The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vols. IV: American
By Guy Wetmore Carryl (18731904)
Deus ex Machina
From Zut and Other Parisians
THE STUDIO was tucked away in the extreme upper northeast corner of 13 ter Rue Visconti, higher even than that cinquième, dearly beloved of the impecunious, and of whoso, between stairs and street odors, chooses the lesser evil, and is more careful of lungs than legs. After the six long flights had been achieved, around a sharp corner and up a little winding stairway was the door which bore the name of Pierre Vauquelin. Inside, after stumbling along a narrow hall as black as Erebus, and floundering through a curtained doorway, one came abruptly into the studio, and in all probability fell headlong over a little rattan stool, or an easel, or a box of paints, and was picked up by the host, and dusted, and put to rights, and made much of, like a bumped child. Thus restored to equanimity, one was better able to appreciate what Pierre called la Boîte.
The Box was a room eight meters in width by ten in length, with a skylight above, and a great, square window in the north wall, which latter sloped inward from floor to ceiling, by reason of the mansard roof. Of what might be called furniture there was but littlea Norman cupboard of black wood, heavily carved, a long divan contrived from various packing-boxes and well-worn rugs, a large, square table, a half dozen chairs, three easels, and a repulsive little stove with an interminable pipe, which, with its many twists and turns, gave one the impression of a thick, black snake, that had a moment before been swaying about in the room, and had suddenly found a hole in the roof through which to thrust its head.
But of minor things the Box was full to overflowing. The Norman cupboard was crammed with an assortment of crockery, much of it sadly nicked and cracked; the divan was strewn with boxes of broken pastels, paint-brushes, and palettes coated with dried colors; the table littered with papers, sketches, and books; and every chair had its own particular trap for the unwary, in the form of thumb-tacks or a glass half full of cloudy water; and in the midst of this chaos, late on a certain mid-May afternoon, stood the painter himself, with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his corduroy trousers, and his back turned upon the portrait upon which he had been at work. It was evident that something untoward was in the air, because Pierre, who always smoked, was not smoking, and Pierre, who never scowled, was scowling.
In the Quartierthat Quartier which alone, of them all, is spelt with a capital Qthere was, in ordinary, no gayer, more happy-go-lucky type than this same Pierre. He lived, as did a thousand of his kind, on eighty sous a day (there were those who lived on less, pardi!), and breakfasted, and dined, at thatyes, and paid himself an absinthe at the Deux Magots at six oclock, and a package of green cigarettes, into the bargain. For the rest of the time he was understood to be working on a portrait in his studio, and, what is more surprising, often was. There was nothing remarkable about Pierres portraits, except that occasionally he sold one, and for moneyfor actual money, the astonishing animal! But if any part of the modest proceeds of such a transaction remained, after the rent had been paid and a new canvas purchased, it was not the caisse dépargne which saw it, be sure of that! For Pierre lived always for the next twenty-four hours, and let the rest of time and eternity look out for themselves.
Yet he took his work seriously. That was the trouble. Even admitting that, thus far, his orders had come only from the more prosperous tradesmen of the Quartier, did that mean, par exemple, that they would not come in time from the millionaires of the sixteenth arrondissement? By no means whatever, said Pierre. To be sure, he had never had the Salon in the palm of his hand, so to speak; but what of that? Jean-Paul himself would tell you that it was all favoritism! So Pierre toiled away at his portrait-painting, and made a little competency, but, if the truth were told, no appreciable progress from years beginning to years end.
For once, however, his luck had played him false. The fat restaurateur, whose wifes portrait he had finished that afternoon and carried at top speed, with the paint not yet dry, to the Rue du Bac, was out of town on business, and would not return until the following evening; and that, so far as Pierre was concerned, was quite as bad as if he were not expected until the following year. Pierres total wealth amounted to one five-franc piece and three sous, and he had been relying upon the restaurateurs four louis to enable him to fulfil his promise to Mimi. For the next day was her fête, and they were to have breakfasted in the country, and taken a boat upon the Seine, and returned to dine under the trees. Not at Suresnes or St. Cloud, ah, non! Something better than thatthe true country, sapristi! at Poissy, twenty-eight kilometers from Paris. All of which meant at least a louis, and no doubt more! And where, demanded Pierre of the great north window, where was a louis to be found?
