Zut and Other Parisians/Le Pochard

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Le Pochard[edit]

His applicability was evident to the mind of Jean Fraissigne from the moment when the camelot placed Le Pochard on a table in front of the Taverne, and he proceeded to go through his ridiculous pretense of drinking from the cup in his left hand which he filled from the bottle in his right. Jean, who was dawdling over a demi, and watching the familiar ebb and flow of life on the Boul’ Miche’, was at first passively pleased at the distraction provided by the appearance of the toy, and then, of a sudden, consumedly absorbed in the progress of his operations. For what was plain to any but a blind man was the fact that Le Pochard was the precise counterfeit of Jean’s friend and comrade, Grégoire — Grégoire, with his flat-brimmed hat, and his loose working blouse, and his loud checked trousers — Grégoire, hélas! with his flushed face, and his tremulous hands, and his unsteady walk, as Jean had seen him a hundred times!

Le Pochard staggered to and fro upon the marble-topped table, nodding maudlinly, and alternately filling his cup and raising it uncertainly to his expressionless face. At last, weakened by his exertions, he passed one arm through the handle of Jean’s demi, hesitated, and then leaned heavily against the glass and stood motionless, with his topheavy head bent forward, and his eyes fixed on the price-mark upon the saucer below. This eloquent manœuvre, so unspeakably appealing, determined the future ownership of Le Pochard. Jean purchased him upon the spot, and bore him off in triumph to the rue de Seine, as an object lesson for Grégoire Caubert.

The two students shared a little sous-toit within a stone’s throw of the Beaux-Arts, neither luxuriously nor yet insufficiently furnished. It was Jean’s good fortune to have a father who believed in him — not a usual condition of mind in a provincial merchant whose son displays an unaccountable partiality for architecture — and, what was more to the point, who could afford to demonstrate his confidence by remittances, which were inspiring, if not on the score of magnitude, at least on that of regularity. And, since freedom from pecuniary solicitude is the surest guarantee of a cheerful spirit, there was no more diligent pupil at the Boîte, no blither comrade in idle hours, — above all, no more loyal friend, in sun or shadow, throughout the length and breadth of the Quartier, than little Jean le Gai, as he was called by those who loved him, and whom he loved.

That was why the comrades were at a loss to understand his friendship for Grégoire Caubert. Had the latter been one of themselves, a type of the schools, in that fact alone, whatever his peculiarities, would have lain a reason for the association. But, to all intents and purposes, he was of another world. His similarity to Jean and to themselves began and ended with his costume. For the rest he was silent and reserved, courting no confidence and giving none, unknowing and unknown to the haunts they frequented, — the Deux Magots, the Escholiers, the Taverne, the Bullier, and Madame Roupiquet’s in the rue de Beaune, and the Rouge on Thursday nights. Jean le Gai, when questioned as to the doings of Grégoire, seemed to reflect something of his friend’s reserve. He admitted that the other wrote: he even went so far as to prophesy that some day Grégoire would be famous. Further, he made no admissions.

“Diable!” he said. “What does it matter? He goes his way — I go mine. And if we choose to live together, whose concern is it then, I ask you? Fichez-moi la paix, vous autres!”

So popular curiosity went unsatisfied, so far as Grégoire was concerned, and the apparently uncongenial ménage came, in time, to be looked upon as one of the unexplained mysteries of the Quartier, — one, for the rest, which made no particular difference to any one save the two immediately concerned.

But if Jean made no admissions as to Grégoire, it was not for lack of sufficient knowledge. They had met, as men meet in the Quartier, — as bubbles meet in a stream, and, for reasons not apparent, are drawn together by an irresistible attraction, and fuse into one larger, brighter bubble than either has been before. For little Jean Fraissigne, whose exquisses were the wonder of the School, and whose projets had already come to be photographed and sold in the shops of the rue Bonaparte and the quai Conti, believed in his heart that architecture was as nothing compared to literature, and Grégoire, whose long, uphill struggle had been unaccompanied by comradely admiration or even encouragement, found indescribable comfort, in the hour of his success, in the faith and approbation of the friend who alone, of all men, knew his secret, knew that the Réné de Lys of the “Chansons de Danaé” and the “Voyage de Tristan” of which all Paris was talking, was none other than himself — Grégoire Caubert, on whose wrist the siren of absinthe had laid a hand that was not to be shaken off, and whom she was leading, if by the paths of subtlest fancy and almost miraculous creative faculty, yet toward an end inevitable on which he did not dare to dwell.

