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A short story by Perceval Gibbon

Alms And The Man

Title:     Alms And The Man
Author: Perceval Gibbon [More Titles by Gibbon]

While she was yet dressing, she had heard the soft pad of slippers on the narrow landing outside her room and the shuffle of papers; then, heralded by a single knock, the scrape and crackle of a paper being pushed under her door. It was in this fashion that the Maison Mardel presented its weekly bills to its guests.

"Merci!" she called aloud, leaving her dressing to go and pick up the paper. A pant from without answered her and the slippers thudded away.

Standing by the door, with arms and shoulders bare, she unfolded the document, a long sheet with a printed column of items and large inky figures in francs and centimes written against them, and down in the right hand corner the dramatic climax of the total. It was the total that interested Annette Kelly.

"H'm!" It was something between a gasp and a sigh. "They 're making the most of me while I last," said Annette aloud.

Her purse was under her pillow, an old and baggy affair of shagreen, whose torn lining had to be explored with a forefinger for the coins it swallowed. She emptied it now upon the bed. The light of a Paris summer morning, golden and serene, flowed in at the window, visiting the poverty of the little room with its barren benediction and shining upon the figure of Annette as she bent above her money and counted it She was a slender girl of some three-and-twenty years, with hair and eyes of a somber brown; six weeks of searching for employment in Paris and economizing in food, of spurring herself each morning to the tone of hope and resolution, of returning each evening footsore and dispirited, had a little blanched and touched with tenseness a face in which there yet lingered some of the soft contours of childhood.

She sat down beside the money on the bed, her ankles crossed below her petticoat; her accounts were made up. After paying the bill and bestowing one franc in the unavoidable tip, there would remain to her exactly eight francs for her whole resources. It was the edge of the precipice at last. It was that precipice, overhanging depths unseen and terrible, which she was contemplating as she sat, feet swinging gently in the rhythm of meditation, her face serious and quiet. For six weeks she had seen it afar off; now it was at hand and immediate.

"Well," said Annette slowly; she had already the habit of talking aloud to herself which comes to lonely people. She paused. "It just means that today I've got to get some work. I've got to."

She rose, forcing herself to be brisk and energetic. The Journal, with its advertisements of work to be had for the asking, had come to her door with the glass of milk and the roll which formed her breakfast, and she had already made a selection of its more humble possibilities. She ran them over in her mind as she finished dressing. Two offices required typists; she would go to both. A cashier in a shop and an English governess were wanted. "Why shouldn't I be a governess?" said Annette. And finally, somebody in the Rue St. Honore required a young lady of good figure and pleasant manner for "reception." There were others, too, but it was upon these five that Annette decided to concentrate.

She put on her hat, took her money and her Journal, and turned to the door. A curious impulse checked her there and she came back to the mirror that hung above her dressing-table.

"Let's have a look at you!" said Annette to the reflection that confronted her.

She stood, examining it seriously. It was, she thought, quite presentable, a trim, quiet figure of a girl who might reasonably ask work and a wage; she could not find anything in it to account for those six weeks of refusals. She perked her chin and forced her face to look assured and spirited, watching the result in the mirror.

"Ye-es," she said at last, and nodded to the reflection. "You'll have to do; but I wish I wish you hadn't got that sort of doomed look. Good-bye, old girl!"

At the foot of the stairs, in the open door of that room which was labeled "Bureau," where a bed and a birdcage and a smell of food kept company with the roll-top desk, stood the patronne, Madame Mardel. She moved a little forth into the passage as Annette approached.

"Good morning, mademoiselle. Again a charming day!"

She was a large woman, grossly fleshy, with clothes that strained to creaking point about her body and gaped at the fastenings. Her vast face, under her irreproachably neat hair the hair of a Parisienne was swarthy and plethoric, with the jowl of a bulldog and eyes tiny and bright. Annette knew her for an artist in "extras," a vampire that had sucked her purse lean with deft overcharges, a creature without mercy or morals. But the daily irony of her greeting had the grace, the cordial inflexion, of a piece of distinguished politeness.

"Charming," agreed Annette. She produced the bill. "I may as well pay this now," she suggested.

Madame's chill and lively eyes were watching her face, estimating her solvency in the light of Madame's long experience of misfortune and despair. She shrugged a huge shoulder deprecatingly.

"There is no hurry," she said. She always said that. "Still, since mademoiselle is here."

Annette followed her into the bureau, that dimlighted sanctuary of Madame's real life. Below the half-raised blind in the window the canaries in their cage rustled and bickered; unwashed plates were crowded on the table; the big unmade bed added a flavor of its own to the atmosphere. Madame eased herself, panting, into the chair before the desk, revealing the great rounded expanse of her back with its row of straining buttons and lozenge-shaped revelations of underwear. With the businesslike deliberation of a person who transacts a serious affair with due seriousness, she spread the bill before her, smoothing it out with a practiced wipe of the hand, took her rubber stamp from the saucer in which' it lay, inked it on the pad and waited. Annette had been watching her, fascinated by that great methodical rhythm of movement, but at the pause she started, fished the required coins from the old purse, and laid them at Madame's elbow. "Merci, mademoiselle," said Madame, and then, and not till then, the stamp descended upon the paper. A flick with a scratchy pen completed the receipt, and Madame turned awkwardly in the embrace of her chair to hand it to Annette with her weekly smile. The ritual was accomplished.

