The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

COQUELICOT


 

DIANE GOSSELIN MET COQUELICOT for the first time on St. John’s eve. She saw approaching a small, black kitten, with all the impudence of youth involved in a bearing as resolute as that of a tiger. He walked straight towards her and she stepped to one side; her eyes looked down upon his strong back; his brilliant green eyes flashed up at her. She put out her hands to him; it was useless, he must surely belong to another. She pursed up her lips to chirrup to him; what folly, he could never be hers. Such a completely perfect black kitten must already have a place of his own in the world. But she loved him with all the extravagance of love at first sight.

    She could not restrain herself. She called to him. At the same time she took a step or two; if he did not heed she would go on and never look back. To her joy he turned and followed her with a confident and reckless air. She called to him again, on he came; he had evidently no idea of leaving her. Her heart beat intensely with excitement; she suffered the joy of assured possession, mingled with the timorous uncertainty of probable loss. He was surely hers, this prodigy which paced resolutely behind her, no, he was not hers; someone would appear suddenly and claim him! Buffeted by such thoughts, she first half stopped to catch him up, then half ran for a few yards to be free from the pang of separation. But the black kitten proceeded calmly, as if his mind was fixed.

    An observer would have seen in the group simply a little, dark woman, clad quaintly in some fashion of her own devising, glancing every moment over her shoulder at a small and vigorous kitten. But the scene for both actors had a deeper import; it was the first meeting of two spirits, destined for mutual comfort. So they proceeded until Diane stood before her house. There she stooped and caught him up.

    “I will call him ‘Coquelicot,’” she said, behind her close lips, remembering “Mère Michel” and her cat. Then she paused a moment before opening the door. What if Hector should object? Then she would have to put Coquelicot out on the sidewalk. She kissed his little, black head.

    Hector was crouched over a table when she entered his room. He was writing with his shoulders as high as his ears. The strong light from a western window, aflame with the sunset, threw his shadow upon the wall. She put Coquelicot down upon the floor.

    “See, Hector, dear, what I have brought,” she said timidly. He turned his head, and, seeing nothing, he rose and faced his sister. He fell into his favourite attitude, thrusting the tips of his fingers into his breeches’ pockets, and holding his elbows close to his sides. Very tall and as thin as a flail, he looked like shadow rather than substance as he peered down at the stranger.

    Coquelicot sat between them, in nothing amazed or perturbed by his surroundings. Diane trembled, wondering what would be the outcome of the inward debate, which would be law to her. Suddenly Hector sniffled, and, without another sound, turned again to his work. Diane caught up Coquelicot, and departed silently, swiftly, joyously. She could interpret these dumb oracles of her brother’s, and his action meant,—

    “Keep the cat, if you like, but for me I have begun my great work ‘The Comparative Jurisprudence,’ and let him not disturb me.”

    Judge of the transformation which even a small, black cat can work in the life of a human being. For years, even from a time before her mother died, Diane Gosselin had been a slave to her brother Hector. Even at the time that Coquelicot arrived, she had not discovered that he had imperfections. She shared his opinion that he was misunderstood; that his powers had been overlooked and belittled; that he had been the victim of a cabal, in which circumstances had joined hands with his rivals to crush him. But they had not succeeded; no!

    They might have driven from the bar, he might no longer be able to go into the courts to follow his calling, but they had not conquered him. He had yet that tremendous plan of a ‘Comparative Jurisprudence,’ which he would hurl upon his enemies triumphantly, and extinguish them forever. He would talk endlessly and dryly on his eternal subject, inspired by gin and water, which beverage had clapped hands with a weak character to bring Hector Gosselin almost as low as he could fall in this world.

    He would have ruined himself entirely, and left his confiding sister without a roof for her head or a sou for her portion, but, by a prudence which seemed to have foreseen events, old ‘père’ Gosselin had left the small house and his little fortune to Diane; the former so bound that it could not be sold, and the latter in Government bonds that could not be alienated. And so, although Hector had long ago ceased to contribute a cent to the expense of the ménage, they managed to exist in comparative comfort. Their little capital produced just six hundred dollars, and by the time Diane had paid her fixed charges, the taxes, and the insurance on the house, there was a trifle over five hundred dollars left. With this she made out very well. She kept Hector looking decent, that it, she patched and repatched his old coat, and, at rare intervals, she purchased a new garment or a pair of shoes, but these seasons were always full of anxiety, for he had to be watched carefully lest he would rush off and pawn his latest acquisition. He had an allowance, which he promptly spent. The boys called him ‘The Lizard.’ He could be seen darting furtively in and out of the house or trotting along the street, his hands in his breeches’ pockets, his sharp elbows jutting far behind his thin back. His bearing was a perpetual shiver, and his face, grey about the nostrils and chin, wore a crafty, and, at the same time, an apologetic expression.