For there was a tacit understanding among the comrades in the Quartier that there must be no borrowing and lending of money. It was a clause of their creed, which had been adopted in the early days of their companionship, for what was clearly the greatest general good, the chances being that no one of them would ever possess sufficient surplus capital either to accommodate another or to repay an accommodation. For a moment, to be sure, the thought had crossed Pierres mind, but he had rejected it instantly as impracticable. Aside from the unwritten compact, there was no one of them all who could have been of service, had he so willed. Even Jacques Courbet, who possessed a disposition which would have impelled him to chop off his right hand with the utmost cheerfulness if thereby he could have gratified a friend, was worse than useless in this emergency. Had it been a matter of forty sousbut a louis! As well have asked him for the Vénus de Milo, and had done with it.
So it was that, with the premonition of Mimis disappointed eyes cutting great gaps in his tender heart, Pierre had four times shrugged his shoulders and quoted to himself this favorite scrap of his remarkable philosophyOh, lala! All this will arrange itself! and four times had paused, in the act of lighting a cigarette, and plunged again into the depths of despondent reverie. As he was on the point of again repeating this entirely futile operation, a distant clock struck six, and Pierre, remembering that Mimi must even now be waiting for him at the west door of St. Germain-des-Prés, clapped on his cap, and sallied forth into the gathering twilight.
It was apéritif hour at the Café des Deux Magots, and the long, leather-covered benches against the windows, and the double row of little marble-topped tables in front, were rapidly filling, as Pierre and Mimi took their places and ordered two Turins à leau. A group of American Beaux Arts men at their right were chattering in their uncouth tongue, with occasional scraps of Quartier slang, by way of local color, and now and again hailing a newcomer with exclamations, apparently of satisfaction, which began with Hello! The boulevard St. Germain was alive with people, walking past with the admirable lack of haste which distinguishes the Parisian, or waiting, in patient, voluble groups, for a chance to enter the constantly arriving and departing trams and omnibuses; and an unending succession of open cabs filed slowly along the curb, their drivers scanning the terrasse of the café for a possible fare. The air was full of that mingled odor of wet wood pavements and horse-chestnut blossoms which is the outward, invisible sign of that most wonderful of inward and spiritual combinations, Paris and spring! And at the table directly behind Pierre and Mimi sat Caffiard.
There was nothing about Caffiard to suggest a deus ex machina, or anything else, for that matter, except a preposterously corpulent old gentleman with an amiable smile. But in nothing were appearances ever more deceitful than in Caffiard. For it was he, with his enormous double chin, and his general air of harmless fatuity, who edited the little colored sheet entitled La Blague, which sent half Paris into convulsions of merriment every Thursday morning, and he who knew every caricaturist in town, and was beloved of them all for the heartiness of his appreciation and the liberality of his payments. In the first regard he was but one of many Parisian editors; but in the second he stood without a peer. Caran dAche, Léandre, Willette, Forain, Hermann Paul, Abel Faivrethey rubbed their hands when they came out of Caffiards private office; and if the day chanced to be Saturday, there was something in their hands worth rubbing. A fine example, Caffiard!
Mimis black eyes sparkled like a squirrels as she watched Pierre over the rim of her tumbler of vermouth. She was far from being blind, Mimi; and already, though they had been together but six minutes, she had noted that unusual little pucker between his eyebrows, that sad little droop at the comers of his merry mouth. She told herself that Pierre had been overworking himself, that Pierre was tired, that Pierre needed cheering up. So Mimi, who was never tired, not even after ten hours in Madame Fraichels millinery establishment, secretly declared war upon the unusual little pucker and the sad little droop.
What it is now, is not the question, said Mimi, with confidence, but what I make of itpas? And then there is to-morrow! Oh, lala, lalala! What a pleasure it will be, if only the good God gives us beautiful weather. Dis, donc, great thunder-cloud, dost thou know it, this Poissy?
Eh, ben, my little one, thou mayest believe me that it is of all places the most beautiful! One eats at the Esturgeon, on the Seinebut on the Seine, with the water quite near, like that chair. He names himself Jarry, the proprietor, and it is a good typefat and handsome. I adore him! Art thou jealous, species of thinness of a hundred nails? Ben, afterward, one takes a boat, and goes softly, softly down the little arm of the Seine, and creeps under the willows, and perhaps fishes. But no, for it is the closed season. But one sings, eh? What does one sing? Voyons!
