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CHAPTER XXIV.


WHAT A QUESTION!


Struboff's inevitable discovery of my real name was a disaster; it delayed my operations for three days, since it filled his whole being with a sense of abasement and a hope of gain, thereby suspending for the time those emotions in him which had excited my curiosity. Clearly he had unstinted visions of lucrative patronage, dreams, probably, of a piece of coloured ribbon for his button-hole, and a right to try to induce people to call him "Chevalier." He made Coralie a present, handsome enough. I respected the conscientiousness of this act; my friendship was an unlooked-for profit, a bonus on the marriage, and he gave his wife her commission. But he seemed cased in steel against any confidence; he trembled as he poured me out a glass of wine. He had pictured me only as a desirable appendage to a gala performance; it is, of course, difficult to realize that the points at which people are important to us are not those at which they are important to themselves. However I made progress at last. The poor man's was a sad case; the sadder because only with constant effort could the onlooker keep its sadness disengaged from its absurdity, and remember that unattractiveness does not exclude misery. The wife in a marriage of interest is the spoiled child of romancers; scarcely any is rude enough to say, "Well, who put you there?" The husband in such a partnership gains less attention; at the most, he is allowed a subordinate share of the common stock of woe. The clean case for observation—he miserable, she miles away from any such poignancy of emotion—was presented by Coralie's consistency. It was not in her to make a bargain and pull grimaces when she was asked to fulfil it. True, she interpreted it in her own way. "I promised to marry you. Well, I have. How are you wronged, mon cher? But did I promise to speak to you, to like you? Mon Dieu! who promised, or would ever promise, to love you?" The mingled impatience and amusement of such questions expressed themselves in her neglect of him and in her yawns. Under his locket, and his paunch, and his layers, he burned with pain; Wetter was laying the blisters open to the air, that their sting might be sharper. At last, sorely beset, he divined a sympathy in me. He thought it disinterested, not perceiving that he had for me the fascination of a travesty of myself, and that in his marriage I enjoyed a burlesque presentiment of what mine would be. That point of view was my secret until Wetter's quick wit penetrated it; he worked days before he found out why I was drawn to the impresario; his discovery was hailed with a sudden laugh and a glance, but he put nothing into words. Both to him and to me the thing was richer for reticence; in the old phrase, the drapery enhanced the charms which it did not hide.

A day came when I asked the husband to luncheon with me. I sent Vohrenlorf away; we sat down together, Struboff swelling with pride, seeing himself telling the story in the wings, meditating the appearance and multiplication of paragraphs. I said not a word to discourage the visions; we talked of how Coralie should make fame and he money; he grew enthusiastic, guttural, and severe on the Steinberg. I ordered more Steinberg, and fished for more enthusiasm. I put my purse at his disposal; he dipped his fingers deep, with an anxious furtive eagerness. The loan was made, or at least pledged, before it flashed across my brain that the money was destined for Wetter—he wanted to pay off Wetter. We were nearing the desired ground.

"My dear M. Struboff," said I, "you must not allow yourself to be embarrassed. Great properties are slow to develop; but I have patience with my investments. Clear yourself of all claims. Money troubles fritter away, a man's brains, and you want yours."

He muttered something about temporary scarcity.

"It would be intolerable that madame should be bothered with such matters," I said.

He gulped down his Steinberg and gave a snort. The sound was eloquent, although not sweet. I filled his glass and handed him a cigar. He drank the wine, but laid the cigar on the table and rested his head on his hand.

"And women like to have money about," I pursued, looking at the veins on his forehead.

"I've squandered money on her," he said. "Good money."

"Yes, yes. One's love seeks every mode of expression. I'm sure she's grateful."

He raised his eyes and looked at me. I was smoking omposedly.

"Were you once in love with my wife?" he asked bluntly. His deference wore away under the corrosion of Steinberg and distress.

"Let us choose our words, my dear M. Struboff. Once I professed attachment to Mlle. Mansoni."

"She loved you?"

"It is discourteous not to accept any impression that a lady wishes to convey to you," I answered, smiling.

"Ah, you know her!" he cried, bringing his fist down on the table.

"Not the least in the world," I assured him. "Her beauty, her charm, her genius—yes, we all know those. But her soul! That's her husband's prerogative."

There was silence for a moment, during which he still looked at me, his thick eyelids half hiding the pathetic gaze of his little eyes.

"My life's a hell!" he said, and laid his head between his hands on the table. I saw a shudder in his fat shoulders.

