The Seasoning of Monsieur Baptiste
MONSIEUR BAPTISTE bore natal marks of pasty humility on his sallow face, and yet did he not have cause for immeasurable arrogance ? Was he not a maître d’hôtel, pardieu, a king among waiters, a dress-suited autocrat of aproned slaves, a condescending recipient of green-backed bills, passed discreetly to the hollow of his careless hand by eager patrons of this cream of restaurants? Diable! It was a waste of power. For Monsieur Baptiste was small and unimposing, his hair lay uncurled on his lowly brow, his eyes were the palest of blues, his hands the most expressionless of appendages, his whole dwindling self the most washedout of types. He had gained the glorious post of maitrc d’hôtel simply by constant stupid goodness. Twenty years a waiter, and not a night off, not a little spree to celebrate fête days — nothing. It is true that there were a few customers who showed preference for him, but that was again because of his painful goodness as he hovered over them, serving them himself, descending nightly from his lofty responsibilities. He never commanded, he never lost his temper, he never inspired ; while there beside him, a brother in title only, stood Monsieur Jacques — a man of pride and strength to whom those beneath cowered, and about whom those above marveled. Graded into a very nicety of distinctions, he never bowed for nothing, nor did he scowl for nothing, but rubbed, waved, or shook his hands at psychological moments. Stormy, suave, pompous, impressive, he ruled in absolute monarchy his kingdom of steaming dishes. Furthermore, he dominated Monsieur Baptiste with overpowering insolence — and shame of shame, Monsieur Baptiste bowed down unquestioningly.
So matters ran in this realm of savories. The hungry ones who came to eat, and stayed to prolong its deliciousness, prostrated themselves in nightly adulation before Monsieur Jacques and most often ignored Monsieur Baptiste; while the latter, as if he had been a common servitor, stepped to one side, and let the tide of gold and fame stream by him to the feet of his superior. The chef, a white-bonneted wag, suggested that the Bon Dieu had omitted to season Monsieur Baptiste — had sent him, in fact, down into the gourmand world saltless, pepperless, aspic-less.
There came a day when, above the melting spicy masterpieces of this chef, floated the far-off whiff of an important rumor. It was a delicious little rumor of a fete day, forty-five candles on a cake, and perhaps champagne. It had to do with Monsieur Jacques’s jour de naissance, forty-five vital years ago. Now Monsieur Jacques believed in celebrations on any occasion touching his exalted self, and he had never yet allowed the proud day which had ushered him into a servile waiting universe to slip by undecorated; so it was his gracious custom to bid a few chosen ones whom he considered deserving, to a very chic supper on his magnificent night — a supper which took place by special dispensation of the Rulers who ruled Monsieur Jacques, in a private room, after the last crumb of a customer had been swept away from the main restaurant.
It was a coveted honor to be among those present, for as host Monsieur Jacques was quite perfect, smiling graciously at his guests and receiving their best wishes, their homage, their speeches, wdth benevolent deprecating waves of his hand. This year, actuated by an impulse of greatness which stoops to cast favors before the less fortunate, he had requested Monsieur Baptiste “to give him the pleasure, etc.” and Monsieur Baptiste tremblingly had accepted his so kind invitation.
The gala night arrived. Those unbidden tossed their heads in scorn, hurried into their overcoats, seized their hats, and departed unnoticed to the cheerless street; but the bidden smiled expectantly, cast satisfied glances into the mirror, hummed gay tunes, and prepared to bask in the benign presence of their host. Only Monsieur Baptiste was plainly ill at ease. As he followed the others down the deserted hall to the special supper room, his mouth twitched nervously, he fumbled with aimless fingers in his waistcoat pocket, and upon his entrance he mumbled his greetings to Monsieur Jacques, instead of flourishing a bow, as gentlemen do who are equals.
There were eleven convives — four of them ladies, Ah, no! if you please, I said ladies. Of these, the daintiest, the most impertinently irresistible, was Mademoiselle Amelie Demors, a ravishing, blue-eyed, red-cheeked creature of curves — and even then half is not said. To the amazement of all, she stared at Monsieur Baptiste until he flushed a lobster purple, and weak tears mounted to his eyes. Mho can penetrate the motives of a woman ? Was it to coquet, to tease, or to punish that she turned at last to Monsieur Jacques ?
“I wish,” she said, “to have that gentleman on my other side, since I am to sit at your right.” So, abashed, clammy, cold, Monsieur Baptiste was placed near her. Never before had a lady as much as noticed him.
