CHAPTER XI

A BOHEMIAN CAFE

You shall hear how it came to pass that Carolus Barbemuche, platonist and literary man generally, became a member of the Bohemian Club, in the twenty-fourth year of his age.

At that time, Gustave Colline, the great philosopher, Marcel, the great painter, Schaunard, the great musician, and Rodolphe, the great poet (as they called one another), regularly frequented the Momus Cafe, where they were surnamed "the Four Musqueteers," because they were always seen together. In fact, they came together, went away together, played together, and sometimes didn't pay their shot together, with a unison worthy of the best orchestra.

They chose to meet in a room where forty people might have been accommodated, but they were usually there alone, inasmuch as they had rendered the place uninhabitable by its ordinary frequenters. The chance customer who risked himself in this den, became, from the moment of his entrance, the victim of the terrible four; and, in most cases, made his escape without finishing his newspaper and cup of coffee, seasoned as they were by unheard-of maxims on art, sentiment, and political economy. The conversation of the four comrades was of such a nature that the waiter who served them had become an idiot in the prime of his life.

At length things reached such a point that the landlord lost all patience and came up one night to make a formal statement of his griefs:

"Firstly. Monsieur Rodolphe comes early in the morning to breakfast, and carries off to his room all the papers of the establishment, going so far as to complain if he finds that they have been opened. Consequently, the other customers, cut off from the usual channels of public opinion and intelligence, remain until dinner in utter ignorance of political affairs. The Bosquet party hardly knows the names of the last cabinet."

"Monsieur Rodolphe has even obliged the cafe to subscribe to 'The Beaver,' of which he is chief editor. The master of the establishment at first refused; but as Monsieur Rodolphe and his party kept calling the waiter every half hour, and crying, 'The Beaver! bring us 'The Beaver' some other customers, whose curiosity was excited by these obstinate demands, also asked for 'The Beaver.' So 'The Beaver' was subscribed to -- a hatter's journal, which appeared every month, ornamented with a vignette and an article on 'The Philosophy of Hats and other things in general,' by Gustave Colline."

"Secondly. The aforesaid Monsieur Colline, and his friend Monsieur Rodolphe, repose themselves from their intellectual labors by playing backgammon from ten in the morning till midnight and as the establishment possess but one backgammon board, they monopolize that, to the detriment of the other amateurs of the game; and when asked for the board, they only answer, 'Some one is reading it, call tomorrow.' Thus the Bosquet party find themselves reduced to playing piquet, or talking about their old love affairs."

"Thirdly. Monsieur Marcel, forgetting that a cafe is a public place, brings thither his easel, box of colors, and, in short, all the instruments of his art. He even disregards the usages of society as far as to send for models of different sexes; which might shock the morals of the Bosquet party."

"Fourthly. Following the example of his friend, Monsieur Schaunard talks of bringing his piano to the cafe and he has not scrupled to get up a chorus on a motive from his symphony, 'The Influence of Blue in Art.' Monsieur Schaunard has gone farther: he has inserted in the lantern which serves the establishment for sign, a transparency with this inscription:

'COURSE OF MUSIC, VOCAL AND INSTRUMENTAL,
FOR BOTH SEXES,
GRATIS.
APPLY AT THE COUNTER.'

In consequence of this, the counter aforesaid is besieged every night by a number of badly dressed individuals, wanting to know where you go in."

"Moreover, Monsieur Schaunard gives meetings to a lady calling herself Mademoiselle Phemie, who always forgets to bring her bonnet. Wherefore, Monsieur Bosquet, Jr., has declared that he will never more put foot in an establishment where the laws of nature are thus outraged."

"Fifthly. Not content with being very poor customers, these gentlemen have tried to be still more economical. Under pretence of having caught the mocha of the establishment in improper intercourse with chicory, they have brought a lamp with spirits-of-wine, and make their own coffee, sweetening it with their own sugar; all of which is an insult to the establishment."

"Sixthly. Corrupted by the discourse of these gentlemen, the waiter Bergami (so called from his whiskers), forgetting his humble origin and defying all control, has dared to address to the mistress of the house a piece of poetry suggestive of the most improper sentiments; by the irregularity of its style, this letter is recognized as a direct emanation from the pernicious influence of Monsieur Rodolphe and his literature."

"Consequently, in spite of the regret which he feels, the proprietor of the establishment finds himself obliged to request the Colline party to choose some other place for their revolutionary meetings."

Gustave Colline, who was the Cicero of the set, took the floor and demonstrated to the landlord that his complaints were frivolous and unfounded; that they did him great honor in making his establishment a home of intellect; that their departure and that of their friends would be the ruin of his house, which their presence elevated to the rank of a literary and artistic club.

