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   Chapter 3 No.3

A Mummer's Tale By Anatole France Characters: 17556

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


adame Nanteuil lived with her daughter in a little flat on the fifth story of a house in the Boulevard Saint-Michel, whose windows opened upon the garden of the Luxembourg. She gave Chevalier a friendly welcome, for she thought kindly of him because he loved Félicie, and because the latter did not love him in return, and ignored on principle the fact that he had been her daughter's lover.

She made him sit beside her in the dining-room, where a coke fire was burning in the stove. In the lamplight army revolvers and sabres with golden tassels on the sword-knots gleamed upon the wall. They were hung about a woman's cuirass, which was provided with round breast-shields of tin-plate; a piece of armour which Félicie had worn last winter, while still a pupil at the Conservatoire, when taking the part of Joan of Arc at the house of a spiritualistic duchess. An officer's widow and the mother of an actress, Madame Nanteuil, whose real name was Nantean, treasured these trophies.

"Félicie is not back yet, Monsieur Chevalier. I don't expect her before midnight. She is on the stage till the end of the play."

"I know; I was in the first piece. I left the theatre after the first act of La Mère confidente.

"Oh, Monsieur Chevalier, why didn't you stay till the end? My daughter would have been so pleased if you had waited. When one is acting one likes to have friends in the house."

Chevalier replied ambiguously:

"Oh, as to friends, there are plenty of those about."

"You are mistaken, Monsieur Chevalier; good friends are scarce. Madame Doulce was there, of course? Was she pleased with Félicie?" And she added, with great humility: "I should indeed be happy if she could really make a hit. It is so difficult to come to the fore in her profession, for a girl who is alone, without support, without influence! And it is so necessary for her to succeed, poor child!"

Chevalier did not feel disposed to lavish any pity upon Félicie. With a shrug of the shoulders he replied bluntly:

"No need to worry about that. She'll get on. She is an actress heart and soul. She has it in her bones, down to her very legs."

Madame Nanteuil indulged in a quiet smile.

"Poor child! They are not very plump, her legs. Félicie's health is not bad, but she must not overdo it. She often has fits of giddiness, and sick headaches."

The servant came in to place on the table a dish of fried sausage, a bottle of wine, and a few plates.

Meanwhile, Chevalier was searching in his mind for some appropriate fashion of asking a question which had been on the tip of his tongue ever since he had set foot on the stairs. He wanted to know whether Félicie was still meeting Girmandel, whose name he never heard mentioned nowadays. We are given to conceiving desires which suit themselves to our condition. Now, in the misery of his existence, in the distress of his heart, he was full of an eager desire that Félicie, who loved him no longer, should love Girmandel, whom she loved but little, and he hoped with all his heart that Girmandel would keep her for him, would possess her wholly, and leave nothing of her for Robert de Ligny. The idea that the girl might be with Girmandel appeased his jealousy, and he dreaded to learn that she had broken with him.

Of course he would never have allowed himself to question a mother as to her daughter's lovers. But it was permissible to speak of Girmandel to Madame Nanteuil, who saw nothing that was other than respectable in the relations of her household with the Government official, who was well-to-do, married, and the father of two charming daughters. To bring Girmandel's name into the conversation he had only to resort to a stratagem. Chevalier hit upon one which he thought was ingenious.

"By the way," he remarked, "I saw Girmandel just now in a carriage."

Madame Nanteuil made no comment.

"He was driving down the Boulevard Saint-Michel in a cab. I certainly thought I recognized him. I should be greatly surprised if it wasn't he."

Madame Nanteuil made no comment.

"His fair beard, his high colour-he's an easy man to recognize, Girmandel."

Madame Nanteuil made no comment.

"You were very friendly with him at one time, you and Félicie. Do you still see him?"

"Monsieur Girmandel? Oh yes, we still see him," replied Madame Nanteuil softly.

