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Zut





Side by side, on the avenue de la Grande Armee, stand the epicerie of
Jean-Baptiste Caille and the salle de coiffure of Hippolyte Sergeot, and
between these two there is a great gulf fixed, the which has come to be
through the acerbity of Alexandrine Caille (according to Esperance
Sergeot), though the duplicity of Esperance Sergeot (according to
Alexandrine Caille). But the veritable root of all evil is Zut, and Zut
sits smiling in Jean-Baptiste's doorway, and cares naught for anything
in the world, save the sunlight and her midday meal.

When Hippolyte found himself in a position to purchase the salle de
coiffure, he gave evidence of marked acumen by uniting himself in the
holy--and civil--bonds of matrimony with the retiring patron's daughter,
whose dot ran into the coveted five figures, and whose heart, said
Hippolyte, was as good as her face was pretty, which, even by the
unprejudiced, was acknowledged to be forcible commendation. The
installation of the new establishment was a nine days' wonder in the
quartier. It is a busy thoroughfare at its western end, is the avenue de
la Grande Armee, crowded with bicyclists and with a multitude of
creatures fearfully and wonderfully clad, who do incomprehensible things
in connection with motor-carriages. Also there are big cafes in plenty,
whose waiters must be smoothly shaven: and moreover, at the time when
Hippolyte came into his own, the porte Maillot station of the
Metropolitain had already pushed its entree and sortie up through the
soil, not a hundred metres from his door, where they stood like
atrocious yellow tulips, art nouveau, breathing people out and in by
thousands. There was no lack of possible custom. The problem was to turn
possible into probable, and probable into permanent; and here the seven
wits and the ten thousand francs of Esperance came prominently to the
fore. She it was who sounded the progressive note, which is half the
secret of success.

"Pour attirer les gens," she said, with her arms akimbo, "il faut
d'abord les epater."

In her creed all that was worth doing at all was worth doing gloriously.
So, under her guidance, Hippolyte journeyed from shop to shop in the
faubourg St. Antoine, and spent hours of impassioned argument with
carpenters and decorators. In the end, the salle de coiffure was
glorified by fresh paint without and within, and by the addition of a
long mirror in a gilt frame, and a complicated apparatus of gleaming
nickel-plate, which went by the imposing title of appareil antiseptique,
and the acquisition of which was duly proclaimed by a special placard
that swung at right angles to the door. The shop was rechristened, too,
and the black and white sign across its front which formerly bore the
simple inscription "Kilbert, Coiffeur," now blazoned abroad the vastly
more impressive legend "Salon Malakoff." The window shelves fairly
groaned beneath their burden of soaps, toilet waters, and perfumery, a
string of bright yellow sponges occupied each corner of the window,
and, through the agency of white enamel letters on the pane itself,
public attention was drawn to the apparently contradictory facts that
English was spoken and "schampoing" given within. Then Hippolyte engaged
two assistants, and clad them in white duck jackets, and his wife
fabricated a new blouse of blue silk, and seated herself behind the desk
with an engaging smile. The enterprise was fairly launched, and
experience was not slow in proving the theories of Esperance to be well
founded. The quartier was epate from the start, and took with enthusiasm
the bait held forth. The affairs of the Salon Malakoff prospered
prodigiously.

