Sunday, July 29, 2012

Clouds of Witness ch 5 cont


                The young lady had been charmingly sympathetic, and, without actually insinuating anything, had contrived to make her customer feel just a little bit of a dog. He felt that his French accent was improving. The street was crowded with people, slowly sauntering past the brilliant shop windows. Mr. Parker stopped and gazed nonchalantly over a gorgeous display of jewelery, as though hesitating between a pearl necklace valued at 80,000 francs and a pendant of diamonds and aquamarines set in platinum.

                And there, balefully winking at him from under a label inscribed “Bonne fortune” hung a green-eyed cat.

                The cat stared at Mr. Parker, and Mr. Parker stared at the cat. It was no ordinary cat. It was a cat with a personality. Its tiny arched body sparkled with diamonds, and its platinum paws, set close together, and its erect and glittering tail were instinct in every line with the sensuous delight of friction against some beloved object. Its head, cocked slightly to one side, seemed to demand a titillating finger under the jaw. It was a minute work of art, by no journeyman hand. Mr. Parker fished in his pocket-book. He looked from the cat in his hand to the cat in the window. They were alike. They were astonishingly alike. They were identical. Mr. Parker marched into the shop.

                “I have here,” said Mr. Parker to the young man at the counter, “a diamond cat which greatly resembles one which I perceive in your window. Could you have the obligingness to inform me what would be the value of such a cat?”

                The young man replied instantly:

                “But certainly, monsieur. The price of the cat is 5,000 francs. It is, as you perceive, made of the finest materials. Moreover, it is the work of an artist; it is worth more than the market value of the stones.”
                “It is, I suppose, a mascot?”

                “Yes, monsieur; it brings great good luck, especially at cards. Many ladies buy these little objects. We have here other mascots, but all of this special design are of similar quality and price. Monsieur may rest assured that his cat is a cat of pedigree.”
The clerk is making a play on words. Pedigree is usually used for animals and humans. She's using it to refer to a piece of jewelry.
In England and Wales pedigrees are officially recorded in the College of Arms, which has records going back to the Middle Ages, including pedigrees collected during roving inquiries by its heralds during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The purpose of these heraldic visitations was to register and regulate the use of coats of arms. Those who claimed the right to bear arms had to provide proof either of a grant of arms to them by the College, or of descent from an ancestor entitled to arms. It was for this reason that pedigrees were recorded by the visitations. Pedigrees continue to be registered at the College of Arms and kept up to date on a voluntary basis but they are not accessible to the general public without payment of a fee.

More visible, therefore, are the pedigrees recorded in published works, such as Burke's Peerage and Burke's Landed Gentry in the United Kingdom and, in continental Europe by the Almanach de Gotha.  
 “I suppose that such cats are everywhere obtainable in Paris,” said Mr. Parker nonchalantly.

                “But no, monsieur. If you desire to match your cat I recommend you to do it quickly. Monsieur Briquet had only a score of these cats to begin with, and there are now only three left, including the one in the window. I believe that he will not make any more. To repeat a thing often is to vulgarize it. There will, of course, be other cats——”

                “I don't want another cat,” said Mr. Parker, suddenly interested. “Do I understand you to say that cats such as this are only sold by Monsieur Briquet? That my cat originally came from this shop?”
 
                “Undoubtedly, monsieur, it is one of our cats. These little animals are made by a workman of ours—a genius who is responsible for many of our finest articles.”

                “It would, I imagine, be impossible to find out to whom this cat was originally sold?”

                “If it was sold over the counter for cash it would be difficult, but if it was entered in our books it might not be impossible to discover, if monsieur desired it.”

                “I do desire it very much,” said Parker, producing his card. “I am an agent of the British police, and it is of great importance that I should know to whom this cat originally belonged.”

                “In that case,” said the young man, “I shall do better to inform monsieur the proprietor.”
                He carried away the card into the back premises, and presently emerged with a stout gentleman, whom he introduced as Monsieur Briquet.

