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   Chapter 1 THE FORTUNE TELLER

A Son of the Immortals By Louis Tracy Characters: 27357

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


On a day in May, not so long ago, Joan Vernon, coming out into the sunshine from her lodging in the Place de la Sorbonne, smiled a morning greeting to the statue of Auguste Comte, founder of Positivism. It would have puzzled her to explain what Positivism meant, or why it should be merely positive and not stoutly comparative or grandly superlative. As a teacher, therefore, Comte made no appeal. She just liked the bland look of the man, was pleased by the sleekness of his white marble. He seemed to be a friend, a counselor, strutting worthily on a pedestal labeled "Ordre et Progrès"; for Joan was an artist, not a philosopher.

Perhaps there was an underthought that she and Comte were odd fish to be at home together in that placid backwater of the Latin Quarter. Next door to the old-fashioned house in which she rented three rooms was a cabaret, a mere wreck of a wineshop, apparently cast there by the torrent of the Boule Mich, which roared a few yards away. Its luminous sign, a foaming tankard, showed gallantly by night, but was garish by day, since gas is akin to froth, to which the sun is pitiless. But the cabaret had its customers, quiet folk who gathered in the evening to gossip and drink strange beverages, whereas its nearest neighbor on the boulevard side was an empty tenement, a despondent ghost to-day, though once it had rivaled the flaunting tankard. Its frayed finery told of gay sparks extinguished. A flamboyant legend declared, "Ici on chante, on boit, on s'amuse(?)" Joan always smirked a little at that suggestive note of interrogation, which lent a world of meaning to the half-obliterated statement that Madame Lucette would appear "tous les soirs dans ses chansons d'actualités."

Nodding to Léontine, the cabaret's amazingly small maid of all work, who was always washing and never washed, Joan saw the query for the hundredth time, and, as ever, found its answer in the blistered paint and dust covered windows: Madame Lucette's last song of real life pointed a moral.

Joan's bright face did not cloud on that account. Paul Verlaine, taking the air in the Boulevard Saint Michel, had he chanced to notice the dry husk of that Cabaret Latin, might have composed a chanson on the vanity of dead cafés; but this sprightly girl had chosen her residence there chiefly because it marched with her purse. Moreover, it was admirably suited to the needs of one who for the most part gave her days to the Louvre and her evenings to the Sorbonne.

She was rather late that morning. Lest that precious hour of white light should be lost, she sped rapidly across the place, down the boulevard, and along the busy Quai des Grands Augustins. On the Pont Neuf she glanced up at another statuesque acquaintance, this time a kingly personage on horseback. She could never quite dispel the notion that Henri Quatre was ready to flirt with her. The roguish twinkle in his bronze eye was very taking, and there were not many men in Paris who could look at her in that way and win a smile in return. To be sure, it was no new thing for a Vernon to be well disposed toward Henry of Navarre; but that is ancient history, and our pretty Joan, blithely unconscious, was hurrying that morning to take an active part in redrafting the Berlin treaty.

At the corner of the bridge, where it joins the Quai du Louvre, she met a young man. Each pretended that the meeting was accidental, though, after the first glance, the best-natured recording angel ever commissioned from Paradise would have refused to believe either of them.

"What a piece of luck!" cried the young man. "Are you going to the Louvre?"

"Yes. And you?" demanded Joan, flushing prettily.

"I am killing time till the afternoon, when I play Number One for the Wanderers. To-day's match is at Bagatelle."

She laughed. "'Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee,'" she quoted.

"I don't quite follow that, Miss Vernon."

"No? Well, I'll explain another time. I must away to my copying."

"Let me come and fix your easel. Really, I have nothing else to do."

"Worse and worse! En route, alors! You can watch me at work. That must be a real pleasure to an idler."

"I am no idler," he protested.

"What? Who spoke but now of 'killing time,' 'play,' 'Number One,' and 'Bagatelle'? Really, Mr. Delgrado!"