Unable to feel jealous of such a silent atom, Monsieur Jacques applied himself to his champagne glass and to Mademoiselle Amelie with equal gallantry. Was his attitude too self-assured —who knows ? Certainly there lurked a decided independence beneath the plump lines of his favorite’s fluffy bodice, and defiantly in measure as he courted her, she courted Monsieur Baptiste. Soon every one noticed the comedy, every one winked behind his glass, every one nudged his neighbor. Monsieur Jacques’s serene hospitality began to grow thunderclouded. What! This uncooked worm, this pallid animal dared, even unconsciously, to taste forbidden sweets ? He was actually going so far as to smile, at last, after many stupid blushes, and gulps of the food that he — Monsieur Jacques — had provid ed from his own bounteous pocket ? Monstrous ! Incredible! He must be publicly humbled. Awaiting an opportunity between the flowered speeches which acclaimed him emperor of head waiters, he addressed himself to the presuming one.
“Monsieur Baptiste,” he said insolently, “ I have forgotten my cigarette case, which lies downstairs. Be good enough to get it for me.”
There was an amazed silence. A command from master to servant ? What would happen! Monsieur Baptiste moved in his chair, and half stumbled to his feet, as if to obey, but quickly Mademoiselle Amélie pushed him back.
“Oh, but no!” she dimpled. “I cannot spare him. Go get it yourself.”
Some of the guests giggled, some looked politely unconscious, all began to talk violently; Monsieur Jacques’s brows folded themselves in furious wrinkles, Monsieur Baptiste bent a helpless glance of frightened gratitude on the preserver of his dignity, and the feast flowed mercifully, uproariously, over this space of awkwardness. But the mischief had been accomplished. The liquid eyes of the eternal woman had poured themselves in fiery rivers down the empty channels of Monsieur Baptiste’s anaemic being, the capricious wave of Mademoiselle Amelie’s favor had engulfed him, and slowly his impoverished temperament warmed and flickered at her feet; shyly he responded to her blandishments.
Meanwhile the company were celebrating the end of the supper, without its leading spirit, for Monsieur Jacques sat morose, unresponsive, causing a few farseeing ones to quake in their shoes at the thought of his temper on the morrow.
He even failed to interest himself in the talk of a great lottery, which was to take place the following month, and for which there were still a few numbers on sale. Henri Marron produced three tickets which he offered to dispose of for a mean five francs — one hundred cents only — apiece, a possible fortune dangling on the end of each bit of paper.
“Come, come, gentlemen, who will not seize this colossal chance! ”
Mademoiselle Amelie bent over to Monsieur Baptiste.
“Allons! Buy one,” she urged.
“I ? — I ? ” he stammered.
“But yes — you,” with an affectionate smile. Then she called aloud, “One for Monsieur Baptiste, if you please.”
What could he do but obey ? He counted out a hundred cents, and transferred ticket No. 218 to his pocket. And when the party at last disbanded, she rewarded him by asking him to come and see her some day, which invitation filled his being with excited tremors.
But the next night witnessed the utter abasement of one — Monsieur Baptiste. Maitrc d’hotel only in name, he shrank again to bloodless insignificance. It was a wrathful, vengeful evening, of asserted authority, tyrannical commands, blustering winds which blew fiercely around the tables, hurrying slaves balancing hazardously tipped dishes on trembling palms, cringing, napkined subjects. In the centre of this outwardly orderly, but inwardly shivering scene, towered the stern unsmiling figure of Monsieur Jacques.
“Sacred monsters! Paltry crumbs!” he whispered ferociously to the waiters, as they scurried past him.
Monsieur Baptiste, with his lottery ticket in his shabby dress-suit pocket, and the undying memory of Amélie in his milky’ mind, resumed his position as a tasteless ingredient in the usual routine. Yet for him things were not of their old monotony, for above the reach of grinding abuse, he cherished a shadowy plan to go, at the first possible chance, and pay his respects to the alluring Amelie.
Fate, with an aggressive eye turned upon Monsieur Jacques, accorded Monsier Baptiste that chance within a few days, and from this tiny seed of assurance shot up the green stalks of courtship, for little Amélie, born a woman and bred a coquette, cast her wayward favor upon Monsieur Baptiste. There was, indeed, surely something appealing about his boneless personality, and, later, in his abject worship of her charms. He was satisfied with such nothings of attention. Eh bien, quoi! What was the harm ?