"But," objected the other, "you and those who come to see you call for so little."

"This temperance to which you object," replied Colline, "is an argument in favor of our morals. Moreover, it depends on yourself whether we spend more or not. You have only to open an account with us."

The landlord pretended not to hear this, and demanded some explanation of the incendiary letter addressed by Bergami to his wife. Rodolphe, accused of acting as secretary to the waiter, strenuously asserted his innocence --

"For," said he, "the lady's virtue was a sure barrier --"

The landlord would not repress a smile of pride. Finally, Colline entangled him completely in the folds of his insidious oratory, and everything was arranged, on the conditions that the party should cease making their own coffee, that the establishment should receive "The Beaver" gratis, that Phemie should come in a bonnet, that the backgammon board should be given up to the Bosquets every Sunday from twelve to two, and above all, that no one should ask for tick.

On this basis everything went well for some time.

It was Christmas Eve. The four friends came to the cafe accompanied by their friends of the other sex. There was Marcel's Musette, Rodolphe's new flame, Mimi, a lovely creature, with a voice like a pair of cymbals, and Schaunard's idol, Phemie Teinturiere. That night, Phemie, according to agreement, had her bonnet on. As to Madame Colline that should have been, no one ever saw her; she was always at home, occupied in punctuating her husband's manuscripts. After the coffee, which was on this great occasion escorted by a regiment of small glasses of brandy, they called for punch. The waiter was so little accustomed to the order, that they had to repeat it twice. Phemie, who had never been to such a place before, seemed in a state of ecstacy at drinking out of glasses with feet. Marcel was quarreling with Musette about a new bonnet which he had not given her. Mimi and Rodolphe, who were in their honeymoon, carried on a silent conversation, alternated with suspicious noises. As to Colline, he went about from one to the other, distributing among them all the polite and ornamental phrases which he had picked up in the "Muses' Almanac."

While this joyous company was thus abandoning itself to sport and laughter, a stranger at the bottom of the room, who occupied a table by himself, was observing with extraordinary attention the animated scene before him. For a fortnight or thereabout, he had come thus every night, being the only customer who could stand the terrible row which the club made. The boldest pleasantries had failed to move him; he would remain all the evening, smoking his pipe with mathematical regularity, his eyes fixed as if watching a treasure, and his ears open to all what was said around him. As to his other qualities, he seemed quiet and well off, for he possessed a watch with a gold chain; and one day, Marcel, meeting him at the bar, caught him in the act of changing a louis to pay his score. From that moment, the four friends designated him by the name of "The Capitalist."

Suddenly Schaunard, who had very good eyes, remarked that the glasses were empty.

"Yes," exclaimed Rodolphe, "and this is Christmas Eve! We are good Christians, and ought to have something extra."

"Yes, indeed," added Marcel, "let's call for something supernatural."

"Colline," continued Rodolphe, "ring a little for the waiter."

Colline rang like one possessed.

"What shall we have?" asked Marcel.

Colline made a low bow and pointed to the women.

"It is the business of these ladies to regulate the nature and order of our refreshment."

"I," said Musette, smacking her lips, "should not be afraid of Champagne."

"Are you crazy?" exclaimed Marcel. "Champagne! That isn't wine to begin with."

"So much the worse; I like it, it makes a noise."

"I," said Mimi, with a coaxing look at Rodolphe, "would like some Beaune, in a little basket."

"Have you lost your senses?" said Rodolphe.

"No, but I want to lose them," replied Mimi. The poet was thunderstruck.

"I," said Phemie, dancing herself on the elastic sofa, "would rather have parfait amour; it's good for the stomach."

Schaunard articulated, in a nasal tone, some words which made Phemie tremble on her spring foundation.

"Bah!" said Marcel, recovering himself the first. "Let us spend a hundred francs for this once!"

"Yes," said Rodolphe, "they complain of our not being good customers. Let's astonish them!"

"Ay," said Colline, "let us give ourselves up to the delights of a splendid banquet! Do we not owe passive obedience to these ladies? Love lies on devotion; wine is the essence of pleasure, pleasure the duty of youth; women are flowers and must be moistened. Moisten away! Waiter, waiter!" and Colline hung upon the bell rope with feverish excitement.

Swift as the wind, the waiter came. When he heard talk of Champagne, Burgundy, and various liqueurs, his physiognomy ran through a whole gamut of astonishment. But there was more to come.

"I have a hole in my inside," said Mimi. "I should like some ham."

"And I some sardines, and bread and butter," struck in Musette.

"And I, radishes," quoth Phemie, "and a little meat with them."

