Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George Washington Cable > Text of Taxidermist

A short story by George Washington Cable

The Taxidermist

Title:     The Taxidermist
Author: George Washington Cable [More Titles by Cable]


One day a hummingbird got caught in a cobweb in our greenhouse. It had no real need to seek that damp, artificial heat. We were in the very heart of that Creole summer-time when bird-notes are many as the sunbeams. The flowers were in such multitude they seemed to follow one about, offering their honeys and perfumes and begging to be gathered. Our little boy saw the embodied joy fall, a joy no longer, seized it, and clasping it too tightly, brought it to me dead.

He cried so over the loss that I promised to have the body stuffed. This is how I came to know Manouvrier, the Taxidermist in St. Peter Street.

I passed his place twice before I found it. The front shop was very small, dingily clean and scornfully unmercantile. Of the very few specimens of his skill to be seen round about not one was on parade, yet everyone was somehow an achievement, a happy surprise, a lasting delight. I admit that taxidermy is not classed among the fine arts; but you know there is a way of making everything--anything--an art instead of a craft or a commerce, and such was the way of this shop's big, dark, hairy-faced, shaggy-headed master. I saw his unsmiling face soften and his eye grow kind as mine lighted up with approbation of his handiwork.

When I handed him the hummingbird he held it tenderly in his wide palm, and as I was wondering to myself how so huge a hand as that could manipulate frail and tiny things and bring forth delicate results, he looked into my face and asked, with a sort of magisterial gentleness:

"How she git kill', dat lill' bird?"

I told him. I could feel my mood and words take their tone from him, though he outwardly heard me through with no show of feeling; and when I finished, I knew we were friends. I presently ventured to praise the specimen of his skill nearest at hand; a wild turkey listening alarmedly as if it would the next instant utter that ringing "quit!" which makes each separate drop of a hunter's blood tingle. But with an odd languor in his gravity, he replied:

"Naw, dass not well make; lill' bit worse, bad enough to put in front window. I take you inside; come."



We passed through into a private workroom immediately behind the shop. His wife sat there sewing; a broad, motherly woman of forty-five, fat, tranquil, kind, with an old eye, a young voice, and a face that had got its general flabbiness through much paddling and gnawing from other women's teething babes. She sat still, unintroduced, but welcomed me with a smile.

I was saying to her husband that a hummingbird was a very small thing to ask him to stuff. But he stopped me with his lifted palm.

"My fran', a hummingbird has de pas-sione'--de ecstacie! One drop of blood wid the pas-sione in it"--He waved his hand with a jerk of the thumb in disdain of spoken words, and it was I who added,

"Is bigger than the sun?"

"Hah!" was all he uttered in approval, turning as if to go to work. I feared I had disappointed him.

"God measures by the soul, not by the size," I suggested. But he would say no more, and his wife put in as softly as a kettle beginning to sing,

"Ah, ha, ha! I t'ink dass where de good God show varrie good sanse."

I began looking here and there in heartiest admiration of the products of his art and presently we were again in full sympathy and talking eagerly. As I was going he touched my arm:

"You will say de soul is parted from dat lill' bird. And--yass; but"--he let a gesture speak the rest.

"I know," replied I; "you propose to make the soul seem to come back and leave us its portrait. I believe you will." Whereupon he gave me his first, faint smile, and detained me with another touch.

"Msieu Smeet; when you was bawn?"

"I? December 9, 1844. Why do you ask?"

"O nut'n'; only I thing you make me luck; nine, h-eighteen, fawty-fo'--I play me doze number' in de lott'ree to-day."

"Why, pshaw! you don't play the lottery, do you?"

"Yass. I play her; why not? She make me reech some of doze day'. Win fifty dollah one time las' year."

The soft voice of the wife spoke up--"And spend it all to the wife of my dead brother. What use him be reech? I think he don't stoff bird' no betteh."

But the husband responded more than half to himself,

"Yass, I think mebbe I stoff him lill' more betteh."

When, some days afterward I called again, thinking as I drew near how much fineness of soul and life, seen or unseen, must have existed in earlier generations to have produced this man, I noticed the in conspicuous sign over his door, P.T.B. Manouvrier, and as he led me at once into the back room I asked him playfully what such princely abundance of initials might stand for.

"Doze? Ah, doze make only Pas-Trop-Bon."