One idea she had, firmly planted in her positive little brain; it was well for him to be her slave, but not also the slave of Monsieur Jacques. Decidedly no! She told him with many a stamp of her tiny foot, if he wished to please her he would show himself a man equal to another. Bah! Who was Monsieur Jacques, after all! A snap of the fingers, and he would crumble into dust. She knew him to be a gigantic puffed-out fraud. If he — Baptiste — loved her truly, he would down this tyrant, step boldly over his prostrate body, and become the sole dictator of the dishes and tables. Then she would see! But where there was no respect there could be no wedding ring. In vain Baptiste protested feebly that his head was too small to fit a crown, that his hands were too nerveless to reap in gold. A shrug of soft shoulders answered him, a “Well, then, my friend, I am not for you. I will have no imitation man as my husband.” He wept and swore by the saints that he would return and wring Monsieur Jacques’s burly neck, as a turkey’s at Thanksgiving. But alas! Once back in the restaurant, face to face with his enemy, and crac! his courage fell like broken glass to the floor. Then, to punish him, Amelie would go out the next day arm-in-arm with the despised Monsieur Jacques. Ah! it was a trying world, where one must live a lion, or die a mouse. Again and again Monsieur Baptiste tried to break through the paralyzing crust of his servitude. He even practiced a swagger in front of the cracked mirror in his little attic room; but somehow, although it was very fine as reflected in the cracked mirror, it collapsed entirely as soon as he entered Monsieur Jacques’s commanding presence.
Amelie grew impatient — “Ah, ça! ” she scolded. “Will you never amount to anything but a whisper of a maitre d’hotel?” Whereupon he would bow his head, his very submissiveness causing her to repent her harshness. “You are what the Bon Dieu has made you, I suppose,” she would sigh.
One night, as he was standing all by himself in a corner of the big diningroom, apart from the noise, the clatter, the joy of popping corks, Henri Marron came running excitedly up to him.
“Tell me now,” he cried, “what was the number of your lot tery ticket ? ”
Monsieur Baptiste had forgotten all about it, but he drew it slowly from his pocket. “213,” he answered.
Henri Marron seized it, stared at it, then at Monsieur Baptiste.
“Great Heavens, man,” he said, and his voice rose almost to a shriek, “you have won the lottery. You have made your fortune. You are worth fifty thousand francs. The numbers were drawn yesterday.”
Imagine now, the bursting of a bomb, from a peanut shell! One moment ago, Monsieur Baptiste had been a nonentity — in five moments he became a personage. The aura of gold surrounding him, his back was clapped by enthusiastic hands until it felt black and blue. The great tidings swam around and around his head like a big fish in a small pool. He still grasped the creased ticket in his hand, while he listened with slow ears to a chorus of congratulations, honest or envious as the case might be. The climax was reached when Monsieur Jacques, sauntering over to him, magnificently condescending, said, “You are in luck, mon vieux.” Even then, he could not summon to his shrinking body the necessary swagger, nor to his voice the proper swell. Only wishing to get away,
— away from the lights, the curious faces, the noise, — he applied for and readily received permission to leave.
It was good to be alone — to allow the stupendous truth to dawn upon him. Here, walking up the street, the stupid, silent street, was he, Baptiste Henriot — a rich man, an important man, Bon Dieu! A man of men. Circumstances had changed — he owed himself duties now. All of a sudden he noticed that he was swaggering naturally, - with a swagger that appeared to have come to stay. He stopped short and squared his meagre shoulders. “Baptiste, my boy,” he said aloud in a sonorous voice, “Baptiste, you have done well.”
Ah! what a world of peace and plenty — of claret and chicken! How simple it was to become great! Buy a lottery ticket, messieurs! And Amelie? Another succulent thought. She would indeed be overjoyed, and rightly so, for decidedly she was a very lucky young woman. He would present himself immediately to announce the news. Visions of her rapture floating uncertainly across his feverish brain, he quickened his steps down the little side street where she lived.
At last! The house is reached; the bell is rung, boldly, loudly; the door is opened. Amelie, a divine rosette of a woman, stands before him. She cries, “Baptiste, what have you?” He cries, “Amelie, I have won the lottery. I am rich.” They embrace; they dance; they sing; their hearts are flooded with ecstasy; they laugh; they weep. Then there is a pause — Amelie thinks deeply.
“And Monsieur Jacques — what does he say? — And the men at the restaurant ? ”
“I — I have not noticed,” he stammers.
Volubly chiding him for his neglect in not immediately asserting his authority, she becomes one brilliant waving tangle of bead, hair, and eyes — a torrent of words, reproach, endearment. — “Ah! I have it,” she exclaims at last.
