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Madame Jolicoeur's Cat





Being somewhat of an age, and a widow of dignity--the late Monsieur
Jolicoeur has held the responsible position under Government of
Ingenieur des Ponts et Chaussees--yet being also of a provocatively
fresh plumpness, and a Marseillaise, it was of necessity that Madame
Veuve Jolicoeur, on being left lonely in the world save for the
companionship of her adored Shah de Perse, should entertain expectations
of the future that were antipodal and antagonistic: on the one hand, of
an austere life suitable to a widow of a reasonable maturity and of an
assured position; on the other hand, of a life, not austere, suitable to
a widow still of a provocatively fresh plumpness and by birth a
Marseillaise.

Had Madame Jolicoeur possessed a severe temperament and a resolute
mind--possessions inherently improbable, in view of her birthplace--she
would have made her choice between these equally possible futures with a
promptness and with a finality that would have left nothing at loose
ends. So endowed, she would have emphasized her not excessive age by a
slightly excessive gravity of dress and of deportment; and would have
adorned it, and her dignified widowhood, by becoming devote: and
thereafter, clinging with a modest ostentation only to her piety, would
have radiated, as time made its marches, an always increasingly
exemplary grace. But as Madame Jolicoeur did not possess a
temperament that even bordered on severity, and as her mind was a sort
that made itself up in at least twenty different directions in a single
moment--as she was, in short, an entirely typical and therefore an
entirely delightful Provencale--the situation was so much too much for
her that, by the process of formulating a great variety of
irreconcilable conclusions, she left everything at loose ends by not
making any choice at all.

In effect, she simply stood attendant upon what the future had in store
for her: and meanwhile avowedly clung only, in default of piety, to her
adored Shah de Perse--to whom was given, as she declared in disconsolate
negligence of her still provocatively fresh plumpness, all of the
bestowable affection that remained in the devastated recesses of her
withered heart.

To preclude any possibility of compromising misunderstanding, it is but
just to Madame Jolicoeur to explain at once that the personage thus in
receipt of the contingent remainder of her blighted affections--far from
being, as his name would suggest, an Oriental potentate temporarily
domiciled in Marseille to whom she had taken something more than a
passing fancy--was a Persian superb black cat; and a cat of such rare
excellencies of character and of acquirements as fully to deserve all of
the affection that any heart of the right sort--withered, or
otherwise--was disposed to bestow upon him.

Cats of his perfect beauty, of his perfect grace, possibly might be
found, Madame Jolicoeur grudgingly admitted, in the Persian royal
catteries; but nowhere else in the Orient, and nowhere at all in the
Occident, she declared with an energetic conviction, possibly could
there be found a cat who even approached him in intellectual
development, in wealth of interesting accomplishments, and, above all,
in natural sweetness of disposition--a sweetness so marked that even
under extreme provocation he never had been known to thrust out an angry
paw. This is not to say that the Shah de Perse was a characterless cat,
a lymphatic nonentity. On occasion--usually in connection with food that
was distasteful to him--he could have his resentments; but they were
manifested always with a dignified restraint. His nearest approach to
ill-mannered abruptness was to bat with a contemptuous paw the offending
morsel from his plate; which brusque act he followed by fixing upon the
bestower of unworthy food a coldly, but always politely, contemptuous
stare. Ordinarily, however, his displeasure--in the matter of unsuitable
food, or in other matters--was exhibited by no more overt action than
his retirement to a corner--he had his choices in corners, governed by
the intensity of his feelings--and there seating himself with his back
turned scornfully to an offending world. Even in his kindliest corner,
on such occasions, the expression of his scornful back was as a whole
volume of winged words!

But the rare little cat tantrums of the Shah de Perse--if to his so
gentle excesses may be applied so strong a term--were but as sun-spots
on the effulgence of his otherwise constant amiability. His regnant
desires, by which his worthy little life was governed, were to love and
to please. He was the most cuddlesome cat, Madame Jolicoeur
unhesitatingly asserted, that ever had lived; and he had a purr--softly
thunderous and winningly affectionate--that was in keeping with his
cuddlesome ways. When, of his own volition, he would jump into her
abundant lap and go to burrowing with his little soft round head beneath
her soft round elbows, the while gurglingly purring forth his love for
her, Madame Jolicoeur, quite justifiably, at times was moved to tears.
Equally was his sweet nature exhibited in his always eager willingness
to show off his little train of cat accomplishments. He would give his
paw with a courteous grace to any lady or gentleman--he drew the caste
line rigidly--who asked for it. For his mistress, he would spring to a
considerable height and clutch with his two soft paws--never by any
mistake scratching--her outstretched wrist, and so would remain
suspended while he delicately nibbled from between her fingers her
edible offering. For her, he would make an almost painfully real
pretence of being a dead cat: extending himself upon the rug with an
exaggeratedly death-like rigidity--and so remaining until her command to
be alive again brought him briskly to rub himself, rising on his hind
legs and purring mellowly, against her comfortable knees.

All of these interesting tricks, with various others that may be passed
over, he would perform with a lively zest whenever set at them by a mere
word of prompting; but his most notable trick was a game in which he
engaged with his mistress not at word of command, but--such was his
intelligence--simply upon her setting the signal for it. The signal was
a close-fitting white cap--to be quite frank, a night-cap--that she
tied upon her head when it was desired that the game should be played.

