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   Chapter 24 COSETTE

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 17285

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Tom and Henry put up at the Grand Hotel, Paris. The idea was Tom's. He decried the hotel, its clients and its reputation, but he said that it had one advantage: when you were at the Grand Hotel you knew where you were. Tom, it appeared, had a studio and bedroom up in Montmartre. He postponed visiting this abode, however, until the morrow, partly because it would not be prepared for him, and partly in order to give Henry the full advantage of his society. They sat on the terrace of the Café de la Paix, after a very late dinner, and drank bock, and watched the nocturnal life of the boulevard, and talked. Henry gathered-not from any direct statement, but by inference-that Tom must have acquired a position in the art world of Paris. Tom mentioned the Salon as if the Salon were his pocket, and stated casually that there was work of his in the Luxembourg. Strange that the cosmopolitan quality of Tom's reputation-if, in comparison with Henry's, it might be called a reputation at all-roused the author's envy! He, too, wished to be famous in France, and to be at home in two capitals. Tom retired at what he considered an early hour-namely, midnight-the oceanic part of the journey having saddened him. Before they separated he borrowed a sovereign from Henry, and this simple monetary transaction had the singular effect of reducing Henry's envy.

The next morning Henry wished to begin a systematic course of the monuments of Paris and the artistic genius of the French nation. But Tom would not get up. At eleven o'clock Henry, armed with a map and the English talent for exploration, set forth alone to grasp the general outlines of the city, and came back successful at half-past one. At half-past two Tom was inclined to consider the question of getting up, and Henry strolled out again and lost himself between the Moulin Rouge and the Church of Sacré C?ur. It was turned four o'clock when he sighted the fa?ade of the hotel, and by that time Tom had not only arisen, but departed, leaving a message that he should be back at six o'clock. So Henry wandered up and down the boulevard, from the Madeleine to Marguéry's Restaurant, had an automatic tea at the Express-Bar, and continued to wander up and down the boulevard.

He felt that he could have wandered up and down the boulevard for ever.

And then night fell; and all along the boulevard, high on seventh storeys and low as the street names, there flashed and flickered and winked, in red and yellow and a most voluptuous purple, electric invitations to drink inspiriting liqueurs and to go and amuse yourself in places where the last word of amusement was spoken. There was one name, a name almost revered by the average healthy Englishman, which wrote itself magically on the dark blue sky in yellow, then extinguished itself and wrote itself anew in red, and so on tirelessly: that name was 'Folies-Bergère.' It gave birth to the most extraordinary sensations in Henry's breast. And other names, such as 'Casino de Paris,' 'Eldorado,' 'Scala,' glittered, with their guiding arrows of light, from bronze columns full in the middle of the street. And what with these devices, and the splendid glowing windows of the shops, and the enlarged photographs of surpassingly beautiful women which hung in heavy frames from almost every lamp-post, and the jollity of the slowly-moving crowds, and the incredible illustrations displayed on the newspaper kiosks, and the moon creeping up the velvet sky, and the thousands of little tables at which the jolly crowds halted to drink liquids coloured like the rainbow-what with all that, and what with the curious gay feeling in the air, Henry felt that possibly Berlin, or Boston, or even Timbuctoo, might be a suitable and proper place for an engaged young man, but that decidedly Paris was not.

At six o'clock there was no sign of Tom. He arrived at half-past seven, admitted that he was a little late, and said that a friend had given him tickets for the first performance of the new 'revue' at the Folies-Bergère, that night.

'And now, since we are alone, we can talk,' said Cosette, adding, 'Mon petit.'

'Yes,' Henry agreed.

'Dolbiac has told me you are very rich-une vogue épatante.... One would not say it.... But how your ears are pretty!' Cosette glanced admiringly at the lobe of his left ear.

('Anyhow,' Henry reflected, 'she would insist on me coming to Paris. I didn't want to come.')

They were alone, and yet not alone. They occupied a 'loge' in the crammed, gorgeous, noisy Folies-Bergère. But it resembled a box in an English theatre less than an old-fashioned family pew at the Great Queen Street Wesleyan Chapel. It was divided from other boxes and from the stalls and from the jostling promenade by white partitions scarcely as high as a walking-stick. There were four enamelled chairs in it, and Henry and Cosette were seated on two of them; the other two were empty. Tom had led Henry like a sheep to the box, where they were evidently expected by two excessively stylish young women, whom Tom had introduced to the overcome Henry as Loulou and Cosette, two artistes of the Théatre des Capucines. Loulou was short and fair and of a full habit, and spoke no English. Cosette was tall and slim and dark, and talked slowly, and with smiles, a language which was frequently a recognisable imitation of English. She had learnt it, she said, in Ireland, where she had been educated in a French convent. She had just finished a long engagement at the Capucines, and in a fortnight she was to commence at the Scala: this was an off-night for her. She protested a deep admiration for Tom.

Cosette and Loulou and Tom had held several colloquies, in incomprehensible French that raced like a mill-stream over a weir, with acquaintances who accosted them on the promenade or in the stalls, and at length Tom and Loulou had left the 'loge' for a few minutes in order to accept the hospitality of friends in the great hall at the back of the auditorium. The new 'revue' seemed to be the very last thing that they were interested in.