"Good morning, mademoiselle. Thank you; good luck."

The mirthless smile discounted the words; the cold, avid eyes were busy and suspicious. Annette let them stare their fill while she folded the paper and tucked it into the purse; she had had six weeks of training in the art of preserving a cheerful countenance.

Then: "Good morning, madame," she smiled, with her gay little nod and reached the door in good order.

There was still Aristide, the lame man-of-all-work, who absorbed a weekly franc and never concealed his contempt of the amount. He was waiting on the steps, leaning on a broom, and turned his rat's face on her, sourly and impatiently, without a word. She paused as she came to him and dipped two fingers into the poor old purse; Aristide's pale, red-edged eyes followed them, while his thin mouth twisted into contempt.

"This is for you, Aristide," she said, and held out the coin.

He took it in his open palm and surveyed it with lifted eyebrows. "This?" he inquired.

"Yes." The insult never failed to hurt her; this morning, in particular, she would have been glad to set forth upon the day's forlorn hope without that preface of hate and cruel greed. But Aristide still stood, with the coin in his open hand, staring from it to her and she flinched from him. "Good morning," she said timidly, and slipped past.

It needed the gladness of the day, its calm and colorful warmth, to take the taste of Aristide out of her mouth and uplift her again to her mood of resolution. Her way lay downhill; the first of her advertisements gave an address at the foot of the Rue Lafayette; and soon the stimulus of the thronged streets, the mere neighborhood of folk who moved briskly and with purpose, re-strung her slackened nerves and she was again ready for the battle. And as she went her lips moved.

"Mind, now!" she was telling herself. "Today's the end the very end. You've got to get work today!"

The address in the Rue Lafayette turned out to be that of a firm of house and estate agents; it was upon the first floor and showed to the landing four ground-glass doors, of which three were lettered "Private," while the fourth displayed an invitation to enter without knocking. Upon the landing, in the presence of those inexpressive doors, behind which salaries were earned and paid and life was all that was orderly and desirable, Annette paused for a space of moments to make sure of herself.

"Now!" she said, with a deep breath, and pushed open the fourth door.

Within was an office divided by a counter, and behind the counter desks and the various apparatus of business. The desks were unoccupied; the only person present was a thin pretty girl seated before a typewriter. She looked up at Annette across the counter; her face showed patches of too bright a red on the cheekbones.

"Good morning," began Annette, with determined briskness. "I've come."

The girl smiled. "Typist?" she interrupted.

"Yes," said Annette. "The advertisement"--she stopped; the girl was still smiling, but in a manner of deprecating and infinitely gentle regret.

Annette stared at her, feeling within again that rising chill of disappointment with which she was already so familiar. "You mean" she stammered awkwardly "you mean you've got the place?"

The thin girl spread her hands apart in a little French gesture of conciliation.

"Ten minutes ago," she answered. "There is no one here yet but the manager, and I was waiting at the door when he arrived."

"Thank you," said Annette faintly. The thin girl, still regarding her with big shadowy eyes, suddenly put a hand to her bosom and coughed. The neat big office beyond the bar of the polished counter was unbearably pleasant to look at; one could have been so happily busy at one's place between those tidy desks. A sharp bell rang from an inner office; the thin girl rose. The hectic on her cheeks burned brighter.

"I must go," she said hurriedly. "He wants me. I hope you will have good luck."

The sunlight without had lost some of its quality when Annette came forth to the street again; it no longer warmed her to optimism. She stood for some moments in the doorway of the building, letting her depression and discouragement have their way with her.

"If only I might cry a bit," she reflected. "That would help a little. But I mustn't even do that!"

She had to prod herself into fresh briskness with the sense of her need, that to-day was the end. She sighed, jerked her chin up, set her small face into the shape of resolute cheerfulness and started forth again in the direction of the second vacancy for a typist.

Here, for a while, hope burned high. The office was that of a firm of thriving wine exporters and the post had not yet been filled. The partner into whose office she penetrated by virtue of her sheer determination to see someone in authority, was a stout ruddy Marseillais, speaking French in the full-throated Southern fashion; he was kindly and cheery, with broad vermilion lips a-smile through his beard.

"Yes, we want a typist," he admitted; "but I'm afraid" his amiable brown eyes scrutinized her with manifest doubt. "You have references?" he inquired.

Yes, Annette had references. She had only lost her last situation when her employer went bankrupt; the testimonial she produced spoke well of her in every sense. She gave it him to read. But what what was it in her that had inspired that look of doubt, that look she had seen so often before in the eyes of possible employers?

"Yes, it is very good." He handed the paper back to her, still surveying her and hesitating. "And you are accustomed to the machine? H'm!"

It was then that hope flared up strongly. He could not get out of it; he must employ her now. Salary? She would take what the firm offered! And still he continued to look at her with a hint of embarrassment in his regard. She felt she was trembling.

"I'm afraid" he began again, but stopped at her involuntary little gasp and shifted uneasily in his chair. He was acutely uncomfortable. An idea came to him and he brightened. "Well, you can leave your address and we will write to you. Yes, we will write to you."

And to-day was the end! Annette stared at him. "When?" she asked shortly.

The burly man reddened dully; she had seen through his pretext for getting rid of her. "Oh, in a day or two," he answered uneasily.

Annette rose. She had turned pale but she was quite calm and self-possessed.

"I I hoped to get work today," she said. "In fact, I must find it today. But will you at least tell me why you won't give me the place?"