To Jean, healthy, rational, and cheerful as a young terrier, much that Grégoire said and did was totally incomprehensible, but what he did not understand he set down, with conviction, to the eccentricity of genius. The long nights which he spent alone, sleeping sanely in their bedroom in the rue de Seine, while Grégoire’s cot stood empty beside him, and Grégoire himself was tramping the streets of Paris; the return of his friend in the first faint light of dawn, pale-faced and swaying; the succeeding hours which, despite his exhaustion, he spent at his desk, feverishly writing, and tossing the pages from him, one by one, until the floor was strewn with them on all sides; finally, his heavy slumber far into the afternoon, — all this, to Jean, was but part and parcel of that marvelous thing called literature. He returned at seven to find that Grégoire had prepared a wonderful little meal, and was walking up and down the floor, unevenly, absinthe in hand, awaiting his arrival.

In the two hours which followed lay the keynote of their sympathy. It was then that Grégoire would read his work of the early morning hour, to Jean, curled up on the divan, with his hands clasped behind his head and his eyes round and wide with delight and admiration. What things they were, those fancies that Grégoire had pursued and caught, like night-moths, in the streets of Paris, while stupid folk were sleeping! And how he read them, Grégoire, with his flushed face lit with inspiration, and his eyes flaming with enthusiasm! If only he would not drink absinthe, thought little Jean, and said so, timidly at first, and then more earnestly, as, little by little, the marks of excess grew more plain in his friend. But Grégoire made a joke of this — he who always joked — and in time, Jean came to acquiesce. For he never wholly understood — until afterwards.

So, when nine struck, it was understood that they parted company till the following evening. Jean brought out his drawing board, his T square, and all their attendant paraphernalia, and toiled at his calques with infinite patience and unerring accuracy, until midnight; and Grégoire, having corrected his manuscript here and there, gnawing savagely at his pencil the while, inclosed it in one of his long envelopes, scrawled “Rédaction du Journal” upon it, stamped it, and went out into the night to mail the old, and seek new moths. And this was all there was to the comradeship which mystified the Quartier, save that the love of Jean for Grégoire and of Grégoire for Jean was as deep and unfaltering as the current of the eternal Seine — and, if anything, more silent!

Jean wound up Le Pochard stealthily, on the landing outside the apartment door, and, entering, placed it suddenly upon the table under the very nose of Grégoire, who stood, sipping his absinthe, in the centre of the room. Le Pochard rocked and swayed, ticking like a little clock, and drinking cup after cup of his imaginary beverage, as if his life depended upon the quantity consumed. Convulsed with merriment at the performance of the preposterous creature, Jean le Gai lay prone upon the divan, kneading the cushions with his fists and kicking his heels against the floor, and Grégoire, a slow smile curling his thin, sensitive lips, seemed to forget even his absinthe until the toy’s energy slackened and he paused, with the bottle shaking in his hand, and his eyes, as usual, bent upon the ground. Then — “Eh b’en — quoi?” said Grégoire, looking up at his friend.

“Mais c’est toi!” burst out the little architect in an ecstasy. “It is thou to the life, my Grégoire! Remark the blouse — what? — and the hat, sale pompier! — and the checked grimpant, name of a pipe! But it is thy brother, Le Pochard! — thy twin — thou, thyself!”

And seizing the glass from Grégoire’s hand, he carefully filled Le Pochard’s cup with absinthe, and set him reeling and swaggering again, so that the immoral little animal spilled the liquid on his blouse, and presently fell headlong, totally overcome, with his nose pressed flat against the table.

Thereafter, it was a comradeship of three instead of two. It was quite in accord with the whimsically fanciful nature of Grégoire that he should take Le Pochard into his affections, and even call him “brother” and “cher confrère.” He treated him, did Grégoire, with marked deference and studied non-observance of his besetting weakness, and he expected and received from Le Pochard a like respect and indulgence in return. That, at least, was how he described their relations to Jean, and Jean, curled up upon the divan, was never tired of the droll pretense, but would laugh night after night till the tears came, at the common tact and the mutual courtesy of Grégoire and Le Pochard.