I appealed to his wife; but she, with her placid laugh, would only confirm him:

"Yass; Pastropbon; he like that name. Tha's all de way I call him-- Pastropbon."



The hummingbird was ready for me. I will not try to tell how lifelike and beautiful the artist had made it. Even with him I took pains to be somewhat reserved. As I stood holding and admiring the small green wonder, I remarked that I was near having to bring him that morning another and yet finer bird. A shade of displeasure (and, I feared, of suspicion also) came to his face as he asked me how that was. I explained.

Going into my front hall, whose veranda-door framed in a sunny picture of orange-boughs, jasmine-vines, and white-clouded blue sky, I had found a male ruby-throat circling about the ceiling, not wise enough to stoop, fly low, and pass out by the way it had come in. It occurred to me that it might be the mate of the one already mine. For some time all the efforts I could contrive, either to capture or free it, were vain. Round and round it flew, silently beating and bruising its exquisite little head against the lofty ceiling, the glory of its luminous red throat seeming to heighten into an expression of unspeakable agony. At last Mrs. Smith ran for a long broom, and, as in her absence I stood watching the self-snared captive's struggle, the long, tiny beak which had never done worse than go twittering with rapture to the grateful hearts of thousands of flowers, began to trace along the smooth, white ceiling a scarlet thread of pure heart's blood. The broom came. I held it up, the flutterer lighted upon it, and at first slowly, warily, and then triumphantly, I lowered it under the lintel out into the veranda, and the bird darted away into the garden and was gone like a soul into heaven.

In the middle of my short recital Manouvrier had sunk down upon the arm of his wife's rocking-chair with one huge hand on both of hers folded over her sewing, and as I finished he sat motionless, still gazing into my face.

"But," I started, with sudden pretence of business impulse, "how much am I to pay?"

He rose, slowly, and looked dreamily at his wife; she smiled at him, and he grunted,


"Oh, my friend," I laughed, "that's absurd!"

But he had no reply, and his wife, as she resumed her sewing, said, sweetly, as if to her needle, "Ah, I think Pastropbon don't got to charge nut'n' if he don't feel like." And I could not move them.

As I was leaving them, a sudden conjecture came to me.

"Did those birthday numbers bring you any luck?"

The taxidermist shook his head, good-naturedly, but when his wife laughed he turned upon her.

"Wait! I dawn't be done wid doze number' yet."

I guessed that, having failed with them in the daily drawings, he would shift the figures after some notion of magical significance and venture a ticket, whole or fractional, in the monthly drawing.

Scarcely ten days after, as I sat at breakfast with my newspaper spread beside my plate, I fairly spilled my coffee as my eye fell upon the name of P.T.B. Manouvrier, of No.--St. Peter Street. Old Pastropbon had drawn seventy-five thousand dollars in the lottery.



All the first half of the day, wherever I was, in the street-car, at my counting-desk, on the exchange, no matter to what I gave my attention, my thought was ever on my friend the taxidermist. At luncheon it was the same. He was rich! And what, now? What next? And what--ah! what?-at last? Would the end be foul or fair? I hoped, yet feared. I feared again; and yet I hoped.

A familiar acquaintance, a really good fellow, decent, rich, "born of pious parents," and determined to have all the ready-made refinements and tastes that pure money could buy, came and sat with me at my lunch table.

"I wonder," he began, "if you know where you are, or what you're here for. I've been watching you for five minutes and I don't believe you do. See here; what sort of an old donkey is that bird-stuffer of yours?"

"You know, then, his good fortune of yesterday, do you?"

"No, I don't. I know my bad fortune with him last week."

I dropped my spoon into my soup. "Why, what?"

"Oh, no great shakes. Only, I went to his place to buy that wild turkey you told me about. I wanted to stand it away up on top of that beautiful old carved buffet I picked up in England last year. I was fully prepared to buy it on your say-so, but, all the same, I saw its merits the moment I set eyes on it. It has but one fault; did you notice that? I don't believe you did. I pointed it out to him."

"You pointed--what did he say?"

"He said I was right."

"Why, what was the fault?"

"Fault? Why, the perspective is bad; not exactly bad, but poor; lacks richness and rhythm."

"And yet you bought the thing."

"No, I didn't."

"You didn't buy it?"