It was of the game that Madame Jolicoeur should assume her cap with an
air of detachment and aloofness: as though no such entity as the Shah de
Perse existed, and with an insisted-upon disregard of the fact that he
was watching her alertly with his great golden eyes. Equally was it of
the game that the Shah de Perse should affect--save for his alert
watching--a like disregard of the doings of Madame Jolicoeur: usually
by an ostentatious pretence of washing his upraised hind leg, or by a
like pretence of scrubbing his ears. These conventions duly having been
observed, Madame Jolicoeur would seat herself in her especial
easy-chair, above the relatively high back of which her night-capped
head a little rose. Being so seated, always with the air of aloofness
and detachment, she would take a book from the table and make a show of
becoming absorbed in its contents. Matters being thus advanced, the Shah
de Perse would make a show of becoming absorbed in searchings for an
imaginary mouse--but so would conduct his fictitious quest for that
supposititious animal as eventually to achieve for himself a strategic
position close behind Madame Jolicoeur's chair. Then, dramatically,
the pleasing end of the game would come: as the Shah de Perse--leaping
with the distinguishing grace and lightness of his Persian race--would
flash upward and "surprise" Madame Jolicoeur by crowning her
white-capped head with his small black person, all a-shake with
triumphant purrs! It was a charming little comedy--and so well
understood by the Shah de Perse that he never ventured to essay it
under other, and more intimate, conditions of night-cap use; even as he
never failed to engage in it with spirit when his white lure properly
was set for him above the back of Madame Jolicoeur's chair. It was as
though to the Shah de Perse the white night-cap of Madame Jolicoeur,
displayed in accordance with the rules of the game, were an oriflamme:
akin to, but in minor points differing from, the helmet of Navarre.

Being such a cat, it will be perceived that Madame Jolicoeur had
reason in her avowed intention to bestow upon him all of the bestowable
affection remnant in her withered heart's devastated recesses; and,
equally, that she would not be wholly desolate, having such a cat to
comfort her, while standing impartially attendant upon the decrees of
fate.

* * * * *

To assert that any woman not conspicuously old and quite conspicuously
of a fresh plumpness could be left in any city isolate, save for a cat's
company, while the fates were spinning new threads for her, would be to
put a severe strain upon credulity. To make that assertion specifically
of Madame Jolicoeur, and specifically--of all cities in the world!--of
Marseille, would be to strain credulity fairly to the breaking point. On
the other hand, to assert that Madame Jolicoeur, in defence of her
isolation, was disposed to plant machine-guns in the doorway of her
dwelling--a house of modest elegance on the Pave d'Amour, at the
crossing of the Rue Bausset--would be to go too far. Nor indeed--aside
from the fact that the presence of such engines of destruction would
not have been tolerated by the other residents of the quietly
respectable Pave d'Amour--was Madame Jolicoeur herself, as has been
intimated, temperamentally inclined to go to such lengths as
machine-guns in maintenance of her somewhat waveringly desired privacy
in a merely cat-enlivened solitude.

Between these widely separated extremes of conjectural possibility lay
the mediate truth of the matter: which truth--thus resembling precious
gold in its valueless rock matrix--lay embedded in, and was to be
extracted from, the irresponsible utterances of the double row of
loosely hung tongues, always at hot wagging, ranged along the two sides
of the Rue Bausset.

Madame Jouval, a milliner of repute--delivering herself with the
generosity due to a good customer from whom an order for a trousseau was
a not unremote possibility, yet with the acumen perfected by her
professional experiences--summed her views of the situation, in talk
with Madame Vic, proprietor of the Vic bakery, in these words: "It is of
the convenances, and equally is it of her own melancholy necessities,
that this poor Madame retires for a season to sorrow in a suitable
seclusion in the company of her sympathetic cat. Only in such retreat
can she give vent fitly to her desolating grief. But after storm comes
sunshine: and I am happily assured by her less despairing appearance,
and by the new mourning that I have been making for her, that even now,
from the bottomless depth of her affliction, she looks beyond the
storm."

"I well believe it!" snapped Madame Vic. "That the appearance of Madame
Jolicoeur at any time has been despairing is a matter that has
escaped my notice. As to the mourning that she now wears, it is a
defiance of all propriety. Why, with no more than that of colour in her
frock"--Madame Vic upheld her thumb and finger infinitesimally
separated--"and with a mere pin-point of a flower in her bonnet, she
would be fit for the opera!"

Madame Vic spoke with a caustic bitterness that had its roots. Her own
venture in second marriage had been catastrophic--so catastrophic that
her neglected bakery had gone very much to the bad. Still more closely
to the point, Madame Jolicoeur--incident to finding entomologic
specimens misplaced in her breakfast-rolls--had taken the leading part
in an interchange of incivilities with the bakery's proprietor, and had
withdrawn from it her custom.

"And even were her mournings not a flouting of her short year of
widowhood," continued Madame Vic, with an acrimony that abbreviated the
term of widowhood most unfairly--"the scores of eligible suitors who
openly come streaming to her door, and are welcomed there, are as
trumpets proclaiming her audacious intentions and her indecorous
desires. Even Monsieur Brisson is in that outrageous procession! Is it
not enough that she should entice a repulsively bald-headed notary and
an old rake of a major to make their brazen advances, without suffering
this anatomy of a pharmacien to come treading on their heels?--he with
his hands imbrued in the life-blood of the unhappy old woman whom his
mismade prescription sent in agony to the tomb! Pah! I have no patience
with her! She and her grief and her seclusion and her sympathetic cat,
indeed! It all is a tragedy of indiscretion--that shapes itself as a
revolting farce!"

It will be observed that Madame Vic, in framing her bill of particulars,
practically reduced her alleged scores of Madame Jolicoeur's suitors
to precisely two--since the bad third was handicapped so heavily by that
notorious matter of the mismade prescription as to be a negligible
quantity, quite out of the race. Indeed, it was only the preposterous
temerity of Monsieur Brisson--despairingly clutching at any chance to
retrieve his broken fortunes--that put him in the running at all. With
the others, in such slighting terms referred to by Madame Vic--Monsieur
Peloux, a notary of standing, and the Major Gontard, of the Twenty-ninth
of the Line--the case was different. It had its sides.

"That this worthy lady reasonably may desire again to wed," declared
Monsieur Fromagin, actual proprietor of the Epicerie Russe--an
establishment liberally patronized by Madame Jolicoeur--"is as true as
that when she goes to make her choosings between these estimable
gentlemen she cannot make a choice that is wrong."

