One afternoon I was sitting outside the Cafe de la Paix, watching the splendour and shabbiness of Parisian life, and wondering over my vermouth at the strange panorama of pride and poverty that was passing before me, when I heard some one call my name. I turned round, and saw Lord Murchison. We had not met since we had been at college together, nearly ten years before, so I was delighted to come across him again, and we shook hands warmly. At Oxford we had been great friends. I had liked him immensely, he was so handsome, so high-spirited, and so honourable. We used to say of him that he would be the best of fellows, if he did not always speak the truth, but I think we really admired him all the more for his frankness. I found him a good deal changed. He looked anxious and puzzled, and seemed to be in doubt about something. I felt it could not be modern scepticism, for Murchison was the stoutest of Tories, and believed in the Pentateuch as firmly as he believed in the House of Peers;
so I concluded that it was a woman, and asked him if he was married yet.
‘I don’t understand women well enough,’ he answered.
‘My dear Gerald,’ I said, ‘women are meant to be loved, not to be understood.’
‘I cannot love where I cannot trust,’ he replied.
‘I believe you have a mystery in your life, Gerald,’ I exclaimed; ‘tell me about it.’
‘Let us go for a drive,’ he answered, ‘it is too crowded here. No, not a yellow carriage, any other colour – there, that dark green one will do’; and in a few moments we were trotting down the boulevard in the direction of the Madeleine.
‘Where shall we go to?’ I said.
‘Oh, anywhere you like!’ he answered – ‘to the restaurant in the Bois; we will dine there, and you shall tell me all about yourself.’
‘I want to hear about you first,’ I said. ‘Tell me your mystery.’
He took from his pocket a little silver-clasped morocco case, and handed it to me. I opened it. Inside there was the photograph of a woman. She was tall and slight, and strangely picturesque with her large vague eyes and loosened hair. She looked like a clairvoyante, and was wrapped in rich furs.
‘What do you think of that face?’ he said; ‘is it truthful?’
I examined it carefully. It seemed to me the face of some one who had a secret, but whether that secret was good or evil I could not say. Its beauty was a beauty moulded out of many mysteries – the beauty, in fact, which is psychological, not plastic – and the faint smile that just played across the lips was far too subtle to be really sweet.
‘Well,’ he cried impatiently, ‘what do you say?’
‘She is the Gioconda in sables,’ I answered. ‘Let me know all about her.’
‘Not now,’ he said; ‘after dinner,’ and began to talk of other things.
When the waiter brought us our coffee and cigarettes I reminded Gerald of his promise. He rose from his seat, walked two or three times up and down the room, and, sinking into an armchair, told me the following story: –
‘One evening,’ he said, ‘I was walking down Bond Street about five o’clock. There was a terrific crush of carriages, and the traffic was almost stopped. Close to the pavement was standing a little yellow brougham, which, for some reason or other, attracted my attention. As I passed by there looked out from it the face I showed you this afternoon. It fascinated me immediately. All that night I kept thinking of it, and all the next day.