The Attack in the Rue de la Presse
THE ATTACK IN THE RUE DE
ILLUSTRATED BY H. S. POTTER
"ONCE," remarked the poet Tricotrin, pitching his pen in the air, "there were four suitors for the Most Beautiful of her Sex. The first young man was a musician, and he shut himself in his garret to create a divine melody, which should he dedicated to her. The second lover was a chemist, who experimented day and night to concoct a unique perfume which she alone might use. The third, who was a floriculturist, aspired constantly among his bulbs to evolve a lavender rose which should immortalize the lady's name."
"And the fourth," inquired that luckless composer Nicolas Pitou, "what did that fourth suitor do?"
"The fourth suitor waited for her every afternoon in the sunshine, while the others were at work, and married her with great éclat. The moral of which is that, instead of cracking my head to make a sonnet to Claudine, I shall be wise to put on my hat and go to meet her."
"I rejoice that the dénouement is arrived at," Pitou returned, "but it would be even more absorbing if I had previously heard of Claudine."
"Miserable dullard!" cried the poet. "Do you tell me that you have not previously heard of Claudine? She is the only woman I have ever loved."
"A-ah!" rejoined Pitou. "Certainly I have heard of her a thousand times—only she has never been called 'Claudine' before."
"Well, well," said Tricotrin, "we are all liable to errors of the heart. Claudine, however, represents the devotion of a lifetime! I think seriously of writing a tragedy for her to appear in."
"I shall undertake to weep copiously at it if you present me with a pass," affirmed Pitou. "She is an actress, then, this Claudine? At what theater is she blazing—the Montmartre?"
"How often I find occasion to lament that your imagination is no larger than the Quartier! Claudine is not of Montmartre at all, at all! My poor friend, have you never heard that there are theaters on the Grande Boulevards?"
"The rumor has reached me, I confess. So, you betake yourself to haunts of fashion? Now I begin to understand why you have become so prodigal with the blacking. For some time I have had the intention of reproaching you with your shoes—our finances are not equal to such luster."
"Ah, when one truly loves, money is no object!" said Tricotrin. "However, if it is time mis-spent to write a sonnet to her, it is even more unprofitable to pass the evening justifying one's shoes." And, picking up his hat, the poet ran down the stairs and made his way as fast as his legs would carry him to the Comédie Royale.
He arrived at the stage door with no more than three minutes to spare, and disposing himself in a graceful attitude, waited for Mdlle. Claudine Hillairet to come out. It might have been observed that his confidence deserted him while he waited, for although it was perfectly true that he adored her, he had omitted to add that the passion was not mutual. He was conscious that the lady might resent his presence on the doorstep; and, in fact, when she appeared, she said nothing more tender than:
"Mon Dieu, again you! What do you want?"
"How can you ask?" sighed the poet. "I came to walk home with you lest an electric tram knocked you down at one of the crossings. What a magnificent performance you have given this evening! Superb!"
"Were you in the theater?"
"In spirit! My spirit, which no official can exclude, is present every night, though sordid considerations force me to remain corporeally in my attic. Transported by admiration, I even burst into frantic applause there. How perfect is the sympathy between our souls!"
"Listen, my boy," she said, "you are crazy, and I am sorry for your relatives, if you have any, you must be a great grief to them. But I wish you to understand that I cannot have you dangling after me and talking this bosh. What do you suppose can come of it?"
"Fame shall come of it," averred the poet, "fame for us both! Do not figure yourself that I am a dreamer. Not at all! I am practical, a man of affairs. Are you content with your position in the Comédie Royale? No, you are not. You occupy a subordinate position; you play the rôle of a waiting-maid, which is quite unworthy of your genius, and understudy the ingénue, who is a portly matron in robust health. The opportunity to distinguish yourself appears to you as remote as Mars. Do I romance, or is it true?"
"It is true," she said. "Well?"
"Well, I propose to alter all this, I! I have the intention of writing a great tragedy and when it is accepted I shall stipulate that you, and you alone, shall thrill Paris as my heroine. When the work of my brain has raised you to the pinnacle for which you were born, when the theater echoes with our names, I shall fall at your feet, and you will murmur: 'Gustave—I love thee'!"
"Why does not your mother do something?" she asked. "Is there nobody to place you where you might be cured? A tragedy! Imbecile! I am a comédienne to the finger tips! What should I do with your tragedy, even if it were at the Français itself?"
