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Words: 81753 in 41 pages

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THE STORY OF FIFINE

I always come back to Paris or to London as to a rich feast after abstinence. There are the reserves of perfect health to draw upon for its enjoyment; and I enjoy it while the reserves last. But, on the first sign of their depletion, I return to my lentils and spring water, which can stand my happiness in quite as good stead as young partridges and Montrachet.

Of all the great cities, I have sojourned in Paris more than in any other. I have not, like Byron, shaken the dust of my native land off my shoes; but I came so early abroad, that English ways have grown foreign to me. I did not in fact ever fit into their social scheme, though somewhere in my heart a respect survives for it. But the little island is too small for me; or I am too big for it. There is not my peer there in the art of modelling; not a piece of native sculpture that I should like to acknowledge for my own.

For some years now I have rented a little flat in the Rue de Fleurus. It is the topmost suite in a high building, and troublesome of access to short-winded visitors, on whom the interminable succession of bare stone flights with their iron railings acts as a veritable treadmill. But the eyrie, once reached, is remote, and the view from its windows superb, including on the right the fathomless green sea of the Luxembourg gardens, on the left, like a golden buoy in the transparent mists, the dome of the Invalides. Here I possess three rooms at no great rent; and it suits me to retain them, as a conventional refuge, for use when I make my periodic returns from the wilderness.

I had been in repossession of them but three or four days when the story of Fifine began for me. It opened with a visit from Marion.

Marion, my step-sister, is the daughter of the Vicar: I am the son of the Vicar's second wife, whose first husband was a barrister. In most tales the step-mother indulges her own offspring at the expense of her spouse's; in mine the custom was reversed. Marion had ruled at Neverston, and Marion continued to rule. She ruled my mother consecrate, and myself unregenerate, and we both accepted her finding--with unnatural consequences for me. At the age of twenty-one I carried my Pariahship abroad for good, and my visits to Neverston since have been few and unexhilarating.

On this September evening in question I had been dining in one of those exiguous Caf?s in the Boulevard S. Michel, which cater largely for students of the Sorbonne and their little ch?re-amies. I have never much to say against the custom of such connexions, save for the hardship they entail upon certain of the girls--mostly shop or factory hands--when a necessary period is put to them. In other respects they serve to solve, and to solve cleanly, a problem which English prudery cannot bring itself to face. Yet better surely the informal comrade than the bagnio; and, after all, those who consent accept with their eyes open, and with a full knowledge of the impermanent nature of the relations.

I returned to the flat about eight o'clock, to find the wife of the Concierge already peering for me behind the closed iron gates of the lodge, which led out of a courtyard reached through an archway.

"Why closed?" I said.

"Ah!" returned Madame Crussol, snapping viciously at the lock: "Why indeed, but to oblige the laudable sister of a good-for-nothing, who is never so little to be found as when respectability calls. Likely this is one of your pranks, for which you are to be taken to task. You will find Madame upstairs."

She swung open the gate, and locked it behind me again as I entered. I accepted the enigma with a laugh, and a little pat on the good wife's ample shoulder. I am never eager about solving riddles which left alone will unravel of themselves. It is a good rule for ensuring serenity of mind.

As I turned to the stairs, I noticed a figure seated dimly in the porter's lodge. It was shrouded and obscure, but I believed it was that of a young girl, whose white face, picked out by the lamp-light, blossomed from the shadows with an oddly Rembrandtesque effect. It seemed, as I passed, to be projected in sudden interest or curiosity, and then, like a face seen from a train at night, to vanish instantly.


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