The discussion having turned upon the eternal comparison between the vanity of men and the vanity of women, the majority were of the opinion that the vainer sex was the masculine. But when the hostess declared, by way of example, that there was not a man living, no matter how old or sedate, capable of passing before a mirror without giving at least one approving glance at his own seductive image, two of her distinguished guests, the judge and the portly general, protested that this was not so, and that masculine vanity revealed itself in other ways. Straightway, a short, shrill peal of laughter echoed through the room. Each of the guests thought that it was the widow who had laughed, while the widow thought that the one who had laughed was the other lady, the Englishwoman. As a matter of fact, the laughter had come from a little imp, one of the sort that are always lying in wait, to tempt people to tell lies and commit sins of vanity.
Thereupon the discussion was dropped, partly because midnight was just striking. The two ladies arose, and the hostess with great cordiality invited the entire company to dine with her on the morrow, at six o'clock.
The morrow chancing to be a joyous, balmy April day, the guests all kept their dinner engagement, the ladies arriving by carriage, the gentlemen on foot, and each by himself. The judge and the general resided in the Via Alessandro Mazzoni; of the others, one came from the Via del Monte, another from the Via San Andrea, another from the Borgo Spesso, another from the Borgo Nuovo.
In short, the route of everyone lay through the De Cristoforis Gallery, and in spite of the fact that they all passed through there between five forty-five and six o'clock, chance willed it that none of them should encounter any of the others on his way. The De Cristoforis Gallery, you know, has two branches, forming a right angle, with a mirror fitted into the corner, which everyone must pass in turning from one branch into the other, opposite the Trenk beer hall. Behind this mirror the malicious little imp had installed himself, and lay in wait for the guests, in order to put into effect his diabolical little jest. There passed, first of all, the general; and he glanced at himself in the mirror, out of one corner of his eye, and discovered, with a violent start, an ink-stain upon his left cheek. It lacked but five minutes to six; there was no longer time to return home. The general hastened his steps, holding a handkerchief against his face, and no sooner was he within the vestibule of the countess than he asked the butler for a towel and a little water. The butler ushered him into a bedchamber and was in the act of pouring water into a basin, when again there came a ring at the front door. This time it was the judge who entered, holding a handkerchief over his left cheek.
"Quick, for goodness' sake! get me a towel and some water!"
The butler led him into another bedchamber and poured him out some water. Another ring. This time it was the lieutenant, who said, holding one hand over his face:
"I am very sorry, but I have a pair of gloves the color of which rubs off. Is there any water?"
The servant, marveling greatly, led him into a third bedchamber. The bell sounded for the fourth time. It proved to be the musician, who said brusquely:
"Some water! Show me into a private room."
"Excuse me, sir," replied the butler stiffly, "but there are already three gentlemen washing themselves in three different rooms, and there is not another one vacant excepting the countess' own bedchamber. With your permission, I shall bring the water and towel out here."
"Bring them," replied the composer. The butler went and returned with the water and a towel. The other scrubbed his face and then examined the towel, to see if it was soiled ; and since the towel still remained quite clean, he scrubbed and looked, scrubbed and looked, and scrubbed again, with desperate energy. Still another pull at the door-bell. It was the famous poet, who entered in time to see his friend still violently scrubbing, and he said, "Bravo! Splendid! Just what I need myself!"
"Is my face clean?" demanded the other, turning his cheek for inspection.
"My dear general, what have you been doing to your cheek, to make it so red?"
Immediately, all the other guests of the male sex, remembering that they also must have one red cheek, each instinctively raised a hand to his face. The countess laughed; then one of the young men laughed, then another, then a third; then followed a general burst of merriment. Now that the ice was broken, the countess laid the facts before the other two ladies, and all three wished to know the wherefore of this extraordinary epidemic.
"For my part," replied the poet, "I need only tell you that a friend of my childhood, the Duchess Y., who has been like a sister to me, must have been biting the point of her pencil to-day; for, just before I came here, I met her at the railway station, and she kissed me, precisely where the spot was, on my cheek."