Madame Gauthier, a clear-starcher of position, to whom Monsieur Fromagin
thus addressed himself, was less broadly positive. "That is a matter of
opinion," she answered; and added: "To go no further than the very
beginning, Monsieur should perceive that her choice has exactly fifty
chances in the hundred of going wrong: lying, as it does, between a
meagre, sallow-faced creature of a death-white baldness, and a fine big
pattern of a man, strong and ruddy, with a close-clipped but abundant
thatch on his head, and a moustache that admittedly is superb!"

"Ah, there speaks the woman!" said Monsieur Fromagin, with a patronizing
smile distinctly irritating. "Madame will recognize--if she will but
bring herself to look a little beyond the mere outside--that what I have
advanced is not a matter of opinion but of fact. Observe: Here is
Monsieur Peloux--to whose trifling leanness and aristocratic baldness
the thoughtful give no attention--easily a notary in the very first
rank. As we all know, his services are sought in cases of the most
exigent importance--"

"For example," interrupted Madame Gauthier, "the case of the insurance
solicitor, in whose countless defraudings my own brother was a sufferer:
a creature of a vileness, whose deserts were unnumbered ages of
dungeons--and who, thanks to the chicaneries of Monsieur Peloux, at this
moment walks free as air!"

"It is of the professional duty of advocates," replied Monsieur
Fromagin, sententiously, "to defend their clients; on the successful
discharge of that duty--irrespective of minor details--depends their
fame. Madame neglects the fact that Monsieur Peloux, by his masterly
conduct of the case that she specifies, won for himself from his legal
colleagues an immense applause."

"The more shame to his legal colleagues!" commented Madame Gauthier
curtly.

"But leaving that affair quite aside," continued Monsieur Fromagin
airily, but with insistence, "here is this notable advocate who reposes
his important homages at Madame Jolicoeur's feet: he a man of an age
that is suitable, without being excessive; who has in the community an
assured position; whose more than moderate wealth is known. I insist,
therefore, that should she accept his homages she would do well."

"And I insist," declared Madame Gauthier stoutly, "that should she turn
her back upon the Major Gontard she would do most ill!"

"Madame a little disregards my premises," Monsieur Fromagin spoke in a
tone of forbearance, "and therefore a little argues--it is the privilege
of her sex--against the air. Distinctly, I do not exclude from Madame
Jolicoeur's choice that gallant Major: whose rank--now approaching him
to the command of a regiment, and fairly equalling the position at the
bar achieved by Monsieur Peloux--has been won, grade by grade, by deeds
of valour in his African campaignings which have made him conspicuous
even in the army that stands first in such matters of all the armies of
the world. Moreover--although, admittedly, in that way Monsieur Peloux
makes a better showing--he is of an easy affluence. On the Camargue he
has his excellent estate in vines, from which comes a revenue more than
sufficing to satisfy more than modest wants. At Les Martigues he has his
charming coquette villa, smothered in the flowers of his own planting,
to which at present he makes his agreeable escapes from his military
duties; and in which, when his retreat is taken, he will pass softly his
sunset years. With these substantial points in his favour, the standing
of the Major Gontard in this matter practically is of a parity with the
standing of Monsieur Peloux. Equally, both are worthy of Madame
Jolicoeur's consideration: both being able to continue her in the life
of elegant comfort to which she is accustomed; and both being on a
social plane--it is of her level accurately--to which the widow of an
ingenieur des ponts et chaussees neither steps up nor steps down. Having
now made clear, I trust, my reasonings, I repeat the proposition with
which Madame took issue: When Madame Jolicoeur goes to make her
choosings between these estimable gentlemen she cannot make a choice
that is wrong."

"And I repeat, Monsieur," said Madame Gauthier, lifting her basket from
the counter, "that in making her choosings Madame Jolicoeur either
goes to raise herself to the heights of a matured happiness, or to
plunge herself into bald-headed abysses of despair. Yes, Monsieur, that
far apart are her choosings!" And Madame Gauthier added, in communion
with herself as she passed to the street with her basket: "As for me, it
would be that adorable Major by a thousand times!"

* * * * *

As was of reason, since hers was the first place in the matter, Madame
Jolicoeur herself carried on debatings--in the portion of her heart
that had escaped complete devastation--identical in essence with the
debatings of her case which went up and down the Rue Bausset.

Not having become devote--in the year and more of opportunity open to
her for a turn in that direction--one horn of her original dilemma had
been eliminated, so to say, by atrophy. Being neglected, it had
withered: with the practical result that out of her very indecisions had
come a decisive choice. But to her new dilemma, of which the horns were
the Major and the Notary--in the privacy of her secret thoughts she made
no bones of admitting that this dilemma confronted her--the atrophying
process was not applicable; at least, not until it could be applied with
a sharp finality. Too long dallied with, it very well might lead to the
atrophy of both of them in dudgeon; and thence onward, conceivably, to
her being left to cling only to the Shah de Perse for all the remainder
of her days.

Therefore, to the avoidance of that too radical conclusion, Madame
Jolicoeur engaged in her debatings briskly: offering to herself, in
effect, the balanced arguments advanced by Monsieur Fromagin in favour
equally of Monsieur Peloux and of the Major Gontard; taking as her own,
with moderating exceptions and emendations, the views of Madame Gauthier
as to the meagreness and pallid baldness of the one and the sturdiness
and gallant bearing of the other; considering, from the standpoint of
her own personal knowledge in the premises, the Notary's disposition
toward a secretive reticence that bordered upon severity, in contrast
with the cordially frank and debonair temperament of the Major; and, at
the back of all, keeping well in mind the fundamental truths that
opportunity ever is evanescent and that time ever is on the wing.

