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 The Café de Paris, kept by Melanie Cartier, a widow, was situated1 on the Place du Palais, a large irregular square planted with meager2, dusty elm trees. The place was so well known in Vauchamp that it was customary to say, “Are you coming to Melanie’s?” At the farther end of the first room, which was a spacious3 one, there was another called “the divan4,” a narrow apartment having sham5 leather benches placed against the walls, while at each corner there stood a marble-topped table. The widow, deserting her seat in the front room, where she left her little servant Phrosine, spent her evenings in the inner apartment, ministering to a few customers, the usual frequenters of the place, those who were currently styled “the gentlemen of the divan.” When a man belonged to that set it was as if he had a label on his back; he was spoken of with smiles of mingled7 contempt and envy.  
Mme Cartier had become a widow when she was five and twenty. Her husband, a wheelwright, who on the death of an uncle had amazed Vauchamp by taking the Café de Paris, had one fine day brought her back with him from Montpellier, where he was wont8 to repair twice a year to purchase liqueurs. As he was stocking his establishment he selected, together with divers9 beverages10, a woman of the sort he wanted—of an engaging aspect and apt to stimulate11 the trade of the house. It was never known where he had picked her up, but he married her after trying her in the cafe during six months or so. Opinions were divided in Vauchamp as to her merits, some folks declaring that she was superb, while others asserted that she looked like a drum-major. She was a tall woman with large features and coarse hair falling low over her forehead. However, everyone agreed that she knew very well how to fool the sterner sex. She had fine eyes and was wont to fix them with a bold stare on the gentlemen of the divan, who colored and became like wax in her hands. She also had the reputation of possessing a wonderfully fine figure, and southerners appreciate a statuesque style of beauty.
Cartier had died in a singular way. Rumor12 hinted at a conjugal13 quarrel, a kick, producing some internal tumor14. Whatever may have been the truth, Melanie found herself encumbered15 with the cafe, which was far from doing a prosperous business. Her husband had wasted his uncle’s inheritance in drinking his own absinthe and wearing out the cloth of his own billiard table. For a while it was believed that the widow would have to sell out, but she liked the life and the establishment just as it was. If she could secure a few customers the bigger room might remain deserted16. So she limited herself to repapering the divan in white and gold and recovering the benches. She began by entertaining a chemist. Then a vermicelli maker17, a lawyer and a retired18 magistrate19 put in an appearance; and thus it was that the cafe remained open, although the waiter did not receive twenty orders a day. No objections were raised by the authorities, as appearances were kept up; and, indeed, it was not deemed advisable to interfere20, for some respectable folks might have been worried.
Of an evening five or six well-to-do citizens would enter the front room and play at dominoes there. Although Cartier was dead and the Café de Paris had got a queer name, they saw nothing and kept up their old habits. In course of time, the waiter having nothing to do, Melanie dismissed him and made Phrosine light the solitary21 gas burner in the corner where the domino players congregated22. Occasionally a party of young men, attracted by the gossip that circulated through the town, would come in, wildly excited and laughing loudly and awkwardly. But they were received there with icy dignity. As a rule they did not even see the widow, and even if she happened to be present she treated them with withering24 disdain25, so that they withdrew, stammering26 and confused. Melanie was too astute27 to indulge in any compromising whims28. While the front room remained obscure, save in the corner where the few townsfolk rattled29 their dominoes, she personally waited on the gentlemen of the divan, showing herself amiable30 without being free, merely venturing in moments of familiarity to lean on the shoulder of one or another of them, the better to watch a skillfully played game of ecarte.
One evening the gentlemen of the divan, who had ended by tolerating each other’s presence, experienced a disagreeable surprise on finding Captain Burle at home there. He had casually31 entered the cafe that same morning to get a glass of vermouth, so it seemed, and he had found Melanie there. They had conversed32, and in the evening when he returned Phrosine immediately showed him to the inner room.
Two days later Burle reigned33 there supreme34; still he had not frightened the chemist, the vermicelli maker, the lawyer or the retired magistrate away. The captain, who was short and dumpy, worshiped tall, plump women. In his regiment35 he had been nicknamed “Petticoat Burle” on account of his constant philandering36. Whenever the officers, and even the privates, met some monstrous-looking creature, some giantess puffed37 out with fat, whether she were in velvet38 or in rags, they would invariably exclaim, “There goes one to Petticoat Burle’s taste!” Thus Melanie, with her opulent presence, quite conquered him. He was lost—quite wrecked39. In less than a fortnight he had fallen to vacuous40 imbecility. With much the expression of a whipped hound in the tiny sunken eyes which lighted up his bloated face, he was incessantly41 watching the widow in mute adoration42 before her masculine features and stubby hair. For fear that he might be dismissed, he put up with the presence of the other gentlemen of the divan and spent his pay in the place down to the last copper43. A sergeant44 reviewed the situation in one sentence: “Petticoat Burle is done for; he’s a buried man!”
It was nearly ten o’clock when Major Laguitte furiously flung the door of the cafe open. For a moment those inside could see the deluged45 square transformed into a dark sea of liquid mud, bubbling under the terrible downpour. The major, now soaked to the skin and leaving a stream behind him, strode up to the small counter where Phrosine was reading a novel.
“You little wretch,” he yelled, “you have dared to gammon an officer; you deserve—”
And then he lifted his hand as if to deal a blow such as would have felled an ox. The little maid shrank back, terrified, while the amazed domino players looked, openmouthed. However, the major did not linger there—he pushed the divan door open and appeared before Melanie and Burle just as the widow was playfully making the captain sip23 his grog in small spoonfuls, as if she were feeding a pet canary. Only the ex-magistrate and the chemist had come that evening, and they had retired early in a melancholy46 frame of mind. Then Melanie, being in want of three hundred francs for the morrow, had taken advantage of the opportunity to cajole the captain.
“Come.” she said, “open your mouth; ain’t it nice, you greedy piggy-wiggy?”
Burle, flushing scarlet47, with glazed48 eyes and sunken figure, was sucking the spoon with an air of intense enjoyment49.
“Good heavens!” roared the major from the threshold. “You now play tricks on me, do you? I’m sent to the roundabout and told that you never came here, and yet all the while here you are, addling50 your silly brains.”
Burle shuddered51, pushing the grog away, while Melanie stepped angrily in front of him as if to shield him with her portly fi............
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