"You are right," said Tricotrin. "I shall turn out a brilliant comedy instead! And when the work of my brain has raised you to the pinnacle for which you were born, when the theater echoes with our names——"
She interrupted by a peal of laughter which disconcerted him hardly less than her annoyance.
"It is impossible to be angry with you long," she declared, "you are too amusing. Also as a friend I do not object to you violently. Come, I advise you to be content with what you can have, instead of crying for the moon."
"Well, I am not unwilling to make a shift with it in the meantime," returned Tricotrin, "but friendship is a poor substitute for the heavens—and we shall see what we shall see. Tell me now, they mean to revive 'La Curieuse' at the Comédie, I hear. What part in it have you been assigned?"
"Ah," exclaimed Mdlle. Hillairet, "is it not always the same thing? I dust the same furniture with the same feather brush, and I say 'Yes,' and 'No,' and 'Here is a letter, madame.' That is all."
"I swear it is infamous," cried the poet. "It amazes me that they fail to perceive that your gifts are buried. One would suppose that managers would know better than to condemn an artiste d'esprit to perform such ignominious rôles. Also the critics! Why do not the critics call attention to an outrage which continues year by year? It appears to me that I shall have to use my influence with the press." And so serious was the tone in which he made this boast, that the fair Claudine began to wonder if she had, after all, underrated the position of her out-at-elbows gallant.
"Your influence?" she questioned, with an eager smile. "Have you, then, influence with the critics?"
"We shall see what we shall see," repeated Tricotrin, significantly. "I am not unknown in Paris, and I have your cause at heart—I may make a star of you yet. But while we are on the subject of astronomy, one question! When my services have transformed you to a star, shall I still be compelled to cry for the moon?"
Mdlle. Hillairet's tones quivered with emotion as she murmured how grateful to him she would be, and it was understood, when he took leave of her, that if he indeed accomplished his design, his suit would no longer be hopeless.
The poet pressed her hand ardently and turned homeward in high feather; and it was not until he had trudged a mile or so that the rapture in his soul began to subside under the remembrance that he had been talking through his hat.
"In fact," he admitted to Pitou when the garret was reached, "my imagination took wings unto itself; I am committed to a task beside which the labors of Hercules were as child's play. The question now arises how this thing, of which I spoke so confidently, is to be effected. What do you suggest?"
"I suggest that you allow me to sleep," replied Pitou, "for I shall feel less hungry then."
"Your suggestion will not advance us," demurred Tricotrin. "We shall, on the contrary, examine the situation in all its bearings. Listen! Claudine is to enact the waiting-maid in 'La Curieuse,' which will be revived at the Comédie Royale, in a fortnight's time; she will dust the Empire furniture, and say 'Yes' and 'No' with all the intellect and animation for which those monosyllables provide an opening. Have you grasped the synopsis so far? Good! On the strength of this performance, it has to be stated by the foremost dramatic critic in Paris, that she is an actress of genius. Now, how is it to be done? How shall we induce Labarregue to write of her with an outburst of enthusiasm in La Voix?"
"Labarregue?" faltered Pitou. "I declare the audacity of your notion wakes me up!"
"Capital!" said Tricotrin, "we are making progress already. Yes, we must have Labarregue—it has never been my motto to do things by halves. Dramatically, of course, I should hold a compromising paper of Labarregue's; I should say, 'Monsieur, the price of this document is an act of justice to Mademoiselle Claudine Hillairet.' Is it agreed? Good! Sit down—you will write from my dictation?"
"However——" said Pitou.
"However—I anticipate your objection—I do not hold such a paper. Therefore that scene is cut! Well, let us find another! Where is your fertility of resource?—Mon Dieu! Why should I speak to him at all?"
"I do not figure myself that you will speak to him—you would never get the chance."
"Precisely my own suspicion! What follows? Instead of wasting my time seeking an interview which would not be granted—"
"And which would lead to nothing, even if it were granted!"
"And which would lead to nothing even if it were granted, as you point out; instead of doing this, it is evident that I must write Labarregue's criticism myself."
"Hein?" ejaculated Pitou, sitting up in bed.
"I confess that I do not perceive yet how that is to be managed, but obviously it is the only course. I must write what is to be said, and La Voix must believe that it has been written by Labarregue! Come, we are getting on famously, we have now decided what we are to avoid."
