Let us say that her name was Madame Anserre so as not to reveal her real name.
She was one of those Parisian comets which leave, as it were, a trail of fire behind them. She wrote verses and novels; she had a poetic heart, and was rarely beautiful. She opened her doors to very few–only to exceptional people, those who are commonly described as princes of something or other. To be a visitor at her house constituted a claim, a genuine claim to intellect: at least this was the estimate set on her invitations. Her husband played the part of an obscure satellite. To be the husband of a comet is not an easy thing. This husband had, however, an original idea, that of creating a State within a State, of possessing a merit of his own, a merit of the second order, it is true; but he did, in fact, in this fashion, on the days when his wife held receptions, hold receptions also on his own account. He had his special set who appreciated him, listened to him, and bestowed on him more attention than they did on his brilliant partner.
He had devoted himself to agriculture–to agriculture in the Chamber. There are in the same way generals in the Chamber–those who are born, who live, and who die, on the round leather chairs of the War Office, are all of this sort, are they not? Sailors in the Chamber,–viz., in the Admiralty,–colonizers in the Chamber, etc., etc. So he had studied agriculture, had studied it deeply, indeed, in its relations to the other sciences, to political economy, to the Fine Arts–we dress up the Fine Arts with every kind of science, and we even call the horrible railway bridges “works of art.” At length he reached the point when it was said of him: “He is a man of ability.” He was quoted in the technical reviews; his wife had succeeded in getting him appointed a member of a committee at the Ministry of Agriculture.
This latest glory was quite sufficient for him.
Under the pretext of diminishing the expenses, he sent out invitations to his friends for the day when his wife received hers, so that they associated together, or rather did not–they formed two distinct groups. Madame, with her escort of artists, academicians, and ministers, occupied a kind of gallery, furnished and decorated in the style of the Empire. Monsieur generally withdrew with his agriculturists into a smaller portion of the house used as a smoking-room and ironically described by Madame Anserre as the Salon of Agriculture.
The two camps were clearly separate. Monsieur, without jealousy, moreover, sometimes penetrated into the Academy, and cordial hand-shakings were exchanged; but the Academy entertained infinite contempt for the Salon of Agriculture, and it was rarely that one of the princes of science, of thought, or of anything else, mingled with the agriculturists.
These receptions occasioned little expense–a cup of tea, a cake, that was all. Monsieur, at an earlier period, had claimed two cakes, one for the Academy, and one for the agriculturists, but Madame having rightly suggested that this way of acting seemed to indicate two camps, two receptions, two parties, Monsieur did not press the matter, so that they used only one cake, of which Madame Anserre did the honors at the Academy, and which then passed into the Salon de Agriculture.
Now, this cake was soon, for the Academy, a subject of observation well calculated to arouse curiosity. Madame Anserre never cut it herself. That function always fell to the lot of one or other of the illustrious guests. The particular duty, which was supposed to carry with it honorable distinction, was performed by each person for a pretty long period, in one case for three months, scarcely ever for more; and it was noticed that the privilege of “cutting the cake” carried with it a heap of other marks of superiority–a sort of royalty, or rather very accentuated viceroyalty.
The reigning cutter spoke in a haughty tone, with an air of marked command; and all the favors of the mistress of the house were for him alone.
These happy individuals were in moments of intimacy described in hushed tones behind doors as the “favorites of the cake,” and every change of favorite introduced into the Academy a sort of revolution. The knife was a scepter, the pastry an emblem; the chosen ones were congratulated. The agriculturists never cut the cake. Monsieur himself was always excluded, although he ate his share.
The cake was cut in succession by poets, by painters, and by novelists. A great musician had the privilege of measuring the portions of the cake for some time; an ambassador succeeded him. Sometimes a man less well known, but elegant and sought after, one of those who are called according to the different epochs, “true gentleman,” or “perfect knight,” or “dandy,” or something else, seated himself, in his turn, before the symbolic cake. Each of them, during this ephemeral reign, exhibited greater consideration toward the husband; then, when the hour of his fall had arrived, he passed on the knife toward the other, and mingled once more with the crowd of followers and admirers of the “beautiful Madame Anserre.”
