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.
"And where were you before you left France?" I asked.
"At La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, where Madame Caterna achieved a genuine success as Elsa in 'Lohengrin,' which we played without music. But it is an interesting piece, and it was well done."
"You must have been a good deal about the world, Monsieur Caterna?"
"I believe you; Russia, England, both Americas. Ah! Monsieur Claudius."
He already called me Claudius.
"Ah! Monsieur Claudius, there was a time when I was the idol of Buenos Ayres, and the pet of Rio Janeiro! Do not think I would tell you an untruth! No! I know myself. Bad at Paris, I am excellent in the provinces. In Paris you play for yourself; in the provinces you play for the others! And then what a repertory!"
"My compliments, my dear compatriot!"
"I accept them, Monsieur Claudius, for I like my trade. What would you haye? All the world cannot expect to be a senator or--a special correspondent."
"There, that is wicked, Monsieur Caterna," said I, with a laugh.
"No; it is the last word."
And while the unwearied actor ran on in this way, stations appeared one after the other between the shrieks of the whistle, Kulka, Nisachurch, Kulla Minor and others, not particularly cheerful to look at; then Bairam Ali at the seven hundred and ninety-fifth verst and Kourlan Kala at the eight hundred and fifteenth.
"And to tell you the truth," continued Caterna, "we have made a little money by going about from town to town. At the bottom of our boxes are a few Northern debentures, of which I think a good deal, and take much care, and they have been honestly got, Monsieur Claudius. Although we live under a democratic government, the rule of equality, the time is still far off when you will see the noble father dining beside the prefect at the table of the judge of appeal, and the actress open the ball with the prefect at the house of the general-in-chief! Well! We can dine and dance among ourselves--"
"And be just as happy, Monsieur Caterna."
"Certainly no less, Monsieur Claudius," replied the future premier comic of Shanghai, shaking an imaginary frill with the graceful ease of one of Louis XV.'s noblemen.
At this point, Madame Caterna came up. She was in every way worthy of her husband, sent into the world to reply to him in life as on the stage, one of those genial theater folks, born one knows not where or how, but thoroughly genuine and good-natured.