"Shades of D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis," cried Pitou. "This will be the doughtiest adventure in which we have engaged."
"You are right, it is an adventure worthy of our steel—by which I mean our steel pens. We shall enlighten the public, crown an artiste, and win her heart by way of reward; that is to say, I shall win her heart by way of reward. What your own share of the booty will be I do not recognize, but I promise you, at least, a generous half of the dangers."
"My comrade," murmured Pitou, "ever loyal! But do you not think that La Voix will smell a rat? What about the handwriting?"
"It is a weak point which had hardly presented itself to me. Could I have constructed the situation to my liking, Labarregue would have the custom to typewrite his notices; however, as he is so inconsiderate as to knock them off in the Café de l'Europe, he has not that custom, and we must adapt ourselves to the circumstances that exist. The probability is that a criticism delivered by the accredited messenger, and signed with the familiar 'J. L.,' will be passed without question; the difference in the handwriting may be attributed to an amanuensis. When the great man writes his next notice, I shall make it my business to be taking a bock in the Café de l'Europe, in order that I may observe closely what happens. There is to be a répétition générale at the Vaudeville on Monday night; on Monday night, therefore, I hope to advise you of our plan of campaign. Now do not speak to me any more; I am about to compose an eulogy on Claudine, for which Labarregue will in due course receive the credit."
The poet fell asleep at last, murmuring dithyrambic phrases; and if you suppose that in the soberness of daylight he renounced his harebrained project, it is certain that you have never lived with Tricotrin in Montmartre.
No, indeed, he did not renounce it. On Monday night—or rather in the small hours of Tuesday morning—he awoke Pitou with enthusiasm.
"Mon vieux," he exclaimed, "the evening has been well spent! I have observed, and I have reflected. When he quitted the Vaudeville, Labarregue has entered the Café de l'Europe, seated himself at his favorite table, and written without cessation for half an hour. When his critique was finished, he placed it in an envelope, and commanded his supper. All this time, I, sipping a bock leisurely, have accorded to his actions a scrutiny worthy of the secret police. Presently a lad from the office of La Voix has appeared; he approached Labarregue, received the envelope, and departed. At this point, my bock was finished, I paid for it and sauntered out, keeping the boy well in view. His route to the office lay through a dozen streets which were all deserted at so late an hour; but I remarked one that was even more forbidding than the rest, a mere alley that seemed positively to have been designed for our purpose. Our course is clear, we shall attack him in the Rue de la Presse."
"Really!" inquired Pitou, somewhat startled.
"But really! We shall not shed his blood; we will make him turn out his pockets, and then, disgusted by the smallness of the swag, toss it back to him with a cuff on the ear. Needless to say, that when he escapes, he will he the bearer of my criticism, not of Labarregue's. He will have been too frightened to remark the exchange."
"It is not bad, your plan."
"It is an inspiration! But to render it absolutely safe, we must have an accomplice."
"Why, is he so powerful, your boy?"
"No, mon ami, the boy is not so powerful, but the alley has two ends—I do not desire to be arrested while I am giving a lifelike representation of an Apache! I think we will admit Lajeunie to our scheme, as a novelist he should appreciate the situation. If Lajeunie keeps guard at one end of the alley, while you stand at the other, I can do the business without risk of being interrupted and removed to jail."
"It is true. As a danger signal I shall whistle the first bars of my fugue."
"Good! And we will arrange also a signal with Lajeunie. Mon Dieu! will not Claudine be amazed next day? I shall not breathe a word to her in the meantime, I shall let her open La Voix without expectation, and then— Ah, what joy will be hers! 'The success of the evening was made by the actress who took the rôle of the maid-servant, and had perhaps six words to utter. But with what vivacity, with what esprit were they delivered! Every gesture, every sparkle of the eyes betokened the true comedienne. For myself, I ceased to regard the fatuous ingénue, I forgot the presence of the famous leading lady; I watched, absorbed the facial play of this maid servant, whose brains and beauty, I predict, will speedily bring Paris to her feet.’"
"Is that what you mean to write?"
"I shall improve upon it. I am constantly improving—that is why the notice is still not finished. It hampers me that I must compose in the strain of Labarregue himself, instead of allowing my eloquence to soar. By the way, we had better speak to Lajeunie on the subject soon, lest he should pretend that he has another engagement for that night; he is a good boy, Lajeunie, but he always pretends that he has engagements in fashionable circles."