'Don't be afraid,' Tom, departing, had said to Henry. 'She won't eat you.'

'You leave me to take care of myself,' Henry had replied, lifting his chin.

Cosette transgressed the English code governing the externals of women in various particulars. And the principal result was to make the English code seem insular and antique. She had an extremely large white hat, with a very feathery feather in it, and some large white roses between the brim and her black hair. Her black hair was positively sable, and one single immense lock of it was drawn level across her forehead. With the large white hat she wore a low evening-dress, lace-covered, with loose sleeves to the elbow, and white gloves running up into the mystery of the sleeves. Round her neck was a tight string of pearls. The combination of the hat and the evening-dress startled Henry, but he saw in the theatre many other women similarly contemptuous of the English code, and came to the conclusion that, though queer and un-English, the French custom had its points. Cosette's complexion was even more audacious in its contempt of Henry's deepest English convictions. Her lips were most obviously painted, and her eyebrows had received some assistance, and once, in a manner absolutely ingenuous, she produced a little bag and gazed at herself in a little mirror, and patted her chin with a little puff, and then smiled happily at Henry. Yes, and Henry approved. He was forced to approve, forced to admit the artificial and decadent but indubitable charm of paint and powder. The contrast between Cosette's lips and her brilliant teeth was utterly bewitching.

She was not beautiful. In facial looks, she was simply not in the same class with Geraldine. And as to intellect, also, Geraldine was an easy first.

But in all other things, in the things that really mattered (such was the dim thought at the back of Henry's mind), she was to Geraldine what Geraldine was to Aunt Annie. Her gown was a miracle, her hat was another, and her coiffure a third. And when she removed a glove-her rings, and her finger-nails! And the glimpses of her shoes! She was so finished. And in the way of being frankly feminine, Geraldine might go to school to her. Geraldine had brains and did not hide them; Geraldine used the weapon of seriousness. But Cosette knew better than that. Cosette could surround you with a something, an emanation of all the woman in her, that was more efficient to enchant than the brains of a Georges Sand could have been.

And Paris, or that part of the city which constitutes

Paris for the average healthy Englishman, was an open book to this woman of twenty-four. Nothing was hid from her. Nothing startled her, nothing seemed unusual to her. Nothing shocked her except Henry's ignorance of all the most interesting things in the world.

'Well, what do you think of a French "revue," my son?' asked Tom when he returned with Loulou.

'Don't know,' said Henry, with his gibus tipped a little backward. 'Haven't seen it. We've been talking. The music's a fearful din.' He felt nearly as Parisian as Tom looked.

'Tiens!' Cosette twittered to Loulou, making a gesture towards Henry's ears. 'Regarde-moi ces oreilles. Sont jolies. Pas?'

And she brought her teeth together with a click that seemed to render somewhat doubtful Tom's assurance that she would not eat Henry.

Soon afterwards Tom and Henry left the auditorium, and Henry parted from Cosette with mingled sensations of regret and relief. He might never see her again. Geraldine....

But Tom did not emerge from the outer precincts of the vast music-hall without several more conversations with fellows-well-met, and when he and Henry reached the pavement, Cosette and Loulou happened to be just getting into a cab. Tom did not see them, but Henry and Cosette caught sight of each other. She beckoned to him.

'You come and take lunch with me to-morrow? Hein?' she almost whispered in that ear of his.

'Avec plaisir,' said Henry. He had studied French regularly for six years at school.

'Rue de Bruxelles, No. 3,' she instructed him. 'Noon.'

'I know it!' he exclaimed delightedly. He had, in fact, passed through the street during the day.

No one had ever told him before that his ears were pretty.

When, after parleying nervously with the concierge, he arrived at the second-floor of No. 3, Rue de Bruxelles, he heard violent high sounds of altercation through the door at which he was about to ring, and then the door opened, and a young woman, flushed and weeping, was sped out on to the landing, Cosette herself being the exterminator.

'Ah, mon ami!' said Cosette, seeing him. 'Enter then.'

She charmed him inwards and shut the door, breathing quickly.

'It is my domestique, my servant, who steals me,' she explained. 'Come and sit down in the salon. I will tell you.'

The salon was a little room about eight feet by ten, silkily furnished. Besides being the salon, it was clearly also the salle à manger, and when one person had sat down therein it was full. Cosette took Henry's hat and coat and umbrella and pressed him into a chair by the shoulders, and then gave him the full history of her unparalleled difficulties with the exterminated servant. She looked quite a different Cosette now from the Cosette of the previous evening. Her black hair was loose; her face pale, and her lips also a little pale; and she was draped from neck to feet in a crimson peignoir, very fluffy.

'And now I must buy the lunch,' she said. 'I must go myself. Excuse me.'

She disappeared into the adjoining room, the bedroom, and Henry could hear the fracas of silk and stuff. 'What do you eat for lunch?' she cried out.

'Anything,' Henry called in reply.

