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Our Library => Henry Seton Merriman - Dross (1899) => Topic started by: Admin on March 17, 2023, 03:18:30 am

Title: 8: In Paris
Post by: Admin on March 17, 2023, 03:18:30 am
"Le plus grand art d'un habile homme est celui de savior cacher son habileté."

It will be necessary to dwell to a certain extent on those events of the great world that left their mark on the obscure lives of which the present history treats. An old man may be excused for expressing his opinion---or rather his agreement with the opinions of greater minds---that our little existence here on earth is but part of a great scheme---that we are but pawns moved hither and thither on a vast chess-board, and that, while our vision is often obscured by some knight or bishop or king, whose neighbourhood overshadows us, yet our presence may affect the greater moves as certainly as we are affected by them.

I first became aware of the fact that my existence was amenable to every political wind that might blow a week or so after Lucille went to La Pauline, without, indeed, vouchsafing an explanation of her sudden coldness.

In my study I was one evening smoking, and, I admit it, thinking of Lucille---thinking very practically, however. For I was reflecting with satisfaction over some small improvements I had effected---with a Norfolk energy which, no doubt, gave offence to some---during the short time that the Vicomte and I had passed in the Provençal chateau. I had the pleasant conviction that Lucille's health could, at all events, come to no harm from a residence in one of the oldest castles in France. No very lover-like reflections, the high-flown will cry. So be it. Each must love in his own way. "Air and water---air and water!" the Vicomte had cried when he saw the men at work under my directions. "You Englishmen are mad on the subject."

While I was engaged in these thoughts the old gentleman came to my room, and in the next few minutes made known to me a new and unsuspected side of his character. His manner was singularly alert. He seemed to be years younger.

"I said I should want a man at my side---young and strong," he began, seating himself. "Let us understand each other, Mr. Howard."

"By all means."

He gave a little laugh, and leaning forward took a quill pen from my writing-table, disliking idle fingers while he talked.

"That time has come, my friend. Do you mean to stand by me?"


"You are a man of few words," he answered, looking at me with a new keenness which sat strangely on his benign features. "But I want no more. The government has fallen---the doctors say the Emperor's life is not worth that!"

And he snapped his finger and thumb, glancing at the clock. It was eight o'clock. We had dined at half-past six.

"Can you come with me now? I want to show you the state of Paris---the condition of the people, the way of their thoughts. One cannot know too much of the . . . people---for they will some day rule the world."

"And rule it devilish badly," I added, putting my papers together.

"We shall be late in returning," the Vicomte said to the servant who held the carriage door. I had heard---through my thoughts---the stamping of the horses in the courtyard and the rattle of the harness, but took no great note of them, as the Vicomte had the habit of going out in the evening. I noticed we never crossed the river during our silent drive. A river has two sides, just as a street, and one of them is usually in the shade. It was among the shadows that our business lay this evening.

"You know," said the Vicomte, as we climbed the narrow staircase of a quiet house in the neighbourhood of the great wine stores that adjoin the Jardin des Plantes---"you know that this is the day of the talkers---the Rocheforts, the Pyats---the windbags. Mon Dieu, what nonsense! But a windbag may burst and do harm. One must watch these gentry."

Republicanism was indeed in the air at this time. And has not history demonstrated that those who cry loudest for a commonwealth are such as wish to draw from that wealth and add nothing to it? The reddest Republican is always the man who has nothing to lose and all to gain by a social upheaval.

I was not surprised, therefore, when we found ourselves in a room full of bad hats and unkempt heads. A voice was shouting their requirements. I knew that they wanted a wash more than anything else.

The room was a large, low one, and looked larger through an atmosphere blue with smoke and the fumes of absinthe. The Vicomte---a little man, as I have said---slipped in unperceived. I was less fortunate, being of a higher stature. I saw that my advent did not pass unobserved on the platform, where a party of patriots sat in a row, like the Christy Minstrels, showing the soles of their boots to all whom it might concern. In this case a working cobbler would have been deeply interested, as in a vast field of labour. The Vicomte slipped a few yards away from me, and the shoulders of his fellow-countrymen obscured him. I could find no such retreat, for your true Socialist never has much to recommend him to the notice of society, being usually a poor, mean man to look at, who seeks to add a cubit to his stature by encouraging the growth of his hair.

One such stood on the platform, mouthing the bloodthirsty periods of his creed. He caught sight of me.

"Ah!" he cried, "here is a new disciple. And a hardy one! Un grand gaillard, my brethren, who can strike a solid blow for liberty, equality and fraternity. Say, brother, you are with us; is it not so?"

"If you open the casements, not otherwise," I answered. The French crowd is ever ready for blood or laughter. I have seen the Republic completely set in the background by a cat looking in a window and giving voice to the one word assigned to it by nature. Some laughed now, and the orator deemed it wise to leave me in peace. I took advantage of my obscurity to look around me, and was duly edified by what I saw. The Paris vaurien is worth less than any man on earth, and these were choice specimens from the gutter.

We were wasting our time in such a galley, and as I thus reflected a note was slipped into my hand.

"Follow me, but not at once." I read and hid the paper in my pocket. Without staring about me too much, I watched the Vicomte make his way towards a door half hidden by a dirty curtain---another to that by which we had entered. Thither I followed him after a decent interval---no one molesting me. One of the patriots on the platform seemed to watch me with understanding, and when I reached the curtained doorway, my glance meeting his, he dismissed me with his eyelids.

I found myself in a dark passage, and with his gentle laugh the Vicomte took my arm.

"All that out there," he whispered, "is a mere blind. It is in the inner room that they act. Out there they merely talk. Come with me. Gently---there are two steps---my dear Howard. These are the men---he paused with his fingers on the handle of a door---who will rule France when the Emperor is dead or deposed."