The big man's cheery face began to frown. He was being forced to fall back on his right to employ or not to employ whom he pleased without giving reasons. Annette watched him, and before he could speak she went on again.

"I'm not complaining," she said. Her voice was even and very low. "But there's something wrong with me, isn't there? I saw how you looked at me at first. Well, it wouldn't cost you anything, and it would help me a lot, if you'd just tell me what it is that's wrong. You see, nobody will have me, and it's getting rather rather desperate. So if you'd just tell me, perhaps I could alter something, and have a chance at last."

Her serious eyes, the pallor of her face, and the level tones of her voice held him like a hand on his throat. He was a man with the cordial nature of his race, prone to an easy kindliness, who would have suffered almost any ill rather than feel himself guilty of a cruelty. But how could he speak to her of the true reason for refusing her the son in the business, the avid young debauchee whose victims were girls in the firm's employ?

"If you'd just tell me what it is, I wouldn't bother you any more, and it might make all the difference to me," Annette was saying.

She saw him redden and shift sharply in his chair; an impulse of his ardent blood was spurring him to give her the work she needed, and then so to deal with his son that he would never dare lift his eyes to her. But the instinct of caution developed in business came to damp that dangerous warmth.

"Mademoiselle!" He returned her look gravely and honestly. "Upon my word, I can see nothing whatever wrong with you nothing whatever."

"Then," began Annette, "why won't you?"

He stopped her with an upraised hand. "I am going to tell you," he said. "There is a rule in this office, and behind the rule are good and sufficient reasons, that we do not take into our employ women who are still young and pretty."

She heard him with no change of her rigid countenance. She understood, of course; she had known in her time what it was to be persecuted. She would have liked to tell him that she was well able to take care of herself, but she recalled her promise not to bother him further.

She sighed, buttoning her glove. "It's a pity," she said unhappily, "because I really am a good typist."

"I am sure of it," he agreed. "I infinitely regret, but sa y est!"

She raised her head. "Well, thank you for telling me, at any rate," she said. "Good morning, monsieur."

"Good morning, mademoiselle," he replied, and held open the door for her to pass out.

Once more the street and the sunshine and the hurry of passing strangers, each pressing by about his or her concerns. Again she stood a little while in the doorway, regarding the thronged urgency that surged in spate between the high, handsome buildings, every unit of it wearing the air of being bound towards some place where it was needed, while she alone was unwanted.

"I think," considered Annette, "that I ought to have some coffee or something, since it's the last day."

She looked down along the street; not far away the awning of a cafe showed red and white above the sidewalk, sheltering its row of little tables, and she walked slowly towards it. How often in the last six weeks, footsore and leaden-hearted, had she passed such places, feeling the invitation of their ease and refreshment in every jarred and crying nerve of her body, yet resisting it for the sake of the centimes it would cost.

She took a chair in the back row of seats, behind a small iron table, slackening her muscles and leaning back, making the mere act of sitting down yield her her money's worth. The shadow of the awning turned the day to a benign coolness; there was a sense of privilege in being thus at rest in the very street, at the elbow of its passers-by. A crop-headed German waiter brought the cafe au lait which she ordered, and set it on the table before her two metal jugs, a cup and saucer, a little glass dish of sugar, and a folded napkin. The cost was half a franc; she gave him a franc, bade him keep the change, and was rewarded with half a smile, half a bow, and a "Merci beaucoup, madame!" which in themselves were a balm to her spirit, bruised by insult and failure. The coffee was hot; its fragrance gushed up from her cup; since her last situation had failed her she was tasting for the first time food that was appetizing and dainty.

She lifted the cup. "A short life and a merry one," she murmured, toasting herself before she drank.

Six francs remained to her, and there were yet three employers to visit. The lady in need of a governess and the shop which required a cashier were at opposite ends of Paris; the establishment which desired a young lady for "reception" was between the two. Annette, surveying the field', decided to reserve the "reception" to the last. She finished her coffee, flavoring to the last drop the warm stimulation of it; then, having built up again her hopeful mood, she set out anew.

It was three hours later, towards two o'clock in the afternoon, that she came on foot, slowly, along the Rue St. Honore, seeking the establishment which had proclaimed in the Journal its desire to employ, for purposes of "reception," a young lady of good figure and pleasant manners. She had discovered, at the cost of one of her remaining francs for omnibus fares, that a 50-franc a month governess must possess certificates, that governessing is a skilled trade overcrowded by women of the most various and remarkable talents. At the shop that advertised for a cashier a floor-walker had glanced at her over his shoulder for an instant, snapped out that the place was filled, and walked away.

The name she sought appeared across the way, lettered upon a row of first-floor windows; it was a photographer's.

"Now!" said Annette. "The end this is the end!"

A thrill touched her as she went up the broad stairway of the building; the crucial thing was at hand. The morning had been bad, but at each failure there had still been a possibility ahead. Now, there was only this and nothing beyond.

A spacious landing, carpeted, and lit by the tall church-windows on the staircase, great double doors with a brass plate, and a dim indoor sense pervading all the place! Here, evidently, the sharp corners of commerce were rounded off; its acolytes must be engaging female figures with affable manners.

Annette's ringer on the bronze bell-push evoked a manservant in livery, with a waistcoat of horizontal yellow and black stripes like a wasp and a smooth, subtle, still face. He pulled open one wing of the door and stood aside to let her pass in, gazing at her with demure eyes, in whose veiled suggestion there was something satiric. Annette stepped past him at once.