    Fancy years spent in the company of this person, who was scarcely an individual, who could not bestow affection, and who did not perceive it in another, whose talk was as vain as the pleadings of a rusty weathercock. Fancy a woman’s faith and love beating forever upon this rock, or rather lapping upon this semblance of a rock which was merely shadow, and which vanished to let the wave of love and service pass by.

    Diane, specially gifted by nature to give all and receive nothing, still had unfulfilled yearnings for something whose love would flow in upon her in return for her own, something which would nestle and allow itself to be mothered. She hardly had a friend in the village; Hector long ago had driven them all away; no one, except perhaps Hermisdas Godbout, saw anything in her but a little, old maid, who looked as if she had ‘words in her mouth,’ and who was growing a trifle browner each year. Hermisdas Godbout, who kept a small store next their house, was friendly toward her; he was a giant, enormous in height and bulk, weighing nearly three hundred pounds. His voice was so clanging and tremendous, his roaring laughs so overpowering, that he frightened little Diane.

    Into this parched existence, stepped Coquelicot, a perfect cat! He understood Diane as comprehensively and intimately as if her disposition and character had been his perpetual study through years of transformation; and she understood him, at least, she understood him as well as it is possible for a human being to know a cat. To her great and inexpressible joy he showed her plainly that he loved her; he bunted her with his small, black head, rumbled affectionately in the depths of his throat, laid his paw lightly upon her cheek. He changed her life radically, awakening all the dormant playfulness which had lain hidden so long in her nature. He discovered a girlish gaiety, which invented plays for him, because he was a kitten, and demure amiability, which understood his contemplative moods as he grew older.

    It was strange and fortunate that these two came together just upon the threshold of Hector’s great undertaking, ‘The Comparative Jurisprudence’. If it had been otherwise, if Coquelicot had not come, how would Diane have spent those days and nights when her brother was engaged in frantic scribblings, covering reams of paper with incoherent monologue, with platitudes repeated and again repeated until the mass of the whole knew neither beginning nor end? How could she have existed merely warming food and patching clothes for this egoist, whose mania it was to spin nothing from nothingness? She would have lived; yes, she would have believed that those sheets marred in their fairness by grotesque characters, had an immortal life, that, as they lay piled up in the huge old chest which her father had built in the room with his own hands, they were really matters of power and would bring her brother to repute and honour. Coquelicot’s presence, in face, had not banished that belief, it remained in her mind, fixed; but her life beyond it was humanized.

    Hermisdas Godbout became at once interested in the new arrival; he offered a clean cracker-box for his bed, and Coquelicot reciprocated by making a sally behind his counter and produced three mice. He kept one eye on the cat, and always seemed to know where he was. On summer evenings when he heard Diane’s gnat-like voice imploring heaven for Coquelicot, or making use of small stratagems to get him home, he would bellow from the verandah:—

    “Mademoiselle Gosselin, Monsieur Coquelicot has climbed the telegraph pole across the road, chasing the Lefebre’s yellow cat with the black face”; or, from the depths of his shop his terrible voice, making the small objects spring upon the shelves: “Mademoiselle Gosselin, Monsieur Coquelicot is asleep with two blades of catnip under the counter.”

    Coquelicot’s advent and subsequent development had not in any way jarred the complaisance of Hector, who laboured hugely at the ‘Comparative Jurisprudence’. Diane studied to keep her companion forever shut out from the room, which had a bright attraction for the cat, with its sunny southern windows, and the view of a strip of sod below maples, out of which birds dropped continually upon the sward. It was only when Hector darted out, leaving the door ajar, that Coquelicot had the chance of making an excursion. It was upon such an occasion that Diane found him seated upon the writing table. He was sitting upon a fresh sheet of the ‘Comparative Jurisprudence,’ his tail slowly disturbing the wet ink into fringes upon the original characters. Diane snatched him, too late; the sheet was ruined! Boldly she tore it up, substituted the one preceding it, and departed into her own domain. What would follow? At noon, with a trembling that was little better than a shudder, she brought Hector his cabbage-soup, fragrant with chives. Her fear was quite needless, the inspired one had gone unconscious of the raid which had taken place in his absence. All chapters, all paragraphs seemed alike to him. Coquelicot was safe!