It was going to be much worse than he had supposed, this little tragedy. Bon Dieu, how pretty she was, with her startled, hurt eyes, already filling with tears, and her parted lips, and her little white hand, that had flashed up to her cheek at his words! Oh, much worse than he had supposed! But she must be told; there was nothing but that. So Pierre put his elbows on the table, and his chin in his hands, and brought his face close to hers.
Voyons! he explained, thou dost not believe me angry! Mais non, mais non! But listen. It is I who am the next to the last of idiots, since I have never a sou in pocket, never! And the imbecile restaurateur, whose wife I have been painting, will not return until to-morrow, and so I am not paid. Voilà!
Non! non! said Mimi, with tremendous earnestness. Thou art Pierrot, and I love thee! Let us say no more. I shall go back and prepare the dinner, and thou shalt remain and drink a Pernod. It will give thee heart. But follow quickly. Give me the key.
Caffiard leaned forward, picked up the fallen wine-card, pretended to consult it, and ponderously arose. As Pierre was turning the key in the door of the little apartment, they heard a sound of heavy breathing, and the deus ex machina came lumbering up the winding stair.
There was no breath left in Caffiard. He was only able, by way of reply, to point at the top button of Pierres coat, and nod helplessly; then, as Mimi ran ahead to light the gas, he labored along the corridor, staggered through the curtained doorway, stumbled over a rattan stool, was rescued by Pierre, and finally established upon the divan, very red and gasping.
For a time there was silence, Pierre and Mimi busying themselves in putting the studio to rights, with an instinctive courtesy which took no notice of their visitors snorts and wheezes; and Caffiard taking note of his surroundings with his round, blinking eyes. Opposite him, against the wall, reposed the portrait of the restaurateurs wife, as dry and pasty as a stale cream cheese upon the point of crumbling, and on an easel was anotherthat of Monsieur Pantin, the rich shirt-maker of the boulevard St. Germainon which Pierre was at work. A veritable atrocity this, with a green background which trespassed upon Monsieur Pantins hair, and a featureless face, gaunt and haggard, with yellow and purple undertones. There was nothing in either picture to refute ones natural suspicion that soap had been the medium employed. Caffiard blinked harder still as his eyes rested upon the portraits, and he secretly consulted the crumpled wine-card in his hand. Then he seemed to recover his breath by means of a profound sigh.
What is serious, what is not serious? answered Caffiard. It is all a matter of opinion. One prefers to have his painting glued to the wall of the Salon, next the ceiling, another to have his drawing on the front page of La Blague.
Are they imbeciles, these painters, monsieur? she was saying. Now you shall see. This great baby is marvelous, but marvelous with his caricatures. Not Léandre himselfit is I who assure you, monsieur!and to hear him, one would thinkbut thou tirest me, Pierrot!With his portraits! No, it is too much!
Caffiards eyes glistened as he saw them. Even in her enthusiasm Mimi had not overshot the mark. They were marvelous indeed, these caricatures, mere outlines for the most part, with a dot, here and there, of red, or a little streak of green, which lent them a curious, unusual charm. The subjects were legion. Here was Loubet, with a great band of crimson across his shirt-bosom; here Waldeck-Rousseau, with eyes as round and prominent as agate marbles; or Yvette, with a nose on which one might have hung an overcoat; or Chamberlain, all monocle; or Wilhelmina, growing out of a tulips heart, and as pretty as an old print, with her tight-fitting Dutch cap and broidered bodice. And then a host of typescochers, grisettes, flower women, camelots, Heaven knows what not!the products of half a hundred idle hours, wherein great-hearted, foolish Pierre had builded better than he knew!
I must have these for La Blague, monsieur, he said. Bring me two caricatures a week at my office in the Rue St. Joseph, and you shall be paid at the same rate. It is not much, to be sure. But you will have ample time left for yourfor your portrait-painting, monsieur!
For a moment the words of Caffiard affected Pierre and Mimi as the stairs had affected Caffiard. They stared at him, opening and shutting their mouths and gasping, like fish newly landed. Then, suddenly, animated by a common impulse, they rushed into each others arms, and set out, around the studio, in a mad waltz, which presently resolved itself into an impromptu can-can, with Mimi skipping like a fairy, and Pierre singing Hi! Hi! HI! and snapping at her flying feet with a red-bordered handkerchief. After this Mimi kissed Caffiard twice: once on the top of his bald head, and once on the end of his stubby nose. It was like being brushed by the floating down of a dandelion. And, finally, nothing would do but that he must accompany them upon the morrow; and she explained to him in detail the plan which had so nearly fallen through, and the deus ex machina did not betray by so much as a wink that he had heard the entire story only half an hour before.