As the result of her debatings, and not less as the result of experience
gained in her earlier campaigning, Madame Jolicoeur took up a
strategic position nicely calculated to inflame the desire for, by
assuming the uselessness of, an assault. In set terms, confirming
particularly her earlier and more general avowal, she declared equally
to the Major and to the Notary that absolutely the whole of her
bestowable affection--of the remnant in her withered heart available for
distribution--was bestowed upon the Shah de Perse: and so, with an
alluring nonchalance, left them to draw the logical conclusion that
their strivings to win that desirable quantity were idle--since a
definite disposition of it already had been made.

The reply of the Major Gontard to this declaration was in keeping with
his known amiability, but also was in keeping with his military habit of
command. "Assuredly," he said, "Madame shall continue to bestow, within
reason, her affections upon Monsieur le Shah; and with them that brave
animal--he is a cat of ten thousand--shall have my affections as well.
Already, knowing my feeling for him, we are friends--as Madame shall see
to her own convincing." Addressing himself in tones of kindly persuasion
to the Shah de Perse, he added: "Viens, Monsieur!"--whereupon the Shah
de Perse instantly jumped himself to the Major's knee and broke forth,
in response to a savant rubbing of his soft little jowls, into his
gurgling purr. "Voila, Madame!" continued the Major. "It is to be
perceived that we have our good understandings, the Shah de Perse and I.
That we all shall live happily together tells itself without words. But
observe"--of a sudden the voice of the Major thrilled with a deep
earnestness, and his style of address changed to a familiarity that only
the intensity of his feeling condoned--"I am resolved that to me, above
all, shall be given thy dear affections. Thou shalt give me the perfect
flower of them--of that fact rest thou assured. In thy heart I am to be
the very first--even as in my heart thou thyself art the very first of
all the world. In Africa I have had my successes in my conquests and
holdings of fortresses. Believe me, I shall have an equal success in
conquering and in holding the sweetest fortress in France!"

Certainly, the Major Gontard had a bold way with him. But that it had
its attractions, not to say its compellings, Madame Jolicoeur could
not honestly deny.

On the part of the Notary--whose disposition, fostered by his
profession, was toward subtlety rather than toward boldness--Madame
Jolicoeur's declaration of cat rights was received with no such
belligerent blare of trumpets and beat of drums. He met it with a light
show of banter--beneath which, to come to the surface later, lay hidden
dark thoughts.

"Madame makes an excellent pleasantry," he said with a smile of the
blandest. "Without doubt, not a very flattering pleasantry--but I know
that her denial of me in favour of her cat is but a jesting at which we
both may laugh. And we may laugh together the better because, in the
roots of her jesting, we have our sympathies. I also have an intensity
of affection for cats"--to be just to Monsieur Peloux, who loathed cats,
it must be said that he gulped as he made this flagrantly untruthful
statement--"and with this admirable cat, so dear to Madame, it goes to
make itself that we speedily become enduring friends."

Curiously enough--a mere coincidence, of course--as the Notary uttered
these words so sharply at points with veracity, in the very moment of
them, the Shah de Perse stiffly retired into his sulkiest corner and
turned what had every appearance of being a scornful back upon the
world.

Judiciously ignoring this inopportunely equivocal incident, Monsieur
Peloux reverted to the matter in chief and concluded his deliverance in
these words: "I well understand, I repeat, that Madame for the moment
makes a comedy of herself and of her cat for my amusing. But I persuade
myself that her droll fancyings will not be lasting, and that she will
be serious with me in the end. Until then--and then most of all--I am at
her feet humbly: an unworthy, but a very earnest, suppliant for her
good-will. Should she have the cruelty to refuse my supplication, it
will remain with me to die in an unmerited despair!"

Certainly, this was an appeal--of a sort. But even without perceiving
the mitigating subtlety of its comminative final clause--so skilfully
worded as to leave Monsieur Peloux free to bring off his threatened
unmeritedly despairing death quite at his own convenience--Madame
Jolicoeur did not find it satisfying. In contrast with the Major
Gontard's ringingly audacious declarations of his habits in dealing with
fortresses, she felt that it lacked force. And, also--this, of course,
was a sheer weakness--she permitted herself to be influenced appreciably
by the indicated preferences of the Shah de Perse: who had jumped to the
knee of the Major with an affectionate alacrity; and who undeniably had
turned on the Notary--either by chance or by intention--a back of scorn.

As the general outcome of these several developments, Madame
Jolicoeur's debatings came to have in them--if I so may state the
trend of her mental activities--fewer bald heads and more moustaches;
and her never severely set purpose to abide in a loneliness relieved
only by the Shah de Perse was abandoned root and branch.

* * * * *

While Madame Jolicoeur continued her debatings--which, in their
modified form, manifestly were approaching her to conclusions--water was
running under bridges elsewhere.

In effect, her hesitancies produced a period of suspense that gave
opportunity for, and by the exasperating delay of it stimulated, the
resolution of the Notary's dark thoughts into darker deeds. With reason,
he did not accept at its face value Madame Jolicoeur's declaration
touching the permanent bestowal of her remnant affections; but he did
believe that there was enough in it to make the Shah de Perse a delaying
obstacle to his own acquisition of them. When obstacles got in this
gentleman's way it was his habit to kick them out of it--a habit that
had not been unduly stunted by half a lifetime of successful practice at
the criminal bar.

Because of his professional relations with them, Monsieur Peloux had an
extensive acquaintance among criminals of varying shades of
intensity--at times, in his dubious doings, they could be useful to
him--hidden away in the shadowy nooks and corners of the city; and he
also had his emissaries through whom they could be reached. All the
conditions thus standing attendant upon his convenience, it was a facile
matter for him to make an appointment with one of these disreputables
at a cabaret of bad record in the Quartier de la Tourette: a
region--bordering upon the north side of the Vieux Port--that is at once
the oldest and the foulest quarter of Marseille.

