"Ferme tes yeux à demi,
Croise tes bras sur ton sein,
Et de ton coeur endormi
Chasse à jamais tout dessein.
"Je chante la nature,
Les étoiles du soir, les larmes du matin,
Les couchers de soleil à l'horizon lointain,
Le ciel qui parle au coeur d'existence future!"
The animal paused on the threshold, interrogative, alert,ready for flight if necessary. Severn laid down his palette, andheld out a hand of welcome. The cat remained motionless, heryellow eyes fastened upon Severn.
"Puss," he said, in his low, pleasant voice, "come in."
The tip of her thin tail twitched uncertainly.
"Come in," he said again.
Apparently she found his voice reassuring, for she slowlysettled upon all fours, her eyes still fastened upon him, hertail tucked under her gaunt flanks.
He rose from his easel smiling. She eyed him quietly, andwhen he walked toward her she watched him bend above her withouta wince; her eyes followed his hand until it touched her head. Then she uttered a ragged mew.
It had long been Severn's custom to converse with animals,probably because he lived so much alone; and now he said, "What'sthe matter, puss?"
Her timid eyes sought his.
"I understand," he said gently, "you shall have it all atonce."
Then moving quietly about he busied himself with the dutiesof a host, rinsed a saucer, filled it with the rest of the milkfrom the bottle on the window-sill, and kneeling down, crumbled aroll into the hollow of his hand.
The creature rose and crept toward the saucer.
With the handle of a palette knife he stirred the crumbs andmilk together and stepped back as she thrust her nose into themess. He watched her in silence. From time to time the saucerklinked upon the tiled floor as she reached for a morsel on therim; and at last the bread was all gone, and her purple tonguetravelled over every unlicked spot until the saucer shone likepolished marble. Then she sat up, and coolly turning her back tohim, began her ablutions.
"Keep it up," said Severn much interested, "you need it."
She flattened one ear but neither turned nor interruptedhertoilet. As the grime was slowly removed Severn observed thatnature had intended her for a white cat. Her fur had disappearedin patches, from disease or the chances of war, her tail was bonyand her spine sharp. But what charms she had were becomingapparent under vigorous licking, and he waited until she hadfinished before reopening the conversation. When at last sheclosed her eyes and folded her forepaws under her breast, hebegan again very gently: "Puss, tell me your troubles."
At the sound of his voice she broke into a harsh rumblingwhich recognized as an attempt to purr. He bent over to rub hercheek and she mewed again, an amiable inquiring little mew, towhich he replied, "Certainly, you are greatly improved, and whenyou recover your plumage you will be a gorgeous bird." Muchflattered she stood up and marched around and around his legs,pushing her head between them and making pleased remarks, towhich he responded with grave politeness.
"Now what sent you here," he said, "here into the Street ofthe Four Winds, and up five flights to the very door where youwould be welcome? What was it that prevented your meditatedflight when I turned from my canvas to encounter your yelloweyes? Are you a Latin Quarter cat as I am a Latin Quarter man? And why do you wear a rose-colored flowered garter buckled aboutyour neck?" The cat had climbed into his lap and now sat purringas he passed his hand over her thin coat.
"Excuse me," he continued in lazy soothing tones,harmonizing with her purring, "if I seem indelicate, but I cannothelp musing on this rose-colored garter, flowered so quaintly andfastened with a silver clasp. For the clasp is silver; I can seethe mint mark on the edge, as is prescribed by the law of theFrench Republic. Now, why is this garter woven of rose silk anddelicately embroidered, -- why is this silken garter with itssilver clasp about your famished throat? Am I indiscrete when Iinquire if its owner is your owner? Is she some aged dame livingin memory of youthful vanities, fond, doting on you, decoratingyou with her intimate personal attire? The circumference of thegarter would suggest this, for your neck is thin, and the garterfits you. But then again I notice -- I notice most things --that the garter is capable of being much enlarged. These smallsilver-rimmed eyelets, of which I count five, are proof of that. And now I observe that the fifth eyelet is worn out, as thoughthe tongue of the clasp were accustomed to lie there. That seemsto argue a well-rounded form."
The cat curled her toes in contentment. The street was verystill outside.
He murmured on: "Why should your mistress decorate you withan article most necessary to her at all times? Anyway, at mosttimes. How did she come to slip this bit of silk and silverabout your neck? Was it the caprice of a moment, -- when you,before you had lost your pristine plumpness, marched singing intoher bedroom to bid her good-morning? Of course, and she sat upamong the pillows, her coiled hair tumbling to her shoulders, asyou sprang upon the bed purring: 'Good-day, my lady.' Oh, it isvery easy to understand," he yawned, resting his head on the backof the chair. The cat still purred, tightening and relaxing herpadded claws over his knee.
"Shall I tell you about her, cat? She is very beautiful --your mistress," he murmured drowsily, "and her hair is heavy asburnished gold. I could paint her, -- not on canvas -- for Ishould need shades and tones and hues and dyes more splendid thanthe iris of a splendid rainbow. I could only paint her withclosed eyes, for in dreams alone can such colors as I need befound. For her eyes, I must have azure from skies untroubled bya cloud -- the skies of dreamland. For her lips, roses from thepalaces of slumberland, and for her brow, snow-drifts frommountains which tower in fantastic pinnacles to the moons; -- oh,much higher than our moon here, -- the crystal moons ofdreamland. She is -- very -- beautiful, your mistress."
The words died on his lips and his eyelids drooped.
The cat too was asleep, her cheek turned up upon her wastedflank, her paws relaxed and limp.
