Episode 25 - LE CHAT NOIR!


          The Chat Noir then... if that is what it was... had walls chockablock with stone and plaster gargoyles overlooking a floor full of quarrelling Parisians. God alone... or perhaps the poor conductor of the wounded shoulder... may be allowed the privilege of distinguishing which was uglier. Suits of armor competed for attention with far too many chattering tourists; I distinctly remember, however, a placard of the Chat holding a struggling goose under its paw. "The Black Cat is art, you see, and the goose is the soul of the bourgeois," Willie informed me as Maud physically detained one of the scurrying waiters, "...there seem to be plenty of both cats and geese tonight so we may expect plenty of spontaneous diversion with our chops..."

          Gonne's Irish wiles had secured us places at a large table of German geese, gaping at les artistes. "They'll be gone soon enough when Madame arrives," she predicted. "Bruant is to make an appearance but his usual pianist is ill, they've brought back that strange fellow who quarrelled with Salis and was banished to the Auberge du Clou..."

          I must have sat gaping. "Isn't that Isadora Duncan... the dancer?" I appended like a foolish boy.

          "So it is... I wonder if Eddie's about, Eddie Craig... Ellen Terry's son, but not by Irving..." and a wicked smile crossed the features of Maud Gonne, "...oh Eleanor Duse is at that table, she's another of Eddie's lovers, but both of them quite dislike Madame Sarah..."

          "And over there, pretending not to have seen us," Yeats pointed, "is Beerbohm, who despises them all..."

          "He gave Willie a scalding review... don't you be the start of a riot," Maud said, though the remark sounded more like an invocation than a warning. I, however, was still staring at Duse and her companion... the motormouthed little Italian from Grein. As soon as two of the Germans beside us wiped their mouths and left, Filippo Marinetti sidled over to our large circular table, pushing away their dirty dishes.

          "Surprised to see you here, Cameron... or anywhere," he added rather nastily. "Your companions, we must be introduced!"

          "Signore Marinetti," I said, "an automobilist..."

          "I have driven my Daimler Dagger over Alpine trails that a donkey would shun to honor Madame with my presence... though we are no longer lovers." Marinetti then pointed proudly to Duncan. "That one even proposed to me, mad with love... but she is too romantic... too moony... all women of Marinetti end up taking knives to their Symbolist fathers."

          I felt obliged to complete my work of introduction. "This is Maud Gonne, of the Dublin stage..."

          "And so like a gun you are... so tall, so intrepid... you must come with me to Milan... I only woo Eleanor to antagonize my rival D'Annunzio," the Imagnifico confided, "she smells too much of cheese..."

          "And William Butler Yeats," I finished.

          "I've heard of you... a worm. Yet even worms can evolve into beautiful butterflies with wings of aluminum if they will only industrialize their fleurs d'mal. Only come with me, Signorina Gun of double one... I'll take you to the Adriatic where I am preparing a cannon of electro-mesmerism to shoot great clusters of angry bolts through the gaps of a new sky...

          Yeats pushed away from the table preparatory to striking Marinetti but his adversary was suddenly grasped from behind by a woman whose face was a truly appalling palimpsest of rouges and powders.

          "Mon cherie..." this apparition gushed, "...Conjure!"

          "By that perfume and voice it can only be the Comtesse Martel de Mirabeau." She released the Imagnifico with a porcine squeal of delight. "In Paris, all call the Comtesse 'Gyp' for she is a reader of cards whose aspects are all alike. This longfellow is Cameron, an adventurer from New York... Maud Gonne, another of my actresses and Mr. Yeats, Symbolist grub... so we are conversing in English tonight..."

          "Oh that is remarkable," Gyp replied. Her English was comprehensible but I must say that it grated, producing the same feeling in the stomach one has when an automobile begins to grind its gears. "I have just heard from my London publisher who assures me I am more popular than Karl May!"

          "You are a writer?" Yeats recoiled, too perplexed to follow through with his assault upon Marinetti. "That... is your profession?"

          "My profession," brayed Gyp, throwing her monstrous curls sideways so that they almost splattered a German's soup, "is Anti-Semite!"

