The slave of the lamp, p.3
The Slave of the Lamp,
IN THE RUE ST. GINGOLPHE
It was, not so many years ago, called the Rue de l'Empire, butrepublics are proverbially sensitive. Once they are established theybecome morbidly desirous of obliterating a past wherein no republicflourished. The street is therefore dedicated to St. Gingolphe to-day.To-morrow? Who can tell?
It is presumably safe to take it for granted that you are located in theneighbourhood of the Louvre, on the north side of the river which is sounimportant a factor to Paris. For all good Englishmen have been, orhope in the near future to be, located near this spot. All goodAmericans, we are told, relegate the sojourn to a more distant future.
The bridge to cross is that of the Holy Fathers. So called to-day. Onceupon a time--but no matter. Bridges are peculiarly liable to change introubled times. The Rue St. Gingolphe is situated between the BoulevardSt. Germain and Quai Voltaire. One hears with equal facility thelow-toned boom of the steamers' whistle upon the river, and the crack ofwhips in the boulevard. Once across the bridge, turn to the right, andgo along the Quay, between the lime-trees and the bookstalls. You willprobably go slowly because of the bookstalls. No one worth talking tocould help doing so. Then turn to the left, and after a few paces youwill find upon your right hand the Rue St. Gingolphe. It is noted in theDirectory "Botot" that this street is one hundred and forty-five metreslong; and who would care to contradict "Botot," or even to throw thefaintest shadow of a doubt upon his statement? He has probably measured.
If your fair and economical spouse should think of repairing to theBon-Marche to secure some of those wonderful linen pillow-cases (at onefranc forty) with your august initial embroidered on the centre with aview of impressing the sleeper's cheek, she will pass the end of the RueSt. Gingolphe on her way--provided the cabman be honest. There! Youcannot help finding it now.
The street itself is a typical Parisian street of one hundred andforty-five metres. There is room for a baker's, a cafe, a bootmaker's,and a tobacconist who sells very few stamps. The Parisians do not writemany letters. They say they have not time. But the tobacconist makes upfor the meanness of his contribution to the inland revenue of onedepartment by a generous aid to the other. He sells a vast number ofcigarettes and cigars of the very worst quality. And it is upon theworst quality that the Government makes the largest profit. It is inevery sense of the word a weed which grows as lustily as any of itscompeers in and around Oran, Algiers, and Bonah.
The Rue St. Gingolphe is within a stone's-throw of the Ecole desBeaux-Arts, and in the very centre of a remarkably cheap and yetrespectable quarter. Thus there are many young men occupying apartmentsin close proximity--and young men do not mind much what they smoke,especially provincial young men living in Paris. They feel it incumbentupon them to be constantly smoking something--just to show that they areParisians, true sons of the pavement, knowing how to live. And theirbrightest hopes are in all truth realised, because theirs is certainly areckless life, flavoured as it is with "number one" tobacco, and those"little corporal" cigarettes which are enveloped in the blue paper.
The tobacconist's shop is singularly convenient. It has, namely, anentrance at the back, as well as that giving on to the street of St.Gingolphe. This entrance is through a little courtyard, in which is thestable and coach-house combined, where Madame Perinere, a lady whopaints the magic word "Modes" beneath her name on the door-post ofnumber seventeen, keeps the dapper little cart and pony which carry herbonnets to the farthest corner of Paris.
The tobacconist is a large man, much given to perspiration. In fact, onemay safely make the statement that he perspires annually from the middleof April to the second or even third week in October. In consequence ofthis habit he wears no collar, and a man without a collar does not startfairly on the social race. It is always best to make inquiries beforecondemning a man who wears no collar. There is probably a very goodreason, as in the case of Mr. Jacquetot, but it is to be feared that fewpause to seek it. One need not seek the reason with much assiduity inthis instance, because the tobacconist of the Rue St. Gingolphe isalways prepared to explain it at length. French people are thus. Theytalk of things, and take pleasure in so doing, which we, on this side ofthe Channel, treat with a larger discretion.
Mr. Jacquetot does not even wear a collar on Sunday, for the simplereason that Sunday is to him as other days. He attends no place ofworship, because he acknowledges but one god--the god of mostFrenchmen--his inner man. His pleasures are gastronomical, his sorrowsstomachic. The little shop is open early and late, Sundays, week-days,and holidays. Moreover, the tobacconist--Mr. Jacquetot himself--isalways at his post, on the high chair behind the counter, near thewindow, where he can see into the street. This constant attention tobusiness is almost phenomenal, because Frenchmen who worship the god ofMr. Jacquetot love to pay tribute on fete-days at one of the littlerestaurants on the Place at Versailles, at Duval's, or even in thePalais Royal. Mr. Jacquetot would have loved nothing better than apilgrimage to any one of these shrines, but he was tied to the littletobacco store. Not by the chains of commerce. Oh, no! When rallied byhis neighbours for such an unenterprising love of his own hearth, hemerely shrugged his heavy shoulders.
"What will you?" he would say; "one has one's affairs."
Now the affairs of Mr. Jacquetot were, in the days with which we have todo, like many things on this earth, inasmuch as they were not what theyseemed.
It would be inexpedient, for reasons closely connected with thetobacconist of the Rue St. Gingolphe, as well as with other gentlemenstill happily with us in the flesh, to be too exact as to dates. Sufficeit, therefore, to say that it was only a few years ago that Mr.Jacquetot sat one evening as usual in his little shop. It happened to bea Tuesday evening, which is fortunate, because it was on Tuesdays andSaturdays that the little barber from round the corner called and shavedthe vast cheeks of the tobacconist. Mr. Jacquetot was therefore quitepresentable--doubly so, indeed, because it was yet March, and he had notyet entered upon his summer season.
