Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription and images for this story.
AUL BOIELLE was a waiter. No, it is better to be vulgar than misleading. Paul Boielle was a hash-slinger. The word “waiter” suggests a soft-voiced, deft-handed being, moving swiftly and without noise in an atmosphere of luxury and shaded lamps. At Bredin’s Parisian Café and Restaurant, on Eighth Avenue, where Paul worked, there were none of these things; and Paul himself, though he certainly moved swiftly, was by no means noiseless. His progress through the room resembled in almost equal proportions the finish of a Marathon race, the star act of a professional juggler, and a monologue by a Coney Island “barker.” Constant acquaintance rendered habitués callous to the wonder, but to a stranger the sight of Paul tearing over the difficult between-tables course, his hands loaded with two vast pyramids of dishes, shouting as he went the mystic word, “Comingsarecominginamomentsaresteaksareyessarecomingsare!” was impressive to a degree. For doing far less exacting feats men on the vaudeville stage were being paid one hundred and fifty dollars a week. Paul got eight.
What a blessing is poverty, properly considered! If Paul had received more than eight dollars a week he would not have lived in a skylight room. He would have luxuriated in the hall-bedroom on the second floor, and consequently would have missed what was practically a genuine north light. The skylight was so arranged that the room was a studio in miniature, and, as Paul was engaged in his spare moments in painting a great picture, nothing could have been more fortunate. For Paul, like so many of our public men, lived two lives. Off duty, the sprinting, barking juggler of Bredin’s Parisian Café became the quiet follower of Art. Ever since his childhood he had had a passion for drawing and painting. He regretted that fate had allowed him so little time for such work, but after all, he reflected, all great artists had their struggles, so why not he? Moreover, they were now nearly at an end. An hour here, an hour there, and every Thursday a whole afternoon, and the great picture was within measurable distance of completion. He had won through. Without models, without leisure, hungry, tired, he had nevertheless triumphed. A few more touches and the masterpiece would be ready for purchase. And after that all would be plain sailing. Paul could forecast the scene exactly. The picture would be at the dealer’s, possibly—one must not be too sanguine—thrust away in some odd corner. The wealthy connoisseur would come in. At first he would not see the masterpiece. Other more prominently displayed works would catch his eye. He would turn from them in weary scorn, and then—Paul wondered how big the check would be.
There were reasons why he wanted money. Looking at him, as he cantered over the linoleum at Bredin’s, you would have said that his mind was on his work. But it was not so. He took and executed orders as automatically as the penny-in-the-slot music-box in the corner took pennies and produced tunes. His thoughts were of Jeanne Le Brocq, his co-worker at Bredin’s, and a little cigar-store on Third Avenue which, he knew, was in the market at a reasonable rate. To marry the former and own the latter was Paul’s idea of the earthly paradise, and it was the wealthy connoisseur, and he alone, who could open the gates.
Jeanne was a large, slow-moving Norman girl, stolidly pretty. One could picture her in a Maupassant farmyard. In the clatter and bustle of Bredin’s Parisian Café she appeared out of place. To Paul, who worshiped her with all the fervor of a little man for a large woman, her deliberate methods seemed all that was beautiful and dignified. To his mind she lent a tone to the vulgar whirlpool of gorging humanity, as if she had been some goddess mixing in a Homeric battle. The whirlpool had other views, and expressed them. One coarse-fibered brute, indeed, once went so far as to address to her the frightful words: “Get a move on, Mame. Step lively with that liver and.” It was wrong, of course, for Paul to slip and spill an order of scrambled eggs down the brute’s coat sleeve, but who can blame him?
Among those who did not always see eye to eye with Paul in his views on deportment in waitresses was M. Bredin himself, the owner of the Parisian Café; and it was this circumstance which first gave Paul the opportunity of declaring the passion which was gnawing him. He had long worshiped her from afar, but nothing more intimate than a “Good morning, Miss Jeanne,” had escaped him till one day during a slack spell he came upon her in the little passage leading to the kitchen, her face hidden in her apron, her back jerking with sobs.
Business is business. Paul had a message to deliver to the cook respecting two fried on one side, ham and beans. He delivered it, and returned. Jeanne was still sobbing.
“Ah, Miss Jeanne,” cried Paul, stricken, “what is the matter? What is it? Why do you weep?”
“The patron,” sobbed Jeanne. “He—”
“My angel,” said Paul, “he is a pig.”
