put it, "less than half
alive" there at Troyon's, and had simply "walked out into life," she was
persuaded that the cure for her own discomfort and discontent would never
be found in any other way. But she lacked courage to adventure it.

To say "walk out and make an end of it" was all very well; but assuming
that she ever should muster up spirit enough to do it--what then? Which way
should she turn, once she had passed out through the doors? What could she
do? She had neither means nor friends, and she was much too thoroughly
conversant with the common way of the world with a woman alone to imagine
that, by taking her life in her own hands, she would accomplish much more
than exchange the irk of the frying pan for the fury of the fire.

All the same, she knew that she must one day do it and chance the
consequences. Things couldn't go on as they were.

And even granting that the outcome of any effort at self-assertion must be
unhappy, she grew impatient.

Meanwhile, she did nothing, she sat quietly on her perch, looked with stony
composure over the heads of the multitude, indifferent alike to admiration
and the uncharitable esteem of her own sex, and waited with a burning
heart.

Mr. Karslake ran true to form. He drifted in and out casually, always idle
and dégagé and elegant, he continued his irregular conferences with
ill-assorted companions, he worshipped discreetly and evidently without the
faintest hope, he seemed more than ever a trifling and immaterial creature.
Chance did not again lead him to the table where he had sat with the man
whom Sofia could not forget, and only the memory of that conversation held
any place for Karslake in the consideration of the girl.

Even at that she didn't consider him seriously, she looked for him and
missed him when he didn't appear solely because of a secret hope that some
day that other one would come back to meet him in the café.

Why she held fast to that hope Sofia could not have said.

Toward the middle of summer Mr. Karslake absented himself for several
weeks, and when he showed up again his visits were fewer and more widely
spaced.

On an afternoon late in August, a hot and weary day, he sauntered in with
his habitual air of having in particular nothing to do and all the time
there was to do it in, and found a man waiting for him.

This was a person whom Sofia had quite overlooked after one glance had
classified and pigeon-holed him. A single glance had been enough. They do
some things better in England; a man cast for any particular rôle in life,
for example, is apt to conform himself, mentally, physically, and even as
to his outer habiliments, so nicely to the mould that he is forever
unmistakably what he is even to the most casual observer. So this man was a
butler, he had been born and bred a butler, he lived by buttling, a butler
he would die; not a pompous, turkeycock butler, such as the American stage
will offer you when it takes up English fashionable life in a serious way,
but a mild-mannered, decent body, with plain side-whiskers, chopped short
on a line with the lobes of his ears, otherwise clean-shaven, his hair
pathetically dyed, a colourless cast of countenance, eyes meek and mild.

He was soberly dressed in black coat and waistcoat, the latter showing a
white triangle of hard-polished shirt and a black bow tie, with indefinite
gray trousers and square-toed boots by no means new.



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