Read CHAPTER VI - THE TALLEYRAND CLUB of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

It has been said of the Talleyrand Club that the only qualifications required for admittance to its membership are a frock-coat and a glib tongue.  To explain the whereabouts of the Talleyrand Club were only a work of supererogation.  Many hansom cabmen know it.  Hansom cabmen know more than they are credited with.

The Talleyrand, as its name implies, is a diplomatic club, but ambassadors and ministers enter not its portals.  They send their juniors.  Some of these latter are in the habit of stating that London is the hub of Europe and the Talleyrand smoking-room its grease-box.  Certain is it that such men as Claude de Chauxville, as Karl Steinmetz, and a hundred others who are or have been political scene-shifters, are to be found in the Talleyrand rooms.

It is a quiet club, with many members and sparse accommodation.  Its rooms are never crowded, because half of its members are afraid of meeting the other half.  It has swinging glass doors to its every apartment, the lower portion of the glass being opaque, while the upper moiety affords a peep-hole.  Thus, if you are sitting in one of the deep, comfortable chairs to be found in all these small rooms, you will be aware from time to time of eyes and a bald head above the ground glass.  If you are nobody, eyes and bald head will prove to be the property of a gentleman who does not know you, or knows you and pretends that he does not.  If you are somebody, your solitude will depend upon your reputation.

There are quite a number of bald heads in the Talleyrand Club ­bald heads surmounting youthful, innocent faces.  The innocence of these gentlemen is quite remarkable.  Like a certain celestial, they are “childlike and bland”; they ask guileless questions; they make blameless mistakes in respect to facts, and require correction, which they receive meekly.  They know absolutely nothing, and their thirst for information is as insatiable as it is unobtrusive.

The atmosphere is vivacious with the light sound of many foreign tongues; it bristles with the ephemeral importance of cheap titles.  One never knows whether one’s neighbor is an ornament to the Almanac de Gotha, or a disgrace to a degenerate colony of refugees.

Some are plain Messieurs, Senores, or Herren.  Bluff foreigners with upright hair and melancholy eyes, who put up philosophically with a cheaper brand of cigar than their souls love.  Among the latter may be classed Karl Steinmetz ­the bluffest of the bluff ­innocent even of his own innocence.

Karl Steinmetz in due course reached England, and in natural sequence the smoking-room ­room B on the left as you go in ­of the Talleyrand.

He was there one evening after an excellent dinner taken with humorous resignation, smoking the largest cigar the waiter could supply, when Claude de Chauxville happened to have nothing better or nothing worse to do.

De Chauxville looked through the glass door for some seconds.  Then he twisted his waxed mustache and lounged in.  Steinmetz was alone in the room, and De Chauxville was evidently ­almost obviously ­unaware of his presence.  He went to the table and proceeded to search in vain for a newspaper that interested him.  He raised his eyes casually and met the quiet gaze of Karl Steinmetz.

“Ah!” he exclaimed.

“Yes,” said Steinmetz.

“You ­in London?”

Steinmetz nodded gravely.

“Yes,” he repeated.

“One never knows where one has you,” Claude de Chauxville went on, seating himself in a deep arm-chair, newspaper in hand.  “You are a bird of passage.”

“A little heavy on the wing ­now,” said Steinmetz.

He laid his newspaper down on his stout knees and looked at De Chauxville over his gold eye-glasses.  He did not attempt to conceal the fact that he was wondering what this man wanted with him.  The baron seemed to be wondering what object Steinmetz had in view in getting stout.  He suspected some motive in the obesity.

“Ah!” he said deprecatingly.  “That is nothing.  Time leaves its mark upon all of us.  It was not yesterday that we were in Petersburg together.”

“No,” answered Steinmetz.  “It was before the German Empire ­many years ago.”

De Chauxville counted back with his slim fingers on the table ­delightfully innocent.

“Yes,” he said, “the years seem to fly in coveys.  Do you ever see any of our friends of that time ­you who are in Russia?”