                In Monsieur Briquet's private office the books of the establishment were brought out and laid on the desk.
                “You will understand, monsieur,” said Monsieur Briquet, “that I can only inform you of the names and addresses of such purchasers of these cats as have had an account sent them. It is, however, unlikely that an object of such value was paid for in cash. Still, with rich Anglo-Saxons, such an incident may occur.
                 We need not go back further than the beginning of the year, when these cats were made.” He ran a podgy finger down the pages of the ledger. “The first purchase was on January 19th.”

                Mr. Parker noted various names and addresses, and at the end of half an hour Monsieur Briquet said in a final manner:

                “That is all, monsieur. How many names have you there?”

                “Thirteen,” said Parker.

                “And there are still three cats in stock—the original number was twenty—so that four must have been sold for cash. If monsieur wishes to verify the matter we can consult the day-book.”
In the 1920s, there were no computers and cash registers were expensive. Shops such as this would write down each purchase, with one page a day.
                The search in the day-book was longer and more tiresome, but eventually four cats were duly found to have been sold; one on January 31st, another on February 6th, the third on May 17th, and the last on August 9th.

                Mr. Parker had risen, and embarked upon a long string of compliments and thanks, when a sudden association of ideas and dates prompted him to hand Cathcart's photograph to Monsieur Briquet and ask whether he recognized it.

                Monsieur Briquet shook his head.

                “I am sure he is not one of our regular customers,” he said, “and I have a very good memory for faces. I make a point of knowing anyone who has any considerable account with me. And this gentleman has not everybody's face. But we will ask my assistants.”

                The majority of the staff failed to recognize the photograph, and Parker was on the point of putting it back in his pocket-book when a young lady, who had just finished selling an engagement ring to an obese and elderly Jew, arrived, and said, without any hesitation:

                “Mais oui, je l'ai vu, ce monsieur-là. It is the Englishman who bought a diamond cat for the jolie blonde.”

                “Mademoiselle,” said Parker eagerly, “I beseech you to do me the favour to remember all about it.”

                “Parfaitement,” said she. “It is not the face one would forget, especially when one is a woman. The gentleman bought a diamond cat and paid for it—no, I am wrong. It was the lady who bought it, and I remember now to have been surprised that she should pay like that at once in money, because ladies do not usually carry such large sums. The gentleman bought too. He bought a diamond and tortoiseshell comb for the lady to wear, and then she said she must give him something pour porter bonheur, and asked me for a mascot that was good for cards. I showed her some jewels more suitable for a gentleman, but she saw these cats and fell in love with them, and said he should have a cat and nothing else; she was sure it would bring him good hands. She asked me if it was not so, and I said, 'Undoubtedly, and monsieur must be sure never to play without it,' and he laughed very much, and promised always to have it upon him when he was playing.”
                “And how was she, this lady?”

                “Blonde, monsieur, and very pretty; rather tall and svelte, and very well dressed. A big hat and dark blue costume. Quoi encore? Voyons—yes, she was a foreigner.”

                “English?”

                “I do not know. She spoke French very, very well, almost like a French person, but she had just the little suspicion of accent.”

                “What language did she speak with the gentleman?”

                “French, monsieur. You see, we were speaking together, and they both appealed to me continually, and so all the talk was in French. The gentleman spoke French à merveille, it was only by his clothes and a je ne sais quoi in his appearance that I guessed he was English. The lady spoke equally fluently, but one remarked just the accent from time to time. Of course, I went away from them once or twice to get goods from the window, and they talked then; I do not know in what language.”

                “Now, mademoiselle, can you tell me how long ago this was?”

                “Ah, mon Dieu, ça c'est plus difficile. Monsieur sait que les jours se suivent et se ressemblent. Voyons.”

                “We can see by the day-book,” put in Monsieur Briquet, “on what occasion a diamond comb was sold with a diamond cat.”

                “Of course,” said Parker hastily. “Let us go back.”

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