WE found many of my friends assembled--habitués of the opera lobbies and of the greenroom, and, as I had expected, a few unmasked "bouquets" anxious for the time to come when the water-bottles would be used--supper time!
I introduced Louis to several friends, and it is needless to say that he was politely received and welcomed.
Ten minutes after our arrival D---- entered, accompanied by his bouquet of myosotis, who unmasked herself with a freedom and precision which argued a long acquaintance with these sort of parties.
I introduced Louis to D----.
"Now," said B----, "if all the presentations have been made, I suggest that we present ourselves at table."
"All the presentations are made, but all the guests have not arrived," replied D----.
"Who is expected then?"
"Chateau Renaud is still wanting to complete the party."
"Ah, just so. By-the-by, was there not some bet?"
"Yes. We laid a wager of a supper for twelve, that he would not bring a certain lady here to-night."
"And who is the lady," asked the bouquet of myosotis, "who is so very shy as to be made the subject of a bet?"
I looked at Louis de Franchi. He was outwardly composed, but pale as a corpse.
"Faith, I don't know that there is any great harm in telling you her name, especially as none of you know her I think. She is Madame----"
Louis placed his hand upon D----'s arm.
"Monsieur," he said; "will you grant me a favour? As a new acquaintance I venture to ask it!"
"What is it, monsieur?"
"Do not name the lady who is expected with M. de Chateau Renaud, you know she is a married woman!"
"Oh yes, but her husband is at Smyrna, in the East Indies, in Mexico, or some such place. When a husband lives so far away it is nearly the same as having no husband at all."
"Her husband will return in a few days. I know him. He is a gallant fellow. I would wish, if possible, to spare him the chagrin of learning on his return that his wife had made one at this supper-party."
"Excuse me, monsieur," said D----, "I was not aware that you are acquainted with the lady, and I did not think she was married. But since you know her and her husband----"
"I do know them."
"Then we must exercise greater discretion. Ladies and gentlemen, whether Chateau Renaud comes or not--whether he wins or loses his bet, I must beg of you all to keep this adventure secret."
We all promised, not because our moral senses were offended, but because we were hungry and wished to begin our supper.
"Thank you, monsieur," said Louis to D----, holding out his hand to him. "I assure you you are acting like a thorough gentleman in this matter."
We then passed into the supper-room, and each one took his allotted place. Two chairs were vacant, those reserved for Chateau Renaud and his expected companion.
The servant was about to remove them.
"No," said the master, "let them remain; Chateau Renaud has got until four o'clock to decide his wager. At four o'clock if he is not here he will have lost."
I could not keep my eyes from Louis de Franchi; I saw him watching the timepiece anxiously. It was then 3.40 A.M.
"Is that clock right?" asked Louis.
"That is not my concern," said D----, laughing. "I set it by Chateau Renaud's watch, so that there may be no mistake."
"Well, gentlemen," said the bouquet of myosotis, "it seems we cannot talk of anything but Chateau Renaud and his unknown fair one. We are getting horribly 'slow,' I think."
"You are quite right, my dear," replied V----. "There are so many women of whom we can speak, and who are only waiting to be spoken to----"
"Let us drink their health," cried D----.
So we did, and then the champagne went round briskly; every guest had a bottle at his or her elbow.
I noticed that Louis scarcely tasted his wine; "Drink, man!" I whispered: "don't you see that she will not come?"
"It still wants a quarter to four," said he; "at four o'clock, even though I shall be late in commencing, I promise you I will overtake some of you."
"Oh, very well!" I replied.
While we had been exchanging these few words in a low tone, the conversation had become general around the table. Occasionally D---- and Louis glanced at the clock, which ticked regularly on without any care for the impatience of the two men who were so intent upon its movements.
At five minutes to four I looked at Louis.
"To your health," I said.
He took his glass, smiled, and raised it to his lips. He had drunk about half its contents when a ring was heard at the front door.
I did not think it possible that Louis could become any paler than he was, but I saw my mistake then.
"'Tis he," he muttered.
"Yes, but perhaps he may have come alone," I replied.
"We shall see in a moment."
The sound of the bell had attracted everybody's attention, and the most profound silence suddenly succeeded the buzz of conversation which had till then prevailed.
Then the sound of talking was heard in the anteroom.
D---- rose and opened the door.
"I can recognize her voice," said Louis, as he grasped my arm with a vice-like grip.
"We shall see! wait! be a man!" I answered. "It must be evident that if she has thus come to supper with a man, of her own will, to the house of a stranger, she is not worthy your sympathy."
"I beg, madam, that you will enter," said D----'s voice in the outer room. "We are all friends here I assure you."
"Yes, come in, my dear Emily," said M. de Chateau Renaud, "you need not take off your mask if you do not wish to do so."
"The wretch," muttered Louis.
At that moment a lady entered, dragged in rather than assisted by D----, who fancied he was doing the honours, and by Chateau Renaud.
"Three minutes to four," said Chateau Renaud to D----, in a low voice.
"Quite right, my dear fellow, you have won."
"Not yet, monsieur," said the young unknown addressing Chateau Renaud, and drawing herself up to her full height. "I can now understand your persistence. You laid a wager that I would sup here. Is that so?"
Chateau Renaud was silent. Then addressing D----, she continued.
"Since this man cannot answer, will you, monsieur, reply. Did not M. de Chateau Renaud wager that he would bring me here to supper to-night?"
"I will not hide from you, madame, that he flattered us with that hope," replied D----.
"Well, then, M. de Chateau Renaud has lost, for I was quite unaware he was bringing me here. I believed we were to sup at the house of a friend of my own. So it appears to me that M. de Chateau Renaud has not won his wager."
"But now you are here, my dear Emily, you may as well remain; won't you? See, we have a good company and some pleasant young ladies too!"
"Now that I am here," replied the unknown, "I will thank the gentleman who appears to be the master of the house for the courtesy with which he has treated me. But as, unfortunately, I cannot accept his polite invitation I will beg M. Louis de Franchi to see me home."
Louis with a bound placed himself between the speaker and Chateau Renaud.
"I beg to observe, madam," said the latter between his shut teeth, "that I brought you hither and consequently I am the proper person to conduct you home."
"Gentlemen," said the unknown, "you are five, I put myself into your honourable care. I trust you will defend me from the violence of M. de Chateau Renaud!"
Chateau Renaud made a movement. We all rose at once.
"Very good, madame," he said. "You are at liberty. I know with whom I have to reckon."
"If you refer to me, sir," replied Louis de Franchi with an air of hauteur impossible to describe, "you will find me all day to-morrow at the Rue du Helder, No. 7."
"Very well, monsieur. Perhaps I shall not have the pleasure to call upon you myself, but I hope that two friends of mine may be as cordially received in my place."
"That was all that was necessary," said Louis, shrugging his shoulders disdainfully. "A challenge before a lady! Come, madame," he continued, offering his arm. "Believe me, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the honour you do me."
And then they left the room, amidst the most profound silence.
"Well, gentlemen, so it seems I have lost," said Chateau Renaud, when the door closed. "That's all settled! To-morrow evening all of you sup with me at the Frères Provençaux."