But there is a serpent in every Eden, and in that of the Sergeot this
role was assumed by Alexandrine Caille. The worthy epicier himself was
of too torpid a temperament to fall a victim to the gnawing tooth of
envy, but in the soul of his wife the launch, and, what was worse, the
immediate prosperity of the Salon Malakoff, bred dire resentment. Her
own establishment had grown grimy with the passage of time, and the
annual profits displayed a constant and disturbing tendency toward
complete evaporation, since the coming of the big cafes, and the
resultant subversion of custom to the wholesale dealers. This persistent
narrowing of the former appreciable gap between purchase and selling
price rankled in Alexandrine's mind, but her misguided efforts to
maintain the percentage of profit by recourse to inferior qualities only
made bad worse, and, even as the Sergeot were steering the Salon
Malakoff forth upon the waters of prosperity, there were nightly
conferences in the household next door, at which impending ruin
presided, and exasperation sounded the keynote of every sentence. The
resplendent facade of Hippolyte's establishment, the tide of custom
which poured into and out of his door, the loudly expressed admiration
of his ability and thrift, which greeted her ears on every side, and,
finally, the sight of Esperance, fresh, smiling, and prosperous, behind
her little counter--all these were as gall and wormwood to Alexandrine,
brooding over her accumulating debts and her decreasing earnings, among
her dusty stacks of jars and boxes. Once she had called upon her
neighbour, somewhat for courtesy's sake, but more for curiosity's, and
since then the agreeable scent of violet and lilac perfumery dwelt
always in her memory, and mirages of scrupulously polished nickel and
glass hung always before her eyes. The air of her own shop was heavy
with the pungent odours of raw vegetables, cheeses, and dried fish, and
no brilliance redeemed the sardine and biscuit boxes which surrounded
her. Life became a bitter thing to Alexandrine Caille, for if nothing is
more gratifying than one's own success, surely nothing is less so than
that of one's neighbour. Moreover, her visit had never been returned,
and this again was fuel for her rage.

But the sharpest thorn in her flesh--and even in that of her phlegmatic
husband--was the base desertion to the enemy's camp of Abel Flique. In
the days when Madame Caille was unmarried, and when her ninety kilos
were fifty still, Abel had been youngest commis in the very shop over
which she now held sway, and the most devoted suitor in all her train.
Even after his prowess in the black days of '71 had won him the
attention of the civil authorities, and a grateful municipality had
transformed the grocer-soldier into a guardian of law and order, he
still hung upon the favour of his heart's first love, and only gave up
the struggle when Jean-Baptiste bore off the prize and enthroned her in
state as presiding genius of his newly acquired epicerie. Later, an
unwittingly kindly prefect had transferred Abel to the seventeenth
arrondissement, and so the old friendship was picked up where it had
been dropped, and the ruddy-faced agent found it both convenient and
agreeable to drop in frequently at Madame Caille's on his way home, and
exchange a few words of reminiscence or banter for a box of sardines or
a minute package of tea. But, with the deterioration in his old friends'
wares, and the almost simultaneous appearance of the Salon Malakoff, his
loyalty wavered. Flique sampled the advantages of Hippolyte's
establishment, and, being won over thereby, returned again and again.
His hearty laugh came to be heard almost daily in the salle de coiffure,
and because he was a brave homme and a good customer, who did not stand
upon a question of a few sous, but allowed Hippolyte to work his will,
and trim and curl and perfume him to his heart's content, there was
always a welcome for him, and a smile from Madame Sergeot, and
occasionally a little present of brillantine or perfumery, for
friendship's sake, and because it is well to have the good-will of the
all-powerful police.

From her window Madame Caille observed the comings and goings of Abel
with a resentful eye. It was rarely now that he glanced into the
epicerie as he passed, and still more rarely that he greeted his former
flame with a stiff nod. Once she had hailed him from the doorway,
sardines in hand, but he had replied that he was pressed for time, and
had passed rapidly on. Then indeed did blackness descend upon the soul
of Alexandrine, and in her deepest consciousness she vowed to have
revenge. Neither the occasion nor the method was as yet clear to her,
but she pursed her lips ominously, and bided her time.