"Oh, is that what you are driving at? But you misunderstood. Bagatelle is near the polo ground in the Bois, and, as Number One in my team, I shall have to hustle. Four stiff chukkers at polo are downright hard work, Miss Vernon. By teatime I shall be a limp rag. I promised to play nearly a month ago, and I cannot draw back now."

"Polo is a man's game, at any rate," she admitted.

"Would you care to see to-day's tie?" he asked eagerly. "We meet Chantilly, and, if we put them out in the first round of the tournament, with any ordinary luck we ought to run right into the semi-final."

She shook her head. "You unhappy people who have to plan and scheme how best to waste your hours have no notion of their value. I must work steadily from two till five. That means a sixteenth of my picture. Divide two hundred and fifty by sixteen, and you have-dear me! I am no good at figures."

"Fifteen francs, sixty-two and a half centimes," said he promptly.

She flashed a surprised look at him. "That is rather clever of you," she said. "Well, fancy a poor artist sacrificing all that money in order to watch eight men galloping after a white ball and whacking it and each other's ponies unmercifully."

"To hit an adversary's pony is the unforgivable sin," he cried, smiling at her, and she hastily averted her eyes, having discovered an unnerving similarity between his smile and-Henri Quatre's!

They walked on in eloquent silence. The man was cudgeling his brains for an excuse whereby he might carry her off in triumph to the Bois. The girl was fighting down a new sensation that threatened her independence. Never before had she felt tonguetied in the presence of an admirer. She had dismissed dozens of them. She refrained now from sending this good-looking boy packing only because it would be cruel, and Joan Vernon could not be cruel to anyone. Nevertheless, she had to justify herself as a free lance, and it is the r?le of a lance to attack rather than defend.

"What do you occupy yourself with when you are not playing polo or lounging about artists' studios?" she asked suddenly.

"Not much, I am afraid. I like shooting and hunting; but these Frenchmen have no backbone for sport. Will you believe it, one has the greatest difficulty in getting a good knock at polo unless there is a crowd of ladies on the lawn?"

"Ah! I begin to see light."

"That is not the reason I asked you to come. If you honored me so greatly you would be the first woman, my mother excepted, I have ever driven to the club. To-day's players are mostly Americans or English. Of course there are some first-rate French teams; but you can take it from me that they show their real form only before the ladies."

"As in the tourneys of old?"

"Perhaps. It is the same at the chateaux. Everyone wants his best girl to watch his prowess with the gun."

He stopped, wishing he had left the best girl out of it; but Joan was kind hearted and did not hesitate an instant.

"So you are what is known as a gentleman of leisure and independent means?" she said suavely.

"Something of the sort."

"I am sorry for you, Mr. Delgrado."

"I am rather sorry for myself at times," he admitted, and if Joan had chanced to glance at him she would have seen a somewhat peculiar expression on his face. "But why do you call me Mr. Delgrado?"

She gazed at him now in blank bewilderment-just a second too late to see that expression. "Isn't Delgrado your name?" she asked.

"Yes, in a sense. People mostly call me Alec. Correctly speaking, Alec isn't mother's darling for Alexis; but it goes, anyhow."

"Sometimes I think you are an American," she vowed.

"Half," he said. "My mother is an American, my father a Kosnovian-well, just a Kosnovian."

"And pray what is that?" she cried.

"Haven't you heard of Kosnovia? It is a little Balkan State."

"Is there some mystery, then, about your name?"

"Oh, no; plain Alec."

"Am I to call you plain Alec?"

"Yes."

"But it follows that you would call me plain Joan."

"Let it go at Joan."

"Very well. Good morning, Alec."

"No, no, Miss Vernon. Don't be vexed. I really did not mean to be rude. And you promised, you know."

"Promised what?"

"That I might help carry your traps. Please don't send me away!"

He was so contrite that Joan weakened again. "It is rather friendly to hear one's Christian name occasionally," she declared. "I will compound on the Alec if you will tell me why the Delgrado applies only in a sense."