"No, sir, I didn't buy it. I began by pricing three or four other things first, so he couldn't know which one to stick the fancy price on to, and incidentally I thought I would tell him--you'd told me, you remember, how your accounts of your two birds had warmed him up and melted his feelings----"

"I didn't tell you. My wife told your wife, and your wife, I----"

"Yes, yes. Well, anyhow, I thought I'd try the same game, so I told him how I had stuffed a bird once upon a time myself. It was a pigeon, with every feather as white as snow; a fan-tail. It had belonged to my little boy who died. I thought it would make such a beautiful emblem at his funeral, rising with wings outspread, you know, typical of the resurrection--we buried him from the Sunday-school, you remember. And so I killed it and wired it and stuffed it myself. It was hard to hang it in a soaring attitude, owing to its being a fan-tail, but I managed it."

"And you told that to Manouvrier! What did he say?"

"Say? He never so much as cracked a smile. When I'd done he stood so still, looking at me, that I turned and sort o' stroked the turkey and said, jestingly, says I, 'How much a pound for this gobbler?'"

"That ought to have warmed him up."

"Well, it didn't. He smiled like a dancing-master, lifted my hand off the bird and says, says he, 'She's not for sale.' Then he turned to go into his back room and leave me standing there. Well, that warmed _me_ up. Says I, 'What in thunder is it here for, then? and if it ain't for sale, come back here and show me what is!'

"'Nawtin',' says 'e, with the same polite smile. 'Nawtin' for sale. I come back when you gone.' His voice was sweet as sugar, but he slammed the door. I would have followed him in and put some better manners into him with a kick, but the old orang-outang had turned the key inside, and when I'd had time to remember that I was a deacon and Sunday-school teacher I walked away. What do you mean by his good fortune of yesterday?"

"I mean he struck Charlie Howard for seventy-five thousand."

My hearer's mouth dropped open. He was equally amazed and amused. "Well, well, well! That accounts for his silly high-headedness."

"Ah! no: that matter of yours was last week and the drawing was only yesterday."

"Oh, that's so. I don't keep run of that horrible lottery business. It makes me sick at heart to see the hideous canker poisoning the character and blasting the lives of every class of our people--why, don't you think so?"

"Oh, yes, I--I do. Yes, I certainly do!"

"But your conviction isn't exactly red-hot, I perceive. Come, wake up."

We rose. At the first street corner, as we were parting, I noticed he was still talking of the lottery.

"Pestilential thing," he was calling it. "Men blame it lightly on the ground that there are other forms of gambling which our laws don't reach. I suppose a tiger in a village mustn't be killed till we have killed all the tigers back in the woods!"

I assented absently and walked away full of a vague shame. For I know as well as anyone that a man without a quick, strong, aggressive, insistent indignation against undoubted evil is a very poor stick.



At dinner that evening, Mrs. Smith broke a long silence with the question:

"Did you go to see Manouvrier?"


She looked at me drolly. "Did you go half way and turn back?"

"Yes," said I, "that's precisely what I did." And we dropped the subject.

But in the night I felt her fingers softly touch my shoulder.

"Warm night," I remarked.

"Richard," said she, "it will be time enough to be troubled about your taxidermist when he's given you cause."

"I'm not troubled; I'm simply interested. I'll go down to-morrow and see him." A little later it rained, very softly, and straight down, so that there was no need to shut the windows, and I slept like an infant until the room was full of sunshine.

All the next day and evening, summer though it was and the levee and sugar sheds and cotton-yards virtually empty, I was kept by unexpected business and could not go near St. Peter Street. Both my partners were away on their vacations. But on the third afternoon our office regained its summer quiet and I was driving my pen through the last matter that prevented my going where I pleased, when I was disturbed by the announcement of a visitor. I pushed my writing on to a finish though he stood just at my back. Then I turned to bid him talk fast as my time was limited, when who should it be but Manouvrier. I took him into my private office, gave him a chair and said:

"I was just coming to see you."

"You had somet'in' to git stoff'?"

"No; I--Oh, I didn't know but you might like to see me."

"Yass?--Well--yass. I wish you come yesterday."

"Indeed? Why so; to protect you from reporters and beggars?"

"Naw; my wife she keep off all doze Peter an' John. Naw; one man bring me one wile cat to stoff. Ah! a _so_ fine as I never see! Beautiful like da dev'l! Since two day' an' night' I can't make out if I want to fix dat wile cat stan'in' up aw sittin' down!"

