THERE WAS A MASQUERADE ball at the Elysée-Montmartre that evening. It was the ‘Mi-Carême,’ and the crowds were pouring into the brightly lighted passage which leads to the dance ball, like water flowing through the open lock of a canal. The loud call of the orchestra, bursting like a storm of sound, shook the rafters, swelled through the whole neighbourhood and awoke, in the streets and in the depths of the houses, an irresistible desire to jump, to get warm, to have fun, which slumbers within each human animal.
The patrons came from every quarter of Paris; there were people of all classes who love noisy pleasures, a little low and tinged with debauch. There were clerks and girls – girls of every description, some wearing common cotton, some the finest batiste; rich girls, old and covered with diamonds, and poor girls of sixteen, full of the desire to revel, to belong to men, to spend money. Elegant black evening suits, in search of fresh or faded but appetising novelty, wandering through the excited crowds, looking, searching, while the masqueraders seemed moved above all by the desire for amusement. Already the far-famed quadrilles had attracted around them a curious crowd. The moving hedge which encircled the four dancers swayed in and out like a snake, sometimes nearer and sometimes farther away, according to the motions of the performers. The two women, whose lower limbs seemed to be attached to their bodies by rubber springs, were making wonderful and surprising motions with their legs. Their partners hopped and skipped about, waving their arms about. One could imagine their panting breath beneath their masks.
One of them, who had taken his place in the most famous quadrille, as substitute for an absent celebrity, the handsome ‘Songe-au-Gosse,’ was trying to keep up with the tireless ‘Arête-de-Veau’ and was making strange fancy steps which aroused the joy and sarcasm of the audience.
He was thin, dressed like a dandy, with a pretty varnished mask on his face. It had a curly blond moustache and a wavy wig. He looked like a wax figure from the Musée Grévin, like a strange and fantastic caricature of the charming young man of fashion plates, and he danced with visible effort, clumsily, with a comical impetuosity. He appeared rusty beside the others when he tried to imitate their gambols: he seemed overcome by rheumatism, as heavy as a great Dane playing with greyhounds. Mocking bravos encouraged him. And he, carried away with enthusiasm, jigged about with such frenzy that suddenly, carried away by a wild spurt, he pitched head foremost into the living wall formed by the audience, which opened up before him to allow him to pass, then closed around the inanimate body of the dancer, stretched out on his face.
Some men picked him up and carried him away, calling for a doctor. A gentleman stepped forward, young and elegant, in well-fitting evening clothes, with large pearl studs. ‘I am a professor of the Faculty of Medicine,’ he said in a modest voice. He was allowed to pass, and he entered a small room full of little cardboard boxes, where the still lifeless dancer had been stretched cut on some chairs. The doctor at first wished to take off the mask, and he noticed that it was attached in a complicated manner, with a perfect network of small metal wires which cleverly bound it to his wig and covered the whole head. Even the neck was imprisoned in a false skin which continued the chin and was painted the colour of flesh, being attached to the collar of the shirt.
All this had to be cut with strong scissors. When the physician had slit open this surprising arrangement, from the shoulder to the temple, he opened this armour and found the face of an old man, worn out, thin and wrinkled. The surprise among those who had brought in this seemingly young dancer was so great that no one laughed, no one said a word.
All were watching this sad face as he lay on the straw chairs, his eyes closed, his face covered with white hair, some long, falling from the forehead over the face, others short, growing around the face and the chin, and beside this poor head, that pretty little, neat varnished, smiling mask.
The man regained consciousness after being inanimate for a long time, but he still seemed to be so weak and sick that the physician feared some dangerous complication. He asked: ‘Where do you live?’
The old dancer seemed to be making an effort to remember, and then he mentioned the name of the street, which no one knew. He was asked for more definite information about the neighbourhood. He answered with a great slowness, indecision and difficulty, which revealed his upset state of mind. The physician continued:
‘I will take you home myself.’
Curiosity had overcome him to find out who this strange dancer, this phenomenal jumper might be. Soon the two rolled away in a cab to the other side of Montmartre.
They stopped before a high building of poor appearance. They went up a winding staircase. The doctor held to the banister, which was so grimy that the hand stuck to it, and he supported the dizzy old man, whose forces were beginning to return. They stopped at the fourth floor.
The door at which they had knocked was opened by an old woman, neat looking, with a white nightcap enclosing a thin face with sharp features, one of those good, rough faces of a hard-working and faithful woman. She cried out:
‘For goodness sake! What’s the matter?’
