by Robert W. Chambers
About five o'clock that afternoon, the little sad-eyed woman who fills the position of concierge at the Hôtel du Sénat held up her hands in amazement to see a wagon-load of flower-bearing shrubs draw up before the doorway. She called Joseph, the intemperate garçon, who, while calculating the value of the flowers in petits verres, gloomily disclaimed any knowledge as to their destination.
"Voyons," said the little concierge, "cherchons la femme!"
"You?" he suggested.
The little woman stood a moment pensive and then sighed. Joseph caressed his nose, a nose which for gaudiness could vie with any floral display.
Then the gardener came in, hat in hand, and a few minutes later Selby stood in the middle of his room, his coat off, his shirt-sleeves rolled up. The chamber originally contained, besides the furniture, about two square feet of walking room, and now this was occupied by a cactus. The bed groaned under crates of pansies, lilies and heliotrope, the lounge was covered with hyacinths and tulips, and the washstand supported a species of young tree warranted to bear flowers at some time or other.
Clifford came in a little later, fell over a box of sweet peas, swore a little, apologized, and then, as the full splendour of the floral fête burst upon him, sat down in astonishment upon a geranium. The geranium was a wreck, but Selby said, "Don't mind," and glared at the cactus.
"Are you going to give a ball?" demanded Clifford.
"N—no,—I'm very fond of flowers," said Selby, but the statement lacked enthusiasm.
"I should imagine so." Then, after a silence, "That's a fine cactus."
Selby contemplated the cactus, touched it with the air of a connoisseur, and pricked his thumb.
Clifford poked a pansy with his stick. Then Joseph came in with the bill, announcing the sum total in a loud voice, partly to impress Clifford, partly to intimidate Selby into disgorging a pourboire which he would share, if he chose, with the gardener. Clifford tried to pretend that he had not heard, while Selby paid bill and tribute without a murmur. Then he lounged back into the room with an attempt at indifference which failed entirely when he tore his trousers on the cactus.
Clifford made some commonplace remark, lighted a cigarette and looked out of the window to give Selby a chance. Selby tried to take it, but getting as far as—"Yes, spring is here at last," froze solid. He looked at the back of Clifford's head. It expressed volumes. Those little perked-up ears seemed tingling with suppressed glee. He made a desperate effort to master the situation, and jumped up to reach for some Russian cigarettes as an incentive to conversation, but was foiled by the cactus, to whom again he fell a prey. The last straw was added.
"Damn the cactus." This observation was wrung from Selby against his will,—against his own instinct of self-preservation, but the thorns on the cactus were long and sharp, and at their repeated prick his pent-up wrath escaped. It was too late now; it was done, and Clifford had wheeled around.
"See here, Selby, why the deuce did you buy those flowers?"
"I'm fond of them," said Selby.
"What are you going to do with them? You can't sleep here."
"I could, if you'd help me take the pansies off the bed."
"Where can you put them?"
"Couldn't I give them to the concierge?"
As soon as he said it he regretted it. What in Heaven's name would Clifford think of him! He had heard the amount of the bill. Would he believe that he had invested in these luxuries as a timid declaration to his concierge? And would the Latin Quarter comment upon it in their own brutal fashion? He dreaded ridicule and he knew Clifford's reputation.
Then somebody knocked.
Selby looked at Clifford with a hunted expression which touched that young man's heart. It was a confession and at the same time a supplication. Clifford jumped up, threaded his way through the floral labyrinth, and putting an eye to the crack of the door, said, "Who the devil is it?"
This graceful style of reception is indigenous to the Quarter.
"It's Elliott," he said, looking back, "and Rowden too, and their bulldogs." Then he addressed them through the crack.
"Sit down on the stairs; Selby and I are coming out directly."
Discretion is a virtue. The Latin Quarter possesses few, and discretion seldom figures on the list. They sat down and began to whistle.
Presently Rowden called out, "I smell flowers. They feast within!"
"You ought to know Selby better than that," growled Clifford behind the door, while the other hurriedly exchanged his torn trousers for others.
"We know Selby," said Elliott with emphasis.
"Yes," said Rowden, "he gives receptions with floral decorations and invites Clifford, while we sit on the stairs."
"Yes, while the youth and beauty of the Quarter revel," suggested Rowden; then, with sudden misgiving; "Is Odette there?"
"See here," demanded Elliott, "is Colette there?"
Then he raised his voice in a plaintive howl, "Are you there, Colette, while I'm kicking my heels on these tiles?"
"Clifford is capable of anything," said Rowden; "his nature is soured since Rue Barrée sat on him."
Elliott raised his voice: "I say, you fellows, we saw some flowers carried into Rue Barrée's house at noon."
"Posies and roses," specified Rowden.
"Probably for her," added Elliott, caressing his bulldog.
Clifford turned with sudden suspicion upon Selby. The latter hummed a tune, selected a pair of gloves and, choosing a dozen cigarettes, placed them in a case. Then walking over to the cactus, he deliberately detached a blossom, drew it through his buttonhole, and picking up hat and stick, smiled upon Clifford, at which the latter was mightily troubled.
for Part IV of