"Done-Joan," said he, greatly daring. He waited the merest fraction of time; but she gave no sign. "My stipulation is of the slightest," he added, "that I discourse in the Louvre. Where are you working?"

"In the Grande Galerie; on a subject that I enjoy, too. People have such odd notions as to nice pictures. They choose them to match the furniture. Now, this one is quite delightful to copy, and not very difficult. But you shall see."

They entered the Louvre from the Quai.

Joan was undoubtedly flurried. Here, in very truth, was that irrepressible Henri descended from his bronze horse and walking by her side. That his later name happened to be Alec did not matter at all. She knew that a spiteful Bourbon had melted down no less than two statues of Napoleon in order to produce the fine cavalier who approved of her every time she crossed the Pont Neuf, and it seemed as if some of the little Corsican's dominance was allied with a touch of Béarnais swagger in the stalwart youth whom she had met for the first time in Rudin's studio about three weeks earlier.

They were steel and magnet at once. Delgrado had none of the boulevardier's abounding self-conceit, or Joan would never have given him a second look, while Joan's frank comradeship was vastly more alluring than the skilled coquetry that left him cold. Physically, too, they were well mated, each obviously made for the other by a discriminating Providence. They were just beginning to discover the fact, and this alarmed Joan.

She could not shake off the notion that he had waylaid her this morning for a purpose wholly unconnected with the suggested visit to the polo ground. So, tall and athletic though he was, she set such a pace up the steps and through the lower galleries that further intimate talk became impossible. Atalanta well knew what she was about when she ran her suitors to death, and Meilanion showed a deep insight into human nature when he arranged that she should loiter occasionally.

Delgrado, however, had no golden apples to drop in Joan's path, could not even produce a conversational plum; but he was young enough to believe in luck, and he hoped that fortune might favor him, once the painting was in hand.

Each was so absorbed in the other that the Louvre might have been empty. Certainly, neither of them noticed that a man crossing the Pont du Carrousel in an open cab seemed to be vastly surprised when he saw them hastening through the side entrance. He carried his interest to the point of stopping the cab and following them. Young, clear skinned, black-haired, exceedingly well dressed, with the eyes and eyelashes of an Italian tenor, he moved with an air of distinction, and showed that he was no stranger to the Louvre by his rapid decision that the Salle des Moulages, with its forbidding plaster casts, was no likely resting place for Delgrado and his pretty companion.

Making straight for the nearest stairs, he almost blundered upon Alec, laden with Joan's easel and canvas; but this exquisite, having something of the spy's skill, whisked into an alcove, scrutinized an old print, and did not emerge until the chance of being recognized had passed. After that, he was safe. He appeared to be amused, even somewhat amazed, when he learned why Delgrado was patronizing the arts. Yet the discovery was evidently pleasing. He caressed a neat, black mustache with a well-manicured hand, while taking note of Joan's lithe figure and well poised head. The long, straight vista of the gallery did not permit of a near view, and he could not linger in the narrow doorway, used chiefly by artists and officials, whence he watched them for a minute or more.

So he turned on his heel and descended to the street and his waiting victoria, waving that delicate hand and smiling with the manner of one who said, "Fancy that of Alec! The young scamp!"

Joan was copying Caravaggio's "The Fortune Teller," a masterpiece that speaks in every tongue, to every age. Its keynote is simplicity. A gallant of Milan, clothed in buff-colored doublet slashed with brown velvet, a plumed cavalier hat set rakishly on his head, and a lace ruffle caught up with a string of seed pearls round his neck, is holding out his right palm to a Gypsy woman, while the fingers of his left hand rest on a swordhilt. The woman is young and pretty, her subject a mere boy, and her smug aspect of divination is happily contrasted with the youth's excitement at hearing what fate has in store.

"There!" cried Joan. "What do you think of it?"

She had almost completed the Gypsy, and there was already a suggestion of the high lights in the youngster's face and his brightly colored garb.