The little street was very quiet. There was no through traffic, andfolks living in this quarter of Paris usually carry their own parcels.It was thus quite easy to note the approach of any passenger, when suchhad once turned the corner. Some one was approaching now, and Mr.Jacquetot threw away the stump of a cheap cigar. One would almost havesaid that he recognised the step at a considerable distance. Youngpeople are in the habit of considering that when one gets old and stoutone loses in intelligence; but this is not always the case. One is aptto expect little from a fat man; but that is often a mistake. Mr.Jacquetot weighed seventeen stone, but he was eminently intelligent. Hehad recognised the footstep while it was yet seventy metres away.
In a few moments a gentleman of middle height paused in front of theshop, noted that it was a tobacconist's, and entered, carrying anunstamped letter with some ostentation. It must, by the way, beremembered that in France postage-stamps are to be bought at alltobacconists'.
The new-comer's actions were characterised by a certain carelessness, asif he were going through a formula--perfunctorily--without admitting itsnecessity.
He nodded to Mr. Jacquetot, and rather a pleasant smile flickered for amoment across his face. He was a singularly well-made man, of mediumheight, with straight, square shoulders and small limbs. He worespectacles, and as he looked at one straight in the face there was asingular contraction of the eyes which hardly amounted to acast--moreover, it was momentary. It was precisely the look of a hawkwhen its hood is suddenly removed in full daylight. This resemblance wasfurthered by the fact that the man's profile was birdlike. He wasclean-shaven, and there was in his sleek head and determined little facethat smooth, compact self-complacency which is to be noted in the headof a hawk.
The face was small, like that of a Greek bust, but in expression itsuggested a yet older people. There was that mystic depth of expressionwhich comes from ancient Egypt. No one feature was obtrusive--all werechiselled with equal delicacy; and yet there was only one point of realbeauty
It was probably the form of the lips that lent pleasantness to the smilewith which Mr. Jacquetot was greeted, rather than the expression of thevelvety eyes, which had in reality no power of smiling at all. They weresad eyes, like those of the women one sees on the banks of the UpperNile, which never alter in expression--eyes that do not seem to be busywith this life at all, but fully occupied with something else: somethingbeyond to-morrow or behind yesterday.
"Not yet arrived?" inquired the new-comer in a voice of somedistinction. It was a full, rich voice, and the French it spoke was notthe French of Mr. Jacquetot, nor, indeed, of the Rue St. Gingolphe. Itwas the language one sometimes hears in an old _chateau_ lost inthe depths of the country--the vast unexplored rural districts ofFrance--where the bearers of dangerously historical names live out theirlives with a singular suppression and patience. They are either bidingtheir time or else they are content with the past and the part played bytheir ancestors therein. For there is an old French and a new. In Paristhe new is spoken--the very newest. Were it anything but French it wouldbe intolerably vulgar; as it is, it is merely neat and intenselyexpressive.
"Not yet arrived, sir," said the tobacconist, and then he seemed torecollect himself, for he repeated:
"Not yet arrived," without the respectful addition which had slipped outby accident.
The new arrival took out his watch--a small one of beautifulworkmanship, the watch of a lady--and consulted it. His movements werecompact and rapid. He would have made a splendid light-weight boxer.
"That," he said shortly, "is the way they fail. They do not understandthe necessity of exactitude. The people--see you, Mr. Jacquetot, theyfail because they have no exactitude."
"But I am of the people," moving ponderously on his chair.
"Essentially so. I know it, my friend. But I have taught you something."
The tobacconist laughed.
"I suppose so. But is it safe to stand there in the full day? Will younot pass in? The room is ready; the lamp is lighted. There is an agentof the police always at the end of the street now."
"Ah, bah!" and he shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. "I am notafraid of them. There is only one thing to be feared, CitizenJacquetot--the press. The press and the people, _bien entendu_."
"If you despise the people why do you use them?" asked Jacquetotabruptly.
"In default of better, my friend. If one has not steam one uses theriver to turn the mill-wheel. The river is slow; sometimes it is tooweak, sometimes too strong. One never has full control over it, but itturns the wheel--it turns the wheel, brother Jacquetot."
"And eventually sweeps away the miller," suggested the tobacconistlightly. It must be remembered that though stout he was intelligent. Hadhe not been so it is probable that this conversation would never havetaken place. The dark-eyed man did not look like one who would have thepatience to deal with stupid people.
Again the pleasant smile flickered like the light of a fire in a darkplace.
"That," was the reply, "is the affair of the miller."
"But," conceded Jacquetot, meditatively selecting a new cigar from a boxwhich he had reached without moving from his chair, "but thepeople--they are fools, hein!"
"Ah!" with a protesting shrug, as if deprecating the enunciation of sucha platitude.
Then he passed through into a little room behind the shop--a little roomwhere no daylight penetrated, because there was no window to it. Itdepended for daylight upon the shop, with which it communicated by adoor of which the upper half was glass. But this glass was thicklycurtained with the material called Turkey-red, threefold.
And the tobacconist was left alone in his shop, smoking gravely. Thereare some people like oysters, inasmuch as they leave an after-tastebehind them. The man who had just gone into the little room at the rearof the tobacconist's shop of the Rue St. Gingolphe in Paris was one ofthese. And the taste he left behind him was rather disquieting. One wasapt to feel that there was a mistake somewhere in the ordering of humanaffairs, and that this man was one of its victims.
In a few minutes two men passed hastily through the shop into the littleroom, with scarcely so much as a nod for Mr. Jacquetot.
The Slave of the Lamp by Henry Seton Merriman / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes