English Literature

The Face and The Mask by Robert Barr

The Face and The Mask by Robert Barr.jpg

THE WOMAN OF STONE.

Lurine, was pretty, petite, and eighteen. She had a nice situation at the Pharmacie de Siam, in the Rue St. Honoré. She had no one dependent upon her, and all the money she earned was her own. Her dress was of cheap material perhaps, but it was cut and fitted with that daintiness of perfection which seems to be the natural gift of the Parisienne, so that one never thought of the cheapness, but admired only the effect, which was charming. She was book-keeper and general assistant at the Pharmacie, and had a little room of her own across the Seine, in the Rue de Lille. She crossed the river twice every day—once in the morning when the sun was shining, and again at night when the radiant lights along the river’s bank glittered like jewels in a long necklace. She had her little walk through the Gardens of the Tuileries every morning after crossing the Pont Royal, but she did not return through the gardens in the evening, for a park in the morning is a different thing to a park at night. On her return she always walked along the Rue de Tuileries until she came to the bridge. Her morning ramble through the gardens was a daily delight to her, for the Rue de Lille is narrow, and not particularly bright, so it was pleasant to walk beneath the green trees, to feel the crisp gravel under her feet, and to see the gleaming white statues in the sunlight, with the sparkle on the round fountain pond, by the side of which she sometimes sat. Her favorite statue was one of a woman that stood on a pedestal near the Rue de Rivoli. The arm was thrown over her head, and there was a smile on the marble face which was inscrutable. It fascinated the girl as she looked up to it, and seemed to be the morning greeting to her busy day’s work in the city. If no one was in sight, which was often the case at eight o’clock in the morning, the girl kissed the tips of her fingers, and tossed the salute airily up to the statue, and the woman of stone always smiled back at her the strange mystical smile which seemed to indicate that it knew much more of this world and its ways than did the little Parisienne who daily gazed up at her.

Lurine was happy, as a matter of course, for was not Paris always beautiful? Did not the sun shine brightly? And was not the air always clear? What more, then, could a young girl wish? There was one thing which was perhaps lacking, but that at last was supplied; and then there was not a happier girl in all Paris than Lurine. She almost cried it aloud to her favorite statue the next morning, for it seemed to her that the smile had broadened since she had passed it the morning before, and she felt as if the woman of stone had guessed the secret of the woman of flesh.

Lurine had noticed him for several days hovering about the Pharmacie, and looking in at her now and then; she saw it all, but pretended not to see. He was a handsome young fellow with curly hair, and hands long, slender, and white as if he were not accustomed to doing hard, manual labor. One night he followed her as far as the bridge, but she walked rapidly on, and he did not overtake her. He never entered the Pharmacie, but lingered about as if waiting for a chance to speak with her. Lurine had no one to confide in but the woman of stone, and it seemed by her smile that she understood already, and there was no need to tell her, that the inevitable young man had come. The next night he followed her quite across the bridge, and this time Lurine did not walk so quickly. Girls in her position are not supposed to have normal introductions to their lovers, and are generally dependent upon a haphazard acquaintance, although that Lurine did not know. The young man spoke to her on the bridge, raising his hat from his black head as he did so.

“Good evening!” was all he said to her.

She glanced sideways shyly at him, but did not answer, and the young man walked on beside her.

“You come this way every night,” he said. “I have been watching you.
Are you offended?”

“No,” she answered, almost in a whisper.

“Then may I walk with you to your home?” he asked.

“You may walk with me as far as the corner of the Rue de Lille,” she replied.

“Thank you!” said the young fellow, and together they walked the short distance, and there he bade her good night, after asking permission to meet her at the corner of the Rue St. Honoré, and walk home with her, the next night.

“You must not come to the shop,” she said.