'Oh! Que les hommes sont bêtes!' she murmured, her voice seemingly lost in the folds of a dress. 'One must choose. Say.'

'Whatever you like,' said Henry.

'Rumsteak? Say.'

'Oh yes,' said Henry.

She reappeared in a plain black frock, with a reticule in her hand, and at the same moment a fox-terrier wandered in from somewhere.

'Mimisse!' she cried in ecstasy, snatching up the animal and kissing it. 'You want to go with your mamma? Yess. What do you think of my fox? She is real English. Elle est si gentille avec sa mère! Ma Mimisse! Ma petite fille! My little girl! Dites, mon ami'-she abandoned the dog-'have you some money for our lunch? Five francs?'

'That enough?' Henry asked, handing her the piece.

'Thank you,' she said. 'Viens, Mimisse.'

'You haven't put your hat on,' Henry informed her.

'Mais, mon pauvre ami, is it that you take me for a duchess? I come from the ouvriers, me, the working peoples. I avow it. Never can I do my shops in a hat. I should blush.'

And with a tremendous flutter, scamper, and chatter, Cosette and her fox departed, leaving Henry solitary to guard the flat.

He laughed to himself, at himself. 'Well,' he murmured, looking down into the court, 'I suppose--'

Cosette came back with a tin of sardines, a piece of steak, some French beans, two cakes of the kind called 'nuns,' a bunch of grapes, and a segment of Brie cheese. She put on an apron, and went into the kitchenlet, and began to cook, giving Henry instructions the while how to lay the table and where to find the things. Then she brought him the coffee-mill full of coffee, and told him to grind it.

The lunch seemed to be ready in about three minutes, and it was merely perfection. Such steak, such masterly handling of green vegetables, and such 'nuns!' And the wine!

There were three at table, Mimisse being the third. Mimisse partook of everything except wine.

'You see I am a woman pot-au-feu,' said Cosette, not without satisfaction, in response to his praises of the meal. He did not exactly know what a woman pot-au-feu might be, but he agreed enthusiastically that she was that sort of woman.

At the stage of coffee-Mimisse had a piece of sugar steeped in coffee-she produced cigarettes, and made him light his cigarette at hers, and put her elbows on the table and looked at his ears. She was still wearing the apron, which appeared to Henry to be an apron of ineffable grace.

'So you are fiancé, mon petit? Eh?' she said.

'Who told you?' Henry asked quickly. 'Tom?'

She nodded; then sighed. He was instructed to describe Geraldine in detail. Cosette sighed once more.

'Why do you sigh?' he demanded.

'Who knows?' she answered. 'Dites! English ladies are cold? Like that?' She affected the supercilious gestures of Englishwomen whom she had seen in the streets and elsewhere. 'No?'

'Perhaps,' Henry said.

'Frenchwomen are better? Yes? Dites-moi franchement. You think?'

'In some ways,' Henry agreed.

'You like Frenchwomen more than those cold Englishwomen who have no chic?'

'When I'm in Paris I do,' said Henry.

'Ah! Comme tous les Anglais!'

She rose, and just grazed his ear with her little finger. 'Va!' she said.

He felt that she was beyond anything in his previous experience.

A little later she told him she had to go to the Scala to sign her contract, and she issued an order that he was to take Mimisse out for a little exercise, and return for her in half an hour, when she would be dressed. So Henry went forth with Mimisse at the end of a strap.

In the Boulevard de Clichy who should accost him but Tom, whom he had left asleep as usual at the hotel!

'What dog is that?' Tom asked.

'Cosette's,' said Henry, unsuccessfully trying to assume a demeanour at once natural and tranquil.

'My young friend,' said Tom, 'I perceive that it will be necessary to look after you. I was just going to my studio, but I will accompany you in your divagations.'

They returned to the Rue de Bruxelles together. Cosette was dressed in all her afternoon splendour, for the undoing of theatrical managers. The r?le of woman pot-au-feu was finished for that day.

'I'm off to Monte Carlo to-morrow,' said Tom to her. 'I'm going to paint a portrait there. And Henry will come with me.'

'To Monte Carlo?' Henry gasped.

'To Monte Carlo.'

'But--'

'Do you suppose I'm going to leave you here?' Tom inquired. 'And you can't return to London yet.'

'No,' said Cosette thoughtfully, 'not London.'

They left her in the Boulevard de Strasbourg, and then Tom suggested a visit to the Luxembourg Gallery. It was true: a life-sized statue of Sappho, signed 'Dolbiac,' did in feet occupy a prominent place in the sculpture-room. Henry was impressed; so also was Tom, who explained to his young cousin all the beauties of the work.

'What else is there to see here?' Henry asked, when the stream of explanations had slackened.

'Oh, there's nothing much else,' said Tom dejectedly.

They came away. This was the beginning and the end of Henry's studies in the monuments of Paris.

At the hotel he found opportunity to be alone.

He wished to know exactly where he stood, and which way he was looking. It was certain that the day had been unlike any other day in his career.

'I suppose that's what they call Bohemia,' he exclaimed wistfully, solitary in his bedroom.

And then later:

'Jove! I've never written to Geraldine to-day!'

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