In going to keep this appointment--as was his habit on such occasions,
in avoidance of possible spying upon his movements--he went deviously:
taking a cab to the Bassin de Carenage, as though some maritime matter
engaged him, and thence making the transit of the Vieux Port in a bateau
mouche. It was while crossing in the ferryboat that a sudden shuddering
beset him: as he perceived with horror--but without repentance--the pit
into which he descended. In his previous, always professional, meetings
with criminals his position had been that of unassailable dominance. In
his pending meeting--since he himself would be not only a criminal but
an inciter to crime--he would be, in the essence of the matter, the
under dog. Beneath his seemly black hat his bald head went whiter than
even its normal deathly whiteness, and perspiration started from its
every pore. Almost with a groan, he removed his hat and dried with his
handkerchief what were in a way his tears of shame.

Over the interview between Monsieur Peloux and his hireling--cheerfully
moistened, on the side of the hireling, with absinthe of a vileness in
keeping with its place of purchase--decency demands the partial drawing
of a veil. In brief, Monsieur Peloux--his guilty eyes averted, the
shame-tears streaming afresh from his bald head--presented his criminal
demand and stated the sum that he would pay for its gratification. This
sum--being in keeping with his own estimate of what it paid for--was so
much in excess of the hireling's views concerning the value of a mere
cat-killing that he fairly jumped at it.

"Be not disturbed, Monsieur!" he replied, with the fervour of one really
grateful, and with the expansive extravagance of a Marseillais keyed up
with exceptionally bad absinthe. "Be not disturbed in the smallest! In
this very coming moment this camel of a cat shall die a thousand deaths;
and in but another moment immeasurable quantities of salt and ashes
shall obliterate his justly despicable grave! To an instant
accomplishment of Monsieur's wishes I pledge whole-heartedly the word of
an honest man."

Actually--barring the number of deaths to be inflicted on the Shah de
Perse, and the needlessly defiling concealment of his burial-place--this
radical treatment of the matter was precisely what Monsieur Peloux
desired; and what, in terms of innuendo and euphuism, he had asked for.
But the brutal frankness of the hireling, and his evident delight in
sinning for good wages, came as an arousing shock to the enfeebled
remnant of the Notary's better nature--with a resulting vacillation of
purpose to which he would have risen superior had he been longer
habituated to the ways of crime.

"No! No!" he said weakly. "I did not mean that--by no means all of that.
At least--that is to say--you will understand me, my good man, that
enough will be done if you remove the cat from Marseille. Yes, that is
what I mean--take it somewhere. Take it to Cassis, to Arles, to
Avignon--where you will--and leave it there. The railway ticket is my
charge--and, also, you have an extra napoleon for your refreshment by
the way. Yes, that suffices. In a bag, you know--and soon!"

Returning across the Vieux Port in the bateau mouche, Monsieur Peloux no
longer shuddered in dread of crime to be committed--his shuddering was
for accomplished crime. On his bald head, unheeded, the gushing tears of
shame accumulated in pools.

* * * * *

When leaves of absence permitted him to make retirements to his coquette
little estate at Les Martigues, the Major Gontard was as another
Cincinnatus: with the minor differences that the lickerish cookings of
the brave Marthe--his old femme de menage: a veritable protagonist among
cooks, even in Provence--checked him on the side of severe simplicity;
that he would have welcomed with effusion lictors, or others, come to
announce his advance to a regiment; and that he made no use whatever of
a plow.

In the matter of the plow, he had his excuses. His two or three acres of
land lay on a hillside banked in tiny terraces--quite unsuited to the
use of that implement--and the whole of his agricultural energies were
given to the cultivation of flowers. Among his flowers, intelligently
assisted by old Michel, he worked with a zeal bred of his affection for
them; and after his workings, when the cool of evening was come, smoked
his pipe refreshingly while seated on the vine-bowered estrade before
his trim villa on the crest of the slope: the while sniffing with a just
interest at the fumes of old Marthe's cookings, and placidly delighting
in the ever-new beauties of the sunsets above the distant mountains and
their near-by reflected beauties in the waters of the Etang de Berre.

Save in his professional relations with recalcitrant inhabitants of
Northern Africa, he was of a gentle nature, this amiable warrior: ever
kindly, when kindliness was deserved, in all his dealings with mankind.
Equally, his benevolence was extended to the lower orders of
animals--that it was understood, and reciprocated, the willing jumping
of the Shah de Perse to his friendly knee made manifest--and was
exhibited in practical ways. Naturally, he was a liberal contributor to
the funds of the Societe protectrice des animaux; and, what was more to
the purpose, it was his well-rooted habit to do such protecting as was
necessary, on his own account, when he chanced upon any suffering
creature in trouble or in pain.

Possessing these commendable characteristics, it follows that the doings
of the Major Gontard in the railway station at Pas de Lanciers--on the
day sequent to the day on which Monsieur Peloux was the promoter of a
criminal conspiracy--could not have been other than they were. Equally
does it follow that his doings produced the doings of the man with the
bag.

Pas de Lanciers is the little station at which one changes trains in
going from Marseille to Les Martigues. Descending from a first-class
carriage, the Major Gontard awaited the Martigues train--his leave was
for two days, and his thoughts were engaged pleasantly with the
breakfast that old Marthe would have ready for him and with plans for
his flowers. From a third-class carriage descended the man with the
bag, who also awaited the Martigues train. Presently--the two happening
to come together in their saunterings up and down the platform--the
Major's interest was aroused by observing that within the bag went on a
persistent wriggling; and his interest was quickened into characteristic
action when he heard from its interior, faintly but quite distinctly, a
very pitiful half-strangled little mew!

"In another moment," said the Major, addressing the man sharply, "that
cat will be suffocated. Open the bag instantly and give it air!"