He, Monsieur Baptiste, hasstood silent, bewildered, through her tirade, unable to follow this whirlwind. A thousand Furies! To what lengths can a woman go! Here he offers her fifty thousand francs, not to mention the addition of himself, and she still babbles of crushing his rival, humbling his tyrant, publicly demanding recognition where he has received insults. What is the use ? When he asks only never to be a maitre d’hotel again — to buy the little shop he has coveted for so long; to leave in oil the place where he has lived in vinegar. But no! It was not to be! There must occur a dramatic scene—Monsieur Jacques once and for all dragged in the dust.
Listen! Amelie has the idea, which he need only follow to make her adore him for the remaining years of heavenly existence. He is to go back, as usual; he is to treat Monsieur Jacques, as always, civilly; he is to hand in a resignation secretly to the proprietaire; he is to breathe his plans to no one — no one. Then, on Sunday, his customary night off in any case, at half-past six, he is to come for her, his loving Amelie, attired as she has commanded. It is settled then. Not another word. She sends him from her, a creamy smile upon his lips, his head erect — a new-fledged Monsieur Baptiste.
The restaurant had bubbled over with expectation and surmise. “Tiens, if it were my fifty thousand francs, I should do this,” said one. “And I, this,” said the other. But they all agreed that such good luck was utterly wasted on Monsieur Baptiste. Nevertheless, preparing to salute his wealth, and show him that there was no hard feeling, they awaited with amicable sentiments his return, the following night. Conceive, then, of their disgust, when he slipped to his place with the same modest face, and the aforetime threadbare coat over his meek shoulders. No word, no drinks offered, no plans discussed. Can one call that a gentleman ? Monsieur Jacques, disposed, at first, to be graciously friendly, took his cue from the atmosphere and resumed his original intolerant manner. He was even heard to apostrophize Monsieur Baptiste as a “half-cooked chop,” which is an insult scarcely to be borne. It was a sickening spectacle to behold, a lottery winner in the person of one who receives insults in Biblical style.
Sunday arrived. Monsieur Baptiste was missing, but it was his night off, so no one questioned. What would be the eventual destination of the fifty thousand francs had already chopped itself into a hash of despairing conjecture — then, with many shrugs of the shoulder, had finally been abandoned, to grow cold on the shelves of unsolved problems. Monsieur Jacques, in a red pepper of a temper, victim to one of his periodical fits of indigestion, stormed heavily around among the little white tables. Nothing was right; everything was wrong; customers and waiters alike were fools. It was seven o’clock, and the room began to overflow with hungry ones — gourmets and gourmands, old dyspeptics and young bons viveurs, grandes dames and petites dames, the generous and the stingy.
Suddenly, in the big doorway, appear two oddly familiar figures. A wave of breathless excitement sweeps ahead of them — plates rattling in mid-air suspend their noise, napkins brushing off tablecloths cease their brushing, halfopened bottles hesitate, knives and forks tinkle no more. Activity becomes carved immobility — and Monsieur Jacques, frozen in his tracks, near the door, his hands crossed behind his back, glares dumbly at these two figures. Yes — no! — yes! Allow me to introduce to you my friends, Monsieur Baptiste Henriot and Mademoiselle Amelie Demors, — Monsieur Henriot arrayed in the newest, finest, most perfectly cut dress suit — padded, let us whisper, to conceal certain unimportant meagre imperfections of frame. Collar, tie, and tucked shirt are of spotless white, a cream-colored waistcoat, a camelia in his buttonhole, and a glossy high hat held daintily in his pearl-gray gloved hands, complete his costume. His hair has been waved — it is tossed back from his forehead in pomaded curves. Beside him, hanging affectionately on his arm, Amelie blooms like a thornless rose. She is all that there can be of the most elegant, from her little saucer-tilted hat, right down through the lace collar, the knot of cherry ribbon, the trim adjusted belt, the underneath cherry frou-frou of silk, to the shining mice tips of her black shoes. Altogether, this happy couple are steeped in a general air of impertinent prosperity and quiet assurance.
He has been well trained, has Monsieur Baptiste. He looks around him, with lofty disdain, then, detaching himself from Amelie, he advances slowly towards the motionless Monsieur Jacques, a suspicion of a swagger marking his progress, his face slightly flushed, his bearing indicating unflinching superiority. Many curious ones hover in his wake. The near encounter is awaited with pleasurable anticipation by those who manage to be within listening distance. Monsieur Baptiste draws himself up, faces Monsieur Jacques, and with a lordly gesture of his hand, says in clear, commanding tones,—
“Garçon, a table for two.”
Monsieur Jacques stands apoplectically still, his eyes become bloodshot. Bon Dieu! He—will explode! Amelie rustles up behind Monsieur Baptiste.
“Did n’t you hear this gentleman request you for a table?” she demands. “Is this the way you serve your customers ? Attend immediately, or you shall be complained of.”
