jacques, the proprietor of a tiny cafe in an alley in the heart of the city , looked up from his broom, with which he had been sweeping the sidewalk in front of his establishment.
"ah, good morning, m borin, i almost didn't see you there. a bit early this morning, eh? "
"indeed, for i was unable to procure a copy of my newspaper this morning, and i usually give it a casual perusal on my peregrination over here, which, as you may readily surmise, causes a corresponding reduction in my rate of ready approach. this morning, thus unburdened, i fairly flew over, and thus you see me."
"and i hope to see you well, monsieiur. the usual. monsieur?"
"of course. of course. what else would i have?" m borin settled his bulky carcass into "his" usual sidewalk table (one of three), the one which he always always took when it was available, and the weather suitable.
"to be sure, to be sure." jacques turned to the front window of the cafe, and made a signal to his youngest daughter, who had been stationed there, and who turned away in her usual sullen manner, to execute the indicated command.
"a lovely day, at any rate, eh, monsieur?"
"good enough, i suppose, good enough. a day like any other, let us hope, eh?"
"to be sure."
"for what could be more desirable than a day like every other, i ask you."
"nothing, monsieur, nothing. look here, would you like me to send the girl to find a copy of your newspaper, after she has brought your coffee and croissant?"
"why thank you, jacques, that would do very well."
jacques nodded. this was a conversation they had had many times before, for m borin's paper - neither the largest or smallest of the city's numerous dailies - was often printed late or not at all on any given day. jacques was a close student of his regular patrons' moods and peculiarities, and he knew that m borin enjoyed having the same conversations over and over - such as the one they had just had about his being "a bit early this morning".
"i hope, " m borin went on, "that the paper being late does not signify any more political unrest, of which we have had entirely too much lately."
this was another recurring theme, and jacques picked up his cue accordingly. "that would indeed be a pity, monsieur, especially as it is such a fine day."
"but perhaps not such a fine day in rome, eh? if trouble has been stirred up, i have no doubt it is the pope's doing. there are no fine or not so fine days for him, only days to make mischief."
"indeed," jacques agreed. " there is no telling what that rascal is up to." and he sighed, to further indicate his sympathy with m borin's views. m borin was a member of the green party, which is to say he was a savage anticlericalist, but in all other respects a staunch upholder of the old customs and the old laws.
"look here, " m borin held up a fat finger. "the pope and his lackeys profess to believe in heaven, do they not? and what could heaven be, but an endless progression of days one like another? are we to believe in an eternity of days, each one with some new fashion or wonder? i rather think not."
"an excellent point, monsieur," and one that jacques had heard many times before.
jacques had already had enough of m borin, and looked longingly down the alley in hope of a new customer to rescue him.
"and yet - and yet - " m borin continued, "when tranquility has finally been achieved, when solutions amenable to all have been reached by the voice of the people acting through their duly elected representatives in a free republic, will the worthy gentleman laughingly referred to as his holiness cry quits and accept that? or will he and the jesuits continue their meddling ? i put it to you. '"
"ah, monsieur, here is marie-aline - at last - with your coffee and croissant."
marie-aline, a girl of about fourteen years, quite small for her age, and with a permanent look of discontent on her catlike face, deposited a small tray on the table before m borin without a word or a bow.
jacques would have preferred that melanie, his second youngest child and one with a much more respectful mien, serve the customers, but she was needed to do the brewing and baking, occupations at which marie-aline was entirely useless.
in fact jacques, though the mildest, and despite his humoring of m borin, the most devout of men, often found himself contemplating the prospect of taking this last child of his late wife down to the river and drowning her like the kitten she so resembled. he was further encouraged in this fantasy by the virtual certainty that she was not in fact his own child.
but he kept a careful tally of these wicked thoughts and confessed them to pere jean-pierre every saturday.
now, on the bright morning which we are describing, he took a coin from his pocket and handed it to marie-aline. "look here, run up to pere francais' news kiosk and see if you can find a copy of today's belligerent for m borin. and if you can't find it there - "
"i know the drill. i know where to go."
"very well. the belligerent, mind you. the belligerent."
"i heard you the first time." and with that marie-aline skipped away down the alley, almost merrily. she had no objection to such assignments and much preferred them to being on call in the shop. and since the death of her mother she had taken more and more to risking parental wrath by taking her own good time on these errands. the mother had had no compunction about beating the child, whom she regarded as the visible punishment for her sins. but the mild mannered jacques resorted to the rod only with the most extreme provocation.
jacques watched her disappear down the alley, and shook his head. "children, these days, they don't have the same respect we did."
m borin nodded. "the jesuits. it's all the jesuits."
"quite so," jacques agreed. he could not recall or imagine marie-aline having any contact with jesuits. she probably did not know what one was.
but now his attention was diverted by the sight of a young man and a young woman approaching the cafe down the same street that marie-aline had disappeared down. the young man was somewhat shabbily dressed but carried himself with the air of a prince. and the young woman was a drab, excessively painted, almost as if to disguise her youth.
as they came closer, he recognized the young man - the young englishman from three or four days ago! the young fellow had seemed quite satisfied with his fare and with his service, but jacques had not thought to see him again and had given him no bargain on his bill.
were they coming to the cafe? indeed they were, and jacques bowed them to the small table furthest from m borin's.
"we meet again," the young man observed pleasantly, in his horrible accent. "i have been singing the praises of your fine establishment to mademoiselle here."
the girl gazed at jacques and at m borin with a mildly suspicious air.
"i can only hope to obtain monsieur's generous assessment again. what would you like? would you like a menu?" jacques was determined to fuss over them as much as possible, in order to avoid talking to and listening to m borin, and marie-aline's absence on her errand only gave him the more excuse to do so.
the day was progressing well. jacques was happy.
the young englishman seemed very pleased with the world, and with himself.
m borin, sipping his strong black coffee and staring at the painted girl, seemed quite content.
marie-aline, skipping away on her errand, was happy.
a couple of birds could be heard singing. they must have been happy.
a cat watched the birds without seeming exercised by their existence. it, too, seemed content.
only toquette, her paint beginning to fade in the morning sun as she listened to the young englishman rattle on to jacques, seemed less than happy.