These words made Chevalier feel almost happy. But she had deceived him; she had not spoken the truth. She had lied out of self-respect, and in order not to reveal a domestic secret which she regarded as derogatory to the honour of her family. The truth was that, being carried away by her passion for Ligny, Félicie had given Girmandel the go-by, and he, being a man of the world, had promptly cut off supplies. Madame Nanteuil, despite her years, had resumed an old lover, out of her love for her child, that she might not want for anything. She had renewed her former liaison with Tony Meyer, the picture-dealer in the Rue de Clichy. Tony Meyer was a poor substitute for Girmandel; he was none too free with his money. Madame Nanteuil, who was wise and knew the value of things, did not complain on that account, and she was rewarded for her devotion, for, in the six weeks during which she had been loved anew, she had grown young again.

Chevalier, following up his idea, inquired:

"You would hardly say that Girmandel was still a young man, would you?"

"He is not old," said Madame Nanteuil. "A man is not old at forty."

"A bit used up, isn't he?"

"Oh, dear no," replied Madame Nanteuil, quite calmly.

Chevalier became thoughtful and was silent. Madame Nanteuil began to nod. Then, being aroused from her somnolence by the servant, who brought in the salt-cellar and the water-bottle, she inquired:

"And you, Monsieur Chevalier, is all well with you?"

No, all was not well with him. The critics were out to "down" him. And the proof that they had combined against him was that they all said the same thing; they said his face lacked expression.

"My face lacking in expression!" he cried indignantly. "They should have called it a predestined face. Madame Nanteuil, I aim high, and it is that which does me harm. For example, in La Nuit du 23 octobre, which is being rehearsed now, I am Florentin: I have only six lines; it's a washout. But I have increased the importance of the character enormously. Durville is furious. He deliberately crabs all my effects."

Madame Nanteuil, placid and kindly, found words to comfort him. Obstacles there were, no doubt, but in the end one overcame them. Her own daughter had fallen foul of the ill-will of certain critics.

"Half-past twelve!" said Chevalier gloomily. "Félicie is late."

Madame Nanteuil supposed that she had been detained by Madame Doulce.

"Madame Doulce as a rule undertakes to see her home, and you know she never hurries herself."

Chevalier rose, as if to take his leave, to show that he remembered his manners. Madame Nanteuil begged him to stay.

"Don't go; Félicie won't be long now. She will be pleased to find you here. You will have supper with her."

Madame Nanteuil dozed off again in her chair. Chevalier sat gazing in silence at the clock hanging on the wall, and as the hand travelled across the dial he felt a burning wound in his heart, which grew bigger and bigger, and each little stroke of the pendulum touched him to the quick, lending a keener eye to his jealousy, by recording the moments which Félicie was passing with Ligny. For he was now convinced that they were together. The stillness of the night, interrupted only by the muffled sound of the cabs bowling along the boulevard, gave reality to the thoughts and images which tortured him. He could see them.

Awakened with a start by the sound of singing on the pavement below, Madame Nanteuil returned to the thought with which she had fallen asleep.

"That's what I am always telling Félicie; one mustn't be discouraged. One should not lose heart. We all have our ups and downs in life."

Chevalier nodded acquiescence.

"But those who suffer," he said, "only get what they deserve. It needs but a moment to free oneself from all one's troubles. Isn't it so?"

She admitted the fact; certainly there were such things as sudden opportunities, especially on the stage.

"Heaven knows," he continued in a deep, brooding voice, "it's not the stage I am worrying about. I know I shall make a name for myself one day, and a big one. But what's the good of being a great artist if one isn't happy? There are stupid worries which are terrible! Pains that throb in your temples with strokes as even and as regular as the ticking of that clock, till they drive you mad!"

He ceased speaking; the gloomy gaze of his deep-set eyes fell upon the trop

hy hanging on the wall. Then he continued:

"These stupid worries, these ridiculous sufferings, if one endures them too long, it simply means that one is a coward."

And he felt the butt of the revolver which he always carried in his pocket.

Madame Nanteuil listened to him serenely, with that gentle determination not to know anything, which had been her one talent in life.

"Another dreadful thing," she observed, "is to decide what to have to eat. Félicie is sick of everything. There's no knowing what to get for her."

After that, the flagging conversation languished, drawn out into detached phrases, which had no particular meaning. Madame Nanteuil, the servant, the coke fire, the lamp, the plate of sausage, awaited Félicie in depressing silence. The clock struck one. Chevalier's suffering had by this time attained the serenity of a flood tide. He was now certain. The cabs were not so frequent and their wheels echoed more loudly along the street. The rumbling of one of these cabs suddenly ceased outside the house. A few seconds later he heard the slight grating of a key in the lock, the slamming of the door, and light footsteps in the outer room.