"My dear M. Struboff," I murmured, as I rose and walked round to him. I did not like touching him, but I forced myself to pat his shoulder kindly. "Women take whims and fancies," said I, as I walked back to my seat.

He raised his head and set his chin between his fists.

"She took me for what she could get out of me," said he.

"Shall we be just? Didn't you look to get something out of her?"

"Yes. I married her for that," he answered. "But I'm a damned fool! I saw that she loathed me; it isn't hard to see. You see it; everybody sees it."

"And you fell in love with her? That was breakingthe bargain, wasn't it?" It crossed my mind that I might possibly break my bargain with Elsa. But the peril was remote.

"My God, it's maddening to be treated like a beast. Am I repulsive, am I loathsome?"

"What a question, my dear M. Struboff!"

"And I live with her. It is for all day and every day."

"Come, come, be reasonable. We're not lovesick boys."

"If I touch a piece of bread in giving it to her, she cuts herself another slice."

How I understood you in that, O dainty cruel Coralie!

"And that devil comes and laughs at me."

"He needn't come, if you don't wish it."

"Perhaps it's better than being alone with her," he groaned. "And she doesn't deceive me. Ah, I should like sometimes to say to her, 'Do what you like; amuse yourself, I shall not see. It wouldn't matter.' If she did that, she mightn't be so hard to me. You wonder that I say this, that I feel it like this? Well, I'm a man; I'm not a dog. I don't dirty people when I touch them."

I got up and walked to the hearthrug. I stood there with my back to him. He blew his nose loudly, then took the bottle; I heard the wine trickle in the glass and the sound of his noisy swallowing. There was a long silence. He struck a match and lit his cigar. Then he folded up the notes I had given him, and the clasp of his pocket-book clicked.

"I have to go with her to rehearsal," he said.

I turned round and walked toward him. His uneasy deference returned, he jumped up with a bow and an air of awkward embarrassment.

"Your Majesty is very good. Your Majesty pardons me? I have abused your Majesty's kindness. You understand, I have nobody to speak to."

"I understand very well, M. Struboff. I am very sorry. Be kind to her and she will change toward you."

He shook his head ponderously.

"She won't change," he said, and stood shuffling his feet as he waited to be dismissed. I gave him my hand. (O Coralie, you and your bread! I understood.)

"She'll get accustomed to you," I murmured, with a reminiscence of William Adolphus.

"I think she hates me more every day." He bowed over my hand, and backed out with clumsy ceremony.

I flung myself on the sofa. Was not the burlesque well conceived and deftly fashioned? True, I did not seem to myself much like Struboff. There was no comfort in that; Struboff did not seem to himself much like what he was. "Am I repulsive, am I loathsome?" he cried indignantly, and my diplomacy could answer only, "What a question, my dear M. Struboff!" If I cried out, asking whether I were so unattractive that my bride must shrink from me, a thousand shocked voices would answer in like manner, "Oh, sire, what a question!"

Later in the day I called on Coralie and found her alone. Speaking as though from my own observation, I taxed her roundly with her coldness to Struboff and with allowing him to perceive her distaste for him. I instanced the matter of the bread, declaring that I had noticed it when I breakfasted with them. Coralie began to laugh.

"Do I do that? Well, perhaps I do. You've felt his hand? It is not very pleasant. Yes, I think I do take another piece."

"He observes it."

"Oh, I think not. He doesn't care. Besides he must know. Have I pretended to care for him? Heavens, I'm no hypocrite. We knew very well what we wanted, he and I. We have each got it. But kisses weren't in the bargain."

"And you kiss nobody now?"

"No," she answered simply and without offence. "No. Wetter doesn't ask me, and you know I never felt love for him; if he did ask me, I wouldn't. These things are very troublesome. And you don't ask me."

"No, I don't, Coralie," said I, smiling.

"I might kiss you, perhaps."

"I have something to give too, have I?"

"No, that would be no use. I should make nothing out of you. And the rest is nonsense. No, I wouldn't kiss you, if you did ask."

"Perhaps Wetter will ask you now. I have lent your husband money, and he will pay Wetter off."

"Ah, perhaps he will then; he is curious, Wetter. But I shan't kiss him. I am very well as I am."

"Happy?"

"Yes; at least I should be, if it were not for Struboff. He annoys me very much. You know, it's like an ugly picture in the room, or a dog one hates. He doesn't say or do much, but he's there always. It frets me."