"I like your copy more than the original," said Delgrado.

"Your visits to Rudin have not taught you much about art, then," said she tart

ly.

"Not even that great master would wish me to be insincere."

"No, indeed; but he demands knowledge at the back of truth. Now, mark me! You see that speck of white fire in the corner of the woman's eye? It gives life, intelligence, subtle character. Just a little blob of paint, put there two hundred years ago, yet it conveys the whole stock in trade of the fortune teller. Countless numbers of men and women have gazed at that picture, a multitude that must have covered the whole range of human virtues and vices; but it has never failed to carry the same message to every beholder. Do you think that my poor reproduction will achieve that?"

"You have chosen the only good bit in the painting," he declared stoutly. "Look at the boy's lips. Caravaggio must have modeled them from a girl's. What business has a fellow with pouting red lips like them to wear a sword on his thigh?"

Joan laughed with joyousness that was good to hear.

"Pooh! Run away and smite that ball with a long stick!" she said.

"Hum! More than the Italian could have done."

He was ridiculously in earnest. Joan colored suddenly and busied herself with tubes of paint. She believed he was jealous of the handsome Lombard. She began to mix some pigments on the palette. Delgrado, already regretting an inexplicable outburst, turned from the picture and looked at Murillo's "woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a diadem of twelve stars."

"Now, please help me to appreciate that and you will find me a willing student," he murmured.

But Joan had recovered her self-possession. "Suppose we come off the high art ladder and talk of our uninteresting selves," she said. "What of the mystery you hinted at on the Quai? Why shouldn't I call you Mr. Delgrado? One cannot always say 'Alec,' it's too short."

Then he reddened with confusion. "Delgrado is my name, right enough," he said. "It is the prefix I object to. It implies that I am sailing under false colors, and I don't like that."

"I am not good at riddles, and I suspect prefix," she cried.

"Ah, well, I suppose I must get through with it. Have you forgotten how Rudin introduced me?"

She knitted her brows for a moment. Pretty women should cultivate the trick, unless they fear wrinkles. It gives them the semblance of looking in on themselves, and the habit is commendable. "Rudin is fond of his little joke," she announced at last.

"But-what did he say?"

"Oh, there was some absurdity. He addressed me as if I were a royal personage, and asked to be allowed to present his Serene Highness Prince Alexis Delgrado."

The man smiled constrainedly. "It sounds rather nonsensical, doesn't it?" he said.

"Rudin often invents titles. I have heard efforts much more amusing."

"That is when he is original. Unfortunately, in my case, he was merely accurate."

Joan whirled round on him. "Are you a Prince?" she gasped, each word marking a crescendo of wonder.

"Yes-Joan."

"But what am I to do? What am I to say? Must I drop on one knee and kiss your hand?"

"I cannot help it," he growled. "And I was obliged to tell you. You would have been angry with me if I had kept it hidden from you. Oh, dash it all, Joan, don't laugh! That is irritating."

"My poor Alec! Why did they make you a Prince?"

"I was born that way. My father is one. Do you mean to say you have lived in Paris a year and have never seen our names in the newspapers? My people gad about everywhere. The Prince and Princess Michael Delgrado, you know."

"I do not know," said Joan deliberately.

Her alert brain was slowly assimilating this truly astonishing discovery. She did not attempt to shirk its significance, and her first thought was to frame some excuse to abandon work for the day; since, no matter what the cost to herself, this friendship must go no farther. The decision caused a twinge; but she did not flinch, for Joan would always visit the dentist rather than endure toothache. She could not dismiss a Serene Highness merely because he declared his identity, nor was she minded to forget his rank because she had begun to call him Alec. But it hurt. She was conscious of a longing to be alone. If not in love, she was near it, and hard-working artists must not love Serene Highnesses.