          Flecks of ivory powder from her cheeks spattered the table; I observed Maud lift something from the glass before her with the edge of her little finger... she seemed to deliberate a moment then waved for the garcon to remove the soiled cocktail.

          "The Comtesse writes to amuse herself and inspire young people of all the world; her tales of Petit Bob have sold thousands of copies... tens of thousands."

          "Oh..." Yeats snarled, "...stories for children. Crowley wrote a book of those," he added to me, "but I wouldn't repeat them to any child of mine..."

          To his discomfort, however, Gyp plunged into the seat next his while Duse beckoned Marinetti back to their table... whether a Parmesan or a Camembert, he was her little rat of the evening. Recalling Crowley's unsavory epic of cheeses also calls to mind a comment of Oscar Wilde who, in his capacity as theatrical critic before his conviction, once dismissed an author of what must have been a dreadful drama of a family of cheese molds as 'a gorgon-Zola' of the stage. Wilde I was to encounter, and soon enough... meanwhile le Chat, or whatever the name of that place was, was becoming more animated by the moment. Marcel Proust and the Comtesse deSade were next to arrive with an entourage of several others... Laura rewarding me with a smile that soured under the hateful gaze of Gyp.

          "Don't you agree that there are quite too many Jews in Paris... and bad Catholics who grovel at the feet of Rothschilds like that one, Mirbeau?" Gyp pointed to an older gentleman of the Proust party, now being seated. "He is the more detestable for the reason that the rabblement think that we are related!"

          And her accusation slid into a hideous laugh that caused heads to turn even as Mirbeau stopped to exchange apparently friendly sentiments with Marinetti.

          "Look at them!" Gyp continued. "Both are fanatics of the automobile, and with money to indulge their whims, but otherwise wholly unalike. Marinetti is a beast but pure; Mirbeau... one cannot speak of his last book on the horrors of Ceylon which he considers delightful. He thinks women capable of criminal intent well, he's right... I ought to poison his dog. The good Catholic gendarmes of the Libre Parole train their dogs to hunt Jews by smell... which is pallid and vicious, neurotic of course... their hatred of Christianity begins with the shame of circumcision, which their rabbis promote to harvest morels for their soups... ha ha!"

          And at that the waiter appeared, bringing our first course and causing Willie and Maud to stare as disconsolately as I into the depths of the soup, attempting to banish the repulsive images conjured up by the berouged and bewhiskered old bawd. Meanwhile a commotion at the door harkened the arrival of Sarah Bernhardt.

          "If you are not going to eat that," Gyp taunted Willie, "may I have your bowl... it's hot enough to straighten out Madame's hair! Look at that jungle... has to have been a nigger crouched in that family tree."

          And as several belching bourgeoisie at the other end of the table chose just that moment to leave, our waiter was offered the occasion to seat Bernhardt and her entourage... the actor Gemier, who had played the part of Axel, and a prosperous looking man of the theater. Bernhardt took no notice of the glowering Gyp but darkened at seeing Duse and Duncan... Yeats again glancing at Beerbohm, pretending to be absorbed in his sketchpad. Only Marinetti continued beaming at everyone with the ebullience of an adolescent boy who has fallen through the window of a Turkish seraglio as he slithered into the seat between Gyp and the actor.

          "Might I opine, Madame, that you were exquisite," the Imagnifico wheedled " most always is the case."

          "I have always made an exquisite corpse, haven't I."

          Sarah Bernhardt, taking her seat, whispered to the theatrical manager who made a gesture to the waiter and, almost at once, a great platter of boiled shrimp arrived; the famous actress digging into it with both hands, ripping off shells as if she had not eaten for weeks. Unbidden, Marinetti helped himself too.

          "Do I know you?" Madame finally asked through rapier teeth and shredded crustaceans.

          "I proposed marriage to you in Milan last year after you recited my poem of the Old Sailors."

          "Oh..." Bernhardt replied, crunching another shrimp, "...I receive so many proposals I have lost count, I guess." You're with that circus, aren't you?" she remarked to Maud Gonne. "And isn't that young Craig?"