"There is an advertisement in the Journal for a young lady," she said. "I have come to apply for the post."

The smooth manservant lowered his head in a nod that was just not a bow, and closed the tall door.

"Yes," he said. "If mademoiselle will give herself the trouble to be seated I will inform the master."

The post was not filled, then. Annette sat down, let the wasp-hued flunkey pass out of sight, and looked round at the room in which she found herself. It was here, evidently, that the function of "reception" was accomplished. The manservant admitted the client; one rose from one's place at the little inlaid desk in the alcove and rustled forward across the gleaming parquet, with pleased and deferential alacrity to bid Monsieur or Madame welcome, to offer a chair and the incense of one's interest and delight in service. One added oneself to the quality of the big, still apartment, with its antique furniture, its celebrities and notorieties pictured upon its walls, its great chandelier, a-shiver with glass lusters hanging overhead like an aerial iceberg. No noises entered from the street; here, the business of being photographed was magnified to a solemnity; one drugged one's victim with pomp before leading him to the camera.

"I could do it," thought Annette. "I'm sure I could do it. I could fit into all this like a like a snail into a shell. I'd want shoes that didn't slide on the parquet; and then oh, if only this comes off!"

A small noise behind her made her turn quickly. The door by which the footman had departed was concealed by a portiere of heavy velvet; a hand had moved it aside and a face was looking round the edge of it at her. As she turned, the owner of it came forward into the room, and she rose.

"Be seated, be seated!" protested the newcomer in a high emasculate voice, and she sat down again obediently upon the little spindle-legged Empire settee from which she had risen.

"And you have come in consequence of the advertisement?" said the man with a little giggle. "Yes; yes! We will see, then!"

He stood in front of her, half-way across the room, staring at her. He was a man somewhere in the later thirties, wearing the velvet jacket, the cascading necktie, the throat-revealing collar, and the overlong hair which the conventions of the theatre have established as the livery of the artist. The details of this grotesque foppery presented themselves to Annette only vaguely; it was at the man himself as he straddled in the middle of the polished floor, staring at her, that she gazed with a startled attention a face like the feeble and idiot countenance of an old sheep, with the same flattened length of nose and the same weakly demoniac touch in the curve and slack hang of the wide mouth. It was not that he was merely ugly or queer to the view; it seemed to Annette that she was suddenly in the presence of something monstrous and out of the course of Nature. His eyes, narrow and seemingly colorless, regarded her with a fatuous complacency.

She flushed and moved in her seat under his long scrutiny. The creature sighed.

"Yes," he said, always in the same high, dead voice. "You satisfy the eye, mademoiselle. For me, that is already much, since it is as an artist that I consider you first. And your age?"

She told him. He asked further questions, of her previous employment, her nationality, and so forth, putting them perfunctorily as though they were matters of no moment, and never removing his narrow eyes from her face. Then, with short sliding steps, he came across the parquet and sat down beside her on the Empire settee.

Annette backed to the end of it and sat defensively on the edge, facing the strange being. He, crossing his thin legs, leaned with an arm extended along the back of the settee and his long, large-knuckled hand hanging limp. His sheep's face lay over on his shoulder towards her; in that proximity its quality of feeble grotesqueness was enhanced. It was like sitting in talk with a sick ape.

"Curiouser and curiouser!" quoted Annette to herself. "I ought to wake up next and find he really doesn't exist."

"Mademoiselle!" The creature began to speak again. "You are the ninth who has come hither today seeking the post I have advertised. Some I rejected because they failed to conciliate my eye; I cannot, you will understand, be tormented by a presence which jars my sense."

He paused to hear her agree.

"And the others?" inquired Annette.

"A-ah!" The strange being sighed. "The others in each case, what a disappointment! Girls beautiful, of a personality subdued and harmonious, capable of taking their places in my environment without doing violence to its completeness; but lacking the plastic and responsive quality which the hand of the artist should find in his material. Resistant they were resistant, mademoiselle, every one of them."

"Silly of them," said Annette briefly. She was meeting the secret stare of his half-closed eyes quite calmly now; she was beginning to understand the furtive satire in the regard of the smooth footman who had admitted each of those eight others in turn and seen their later departure. "What was it they wouldn't do?" she inquired.

"Do!" The limp hand flapped despairingly; the thin voice ran shrill. "I required nothing of them. One enters; I view her; I seat myself at her side as I sit now with you; I seek in talk to explore her resources of sentiment, of temperament, of sympathy. Perhaps I take her hand" As though to illustrate the recital, his long hand dropped suddenly and seized hers. He ceased to talk, surveying her with a scared shrewdness.

Annette smiled, letting her hand lie where it was. She was not in the least afraid; she had forgotten for the moment the barrenness of the streets that awaited her outside, and the fact that she had come to the end of her hopes.

"And they objected to that?" she inquired sweetly.

"Ah, but you." He was making ready to hitch closer along the seat, and she was prepared for him.

"Oh, I'd let you hold them both if that were all," she replied. "But it isn't all, is it?"

She smiled again at the perplexity in his face; his hands slackened and withdrew slowly. "You haven't told me what salary you are offering," she reminded him.

"Mademoiselle you, too?"