“I understand,” he replied, nodding his head in assent to her wishes. He told her his name was Jean Duret, and by-and-by she called him Jean, and he called her Lurine. He never haunted the Pharmacie now, but waited for her at the corner, and one Sunday he took her for a little excursion on the river, which she enjoyed exceedingly. Thus time went on, and Lurine was very happy. The statue smiled its enigmatical smile, though, when the sky was overcast, there seemed to her a subtle warning in the smile. Perhaps it was because they had quarrelled the night before. Jean had seemed to her harsh and unforgiving. He had asked her if she could not bring him some things from the Pharmacie, and gave her a list of three chemicals, the names of which he had written on a paper.

“You can easily get them,” he had said; “they are in every Pharmacie, and will never be missed.”

“But,” said the girl in horror, “that would be stealing.”

The young man laughed.

“How much do they pay you there?” he asked. And when she told him, he laughed again and said,

“Why, bless you, if I got so little as that I would take something from the shelves every day and sell it.”

The girl looked at him in amazement, and he, angry at her, turned upon his heel and left her. She leaned her arms upon the parapet of the bridge, and looked down into the dark water. The river always fascinated her at night, and she often paused to look at it when crossing the bridge, shuddering as she did so. She cried a little as she thought of his abrupt departure, and wondered if she had been too harsh with him. After all, it was not very much he had asked her to do, and they did pay her so little at the Pharmacie. And then perhaps her lover was poor, and needed the articles he had asked her to get. Perhaps he was ill, and had said nothing. There was a touch on her shoulder. She looked round. Jean was standing beside her, but the frown had not yet disappeared from his brow.

“Give me that paper,” he said, abruptly.

She unclosed her hand, and he picked the paper from it, and was turning away.

“Stop!” she said, “I will get you what you want, but I will myself put the money in the till for what they cost.”

He stood there, looking at her for a moment, and then said—”Lurine, I think you are a little fool. They owe you ever so much more than that. However, I must have the things,” and he gave her back the paper with the caution—”Be sure you let no one see that, and be very certain that you get the right things.” He walked with her as far as the corner of the Rue de Lille. “You are not angry with me?” he asked her before they parted.

“I would do anything for you,” she whispered, and then he kissed her good night.

She got the chemicals when the proprietor was out, and tied them up neatly, as was her habit, afterwards concealing them in the little basket in which she carried her lunch. The proprietor was a sharp-eyed old lynx, who looked well after his shop and his pretty little assistant.

“Who has been getting so much chlorate of potash?” he asked, taking down the jar, and looking sharply at her.

The girl trembled.

“It is all right,” she said. “Here is the money in the till.”

“Of course,” he said. “I did not expect you to give it away for nothing. Who bought it?”

“An old man,” replied the girl, trembling still, but the proprietor did not notice that—he was counting the money, and found it right.

“I was wondering what he wanted with so much of it. If he comes in again look sharply at him, and be able to describe him to me. It seems suspicious.” Why it seemed suspicious Lurine did not know, but she passed an anxious time until she took the basket in her hand and went to meet her lover at the corner of the Rue des Pyramides. His first question was—

“Have you brought me the things?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Will you take them here, now?”

“Not here, not here,” he replied hurriedly, and then asked anxiously,
“Did anyone see you take them?”

“No, but the proprietor knows of the large package, for he counted the money.”

“What money?” asked Jean.

“Why, the money for the things. You didn’t think I was going to steal them, did you?”

The young man laughed, and drew her into a quiet corner of the Gardens of the Tuileries.

“I will not have time to go with you to the Rue de Lille to-night,” he said.

“But you will come as usual to-morrow night?” she asked, anxiously.

“Certainly, certainly.” he replied, as he rapidly concealed the packages in his pockets.

The next night the girl waited patiently for her lover at the corner where they were in the habit of meeting, but he did not come. She stood under the glaring light of a lamp-post so that he would recognize her at once. Many people accosted her as she stood there, but she answered none, looking straight before her with clear honest eyes, and they passed on after a moment’s hesitation. At last she saw a man running rapidly down the street, and as he passed a brilliantly-lighted window she recognized Jean. He came quickly towards her.