Linked by this new, if unstable, bond of sympathy, neither of the friends understood, during the months that followed, that their paths, which had so long lain parallel, were gradually but inevitably diverging. Jean was now wrapped heart and soul in the competition for the Prix de Rome, and, as he said himself, en charrette eternally. Even the work of his comrade, which formerly had held him spell-bound, lost for him, little by little, much of its compellant charm. His nimble mind, busy with the stern, symmetrical lines of columns and the intricate proportioning of capitals, drifted imperceptibly away from its one-time appreciation of pure imagery. He returned later at night from the atelier, consumed the meal they ate in common with growing impatience, and was busy with his calques again before Grégoire had fairly finished his coffee. The evening readings, grown shorter and shorter, were finally abandoned altogether, and, oftener than not, Jean was totally oblivious to the presence of Grégoire, correcting his manuscript at the little desk, or his noiseless departure with the stamped envelope under his arm. Had he been told, he would have denied his defection with the scorn bred by conviction. It was not that he loved his comrade less, but only that the growing promise of the Prix de Rome lay, like the marvel of dawn, on the horizon of the immediate future, blinding his eyes to all beside. For Jean le Gai was finding himself, and in the crescent light of that new and wonderful discovery whatever had been bright before grew tawdry.

Only one evidence remained of what had been. Le Pochard, with his absurd inanity, was yet a feature of every dinner in the rue de Seine, and because Grégoire invented daily some new drollery in connection with their senseless toy, Jean was unaware that things were no longer the same, — that his friend was thinner and more nervous, that the circles had deepened under his eyes, that he said no word of his work. They laughed together at Le Pochard, and laughed again at their own amusement. So the days went by and still their paths diverged, — Jean’s toward the sun-gilt hills of promise and prosperity, Grégoire’s toward the valley of shadow that a man must tread alone.

Despite his proclivities, neither foresaw the end of Le Pochard. So gradual was his decline toward utter degradation that the varnish was gone from his narrow boots and his round, weak face, and his simple attire was frayed and worn, before they had remarked the change. Then, one night, as Grégoire wound him, the key turned futilely in the spring. Placed in his accustomed position on the table, Le Pochard made one feeble gesture of surrender with his bottle, one unavailing effort to raise his absinthe to his lips, and, reeling dizzily, crashed down upon the floor, his debauches done with forever.

It was a curious thing that, in the face of this absurdity, neither of the comrades smiled. In some unaccountable fashion Le Pochard had come to be so much a part of their association that in his passing there was less of farce than tragedy. And Jean, looking across at Grégoire, saw for the first time the pitiful change that had crept into the face of his friend, the utter weariness where restless energy had been, the dullness of the eyes wherein had played imagination, like a will-o’-the-wisp above the slough of destiny. And Grégoire, looking across at Jean, knew that the moment had come, and dropped his glance, ashamed, fingering the tattered clothes of Le Pochard.

“One might have expected it,” said Jean, with a smile that was not a smile. “I suppose we must forgive him his faults, now that he is gone. De mortuis nil nisi bonum!”

Then, as Grégoire made no reply, he added,

“I shall not work to-night. I am tired. Que veux-tu? I have been doing too much. So we will sit by the fire, n’est ce pas, vieux? And thou shalt read to me as before. Dieu! It is a long time since the moths have shown their wings!”

In the tiny grate the cannel coal snapped and spat fretfully, and Jean, buried in the largest chair, winked at the sparks, and, furtively, from the corners of his brown eyes, watched Grégoire reading, half-heartedly, with the lamp-light cutting sharply across his thin cheek and his temples, on which the veins stood singularly out.

He was no critic, little Jean le Gai, yet even he knew that something had touched and bruised the wings of this latest moth that Grégoire had pursued and caught while stupid folk were sleeping, so that it was not, as had been the others, downed with the shifting brilliance of many unimagined hues, but dull and sombre, like the look he had surprised in the face of his friend. And so subtly keyed were the strings of their unspoken sympathy that night, that a sense of the other’s feeling stole in upon Grégoire long before the manuscript was finished, and suddenly he cast it from him into the grate, where the little flames caught at it, and wrapped it round, and sucked out its life, exulting, until it lay blackened and dying, writhing on the coals.