    storm a loving heart, began to move under a shadow. Her mind went often into the future, she began to live two lives, one that of her ordinary duty, comforted by her cat, one that of a possible future, melancholy when she would have lost him. She was troubled when she saw him growing old; troubled as to the manner and time of his death. She dreamed sometimes that he had been worried by hungry, wolf-eyed doges, and she often rose up to convince herself by feeling him in his box, and hearing his reassuring purr. She was frequently harassed by Hector in a way which led her to spend long hours in disconsolate musings. The great book was approaching completion, (the chest was nearly full); and she was called upon to decide how it could be published. Hector averred that it was quite useless to ask a publisher to issue such a work. It had ever been the lot of the genius to be thwarted by the publisher, and there was no doubt in his mind that every publisher belonged to the cabal of advocates, judges and miscellaneous persons who had conspired against him. While Diane who had always managed the affairs of the little household, was troubling her brain over some plan to gain the coveted $1, 500 which Hector said was necessary, he had formed a plan of his own. He would have been perfectly willing to carry it out then and there, but he felt that he would have to win over Diane, and to this he proceeded cunningly. First he began to enlist her closer sympathy in the ‘Comparative Jurisprudence’ itself. On certain evenings of the week he would call her into his room, and, as she sat in the shadow with Coquelicot on her lap, he would declaim until his throat cracked like a clarionet played with a weak lip. He would work himself into a woeful frenzy, casting sheets of manuscript from him in showers. Diane, who already believed sufficiently in the ‘Comparative Jurisprudence’ was stunned by the enormous obscurity, by the volume of the sentences, which rolled upon one another like clouds, which never end, and never begin. She laid all the fault of noncomprehension upon herself, and what she called her poor stupid head. Coquelicot would often approach a juster criticism; drawing himself up into a sitting posture, a shudder would run through his whole frame, ending convulsively in his shoulders, and then he would stiffen his ears, and give a huge yawn, look disconsolately at the floor for a few minutes, and fall to licking himself all over! Upon one occasion when Hector had passed the bounds of his ordinary tone, and ascended into something, which, to Coquelicot, might have sounded like the clamour of many of his enemies, his back sprang into a bow, he bared all his fangs, and spat viciously.

    Although she had not been accustomed to share the noonday bowl of broth with her brother, Diane had now to give up her comfortable meal in the kitchen with Coquelicot perched upon the table, and have her bite with Hector, in the room where he worked, ate, and slept. It was at this meal that he gradually unfolded his fantastical scheme. So little did he understand Diane that he stumbled upon the first step. He could not comprehend a devotion so unalloyed and simple. He indulged in verbose hints, in obscure allusions, when a plain statement would have served his purpose. At length, by a progression of faint and half-defined images, through many days Diane found herself in possession of his thoughts. A sudden picture flashed upon her from these incoherent details. The references to the value of their house, the probability of their comfort in any other abode, the amount of their insurance, the chance of a fire, what they would do if money was paid to them, instances of persons who, in his experience, had succeeded in destroying their property, and obtaining the insurance; all these tangled, seemingly inconsequent observations at last joined themselves into a proposition that thence should the money come for the publishing of the ‘Comparative Jurisprudence.’

    At first Diane could not adjust her thoughts to this scheme. It seemed to be an easy way out of the difficulty, but she had a horror of it, which pursued her even in dreams. But her aversion had no definite shape, and over against it was the power which Hector had always held over her. This plan of his own making was cast into an iron law; she could not oppose it. After all, what did she need, if she could have Coquelicot; she was a little, leather-faced old maid, and had no other true friend in the world. When he was dead and gone, she could perhaps get another cat! No! She looked at him as he lay, his head upon his outstretched paw, light standing in white blotches on his glossy coat. No! there could never be a second Coquelicot. Sometimes she wished in despair that she might be taken first. It would be easier for Coquelicot; he would not miss her so greatly as she would miss him.