“Here I am,” she cried, running forward. She caught him by the arm, saying, “Oh, Jean, what is the matter?”

He shook her rudely, and shouted at her—”Let me go, you fool!” But she clung to him, until he raised his fist and struck her squarely in the face. Lurine staggered against the wall, and Jean ran on. A stalwart man who had spoken to Lurine a few moments before, and, not understanding her silence, stood in a doorway near watching her, sprang out when he saw the assault, and thrust his stick between the feet of the flying man, flinging him face forward on the pavement. The next instant he placed his foot upon Jean’s neck holding him down as if he were a snake.

“You villain!” he cried. “Strike a woman, would you?”

Jean lay there as if stunned, and two gens d’armes came pantingly upon the scene.

“This scoundrel,” said the man, “has just assaulted a woman. I saw him.”

“He has done more than that,” said one of the officers, grimly, as if, after all, the striking of a woman was but a trivial affair.

They secured the young man, and dragged him with them. The girl came up to them and said, falteringly—

“It is all a mistake, it was an accident. He didn’t mean to do it.”

“Oh, he didn’t, and pray how do you know?” asked one of the officers.

“You little devil,” said Jean to the girl, through his clinched teeth, “it’s all your fault.”

The officers hurried him off.

“I think,” said one, “that we should have arrested the girl; you heard what she said.”

“Yes,” said the other, “but we have enough on our hands now, if the crowd find out who he is.”

Lurine thought of following them, but she was so stunned by the words that her lover had said to her, rather than by the blow he had given her that she turned her steps sadly towards the Pont Royal and went to her room.

The next morning she did not go through the gardens, as usual, to her work, and when she entered the Pharmacie de Siam, the proprietor cried out, “Here she is, the vixen! Who would have thought it of her? You wretch, you stole my drugs to give to that villain!”

“I did not,” said Lurine, stoutly. “I put the money in the till for them.”

“Hear her! She confesses!” said the proprietor.

The two concealed officers stepped forward and arrested her where she stood as the accomplice of Jean Duret, who, the night before, had flung a bomb in the crowded Avenue de l’Opéra.

Even the prejudiced French judges soon saw that the girl was innocent of all evil intent, and was but the victim of the scoundrel who passed by the name of Jean Duret. He was sentenced for life; she was set free. He had tried to place the blame on her, like the craven he was, to shield another woman. This was what cut Lurine to the heart. She might have tried to find an excuse for his crime, but she realized that he had never cared for her, and had but used her as his tool to get possession of the chemicals he dared not buy.

In the drizzling rain she walked away from her prison, penniless, and broken in body and in spirit. She passed the little Pharmacie de Siam, not daring to enter. She walked in the rain along the Rue des Pyramides, and across the Rue de Rivoli, and into the Tuileries Gardens. She had forgotten about her stone woman, but, unconsciously her steps were directed to her. She looked up at her statue with amazement, at first not recognizing it. It was no longer the statue of a smiling woman. The head was thrown back, the eyes closed. The last mortal agony was on the face. It was a ghastly monument to Death. The girl was so perplexed by the change in her statue that for the moment she forgot the ruin of her own life. She saw that the smiling face was but a mask, held in place by the curving of the left arm over it. Life, she realized now, was made up of tragedy and comedy, and he who sees but the smiling face, sees but the half of life. The girl hurried on to the bridge, sobbing quietly to herself, and looked down at the grey river water. The passers-by paid no attention to her. Why, she wondered, had she ever thought the river cold and cruel and merciless? It is the only home of the homeless, the only lover that does not change. She turned back to the top of the flight of steps which lead down, to the water’s brink. She looked toward the Tuileries Gardens, but she could not see her statue for the trees which intervened. “I, too, will be a woman of stone,” she said, as she swiftly descended the steps.

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Categories: English Literature

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