"Did you decide at last?"

"Yass, I dis-ide. How you think I diside?"

"Ah! you're too hard for me. But one thing I know."

"Yass? What you know?"

"That you will never do so much to anything as to leave my imagination nothing to do. You will always give my imagination strong play and never a bit of hard work."

"Come! Come and see!"

I took my hat. "Is that what you called to see me about?"

"Ah!" He started in sudden recollection and brought forth the lottery company's certified check for the seventy-five thousand dollars. "You keep dat?--lill' while?--for me? Yass; till I mek out how I goin' to spend her."

"Manouvrier, may I make one condition?"


"It is that you will never play the lottery again."

"Ah! Yass, I play her ag'in! You want know whan ole Pastropbon play her ag'in? One doze fine mawning--mebbee--dat sun--going rise hisself in de wes'. Well: when ole Pastropbon see dat, he play dat lott'ree ag'in. But biffo' he see dat"--He flirted his thumb.

Not many days later a sudden bereavement brought our junior partner back from Europe and I took my family North for a more stimulating air. Before I went I called on my St. Peter Street friend to say that during my absence either of my partners would fulfil any wish of his concerning the money. In his wife's sewing-basket in the back room I noticed a batch of unopened letters, and ventured a question which had been in my mind for several days.

"Manouvrier, you must get a host of letters these days from people who think you ought to help them because you have got money and they haven't. Do you read them?"

"Naw!" He gave me his back, bending suddenly over some real or pretended work. "I read some--first day. Since dat time I give 'em to old woman-- wash hand--go to work ag'in--naw use."

"Ah! no use?" piped up the soft-voiced wife. "I use them to light those fire to cook those soup." But I felt the absence of her accustomed laugh.

"Well, it's there whenever you want it," I said to the husband as I was leaving.

"What?" The tone of the response was harsh. "What is where?"

"Why, the money. It's in the bank."

"Hah!" he said, with a contemptuous smile and finished with his thumb. That was the first time I ever saw a thumb swear. But in a moment his kindly gravity was on him again and he said, "Daz all right; I come git her some day."



I did not get back to New Orleans till late in the fall. In the office they told me that Manouvrier had been in twice to see if I had returned, and they had promised to send him word of my arrival. But I said no, and went to see him.

I found new lines of care on his brow, but the old kindness was still in his eye. We exchanged a few words of greeting and inquiry, and then there came a pause, which I broke.

"Well, stuffing birds better than ever, I suppose."

"Naw," he looked around upon his work, "I dawn't think. I dunno if I stoff him quite so good like biffo'." Another pause. Then, "I think I mek out what I do wid doze money now."

"Indeed," said I, and noticed that his face was averted from his wife.

She lifted her eyes to his broad back with a quizzical smile, glanced at me knowingly, and dropped them again upon her sewing, sighed:

"Ah-bah!" Then she suddenly glanced at me with a pretty laugh and added, "Since all that time he dunno what he goin' to make with it. If he trade with it I thing he don't stoff bird no mo', and I thing he lose it bis-ide--ha, ha, ha!--and if he keep it all time lock in doze bank I thing, he jiz well not have it." She laughed again.

But he quite ignored her and resumed, as if out of a revery, "Yass, at de las' I mek dat out." And the wife interrupted him in a tone that was like the content of a singing hen.

"I think it don't worth while to leave it to our chillun, en't it?"

"Ah!" said the husband, entirely to me, "daz de troub'! You see?--we dawn't got some ba-bee'! Dat neveh arrive to her. God know' dass not de fault of us."

"Yass," put in his partner, smiling to her needle, "the good God know' that verrie well." And the pair exchanged a look of dove-like fondness.

"Yass," Manouvrier mused aloud once more, "I think I build my ole woman one fine house."

"Ah! I don't want!"

"But yass! Foudre tonnerre! how I goin' spend her else? w'iskee? hosses? women? what da dev'l! Naw, I build a fine 'ouse. You see! she want dat house bad enough when she see her. Yass; fifty t'ousan' dollah faw house and twenty-five t'ousan'"--he whisked his thumb at me and I said for him,

"Yes, twenty-five thousand at interest to keep up the establishment."