    Hector wrote the last word of the ‘Comparative Jurisprudence.’ It was ended. The great oak chest was full. This latter circumstance determined his labours, for the last word might as cogently have been the first. For two days without his task, in the hazy days of May, he was full of unrest, of futile, eager business, darting hither and thither, sometimes standing at the street corners, in his favourite attitude, his shoulders hunched up to his ears, his eyes puckered with a silly, self-satisfied smile. The boys had never seen ‘The Lizard’ so active, and they began to clamour after him, and one fiercer than the rest, as he was clearing for home, threw a stone, which struck him on the foot. He hopped along, chattering to himself, afraid to resent the blow. Reaching his door, he put one foot over the threshold, withdrew it, and faced about. He stood a moment, looking reproachfully into the road, and then drew himself up indignantly, but, as he heard the voices of the urchins, nearer and nearer, he collapsed suddenly, and stepped into the house.

    That day at dinner Hector gave the finishing touch to his plan. Mumbling into his soup-bowl, he said to Diane:—

    “And, if something could be destroyed, which one of us loves very much, then no person would have any suspicion, we could rush in to save it at the last moment, and people would hold us back.”

    Diane did not comprehend, but there was something so insinuating in Hector’s eye, glancing over her shoulder toward the window, that she looked around. Coquelicot, unseen by her, had rushed across the floor and leaped up to the sunny window-sill. There he sat, looking dreamfully into the garden. Her heart stopped beating, as if held in a giant’s hand. Her head fell down on her breast. She saw nothing but terrible blackness. She comprehended, and fear made her numb. She rose up and stood as if bearing up under an enormous weight. She reached Coquelicot without falling, and carried him to her own room. There she lay for hours, realizing nothing, but in a dumb grief, her beloved cat secure in her arms. At intervals, striving to be free, he would touch her cheek with his tongue. At last she allowed him to go, and lay there alone with no movement of life, with hardly a reflection. She was aroused by the voice of Hermisdas Godbout, bellowing:—

    “Mademoiselle Gosselin, Monsieur Coquelicot has had his supper off the remains of the two cat-fish that Lefebres’ boy caught in the Blanche, and is crying at the back door.” His clanging tone revived her. She realized that she was not without a friend, that there was someone who would care for her cat; whatever might happen to her.

    At one o’clock that morning there was a peculiar light in the kitchen of the Gosselin house; it fluttered up with a pale blue flame, and then died down for a moment. A figure that seemed enormously tall sprang toward the door which led to the main part of the house; it lingered there, while the light flickered up from the flames wavering in the corner, and spreading gradually along the floor. The light grew until it discovered the shape of Hector, his face pallid with excitement, his jaw hanging loose with fear. Suddenly the flames, moved by some gathering draft, swirled with a roar and leaped toward him. He vanished.

    The slumbering village was soon startled into life. Hermisdas Godbout, aroused from his first sleep, rolled off his low couch, and saw fire breaking through the Gosselin roof beside the chimney. A fitful light, appearing and disappearing at a window in the back room, showed that the fire had made its way into the main part of the house. Above this room Diane slept. The villagers rushed together with hoarse, unnatural shouts, men and women; the men clamouring for water, swinging pails and axes with a terrible energy; the women, half clad, and with eyes staring from pale faces, were huddled together in groups. The first-comers had battered at the door, and Hector, dissimulating, had put his head out of the window to inquire what was the matter. Poor Diane was awakened by his yells, and sprang up terrified. She had fallen asleep, weary with trouble. The wall of her room was hot, smoke began to pour up from a stove-pipe hold in the floor. Hastily huddling on a few garments, she joined a group of women on the sidewalk. They were voluble in sympathy, but she could only wring her hands. With a mighty noise the water carts began to arrive, barrels set upon wheels, filled by pailsful at the Blanche; and the rickety hand engine, dragged by thirty pairs of arms, appeared, clanging its resonant bell. The house had been invaded by more men than it could hold, who were struggling with one another, cursing with excitement, endeavouring to save furniture, but breaking it in the press and confusion. Flying from the upper windows were articles which should have been borne down the stairs, and crashing through all obstacles, appeared at the door a zealous helper, his arms full of pillows! Upon the edge of this confusion danced Hector, gesticulating like a maniac, and shouting until his throat cracked. No one paid the slightest heed to any direction issued by anyone. The enormous voice of Hermisdas Godbout could at intervals be heard bellowing to half a dozen active fellows, who, amid the fall of sparks, had covered his roof with blankets over which they were dashing buckets of water. Gradually the flames had made their way into the hall; the stairway was smoking. At length Hector had got the ear of one man disposed to listen to something but his own voice. Hurriedly this fellow collected five others, and they rushed up into the front room; there in the middle of the room, where it had already been moved, was the chest, weighty with the ‘Comparative Jurisprudence.’ They lifted it to the door; it would not go through; to the window; it would not go through! Old Gosselin had built it in that room with his own hands, and of such dimensions that by no means, short of a breach in the wall, could it be moved out. Suddenly the fire burst through the door leading to the back room, and the men, dropping the chest, with a yell sprang into the open air.

