At the Sign of the Cat & Racket
by Balzac

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Etext prepared by Dagny,
and John Bickers,

At the Sign of the Cat and Racket

by Honore de Balzac

Translated by Clara Bell


To Mademoiselle Marie de Montheau


Half-way down the Rue Saint-Denis, almost at the corner of the Rue du
Petit-Lion, there stood formerly one of those delightful houses which
enable historians to reconstruct old Paris by analogy. The threatening
walls of this tumbledown abode seemed to have been decorated with
hieroglyphics. For what other name could the passer-by give to the Xs
and Vs which the horizontal or diagonal timbers traced on the front,
outlined by little parallel cracks in the plaster? It was evident that
every beam quivered in its mortices at the passing of the lightest
vehicle. This venerable structure was crowned by a triangular roof of
which no example will, ere long, be seen in Paris. This covering,
warped by the extremes of the Paris climate, projected three feet over
the roadway, as much to protect the threshold from the rainfall as to
shelter the wall of a loft and its sill-less dormer-window. This upper
story was built of planks, overlapping each other like slates, in
order, no doubt, not to overweight the frail house.

One rainy morning in the month of March, a young man, carefully
wrapped in his cloak, stood under the awning of a shop opposite this
old house, which he was studying with the enthusiasm of an antiquary.
In point of fact, this relic of the civic life of the sixteenth
century offered more than one problem to the consideration of an
observer. Each story presented some singularity; on the first floor
four tall, narrow windows, close together, were filled as to the lower
panes with boards, so as to produce the doubtful light by which a
clever salesman can ascribe to his goods the color his customers
inquire for. The young man seemed very scornful of this part of the
house; his eyes had not yet rested on it. The windows of the second
floor, where the Venetian blinds were drawn up, revealing little dingy
muslin curtains behind the large Bohemian glass panes, did not
interest him either. His attention was attracted to the third floor,
to the modest sash-frames of wood, so clumsily wrought that they might
have found a place in the Museum of Arts and Crafts to illustrate the
early efforts of French carpentry. These windows were glazed with
small squares of glass so green that, but for his good eyes, the young
man could not have seen the blue-checked cotton curtains which
screened the mysteries of the room from profane eyes. Now and then the
watcher, weary of his fruitless contemplation, or of the silence in
which the house was buried, like the whole neighborhood, dropped his
eyes towards the lower regions. An involuntary smile parted his lips
each time he looked at the shop, where, in fact, there were some
laughable details.