In the existence of Madame Caille there was one emphatic consolation for
all misfortunes, the which was none other than Zut, a white angora cat
of surpassing beauty and prodigious size. She had come into
Alexandrine's possession as a kitten, and, what with much eating and an
inherent distaste for exercise, had attained her present proportions and
her superb air of unconcern. It was from the latter that she derived her
name, the which, in Parisian argot, at once means everything and
nothing, but is chiefly taken to signify complete and magnificent
indifference to all things mundane and material: and in the matter of
indifference Zut was past-mistress. Even for Madame Caille herself, who
fed her with the choicest morsels from her own plate, brushed her fine
fur with excessive care, and addressed caressing remarks to her at
minute intervals throughout the day, Zut manifested a lack of interest
that amounted to contempt. As she basked in the warm sun at the shop
door, the round face of her mistress beamed upon her from the little
desk, and the voice of her mistress sent fulsome flattery winging toward
her on the heavy air. Was she beautiful, mon Dieu! In effect, all that
one could dream of the most beautiful! And her eyes, of a blue like the
heaven, were they not wise and calm? Mon Dieu, yes! It was a cat among
thousands, a mimi almost divine.

Jean-Baptiste, appealed to for confirmation of these statements, replied
that it was so. There was no denying that this was a magnificent beast.
And of a chic. And caressing--(which was exaggeration). And of an
affection--(which was doubtful). And courageous--(which was wholly
untrue). Mazette, yes! A cat of cats! And was the boy to be the whole
afternoon in delivering a cheese, he demanded of her? And Madame Caille
would challenge him to ask her that--but it was a good, great beast all
the same!--and so bury herself again in her accounts, until her
attention was once more drawn to Zut, and fresh flattery poured forth.
For all of this Zut cared less than nothing. In the midst of her
mistress's sweetest cajolery, she simply closed her sapphire eyes, with
an inexpressibly eloquent air of weariness, or turned to the intricacies
of her toilet, as who should say: "Continue. I am listening. But it is
unimportant."

But long familiarity with her disdain had deprived it of any sting, so
far as Alexandrine was concerned. Passive indifference she could suffer.
It was only when Zut proceeded to an active manifestation of ingratitude
that she inflicted an irremediable wound. Returning from her marketing
one morning, Madame Caille discovered her graceless favourite seated
complacently in the doorway of the Salon Malakoff, and, in a paroxysm
of indignation, bore down upon her, and snatched her to her breast.

"Unhappy one!" she cried, planting herself in full view of Esperance,
and, while raining the letter of her reproach upon the truant,
contriving to apply its spirit wholly to her neighbour. "What hast thou
done? Is it that thou desertest me for strangers, who may destroy thee?
Name of a name, hast thou no heart? They would steal thee from me--and
above all, now! Well then, no! One shall see if such things are
permitted! Vagabond!" And with this parting shot, which passed
harmlessly over the head of the offender, and launched itself full at
Madame Sergeot, the outraged epiciere flounced back into her own domain,
where, turning, she threatened the empty air with a passionate gesture.

"Vagabond!" she repeated. "Good-for-nothing! Is it not enough to have
robbed me of my friends, that you must steal my child as well? We shall
see!"--then, suddenly softening--"Thou art beautiful, and good, and
wise. Mon Dieu, if I should lose thee, and above all, now!"

Now there existed a marked, if unvoiced, community of feeling between
Esperance and her resentful neighbour, for the former's passion for cats
was more consuming even than the latter's. She had long cherished the
dream of possessing a white angora, and when, that morning, of her own
accord, Zut stepped into the Salon Malakoff, she was received with
demonstrations even warmer than those to which she had long since become
accustomed. And, whether it was the novelty of her surroundings, or
merely some unwonted instinct which made her unusually susceptible, her
habitual indifference then and there gave place to animation, and her
satisfaction was vented in her long, appreciative purr, wherewith it was
not once a year that she vouchsafed to gladden her owner's heart.
Esperance hastened to prepare a saucer of milk, and, when this was
exhausted, added a generous portion of fish, and Zut then made a tour of
the shop, rubbing herself against the chair-legs, and receiving the
homage of customers and duck-clad assistants alike. Flique, his ruddy
face screwed into a mere knot of features, as Hippolyte worked violet
hair-tonic into his brittle locks, was moved to satire by the
apparition.