He told her the whole affair in a few words. She became reassured and even calmed the physician himself by telling him that the same thing had happened many times. She said: ‘He must be put to bed, monsieur, that is all. Let him sleep and tomorrow he will be all right.’
The doctor continued: ‘But he can hardly speak.’
‘Oh! that’s just a little drink, nothing more; he has eaten no dinner, in order to be nimble, and then he took a few absinthes in order to work himself up to the proper pitch. You see, drink gives strength to his legs, but it stops his thoughts and words. He is too old to dance as he does. Really, his lack of common sense is enough to drive one mad!’
The doctor, surprised, insisted:
‘But why does he dance like that at his age?’
She shrugged her shoulders and turned red from the anger which was slowly rising within her and she cried out:
‘Ah! yes, why? So that the people will think him young under his mask; so that the women will still take him for a young dandy and whisper nasty things into his ears; so that he can rub up against all their dirty skins, with their perfumes and powders and cosmetics. Ah! it’s a fine business! What a life I have had for the last forty years! But we must first get him to bed, so that he may have no ill effects. Would you mind helping me? When he is like that I can’t do anything with him alone.’
The old man was sitting on his bed, with a tipsy look, his long white hair falling over his face. His companion looked at him with tender yet indignant eyes. She continued:
‘Just see the fine head he has for his age, and yet he has to go and disguise himself in order to make people think that he is young. It’s a perfect shame! Really, he has a fine head, monsieur! Wait, I’ll show it to you before putting him to bed.’
She went to a table on which stood the washbasin a pitcher of water, soap and a comb and brush. She took the brush, returned to the bed and pushed back the drunkard’s tangled hair. In a few seconds she made him look like a model fit for a great painter, with his long white locks flowing on his neck. Then she stepped back in order to observe him, saying: ‘There! Isn’t he fine for his age?’
‘Very,’ agreed the doctor, who was beginning to be highly amused.
She added: ‘And if you had known him when he was twenty-five! But we must get him to bed, otherwise the drink will make him sick. Do you mind drawing off that sleeve? Higher – like that – that’s right. Now the trousers. Wait, I will take his shoes off – that’s right. Now, hold him upright while I open the bed. There – let us put him in. If you think that he is going to disturb himself when it is time for me to get in you are mistaken. I have to find a little corner any place I can. That doesn’t bother him! Bah! You old pleasure seeker!’
As soon as he felt himself stretched out in his sheets the old man closed his eyes, opened them closed them again, and over his whole face appeared an energetic resolve to sleep. The doctor examined him with an ever-increasing interest and asked: ‘Does he go to all the fancy balls and try to be a young man?’ ‘To all of them, monsieur, and he comes back to me in the morning in a deplorable condition. You see, it’s regret that leads him on and that makes him put a pasteboard face over his own. Yes, the regret of no longer being what he was and of no longer making any conquests!’
He was sleeping now and beginning to snore. She looked at him with a pitying expression and continued: ‘Oh! how many conquests that man has made! More than one could believe, monsieur, more than the finest gentlemen of the world, than all the tenors and all the generals.’
‘Really? What did he do?’
‘Oh! it will surprise you at first, as you did not know him in his palmy days. When I met him it was also at a ball, for he has always frequented them. As soon as I saw him I was caught – caught like a fish on a hook. Ah! how pretty he was, monsieur, with his curly raven locks and black eyes as large as saucers! Indeed, he was good looking! He took me away that evening and I never have left him since, never, not even for a day, no matter what he did to me! Oh! he has often made it hard for me!’
The doctor asked: ‘Are you married?’
She answered simply: ‘Yes, monsieur, otherwise he would have dropped me as he did the others. I have been his wife and his servant, everything, everything that he wished. How he has made me cry – tears which I did not show him; for he would tell all his adventures to me – to me, monsieur – without understanding how it hurt me to listen.’
‘But what was his business?’
‘That’s so. I forgot to tell you. He was the foreman at Martel’s – a foreman such as they never had had – an artist who averaged ten francs an hour.’
‘Martel? – who is Martel?’
‘The hairdresser, monsieur, the great hairdresser of the Opera, who had all the actresses for customers. Yes, sir, all the smartest actresses had their hair dressed by Ambrose and they would give him tips that made a fortune for him. Ah! monsieur, all the women are alike, yes, all of them. When a man pleases their fancy they offer themselves to him. It is so easy – and it hurt me so to hear about it. For he would tell me everything – he simply could not hold his tongue – it was impossible. Those things please the men so much! They seem to get even more enjoyment out of telling than doing.