"Pardon, Monsieur," replied the man, starting guiltily. "This excellent
cat is not suffocating. In the bag it breathes freely with all its
lungs. It is a pet cat, having the habitude to travel in this manner;
and, because it is of a friendly disposition, it is accustomed thus to
make its cheerful little remarks." By way of comment upon this
explanation, there came from the bag another half-strangled mew that was
not at all suggestive of cheerfulness. It was a faint miserable
mew--that told of cat despair!

At that juncture a down train came in on the other side of the platform,
a train on its way to Marseille.

"Thou art a brute!" said the Major, tersely. "I shall not suffer thy
cruelties to continue!" As he spoke, he snatched away the bag from its
uneasy possessor and applied himself to untying its confining cord.
Oppressed by the fear that goes with evil-doing, the man hesitated for a
moment before attempting to retrieve what constructively was his
property.

In that fateful moment the bag opened and a woebegone little black
cat-head appeared; and then the whole of a delighted little black
cat-body emerged--and cuddled with joy-purrs of recognition in its
deliverer's arms! Within the sequent instant the recognition was mutual.
"Thunder of guns!" cried the Major. "It is the Shah de Perse!"

Being thus caught red-handed, the hireling of Monsieur Peloux cowered.
"Brigand!" continued the Major. "Thou hast ravished away this charming
cat by the foulest of robberies. Thou art worse than the scum of Arab
camp-followings. And if I had thee to myself, over there in the desert,"
he added grimly, "thou shouldst go the same way!"

All overawed by the Major's African attitude, the hireling took to
whining. "Monsieur will believe me when I tell him that I am but an
unhappy tool--I, an honest man whom a rich tempter, taking advantage of
my unmerited poverty, has betrayed into crime. Monsieur himself shall
judge me when I have told him all!" And then--with creditably
imaginative variations on the theme of a hypothetical dying wife in
combination with six supposititious starving children--the man came
close enough to telling all to make clear that his backer in
cat-stealing was Monsieur Peloux!

With a gasp of astonishment, the Major again took the word. "What
matters it, animal, by whom thy crime was prompted? Thou art the
perpetrator of it--and to thee comes punishment! Shackles and prisons
are in store for thee! I shall--"

But what the Major Gontard had in mind to do toward assisting the march
of retributive justice is immaterial--since he did not do it. Even as
he spoke--in these terms of doom that qualifying conditions rendered
doomless--the man suddenly dodged past him, bolted across the platform,
jumped to the foot-board of a carriage of the just-starting train,
cleverly bundled himself through an open window, and so was gone:
leaving the Major standing lonely, with impotent rage filling his heart,
and with the Shah de Perse all a purring cuddle in his arms!

Acting on a just impulse, the Major Gontard sped to the telegraph
office. Two hours must pass before he could follow the miscreant; but
the departed train ran express to Marseille, and telegraphic heading-off
was possible. To his flowers, and to the romance of a breakfast that old
Marthe by then was in the very act of preparing for him, his thoughts
went in bitter relinquishment: but his purpose was stern! Plumping the
Shah de Perse down anyway on the telegraph table, and seizing a pen
fiercely, he began his writings. And then, of a sudden, an inspiration
came to him that made him stop in his writings--and that changed his
flames of anger into flames of joy.

His first act under the influence of this new and better emotion was to
tear his half-finished dispatch into fragments. His second act was to
assuage the needs, physical and psychical, of the Shah de Perse--near to
collapse for lack of food and drink, and his little cat feelings hurt by
his brusque deposition on the telegraph table--by carrying him tenderly
to the buffet; and there--to the impolitely over-obvious amusement of
the buffetiere--purchasing cream without stint for the allaying of his
famishings. To his feasting the Shah de Perse went with the avid energy
begotten of his bag-compelled long fast. Dipping his little red tongue
deep into the saucer, he lapped with a vigour that all cream-splattered
his little black nose. Yet his admirable little cat manners were not
forgotten: even in the very thick of his eager lappings--pathetically
eager, in view of the cause of them--he purred forth gratefully, with a
gurgling chokiness, his earnest little cat thanks.

As the Major Gontard watched this pleasing spectacle his heart was all
aglow within him and his face was of a radiance comparable only with
that of an Easter-morning sun. To himself he was saying: "It is a dream
that has come to me! With the disgraced enemy in retreat, and with the
Shah de Perse for my banner, it is that I hold victoriously the whole
universe in the hollow of my hand!"

* * * * *

While stopping appreciably short of claiming for himself a clutch upon
the universe, Monsieur Peloux also had his satisfactions on the evening
of the day that had witnessed the enlevement of the Shah de Perse. By
his own eyes he knew certainly that that iniquitous kidnapping of a
virtuous cat had been effected. In the morning the hireling had brought
to him in his private office the unfortunate Shah de Perse--all
unhappily bagged, and even then giving vent to his pathetic
complainings--and had exhibited him, as a piece justificatif, when
making his demand for railway fare and the promised extra napoleon. In
the mid-afternoon the hireling had returned, with the satisfying
announcement that all was accomplished: that he had carried the cat to
Pas de Lanciers, of an adequate remoteness, and there had left him with
a person in need of a cat who received him willingly. Being literally
true, this statement had in it so convincing a ring of sincerity that
Monsieur Peloux paid down in full the blood-money and dismissed his
bravo with commendation. Thereafter, being alone, he rubbed his
hands--gladly thinking of what was in the way to happen in sequence to
the permanent removal of this cat stumbling-block from his path.
Although professionally accustomed to consider the possibilities of
permutation, the known fact that petards at times are retroactive did
not present itself to his mind.

