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5: C'est la Vie

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Author Topic: 5: C'est la Vie  (Read 35 times)
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« on: March 16, 2023, 10:32:00 am »

"Les querelles ne dureraient pas longtemps si le tort n'était d'un côté."

Monsieur Alphonse Giraud, unlike many men, had an aim in life---a daily purpose with which he rose in the morning at, it must be admitted, a shockingly late hour---without which he rarely sought his couch even when it was not reached until the foolish birds were astir.

The son of the celebrated Baron Giraud sought, in a word, to be mistaken for an Englishman---and what higher ambition could we, who modestly set such store upon our nationality, desire him to cherish?

In view of this praiseworthy object, Alphonse Giraud wore a moustache only, and this---oh! inconsistency of great minds---he laboriously twirled heavenwards in the French fashion. It was, in fact, the guileless Alphonse's chief tribulation that, however industriously he cultivated that devil-may-care upward sweep, the sparse ornament to his upper lip invariably drooped downwards again before long.

In the sunny land of France it is held that the moustache worn "en croc" not only confers upon its possessor an air of distinction, but renders that happy individual particularly irresistible in the eyes of the fair. Readers of modern French fiction are aware that the heroes of those edifying tales invariably wear the moustache "hardiment retroussée," which habit doubtless adds a subtle charm to their singularly puerile and fatuous conversation imperceptible to the mere reader.

Alphonse Giraud was a small man, and would have given a thousand pounds for another inch, as he frankly told his friends. His outward garments were fashioned in London, whence also came his hats, gloves and boots. But within all these he was hopelessly and absolutely French. The English boots trod the pavement---they knew no other path in life---in a manner essentially Gallic. The check trousers, of a pattern somewhat loud and startling, had the mincing gait in them of any "pantalon de fantasie," purchased à prix fixe in the Boulevard St. Germain, across the water. It is useless to lift a Lincoln and Bennett from a little flat-topped head, cut, as they say, to the rat and fringed all over with black, upright hair.

But young Giraud held manfully to his purpose, and even essayed to copy the attitudes of his own groom, a thin-legged man from Streatham, who knew a thing or two, let him tell you, about a 'oss. There was no harm in Alphonse. There is, indeed, less harm in Frenchmen than they---sad dogs!---would have you believe. They are, as a rule, domesticated individuals, with a pretty turn for mixing a salad. Within the narrow but gay waistcoat of this son of Paris there beat as kind a little eager French heart as one may wish to deal with.

"Bon Dieu!" Alphonse would exclaim, when convinced that he had been robbed or cheated. "What will you? I am like that. I daresay the poor devil wanted the money badly---and I do not miss it."

There is a charity that gives, and another that allows the needy to take.

It was the Baron Giraud's great desire that Alphonse should be a gentleman of the great world, moving in his narrow orbit in the first circles of Parisian society, which was nothing to boast of in those days, and has steadily declined ever since. To attain such an eminence, the astute financier knew as well as any that only one thing was really necessary---namely, money. This he gave to his son with an open hand, and only gasped when he heard whither it went and how freely Alphonse spent it.

"There is plenty more," he said, "behind." And his little porcine eyes twinkled amid their yellow wrinkles. "I am a man of substance. You must be a man of position. But do not lend to the wrong people. Rather give to the right and be done with it. They will take it---bon Dieu! You need not shake your head. There is no man who will refuse money if you offer him enough."

And who shall say that the Baron Giraud was wrong?

A young man possessing a light heart and a heavy purse will never want a friend in this kind world of ours. And Alphonse Giraud possessed, moreover, a few of the better sort of friends, who had well-filled purses of their own, and wanted nothing from him but his gay laugh and good-fellowship. These were true friends, who did not scruple to tell him, when they encountered him in the Bois de Boulogne, afoot or on horseback, that while the right-hand side of his moustache was most successfully en croc, the other extremity of the ornament pointed earthwards. And, let it be remembered, that to tell a man of a defect in his personal appearance is always a doubtful kindness.

"Ah, heavens!" Alphonse would exclaim to these true comrades, "I have evil luck, and two minutes ago I bowed to the beautiful Comtesse de Peudechose in her buggy."

Alphonse affected the society of Englishmen, was a member of the clubs frequented by the sons of Albion resident in Paris, and sought the society of the young gentlemen of the Embassy. It was in the apartments of one of these that he made the acquaintance of Phillip Gayerson, a young fellow intended for the diplomatic service. Phillip Gayerson, be it known at once, was the brother of that Isabella Gayerson to whose hand, heart and estate the present chronicler was accredited by a fond father, and about whom, indeed, he had quarrelled with the author of his being.

The name of Dick Howard being at that time unknown to the little Frenchman, Alphonse Giraud made no mention of it to Gayerson, a self-absorbed man who had probably forgotten my existence at this time.

My countryman, as I afterwards learned, had come to Paris with the object of learning the language, which by reason of its subtlety lends itself most readily to diplomatic purposes, the most expressive language, to my thinking, that the world has yet evolved, not excepting the much-vaunted tongue in which Homer wrote. Phillip and I had been boys together, and of all the comrades of my youth I should have selected him the last to distinguish himself in statecraft. He was a quiet, unobservant, and, as previously noted, self-absorbed man, with a sense of the picturesque, which took the form of mediocre water-colour sketching. His appearance was in his favour, for he was visibly a gentleman; a man, moreover, of refined thought and habit, whom burly Norfolk squires dubbed effeminate.

Alphonse Giraud liked him---the world is sunny to those who look at it through sunny eyes---and took him up, as the saying goes, without hesitation. He procured for him an invitation to a semi-state ball, held, as some no doubt remember, in the autumn of 1869. It was Lucille de Clericy's first ball, and Giraud renewed there a childish friendship with one whose hair he confessed to have pulled in the unchivalrous days of his infancy.