          She inclined her head but without summoning Isadora Duncan's escort. Duse, deserted, began twisting a baguette into angry little pieces... Maud, for once, had been left without words.

          "I intend to go to London in the summer, then New York... Monsieur Lugne-Poe here is disconsolate..." She patted the impresario on the shoulder with a greasy hand... I recognized the name, now, this was the owner of the theatre producing the marionette play of the two dwarfs.

          "When Sarah leaves and the Exposition closes, there shall be nothing left for Parisians but suicide," sighed Lugne-Poe, as if he had read my mind, "...and perhaps the restaging of Monsieur Jarry's play with Gemier here shall prove the sword upon which they may fall. It is a loss to all Paris that Sarah turned down the role of Ubu's wife..." he chided.

          "Because it is a detestable work," Bernhardt said, ripping another shrimp apart, "justly condemned five years ago. I am an actress, not a piece of furniture to be moved round on strings by a dramatist who does not know his place, unlike Sardou."

          Then Marinetti made another attempt to impress Madame by making introductions. "Mr. Cameron here is from New York," he tootled immodestly, "a financier for... was it Vartanian or Edison?"

          "Well that really hasn't been determined..." I apologized but without disabusing Bernhardt of any illusions of my capacity, for what young man will not take advantage of any opportunity to rise in the estimation of one so prominent among those Mallarme, though already deceased, had once referred to as Parnassians... even one with a mouth quite full of shrimp. Ingenues have been with us since Lola Montez. Betty Grable is comely as... what is her name... in that movie about the Old South? but Bernhardt was quite more than half a dozen of Zanuck's or Selznik's best.

          "More old suitors," Sara remarked, having swallowed half her portion. "Vartanian used to be handsome when a young man but he's grown queer... Edison, well, things didn't go well when I was introduced to him. Of course this may have been because I called upon him, unannounced, in the middle of night," Bernhardt reflected with the pauses of a practiced teller of tales. "His damned wife kept hovering about... so all we did was record on his monograph... I sang Phedre and he replied with Yankee Doodle Dandy. Thank you for reminding me of him, young man... and you?" She inclined a peeled shrimp at the tongue-tied Yeats.

          "This is Willie, a playwright also..."

          Bernhardt turned to the producer, Yeats quite forgotten.

          "Didn't Willy say he'd come by, Aurelian? You see," Sara explained, "there is a critic here who also goes by that name... we have to suffer critics and producers in order to work, don't we, Madame?"

          "Unfortunately that's so," replied Maud. Not for a moment did I believe she had passed over the insult so casually offered.

          "I wonder why Mirbeau hasn't come over..." Bernhardt wondered, then popped another boiled shrimp into her mouth.

          Gyp also sat silently, almost inconspicuously, biding her time, as I would learn. A German who'd recognized Madame Sarah solicited an autograph, a pianist in a gray corduroy suit mounted the tiny stage of the Chat Noir or whatever place we were in and began to exercise his fingers, coaxing strange harmonies out of the piano.

          "Is Bruant to sing?" asked Maud Gonne, "...that is what I've heard. Willie and I saw him four years ago..."

          "A lot has changed over four years," the great actress sniffed. "Bruant has grown rich and complacent and that pianist is a substitute... one used to see him round until most of the cafes fired him for taking liberties with the program."

          "I know that simpleton," Gyp now volunteered, "living more or less in a cupboard in Arcueil... they expelled him from the Rue Cortot for always fighting with his mistress, Suzanne Valadon..."

          "You mean Satie... who tramps about in front of my theatre with signs condemning my productions as Satanist excrement?" remarked Lugne-Poe, squinting to get a better look at the fellow. "Yes, that's the one... I'd have him taken out and shot except such accusations attract more business then they drive away. Besides, if he is Valadon's lover he's already well ensconced in the old gentleman's domain. That one tried to trick poor Lautrec into marriage by threatening suicide... though she called herself Maria then..."

          "He gives bad advice to Debussy," was the contribution of the actor, Gemier.

          "He is too late," Sarah answered contemptuously, "...I have had to postpone staging Pelleas because that old peasant has convinced Maeterlinck to let him set it to music. All he intends is to out-Wagner Wagner."