And yet--being only an essayist in crime, still unhardened--certain
compunctions beset him as he approached himself, on the to-be eventful
evening of that eventful day, to the door of Madame Jolicoeur's
modestly elegant dwelling on the Pave d'Amour. In the back of his head
were justly self-condemnatory thoughts, to the general effect that he
was a blackguard and deserved to be kicked. In the dominant front of his
head, however, were thoughts of a more agreeable sort: of how he would
find Madame Jolicoeur all torn and rent by the bitter sorrow of her
bereavement; of how he would pour into her harried heart a flood of
sympathy by which that injured organ would be soothed and mollified; of
how she would be lured along gently to requite his tender condolence
with a softening gratitude--that presently would merge easily into the
yet softer phrase of love! It was a well-made program, and it had its
kernel of reason in his recognized ability to win bad causes--as that
of the insurance solicitor--by emotional pleadings which in the same
breath lured to lenience and made the intrinsic demerits of the cause
obscure.

"Madame dines," was the announcement that met Monsieur Peloux when, in
response to his ring, Madame Jolicoeur's door was opened for him by a
trim maid-servant. "But Madame already has continued so long her
dining," added the maid-servant, with a glint in her eyes that escaped
his preoccupied attention, "that in but another instant must come the
end. If M'sieu' will have the amiability to await her in the salon, it
will be for but a point of time!"

Between this maid-servant and Monsieur Peloux no love was lost.
Instinctively he was aware of, and resented, her views--practically
identical with those expressed by Madame Gauthier to Monsieur
Fromagin--touching his deserts as compared with the deserts of the Major
Gontard. Moreover, she had personal incentives to take her revenges.
From Monsieur Peloux, her only vail had been a miserable two-franc
Christmas box. From the Major, as from a perpetually verdant
Christmas-tree, boxes of bonbons and five-franc pieces at all times
descended upon her in showers.

Without perceiving the curious smile that accompanied this young
person's curiously cordial invitation to enter, he accepted the
invitation and was shown into the salon: where he seated himself--a
left-handedness of which he would have been incapable had he been less
perturbed--in Madame Jolicoeur's own special chair. An anatomical
vagary of the Notary's meagre person was the undue shortness of his body
and the undue length of his legs. Because of this eccentricity of
proportion, his bald head rose above the back of the chair to a height
approximately identical with that of its normal occupant.

His waiting time--extending from its promised point to what seemed to
him to be a whole geographical meridian--went slowly. To relieve it,
he took a book from the table, and in a desultory manner turned the
leaves. While thus perfunctorily engaged, he heard the clicking of an
opening door, and then the sound of voices: of Madame Jolicoeur's
voice, and of a man's voice--which latter, coming nearer, he recognized
beyond all doubting as the voice of the Major Gontard. Of other voices
there was not a sound: whence the compromising fact was obvious that
the two had gone through that long dinner together, and alone! Knowing,
as he did, Madame Jolicoeur's habitual disposition toward the
convenances--willingly to be boiled in oil rather than in the smallest
particular to abrade them--he perceived that only two explanations of
the situation were possible: either she had lapsed of a sudden into
madness; or--the thought was petrifying--the Major Gontard had won out
in his French campaigning on his known conquering African lines. The
cheerfully sane tone of the lady's voice forbade him to clutch at the
poor solace to be found in the first alternative--and so forced him to
accept the second. Yielding for a moment to his emotions, the
death-whiteness of his bald head taking on a still deathlier pallor,
Monsieur Peloux buried his face in his hands and groaned.

In that moment of his obscured perception a little black personage
trotted into the salon on soundless paws. Quite possibly, in his then
overwrought condition, had Monsieur Peloux seen this personage enter he
would have shrieked--in the confident belief that before him was a cat
ghost! Pointedly, it was not a ghost. It was the happy little Shah de
Perse himself--all a-frisk with the joy of his blessed home-coming and
very much alive! Knowing, as I do, many of the mysterious ways of little
cat souls, I even venture to believe that his overbubbling gladness
largely was due to his sympathetic perception of the gladness that his
home-coming had brought to two human hearts.

Certainly, all through that long dinner the owners of those hearts had
done their best, by their pettings and their pamperings of him, to make
him a participant in their deep happiness; and he, gratefully
respondent, had made his affectionate thankings by going through all of
his repertory of tricks--with one exception--again and again. Naturally,
his great trick, while unexhibited, repeatedly had been referred to.
Blushing delightfully, Madame Jolicoeur had told about the night-cap
that was a necessary part of it; and had promised--blushing still more
delightfully--that at some time, in the very remote future, the Major
should see it performed. For my own part, because of my knowledge of
little cat souls, I am persuaded that the Shah de Perse, while missing
the details of this love-laughing talk, did get into his head the
general trend of it; and therefore did trot on in advance into the salon
with his little cat mind full of the notion that Madame Jolicoeur
immediately would follow him--to seat herself, duly night-capped, book
in hand, in signal for their game of surprises to begin.

Unconscious of the presence of the Shah de Perse, tortured by the gay
tones of the approaching voices, clutching his book vengefully as though
it were a throat, his bald head beaded with the sweat of agony and the
pallor of it intensified by his poignant emotion, Monsieur Peloux sat
rigid in Madame Jolicoeur's chair!

* * * * *

"It is declared," said Monsieur Brisson, addressing himself to Madame
Jouval, for whom he was in the act of preparing what was spoken of
between them as "the tonic," a courteous euphuism, "that that villain
Notary, aided by a bandit hired to his assistance, was engaged in
administering poison to the cat; and that the brave animal, freeing
itself from the bandit's holdings, tore to destruction the whole of his
bald head--and then triumphantly escaped to its home!"

"A sight to see is that head of his!" replied Madame Jouval. "So swathed
is it in bandages, that the turban of the Grand Turk is less!" Madame
Jouval spoke in tones of satisfaction that were of reason--already she
had held conferences with Madame Jolicoeur in regard to the trousseau.

"And all," continued Monsieur Brisson, with rancour, "because of his
jealousies of the cat's place in Madame Jolicoeur's affections--the
affections which he so hopelessly hoped, forgetful of his own
repulsiveness, to win for himself!"