‘When I would see him coming in the evening, a little pale, with a pleased look and a bright eye, would say to myself: “One more. I am sure that he has caught one more.” Then I felt a wild desire to question him and then, again, not to know, to stop his talking if he should begin. And we would look at each other.
‘I knew that he would not keep still, that he would come to the point. I could feel that from his manner, which seemed to laugh and say: “I had a fine adventure to-day, Madeleine.” I would pretend to notice nothing, to guess nothing; I would set the table, bring on the soup and sit down opposite him.
‘At those times, monsieur, it was as if my friendship for him had been crushed in my body as with a stone. It hurt. But he did not understand; he did not know; he felt a need to tell all those things to some one, to boast, to show how much he was loved, and I was the only one he had to whom he could talk – the only one. And I would have to listen and drink it in, like poison.
‘He would begin to take his soup and then he would say: “One more, Madeleine.”
‘And I would think: “Here it comes! Goodness! what a man! Why did I ever meet him?”
‘Then he would begin: “One more! And a beauty, too.” And it would be some little one from the Vaudeville or else from the Variétés, and some of the big ones, too, some of the most famous. He would tell me their names, how their apartments were furnished, everything, everything, monsieur. Heartbreaking details. And he would go over them and tell his story over again from beginning to end, so pleased with himself that I would pretend to laugh so that he would not get angry with me.
‘Everything may not have been true! He liked to glorify himself and was quite capable of inventing such things! They may perhaps also have been true! On those evenings he would pretend to be tired and wish to go to bed after supper. We would take supper at eleven, monsieur, for he could never get back from work earlier.
‘When he had finished telling about his adventure he would walk round the room and smoke cigarettes, and he was so handsome, with his moustache and curly hair, that I would think: “It’s true, just the same, what he is telling. Since I myself am crazy about that man, why should not others be the same?” Then I would feel like crying, shrieking, running away and jumping out of the window while I was clearing the table and he was smoking. He would yawn in order to show how tired he was, and he would say two or three times before going to bed: “Ah! how well I shall sleep this evening!”
‘I bear him no ill will, because he did not know how he was hurting me. No, he could not know! He loved to boast about the women just as a peacock loves to show his feathers. He got to the point where he thought that all of them looked at him and desired him.
‘It was hard when he grew old. Oh, monsieur, when I saw his first white hair I felt a terrible shock and then a great joy – a wicked joy – but so great, so great! I said to myself: “It’s the end – it’s the end.” It seemed as if I were about to be released from prison. At last I could have him to myself, all to myself, when the others would no longer want him.
‘It was one morning in bed. He was still sleeping and I leaned over him to wake him up with a kiss, when I noticed in his curls, over his temple, a little thread which shone like silver. What a surprise! I should not have thought it possible! At first I thought of tearing it out so that he would not see it, but as I looked carefully I noticed another farther up. White hair! He was going to have white hair! My heart began to thump and perspiration stood out all over me, but away down at the bottom I was happy.
‘It was mean to feel thus, but I did my housework with a light heart that morning, without waking him up, and, as soon as he opened his eyes of his own accord, I said to him: “Do you know what I discovered while you were asleep?”
‘”I found white hairs.”
‘He started up as if I had tickled him and said angrily: “It’s not true!”
‘”Yes, it is. There are four of them over your left temple.”
‘He jumped out of bed and ran over to the mirror. He could not find them. Then I showed him the first one, the lowest, the little curly one, and I said: “It’s no wonder, after the life that you have been leading. In two years all will be over for you.”
‘Well, monsieur, I had spoken true; two years later one could not recognise him. How quickly a man changes! He was still handsome, but he had lost his freshness, and the women no longer ran after him. Ah! what a life I led at that time! How he treated me! Nothing suited him. He left his trade to go into the hat business, in which he ate up all his money. Then he unsuccessfully tried to be an actor, and finally he began to frequent public balls. Fortunately, he had had common sense enough to save a little something on which we now live. It is sufficient, but it is not enormous. And to think that at one time he had almost a fortune.
‘Now you see what he does. This habit holds him like a frenzy. He has to be young; he has to dance with women who smell of perfume and cosmetics. You poor old darling!’
She was looking at her old snoring husband fondly, ready to cry. Then, gently tiptoeing up to him, she kissed his hair. The physician had risen and was getting ready to leave, finding nothing to say to this strange couple. Just as he was leaving she asked:
‘Would you mind giving me your address? If he should grow worse, I could go and get you.’
This short story by Guy de Maupassant was originally published in 1889 in L’Écho de Paris, and in 1890 in Maupassant’s short story collection, Useless Beauty.
Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art (www.moma.org).