"We should have no objection," answered they.

"Waiter!" quoth Colline, gravely, "bring us all that is requisite for a good supper."

The waiter turned all the colors of the rainbow. He descended slowly to the bar, and informed his master of the extraordinary orders he had received.

The landlord took it for a joke; but on a new summons from the bell, he ascended himself and addressed Colline, for whom he had a certain respect. Colline explained to him that they wished to see Christmas in at his house, and that he would oblige them by serving what they had asked for. Momus made no answer, but backed out, twisting his napkin. For a quarter of an hour he held a consultation with his wife, who, thanks to her liberal education at the St. Denis Convent, fortunately had a weakness for arts and letters, and advised him to serve the supper.

"To be sure," said the landlord, "they may have money for once, by chance."

So he told the waiter to take up whatever they asked for, and then plunged into a game of piquet with an old customer. Fatal imprudence!

From ten to twelve the waiter did nothing but run up and downstairs. Every moment he was asked for something more. Musette would eat English fashion, and change her fork at every mouthful. Mimi drank all sorts of wine, in all sorts of glasses. Schaunard had a quenchless Sahara in his throat. Colline played a crossfire with his eyes, and while munching his napkin, as his habit was, kept pinching the leg of the table, which he took for Phemie's knee. Marcel and Rodolphe maintained the stirrups of self-possession, expecting the catastrophe, not without anxiety.

The stranger regarded the scene with grave curiosity; from time to time he opened his mouth as if for a smile; then you might have heard a noise like that of a window which creaks in shutting. It was the stranger laughing to himself.

At a quarter before twelve the bill was sent up. It amounted to the enormous sum of twenty five francs and three-quarters.

"Come," said Marcel, "we will draw lots for who shall go and diplomatize with our host. It is getting serious." They took a set of dominoes; the highest was to go.

Unluckily, the lot fell upon Schaunard, who was an excellent virtuoso, but a very bad ambassador. He arrived, too, at the bar just as the landlord had lost his third game. Momus was in a fearful bad humor, and, at Schaunard's first words, broke out into a violent rage. Schaunard was a good musician, but he had an indifferent temper, and he replied by a double discharge of slang. The dispute grew more and more bitter, till the landlord went upstairs, swearing that he would be paid, and that no one should stir until he was. Colline endeavored to interpose his pacifying oratory; but, on perceiving a napkin which Colline had made lint of, the host's anger redoubled; and to indemnify himself, he actually dared to lay profane hands on the philosopher's hazel overcoat and the ladies' shawls.

A volley of abuse was interchanged by the Bohemians and the irate landlord.

The women talked to one another of their dresses and their conquests.

At this point the stranger abandoned his impassible attitude; gradually he rose, made a step forward, then another, and walked as an ordinary man might do; he approached the landlord, took him aside, and spoke to him in a low tone. Rodolphe and Marcel followed him with their eyes. At length, the host went out, saying to the stranger:

"Certainly, I consent, Monsieur Barbemuche, certainly; arrange it with them yourself."

Monsieur Barbemuche returned to his table to take his hat; put it on, turned around to the right, and in three steps came close to Rodolphe and Marcel. He took off his hat, bowed to the men, waved a salute to the women, pulled out his handkerchief, blew his nose, and began in a feeble voice:

"Gentlemen, excuse the liberty I am about to take. For a long time, I have been burning with desire to make your acquaintance, but have never, till now, found a favorable opportunity, Will you allow me to seize the present one?"

"Certainly, certainly," said Colline. Rodolphe and Marcel bowed, and said nothing. The excessive delicacy of Schaunard came nigh spoiling everything.

"Excuse me, sir," said he briskly, "but you have not the honor of knowing us, and the usages of society forbid -- would you be so good as to give me a pipeful of tobacco? In other respects I am of my friends' opinion."

"Gentlemen," continued Barbemuche. "I am a disciple of the fine arts, like yourselves. So far as I have been able to judge from what I have heard of your conversation, our tastes are the same. I have a most eager desire to be a friend of yours, and to be able to find you here every night. The landlord is a brute: but I said a word to him, and you are quite free to go. I trust you will not refuse me the opportunity of finding you here again, by accepting this slight service."

A blush of indignation mounted to Schaunard's face. "He is speculating on our condition," said he. "We cannot accept. He has paid our bill. I will play him at billiards for the twenty five francs and give him points."

Barbemuche accepted his proposition, and had the good sense to lose. This gained him the esteem of the party. They broke up with the understanding that they were to meet next day.

"Now," said Schaunard, "our dignity is saved. We owe him nothing."

"We can almost ask him for another supper," said Colline.


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