“Who were our friends of that time?” parried Steinmetz, polishing his glasses with a silk handkerchief.  “My memory is a broken reed ­you remember?”

For a moment Claude de Chauxville met the full, quiet, gray eyes.

“Yes,” he said significantly, “I remember.  Well ­for instance, Prince Dawoff?”

“Dead.  I never see him ­thank Heaven!”

“The princess?”

“I never see; she keeps a gambling house in Paris.”

“And little Andrea?”

“Never sees me.  Married to a wholesale undertaker, who has buried her past.”

“En gros?”

“Et en detail.”

“The Count Lanovitch,” pursued De Chauxville, “where is he?”

“Banished for his connection with the Charity League.”

“Catrina?”

“Catrina is living in the province of Tver ­we are neighbors ­she and her mother, the countess.”

De Chauxville nodded.  None of the details really interested him.  His indifference was obvious.

“Ah! the Countess Lanovitch,” he said reflectively, “she was a foolish woman.”

“And is.”

M. de Chauxville laughed.  This clumsy German ex-diplomat amused him immensely.  Many people amuse us who are themselves amused in their sleeve.

“And ­er ­the Sydney Bamboroughs,” said the Frenchman, as if the name had almost left his memory.

Karl Steinmetz lazily stretched out his arm and took up the Morning Post.  He unfolded the sheet slowly, and having found what he sought, he read aloud: 

“’His Excellency the Roumanian Ambassador gave a select dinner-party at 4 Craven Gardens, yesterday.  Among the guests were the Baron de Chauxville, Feneer Pasha, Lord and Lady Standover, Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, and others.’”

Steinmetz threw the paper down and leant back in his chair.

“So, my dear friend,” he said, “it is probable that you know more about the Sydney Bamboroughs than I do.”

If Claude de Chauxville was disconcerted he certainly did not show it.  His was a face eminently calculated to conceal whatever thought or feeling might be passing through his mind.  Of an even white complexion ­verging on pastiness ­he was handsome in a certain statuesque way.  His features were always composed and dignified; his hair, thin and straight, was never out of order, but ever smooth and sleek upon his high, narrow brow.  His eyes had that dulness which is characteristic of many Frenchmen, and may perhaps be attributed to the habitual enjoyment of too rich a cuisine and too many cigarettes.

De Chauxville waved aside the small contretemps with easy nonchalance.

“Not necessarily,” he said, in cold, even tones.  “Mrs. Sydney Bamborough does not habitually take into her confidence all who happen to dine at the same table as herself.  Your confidential woman is usually a liar.”

Steinmetz was filling his pipe; this man had the evil habit of smoking a wooden pipe after a cigar.

“My very dear De Chauxville,” he said, without lookup, “your epigrams are lost on me.  I know most of them.  I have heard them before.  If you have anything to tell me about Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, for Heaven’s sake tell it to me quite plainly.  I like plain dishes and unvarnished stories.  I am a German, you know; that is to say, a person with a dull palate and a thick head.”

De Chauxville laughed again in an unemotional way.

“You alter little,” he said.  “Your plainness of speech takes me back to Petersburg.  Yes, I admit that Mrs. Sydney Bamborough rather interested me.  But I assume too much; that is no reason why she should interest you.”

“She does not, my good friend, but you do.  I am all attention.”

“Do you know anything of her?” asked De Chauxville perfunctorily, not as a man who expects an answer or intends to believe that which he may be about to hear.

“Nothing.”

“You are likely to know more?”

Karl Steinmetz shrugged his heavy shoulders, and shook his head doubtfully.

“I am not a lady’s man,” he added gruffly; “the good God has not shaped me that way.  I am too d ­d fat.  Has Mrs. Sydney Bamborough fallen in love with me?  Has some imprudent person shown her my photograph?  I hope not.  Heaven forbid!”

He puffed steadily at his pipe, and glanced quickly at De Chauxville through the smoke.

“No,” answered the Frenchman quite gravely.  Frenchmen, by the way, do not admit that one may be too middle-aged, or too stout, for love.  “But she is au mieux with the prince.”