She nodded. "I, too," she said, and rose. The man on the settee groaned and heaved his shoulders theatrically; she stood, viewing in quiet curiosity that countenance of impotent vileness. Other failures had left her with a sense of defenselessness in a world so largely populated by men who glanced up from their desks to refuse her plea for work. But now she had resources of power over fate and circumstance; the streets, the night, the river, whatever of fear and destruction the future held, could neither daunt nor compel her. She could go out to meet them, free and victorious.

"Mademoiselle!" The man on the settee bleated at her.

She shook her head at him. It was not worth while to speak. She went to the door and opened it for herself; the smooth manservant was deprived of the spectacle of her departure.

She went slowly down the wide stairs. "Nine of us," she was thinking. "Nine girls, and not one of us was what did he call it? plastic. I'm not really alone in the world, after all."

But it was very like being alone in the world to go slowly, with tired feet, along the perspectives of the streets, to turn corners aimlessly, to wander on with no destination or purpose. There was yet money in the old purse a single broad five-franc piece; it would linger out her troubles for her till to-morrow.

She would need to eat, and her room at Madame Mardel's would come to three francs; she did not mean to occupy it any longer than she could pay for it. And then the morning would find her penniless in actuality.

Her last turning brought her out to the arches of the Rue de Rivoli; across the way the trees of the Tuileries Gardens lifted their green to the afternoon sunlight. She hesitated; then crossed the wide road towards the gardens, her thoughts still hovering about the five-franc piece.

"It's a case for riotous living," she told herself, as she passed in to the smooth paths beneath the trees. "Five francs' worth of real dinner or something like that. Only I'm not feeling very riotous just now."

What she felt was that the situation had to be looked at, but that looking at it could not improve it. Things had come to an end; food to eat, a bed to sleep in, the mere bare essentials of life had ceased, and she had not an idea of what came next; how one entered upon the process of starving to death in the streets. Passers-by, strolling under the trees, glanced at her as she passed them, preoccupied and unseeing, a neat, comely little figure of a girl in her quiet clothes with her still composed face. She went slowly; there was a seat which she knew of farther on, overshadowed by a lime tree, where she meant to rest and put her thoughts in order; but already at the back of her mind there had risen, vague as night, oppressive as pain, tainting her disquiet with its presence, the hint of a consciousness that, after all, one does not starve to death pas si bete! One takes a shorter way.

A lean youth, with a black cotton cap pulled forward over one eye, who had been lurking near, saw the jerk with which she lifted her head as that black inspiration was clear to her, and the sudden coldness and courage of her face, and moved away uneasily.

"Ye-es," said Annette slowly. "Ye-es! And now Ghh!"

A bend in the path had brought her suddenly to the seat under the lime tree; she was within a couple of paces of it before she perceived that it had already its occupant the long figure of a young man who sprawled back with his face upturned to the day and slumbered with all that disordered and unbeautiful abandon which goes with daylight sleep. His head had fallen over on one shoulder; his mouth was open; his hands, grimy and large, showed half shut in his lap. There was a staring patch of black sticking plaster at the side of his chin; his clothes, that were yet decent, showed stains here and there; his face, young and slackened in sleep, was burned brick-red by exposure. The whole figure of him, surrendered to weariness in that unconscious and uncaring sprawl, seemed suddenly to answer her question this was what happened next; this was the end unless one found and took that shorter way.

"They walk till they can't walk any longer; then they sleep on benches. I could never do that!"

She stood for some seconds longer, staring at the sleeping man. Resolution, bitter as grief, mounted in her like a tide. "No, it shan't come to that with me!" she cried inwardly. "Lounging with my mouth open for anyone to stare at! No!"

She turned, head up, body erect, face set strongly, and walked away. Neither sheep-faced human grotesques in palatial offices nor all Paris and its civilization should make her other than she wished to be. She stepped out defiantly and stopped short.

The old purse was in her hand; through its flabby sides she could feel with her fingers the single five-franc piece which it yet contained. Somehow, that had to be disposed of or provided for; five francs was a serious matter to Annette. She looked round; the man in the seat was still sleeping.

Treading quietly, she went back to him, taking the coin from her purse as she went. Upon his right side his coat pocket bulged open; she could see that in it was a little wad of folded papers. "His testimonials poor fellow!" she breathed. Carefully she leaned forward and let the broad coin slip into the pocket among the papers. Then, with an end of a smile twisted into the set of her lips, she turned again and departed. Among the trees the lean youth in the black cotton cap watched her go.

A day that culminates in sleep upon a bench in a public place is commonly a day that has begun badly and maintained its character. In this case it may be said to have begun soon after nine A.M. when a young man in worn tweed clothes and carrying a handkerchief pressed to his jaw, stepped out from a taxi and into that drug-store which is nearest to the Gare de Lyon. The bald, bland chemist who presides there has a regular practice in the treatment of razor-cuts acquired through shaving in the train; he looked up serenely across his glass-topped counter.

"Good morning, monsieur," he said. "A little cut yes?"

Young Raleigh gazed at him across the handkerchief.

"No! A thundering great gash," he answered with emphasis. "I want something to patch it up with."

"Certainly certainly!" The bald apothecary had the airs of a family physician; he smiled soothingly. "We shall find something. Let me now see the cut!"

Raleigh protruded his face across the soaps and the bottles of perfume, and the apothecary rose on tiptoe to scrutinize the wound. The razor had got home on the edge of the jaw with a scraping cut that bled handsomely.