“ Yes,” echoes Monsieur Baptiste manfully, “you shall be complained of.”
Monsieur Jacques stares at the two in front of him, while they stand their ground. It is a contest of wills, of bravado — old and new. But Monsieur Baptiste is dressed like a grand seigneur, there is gold — lottery gold — in his pockets, he is gorged with effrontery, and flanked by a young woman of dramatic tendencies. There must be no scene and no scandal in the restaurant. Monsieur Jacques turns, suddenly docile, and conducts them to a distant table. It is a triumphant march. Monsieur Baptiste struts, — Amelie minces just a trifle. They bow gravely, with the condescension of the great to the small, as they sink into their seats. Monsieur Jacques hands them a table-d ’hote card.
“We shall dine a la carte,” pronounces Monsieur Baptiste impressively. “Be good enough to take my order.”
The dinner which he proceeds to command is a rapturous repast — short and succulent, a harmony for the palate, a perfume for the nose.
“I beg of you to pass me the wine card,” continues Monsieur Baptiste, while Amelie is daintily fingering her roll, pointedly avoiding Monsieur Jacques’s eyes.
“I shall take,” slowly begins Monsieur Baptiste, rolling out each pompous word with careful relish, “I shall take a quart of Pommery 1893.”
It is done — the last nail is driven into the tyrant’s heart.
When they are left alone, at their little table, they do not look at each other for a moment, and there is the brief lull of a mighty ceremony accomplished. Finally Baptiste leans forward.
“Eh bien?” he questions, smug satisfaction lurking half daringly in his voice.
“Eli bien,” answers Amelie, dimpling suddenly. “Eh, bien, mon ami, ça y est.”
Then they commence to converse with a certain constrained responsibility. Conscious, beneath the eyes of all, they nibble their food, they sip their wine,— Baptiste rigidly gallant, Amelie politely responsive. With an idle flourish, Baptiste produces a silver cigarette case, holds it carelessly so that all may see, removes a cigarette from its well-filled interior, and puffs rings of luxurious smoke. Their table is the “ clou ” of the evening. It is passed, repassed, pointed to, exclaimed upon, laughed at, grunted at. Monsieur Jacques, who protests to the proprietaire, is told that Monsieur Baptiste has resigned his place and has a right to do as he wills.
It is a night of celebrity and celebration, as the dinner draws to its stately close. Monsieur Jacques’s prestige is decidedly on the wane and he is the object of many witty remarks. At last Monsieur Baptiste drains the final green drop in his liqueur glass, and rises slowly, with the lazy gesture of a man who has dined well and wisely. He seems already to have grown more ample in proportion, as with sleek fingers he pulls down the end of his waistcoat, adjusts his boutonniere, flecks a crumb from his lapel, and swaggers over to Monsieur Jacques, who has obstinately turned his back on such a specimen of ingratitude. But Monsieur Baptiste is not dismayed. Unctuously he draws a crisp green bill from his pocket, tenderly he gazes at it —fully aware that many white-aproned slaves cluster curiously behind him. And why should he hide from them such an act of benevolent generosity? He hands it to Monsieur Jacques. Will it be torn to a thousand shreds ? Who would be such a fool! Monsieur Jacques eyes it with hot scorn — tempered, let us hastily add, with longing — for it bears the legend V on its flapping ends.
“The dinner was excellent, my good friend,” says Monsieur Baptiste, resolutely tendering the luscious morsel.
“Ah! Ah! certainly—certainly,” answers Monsieur Jacques in a would-be distant voice, as the bill disappears in the ever-ready yawning cavity of his pocket.
“I wish,” continues Monsieur Baptiste, still pouring his newly-made wine into a golden cup, “I wish also to leave an order with you, which you will greatly oblige me by personally superintending. I beg of you to offer, in my name, a round of champagne to my old comrades here, that they may drink my health and happiness, for to-morrow I am to be married to Mademoiselle Amélie Demors. About the little formality of the account, please have it charged to my old address. It will be all right, as I hope to become one of your most constant patrons, in the future.”
Where are now the scathing words, the bread-knife glances with which Monsieur Jacques was wont to cut Monsieur Baptiste into a thousand pieces ? There is no sign of them — none. Monsieur Baptiste swaggers by, without waiting for thanks or curses, while from the door Amelie watches him proudly. He joins her, she takes his arm, they turn their backs, and shake from their feet the dust of menial office.
Their heads are very near together as they reach the street. “T’es un homme enfin,” whispers Amelie.
“ J’ crois bien,” answers Baptiste,curving out his chest.