"It's competition," replied Henry, "that makes the world go round. You never want a thing particularly until you see another fellow trying to get it; then it strikes you all of a sudden that you've a better right to it than he has. Take barmaids: what's the attraction about 'em? In looks they're no better than the average girl in the street; while as for their temper, well that's a bit above the average--leastways, so far as my experience goes. Yet the thinnest of 'em has her dozen, making sheep's-eyes at her across the counter. I've known girls that on the level couldn't have got a policeman to look at 'em. Put 'em behind a row of tumblers and a shilling's-worth of stale pastry, and nothing outside a Lincoln and Bennett is good enough for 'em. It's the competition that's the making of 'em.
"Now, I'll tell you a story," continued Henry, "that bears upon the subject. It's a pretty story, if you look at it from one point of view; though my wife maintains--and she's a bit of a judge, mind you--that it's not yet finished, she arguing that there's a difference between marrying and being married. You can have a fancy for the one, without caring much about the other. What I tell her is that a boy isn't a man, and a man isn't a boy. Besides, it's five years ago now, and nothing has happened since: though of course one can never say."
"I would like to hear the story," I ventured to suggest; "I'll be able to judge better afterwards."
"It's not a long one," replied Henry, "though as a matter of fact it began seventeen years ago in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was a wild young fellow, and always had been."
"Who was?" I interrupted.
"Tom Sleight," answered Henry, "the chap I'm telling you about. He belonged to a good family, his father being a Magistrate for Monmouthshire; but there had been no doing anything with young Tom from the very first. At fifteen he ran away from school at Clifton, and with everything belonging to him tied up in a pocket-handkerchief made his way to Bristol Docks. There he shipped as boy on board an American schooner, the Cap'n not pressing for any particulars, being short-handed, and the boy himself not volunteering much. Whether his folks made much of an effort to get him back, or whether they didn't, I can't tell you. Maybe, they thought a little roughing it would knock some sense into him. Anyhow, the fact remains that for the next seven or eight years, until the sudden death of his father made him a country gentleman, a more or less jolly sailor-man he continued to be. And it was during that period--to be exact, three years after he ran away and four years before he returned--that, as I have said, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he married, after ten days' courtship, Mary Godselle, only daughter of Jean Godselle, saloon keeper of that town."
"That makes him just eighteen," I remarked; "somewhat young for a bridegroom."
"But a good deal older than the bride," was Henry's comment, "she being at the time a few months over fourteen."
"Was it legal?" I enquired.
"Quite legal," answered Henry. "In New Hampshire, it would seem, they encourage early marriages. 'Can't begin a good thing too soon,' is, I suppose, their motto."
"How did the marriage turn out?" was my next question. The married life of a lady and gentleman, the united ages of whom amounted to thirty-two, promised interesting developments.
"Practically speaking," replied Henry, "it wasn't a marriage at all. It had been a secret affair from the beginning, as perhaps you can imagine. The old man had other ideas for his daughter, and wasn't the sort of father to be played with. They separated at the church door, intending to meet again in the evening. Two hours later Master Tom Sleight got knocked on the head in a street brawl. If a row was to be had anywhere within walking distance he was the sort of fellow to be in it. When he came to his senses he found himself lying in his bunk, and the 'Susan Pride'--if that was the name of the ship; I think it was--ten miles out to sea. The Captain declined to put the vessel about to please either a loving seaman or a loving seaman's wife; and to come to the point, the next time Mr. Tom Sleight saw Mrs. Tom Sleight was seven years later at the American bar of the Grand Central in Paris; and then he didn't know her."
"But what had she been doing all the time?" I queried. "Do you mean to tell me that she, a married woman, had been content to let her husband disappear without making any attempt to trace him?"