The pair went to him the following day, and when they had climbed to his garret, on the sixth floor, found the young literary man in bed.
"It shocks me," said Pitou, "to perceive that you rise so late, Lajeunie; why are you not dashing off chapters of a romance?"
"Mon Dieu" replied Lajeunie, "I was making studies among the beau monde until a late hour last night, at a reception; and, to complete my fatigue, it was impossible to get a cab when I left."
"Naturally; it happens to everybody when he lacks a cab-fare," said Tricotrin. "Now, tell me, have you any invitation from a duchess for next Thursday evening?"
"Thursday, Thursday?" repeated Lajeunie, thoughtfully. "No, I believe that I am free for Thursday."
"Now, that is fortunate!" exclaimed Tricotrin. "Well, we want you to join us that evening, my friend."
"Indeed, we should have been most disappointed otherwise," put in Pitou.
"Certainly; I shall have much pleasure," said Lajeunie. "Is it a supper?"
"No," said Tricotrin. "It is a robbery. I shall explain. Doubtless you know the name of 'Mademoiselle Claudine Hillairet?’"
"I have never heard it in my life. Is she in Society?"
"Society? She is in the Comédie Royale. She is a great actress, but—like us all—unrecognized."
"My heart bleeds for her. Another comrade!"
"I was sure I could depend upon your sympathy. Well, on Thursday night, they will revive 'La Curieuse' at the Comédie, and I myself propose to write Jules Labarregue's critique of the performance. Do you tumble?"
"It is a gallant action. Yes, I grasp the climax, but at present I do not perceive how the plot is to be constructed."
"Labarregue's notices are despatched by messenger," began Pitou.
"From the Café de l'Europe," added Tricotrin.
"So much I know," said Lajeunie.
"I shall attack the messenger, and make a slight exchange of manuscripts," Tricotrin went on.
"A blunder!" proclaimed Lajeunie. "You show lack of invention. Now be guided by me, because I am a novelist and I understand these things. The messenger is an escaped convict, and you say to him, 'I know your secret. You do my bidding, or you go back to the galleys; I shall give you three minutes to decide!' You stand before him stern, dominant, inexorable—your watch in your hand."
"It is at the pawnshop."
"Well, well, of course it is; since when have you joined the realists? Somebody else's watch, or a clock. Are there no clocks in Paris? You say, 'I shall give you until the clock strikes the hour.' That is even more literary—you obtain the solemn note of the clock to mark the crisis."
"But there is no convict," demurred Tricotrin; "there are clocks, but no convict."
"No convict? The messenger is not a convict?"
"Not at all—he is an apple-cheeked boy."
"Oh, it is a stupid plot," said Lajeunie. "I shall not collaborate in it."
"Consider!" cried Tricotrin. "Do not throw away the chance of a lifetime; think what I offer you! You shall hang about the end of a dark alley, and whistle if anybody comes. How literary again is that! You may work it into a novel that will make you celebrated. Pitou will be at the other end. I and the apple-cheeked boy, who is to die, that is to say, to be spoofed, will occupy the center of the stage; I mean the middle of the alley. And on the morrow, when all Paris rings with the fame of Claudine Hillairet, I, who adore her, shall have won her heart."
"Humph," said Lajeunie. "Well, since the synopsis has a happy ending, I consent. But I make one condition, I must wear a crêpe mask! Without a crêpe mask I perceive no thrill in my rôle."
"Madness!" objected Pitou. "Now listen to me—I am serious minded, and do not commit follies, like you fellows; a crêpe mask will excite attention—it is not an ordinary object in a thoroughfare. Believe me, if you loiter at the corner of a street with a crêpe mask on, any passer-by will regard you, may even wonder what you are doing there. It might ruin the whole job."
"Pitou is right," announced Tricotrin, after profound consideration.
"Well, then," said Lajeunie, "you must wear a crêpe mask! Put it on when you attack the boy. I have always had a passion for crêpe masks, and this is the first opportunity that I find to gratify it. I insist that somebody wears a crêpe mask, or I wash my hands of the conspiracy."
"I!" assented Tricotrin. "In the alley it will do no harm; indeed, it will prevent the boy identifying me. Good, on Thursday night then. In the meantime we shall rehearse the crime assiduously, and you and Pitou can practice your whistles. It is agreed."