But, in the end, he protested. But she was insane, the little one, completely! Had he then the air of one who gave himself into those boats there, name of a pipe? But let us be reasonable, voyons! He was not young, like Pierre and Mimi; one comprehended that these holidays did not recommence when one was sixty. What should he do, he demanded of them, trailing along, as one might say, he and his odious fatness? Ah, non! For la belle jeunesse was la belle jeunesse, there was no means of denying it, and it was not for a species of dried sponge to be giving itself the airs of a fresh flower. But no! But no! said Caffiard, striving to rise from the divan. In the morning I have my article to do for the Figaro, and I am going with Caran to Longchamp, en auto, for the races in the afternoon. But no! But no!
It was plain that Caffiard had known Mimi no more than half an hour. One never said, But no! But no! to Mimi, unless it was for the express purpose of having ones mouth covered by the softest little pink palm to be found between the Seine and the observatoirewhich, to do him justice, Caffiard was quite capable of scheming to bring about, if only he had known! He had accepted the little dandelion-down kisses in a spirit of philosophy, knowing well that they were given not for his sake, but for Pierres. But now his protests came to an abrupt termination, for Mimi suddenly seated herself on his lap, and put one arm around his neck.
It was nothing short of an achievement, this. Even Caffiard himself had not imagined that such a thing as his lap was still extant. Yet here was Mimi actually installed thereon, with her cheek pressed against his, and her breath, which was like clover, stirring the ends of his mustache. But she was smiling at Pierre, the witch! Caffiard could see it out of the corner of his eye.
Mais non! Mais non! Mais non! mocked Mimi. Great farceur! Will you listen, at least? Eh ben, voilà! Here is my opinion. As to insanity, if for any one to propose a day in the country is insanity, well, then, yesI am insane! Soit! And, again, if you wish to appear seriousin Paris, that is to saysoit, également! But when you speak of odious fatness, you are a type of monsieur extremely low of ceiling, do you know! Moreover, you are going. Voilà! It is finished. As for Caran, let him go his way and draw his caricaturesthough they are not like Pierres, all the world knows!and without doubt his auto will refuse to move beyond the porte Dauphine, yes, and blow up, bon Dieu! when he is in the act of mending it. One knows these boxes of vapors, what they do. And as for the Figaro, ben, flut! Evidently it will not cease to exist for lack of your articleeh, lami? And it is Mimi who asks youMimi, do you understand, who invites you to her fête. And you would refuse hertoi!
At this point Pierre wrapped five two-sou pieces in a bit of paper, and tossed them out of a little window across the hallway, to a street-singer whimpering in the court below. Pierre said that they weighed down his pockets. They were in the way, the clumsy doublins, said wonderful, spendthrift Pierre!
For the wide sky of the Quartier is forever dotted with little clouds, scudding, scudding all day long. And when one of these passes across the sun, there is a sudden chill in the air, and one walks for a time in shadow, though the comrade over there, across the way, is still in the warm and golden glow. But when the sun has shouldered the little cloud aside again, ah, that is when life is good to live, and goes gaily, to the tinkle of glasses and the ripple of laughter and the ring of silver bits. And when the street-singer in the court receives upon his head a little parcel of coppers that are too heavy for the pocket, and smiles to himself, who knows but what he understands?
For what is also true of the Quartier is thisthat, in sunshine or shadow, one finds a soft little hand clasping his, firm, warm, encouraging, and kindly, and hears a gay little voice that, in foul weather, chatters of the bright hours which it is so sweet to remember, and, in fair, says never a word of the storms which it is so easy to forget!
The veriest bat might have foreseen the end, when once Mimi had put her arm around the neck of Caffiard. Before the deus ex machina knew what he was about, he found his army of objections routed, horse, foot, and dragoons, and had promised to be at the gare St. Lazare at eleven the following morning.