"Yass. Den if Pastropbon go first to dat boneyard--" And out went his thumb again, while his hairy lip curled at the grim prospect of beating Fate the second time, and as badly, in the cemetery, as the first time, in the lottery.

He built the house--farther down town and much farther from the river. Both husband and wife found a daily delight in watching its slow rise and progress. In the room behind the shop he still plied his art and she her needle as they had done all their married life, with never an inroad upon their accustomed hours except the calls of the shop itself; but on every golden morning of that luxurious summer-land, for a little while before the carpenters and plasterers arrived and dragged off their coats, the pair spent a few moments wandering through and about the building together, she with her hen-like crooning, he with his unsmiling face.

Yet they never showed the faintest desire to see the end. The contractor dawdled by the month. I never saw such dillydallying. They only abetted it, and when once he brought an absurd and unasked-for excuse to the taxidermist's shop, its proprietor said--first shutting the door between them and the wife in the inner room:

"Tek yo' time. Mo' sloweh she grow, mo' longeh she stan'."

I doubt that either Manouvrier or his wife hinted to the other the true reason for their apathy. But I guessed it, only too easily, and felt its pang. It was that with the occupancy and care of the house must begin the wife's absence from her old seat beside her husband at his work.

Another thing troubled me. I did persuade him to put fittings into his cistern which fire-engines could use in case of emergency, but he would not insure the building.

"Naw! Luck bring me dat--I let luck take care of her."

"Ah! yass," chimed the wife, "yet still I think mebbee the good God tell luck where to bring her. I'm shoe he got fing-er in that pie."

"Ah-ha? Daz all right! If God want to burn his own fing-er----"

At length the house was finished and was beautiful within and without. It was of two and a half stories, broad and with many rooms. Two spacious halls crossed each other, and there were wide verandas front and back, and a finished and latticed basement. The basement and the entire grounds, except a few bright flower-borders, were flagged, as was also the sidewalk, with the manufactured stone which in that nearly frostless climate makes such a perfect and beautiful pavement, and on this fair surface fell the large shadows of laburnum, myrtle, orange, oleander, sweet-olive, mespelus, and banana, which the taxidermist had not spared expense to transplant here in the leafy prime of their full growth.

Then almost as slowly the dwelling was furnished. In this the brother-in- law's widow co-operated, and when it was completed Manouvrier suggested her living in it a few days so that his wife might herself move in as leisurely as she chose. And six months later, there, in the old back room in St. Peter Street, the wife still sat sewing and now and then saying small, wise, dispassionate things to temper the warmth of her partner's more artistic emotions. Every fair day, about the hour of sunset, they went to see the new house. It was plain they loved it; loved it only less than their old life; but only the brother-in-law's widow lived in it.




I happened about this time to be acting as president of an insurance company on Canal Street. Summer was coming in again. One hot sunny day, when the wind was high and gusty, the secretary was remarking to me what sad ruin it might work if fire should start among the frame tenement cottages which made up so many neighborhoods that were destitute of watermains, when right at our ear the gong sounded for just such a region and presently engine after engine came thundering and smoking by our open windows. Fire had broken out in the street where Manouvrier's new house stood, four squares from that house, but straight to windward of it.

We knew only too well, without being there to witness, that our firemen would find nothing with which to fight the flames except a few shallow wells of surface water and the wooden rain-water cisterns above ground, and that both these sources were almost worthless owing to a drouth. A man came in and sat telling me of his new device for lessening the risks of fire.

"Where?" asked I, quickly.

"Why, as I was saying, on steamboats loaded with cotton."

"Oh, yes," said I, "I understand." But I did not. For the life of me I couldn't make sense of what he said. I kept my eyes laboriously in his face, but all I could see was a vision of burning cottages; hook-and- ladder-men pulling down sheds and fences; ruined cisterns letting just enough water into door-yards and street-gutters to make sloppy walking; fire-engines standing idle and dropping cinders into their own puddles in a kind of shame for their little worth; here and there one furiously sucking at an exhausted well while its firemen stood with scorching faces holding the nozzles almost in the flames and cursing the stream of dribbling mud that fell short of their gallant endeavor. I seemed to see streets populous with the sensation-seeking crowd; sidewalks and alleys filled with bedding, chairs, bureaus, baskets of crockery and calico clothing with lamps spilling into them, cheap looking-glasses unexpectedly answering your eye with the boldness of an outcast girl, broken tables, pictures of the Virgin, overturned stoves, and all the dear mantlepiece trash which but an hour before had been the pride of the toiling housewife, and the adornment of the laborer's home.