“Why?” said Jean. But he knew.

“Because,” answered Grégoire slowly, with his eyes upon the shrunken, faintly whispering ashes of his pages, whereat the sparks gnawed with insatiable greed, “because, my little one, it is finished. What I have done I shall never do again. Never didst thou wholly understand — least of all in these last days when thy work absorbed thee. If one is to catch night-moths with such a tender touch, and preserve them for other men to see so carefully, that no one little glint of radiance may be missing from their wings, one has need of a clear eye and of a steady hand. Neither is mine. My father, of whom I have never spoken to thee, — my father, who left me this gift of trapping the thoughts that others see not as they fly, yet love and prize when they are caught and pinned upon the page, yet left me a companion curse, — the curse of absinthe, little Jean, that is not to be gainsaid. For as the gift was beautiful, so was it also frail, and as the curse was subtle, so was it also strong. I have seen the end — long, long. Now it is here. My work is finished. The curse has knocked at the door of my body, and, at the signal, the gift has flown forth from the window of my soul.”

He paused, and pausing, smiled.

“Thou didst most nearly understand me, Jean,” he continued, “in buying Le Pochard. For in truth, he was my brother — my twin — my soul, in the semblance of a toy! How we have laughed at him! Yet all along I have seen myself in that senseless little man of tin. Is it fanciful? Peut-être bien! But, now that he is gone, I see that I must go, too, — and in the same way, my Jean, in the same way, — with my absinthe in my hand and the key of inspiration turning uselessly in the broken spring of my heart!”

He rose suddenly, with a shiver, and looked down at Jean le Gai. For an instant he touched him on the hair, and then he was gone into the night, leaving the little architect gazing, wide-eyed and mute, at the crinkling ashes of the last, unworthiest moth of all.

During the days that followed, Le Pochard stood upon the mantel-corner. They no longer touched him, but left him, as it were, a monument to his own folly.

There was no further trace in Grégoire’s manner of the mood which had loosed his tongue on the night of his last reading. To Jean, who, in his simplicity stood ready with comfort and encouragement, he seemed to be in need of neither. Plainly, what he had said was but a phase of that strange imagination which had dictated the exquisite pathos of his “Danaé” and his “Tristan;” and this one thing little Jean had learned, — that his friend lived the moods he wrote, and that oftentimes, when what he said was seemingly most personal, he was posing for his own pen — a painter in speech, drawing from his reflection in a mirror opposite. So the vague alarm aroused by Grégoire’s words died down, and Jean plunged once more into his work.

In those last days of the competition his projet, laboriously builded, detail by detail, leaped into completion with a suddenness startling even to himself. He knew that it was good, — knew so without the surprising enthusiasm of his comrades at the atelier, and the still more surprising commendation of his patron, the great Laloux himself, whose policy was nil admirari, whose frown a habit, and whose “Bon!” a miracle. But even Jean le Gai, with all his buoyant optimism, was unprepared in conviction for those words which reverberated, to his ears like thunder, beneath the dome of the Institut.

“Prix de Rome — Jean Fraissigne — Atelier Laloux!”

Would Grégoire never come? He asked himself the question a hundred times as he paced the floor of their living-room an hour before dinner, exulting in the cold roast chicken and the champagne, and the huge Maréchale Niel rose which he had purchased for the occasion. For he was determined, was Jean le Gai, that Grégoire should be the first to know. Was it not Grégoire who had encouraged him all along, who had prophesied success when as yet the projet was no more than an exquisse exquisse, who had laughed down Jean’s forebodings, and magnified Jean’s hopes a hundred-fold? Yes, evidently Grégoire must be the first to know, before even a bleu should be sent to Avignon to gladden the heart of Fraissigne père!

But when Grégoire came, there was no need to tell him after all. For it was the chicken that shouted Jean’s news — the chicken, and the champagne, and the great yellow rose, and, most of all, the face of Jean himself. So it was that Grégoire held out his long, thin arms, wide-spread, and that into them rushed Jean, to be hugged and patted, as he gabbled some things that there was such a thing as understanding and many more that there was not.

“Rome — Rome, think of it! And the paternel — but he will die of joy! Ah, mon vieux, — Rome! The dreams — the hopes — all I have wished for — and now — and now Ah, mon vieux, mon vieux!”