"Madame, my sympathy is extreme."

"Oh, your sympathy! You're laughing at me. I don't care. You're going to be married yourself."

"What you imply is not very reassuring."

"It's all a question of what one expects," she said with a shrug.

"My wife won't mind me touching her bread?" I asked anxiously.

"Oh, no, she won't mind that. You're not like that. Oh, no, it won't be in that way."

"I declare I'm much comforted."

"Indeed you needn't fear that. In some things all women are alike. You needn't fear anything of that sort. No woman could feel that about you."

"I grow happier every moment. I shouldn't have liked Elsa to cut herself another slice."

Coralie laughed, sniffed the roses I had brought, and laughed again, as she said:

"In fact I do. I remember it now. I didn't mean to be rude ; it came natural to do it; as if the piece had fallen on the floor, you know."

Evidently Struboff had analyzed his wife's feelings very correctly. I doubted both the use and the possibility of enlightening her as to his. Kisses were not in the bargain, she would say. After all, the desire for affection was something of an incongruity in Struboff, an alien weed trespassing on the ground meant for music and for money. I could hardly blame her for refusing to foster the intruder. I felt that I should be highly unjust if, later on, I laid any blame on Elsa for not satisfying a desire for affection should I chance to feel such a thing. And as to the bread Coralie had quite reassured me. I looked at her. She was smiling in quiet amusement. Evidently her fancy was tickled by the matter of the bread.

"You notice a thing like that," she said. "But he doesn't. Imagine his noticing it!"

"I can imagine it very well."

"Oh no, impossible. He has no sensibility. You laugh? Well, yes, perhaps it's lucky."

During the next two or three days I was engaged almost unintermittently with business which followed me from home, and had no opportunity of seeing more of my friends. I regretted this the less, because I seemed now to be possessed of the state of affairs. I resigned myself to the necessity of a speedy return to Forstadt. Already Bederhof was in despair at my absence, and excuses failed me. I could not tell him that to return to Forstadt was to begin the preparations for execution; a point at which hesitation must be forgiven in the condemned. But before I went I had a talk with Wetter.

He stormed Vohrenlorf's defences and burst into my room late one night.

"So we're going back, sire?" he cried. "Back to our work, back to harness?"

"You're going too?" I asked quietly.

He threw back his hair from his forehead.

"Yes, I too," he said. "Struboff has paid me off; I have played, I have won, I am rich, I desire to serve my country. You don't appear pleased, sire?"

"When you serve your country, I have to set about saving mine," said I dryly.

"Oh, you'll be glad of the distraction of public affairs," he sneered.

"Madame Mansoni-Struboff has not fulfilled my hopes of her. I thought you'd have no leisure for politics for a long while to come."

"The pupil of Hammerfeldt speaks to me," he said with a smile. "You would be right, very likely, but for the fact that madame has dismissed me."

"You use a conventional phrase?"

"Well then, she has—well, yes, I do use a conventional phrase."

"I shall congratulate M. Struboff on an increased tranquillity."

The evening was chilly, and I had a bit of fire. Wetter sat looking into it, hugging his knees and swaying his body to and fro, I stood on the hearth-rug by him.

"I have still time," he said suddenly. "I'm a young man. I can do something still."

"You can turn me out, you think?"

"I don't want to turn you out."

"Use me, perhaps?"

"Tame you, perhaps."

I looked down at him and I laughed.

"Why do you laugh?" he asked. "I thought I should have roused that sleeping dignity of yours."

"Oh, my friend," said I, "you will not tame me, and you will not do great things."

"Why not?" he asked, briefly and brusquely.

"You'll play again, you'll do some mad prank, some other woman will—let us stick to our phrase—will not dismiss you. When an irresistible force encounters an immovable object—— You know the old puzzle?"

"Interpret your parable, O King!"

"When a great brain is joined to an impossible temper—result?"

"The result is nothing," said he, taking a fresh grip of his knees.

"Even so, even so," I nodded.

"But I have done things," he persisted.

"Yes, and then undone them. My friend, you're a tragedy." And I lit a cigarette.

He sat where he was for a moment longer; then he sprang up with a loud laugh.

"A tragedy! A tragedy! If I make one, by Heaven the world is rich in them! Take Struboff for another. But your Majesty is wrong. I'm a farce."

"Yes, you're a bit of a farce," said I.

He laid his hand on my arm and looked full and long in my face.