"Where can I see this apparatus?" I asked my patient interviewer.

"Well--ahem! it isn't what you'd call an apparatus, exactly. I have here----"

"Yes; never mind that just now; I'm satisfied you've got a good thing and --I'll tell you! Can you come in to-morrow at this hour? Good! I wish you would! Well, good-day."

The secretary was waiting to speak to me. The fire, he said, had entirely burned up one square and was half through a second. "By the way, isn't that the street where old P.T.B.----"

"Yes," I replied, taking my hat; "if anyone wants to see me, you'd better tell him to call to-morrow."

I found the shop in St. Peter's Street shut, and went on to the new residence. As I came near it, its beauty seemed to me to have consciously increased under the threatenings of destruction.

In the front gate stood the brother-in-law's widow, full of gestures and distressful smiles as she leaned out with nervously folded arms and looked up and down the street. "Manouvrier? he is ad the fire since a whole hour. He will break his heart if dat fire ketch to dat 'ouse here. He cannot know 'ow 'tis in danger! Ah! sen' him word? I sen' him fo' five time'--he sen' back I stay righd there an' not touch nut'n'! Ah! my God! I fine dat varrie te-de-ous, me, yass!"

"Is his wife with him?"

"Assuredly! You see, dey git 'fraid 'bout dat 'ouse of de Sister', you know?"

"No, where is it?"

"No? You dunno dat lill' 'ouse where de Sister' keep dose orphelin' ba-bee'?-juz big-inning sinse 'bout two week' ago?-round de corner--one square mo' down town--'alf square mo' nearer de swamp? Well, I thing 'f you pass yondeh you fine Pastropbon."



Through smoke, under falling cinders, and by distracted and fleeing households I went. The moment I turned the second corner I espied the house. It was already half a square from the oncoming fire, but on the northern side of the street, just out of its probable track and not in great danger except from sparks. But it was old and roofed with shingles; a decrepit Creole cottage sitting under dense cedars in a tangle of rose and honeysuckle vines, and strangely beautified by a flood of smoke-dimmed yellow sunlight.

As I hurried forward, several men and boys came from the opposite direction at a run and an engine followed them, jouncing and tilting across the sidewalk opposite the little asylum, into a yard, to draw from a fresh well. Their leader was a sight that drew all eyes. He was coatless and hatless; his thin cotton shirt, with its sleeves rolled up to the elbows, was torn almost off his shaggy breast, his trousers were drenched with water and a rude bandage round his head was soaked with blood. He carried an axe. The throng shut him from my sight, but I ran to the spot and saw him again standing before the engine horses with his back close to their heads. A strong, high board fence shut them off from the well and against it stood the owner of the property, pale as death, guarding the precious water with a shotgun at full cock. I heard him say:

"The first fellow that touches this fence----"

But he did not finish. Quicker than his gun could flash and bang harmlessly in the air the man before him had dropped the axe and leaped upon him with the roar of a lion. The empty gun flew one way and its owner another and almost before either struck the ground the axe was swinging and crashing into the fence.

As presently the engine rolled through the gap and shouting men backed her to the edge of the well, the big axeman paused to wipe the streaming sweat from his begrimed face with his arm. I clutched him.


A smile of recognition shone for an instant and vanished as I added,

"Come to your own house! Come, you can't save it here."

He turned a quick, wild look at the fire, seized me by the arm and with a gaze of deepest gratitude, asked:

"You tryin' save her?"

"I'll do anything I can."

"Oh, dass right!" His face was full of mingled joy and pain. "You go yondeh--mek yo' possible!" We were hurrying to the street--"Oh, yass, faw God's sake go, mek yo' possible!"

"But, Manouvrier, you must come too! Where's your wife? The chief danger to your house isn't here, it's where the fire's between it and the wind!"

His answer was a look of anguish. "Good God! my fran'. We come yondeh so quick we can! But--foudre tonnerre!--look that house here fill' with ba-bee'! What we goin' do? Those Sister' can't climb on roof with bocket' wateh. You see I got half-dozen boy' up yondeh; if I go 'way they dis-cend and run off at the fire, spark' fall on roof an'--" his thumb flew out.

