THE INN-YARD OF THE BELLE ÉTOILE
The face was, indeed, one to fall in love with at first sight. Those sentiments that take such sudden possession of young men were now dominating my curiosity. My audacity faltered before her; and I felt that my presence in this room was probably an impertinence. This point she quickly settled, for the same very sweet voice I had heard before, now said coldly, and this time in French, "Monsieur cannot be aware that this apartment is not public."
I bowed very low, faltered some apologies, and backed to the door.
I suppose I looked penitent, and embarrassed. I certainly felt so; for the lady said, by way it seemed of softening matters, "I am happy, however, to have an opportunity of again thanking Monsieur for the assistance, so prompt and effectual, which he had the goodness to render us today."
It was more the altered tone in which it was spoken, than the speech itself, that encouraged me. It was also true that she need not have recognized me; and if she had, she certainly was not obliged to thank me over again.
All this was indescribably flattering, and all the more so that it followed so quickly on her slight reproof. The tone in which she spoke had become low and timid, and I observed that she turned her head quickly towards a second door of the room; I fancied that the gentleman in the black wig, a jealous husband perhaps, might reappear through it. Almost at the same moment, a voice at once reedy and nasal was heard snarling some directions to a servant, and evidently approaching. It was the voice that had thanked me so profusely, from the carriage windows, about an hour before.
"Monsieur will have the goodness to retire," said the lady, in a tone that resembled entreaty, at the same time gently waving her hand toward the door through which I had entered. Bowing again very low, I stepped back, and closed the door.
I ran down the stairs, very much elated. I saw the host of the Belle Étoile which, as I said, was the sign and designation of my inn.
I described the apartment I had just quitted, said I liked it, and asked whether I could have it.
He was extremely troubled, but that apartment and two adjoining rooms were engaged.
"People of distinction."
"But who are they? They must have names or titles."
"Undoubtedly, Monsieur, but such a stream is rolling into Paris, that we have ceased to inquire the names or titles of our guests—we designate them simply by the rooms they occupy."
"What stay do they make?"
"Even that, Monsieur, I cannot answer. It does not interest us. Our rooms, while this continues, can never be, for a moment, disengaged."
"I should have liked those rooms so much! Is one of them a sleeping apartment?"
"Yes, sir, and Monsieur will observe that people do not usually engage bedrooms unless they mean to stay the night."
"Well, I can, I suppose, have some rooms, any, I don't care in what part of the house?"
"Certainly, Monsieur can have two apartments. They are the last at present disengaged."
I took them instantly.
It was plain these people meant to make a stay here; at least they would not go till morning. I began to feel that I was all but engaged in an adventure.
I took possession of my rooms, and looked out of the window, which I found commanded the inn-yard. Many horses were being liberated from the traces, hot and weary, and others fresh from the stables being put to. A great many vehicles—some private carriages, others, like mine, of that public class which is equivalent to our old English post-chaise, were standing on the pavement, waiting their turn for relays. Fussy servants were to-ing and fro-ing, and idle ones lounging or laughing, and the scene, on the whole, was animated and amusing.
Among these objects, I thought I recognized the traveling carriage, and one of the servants of the "persons of distinction" about whom I was, just then, so profoundly interested.
I therefore ran down the stairs, made my way to the back door; and so, behold me, in a moment, upon the uneven pavement, among all these sights and sounds which in such a place attend upon a period of extraordinary crush and traffic. By this time the sun was near its setting, and threw its golden beams on the red brick chimneys of the offices, and made the two barrels, that figured as pigeon-houses, on the tops of poles, look as if they were on fire. Everything in this light becomes picturesque; and things interest us which, in the sober grey of morning, are dull enough.
After a little search I lighted upon the very carriage of which I was in quest. A servant was locking one of the doors, for it was made with the security of lock and key. I paused near, looking at the panel of the door.
"A very pretty device that red stork!" I observed, pointing to the shield on the door, "and no doubt indicates a distinguished family?"
The servant looked at me for a moment, as he placed the little key in his pocket, and said with a slightly sarcastic bow and smile, "Monsieur is at liberty to conjecture."
Nothing daunted, I forthwith administered that laxative which, on occasion, acts so happily upon the tongue—I mean a "tip."
The servant looked at the Napoleon in his hand, and then in my face, with a sincere expression of surprise. "Monsieur is very generous!"
"Not worth mentioning—who are the lady and gentleman who came here in this carriage, and whom, you may remember, I and my servant assisted today in an emergency, when their horses had come to the ground?"
"They are the Count, and the young lady we call the Countess—but I know not, she may be his daughter."
"Can you tell me where they live?"
"Upon my honor, Monsieur, I am unable—I know not."
"Not know where your master lives! Surely you know something more about him than his name?"
"Nothing worth relating, Monsieur; in fact, I was hired in Brussels, on the very day they started. Monsieur Picard, my fellow-servant, Monsieur the Comte's gentleman, he has been years in his service, and knows everything; but he never speaks except to communicate an order. From him I have learned nothing. We are going to Paris, however, and there I shall speedily pick up all about them. At present I am as ignorant of all that as Monsieur himself."
"And where is Monsieur Picard?"
"He has gone to the cutler's to get his razors set. But I do not think he will tell anything."
This was a poor harvest for my golden sowing. The man, I think, spoke truth, and would honestly have betrayed the secrets of the family, if he had possessed any. I took my leave politely; and mounting the stairs again, I found myself once more in my room.
Forthwith I summoned my servant. Though I had brought him with me from England, he was a native of France—a useful fellow, sharp, bustling, and, of course, quite familiar with the ways and tricks of his countrymen.
"St. Clair, shut the door; come here. I can't rest till I have made out something about those people of rank who have got the apartments under mine. Here are fifteen francs; make out the servants we assisted today have them to a petit souper, and come back and tell me their entire history. I have, this moment, seen one of them who knows nothing, and has communicated it. The other, whose name I forget, is the unknown nobleman's valet, and knows everything. Him you must pump. It is, of course, the venerable peer, and not the young lady who accompanies him, that interests me—you understand? Begone! fly! and return with all the details I sigh for, and every circumstance that can possibly interest me."
It was a commission which admirably suited the tastes and spirits of my worthy St. Clair, to whom, you will have observed, I had accustomed myself to talk with the peculiar familiarity which the old French comedy establishes between master and valet.
I am sure he laughed at me in secret; but nothing could be more polite and deferential.
With several wise looks, nods and shrugs, he withdrew; and looking down from my window, I saw him with incredible quickness enter the yard, where I soon lost sight of him among the carriages.