This state of things lasted a long time; but comets do not always shine with the same brilliance. Everything gets worn out in society. One would have said that gradually the eagerness of the cutters grew feebler; they seemed to hesitate at times when the tray was held out to them; this office, once so much coveted, became less and less desired. It was retained for a shorter time; they appeared to be less proud of it.
Madame Anserre was prodigal of smiles and civilities. Alas! no one was found any longer to cut it voluntarily. The newcomers seemed to decline the honor. The “old favorites” reappeared one by one like dethroned princes who have been replaced for a brief spell in power. Then, the chosen ones became few, very few. For a month (oh, prodigy!) M, Anserre cut open the cake; then he looked as if he were getting tired of it; and one evening Madame Anserre, the beautiful Madame Anserre, was seen cutting it herself. But this appeared to be very wearisome to her, and, next day, she urged one of her guests so strongly to do it that he did not dare to refuse.
The symbol was too well known, however; the guests stared at one another with scared, anxious faces. To cut the cake was nothing, but the privileges to which this favor had always given a claim now frightened people; therefore, the moment the dish made its appearance the academicians rushed pellmell into the Salon of Agriculture, as if to shelter themselves behind the husband, who was perpetually smiling. And when Madame Anserre, in a state of anxiety, presented herself at the door with a cake in one hand and the knife in the other, they all seemed to form a circle around her husband as if to appeal to him for protection.
Some years more passed. Nobody cut the cake now; but yielding to an old inveterate habit, the lady who had always been gallantly called “the beautiful Madame Anserre” looked out each evening for some devotee to take the knife, and each time the same movement took place around her, a general flight, skillfully arranged and full of combined maneuvers that showed great cleverness, in order to avoid the offer that was rising to her lips.
But, one evening, a young man presented himself at her reception–an innocent, unsophisticated youth. He knew nothing about the mystery of the cake; accordingly, when it appeared, and when all the rest ran away, when Madame Anserre took from the manservant’s hands the dish and the pastry, he remained quietly by her side.
She thought that perhaps he knew about the matter; she smiled, and in a tone which showed some emotion, said:
“Will you be kind enough, dear Monsieur, to cut this cake?”
He displayed the utmost readiness, and took off his gloves, flattered at such an honor being conferred on him.
“Oh, to be sure, Madame, with the greatest pleasure.”
Some distance away in the corner of the gallery, in the frame of the door which led into the Salon of the Agriculturists, faces which expressed utter amazement were staring at him. Then, when the spectators saw the newcomer cutting without any hesitation, they quickly came forward.
An old poet jocosely slapped the neophyte on the shoulder.
“Bravo, young man!” he whispered in his ear.
The others gazed at him with curiosity. Even the husband appeared to be surprised. As for the young man, he was astonished at the consideration which they suddenly seemed to show toward him; above all, he failed to comprehend the marked attentions, the manifest favor, and the species of mute gratitude which the mistress of the house bestowed on him.
It appears, however, that he eventually found out.
At what moment, in what place, was the revelation made to him? Nobody could tell; but, when he again presented himself at the reception, he had a preoccupied air, almost a shamefaced look, and he cast around him a glance of uneasiness.
The bell rang for tea. The manservant appeared. Madame Anserre, with a smile, seized the dish, casting a look about her for her young friend; but he had fled so precipitately that no trace of him could be seen any longer. Then, she went looking everywhere for him, and ere long she discovered him in the Salon of the Agriculturists. With his arm locked in that of the husband, he was consulting that gentleman as to the means employed for destroying phylloxera.
“My dear Monsieur,” she said to him, “will you be so kind as to cut this cake for me?”
He reddened to the roots of his hair, and hanging down his head, stammered out some excuses. Thereupon M. Anserre took pity on him, and turning toward his wife, said:
“My dear, you might have the goodness not to disturb us. We are talking about agriculture. So get your cake cut by Baptiste.”
And since that day nobody has ever cut Madame Anserre’s cake.