This was perfectly true. No conscientious judge of character could have denied that Paul had hit the bull’s-eye. M. Bredin was a pig. He looked like a pig, he ate like a pig, he grunted like a pig. He had the lavish embonpoint of a pig. Also a porcine soul. If you had tied a bit of blue ribbon around his neck you could have won prizes with him at a show.
Paul’s eyes flashed with fury. “I will slap him in the eye,” he roared.
“He called me a big tortoise.”
“And kick him in the stomach,” added Paul.
Jeanne’s sobs were running on second speed now. The anguish was diminishing. Paul took advantage of the improved conditions to slide an arm part way around her waist. In two minutes he had said as much as the ordinary man could have worked off in ten. All good stuff, too. No padding.
Jeanne’s face rose from her apron like a full moon. She was too astounded to be angry. Paul continued to babble. Jeanne looked at him with growing wrath. That she, who received daily the affectionate badinage of gentlemen in tall hats and pressed clothes, who had once been invited to Coney Island by a stock-broker, should be addressed in this way by a waiter! It was too much. She threw off his arm.
“Wretched little man!” she cried, stamping angrily.
“My angel!” protested Paul.
Jeanne uttered a scornful laugh. “You!” she said.
There are few more withering remarks than “You!” spoken in a certain way. Jeanne spoke it in that way.
“On eight dollars a week,” went on Jeanne satirically, “you would support a wife, yes? Why—”
Paul recovered himself. He had an opening now, and proceeded to use it. “Listen,” he said. “At present, yes, it is true, I earn but eight dollars a week, but it will not always be so, no. I am not only a waiter. I am also an artist. I have painted a great picture. For a whole year I have worked, and now it is ready. I will sell it, and then, my angel—”
Jeanne’s face had lost some of its scorn. She was listening with some respect. “A picture?” she said thoughtfully. “There is money in pictures.”
For the first time Paul was glad that his arm was no longer around her waist. To do justice to the great work he needed both hands for purposes of gesticulation.
“There is money in this picture,” he said. “Oh, it is beautiful. I call it ‘The Awakening.’ It is a woodland scene. I come back from my work here, hot and tired, and a mere glance at that wood refreshes me. It is so cool, so green. The sun filters in golden splashes through the foliage. On a mossy bank, between two trees, lies a beautiful girl, asleep. Above her, bending fondly over her, just about to kiss that flower-like face, is a young man in the dress of a shepherd. At the last moment he has looked over his shoulder to make sure that there is nobody near to see. He is wearing an expression so happy, so proud, that one’s heart goes out to him.”
“Yes, there might be money in that,” said Jeanne.
“There is, there is,” cried Paul. “I shall sell it for many dollars to a wealthy connoisseur. And then, my angel—”
“You are a good little man,” said the angel patronizingly. “Perhaps we will see.”
Paul caught her hand and kissed it.
She smiled indulgently. “Yes,” she said. “There might be money. These Americans pay much money for pictures.”
It is pretty generally admitted that Geoffrey Chaucer, the eminent poet of the fourteenth century, though obsessed with an almost Rooseveltian passion for the new spelling, was there with the goods when it came to profundity of thought. It was Chaucer who wrote the lines,
The lyfe so short, the craft so long to lerne,
The assay so hard, so sharpe the conquering.
Which means, broadly, that it is difficult to paint a picture, but a whole heap more difficult to sell it.
Across the centuries Paul Boielle shook hands with Geoffrey Chaucer. “So sharpe the conquering” put his case in a nutshell. The full story of his wanderings with the masterpiece would read like an Odyssey and be about as long. It shall be condensed.
There was an artist who dined at intervals at Bredin’s Parisian Café, and, as the artistic temperament was too impatient to be suited by Jeanne’s leisurely methods, it had fallen to Paul to wait upon him. It was to this expert that Paul, emboldened by the geniality of the artist’s manner, went for information. How did monsieur sell his pictures? Monsieur said he didn’t, except once in a blue moon. But when he did? Oh, he took the thing to the dealers. Paul thanked him. A friend of his, he explained, had painted a picture, and wished to sell it.
“Poor devil,” was the artist’s comment.
Next day, it happening to be a Thursday, Paul started on his travels. He started buoyantly, but by evening he was as a punctured balloon. Every dealer had the same remark to make; to wit, no room.
“Have you yet sold the picture?” inquired Jeanne when they met.
“Not yet,” said Paul. “But they are delicate matters, these negotiations. I use finesse. I proceed with caution.”
He approached the artist again. “With the dealers,” he said, “my friend has been a little unfortunate. They say they have no room.”