Alphonse, who was of a frank nature, as are many of his countrymen, told Madame de Clericy, whom he escorted to the refreshment room after dancing with her daughter, that he loved Lucille.

"But my dear Alphonse," retorted that lady, "you had forgotten her existence until this evening."

This objection to his passion the lightsome Alphonse waived aside with a perfectly gloved little hand.

"But," he answered earnestly, "unknown to myself her vision must always have been here."

And he touched his shirt-front with the tips of his fingers gently, remembering the delicacy of his linen.

"It is an angel!" he added, with an upward glance of his bright little eyes, and tossed off a glass of champagne cup.

Madame de Clericy sipped her coffee slowly, and said nothing; but her eyes travelled downward from the crown of her companion's head to his dapper feet. And during that scrutiny there is little doubt that she reckoned the value of Monsieur Alphonse Giraud. What she saw was a pleasant spoken young man, plus twenty thousand pounds a year. No wonder the Vicomtesse smiled softly.

"And I," went on the Frenchman in half humorous humility, "what am I? Not clever, not handsome, not even tall!"

The lady shrugged her shoulders.

"C'est la vie," she said; a favourite reflection with her.

"Yes, and life and I are equal," replied Alphonse, with his gay laugh. "We are both short! And now I wish to present to you and to Lucille my best friend, Phillip Gayerson. He stands over there by the table, he in English clothes. He only arrived in Paris ten days ago, and speaks French indifferently. But he is charming, quite charming, my dearest friend."

"Did you know him before he came to Paris?"

"Oh, no! Excuse me. I will bring him."

Madame made no remark, but watched Giraud with her quiet smile as he went to seek this dear friend of eight days' standing.

Phillip Gayerson was distinguished by a slight shyness. It was as little known or understood in Paris in the decadent days of the Second Empire as it is now in the time of our own social collapse in England.

Thus, when the introduction was complete, Phillip Gayerson found that he had nothing to say to this elderly French lady, and was glad when Lucille came up, radiant on the arm of her partner. Alphonse presented his friend at once, and here Phillip felt more at his ease, being a better dancer than talker, and asked for the honour of a waltz without delay.

"I have but two left," answered Mademoiselle de Clericy, with a gay glance of happiness towards her mother. "They are at the end of the programme, and I promised to reserve them for Monsieur Howard."

She handed him her engagement card, in frank confirmation of this statement.

"R. H.," said Gayerson, deciphering the initials Lucille herself had scribbled. "If this is Dick Howard I will take the first of his two dances, and risk the consequence. It will not be the first time that Dick and I have fallen out." He wrote his name over mine, and returned the card to its owner.

"Then you know Mr. Howard?" said Lucille, with another glance at her mother.

"Yes," . . .  answered Gayerson, but had no time for more, for the next dance was Giraud's, who was already bowing before her, as before a deity.

Madame de Clericy made a little movement, as if to speak to Gayerson, but that young gentleman failed to see the gesture, and moved away to find his partner for the coming waltz.

With the great people gathered at this assembly we have nothing to do, though the writer and the reader, no doubt, love to rub elbows with such lofty persons, if it be only in a public room. Many of them, be it noted, were not nearly so important as they considered themselves, and the greatness of some was built upon a base too frail to withstand the storm and stress of the coming years.

Through the brilliant throng Lucille moved gaily and happily, taking, with the faith of youth, dross for gold, and a high head for the token of a noble heart. When Phillip Gayerson claimed his dance he found her a little tired, but still dazzled and excited by the brilliance of the occasion.

"Is it not splendid?" she exclaimed, taking his arm. "It is my first ball. I am sure I shall never be too old to dance, as mother says she is. Is it not absurd to say such a thing?"

Gayerson laughed, and as was his wont---a habit, indeed, with many shy men---came straight to the point.

"Do you know Dick Howard, then?" he asked.

"Yes, a little. Has he arrived? This is his dance, you know."

"I cannot tell you if he has arrived, Mademoiselle," answered the Englishman, in his halting French. "I know him at home---in Norfolk. I was not aware that he was in Paris. But he will not be here to-night."

"Why?"

"Because his father is dead."

Lucille said nothing. She obeyed the movements of his arm, and they danced, mingling with that gay throng, where the feet were lighter than the hearts, we may be sure. They went through the whole dance in silence, as Phillip afterwards told me---and he tried in vain to engage Lucille's full attention to matters of passing interest.

"We must find my mother," she said at length, when the music had ceased. "Mr. Howard does not know. He has been travelling in the South with my father. His letters have not been forwarded to him."

Phillip Gayerson guided his partner through the laughing throng.

"It will be bad news for Dick," he said, "for his father has left him penniless."

"I understood," observed Lucille, looking attentively at her bouquet, "that he was wealthy."

"No. He quarrelled with his father, who left him without a sou. But Howard knew it before he quitted England."

Lucille did not speak again until they had joined her mother, to whom she said something so hurriedly that Gayerson did not catch the import of her words.

At this moment I entered the room, and made my way towards them, feeling more fit for my bed than a ball-room, for I had travelled night and day to dance a waltz with Lucille. As I approached, Gayerson bowed to the ladies and took his departure.

"My dance, Mademoiselle," I said, "if you have been so kind as to remember it."

"Yes," answered Lucille, coldly as it seemed, "but I am tired, and we are going home."

I looked towards Madame, and saw something in her face, I knew not what.

"Your arm, mon ami," she said, lifting her hand; "we had better go home."
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