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   Chapter 8 MY AUNT AS VENUS

Monsieur, Madame, and Bebe -- C By Gustave Droz Characters: 12375

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02

Since that day when I kissed Madame de B. right on the centre of the neck, as she held out her forehead to me, there has crept into our intercourse an indescribable, coquettish coolness, which is nevertheless by no means unpleasant. The matter of the kiss has never been completely explained. It happened just as I left Saint-Cyr. I was full of ardor, and the cravings of my heart sometimes blinded me. I say that they sometimes blinded me; I repeat, blinded me, and this is true, for really I must have been possessed to have kissed my aunt on the neck as I did that day. But let that pass.

It was not that she was hardly worth it; my little auntie, as I used to call her then, was the prettiest woman in the world-coquettish, elegant; and what a foot! and, above all, that delightful little-I don't know what-which is so fashionable now, and which tempts one always to say too much.

When I say that I must have been possessed, it is because I think of the consequences to which that kiss might have led. Her husband, General de B., being my direct superior, it might have got me into a very awkward position; besides, there is the respect due to one's family. Oh, I have never failed in that.

But I do not know why I am recalling all these old recollections, which have nothing in common with what I am about to relate to you. My intention was simply to tell you that since my return from Mexico I go pretty frequently to Madame de B.'s, as perhaps you do also, for she keeps up a rather good establishment, receives every Monday evening, and there is usually a crowd of people at her house, for she is very entertaining. There is no form of amusement that she does not resort to in order to keep up her reputation as a woman of fashion. I must own, however, that I had never seen anything at her house to equal what I saw last Monday.

I was in the ante-room, where the footman was helping me off with my top-coat, when Jean, approaching me with a suspicion of mystery, said: "My mistress expects to see you immediately, Monsieur, in her bedroom. If you will walk along the passage and knock at the door at the end, you will find her."

When one has just returned from the other side of the world, such words sound queer. The old affair of the kiss recurred to me in spite of myself. What could my aunt want with me?

I tapped quietly at the door, and heard at once an outburst of stifled laughter.

"Wait a moment," exclaimed a laughing voice.

"I won't be seen in this state," whispered another-"Yes"-"No"-"You are absurd, my dear, since it is an affair of art."-"Ha, ha, ha." And they laughed and laughed again.

At last a voice cried, "Come in," and I turned the handle.

At first glance I could only make out a confused chaos, impossible to describe, amidst which my aunt was bustling about clad in pink fleshings. Clad, did I say?-very airily.

The furniture, the carpet, the mantel-piece were encumbered, almost buried under a heterogeneous mass of things. Muslin petticoats, tossed down haphazard, pieces of lace, a cardboard helmet covered with gilt paper, open jewel-cases, bows of ribbon; curling-tongs, half hidden in the ashes; and on every side little pots, paint-brushes, odds and ends of all kinds. Behind two screens, which ran across the room, I could hear whisperings, and the buzzing sound peculiar to women dressing themselves. In one corner Silvani-the illustrious Silvani, still wearing the large white apron he assumes when powdering his clients-was putting away his powder-puff and turning down his sleeves with a satisfied air. I stood petrified. What was going on at my aunt's?

She discovered my astonishment, and without turning round she said in agitated tones:

"Ah! is it you, Ernest?" Then as if making up her mind, she broke into a hearty burst of laughter, like all women who have good teeth, and added, with a slightly superior air, "You see, we are having private theatricals."

Then turning toward me with her elegant coiffure powdered to excess, I could see that her face was painted like that of a priestess of antiquity. That gauze, that atmosphere, redolent with feminine perfumes, and behind those screens-behind those screens!

"Women in society," I said to myself, looking about me, "must be mad to amuse themselves in this fashion."

"And what piece are you going to play, aunt, in such an attractive costume?"

"Good evening, Captain," called out a laughing voice from behind the screen on the right.

"We were expecting you," came from behind the screen on the left.

"Good evening, ladies; what can I do for you?"

"It is not a play," observed my aunt, modestly drawing together her sea-weed draperies. "How behind the age you are, to think that any one plays set-pieces nowadays. It is not a piece, it is a 'tableau vivant', 'The judgment of Paris.' You know 'The Judgment of Paris'? I take the part of Venus-I did not want to, but they all urged me-give me a pin-on the mantelpiece-near the bag of bonbons-there to the left, next to the jewel-case-close by the bottle of gum standing on my prayer-book. Can't you see? Ah! at last. In short, the knife to my throat to compel me to play Venus."

Turning to the screen on the right she said: "Pass me the red for the lips, dear; mine are too pale." To the hairdresser, who is making his way to the door: "Silvani, go to the gentlemen who are dressing in the billiard-room, and in the Baron's dressing-room, they perhaps may need you. Madame de S. and her daughters are in the boudoir-ah! see whether Monsieur de V. has found his apple again-he plays Paris," added my aunt, turning toward me once more; "the apple must not be lost-well, dear, and that red for the lips I asked you for? Pass it to the Captain over the screen."

"Here it is; but make haste, Captain, my cuirass cracks as soon as I raise my arm."

I descried above the screen two slender fingers, one of which, covered with glittering rings, held in the air a little pot without a cover.

"What,-is your cuirass cracking, Marchioness?"

"Oh! it will do, but make haste and take it, Captain."

