"Who told you that--"
Rival interrupted him with:
"Madame Walter, here, who thinks the nickname a very nice one."
Madame Walter blushed, saying:
"Yes, I will admit that, if I knew you better, I would do like little Laurine and call you Pretty-boy, too.
The name suits you very well."
Du Roy laughed, as he replied:
"But I beg of you, madame, to do so."
She had lowered her eyes, and remarked:
We are not sufficiently intimate."
He murmured: "Will you allow me the hope that we shall be more so?"
"Well, we will see then," said she.
He drew on one side to let her precede him at the beginning of the narrow stairs lit by a gas jet.
The abrupt transition from daylight to this yellow gleam had something depressing about it.
A cellar-like odor rose up this winding staircase, a smell of damp heat and of moldy walls wiped down for the occasion, and also whiffs of incense recalling sacred offices and feminine emanations of vervain, orris root, and violets.
A loud murmur of voices and the quivering thrill of an agitated crowd could also be heard down this hole.
The entire cellar was lit up by wreaths of gas jets and Chinese lanterns hidden in the foliage, masking the walls of stone.
Nothing could be seen but green boughs.
The ceiling was ornamented with ferns, the ground hidden by flowers and leaves.
This was thought charming, and a delightful triumph of imagination.
In the small cellar, at the end, was a platform for the fencers, between two rows of chairs for the judges.
In the remaining space the front seats, ranged by tens to the right and to the left, would accommodate about two hundred people.
Four hundred had been invited.
In front of the platform young fellows in fencing costume, with long limbs, erect figures, and moustaches curled up at the ends, were already showing themselves off to the spectators.
People were pointing them out as notabilities of the art, professionals, and amateurs.
Around them were chatting old and young gentlemen in frock coats, who bore a family resemblance to the fencers in fighting array.
They were also seeking to be seen, recognized, and spoken of, being masters of the sword out of uniform, experts on foil play.
Almost all the seats were occupied by ladies, who kept up a loud rustling of garments and a continuous murmur of voices.
They were fanning themselves as though at a theater, for it was already as hot as an oven in this leafy grotto.
A joker kept crying from time to time: "Orgeat, lemonade, beer."
Madame Walter and her daughters reached the seats reserved for them in the front row.
Du Roy, having installed them there, was about to quit them, saying:
"I am obliged to leave you; we men must not collar the seats."
But Madame Walter remarked, in a hesitating tone: "I should very much like to have you with us all the same.
You can tell me the names of the fencers.
Come, if you stand close to the end of the seat you will not be in anyone's way."
She looked at him with her large mild eyes, and persisted, saying:
"Come, stay with us, Monsieur--Pretty-boy.
We have need of you."
He replied: "I will obey with pleasure, madame."
On all sides could be heard the remark:
"It is very funny, this cellar; very pretty, too."
George knew it well, this vault.
He recalled the morning he had passed there on the eve of his duel, alone in front of the little white carton target that had glared at him from the depths of the inner cellar like a huge and terrible eye.
The voice of Jacques Rival sounded from the staircase: "Just about to begin, ladies."
And six gentlemen, in very tight-fitting clothes, to set off their chests, mounted the platform, and took their seats on the chairs reserved for the judges.
Their names flew about.
General de Reynaldi, the president, a short man, with heavy moustaches; the painter, Josephin Roudet, a tall, ball-headed man, with a long beard; Mattheo de Ujar, Simon Ramoncel, Pierre de Carvin, three fashionable-looking young fellows; and Gaspard Merleron, a master.
Two placards were hung up on the two sides of the vault.