"I was making it short," retorted Henry, in an injured tone, "for your benefit; if you want to have the whole of it, of course you can. He wasn't a scamp; he was just a scatterbrain--that was the worst you could say against him. He tried to communicate with her, but never got an answer. Then he wrote to the father, and told him frankly the whole story. The letter came back six months later, marked--'Gone away; left no address.' You see, what had happened was this: the old man died suddenly a month or two after the marriage, without ever having heard a word about it. The girl hadn't a relative or friend in the town, all her folks being French Canadians. She'd got her pride, and she'd got a sense of humour not common in a woman. I was with her at the Grand Central for over a year, and came to know her pretty well. She didn't choose to advertise the fact that her husband had run away from her, as she thought, an hour after he had married her. She knew he was a gentleman with rich relatives somewhere in England; and as the months went by without bringing word or sign of him, she concluded he'd thought the matter over and was ashamed of her. You must remember she was merely a child at the time, and hardly understood her position. Maybe later on she would have seen the necessity of doing something. But Chance, as it were, saved her the trouble; for she had not been serving in the Cafe more than a month when, early one afternoon, in walked her Lord and Master. 'Mam'sell Marie,' as of course we called her over there, was at that moment busy talking to two customers, while smiling at a third; and our hero, he gave a start the moment he set eyes on her."
"You told me that when he saw her there he didn't know her," I reminded Henry.
"Quite right, sir," replied Henry, "so I did; but he knew a pretty girl when he saw one anywhere at any time--he was that sort, and a prettier, saucier looking young personage than Marie, in spite of her misfortunes, as I suppose you'd call 'em, you wouldn't have found had you searched Paris from the Place de la Bastille to the Arc de Triomphe."
"Did she," I asked, "know him, or was the forgetfulness mutual?"
"She recognised him," returned Henry, "before he entered the Cafe, owing to catching sight of his face through the glass door while he was trying to find the handle. Women on some points have better memories than men. Added to which, when you come to think of it, the game was a bit one-sided. Except that his moustache, maybe, was a little more imposing, and that he wore the clothes of a gentleman in place of those of an able- bodied seaman before the mast, he was to all intents and purposes the same as when they parted six years ago outside the church door; while she had changed from a child in a short muslin frock and a 'flapper,' as I believe they call it, tied up in blue ribbon, to a self-possessed young woman in a frock that might have come out of a Bond Street show window, and a Japanese coiffure, that being then the fashion.
"She finished with her French customers, not hurrying herself in the least--that wasn't her way; and then strolling over to her husband, asked him in French what she could have the pleasure of doing for him. His education on board the 'Susan Pride' and others had, I take it, gone back rather than forward. He couldn't understand her, so she translated it for him into broken English, with an accent. He asked her how she knew he was English. She told him it was because Englishmen had such pretty moustaches, and came back with his order, which was rum punch. She kept him waiting about a quarter of an hour before she returned with it. He filled up the time looking into the glass behind him when he thought nobody was observing him.
"One American drink, as they used to concoct it in that bar, was generally enough for most of our customers, but he, before he left, contrived to put away three; also contriving, during the same short space of time, to inform 'Mam'sel Marie' that Paris, since he had looked into her eyes, had become the only town worth living in, so far as he was concerned, throughout the whole universe. He had his failings, had Master Tom Sleight, but shyness wasn't one of them. She gave him a smile when he left that would have brought a less impressionable young man than he back again to that Cafe; but for the rest of the day I noticed 'Mam'sel Marie' frowned to herself a good deal, and was quite unusually cynical in her view of things in general.
"Next afternoon he found his way to us again, and much the same sort of thing went on, only a little more of it. A sailor-man, so I am told, makes love with his hour of departure always before his mind, and so gets into the habit of not wasting time. He gave her short lessons in English, for which she appeared to be grateful, and she at his request taught him the French for 'You are just charming! I love you!' with which, so he explained, it was his intention, on his return to England, to surprise his mother. He turned up again after dinner, and the next day before lunch, when after that I looked up and missed him at his usual table, the feeling would come to me that business was going down. Marie always appeared delighted to see him, and pouted when he left; but what puzzled me at the time was, that though she fooled him to the top of his bent, she flirted every bit as much, if not more, with her other customers--leastways with the nicer ones among them. There was one young Frenchman in particular--a good-looking chap, a Monsieur Flammard, son of the painter. Up till then he'd been making love pretty steadily to Miss Marie, as, indeed, had most of 'em, without ever getting much forrarder; for hitherto a chat about the weather, and a smile that might have meant she was in love with you or might have meant she was laughing at you--no man could ever tell which,--was all the most persistent had got out of her. Now, however, and evidently to his own surprise, young Monsieur Flammard found himself in clover. Provided his English rival happened to be present and not too far removed, he could have as much flirtation as he wanted, which, you may take it, worked out at a very tolerable amount. Master Tom could sit and scowl, and for the matter of that did; but as Marie would explain to him, always with the sweetest of smiles, her business was to be nice to all her customers, and to this, of course, he had nothing to reply: that he couldn't understand a word of what she and Flammard talked and laughed about didn't seem to make him any the happier.