          And as she set jaws and fingers back to the rapidly lowering mountain of shrimp, a figure no less astonishing than the Sar loomed up behind her; a tall, balding man in a Highland kilt and robes of decaying leopard-skin whose presence caused Yeats to choke on his braised rabbit.

          "Long time, isn't it Willie? Nice of you and Miss Gonne to slink into Paris without even letting us know?"

          "Under the circumstances, hardly surprising... isn't it? This," Yeats gestured, "is Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers..."

          "I have been looking for you," I said, extending a hand which the Praemonstrator glanced at, then refused...

          " he got by the door I do not understand," Yeats added with that squeaky tone he acquired when offended, "... so perhaps you'll accompany him outside where he belongs and transact whatever business you intend to do. Mathers... this American's Arthur Cameron, Aleister's pup, he is to Perdurabo what Crowley is to you..."

          "Charming, isn't he... and they say the Irish have a gift of gab." Mathers shook his head, his eye roaming the table, settling on Gyp. "I've seen you with the Sar... you are..."

          "An Anti-Semite!"

          Bernhardt ripped the shell off another shrimp with unusual ferocity just as three more people appeared... the little men, Jarry and Toulouse-Lautrec, bracing a tall woman in the habit of a bicyclist, teeth flashing...

          "Rachilde!" squealed Gyp, forgetting the sneering Mathers and even Sarah Bernhardt.

          "Comtesse! You know Henri... and of course this is Monsieur Jarry whose fame, within the week, shall eclipse that of all of us... even..."

          And she regarded Bernhardt cooly, winked, then glanced back at Gyp. This latest interruption was quite enough for the two uninvolved couples remaining at our table; they threw down their napkins and called for the bill, leaving four places to be taken by the newcomers. Mathers occupied the empty seat to my right and now we were twelve.

          "I did not recognize Madame Sarah," Rachilde smirked ", of course, must be my guest at the Premiere of Ubu at Lugne-Poe's..."

          Bernhardt's contempt shifted from Gyp to Jarry like a puddle of mercury at the bottom of a bowl.

          "That will not be necessary. As I have already made clear, I know of Monsieur Jarry's work, if not his person, which is... he is a nonsense, a disgrace beyond mere incapacity... it is his view of the acting professionals as disposable puppets I abhor. His triumph would be the death of theatre."

          "How un-pat-a-phys-i-cal!" Jarry replied. "If Pere Oo-bou has caused the death of your thee-a-tre, we shall be hap-py to make more bass-turds with you!"

          "I have been looking for you," I declared to Mathers as the legend of the stage recoiled from Jarry's proposal, "...about a package I was given in Germany."

          "Well!" the Praemonstrator snorted, "I suppose this will put to rest the little matter of Fraulein Sprengel. Crowley was right about you... so, what is the verdict? Certainly you've sneaked a look... hmmm?"

          I hesitated, well aware of Yeats' scrutiny, but as I had the duplicate package for Westcott... why not? "The plain fact is that I don't know... most of the damn thing's in Russian!"

          "I knew it!" Yeats pounced. "It must be a communication from HPB - or even a message from Ascended Masters who dwell in Thibet, beyond the veil..."

          "Hmmm... or a trick," Mathers replied and turned his leonine stare upon Maud. "You were involved in some Russian skullduggery with Princess Radziwill, Maud, as I recollect..."

          "That was eight years ago," protested Gonne, "'s hardly relevant today!"

          As they hotly disputed one Rachovskii, whom I gathered to be a Muscovian of importance, and took sides for or against certain royal sisters of Montenegro, I observed all eyes of the Chat Noir to be settling round our table of twelve... I felt in the air a most unpleasant electricity, a blue Vartanish current, rather like gasoline awaiting a spark. To compound the situation the disturbed little musician, still awaiting the appearance of Bruant and, evidently, quite intoxicated would break off his rambling arpeggios to shout, once, "Talk more, move around, whatever you do, don't listen to me!" and... again... "Smoke! Smoke!... my little oysters, if you do not, someone else shall smoke in your place!"