"Ah, she has done well, that dear lady," said Madame Jouval warmly. "As
between the Notary--repulsive, as Monsieur justly terms him--and the
charming Major, her instincts rightly have directed her. To her worthy
cat, who aided in her choosing, she has reason to be grateful. Now her
cruelly wounded heart will find solace. That she should wed again, and
happily, was Heaven's will."

"It was the will of the baggage herself!" declared Monsieur Brisson with
bitterness. "Hardly had she put on her travesty of a mourning than she
began her oglings of whole armies of men!"

Aside from having confected with her own hands the mourning to which
Monsieur Brisson referred so disparagingly, Madame Jouval was not one to
hear calmly the ascription of the term baggage--the word has not lost in
its native French, as it has lost in its naturalized English, its
original epithetical intensity--to a patroness from whom she was in the
very article of receiving an order for an exceptionally rich trousseau.
Naturally, she bristled. "Monsieur must admit at least," she said
sharply, "that her oglings did not come in his direction;" and with an
irritatingly smooth sweetness added: "As to the dealings of Monsieur
Peloux with the cat, Monsieur doubtless speaks with an assured
knowledge. Remembering, as we all do, the affair of the unhappy old
woman, it is easy to perceive that to Monsieur, above all others, any
one in need of poisonings would come!"

The thrust was so keen that for the moment Monsieur Brisson met it only
with a savage glare. Then the bottle that he handed to Madame Jouval
inspired him with an answer. "Madame is in error," he said with
politeness. "For poisons it is possible to go variously elsewhere--as,
for example, to Madame's tongue." Had he stopped with that retort
courteous, but also searching, he would have done well. He did ill by
adding to it the retort brutal: "But that old women of necessity come to
me for their hair-dyes is another matter. That much I grant to Madame
with all good will."

Admirably restraining herself, Madame Jouval replied in tones of
sympathy: "Monsieur receives my commiserations in his misfortunes."
Losing a large part of her restraint, she continued, her eyes
glittering: "Yet Monsieur's temperament clearly is over-sanguine. It is
not less than a miracle of absurdity that he imagined: that he, weighted
down with his infamous murderings of scores of innocent old women, had
even a chance the most meagre of realizing his ridiculous aspirations of
Madame Jolicoeur's hand!" Snatching up her bottle and making for the
door, without any restraint whatever she added: "Monsieur and his
aspirations are a tragedy of stupidity--and equally are abounding in all
the materials for a farce at the Palais de Cristal!"

Monsieur Brisson was cut off from opportunity to reply to this outburst
by Madame Jouval's abrupt departure. His loss of opportunity had its
advantages. An adequate reply to her discharge of such a volley of home
truths would have been difficult to frame.

* * * * *

In the Vic bakery, between Madame Vic and Monsieur Fromagin, a
discussion was in hand akin to that carried on between Monsieur Brisson
and Madame Jouval--but marked with a somewhat nearer approach to
accuracy in detail. Being sequent to the settlement of Monsieur
Fromagin's monthly bill--always a matter of nettling dispute--it
naturally tended to develop its own asperities.

"They say," observed Monsieur Fromagin, "that the cat--it was among his
many tricks--had the habitude to jump on Madame Jolicoeur's head when,
for that purpose, she covered it with a night-cap. The use of the cat's
claws on such a covering, and, also, her hair being very abundant--"

"Very abundant!" interjected Madame Vic; and added: "She, she is of a
richness to buy wigs by the scores!"

"It was his custom, I say," continued Monsieur Fromagin with insistence,
"to steady himself after his leap by using lightly his claws. His
illusion in regard to the bald head of the Notary, it would seem, led to
the catastrophe. Using his claws at first lightly, according to his
habit, he went on to use them with a truly savage energy--when he found
himself as on ice on that slippery eminence and verging to a fall."

"They say that his scalp was peeled away in strips and strings!" said
Madame Vic. "And all the while that woman and that reprobate of a Major
standing by in shrieks and roars of laughter--never raising a hand to
save him from the beast's ferocities! The poor man has my sympathies.
He, at least, in all his doings--I do not for a moment believe the story
that he caused the cat to be stolen--observed rigidly the convenances:
so recklessly shattered by Madame Jolicoeur in her most compromising
dinner with the Major alone!"

"But Madame forgets that their dinner was in celebration of their
betrothal--following Madame Jolicoeur's glad yielding, in just
gratitude, when the Major heroically had rescued her deserving cat from
the midst of its enemies and triumphantly had restored it to her arms."

"It is the man's part," responded Madame Vic, "to make the best of such
matters. In the eyes of all right-minded women her conduct has been of a
shamelessness from first to last: tossing and balancing the two of them
for months upon months; luring them, and countless others with them, to
her feet; declaring always that for her disgusting cat's sake she will
have none of them; and ending by pretending brazenly that for her cat's
sake she bestows herself--second-hand remnant that she is--on the
handsomest man for his age, concerning his character it is well to be
silent; that she could find for herself in all Marseille! On such
actions, on such a woman, Monsieur, the saints in heaven look down with
an agonized scorn!"

"Only those of the saints, Madame," said Monsieur Fromagin, warmly
taking up the cudgels for his best customer, "as in the matter of second
marriages, prior to their arrival in heaven, have had regrettable
experiences. Equally, I venture to assert, a like qualification applies
to a like attitude on earth. That Madame has her prejudices, incident to
her misfortunes, is known."

"That Monsieur has his brutalities, incident to his regrettable bad
breeding, also is known. His present offensiveness, however, passes all
limits. I request him to remove himself from my sight." Madame Vic spoke
with dignity.

Speaking with less dignity, but with conviction--as Monsieur Fromagin
left the bakery--she added: "Monsieur, effectively, is a camel! I bestow
upon him my disdain!"

THOMAS A. JANVIER.





Next: A Friendly Rat

Previous: The Black Cat



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