“I know,” said the artist, nodding.
“Is there, perhaps, another way?”
“What sort of a picture is it?” inquired the artist.
Paul became enthusiastic. “Ah, monsieur, it is beautiful. It is a woodland scene. A beautiful girl—”
“Oh! Then he had better try the magazines. They might use it for a cover.”
Paul thanked him effusively. On the following Thursday he visited divers art-editors. The art-editors seemed to be in the same unhappy condition as the dealers. “Over-stocked” was their cry.
“The picture?” said Jeanne on Friday morning. “Is it sold?”
“Not yet,” said Paul, “but—”
“Bah!” said Jeanne, with a toss of her large but shapely head.
By the end of the month Paul was fighting in the last ditch, wandering disconsolately among those who dwell on Third Avenue and have grimy thumbs. Seven of these in all he visited on that black Thursday, and each of the seven rubbed the surface of the painting with a grimy thumb, snorted, and stated that there was nothing doing. Sick and beaten, Paul took the masterpiece back to his skylight room.
All that night he lay awake, thinking. It was a weary bundle of nerves that came to the Parisian Café next morning. He was late in arriving, which was good, in that it delayed the inevitable question as to the fate of the picture, but bad in every other respect.
M. Bredin, squatting behind the cash-desk, grunted fiercely at him; and, worse, Jeanne, who, owing to his absence, had had to be busier than suited her disposition, was distant and haughty. A murky gloom settled upon Paul.
Now it so happened that M. Bredin, when things went well with him, was wont to be filled with a ponderous amiability. It was not often that this took a practical form, though it is on record that in an exuberant moment he once gave a small boy a cent. More frequently it merely led him to soften the porcine austerity of his demeanor. To-day, business having been uncommonly good, he felt pleased with the world. He had left his cash-desk and was assailing a bowl of soup at one of the side tables. Except for a belated luncher at the end of the room the place was empty. It was one of the hours when there was a lull in the proceedings at the Parisian Café. Paul was leaning, wrapped in gloom, against the wall. Jeanne was waiting on the proprietor.
M. Bredin finished his meal, and rose. He felt content. All was well with the world. As he lumbered to his desk, he passed Jeanne. He stopped. He wheezed a compliment. Then another. Paul, from his place by the wall, watched with jealous fury. M. Bredin chucked Jeanne under the chin. As he did so, the belated luncher called “Waiter!” but Paul was otherwise engaged. His entire nervous system seemed to have been stirred up with a pole. With a hoarse cry he dashed forward. He would destroy this pig who chucked his Jeanne under the chin.
The first intimation M. Bredin had of the declaration of war was the impact of a French roll on his ear. It was one of those knobby, chunky rolls with sharp corners, almost as deadly as a piece of shrapnel. M. Bredin was incapable of jumping; but he uttered a howl, and his vast body quivered like a stricken jelly. A second roll, whizzing by, slapped against the wall. A moment later a cream-bun burst in sticky ruin on the proprietor’s left eye.
The belated luncher had been anxious to pay his check and go, but he came swiftly to the conclusion that this was worth stopping for. He leaned back in his chair, and watched. M. Bredin had entrenched himself behind the cash-desk, peering nervously at Paul through the cream, and Paul, pouring forth abuse in his native tongue, was brandishing a chocolate éclair. The situation looked good to the spectator.
It was spoiled by Jeanne, who seized Paul by the arm and shook him, adding her own voice to the babel. It was enough. The éclair fell to the floor. Paul’s voice died away. His face took on again its crushed, hunted expression. The voice of M. Bredin, freed from competition, rose shrill and wrathful.
“The marksman is getting fired,” mused the onlooker, diagnosing the situation. He was right. The next moment Paul, limp and depressed, had retired to the kitchen-passage, discharged.
It was here, after a few minutes, that Jeanne found him. “Fool! Idiot! Imbecile!” said she.
Paul stared at her without speaking.
“To throw rolls at the patron! Imbecile!”
“He—” began Paul.
“Bah! And what if he did? Must you then attack him like a mad-dog? What is it to you?”
Paul was conscious of a dull longing for sympathy, a monstrous sense of oppression.
Everything was going wrong. Surely Jeanne must be touched by his heroism? But no. She was scolding furiously. Suppose Andromeda had turned and scolded Perseus after he had slain the sea-monster! The legends do not consider the possibility. Paul mopped his forehead with his napkin. The bottom had dropped out of his world.