"Ah!" The bald man nodded, and sought a bottle. "A little of this" he was damping a rag of lint with the contents of the bottle "as a cleansing agent first. If monsieur will bend down a little so."

Daintily, with precision and delicacy, he proceeded to apply the cleansing agent to the cut; at the first dab the patient leapt back with an exclamation.

"Confound you!" he cried. "This stuff burns like fire."

"It will pass in a moment," soothed the chemist. "And now, a little patch, and all will be well."

His idea of a suitable dressing was two inches of stiff and shiny black plaster that gripped at the skin like a barnacle and looked like a tragedy. Raleigh surveyed the effect of it in a show-case mirror gloomily.

"I wonder you didn't put it in a sling while you were about it," he remarked ungratefully. "People'll think I've been trying to cut my throat."

"Monsieur should grow a beard," counseled the chemist as he handed him his change.

Raleigh grunted, disdaining, retort, and passed forth to his waiting cab. The day had commenced inauspiciously. The night before, smoking his final cigarette in his upper berth in the wagon-lit, he had tempted Providence by laying out for himself a programme and a time schedule; and it looked as if Providence had been unable to resist the temptation. The business of the firm in which he was junior partner had taken him to Zurich; he had given himself a week's holiday in the mountains, and was now on his way back to London. The train was due to land him in Paris at half-past eight in the morning, and his plans were clear. First, a taxi to the Cafe de la Paix and breakfast there under the awning while the day ripened towards the hours of business; then a small cigar and a stroll along the liveliness of the boulevard to the offices of the foundry company, where a heart-to-heart talk with the manager would clear up several little matters which were giving trouble. Afterwards, a taxi across the river and a call upon the machine-tool people, get their report upon the new gear-steels and return to the Gare du Nord in time to catch the two o'clock train for Calais.

He had settled the order of it to his satisfaction before he pulled the shade over the lamp and turned over to sleep; and then, next morning, he had gashed himself while shaving, and the train was forty minutes late.

"These clothes" there was a narrow slip of mirror between the front windows of the taxi which reflected him, a section at a time "these clothes 'ud pass," he considered gloomily, considering their worn and unbusinesslike quality. "But with this" his fingers explored his chin "folks'll think we only do business between sprees."

The manager of the foundry company was a French engineer who had been trained in Pittsburg, a Frenchman of the new style, whose silky sweetness of manner was the mask of a steely tenacity of purpose. He had a little devilish black moustache, waxed at the points, like an earl of melodrama, and with it a narrow cheerless smile that jeered into futility Raleigh's effort to handle the subject on a basis of easy good fellowship. The heart-to-heart talk degenerated into a keen business controversy, involving the consultation of letter-files; it took more time than Raleigh had to spare; and in the end nothing was settled.

"You catch the airly train to London?" inquired the manager amiably, when Raleigh was leaving.

"Yes," replied Raleigh warmly. "I'm going to get out of this while I've got my fare left."

"Bon voyage," said the Frenchman smilingly. "You will present my compliments to your father?"

"Not me," retorted Raleigh. "I'm not going to let him know I saw you."

The machine-tool people, to whom his next visit was due, were established south of the river, a long drive from the boulevards. They were glad to receive him; there was a difficulty with some of the new steels, and they took him into the shops that he might see and appreciate the matter for himself. In the end it was necessary for Raleigh to reset the big turret lathe and demonstrate the manner of working, standing to the machine in his ancient tweed clothes nobody offered him overalls while the swift belting slatted at his elbow and fragments of shaved steel and a fine spray of oil welcomed him back to his trade. The good odor of metal, the engine-room smell, filled his nostrils; he was doing the thing which he could do best; it was not till it was finished that he looked at his watch and realized that the last item of his time-table had gone the way of the first, and he had missed the two o'clock train.

He paid off his return cab in the Place de la Concorde and stood doubtfully on the curb, watching it skate away with the traffic. His baggage had gone on by the two o'clock train; he was committed now to an afternoon in those ancient clothes with the oily stigma of the workshop upon them. His hands, too, were black from his work; he had slept badly in the train and done without a bath. In the soft sunlight that rained upon those brilliant streets he felt foul and unsightly.

He yawned, between a certain afternoon drowsiness and a languid depression.

"I'll wander up to the Meurice an' get a wash, anyhow," he decided, and turned to stroll through the Tuileries Gardens towards the hotel. He went slowly; it was pleasant among the trees, and when a seat in the shadows offered itself he sank down into it.

"I'll sleep all right in the train to-night," he thought, shoving back his cap.

There were children playing somewhere out of sight; their voices came to him in an agreeable tinkle. He crossed one leg over the other and settled himself more comfortably; he had plenty of time to spare now. His eyes closed restfully.

The touch that roused him was a very gentle one, scarcely more than a ghost of a sensation, the mere brush of a dexterous hand that slid as quietly as a shadow along the edge of his jacket pocket and groped into it with long clever fingers, while its owner, sitting beside him on the bench, gazed meditatively before him with an air of complete detachment from that skilled felonious hand. Raleigh, waking without moving, was able for a couple of seconds to survey his neighbor, a slim white-faced youth with a black cotton cap slouched forward over one eye. Then, swiftly, he caught the exploring hand by the wrist and sat up.

"Your mistake," he said crisply. "There's nothing but old letters in that pocket."