With what diligence did the poet write each day now! How lovingly he selected his superlatives! Never, in the history of the press, had such ardent care been lavished on a criticism—truly it was not until Thursday afternoon that he was satisfied that he could do no more. He put the pages in his pocket, and, too impatient even to be hungry, roamed about the Quartier, reciting to himself the most hyperbolic of his periods.
And the dusk gathered over Paris, and the lights sprang out, and the tense hours crept away.
It was precisely half past eleven when the three conspirators arrived at the doors of the Comédie Royale, and lingered near by until the audience poured forth. Labarregue was among the first to appear. He paused on the steps to take a cigarette and stepped briskly into the noise and glitter of the boulevard. The young men followed, exchanging feverish glances. Soon the glow of the Café de l'Europe was visible. The critic entered, made a sign to the waiter, and seated himself at a table.
Everybody gazed with interest at him. Wherever he went he was waited upon and flattered by players of continental fame—especially by the fair members of "the profession." To those who did not know, the café habitués whispered, "There is Labarregue—see, he comes to write his criticism on the revival of 'La Curieuse'!" Labarregue affected serene unconsciousness of all this, but secretly he lapped it up. Occasionally, he passed his hand across his brow with a gesture profoundly intellectual.
Few people remarked that at brief intervals three shabby young men strolled in, who betrayed no knowledge of one another, and merely called for bocks. None suspected that these humble customers plotted to consign the celebrity's criticism to the flames.
Without a sign of recognition, taciturn and impassive, the three young men waited, their eyes bent upon the critic's movements.
By and by Labarregue thrust his "copy" in an envelope provided by the waiter. Some moments afterwards one of the young men asked another waiter for the materials to write a letter. The paper he crumpled in his pocket; in the envelope he placed the forged critique.
A quarter of an hour pissed. Then a youth of about sixteen hurried in and made his way to Labarregue's table. At this instant Lajeunie rose and left. As the youth received the "copy" Tricotrin also sauntered out. When the youth again reached the door, it was just swinging behind Pitou.
The conspirators were now in the right order—Lajeunie pressing forward; Tricotrin keeping pace with the boy; Pitou a few yards in the rear.
The boy proceeded swiftly. It was late, and even the Grande Boulevards showed few pedestrians now; in the side streets the quietude was unbroken. Tricotrin whipped on his mask at the opening of the passage; when the messenger was half-way through it, the attack was made—suddenly with determination.
"Fat one," exclaimed the poet, "I starve—give me five francs!"
"Hein?" stammered the youth, jumping. "I have not five francs, I!"
"Give me all you have—empty your pockets, let me see! If you obey I shall not harm you; if you resist, you are a dead boy."
The youth produced with trepidation, a sou, some cigarettes, a ball of string, a clasp knife, a young lady's photograph, and Labarregue's notice. The next moment the exchange of manuscripts had been deftly accomplished.
"Devil take your rubbish," cried the Apache. "I want none of it—there! Be off, or I shall shoot you for wasting my time."
The whole affair had occupied less than a minute; and the three adventurers skipped to Montmartre rejoicing.
And how glorious was their jubilation in the hour when they opened La Voix and read Tricotrin's pronouncement over the initials "J. L." There it was, printed word for word, the leading lady was dismissed with a line, the ingénue received a sneer; and for the rest, the column was a panegyric of the waiting-maid. The triumph of the waiting-maid was unprecedented and supreme. Certainly when Labarregue saw the paper, he flung round to the office furious; but La Voix did not desire people to know that it had been taken in, so the matter was hushed up, and Labarregue went around pretending that he actually thought all those fine things of the waiting-maid.
The only misfortune was that when Tricotrin called victoriously upon Claudine, to clasp her in his arms, he found her in hysterics on the sofa—and it transpired that she had not represented the waiting-maid after all. On the contrary, she had at the last moment, been promoted to the part of the ingénue, while the waiting-maid had been played by a little actress whom she much disliked.
"It is cruel, it is monstrous, it is heart-rending!" gasped Tricotrin, when he grasped the enormity of his failure. "But light of my life, why should you blame me for this villainy of Labarregue's?"
"I do not know," she said. "However, you bore me, you and your 'influence with the press.' Get out!"'
Copyright, 1906, by Leonard Merrick in the United States of America.