“Bah! Do not talk to me, idiot of a little man! Almost you lost me my place also. The patron was in two minds, but I coaxed him. A fine things that would have been, to lose my good place through your foolishness. To throw rolls! My goodness!”
She swept back into the dining-room, leaving Paul standing by the kitchen door. Something seemed to have snapped inside him. How long he stood there he did not know, but presently from the dining-room came calls of “Waiter!” and automatically he fell once more into his work, as an actor takes up his part. A stranger would have noticed nothing remarkable in him. He bustled to and fro with undiminished energy.
At the end of the day M. Bredin paid him his eight dollars with a grunt, and Paul walked out of the restaurant a masterless man. He went to his skylight room, and sat down on the bed. Propped up against the wall was the picture. He looked at it with unseeing eyes. He stared dully before him.
Then thoughts came to him with a rush, leaping and dancing in his mind like imps in hell. He had a curious sense of detachment. He seemed to be watching himself from a great distance. This was the end. The little imps danced and leaped; and then one separated itself from the crowd, to grow bigger than the rest, to pirouette more energetically. He rose. His mind was made up. He would kill himself.
He went down-stairs and out into the street. He thought hard as he walked. He would kill himself, but how? His preoccupation was so great that an automobile, rounding a corner, missed him by inches as he crossed the street. The chauffeur shouted angrily at him as he leaped back.
Paul shook his fist at the retreating lights. “Pig!” he shouted. “Assassin! Scoundrel! Villain! Would you kill me? I will take your number, rascal. I will inform the police. Villain!”
A policeman had strolled up, and was eying him curiously. Paul turned to him, full of his wrongs.
“Officer,” he cried, “I have a complaint. These pigs of chauffeurs! They are reckless. They drive so recklessly. Hence the great number of accidents.”
“Fierce,” said the policeman. “Move along, sonny.”
Paul walked on, fuming. It was abominable that these chauffeurs— And then an idea came to him. He had found a way.
It was quiet in the park. He had chosen the park because it was dark and there would be no one to see and interfere. He waited long in the shadow at the roadside. Presently from the darkness there came the distant drone of powerful engines. Lights appeared, like the blazing eyes of a dragon swooping down to devour its prey. He ran out into the road with a shout.
It was an error, that shout. He had intended it for an inarticulate farewell to his picture, to Jeanne, to life. It was excusable in the driver of the automobile that he misinterpreted it. It seemed to him a cry of warning. There was a great jarring of brakes, a sliding of locked wheels on the dry road, and the car came to a standstill a full yard from where Paul stood.
“What the devil?” said a cool voice from behind the lights.
Paul struck his chest, and folded his arms. “I am here,” he cried. “Destroy me!”
“Let George do it!” said the voice. “I never murder on a Friday. It’s unlucky. If it’s not a rude question, which asylum are you from? Hello!”
The exclamation was one of surprise, for Paul’s nerves had finally given way, and he was now in a heap on the road, sobbing.
The man climbed down, and came into the light. He was a tall young man with a pleasant, clean-cut face. He stooped and shook Paul.
“Quit that,” he said. “Maybe it’s not true. And if it is, there’s always hope. Cut it out. What’s the matter? All in?”
Paul sat up, gulping convulsively. He was thoroughly unstrung. The cold, desperate mood had passed. In its place came the old feeling of desolation. He was a child, aching for sympathy. He wanted to tell his troubles. Punctuating his narrative with many gestures and an occasional gulp, he proceeded to do so.
The young man listened attentively. “So you can’t sell your picture, and you’ve lost your job, and your girl has shaken you?” he said. “Pretty bad, but still you’ve no call to go mingling with automobile wheels. You come along with me to my hotel, and to-morrow we’ll see if we can’t fix up something.”
There was breakfast at the hotel next morning, a breakfast to put heart into a man. During the meal a messenger, despatched in a cab to Paul’s boarding-house, returned with the canvas. A deferential waiter informed the automobile young man that it had been taken with every possible care to his suite.
“Good,” said the young man. “If you’re through, we’ll go and have a look at it.”
They went up-stairs. There was the picture, resting against a chair.
“Why, I call that fine,” said the young man. “It’s a cracker-jack.”
Paul’s heart gave a sudden leap. Could it be that here was the wealthy connoisseur? He was wealthy, for he drove an automobile and lived at an expensive hotel. He was a connoisseur, for he had said that the picture was a cracker-jack.
“Monsieur is kind,’’ murmured Paul.