Delgrado was watching her with a glowering anxiety that itself carried a warning. "You see, Joan, I had to tell you," he repeated. "People make such a fuss about these empty honors--"

Joan caught at a straw. She hoped that a display of sarcastic humor might rescue her. "Honors!" she broke in, and she laughed almost shrilly, for her voice was naturally sweet and harmonious. "Is it an honor, then, to be born a Prince?"

"If a man is worth his salt, the fact that he is regarded as a Prince should make him princely."

"That is well said. Try and live up to it. You will find it a task, though, to regulate your life by copybook maxims."

"The princedom is worth nothing otherwise. In its way, it is a handicap. Most young fellows of my age have some sort of career before them, while I-I really am what you said I was, an idler. I didn't like the taunt from your lips; but it was true. Well, I am going to change all that. I am tired of posturing as one of Daudet's 'Kings in Exile.' We expelled potentates all live in Paris; that is the irony of it. I want to be candid with you, Joan. I have seen you every day since we met at Rudin's; but I did not dare to meet you too often lest you should send me away. You have given me a purpose in life. You have created a sort of hunger in me, and I refuse to be satisfied any longer with the easygoing existence of the last few years. No, you must hear me out. No matter what you say now, the new order of things is irrevocable. I almost quarreled with my father last night; but I told him plainly that I meant to make a place for myself in the world. At any rate, I refuse to live the life he lives, and I am here to-day because the awakening is due to you, Joan."

A tremor ran through the girl's limbs; but she faced him bravely. Though her lips quivered, she forced herself to utter words that sounded like a jibe. "I am to play Pallas Athene to your Perseus," she said, and it seemed to him for a moment that she was in a mood to jest at heroics.

"If you mean that I regard you as my goddess, I am well content," he answered quickly.

"Ah, but wait. Pallas Athene came to Perseus in a dream, and let us make believe that we are dreaming now. She had great gray eyes, clear and piercing, and she knew all thoughts of men's hearts and the secrets of their souls. My eyes are not gray, Alec, nor can they pierce as hers; but I can borrow her beautiful words, and tell you that she turns her face from the creatures of clay. They may 'fatten at ease like sheep in the pasture, and eat what they did not sow, like oxen in the stall. They grow and spread, like the gourd along the ground; but, like the gourd, they give no shade to the traveler, and when they are ripe death gathers them, and they go down unloved into hell, and their name vanishes out of the land.' But to the souls of fire she gives more fire, and to those who are manful she gives a power more than man's. These are her heroes, the sons of the Immortals. They are blest, but not as the men who live at ease. She drives them forth 'by strange paths ... through doubt and need and danger and battle.... Some of them are slain in the flower of their youth, no man knows when or where, and some of them win noble names and a fair and green old age.' Not even the goddess herself can tell the hap that shall befall them; for each man's lot is known only to Zeus. Have you reflected well on these things, Alec? Be sure of yourself! There may be Gorgons to encounter, and monsters of the deep."

He came very near to her. Her eyes were glistening. For one glowing second they looked into each other's hearts.

"And perhaps a maiden chained to a rock to be rescued," he whispered.

Then she drew herself up proudly. "Do not forget that I am Pallas Athene," she said. "My shield of brass is an easel and my mighty spear a mahl-stick; but-I keep to my r?le, Alec."

He longed to clasp her in his arms; but it flashed upon him with an inspiration from topmost Olympus that, all unwittingly, she had bound herself to his fortunes.

"Then I leave it at that," he said quietly.

This sudden air of confidence was bewildering. She had been swept off her feet by emotion, and the very considerations she thought she had conquered were now tugging at her heart-strings. He must not go away as her knight errant, eager and ready to slay dragons for her sake.

"Do not misunderstand me," she faltered. "I was only quoting a passage from one of Kingsley's Greek fairy tales that has always had a peculiar fascination for me."

"I'll get that story and read it. But I am interfering with your work, and here comes your friend, the Humming Bee. If he said anything funny to me just now, I should want to strangle him. So good-by, dear Joan. I will turn up again to-morrow and tell you how I fared in each round."