And so again and again, clamoring incoherently, while Grégoire, holding him tight, could only pat and pat, and say, over and over, —

“It is well, my little brother! My little brother, it is very, very well!”

They dined like princes, these two, pledging each other, laughing, singing, shouting. Never had Jean le Gai so well deserved his name, never had Grégoire been so whimsically droll. Even Le Pochard was restored to his old position and coaxed to repeat his former antics. But it was all in vain. The key refused to catch the spring, and, replaced upon the table, Le Pochard only nodded once or twice with profound melancholy, and stared at little Jean out of his round eyes. Once, Jean thought he caught in the face of his friend a hint of the sadness of that other night, but when he looked again the sadness, if sadness it were, was gone. Grégoire filled his glass, and pledged him anew with a laugh.

“Rome, mon petit frère — Rome!”

At nine, they went out together, Jean to dispatch his bleu and join the comrades at the Taverne — for this was a night to be celebrated with songs and many drained demis — and Grégoire, who knew where?

Who knew where? Only the Seine, perhaps, sulking past the rampart on which he leaned, thinking, thinking, until the gaunt dawn crept up, like a sick man from his bed, behind the towers of Notre Dame; and the shutters of the shops on the quai Conti came rattling down, and the street cries went shrilly through the thin morning air: “Rac’modeur d’faïence et d’por-or-celaine!” or “’Archand de rôbinets! Tureetutu, tureetututututu!” Then Grégoire went slowly back to the rue de Seine.

Jean spent the succeeding days in a whirl of excitement. There were calls to be made, farewell suppers to be eaten, and all the preparation for departure to be superintended. Fraissigne père sent a joyful letter, and in the letter a substantial draft, so that Jean had two new complets, and shirts, and socks, and shoes, and a brilliantly varnished trunk with his name and address painted in black letters on the end, — “J. Fraissigne, Villa Medici, Rome.” It was magnificent! In this and a packing case he stowed his clothes and his household gods, though when the latter had been collected, the little apartment in the rue de Seine looked pitifully bare. There were dark squares on the faded red wall-paper, and clean circles in the dust of the shelves, where his pictures and casts and little ornaments had been, but Grégoire only laughed and said that the place had been too crowded before, and that the long-needed house-cleaning was no longer an impossibility. So, before they realized the fact, the moment of parting was upon them, and the sapin, with Jean’s luggage on top, stood waiting at the door. The concierge, wiping her hands upon her blue-checked apron, came out to bid her favorite lodger good-by. A little throng of curious idlers paused on the narrow sidewalk, gaping at the new trunk with the glaring lettering. The cocher was already untying the nose-bag in which his lean brown horse had been nuzzling for fifteen minutes. And, on the curb, arm linked in arm, the two comrades stood watching him, with no courage to meet each other’s eyes. For each had a thousand things to say and never a word in which to say so much as one.

At the end, as their hands met, it was only a commonplace that came to Jean’s tongue.

“Thou wilt write me, vieux? And in four years — ce qui va vite, du reste! we shall be together once more!”

In four years — in four years — in four years! The words beat dully at Grégoire’s temples, as he watched the cab swing round the corner of the Institut toward the quai Malaquais, with Jean’s handkerchief fluttering at the window of the portiere. Four years — four years — four years! How easy it was to say for one who did not know that the end had come, — that the moths of fancy that fly by night must be caught by others now, that the siren of absinthe was standing ready to claim her own!

Grégoire mounted the stairs slowly, unlocked the door, and stepped into the familiar room, dim now in the last faint light of day. His absinthe stood upon the table, and he took it up, and paused, looking about him. Presently he went forward to the mantel, and, laying one hand upon it, bent forward, peering at a little photograph of Jean which leaned against the mirror. The woodwork jarred under his touch, and Le Pochard in his corner stirred, ticked feebly, and strove to raise his cup to his lips. Wheeling at the sound, Grégoire met the eyes of the dissipated little toy for a full minute, motionless and silent. Then with a sob, he hurled his glass into the grate, where it was shivered into a hundred fragments, and flung himself on his knees by the divan, with his face buried in his hands.

“Mon frèrot!” he murmured, “my little brother — help me — help me to be strong.”

On the mantle, Le Pochard bent his head and gazed shamefacedly upon the ground.

For his reign was at an end.