With that we entered, and those assembled---some sitting at a table, others standing about the room---saluted the Vicomte de Clericy almost as a leader. Some of the faces I knew---indeed, they are to be found in the illustrated histories of France. The thoughts of others were known to me, for many were journalists of repute---men of advanced views and fiery pens. Perhaps, after all, I knew as little of the Vicomte de Clericy as of any man there. For he seemed to have laid aside that pleasant and garrulous senility which had awakened my dull conscience.

Although he did not deliver a speech during the proceedings, as did some, his attitude was rather that of a leader than of a mere on-looker. Here was no mere watching, thought I. My patron was known to all, and went from group to group talking in the ear of many. There was, indeed, much talking as I have always found in the world, and but little listening. The Vicomte introduced me to some of his friends.

"Mr. Howard," he said, "an English gentleman who is kind enough to act as my secretary. Mr. Howard is too wise to trouble himself with politics."

And I thought some of them had a queer way of looking at me.

"A deceiver or a dupe?" I heard one ask another, trusting too far the proverbial dulness of British ears.

The topic of the evening was, of course, the fall of the ministry---a matter of great moment at that time, and, it may be, through all the ages---though a recital of its possible effects would be but dull reading to-day. When a chain is riven, the casual on-looker takes but small interest in the history of each link. This event of December, 1869, was in truth an important link in the chain of strange events that go to make up the history of the shortest and most marvellous of the great dynasties of the world.

I stood among those politicians and wondered what the greatest of their race at that time living thought of these matters in the Tuileries Palace hard by. I could picture him sitting, as was his wont---a grave man with a keen sense of humour---with his head a little on one side, his large, still face drawn and pale---the evidence of his malady around his dull eyes. Was the game played out? The greatest since that so gloriously won---so miserably lost at length---by his uncle. The Bonapartes were no common men---and it was no common blood that trickled unstanched ten years later into the sand of the African veldt, leaving the world the poorer of one of its greatest races.

I gathered that the fall of the ministry was no great surprise to these men assembled in this inner room. They formed, so far as I could discover, a sort of administration---a committee which gathered the opinions of the more intelligent citizens of the larger towns of France---a head-centre of news and public thought. Their meeting place was furnished without ostentation, and in excellent taste.

These were no mere adventurers, but men of position and wealth, who had somewhat to lose and every desire to retain the same. They did not rave of patriotism, nor was there any cant of equality and fraternity. It seemed rather that, finding themselves placed in stirring times, they deemed it wise to guide by some means or other the course of events into such channels as might ensure safety to themselves and their possessions. And who can blame them for such foresight? Patriots are, according to my experience, men who look for a substantial quid pro quo. They serve their country with the view of making their country serve them.

Whatever the usual deliberations of the body among whom I found myself might be, the all-absorbing topic of the evening set all else aside.

"We approach the moment," cried one, a young man with a lisping intonation and great possessions, as I afterwards learnt. "Now is the time for all to do as I have done. I have sent everything out of the country. I and my sword remain for France."

He spoke truly. He and his sword now lie side by side---in French soil.

"Let all do the same," growled an old man, with eyes flashing beneath his great white brows.

"All who know," suggested one, significantly. Whereupon arose a great discussion, and many names were uttered that were familiar to me---among others, indeed, that of my friend, John Turner. I noticed that many laughed when his name was mentioned.

"Oh!" they cried. "You may leave John Turner to care for his own affairs. Il est fin celui-là."

Again a familiar name fell on my ears, and this was received with groans and derisive laughter. It was that of the Baron Giraud. I gathered that there was question of warning certain financiers and rich persons outside of this circle of some danger known only to the initiated. Indeed, the wealthy were sending their money out of the country as fast and as secretly as possible.

"No, no," cried the young man I have mentioned; "the Baron Giraud---a fine Baron, heaven knows!---has risen with the Empire---nor has he been over-scrupulous as to whom he trod underfoot. With the Empire he must fall."

And one and all fell to abusing the Baron Giraud. He was a thief, and a despoiler of the widow and orphan. His wealth had been acquired not honestly, but at the expense,---nay, at the ruin---of others. He was an unwholesome growth of a mushroom age---a bad man, whose god was gold and gain his only ambition.

"If such men are to grow in France and govern her, then woe to France," cried one prophetic voice.

Indeed, if half we heard was true of the Baron Giraud, he must have been a fine scoundrel, and I had little compunction in agreeing that he deserved no consideration at the hands of honest men. The cooler heads deemed it wise to withhold from the Baron certain details of the public feeling, not out of spite, but because such knowledge could not be trusted in notoriously unscrupulous hands. He would but turn it to money.

For the greater safety, all present bound themselves upon honour not to reveal the result of their deliberations to certain named persons, and the Baron Giraud had the privilege of heading this list. I was surprised that no form of mutual faith was observed. These men seemed to trust each other without so much as a word---and indeed, what stronger tie can men have than the common gain?

"We are not conspirators," said one to me. "Our movements are known."

And he nodded his head in the direction of the Tuileries. I made no doubt that all, indeed, was known in that quarter, but the fatalist who planned and schemed there would meet these men the next day with his gentle smile, betraying nothing.

As my interest became aroused by these proceedings, I became aware of the Vicomte's close scrutiny. It seemed that he was watching me---noting the effect of every speech and word.

"You were interested," he said, casually, as we drove home smoking our cigars.


He looked out of the carriage window for some time, and then, turning, he laid his hand on my knee.

"And it is not a game," he said, with his little laugh, which somehow sounded quite different—less senile, less helpless. "It is not a game, my friend!"