“It’s a bear-cat,” said the young man admiringly.
“Monsieur is flattering,” said Paul.
“I’ve been looking for a picture like that,” said the young man, “for months.”
Paul’s eyes rolled heavenward blissfully.
“If you’ll make a few alterations, I’ll buy it, and ask for more.”
“One or two small ones.” He pointed to the stooping figure of the shepherd. “Now, you see this prominent citizen. What’s he doing?”
“He is stooping,” said Paul fervently, “to bestow upon his loved one a kiss. And she, sleeping, all unconscious, dreaming of him—”
“Never mind about her. Fix your mind on him. Willie is the star in this show. You have summed him up accurately. He is stooping—stooping good and plenty. Now, if that fellow was wearing suspenders, and stooped like that, you’d say he’d bust those suspenders, wouldn’t you?”
With a somewhat dazed air Paul said that he thought he would. Till now he had not looked at the figure from just that viewpoint.
“You say he’d bust them?”
“No!” said the young man solemnly, tapping him earnestly on the chest. “That’s where you’re wrong. Not if they were Galloway’s Tried and Proven. Galloway’s Tried and Proven will stand any old strain you care to put on them. See small bills. Wear Galloway’s Tried and Proven, and fate cannot touch you. You can take it from me. I’m Galloway’s son, the company’s general-manager.”
“And I’ll make a proposition to you. Cut out that mossy bank, and make the girl lying in a hammock. Put Willie in shirt-sleeves instead of a bath-robe, and fix him up with a pair of the Tried and Proven, and I’ll give you three thousand dollars for that picture and a retaining fee of four thousand dollars a year to work for us and nobody else for any number of years you care to mention. You’ve got the goods. You’ve got just the touch. That happy look on Willie’s face, for instance. You can see in a minute why he’s so happy. It’s because he’s wearing the Tried and Proven, and he knows that, however far he stoops, they won’t break. Is that a deal?”
Paul’s reply left no room for doubt. Seizing the young man firmly around the waist, he kissed him with extreme fervor on both cheeks.
“Here, break away!” cried the astonished general-manager. “That’s no way to sign a business contract.”
It was at about five minutes after one that afternoon that Policeman Michael Corrigan, patrolling Eighth Avenue, was aware of a man motioning to him from the doorway of Bredin’s Parisian Café and Restaurant. The man looked like a pig. He grunted like a pig. He had the lavish embonpoint of a pig.
“What’s doing?” Corrigan inquired.
The stout man talked volubly in French. Corrigan prodded him in the side with his club.
“Talk sense,” he advised.
“In dere,” cried the stout man, pointing behind him into the restaurant, “a man, a—how you say?—yes, fired. An employee whom I yesterday fired. To-day he returns. I say to him, ‘Cochon, va!’ ”
“I say, ‘Peeg, go!’ How you say? Yes, ‘beat it!’ I say, ‘Peeg, beat it!’ But he? No, no. He sit and will not go. Come in, officer, and expel him.”
With massive dignity the policeman entered the restaurant. At one of the tables sat Paul, calm and distrait. The other customers were looking at him with interest. From across the room Jeanne stared freezingly.
“What’s all this?” inquired Officer Corrigan.
Paul looked up. “I, too,” he admitted, “I cannot understand. Figure to yourself, monsieur, I enter this café to lunch, and this man here would expel me.”
“He is an employee whom I, I myself, have but yesterday dismissed,” vociferated M. Bredin. “He has no money to lunch at my restaurant.”
The policeman eyed Paul sternly. “Hey?” he said. “That so? Guess you’d better—”
Paul’s eyebrows rose. Before the round eyes of M. Bredin he began to produce from his pockets and to lay upon the table bills of every magnitude. The cloth was covered with them. He picked up one of ten dollars. “If monsieur,” he said to the policeman, “would accept this as a slight consolation for the inconvenience which this foolish person here has caused him—”
“Sure,” said Mr. Corrigan affably. “Say”—he turned to the gaping proprietor—“if you go on like this you’ll be getting yourself into trouble. See? You watch out another time.”
Paul called for the bill of fare.
It was the inferior person who had succeeded to his place as waiter who attended to his needs during the meal; but, when he had lunched, it was Jeanne who brought his demitasse. She bent over the table.
“You sold your picture, Paul, yes?” she whispered. “For much money? How glad I am, dear Paul! Now we will—”
Paul met her glance coolly. “Will you be so kind,” he said, “as to bring me, also, some cigarettes, my good girl.”