"So you've made your study of us?" he asked. "Oh, I know why you came to Paris! Coralie, Struboff, myself—you have us all now?"

"Pretty well," said I. "To understand people is both useful and interesting; and to a man in my position it has the further attraction of being difficult."

"And you think Bederhof is too strong for me?"

"He is stupid and respectable. My dear Wetter, what chance have you?"

"There's a river in this town. Shall I jump in?"

"Heavens, no! You'd set it all a-hissing and a-boiling."

"To-night, sire, I thought of killing Struboff."

"Ah, yes, the pleasures of imagination! I often indulge in them."

"Then a bullet for myself."

"Of course ! And another impresario for Coralie! You must look ahead in such matters."

"It would have made a great sensation."

"Everywhere, except in the bosom of Coralie."

"Your cleverness robbed the world of that other sensation long ago. If I had killed you!"

"It would have been another—another impresario for my Princess."

"We shall meet at Forstadt? You'll ask me to the wedding?"

"Unless you have incurred Princess Heinrich's anger."

"I tell you I'm going to settle down."

"Never," said I.

"Be careful, sire. The revolver I bought for Struboff is in my pocket."

"Make me a present of it," I suggested.

He looked hard in my eyes, laughed a little, drew out a small revolver, and handed it to me.

"Struboff was never in great danger," he said.

"I was never much afraid for Struboff," said I. "Thanks for the revolver. You're not quibbling with me?"

"I don't understand."

"There's no river in this town; no institution called the Morgue?"

"Not a trace of such things. Do you know why not?"

"Because it's the king's pleasure," said I, smiling and holding out my hand to him.

"Because I'm a friend to a friend," he said, as he took my hand. Then without another word he turned and walked out quickly. I heard him speak to Vohrenlorf in the outer room, and laugh loudly as he ran down the stairs.

He had reminded me that I was a pupil of Hammerfeldt's. The reminder came home to me as a reproach. I had been forgetful of the Prince's lessons; I had allowed myself to fall into a habit of thought which led me to assume that my happiness or unhappiness was a relevant consideration in judging of the merits of the universe. The assumption is so common as to make us forget that so far from being proved it is not even plausible. I saw the absurdity of it at once, in the light of my recent discoveries. Was God shamed because Struboff was miserable, because Coralie was serenely selfish, because Wetter was tempestuous beyond rescue? I smiled at all these questions, and proceeded to the inference that the exquisite satisfaction of my own cravings was probably not an inherent part of the divine purpose. That is, if there were such a thing; and if there were not, the whole matter was so purely accidental as not to admit of any one consideration being in the least degree more or less relevant than another. "Willingly give thyself up to Clotho, allowing her to spin thy thread into whatever things she pleases." That was an extremely good maxim; but it would have been of no service to cast the pearl before Coralie's impresario. I would use it myself, though. I summoned Vohrenlorf.

"We have stayed here too long, Vohrenlorf," said I. "My presence is necessary in Forstadt. I must not appear wanting in interest in these preparations."

"Undoubtedly," said he, "they are very anxious for your Majesty's return."

"And I am very anxious to return. We'll go by the evening train to-morrow. Send word to Bederhof."

He seemed rather surprised and not very pleased, but promised to see that my orders were executed. I sat down in the chair in which Wetter had sat, and began again to console myself with my Stoic maxim. But there was a point at which I stuck. I recalled Coralie and her bread, and regarded Struboff not in the aspect of his own misery (which I had decided to be irrelevant), but in the light of Coralie's feelings. It seemed to me that the philosopher should have spared more consideration to this side of the matter. Had he reached such heights as to be indifferent not only to his own sufferings, but to being a cause of suffering to others? Perhaps Marcus Aurelius had attained to this; Coralie Mansoni, by the way, seemed most blessedly to have been born into it. To me it was a stone of stumbling. Pride came to me with insidious aid and admired while I talked of Clotho; but where was my ally when I pictured Elsa also making her surrender to the Fates? My ally then became my enemy. With a violent wrench I brought myself to the thought that neither was Elsa's happiness a relevant consideration. It would not do, I could not maintain the position. For Elsa was young, fresh, aspiring to happiness as a plant rears its head to the air. And our wedding was but a fortnight off.

"Am I repulsive, am I loathsome?"

"What a question, my dear M. Struboff!"

I had that snatch of talk in my head when I fell asleep.

The next day but one found me back at Forstadt. They had begun to decorate the streets.