And he was gone, leaving her breathless and shaken; for well she knew that he held her pledged to unspoken vows, that his eager confidences would apply alike to the day's sport and his future life. With hands that trembled she essayed a further mixing of colors; but she scarcely realized what she was doing, until a queer, cracked voice that yet was musical sang softly in German at her elbow:

If the Song should chance to wander

Forth the Minstrel too must go.

It was passing strange that crooked little Felix Poluski, ex-Nihilist, the wildest firebrand ever driven out of Warsaw, and the only living artist who could put on canvas the gleam of heaven that lights the Virgin's face in the "Immaculate Conception," should justify his nickname of Le Bourdon by humming those two lines.

"I hope you are not a prophet, Felix," said Joan with a catch in her throat.

"No, ma belle, no prophet, merely an avenger, a slayer of Kings. I see you have just routed one."

She turned and looked into the deepset eyes of the old hunchback, and for the first time noted that they were gray and very bright and piercing. At the same time the fancy crossed her mind that perhaps Henri Quatre had had blue eyes, bold yet tender, like unto Alec's.

"So you too are aware that Monsieur Delgrado is a Prince?" she said, letting her thought bubble forth at random.

"Some folk call him that, and it is the worst thing I know of him so far. It may spoil him in time; but at present I find him a nice young man."

Joan swung round to her picture. "If Alec had the chance of becoming a King, he would be a very good one," she said loyally.

Poluski's wizened cheeks puckered into a grin. He glanced at the easel and thence to the picture on the wall.

"Perfectly, my dear Joan," he said. "And, by the bones of Kosciusko, you have chosen a proper subject, The Fortune Teller! Were you filling our warrior with dreams of empire? Well, well, I don't know which is more potent with monarchs, woman or dynamite. In Alec's case I fancy I should bet on the woman. Here, for example, is one that shook Heaven, and I have always thought that Eve was not given fair treatment, or she would surely have twisted the serpent's tail," and, humming the refrain of "Les Demi-Vièrges," he climbed the small platform he had erected in front of the world famous Murillo.

Back to back, separated by little more than half the width of the gallery, Joan and Poluski worked steadily for twenty minutes. The Pole sang to himself incessantly, now bassooning between his thin lips the motif of some rhapsody of Lizst's, now murmuring the words of some catchy refrain from the latest review. Anybody else who so transgressed the rules would have been summarily turned out by the guards; but the men knew him, and the Grande Galerie, despite its treasures, or perhaps because of them, is the least popular part of the Louvre. Artists haunt it; but the Parisian, the provincial, the globe trotter, gape once in their lives at Andrea del Sarto, Titian, Salvator Rosa, Murillo of course, and the rest of the mighty dead, and then ask with a yawn, "Where are the Crown Jewels?"

So the Humming Bee annoyed none by his humming; but he stopped short in an improvised variation on the theme of Vulcan's song in "Philemon and Baucis" when he heard a subdued but none the less poignant cry of distress from Joan. In order to turn his head he was compelled to twist his ungainly body, and Joan, who was standing well away from her canvas, was aware of the movement. She too turned.

"I am going," she announced. "I cannot do anything right to-day. Just look at that white feather!"

"Where?"

"In the boy's hat, you tease! Where else would you look?"

"In your face, belle mignonne," said the Pole.

It was true. Joan was not ill; but she was undeniably low spirited, and the artist's mood has a way of expressing itself on the palette. She laughed, with a certain sense of effort.

"I like you best when you sing, Felix. Sometimes, when you speak, you are Infelix."

"By all means go home," he grinned. "One cannot both joke and copy a Caravaggio."

He began to paint with feverish industry, did not look at her again, but tossed an adieu over his humped shoulder when she hurried away. Then he gazed reproachfully, almost vindictively, at the uplifted eyes of the transfigured Virgin.

"Now, you!" he growled. "Vous êtes bénie entre toutes les femmes! This affair is in your line. Why don't you help? Saperlotte! The girl is worth it."

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