"Well, this sort of thing went on for perhaps a fortnight, and then one morning over our dejeune, when she and I had the Cafe entirely to ourselves, I took the opportunity of talking to Mam'sel Marie like a father.
"She heard me out without a murmur, which showed her sense; for liking the girl sincerely, I didn't mince matters with her, but spoke plainly for her good. The result was, she told me her story much as I have told it to you.
"'It's a funny tale,' says I when she'd finished, 'though maybe you yourself don't see the humour of it.'
"'Yes, I do,' was her answer. 'But there's a serious side to it also,' says she, 'and that interests me more.'
"'You're sure you're not making a mistake?' I suggested.
"'He's been in my thoughts too much for me to forget him,' she replied. 'Besides, he's told me his name and all about himself.'
"'Not quite all,' says I.
"'No, and that's why I feel hard toward him,' answers she.
"'Now you listen to me,' says I. 'This is a very pretty comedy, and the way you've played it does you credit up till now. Don't you run it on too long, and turn it into a problem play.'
"'How d'ye mean?' says she.
"'A man's a man,' says I; 'anyhow he's one. He fell in love with you six years ago when you were only a child, and now you're a woman he's fallen in love with you again. If that don't convince you of his constancy, nothing will. You stop there. Don't you try to find out any more.'
"'I mean to find out one thing, answers she: 'whether he's a man--or a cad.'
"'That's a severe remark,' says I, 'to make about your own husband.'
"'What am I to think?' says she. 'He fooled me into loving him when, as you say, I was only a child. Do you think I haven't suffered all these years? It's the girl that cries her eyes out for her lover; we learn to take 'em for what they're worth later on.'
"'But he's in love with you still,' I says. I knew what was in her mind, but I wanted to lead her away from it if I could.
"'That's a lie,' says she, 'and you know it.' She wasn't choosing her words; she was feeling, if you understand. 'He's in love with a pretty waitress that he met for the first time a fortnight ago.'
"'That's because she reminds him of you,' I replied, 'or because you remind him of her, whichever you prefer. It shows you're the sort of woman he'll always be falling in love with.'
"She laughed at that, but the next moment she was serious again. 'A man's got to fall out of love before he falls into it again,' she replied. 'I want a man that'll stop there. Besides,' she goes on, 'a woman isn't always young and pretty: we've got to remember that. We want something else in a husband besides eyes.'
"'You seem to know a lot about it,' says I.
"'I've thought a lot about it,' says she.
"'What sort of husband do you want?' says I.
"'I want a man of honour,' says she.
"That was sense. One don't often find a girl her age talking it, but her life had made her older than she looked. All I could find to say was that he appeared to be an honest chap, and maybe was one.
"'Maybe,' says she; 'that's what I mean to find out. And if you'll do me a kindness,' she adds, 'you won't mind calling me Marie Luthier for the future, instead of Godselle. It was my mother's name, and I've a fancy for it.'