"You may think it strange, but I tremble like a leaf," exclaimed my aunt. "

I am afraid of being ill. Do you hear the gentlemen who are dressing in there in the Baron's dressing room? What a noise! Ha! ha! ha! it is charming, a regular gang of strollers. It is exhilarating, do you know, this feverish existence, this life in front of the footlights. But, for the love of Heaven, shut the door, Marie, there is a frightful draught blowing on me. This hourly struggle with the public, the hisses, the applause, would, with my impressionable nature, drive me mad, I am sure."

The old affair of the kiss recurred to me and I said to myself, "Captain, you misunderstood the nature of your relative."

"But that is not the question at all," continued my aunt; "ten o'clock is striking. Ernest, can you apply liquid white? As you are rather experienced-"

"Rather-ha! ha! ha!" said some one behind the screen.

"On the whole," continued the Baroness, "it would be very singular if, in the course of your campaigns, you had never seen liquid white applied."

"Yes, aunt, I have some ideas; yes, I have some ideas about liquid white, and by summoning together all my recollections-"

"Is it true, Captain, that it causes rheumatism?"

"No, not at all; have a couple of logs put on the fire and give me the stuff."

So saying, I turned up my sleeves and poured some of the "Milk of Beauty" into a little onyx bowl that was at hand, then I dipped a little sponge into it, and approached my Aunt Venus with a smile.

"You are sure that it has no effect on the skin-no, I really dare not." As she said this she looked as prim as a vestal. "It is the first time, do you know, that I ever used this liquid white, ah! ah! ah! What a baby I am! I am all in a shiver."

"But, my dear, you are foolish," exclaimed the lady of the screen, breaking into a laugh; "when one acts one must submit to the exigencies of the footlights."

"You hear, aunt? Come, give me your arm."

She held out her full, round arm, on the surface of which was spread that light and charming down, symbol of maturity. I applied the wet sponge.

"Oh! oh! oh!" exclaimed the Baroness; "it is like ice, a regular shower-bath, and you want to put that all over me?"

Just then there was a knock at the door which led out of the Baron's dressing-room, and instinctively I turned toward it.

"Who's there? Oh! you are letting it splutter all over me!" exclaimed the Baroness. "You can't come in; what is it?"

"What is the matter, aunt?"

"You can't come in," exclaimed some one behind the screen; "my cuirass has split. Marie, Rosine, a needle and thread, the gum."

"Oh! there is a stream all down my back, your horrid white is running down," said the Baroness, in a rage.

"I will wipe it. I am really very sorry."

"Can you get your hand down my back, do you think?"

"Why not, aunt?"

"Why not, why not! Because where there is room for a drop of water, there is not room for the hand of a lancer."

Another knock, this time at the door opening from the passage.

"What is it now?"

"The torches have come, Madame," said a footman. "Will you have them lighted?"

"Ah! the torches of Mesdemoiselles de N., who are dressing in the boudoir. No, certainly not, do not light them, they are not wanted till the second tableau."

"Do not stir, aunt, I beg of you. Mesdemoiselles de N. appears too, then?"

"Yes, with their mamma; they represent 'The Lights of Faith driving out Unbelief,' thus they naturally require torches. You know, they are tin tubes with spirits of wine which blazes up. It will be, perhaps, the prettiest tableau of the evening. It is an indirect compliment we wish to pay to the Cardinal's nephew; you know the dark young man with very curly hair and saintly eyes; you saw him last Monday. He is in high favor at court. The Comte de Geloni was kind enough to promise to come this evening, and then Monsieur de Saint P. had the idea of this tableau. His imagination is boundless, Monsieur de Saint P., not to mention his good taste, if he would not break his properties."

"Is he not also a Chevalier of the Order of Saint Gregory?"

"Yes, and, between ourselves, I think that he would not be sorry to become an officer in it."

"Ah! I understand, 'The Lights of Faith driving out,' et cetera. But tell me, aunt, am I not brushing you too hard? Lift up your arm a little, please. Tell me who has undertaken the part of Unbelief?"

"Don't speak of it, it is quite a history. As it happened, the casting of the parts took place the very evening on which his Holiness's Encyclical was published, so that the gentlemen were somewhat excited. Monsieur de Saint P. took high ground, really very high ground; indeed, I thought for a moment that the General was going to flare out. In short, no one would have anything to do with Unbelief, and we had to have recourse to the General's coachman, John-you know him? He is a good-looking fellow; he is a Protestant, moreover, so that the part is not a novel one to him."

"No matter, it will be disagreeable for the De N.'s to appear side by side with a servant."

"Come! such scruples must not be carried too far; he is smeared over with black and lies stretched on his face, while the three ladies trample on him, so you see that social proprieties are observed after all. Come, have you done yet? My hair is rather a success, is it not? Silvani is the only man who understands how to powder one. He wanted to dye it red, but I prefer to wait till red hair has found its way a little more into society."

"There; it is finished, aunt. Is it long before you have to go on?"

"No. Good Heavens, it is close on eleven o'clock! The thought of appearing before all these people-don't the flowers drooping from my head make my neck appear rather awkward, Ernest? Will you push them up a little?"

Then going to the door of the dressing-room she tapped at it gently, saying, "Are you ready, Monsieur de V.?"

"Yes, Baroness, I have found my apple, but I am horribly nervous. Are Minerva and Juno dressed? Oh! I am nervous to a degree you have no idea of."

"Yes, yes, every one is ready; send word to the company in the drawing-room. My poor heart throbs like to burst, Captain."

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