"Tiens! It is with the cat as with the clients. All the world forsakes
the Caille."

Strangely enough, the wrathful words of Alexandrine, as she snatched her
darling from the doorway, awoke in the mind of Esperance her first
suspicion of this smouldering resentment. Absorbed in the launching of
her husband's affairs, and constantly employed in the making of change
and with the keeping of her simple accounts, she had had no time to
bestow upon her neighbours, and, even had her attention been free, she
could hardly have been expected to deduce the rancour of Madame Caille
from the evidence at hand. But even if she had been able to ignore the
significance of that furious outburst at her very door, its meaning had
not been lost upon the others, and her own half-formed conviction was
speedily confirmed.

"What has she?" cried Hippolyte, pausing in the final stage of his
operations upon the highly perfumed Flique.

"Do I know?" replied his wife with a shrug. "She thinks I stole her
cat--I!"

"Quite simply, she hates you," put in Flique. "And why not? She is old,
and fat, and her business is taking itself off, like that! You are young
and"--with a bow, as he rose--"beautiful, and your affairs march to a
marvel. She is jealous, c'est tout! It is a bad character, that."

"But, mon Dieu!"--

"But what does that say to you? Let her go her way, she and her cat. Au
r'voir, 'sieurs, 'dame."

And, rattling a couple of sous into the little urn reserved for tips,
the policeman took his departure, amid a chorus of "Merci, m'sieu', au
r'voir, m'sieu'," from Hippolyte and his duck-clad aids.

But what he had said remained behind. All day Madame Sergeot pondered
upon the incident of the morning and Abel Flique's comments thereupon,
seeking out some more plausible reason for this hitherto unsuspected
enmity than the mere contrast between her material conditions and those
of Madame Caille seemed to her to afford. For, to a natural placidity of
temperament, which manifested itself in a reluctance to incur the
displeasure of any one, had been lately added in Esperance a shrewd
commercial instinct, which told her that the fortunes of the Salon
Malakoff might readily be imperilled by an unfriendly tongue. In the
quartier, gossip spread quickly and took deep root. It was quite
imaginably within the power of Madame Caille to circulate such rumours
of Sergeot dishonesty as should draw their lately won custom from them
and leave but empty chairs and discontent where now all was prosperity
and satisfaction.

Suddenly there came to her the memory of that visit which she had never
returned. Mon Dieu! and was not that reason enough? She, the youngest
patronne in the quartier, to ignore deliberately the friendly call of a
neighbour! At least it was not too late to make amends. So, when
business lagged a little in the late afternoon, Madame Sergeot slipped
from her desk, and, after a furtive touch to her hair, went in next
door, to pour oil upon the troubled waters.

Madame Caille, throned at her counter, received her visitor with
unexampled frigidity.

"Ah, it is you," she said. "You have come to make some purchases, no
doubt."

"Eggs, madame," answered her visitor, disconcerted, but tactfully
accepting the hint.

"The best quality--or--?" demanded Alexandrine, with the suggestion of a
sneer.

"The best, evidently, madame. Six, if you please. Spring weather at
last, it would seem."

To this generality the other made no reply. Descending from her stool,
she blew sharply into a small paper bag, thereby distending it into a
miniature balloon, and began selecting the eggs from a basket, holding
each one to the light, and then dusting it with exaggerated care before
placing it in the bag. While she was thus employed Zut advanced from a
secluded corner, and, stretching her fore legs slowly to their utmost
length, greeted her acquaintance of the morning with a yawn. Finding in
the cat an outlet for her embarrassment, Esperance made another effort
to give the interview a friendly turn.

"He is beautiful, madame, your matou," she said.

"It is a female," replied Madame Caille, turning abruptly from the
basket, "and she does not care for strangers."

This second snub was not calculated to encourage neighbourly overtures,
but Madame Sergeot had felt herself to be in the wrong, and was not to
be so readily repulsed.