"I, on the contrary," said the judge, "think that I must have been stained with the hair dye of the Cabinet Minister R. He was in Milan to-day, and sent for me on a matter of the greatest importance. We are old friends; and he, in his familiar way, pinched my cheek between his thumb and forefinger. Since he uses hair-dye, it is most likely that his fingers were soiled with it."
"As for me," said the lieutenant, quite forgetting the story that he had already told of the gloves that shed their color," I had promised an aquarelle to Sarah Bernhardt, and I worked upon it up to the last moment, because she was in a hurry for it. Of course I must have spattered my face with the India ink."
"I," said the composer in his turn, "was just setting forth, when an idea came to me for the prelude to my fourth act—a lightning flash, you know, really and truly. I may say so, because I claim no credit for it; good ideas come to me just like that, mysteriously. I ran back, to jot down half a dozen bars, and undoubtedly in the excitement of writing them out, I must have daubed my face."
"It was like this," said the general, who was past his sixtieth year, "I take a great deal of exercise every day. At five o'clock this morning, I pulled myself up to the chin a number of times on the flying rings. It is quite likely that one of those rings was not clean and that I rubbed my face against it."
"I really do not understand how such a thing could have happened to me," said one of the young men of fashion. "It was this very day, not half an hour ago, that I used Shetland soap, an English toilet novelty, imported from London expressly for me, and which probably no one else in Milan knows about."
"Oh, I say! I say!" exclaimed two of his companions, "Didn't I get a cake yesterday? Didn't I get one the day before?"
"In that case," replied the first speaker, "there must have been some impurity in the Shetland soap!"
"That couldn't be!" exclaimed the fourth, the one who had made his toilet outside the door, "because I also use Shetland soap, and I have no reason to believe that there is any stain on my face. Look and see!"
"But, gentlemen," interrupted the countess, "you have explained to me that it must have been the soap, it must have been the ink, it must have been this, it must have been that! But now I should very much like to hear how you all happened to discover those stains on your faces, and why you did not discover them until after you left home."
There followed a rather lengthy silence.
"A friend—" began the poet, with some embarrassment. But at this moment, the general made up his mind to explain frankly.
"Let us own up! For my part, countess, I confess that I looked at myself in the mirror, in the De Cristoforis Gallery!"
"Well, I never!"—"Oh, the deuce!"—"Why, by Jove!" were the involuntary exclamations of the composer, the lieutenant, and one of the young men of fashion. "Aha!" exclaimed the ladies in their turn, as the truth dawned upon them; and they compelled these three to confess that they also had looked at themselves in the mirror. Then the ladies and the four acknowledged culprits joined in a vociferous attack upon the others, to force them also to make confession; and everyone, excepting the poet, who obstinately adhered to his story of a friend, ended by owning up to that confounded mirror in the gallery.
"Say, rather, gentlemen, that blessed mirror!" observed the countess, with a laugh. "Because I understand that without it you would all have cut a pretty figure before me to-night!"
"Much too pretty!" rejoined the general, "as Frederico will bear witness."
Frederico, the butler, entered at that moment to announce dinner.
"Isn't it true, Frederico," the general asked him, "that I had my face badly smirched? And all the others, too, didn't we?"
"To tell the truth," replied Fre
All the men protested, but the butler adhered to his statement, and let it be plainly seen that he suspected the same to be true of the general and the lieutenant.
"Why, how is this?" exclaimed the countess. "There is magic at work! We shall not go in to dinner until we have solved this mystery!"
"The planchette, countess!" said the English lady, who was a spiritualist, and had often made experiments, together with her hostess. "We must question the planchette!"
No sooner said than done. The little board was brought in, and straightway started in to spin around, scratching and squeaking as though shaking with laughter; and upon being questioned as to the when, the how, and the wherefore of those enigmatic stains, it gave answer in due form:
|Behind each mirror I may dwell;|
|Those stains,—the sort of lies I tell.|
|But all the lies you've heard since then|
|Were uttered by these gentlemen.|
|The Imp of the Gallery.|