"Well, there I left her to work out the thing for herself, having come to the conclusion she was capable of doing it; and so for another couple of weeks I merely watched. There was no doubt about his being in love with her. He had entered that Cafe at the beginning of the month with as good an opinion of himself as a man can conveniently carry without tumbling down and falling over it. Before the month was out he would sit with his head between his hands, evidently wondering why he had been born. I've seen the game played before, and I've seen it played since. A waiter has plenty of opportunities if he only makes use of them; for if it comes to a matter of figures, I suppose there's more love-making done in a month under the electric light of the restaurant than the moon sees in a year--leastways, so far as concerns what we call the civilised world. I've seen men fooled, from boys without hair on their faces, to old men without much on their heads. I've seen it done in a way that was pretty to watch, and I've seen it done in a manner that has made me feel that given a wig and a petticoat I could do it better myself. But never have I seen it neater played than Marie played it on that young man of hers. One day she would greet him for all the world like a tired child that at last has found its mother, and the next day respond to him in a style calculated to give you the idea of a small-sized empress in misfortune compelled to tolerate the familiarities of an anarchist. One moment she would throw him a pout that said as clearly as words: 'What a fool you are not to put your arms round me and kiss me'; and five minutes later chill him with a laugh that as good as told him he must be blind not to see that she was merely playing with him. What happened outside the Cafe--for now and then she would let him meet her of a morning in the Tuileries and walk down to the Cafe with her, and once or twice had allowed him to see her part of the way home--I cannot tell you: I only know that before strangers it was her instinct to be reserved. I take it that on such occasions his experiences were interesting; but whether they left him elated or depressed I doubt if he could have told you himself.
"But all the time Marie herself was just going from bad to worse. She had come to the Cafe a light-hearted, sweet-tempered girl; now, when she wasn't engaged in her play-acting--for that's all it was, I could see plainly enough--she would go about her work silent and miserable-looking, or if she spoke at all it would be to say something bitter. Then one morning after a holiday she had asked for, and which I had given her without any questions, she came to business more like her old self than I had seen her since the afternoon Master Tom Sleight had appeared upon the scene. All that day she went about smiling to herself; and young Flammard, presuming a bit too far maybe upon past favours, found himself sharply snubbed: it was a bit rough on him, the whole thing.
"'It's come to a head,' says I to myself; 'he has explained everything, and has managed to satisfy her. He's a cleverer chap than I took him for.'
"He didn't turn up at the Cafe that day, however, at all, and she never said a word until closing time, when she asked me to walk part of the way home with her.
"'Well,' I says, so soon as we had reached a quieter street, 'is the comedy over?'
"'No,' says she, 'so far as I'm concerned it's commenced. To tell you the truth, it's been a bit too serious up to now to please me. I'm only just beginning to enjoy myself,' and she laughed, quite her old light- hearted laugh.
"'You seem to be a bit more cheerful,' I says.
"'I'm feeling it,' says she; 'he's not as bad as I thought. We went to Versailles yesterday.'
"'Pretty place, Versailles,' says I; 'paths a bit complicated if you don't know your way among 'em.'
"'They do wind,' says she.
"'And there he told you that he loved you, and explained everything?'
"'You're quite right,' says she, 'that's just what happened. And then he kissed me for the first and last time, and now he's on his way to America.'
"'On his way to America?' says I, stopping still in the middle of the street.
"'To find his wife,' she says. 'He's pretty well ashamed of himself for not having tried to do it before. I gave him one or two hints how to set about it--he's not over smart--and I've got an idea he will discover her.' She dropped her joking manner, and gave my arm a little squeeze. She'd have flirted with her own grandfather--that's my opinion of her.
"'He was really nice,' she continues. 'I had to keep lecturing myself, or I'd have been sorry for him. He told me it was his love for me that had shown him what a wretch he had been. He said he knew I didn't care for him two straws--and there I didn't contradict him--and that he respected me all the more for it. I can't explain to you how he worked it out, but what he meant was that I was so good myself that no one but a thoroughly good fellow could possibly have any chance with me, and that any other sort of fellow ought to be ashamed of himself for daring even to be in love with me, and that he couldn't rest until he had proved to himself that he was worthy to have loved me, and then he wasn't going to love me any more.'
"'It's a bit complicated,' says I. 'I suppose you understood it?'
"'It was perfectly plain,' says she, somewhat shortly, 'and, as I told him, made me really like him for the first time.'