"We do not see Monsieur Caille at the Salon Malakoff," she continued.
"We should be enchanted"--

"My husband shaves himself," retorted Alexandrine, with renewed dignity.

"But his hair"--ventured Esperance.

"I cut it!" thundered her foe.

Here Madame Sergeot made a false move. She laughed. Then, in confusion,
and striving, too late, to retrieve herself--"Pardon, madame," she
added, "but it seems droll to me, that. After all, ten sous is a sum so
small"--

"All the world, unfortunately," broke in Madame Caille, "has not the
wherewithal to buy mirrors, and pay itself frescoes and appareils
antiseptiques! The eggs are twenty-four sous--but we do not pride
ourselves upon our eggs. Perhaps you had better seek them elsewhere for
the future!"

For sole reply Madame Sergeot had recourse to her expressive shrug, and
then laying two francs upon the counter, and gathering up the sous which
Alexandrine rather hurled at than handed her, she took her way toward
the door with all the dignity at her command. But Madame Caille, feeling
her snub to have been insufficient, could not let her go without a final
thrust.

"Perhaps your husband will be so amiable as to shampoo my cat!" she
shouted. "She seems to like your 'Salon'!"

But Esperance, while for concord's sake inclined to tolerate all
rudeness to herself, was not prepared to hear Hippolyte insulted, and
so, wheeling at the doorway, flung all her resentment into two words.

"Mal elevee!"

"Gueuse!" screamed Alexandrine from the desk. And so they parted.

Now, even at this stage, an armed truce might still have been preserved,
had Zut been content with the evil she had wrought, and not thought it
incumbent upon her further to embitter a quarrel that was a very pretty
quarrel as it stood. But, whether it was that the milk and fish of the
Salon Malakoff lay sweeter upon her memory than any of the familiar
dainties of the epicerie Caille, or that, by her unknowable feline
instinct, she was irresistibly drawn toward the scent of violet and
lilac brillantine, her first visit to the Sergeot was soon repeated, and
from this visit other visits grew, until it was almost a daily
occurrence for her to saunter slowly into the salle de coiffure, and
there receive the food and homage which were rendered as her undisputed
due. For, whatever was the bitterness of Esperance toward Madame Caille,
no part thereof descended upon Zut. On the contrary, at each visit her
heart was more drawn toward the sleek angora, and her desire but
strengthened to possess her peer. But white angoras are a luxury, and an
expensive one at that, and, however prosperous the Salon Malakoff might
be, its proprietors were not as yet in a position to squander eighty
francs upon a whim. So, until profits should mount higher, Madame
Sergeot was forced to content herself with the voluntary visits of her
neighbour's pet.

Madame Caille did not yield her rights of sovereignty without a
struggle. On the occasion of Zut's third visit, she descended upon the
Salon Malakoff, robed in wrath, and found the adored one contentedly
feeding on fish in the very bosom of the family Sergeot. An appalling
scene ensued.

"If," she stormed, crimson of countenance, and threatening Esperance
with her fist, "if you must entice my cat from her home, at least I
will thank you not to give her food. I provide all that is necessary;
and, for the rest, how do I know what is in that saucer?"

And she surveyed the duck-clad assistants and the astounded customers
with tremendous scorn.

"You others," she added, "I ask you, is it just? These people take my
cat, and feed her--feed her--with I know not what! It is overwhelming,
unheard of--and, above all, now!"

But here the peaceful Hippolyte played trumps.

"It is the privilege of the vulgar," he cried, advancing, razor in hand,
"when they are at home, to insult their neighbours, but here--no! My
wife has told me of you and of your sayings. Beware! or I shall arrange
your affair for you! Go! you and your cat!"

And, by way of emphasis, he fairly kicked Zut into her astonished
owner's arms. He was magnificent, was Hippolyte!

This anecdote, duly elaborated, was poured into the ears of Abel Flique
an hour later, and that evening he paid his first visit in many months
to Madame Caille. She greeted him effusively, being willing to pardon
all the past for the sake of regaining this powerful friend. But the
glitter in the agent's eye would have cowed a fiercer spirit than hers.