"Sparks! Heavens! Manouvrier, your house is in the path of the _flames!_"

The man flew at me and hung over me, his strong locks shaking, his great black fist uplifted and the only tears in his eyes I ever saw there. "Damnession! She's not mine! I trade her to God faw these one! Go! tell him she's his, he kin burn her if he feel like'!" He gave a half laugh, fresh witness of his distress, and went into the gate of the asylum.

I smiled--what could I do?--and was turning away, when I saw the chief of the fire department. It took but one moment to tell him my want, and in another he had put the cottage roof under the charge of four of his men with instructions not to leave it till the danger was past or the house burning. The engine near us had drawn the well dry and was coming away. He met it, pointed to where, beneath swirling billows of black smoke, the pretty gable of the taxidermist's house shone like a white sail against a thundercloud, gave orders and disappeared.

The street was filling with people. A row of cottages across the way was being emptied. The crackling flames were but half a square from Manouvrier's house. I called him once more to come. He waved his hand kindly to imply that he knew what I had done. He and his wife were in the Sisters' front garden walk conversing eagerly with the Mother Superior. They neared the gate. Suddenly the Mother Superior went back, the lay-sister guarding the gate let the pair out and the three of us hurried off together.

We found ourselves now in the uproar and vortex of the struggle. Only at intervals could we take our attention from the turmoil that impeded or threatened us, to glance forward at the white gable or back--as Manouvrier persisted in doing--to the Sisters' cottage. Once I looked behind and noticed, what I was loath to tell, that the firemen on its roof had grown busy; but as I was about to risk the truth, the husband and wife, glancing at their own roof, in one breath groaned aloud. Its gleaming gable had begun to smoke.

"Ah! that good God have pity on uz!" cried the wife, in tears, but as she started to run forward I caught her arm and bade her look again. A strong, white stream of water was falling on the smoking spot and it smoked no more.

The next minute, with scores of others, choking and blinded with the smoke, we were flying from the fire. The wind had turned.

"It is only a gust," I cried, "it will swing round again. We must turn the next corner and reach the house from the far side." I glanced back to see why my companions lagged and lo! they had vanished.



I reached the house just in time to save its front grounds from the invasion of the rabble. The wind had not turned back again. The brother-in law's widow was offering prayers of thanksgiving. The cisterns were empty and the garden stood glistening in the afternoon sun like a May queen drenched in tears; but the lovely spot was saved.

I left its custodian at an upper window, looking out upon the fire, and started once more to find my friends. Half-way round to the Sisters' cottage I met them. With many others I stepped aside to make a clear way for the procession they headed. The sweet, clean wife bore in her arms an infant; the tattered, sooty, bloody-headed husband bore two; and after them, by pairs and hand in hand, with one gray sister in the rear, came a score or more of pink-frocked, motherless little girls. An amused rabble of children and lads hovered about the diminutive column, with leers and jests and happy antics, and the wife smiled foolishly and burned red with her embarrassment; but in the taxidermist's face shone an exaltation of soul greater than any I had ever seen. I felt too petty for such a moment and hoped he would go by without seeing me; but he smiled an altogether new smile and said,

"My fran', God A'mighty, he know a good bargain well as anybody!"

I ran ahead with no more shame of the crowd than Zaccheus of old. I threw open the gate, bounded up the steps and spread wide the door. In the hall, the widow, knowing naught of this, met me with wet eyes crying,

"Ah! ah! de 'ouse of de orphelin' is juz blaze' up h-all over h-at once!" and hushed in amazement as the procession entered the gate.

P.T.B. Manouvrier, Taxidermist!

When the fire was out the owner of that sign went back to his shop and to his work, and his wife sat by him sewing as before. But the orphans stayed in their new and better home. Two or three years ago the Sisters--the brother-in-law's widow is one of them--built a large addition behind; but the house itself stands in the beauty in which it stood on that day of destruction, and my friend always leaves his work on balmy afternoons in time to go with his wife and see that pink procession, four times as long now as it was that day, march out the gate and down the street for its daily walk.

"Ah! Pastropbon, we got ba-bee' enough presently, en't it?"

"Ole woman, nobody else ever strock dat lott'ree for such a prize like dat."

[The end]
George Washington Cable's short story: The Taxidermist