    So soon as Hector had insured, as he thought, the safety of the ‘Comparative Jurisprudence,’ he sought out Diane. Her moment of action in this tragedy had come. She seemed quite beside herself; with a scream she rushed toward the burning house. Her words could be heard above the roar of flames, and the clamour of excited men.

    “Coquelicot, my cat; my dear cat, asleep in the back room, let me save him.”

    On she rushed, for a moment it seemed that everything, even the fire, withheld its voice and gazed at the little, ineffectual figure, going to destruction to save her cat! Then someone caught her, and in the silence, thundered Hermisdas Godbout:—

    “The poor, little fool has gone daft. Here is Monsieur Coquelicot, she gave him to me last night. Boys, bring her over here.”

    In the glare of the fire stood the Titan figure of Hermisdas, and, aloft on his shoulder, appeared Coquelicot, seated calm amid the tumult, eyes wide upon the crowd and the light, but moveless as if carved in jet for a temple of the gods. Diane was borne toward her divinity, to all appearance lifeless.

    The man whom Hector had instructed to save the important chest, sought him out, and told him that it could not be moved. He looked toward the house in despair. Already smoke was pouring from the top of the front room windows.

    “Come on,” he cried. In through the door he went, and a moment later appeared at the window. The smoke blew out from behind him, and through it he scattered the sheets of the ‘Comparative Jurisprudence;’ they fell down in the showers, multitudes of them, covering the ground broadly like the leaves of the horse-chestnut after the first hard frost. Thicker came the smoke, and more tumultuous grew the shower of sheets, until suddenly the rim of the upper casement was ringed with fire. Then, amid a thick outpouring of smoke, one or two fugitive pages fluttered out and down. With a shout of help, three men rushed forward; but the sword of fire at the door waved them back, and the inner draft blew a mass of flames from the window.

    At dawn the furious scene was quieted, the discordant noises had ceased. The eternal progress of the universe had brought up the morning stars to look down upon the place where Hector Gosselin and his ‘Comparative Jurisprudence’ had mingled in ashes. It was hardly a week after when Diane, bearing Coquelicot in her arms, walked into the presence of Hermisdas and the Inspector of the Insurance Company, and told her story. Any payment was out of the question, and the Inspector departed with his forms. But Hermisdas afterwards shook her with his voice:—

    “Little fool, why didn’t you take the money. I knew it all the time. Didn’t I know that ‘The Lizard’ had set fire to the kitchen, Bah!”

    There were other things which Hermisdas did not know, but which appeared to him dimly at times, curious circumstances remembered as if from dreams; or as questions which have but shadowy answers. Why had Diane given him Coquelicot that evening? Why did she hurry away afterwards with averted face, never once looking behind, but seeming ever about to turn tremulously? Why was she rushing into danger to save something which she knew was safe? Why? Only Diane could have answered his questions, and Diane was silent. In truth did she ever think upon what she had planned to do to save her cat; what sacrifice she had intended to substitute for that enormous crime of her brothers’ devising. In a little while, after a few tears, any questionings passed away, like the charcoal and ashes which Coquelicot used to bring back, from the ruin, upon his paws, but which disappeared in the rain of one summer. They lived under the huge shadow of Hermisdas Godbout, to whom Diane, as prudent as her father, willed her little fortune, and the custody of the cat.

    But who could think of one deprived of the other. Let us then imagine Diane and Coquelicot growing old together, never to be separated, never to know the half of life gone, one never to live on with the loneliness of remembered affection as of some spirit always present, but ever beyond communion. Or, if this be impossible, let us never think of Diane alone as before the advent of her companion. Let us imagine Coquelicot surviving her through a few years of golden tranquility, always dignified, benignant, considerate; always reflecting upon ancient fables and fragments of lore otherwise hidden in an Egyptian darkness; always dreaming inconceivable things, until he, too, is gone to his heaven, leaving for a little while upon the earth the memory of a perfect cat.