"You amuse yourself," he said sternly, looking straight at her over the
handful of raisins which she tendered him, "by wearying my friends. I
counsel you to take care. One does not sell inferior eggs in Paris
without hearing of it sooner or later. I know more than I have told, but
not more than I can tell, if I choose."

"Our ancient friendship"--faltered Alexandrine, touched in a vulnerable
spot.

"--preserves you thus far," added Flique, no less unmoved. "Beware how
you abuse it!"

And so the calls of Zut were no longer disturbed.

But the rover spirit is progressive, and thus short visits became long
visits, and finally the angora spent whole nights in the Salon Malakoff,
where a box and a bit of carpet were provided for her. And one fateful
morning the meaning of Madame Caille's significant words "and above all,
now!" was made clear.

The prosperity of Hippolyte's establishment had grown apace, so that, on
the morning in question, the three chairs were occupied, and yet other
customers awaited their turn. The air was laden with violet and lilac.
A stout chauffeur, in a leather suit, thickly coated with dust, was
undergoing a shampoo at the hands of one of the duck-clad, and, under
the skilfully plied razor of the other, the virgin down slid from the
lips and chin of a slim and somewhat startled youth, while from a
vaporizer Hippolyte played a fine spray of perfumed water upon the ruddy
countenance of Abel Flique. It was an eloquent moment, eminently fitted
for some dramatic incident, and that dramatic incident Zut supplied. She
advanced slowly and with an air of conscious dignity from the corner
where was her carpeted box, and in her mouth was a limp something,
which, when deposited in the immediate centre of the Salon Malakoff,
resolved itself into an angora kitten, as white as snow!

"Epatant!" said Flique, mopping his perfumed chin. And so it was.

There was an immediate investigation of Zut's quarters, which revealed
four other kittens, but each of these was marked with black or tan. It
was the flower of the flock with which the proud mother had won her
public.

"And they are all yours!" cried Flique, when the question of ownership
arose. "Mon Dieu, yes! There was such a case not a month ago, in the
eighth arrondissement--a concierge of the avenue Hoche who made a
contrary claim. But the courts decided against her. They are all yours,
Madame Sergeot. My felicitations!"

Now, as we have said, Madame Sergeot was of a placid temperament which
sought not strife. But the unprovoked insults of Madame Caille had
struck deep, and, after all, she was but human.

So it was that, seated at her little desk, she composed the following
masterpiece of satire:

CHERE MADAME,--We send you back your cat, and the others--all but
one. One kitten was of a pure white, more beautiful even than its
mother. As we have long desired a white angora, we keep this one as
a souvenir of you. We regret that we do not see the means of
accepting the kind offer you were so amiable as to make us. We fear
that we shall not find time to shampoo your cat, as we shall be so
busy taking care of our own. Monsieur Flique will explain the rest.

We pray you to accept, madame, the assurance of our distinguished
consideration,

HIPPOLYTE AND ESPERANCE SERGEOT.

It was Abel Flique who conveyed the above epistle, and Zut, and four of
Zut's kittens, to Alexandrine Caille, and, when that wrathful person
would have rent him with tooth and nail, it was Abel Flique who laid his
finger on his lip, and said,--

"Concern yourself with the superior kitten, madame, and I concern myself
with the inferior eggs!"

To which Alexandrine made no reply. After Flique had taken his
departure, she remained speechless for five consecutive minutes for the
first time in the whole of her waking existence, gazing at the spot at
her feet where sprawled the white angora, surrounded by her mottled
offspring. Even when the first shock of her defeat had passed, she
simply heaved a deep sigh, and uttered two words,--

"Oh, Zut!"

The which, in Parisian argot, at once means everything and nothing.

GUY WETMORE CARRYL.





Next: A Psychical Invasion

Previous: The Cat



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