There was nothing for it but to submit with a sigh to the ensuing hullabaloo. Rateau, somnolent and pacific in his lodge, became a demon when he got a broom in his hand. In this sedentary being, who could drowse all morning in the stale basement atmosphere heavy with the cumulative aroma of many meat-stews, a martial ardour, a warlike ferocity, then asserted themselves, and like a red revolutionary he assaulted the bed, charged the chairs, manhandled the picture frames, knocked the tables over, rattled the water pitcher, and whirled Durtal’s brogues about by the laces as when a pillaging conqueror hauls a ravished victim along by the hair. So he stormed the apartment like a barricade and triumphantly brandished his battle standard, the dust rag, over the reeking carnage of the furniture.
Durtal at such times sought refuge in the room which was not being attacked. Today Rateau launched his offensive against the workroom, so Durtal fled to the bedroom. From there, through the half open door, he could see the enemy, with a feather duster like a Mohican war bonnet over his head, doing a scalp dance around a table.
“If I only knew at what time that pest would break in on me so I could always arrange to be out!” groaned Durtal. Now he ground his teeth, as Rateau, with a yell, grabbed up the mop and, skating around on one leg, belaboured the floor lustily.
The perspiring conqueror then appeared in the doorway and advanced to reduce the chamber where Durtal was. The latter had to return to the subjugated workroom, and the cat, shocked by the racket, arched its back and, rubbing against its master’s legs, followed him to a place of safety.
In the thick of the conflict Des Hermies rang the door bell.
“I’ll put on my shoes,” cried Durtal, “and we’ll get out of this. Look—” he passed his hand over the table and brought back a coat of grime that made him appear to be wearing a grey glove—“look. That brute turns the house upside down and knocks everything to pieces, and here’s the result. He leaves more dust when he goes than he found when he came in!”
“Bah,” said Des Hermies, “dust isn’t a bad thing. Besides having the taste of ancient biscuit and the smell of an old book, it is the floating velvet which softens hard surfaces, the fine dry wash which takes the garishness out of crude colour schemes. It is the caparison of abandon, the veil of oblivion. Who, then, can despise it—aside from certain persons whose lamentable lot must often have wrung a tear from you?
“Imagine living in one of these Paris passages. Think of a consumptive spitting blood and suffocating in a room one flight up, behind the ‘ass-back’ gables of, say the passage des Panoramas, for instance. When the window is open the dust comes in impregnated with snuff and saturated with clammy exudations. The invalid, choking, begs for air, and in order that he may breathe the window is closed.