The youth at the first alarm tried to wrench loose, writhing in startled effort like a pronged snake, with all his smooth, vicious face clenched in violent fear. Raleigh gave a twisting jerk to the skinny wrist and the struggle was over; the lad uttered a yelp and collapsed back on the seat.

"Be good," warned Raleigh in easy French; "be good, or I'll beat you, d'you hear?"

The youth sniffed, staring at him with eyes in which a mere foolish fear was giving place to cunning. He was a creature flimsy as paper, a mere lithe skinful of bones, in whom the wit of the thief supplied the place of strength. He was making now his hasty estimate of the man he had to deal with.

"Well," demanded Raleigh, "what have you got to say for yourself?"

"Monsieur!" the youth struck into an injured whine. "I meant no harm, but I was desperate; I have not eaten today" his eyes noted the amused contempt on Raleigh's face, and he poised an instant like a man taking aim "and when I saw the lady slip the money into monsieur's pocket while he slept, and reflected that he would never even know that he had lost it."

"Eh?" Raleigh sat up. The thief suppressed a smile. "What lady, espece de fourneau? What are you talking about?"

"It's not a minute ago," replied the youth, discarding the whine. "See, she is perhaps not out of sight yet, if monsieur will look along the path. No, there she goes that one!"

His hand was free now; he was using it to point with; but he made no attempt to escape.

"She approached monsieur while he slept, walking cautiously, and slipped the money it was a five-franc piece, I think into his pocket. Yes, monsieur, that was the pocket."

He smiled patronizingly as Raleigh plunged a hand into the pocket in question, fumbled among the papers there, and drew out the coin and stared at it. He had the situation in hand now; he could get rid of this strong young man as soon as he pleased.

"She is going out of the gate now, monsieur," he said.

Raleigh turned. At the farther end of the path the woman who had been pointed out to him was close to the exit; in a few seconds more she would be gone. He could see of her nothing save her back that and a certain quality of carriage, a gait measured and deliberate.

He threw a word to the thief, who stood by with his hands in his pockets and an air of relishing the situation. "All right; you can go," he said, and started upon the chase of the secret bestower of alms.

"And me?" the outraged thief cried after him in tones of bitterness. "And me? I get nothing, then?"

The serge-clad back was disappearing through the gates into the welter of sunlight without; Raleigh gathered up his feet and sprinted along the tree shaded path. He was going to understand this business. He picked up the view of the serge-clad back again, walking towards the bridge, hastened after it and slowed down to its own pace when he was still some ten yards behind.

"Why, it's a girl!"

Somehow, he had counted upon finding an elderly woman, some charitable eccentric who acquired merit by secret gifts. He saw, instead, a slim girl, neatly and quietly clad, whose profile, as she glanced across the parapet of the bridge, showed pearl-pale in the shadow of her hat, with a simple and almost childlike prettiness of feature. There was something else, too, a quality of the whole which Raleigh, who did not deal in fine shades, had no words to describe to himself. But he saw it, nevertheless a gravity, a character of sad and tragic composure, that look of defeat which is prouder than any victory; it waked his imagination.

"Something wrong!" he said to himself vaguely, and continued to follow.

At the southern end of the bridge she turned her back to the sun and went east along the quay where the second-hand booksellers lounged beside their wares. She neither hurried nor slackened that deliberate pace of hers; Raleigh, keeping well behind, his wits at work acutely, wondered what it reminded him of, that slow trudge over the pavements. It was when the booksellers were left behind that an incident enlightened him.

She stopped for a minute and leaned upon the parapet; he crossed the road to be out of sight in case she should look back. She had been carrying in her hand a purse, and now he saw her open it and apparently search its interior, but idly and without interest as though she knew already what to expect of it. Then she closed it and tossed it over the parapet into the river.

"Ah!" Sudden comprehension rushed upon him; he knew now what that slow, aimless gait suggested to him. He recalled evenings in London, when he walked or drove through the lit streets and saw, here and there, the figures of those homeless ones who walked walked always, straying forward in a footsore progress till the night should be ripe for them to sit down in some corner. And then, that shadow in her face, that mouth, tight-held but still drooping; her way of looking at the river! His hand, in his pocket, closed over the five-franc piece which she had dropped there; he started across the road to accost her forthwith, but at that moment she moved on again, and once more he fell into step behind her.

There is a point, near the Ile de la Cite, where the Seine projects an elbow; the quay goes round in a curve under high houses; a tree or two overhangs the water, and there is a momentary space of quiet, almost a privacy at the skirts of bristling Paris. Here, commonly, men of leisure sit through the warm hours, torpidly fishing the smooth green depth of water below; but now there was none. The girl followed the elbow round and stopped at the angle of it. She leaned her arms on the coping and gazed down at the quiet still water below.

She was looking at it with such a preoccupation that Raleigh was able to come close to her before he spoke. He, too, put an arm on the parapet at her side.

"Looks peaceful, doesn't it?" he said quietly.

The girl's head rose with a jerk, and she stared at him, startled. The words had been deftly chosen to match her own thoughts; and for the while she failed to recognize in this tall young man the sprawling figure of the slumberer in the Tuileries Gardens.

"I, I who are you?" she stammered. "What do you want?"

He was able to see now that her pale composure was maintained only by an effort, that the strain of it was making her tremble. He answered in tones of careful conventionality.

"I'm afraid I startled you," he said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have ventured to speak to you at all if you hadn't--" He paused. "You don't happen to remember me at all?" he asked.