“Which prince?”

“Pavlo.”

The Frenchman snapped out the word, watching the other’s benevolent countenance.  Steinmetz continued to smoke placidly and contentedly.

“My master,” he said at length.  “I suppose that some day he will marry.”

De Chauxville shrugged his shoulders.  He touched the button of the electric bell, and when the servant appeared, ordered coffee.  He selected a cigarette from a silver case with considerable care, and having lighted it smoked for some moments in silence.  The servant brought the coffee, which he drank thoughtfully.  Steinmetz was leaning back in his deep chair, with his legs crossed.  He was gazing into the fire, which burnt brightly, although it was nearly May.  The habits of the Talleyrand Club are almost continental.  The rooms are always too warm.  The silence was that of two men knowing each other well.

“And why not Mrs. Sydney Bamborough?” asked Steinmetz suddenly.

“Why not, indeed?” replied De Chauxville.  “It is no affair of mine.  A wise man reduces his affairs to a minimum, and his interest in the affairs of his neighbor to less.  But I thought it would interest you.”

“Thanks.”

The tone of the big man in the arm-chair was not dry.  Karl Steinmetz knew better than to indulge in that pastime.  Dryness is apt to parch the fount of expansiveness.

De Chauxville’s attention was apparently caught by an illustration in a weekly paper lying open on the table near to him.  Your shifty man likes something to look at.  He did not speak for some moments.  Then he threw the paper aside.

“Who was Sydney Bamborough, at any rate?” he asked, with a careless assumption of a slanginess which is affected by society in its decadent periods.

“So far as I remember,” answered Steinmetz, “he was something in the Diplomatic Service.”

“Yes, but what?”

“My dear friend, you had better ask his widow when next you sit beside her at dinner.”

“How do you know that I sat beside her at dinner?”

“I did not know it,” replied Steinmetz, with a quiet smile which left De Chauxville in doubt as to whether he was very stupid or exceedingly clever.

“She seems to be very well off,” said the Frenchman.

“I am glad, as she is going to marry my master.”

De Chauxville laughed almost awkwardly, and for a fraction of a second he changed countenance under Steinmetz’s quiet eyes.

“One can never know whom a woman intends to marry,” said he carelessly, “even if they can themselves, which I doubt.  But I do not understand how it is that she is so much better off, or appears to be, since the death of her husband.”

“Ah, she is much better off, or appears to be, since the death of her husband,” said the stout man, in his slow Germanic way.

“Yes.”

De Chauxville rose, stretched himself and yawned.  Men are not always, be it understood, on their best behavior at their club.

“Good-night,” he said shortly.

“Good-night, my very dear friend.”

After the Frenchman had left, Karl Steinmetz remained quite motionless and expressionless in his chair, until such time as he concluded that De Chauxville was tired of watching him through the glass door.  Then he slowly sat forward in his chair and looked back over his shoulder.

“Our friend,” he muttered, “is afraid that Paul is going to marry this woman.  Now, I wonder why?”

These two had met before in a past which has little or nothing to do with the present narrative.  They had disliked each other with a completeness partly bred of racial hatred, partly the outcome of diverse interests.  But of late years they had drifted apart.  There was no reason why the friendship, such as it was, should not have lapsed into a mere bowing acquaintance.  For these men were foreigners, understanding fully the value of the bow as an interchange of masculine courtesy.  Englishmen bow badly.

Steinmetz knew that the Frenchman had recognized him before entering the room.  It was to be presumed that he had deliberately chosen to cross the threshold, knowing that a recognition was inevitable.  Karl Steinmetz went farther.  He suspected that De Chauxville had come to the Talleyrand Club, having heard that he was in England, with the purpose in view of seeking him out and warning him against Mrs. Sydney Bamborough.

“It would appear,” murmured the stout philosopher, “that we are about to work together for the first time.  But if there is one thing that I dislike more than the enmity of Claude de Chauxville it is his friendship.”