"'It didn't occur to him to ask you why you had been flirting like a volcano with a chap you didn't like,' says I.
"'He didn't refer to it as flirtation,' says she. 'He regarded it as kindness to a lonely man in a strange land.'
"'I think you'll be all right,' says I. 'There's all the makings of a good husband in him--seems to be simple-minded enough, anyhow.'
"'He has a very lovable personality when you once know him,' says she. 'All sailors are apt to be thoughtless.'
"'I should try and break him of it later on,' says I.
"'Besides, she was a bit of a fool herself, going away and leaving no address,' adds she; and having reached her turning, we said good-night to one another.
"About a month passed after that without anything happening. For the first week Marie was as merry as a kitten, but as the days went by, and no sign came, she grew restless and excited. Then one morning she came into the Cafe twice as important as she had gone out the night before, and I could see by her face that her little venture was panning out successfully. She waited till we had the Cafe to ourselves, which usually happened about mid-day, and then she took a letter out of her pocket and showed it me. It was a nice respectful letter containing sentiments that would have done honour to a churchwarden. Thanks to Marie's suggestions, for which he could never be sufficiently grateful, and which proved her to be as wise as she was good and beautiful, he had traced Mrs. Sleight, nee Mary Godselle, to Quebec. From Quebec, on the death of her uncle, she had left to take a situation as waitress in a New York hotel, and he was now on his way there to continue his search. The result he would, with Miss Marie's permission, write and inform her. If he obtained happiness he would owe it all to her. She it was who had shown him his duty; there was a good deal of it, but that's what it meant.
"A week later came another letter, dated from New York this time. Mary could not be discovered anywhere; her situation she had left just two years ago, but for what or for where nobody seemed to know. What was to be done?
"Mam'sel Marie sat down and wrote him by return of post, and wrote him somewhat sharply--in broken English. It seemed to her he must be strangely lacking in intelligence. Mary, as he knew, spoke French as well as she did English. Such girls--especially such waitresses--he might know, were sought after on the Continent. Very possibly there were agencies in New York whose business it was to offer good Continental engagements to such young ladies. Even she herself had heard of one such--Brathwaite, in West Twenty-third Street, or maybe Twenty-fourth. She signed her new name, Marie Luthier, and added a P.S. to the effect that a right-feeling husband who couldn't find his wife would have written in a tone less suggestive of resignation.
"That helped him considerably, that suggestion of Marie's about the agent Brathwaite. A fortnight later came a third letter. Wonderful to relate, his wife was actually in Paris, of all places in the world! She had taken a situation in the Hotel du Louvre. Master Tom expected to be in Paris almost as soon as his letter.
"'I think I'll go round to the Louvre if you can spare me for quarter of an hour,' said Marie, 'and see the manager.'
"Two days after, at one o'clock precisely, Mr. Tom Sleight walked into the Cafe. He didn't look cheerful and he didn't look sad. He had been to the 'Louvre'; Mary Godselle had left there about a year ago; but he had obtained her address in Paris, and had received a letter from her that very morning. He showed it to Marie. It was short, and not well written. She would meet him in the Tuileries that evening at seven, by the Diana and the Nymph; he would know her by her wearing the onyx brooch he had given her the day before their wedding. She mentioned it was onyx, in case he had forgotten. He only stopped a few minutes, and both he and Marie spoke gravely and in low tones. He left a small case in her hands at parting; he said he hoped she would wear it in remembrance of one in whose thoughts she would always remain enshrined. I can't tell you what he meant; I only tell you what he said. He also gave me a very handsome walking-stick with a gold handle--what for, I don't know; I take it he felt like that.
"Marie asked to leave that evening at half-past six. I never saw her looking prettier. She called me into the office before she went. She wanted my advice. She had in one hand a beautiful opal brooch set in diamonds--it was what he had given her that morning--and in her other hand the one of onyx.
"'Shall I wear them both?' asked she, 'or only the one?' She was half laughing, half crying, already.
"I thought for a bit. 'I should wear the onyx to-night,' I said, 'by itself.'"