"It is fortunate," said Severn, sitting up and stretching,"that we have tided over the dinner hour, for I have nothing tooffer you for supper but what may be purchased with one silverfranc."
The cat on his knee rose, arched her back, yawned, andlooked up at him.
"What shall it be? A roast chicken with salad? No? Possiblyyou prefer beef? Of course, -- and I shall try an egg and somewhite bread. Now for the wines. Milk for you? Good. I shalltake a little water, fresh from the wood," with a motion towardthe bucket in the sink.
He put on his hat and left the room. The cat followed tothe door, and after he had closed it behind him, she settleddown, smelling at the cracks, and cocking one ear at every creakfrom the crazy old building.
The door below opened and shut. The cat looked serious, fora moment doubtful, and her ears flattened in nervous expectation.Presently, she rose with a jerk of her tail and started on anoiseless tour of the studio. She sneezed at a pot ofturpentine, hastily retreating to the table, which she presentlymounted, and having satisfied her curiosity concerning a roll ofred modelling wax, returned to the door and sat down with hereyes on the crack over the threshold. Then she lifted her voicein a thin plaint.
When Severn returned he looked grave, but the cat, joyousand demonstrative, marched around him, rubbing her gaunt bodyagainst his legs, driving her head enthusiastically into hishand, and purring until her voice mounted to a squeal.
He placed a bit of meat, wrapped in brown paper, upon thetable, and with a penknife cut it into shreds. The milk he tookfrom a bottle that had served for medicine, and poured it intothe saucer on the hearth.
The cat crouched before it, purring and lapping at the sametime.
He cooked his egg and ate it with a slice of bread, watchingher busy with the shredded meat, and when he had finished, andhad filled and emptied a cup of water from the bucket in the sinkhe sat down, taking her into his lap, where she at once curled upand began her toilet. He began to speak again, touching hercaressingly at times by way of emphasis.
"Cat, I have found out where your mistress lives. It is notvery far away; -- it is here, under this same leaky roof, but inthe north wing which I had supposed was uninhabited. My janitortells me this. By chance, he is almost sober this evening. Thebutcher on the rue de Seine, where I bought your meat, knows you,and old Cabane the baker identified you with needless sarcasm. They tell me hard tales of your mistress which I shall notbelieve. They say she is idle and vain and pleasure-loving; theysay she is hare-brained and reckless. The little sculptor on theground floor, who was buying rolls from old Cabane, spoke to meto-night for the first time, although we have always bowed toeach other. He said she was very good and very beautiful. Hehas only seen her once, and does not know her name. I thankedhim; -- I don't know why I thanked him so warmly. Cabane said,'Into this cursed Street of the Four Winds, the four winds blowall things evil.' The sculptor looked confused, but when he wentout with his rolls, he said to me, 'I am sure, Monsieur, that sheis as good as she is beautiful.'"
The cat had finished her toilet and now, springing softly tothe floor, went to the door and sniffed. He knelt beside her,and unclasping the garter held it for a moment in his hands. After a while he said: "There is a name engraved upon the silverclasp beneath the buckle. It is a pretty name. Sylvia Elven. Sylvia is a woman's name, Elven is the name of a town. In Paris,in this quarter, above all, in this Street of the Four Winds,names are worn and put away as the fashions change with theseasons. I know the little town of Elven, for there I met Fateface to face and Fate was unkind. But do you know that in ElvenFate had another name, and that name was Sylvia?"
He replaced the garter and stood up looking down at the catcrouched before the closed door.
"The name of Elven has a charm for me. It tells me ofmeadows and clear rivers. The name Sylvia troubles me likeperfume from dead flowers."
The cat mewed.
"Yes, yes," he said soothingly, "I will take you back. YourSylvia is not my Sylvia; the world is wide and Elven is notunknown. Yet in the darkness and filth of poorer Paris, in thesad shadows of this ancient house, these names are very pleasantto me."
He lifted her in his arms and strode through the silentcorridors to the stairs. Down five flights and into the moonlitcourt, past the little sculptor's den, and then again in at thegate of the north wing and up the worm-eaten stairs he passed,until he came to a closed door. When he had stood knocking for along time, something moved behind the door; it opened and he wentin. The room was dark. As he crossed the threshold, the catsprang from his arms into the shadows. He listened but heardnothing. The silence was oppressive and he struck a match. Athis elbow stood a table and on the table a candle in a gildedcandlestick. This he lighted, then looked around. The chamberwas vast, the hangings heavy with embroidery. Over the fireplacetowered a carved mantel, gray with the ashes of dead fires. In arecess by the deep-set windows stood a bed, from which the bed-clothes, soft and fine as lace, trailed to the polished floor. He lifted the candle above his head. A handkerchief lay at hisfeet. It was faintly perfumed. He turned toward the windows. In front of them was a canapé and over it were flung, pell-mell, a gown of silk, a heap of lace-like garments, white anddelicate as spiders' meshes, long, crumpled gloves, and, on thefloor, beneath the stockings, the little pointed shoes, and onegarter of rosy silk, quaintly flowered and fitted with a silverclasp. Wondering, he stepped forward and drew the heavy curtainsfrom the bed. For a moment the candle flared in his hand; thenhis eyes met two other eyes, wide open, smiling, and the candleflame flashed over hair heavy as gold.
She was pale, but not as white as he; her eyes wereuntroubled as a child's; but he stared, trembling from head tofoot while the candle flickered in his hand.
At last he whispered: "Sylvia, it is I."
Again he said, "It is I."
Then, knowing that she was dead, he kissed her on themouth. And through the long watches of the night, the cat purredon his knee, tightening and relaxing her padded claws, until thesky paled above the Street of the Four Winds.