Story type: Literature
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.
“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.