          Finally the dispute between Mathers and Gonne wound down, apparently without violence... the patrons turning their gaze to the door, throughwhich had swaggered a pompous boulevardier in a hat tall enough to nearly scrape the ceiling, dragging his miserable-looking wife behind.

          "There is your other Willie!" Bernhardt informed Yeats, "...the critic... with his wife, Colette, who does most of his writing for him, beyond what he pays Debussy and D'Indy to scribble and his own rare bon mot..."

          The critic fired off a rapid stream of French to this toadie or that enemy, the content of which was incomprehensible, the overweening arrogance of which was obvious... like far too many Cayenne peppers in a soup. By eavesdropping upon Maud Gonne's translation to Yeats, however, I derived a portion of Willie's harangue. "He's asked that fellow there... Octave something, one whom this harpy claims to be related to, or not... where is the wife? Interviewing more country girls for domestic help? Some scandal there, I'd wager! And now he's accused Madame Sarah of wooing Lugne-Poe by soliciting other theatres to employ his talentless, carrot-headed mistress... of course it's clear from Ubu and Peer Gynt why this Aurelian needs money, trying to scare up patrons for your failing theatre, which is such an... intimate... place, is what he said..." All the while Colette tried to steer her husband away from the rapidly angering Bernhardt but, unfortunately, merely succeeded in propelling him towards the outraged pianist who abandoned his impromptu compositions...

          "He's told that man... Satie, I think, that he is Debussy passed through Charenton!" Maud declared with a satisfied nod. "Oh... that made pianist has called him the Devil's saliva and damns him in the name of the Rose-Croix... they are going to fight!"

          Indeed... the little man in gray yanked off the critic's hat and stomped upon it until Willy laid him out with his walking stick. Satie, wrenching a hammer from his coat, countered the critic's blows while writhing on his back like a great gray beetle. The producer Lugne-Poe rose, waded into the fray and suddenly found himself receiving blows from both men as Marinetti waxed ecstatic.

          "This is evolute into a Futurist evening, after all!"

          Enraged, Duse hurled a crock of soup across the floor at him while Isadora Duncan sauntered over to Bernhardt, an ashen Craig in tow. "Such a pity," the dancer sneered, "that a good artist is such a bad woman..." And as Bernhardt rose to reply, taking up the platter of shrimp in one fist, Comtesse Gyp screwed up her gargoylish features into a mask of even more horrid aspect, shrieking...


          Madame Sarah, intercepted in the act of hurling her bolt at Duncan, revolved in a circle, showering not only her two principle antagonists and others at the table, including myself, but those beyond; a thunderclap of shrimp and masticated shells that even reached the battered pianist who wailed in terror and disbelief.

          "Crustaceans! Venomous obstacles... I'll be rendered invisible..."

          Yeats and Mathers having fallen to blows, I found myself unfortunately situated between the fisticuffs, used... first by one, then by the other... as a shield. By this time, hitherto uninvolved patrons joined the fray with some shouting of slogans for Dreyfus, others against or for Boulanger, Ravachol, even two personages named Cocolat and Footit whom, I was to learn much, much later, were a couple of Parisian clowns. Willie the critic had been doubled teamed by Toulouse and Jarry, the shorter men pummelling his stomach and groin... swords and armor crashed to the floor, gargoyles plucked from their crevices and hurled. Then the French police arrived with lamps and whistles to begin beating those few still unbloodied...

          It was a wretched, yet grander recapitulation of the invasion of the Isis-Urania temple; no instance of tragedy being repeated by farce, but of one farce copied and quite magnified by another. This time, however, anticipating the probable end in a French prison, I dived through the combatants and out the door. No carriage would stop for me, battered and dangerous as I must have seemed, so I staggered and stumbled all the way south down the Boulevard Strasbourg, across the river by sinister Notre Dame and the Parisian morgue where lamps shown dimly in the workshop of the French contemporaries of Hartmann and Westcott... finally into the Alsatian Hotel, thinking of nothing but a basin of water, a half litre of cognac I had left on the table and... thereafter... healing sleep.

          Instead I was rewarded with a scene worthy of the most outrageous fancy of the mad Montmarte piano-scratcher!


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