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"Sir," said he to me, "are two Frenchmen going all the way from Baku to Pekin without making each other's acquaintance?"
"Sir," I replied, "when I meet a compatriot--"
"Who is a Parisian--"
"And consequently a Frenchman twice over," I added, "I am only too glad to shake hands with him! And so, Monsieur Caterna--"
"You know my name?"
"As you know mine, I am sure."
"Of course, Monsieur Claudius Bombarnac, correspondent of the _Twentieth Century_."
"At your service, believe me."
"A thousand thanks, Monsieur Bombarnac, and even ten thousand, as they say in China, whither Madame Caterna and I are bound."
"To appear at Shanghai in the French troupe at the residency as--"
"You know all that, then?"
"I may add, from sundry nautical phrases I have noticed, that you have been to sea."
"I believe you, sir. Formerly coxswain of Admiral de Boissondy's launch on board the _Redoubtable_."
"Then I beg to ask why you, a sailor, did not go by way of the sea?"
"Ah, there it is, Monsieur Bombarnac. Know that Madame Caterna, who is incontestably the first leading lady of the provinces, and there is not one to beat her as a waiting maid or in a man's part, cannot stand the sea. And when I heard of the Grand Transasiatic, I said to her, 'Be easy, Caroline! Do not worry yourself about the perfidious element. We will cross Russia, Turkestan, and China, without leaving _terra firma_!' And that pleased her, the little darling, so brave and so devoted, so--I am at a loss for a word--well, a lady who will play the duenna in case of need, rather than leave the manager in a mess! An artiste, a true artiste!"
It was a pleasure to listen to Caterna; he was in steam, as the engineer says, and the only thing to do was to let him blow off. Surprising as it may seem, he adored his wife, and I believe she was equally fond of him. A well-matched couple, evidently, from what I learned from my comedian, never embarrassed, very wide awake, content with his lot, liking nothing so much as the theater--above all the provincial theater--where he and his wife had played in drama, vaudeville, comedy, operetta, opera comique, opera, spectacle, pantomime, happy in the entertainment which began at five o'clock in the afternoon and ended at one o'clock in the morning, in the grand theaters of the chief cities, in the saloon of the mayor, in the barn of the village, without boots, without patches, without orchestra, sometimes even without spectators--thus saving the return of the money--professionals fit for anything, no matter what.
As a Parisian, Caterna must have been the wag of the forecastle when he was at sea. As clever with his instrument of brass or wood, he possessed a most varied and complete assortment of jokes, songs, monologues, and dialogues. This he told me with an immense amount of attitude and gesture, now here, now there, legs, arms, hands, and feet all going together. I should never feel dull in the company of such a merry companion.