And what a morning it was! Surely the bon Dieu must have loved Mimi an atom better than other mortals, for in the blue-black crucible of the night he fashioned a day as clear and glowing as a great jewel, and set it, blazing with warm light and vivid color, foremost in the diadem of the year. And it was something to see Mimi at the carriage-window, with Pierre at her side and her left hand in his, and in her right a huge bouquetCaffiards contribution; while the deus ex machina himself, breathing like a happy hippopotamus, beamed upon the pair from the opposite corner. So the train slipped past the fortifications, swung through a trim suburb, slid smoothly out into the open country. It was a Wednesday, and there was no holiday crowd to incommode them. They had the compartment to themselves; and the half-hour flew like six minutes, said Mimi, when at last they came to a shuddering standstill, and two guards hastened along the platform in opposite directions, one droning Poiss-y-y-y-y! and the other shouting Poiss! Poiss! Poiss! as if he had been sneezing. It was an undertaking to get Caffiard out of the carriage, just as it had been to get him in. But finally it was accomplished, a whistle trilled from somewhere as if it had been a bird, another wailed like a stepped-on kitten, the locomotive squealed triumphantly, and the next minute the trio were alone in their glory.
It was a day that Caffiard never forgot. They breakfasted at once, so as to have a longer afternoon. Mimi was guide and commander-in-chief, as having been to the Esturgeon before, so the table was set upon the terrasse overlooking the Seine, and there were radishes, and little individual omelets, and a famous matelote, which Monsieur Jarry himself served with the air of a Lucullus, and, finally, a great dish of quatre saisons, and for each of the party a squat brown pot of fresh cream. And, moreover, no ordinaire, but St. Emilion, if you please, with a tin-foil cap which had to be removed before one could draw the cork, and a bottle of Source Badoit as well. And Caffiard, who had dined with the Russian Ambassador on Monday, and breakfasted with the Nuncio on Tuesday, and been egregiously displeased with the fare in both instances, consumed an unprecedented quantity of matelote, and went back to radishes after he had eaten his strawberries and cream; while, to cap the climax, Pierre paid the addition with a louisand gave all the change as a tip! But it was unheard of!
Afterward they engaged a boat, and, with much alarm on the part of Mimi, and satirical comment from Caffiard, and severe admonitions to prudence by Pierre, pushed out into the stream and headed for Villennes, to the enormous edification of three small boys, who hung precariously over the railing of the terrace above them, and called Caffiard a captive balloon.
They made the three kilometers at a snails pace, allowing the boat to drift with the current for an hour at a time, and now and again creeping in under the willows at the waters edge until they were wholly hidden from view, and the voice of Mimi singing was as that of some river nixie invisible to mortal eyes. She sang Bonsoir, Madame la Lune, so sweetly and so sadly that Caffiard was moved to tears. It was her favorite song, becauseoh, because it was about Pierrot! And her own Pierrot responded with a gay soldier ballad, a chanson de route which he had picked up at the Noctambules; and even Caffiard sanga ridiculous ditty it was, which scored the English and went to a rollicking air. They all shouted the refrain, convulsed with merriment at the drollery of the sound:
Caffiard was to leave them at Villennes after they should have taken their apéritifs. They protested, stormed at him, scolded and cajoled by turns, and called him a score of fantastic namesfor by this time they knew him intimatelyas they sat in Monsieur Bodins arbor and sipped amer-menthe, but all in vain. Pierre had Mimis hand, as always, and he had kissed her a half-hundred times in the course of the afternoon. Mimi had a way of shaking her hair out of her eyes with a curious little backward jerk of her head when Pierre kissed her, and then looking at him seriously, seriously, but smiling when he caught her at it. Caffiard liked that. And Pierre had a trick of turning, as if to ask Mimis opinion, or divine even her unspoken wishes whenever a question came up for decisiona choice of food or drink, or direction, or what-not. And Caffiard liked that.
Pierrot, he said, after he had persuaded them to let him depart in peace when the train should be duePierrot. Yes, that is it. You, with your garret, and your painting, and your songs, and your black, black sadness at one moment, and your laughter the next, and, above all, your Pierrette, your bon-bon of a Pierretteyou are Pierrot, the spirit of Paris in powder and white muslin! Eigho! my children, what a thing it is, la belle jeunesse! Tiens! you have given me a taste of it to-day, and I thank you. I thought I had forgotten. But no, one never forgets. It all comes backyouth, and strength, and beauty, love, and music, and laughterbut only like a breath upon a mirror, my children, only like a wind-ripple on a pool; for I am an old man.
Cest vrai? asked Mimi, smiling at him and then at Pierre, and brushing her hand across her eyes, cest vrai? Well, then, they are gone as quickly as they came. Voilà! Without his tears Pierrot is not Pierrot, and without Pierrot