"No," said Annette. "If I hadn't, what?"

He slipped a hand into his pocket and drew forth the five-franc piece. The broad palm it lay on was still grimy from the workshop.

"I happened to fall asleep in the Tuileries this afternoon," he said. "Idiotic thing to do, but--."

"Oh!" The color leapt to her face. "Was that you?"

Raleigh nodded. "You had hardly moved away when a man who had been watching you tried to pick my pocket and woke me in doing so. He told me what he'd seen and pointed you out."

Annette gazed at him in tired perplexity. When he was on his feet, the condition of his clothes and hands and the absurd black patch on his chin were noticeable only as incongruities; there was nothing now to suggest the pauper or the outcast in this big youth with the pleasant voice and the strongly tanned face.

"I, I made a mistake," she said. "I saw you sleeping on the bench and I thought a little help, coming from nowhere like that you'd be so surprised and glad when you found it." She sighed. "However, I was wrong. I'm sorry."

"I'm not!" Raleigh put the money back in his pocket swiftly. "I think it was a wonderful idea of yours; it's the most splendid thing that ever happened to me. There was I, grumbling and making mistakes all day, playing the fool and pitying myself, and all the time you were moving somewhere within a mile or two, out of sight, but watching and saying: 'Yes, you're no good to anybody; but if the worst comes to the worst you shan't starve. I'll save you from that!' I'll never part with that money."

Annette shook her head; weariness inhabited her like a dull pain. "I didn't say that" she answered; "you weren't starving, and you don't understand. It doesn't matter, anyhow."

"Please," said Raleigh. He saw that she wanted to get rid of him, and he had no intention of letting her do so. "It matters to me, at any rate. But there is one thing I didn't understand."

She did not answer, gazing over her clasped hands at the water, across whose level the spires and chimneys of the city bristled like the skyline of a forest.

"It was while I was following you here, wondering whether I might speak to you," he continued. "I was watching you as you went, and it seemed to me that you were well, unhappy; in trouble or something. And then, back there on the quay, I saw you open your purse and throw it into the river."

He paused. "There was a hole in it," said Annette shortly, without turning her head.

"But" he spoke very quietly "you are in trouble? Yes, I know I'm intruding upon you" she had moved her shoulders impatiently "but haven't you given me just the shadow of a right? Your gift it might have saved my life if I'd been what you thought; I might have fetched up in the Morgue before morning. Men do, you know, every day women, too!" Her fingers upon the parapet loosened and clasped again at that. "You can't tie me hand and foot with such an obligation as that and leave me plante la."

"Oh!" Annette sighed. "It's nothing at all," she said. "But, as you want so much to know I'm a typist; I'm out of work; I've been looking for it all day, and I'm disappointed and very tired."

"And that's really all?" demanded Raleigh.

"All!" She turned to look at him at last, meeting his steady and penetrating eyes quietly. She had an impulse to tell him what was comprehended in that "all"; to speak deliberately plain words that should crumple him into an understanding of her tragedy. But even while she hesitated there came to her a sense that he knew more than he told; that the grey eyes in the red-brown face had read more of her than she was willing to show. She subsided.

"Yes, that's all," she said.

He nodded, a quick and business-like little jerk of the head. "I see. I've been worrying you, I'm afraid; but I'm glad I made you tell, because I can put that all right for you at once, as it happens."

The girl, leaning on the wall, drew in a harsh breath and turned to him. Young Raleigh, who had written a monograph on engineering stresses, had still much to learn about the stresses that contort and warp the souls of men and women. He learned some of it then, when he saw the girl's face deaden to a blanker white and the flame of a hungry hope leap into her eyes. He looked away quickly.

"You mean you can?"

He hushed her with his brisk and matter-of-fact little nod.

"I mean I can find you a situation in a business office as a typist," he said explicitly. "Wasn't that what you wanted?"

"Yes, yes." She was trembling; he put one large, grimy hand upon her sleeve to steady her. "Oh, please, where is the office? I'll go there at once, before."

"Hush!" he said. "It's all right. We'll get a taxi and I'll take you there. It's the Machine-Tool and Gear-Cutting Company; I don't know what they pay, but--."

"Anything," moaned Annette. "I'll take anything."

"Well, it's more than that," he smiled. "A typist with Raleigh and Son at her back isn't to be had every day of the week."

A taxicab drifted out of a turning on to the quay a hundred yards away; Raleigh waved a long arm and it came towards them.

"And after we've fixed this little matter," suggested Raleigh, "don't you think we might go somewhere and feed? I can get a sketchy kind of wash at the office while you're talking to the manager; and I'm beginning to notice that I didn't have my lunch to-day."

"I didn't either," said Annette, as the taxi slid to a standstill beside them. "But, oh! you don't know you don't know all you're doing for me. I'll never be able to thank you properly."

Raleigh opened the door of the cab for her. "You can try," he said. "I'm in Paris for three days every fortnight."

The taxicabs of Paris include in their number the best and the worst in the world. This was one of the latter; a moving musical-box of grinding and creaking noises. But Annette sank back upon its worn and knobly cushions luxuriously, gazing across the sun-gilt river to the white, window-dotted cliffs of Paris with the green of trees foaming about their base.

"Oh, don't you love Paris?" she cried softly.

"I do," agreed Raleigh, warmly, watching the soft glow that had come to her face. "I can't keep away from it."

[The end]
Perceval Gibbon's short story: Alms And The Man