The clock marked twenty-three minutes past one. He was suddenly full of agitation, yet hopeful. She had come! Who could tell what she would say? She might offer the most natural explanation of her late arrival.

Félicie entered the room, her hair in disorder, her eyes shining, her cheeks white, her bruised lips a vivid red; she was tired, indifferent, mute, happy and lovely, seeming to guard beneath her cloak, which she held wrapped about her with both hands, some remnant of warmth and voluptuous pleasure.

"I was beginning to be worried," said her mother. "Aren't you going to unfasten your cloak?"

"I'm hungry," she replied. She dropped into a chair before the little round table. Throwing her cloak over the back of the chair, she revealed her slender figure in its little black schoolgirl's dress, and, resting her left elbow on the oil-cloth table-cover, she proceeded to stick her fork into the sliced sausage.

"Did everything go off well to-night?" asked Madame Nanteuil.

"Quite well."

"You see Chevalier has come to keep you company. It is kind of him, isn't it?"

"Oh, Chevalier! Well, let him come to the table."

And, without replying further to her mother's questions, she began to eat, greedy and charming, like Ceres in the old woman's house. Then she pushed aside her plate, and leaning back in her chair, with half-closed eyes, and parted lips, she smiled a smile that was akin to a kiss.

Madame Nanteuil, having drunk her glass of mulled wine, rose to her feet.

"You will excuse me, Monsieur Chevalier, I have my accounts to bring up to date."

This was the formula which she usually employed to announce that she was going to bed.

Left alone with Félicie, Chevalier said to her angrily:

"I know I'm a fool and a groveller; but I'm going mad for love of you. Do you hear, Félicie?"

"I should think I do hear. You needn't shout like that!"

"It's ridiculous, isn't it?"

"No, it's not ridiculous, it's--"

She did not complete the sentence.

He drew nearer to her, dragging his chair with him.

"You came in at twenty-five minutes past one. It was Ligny who saw you home, I know it. He brought you back in a cab, I heard it stop outside the house."

As she did not reply, he continued:

"Deny it, if you can!"

She remained silent, and he repeated, in an urgent, almost appealing tone:

"Tell me he didn't!"

Had she been so inclined, she might, with a phrase, with a single word, with a tiny movement of head or shoulders, have rendered him perfectly submissive, and almost happy. But she maintained a malicious silence. With compressed lips and a far-off look in her eyes, she seemed as though lost in a dream.

He sighed hoarsely.

"Fool that I was, I didn't think of that! I told myself you would come home, as on other nights, with Madame Doulce, or else alone. If I had only known that you were going to let that fellow see you home!"

"Well, what would you have done, had you known it?"

"I should have followed you, by God!"

She stared at him with hard, unnaturally bright eyes.

"That I forbid you to do! Understand me! If I learn that you have followed me, even once, I'll never see you again. To begin with, you haven't the right to follow me. I suppose I am free to do as I like."

Choking with astonishment and anger, he stammered:

"Haven't the right to? Haven't the right to? You tell me I haven't the right?"

"No, you haven't the right! Moreover, I won't have it." Her face assumed an expression of disgust. "It's a mean trick to spy on a woman, if you once try to find out where I'm going, I'll send you about your business, and quickly at that."

"Then," he murmured, thunderstruck, "we are nothing to each other, I am nothing to you. We have never belonged to each other. But see, Félicie, remember--"

But she was losing patience:

"Well, what do you want me to remember?"

"Félicie, remember that you gave yourself to me!"

"My dear boy, you really can't expect me to think of that all day. It wouldn't be proper."

He looked at her for a while, more in curiosity than in anger, and said to her, half bitterly, half gently:

"They may well call you a selfish little jade! Be one, Félicie, be one, as much as you like! What does it matter, since I love you? You are mine; I am going to take you back; I am going to take you back, and keep you. Think! I can't go on suffering for ever, like a poor dumb beast. Listen. I'll start with a clean slate. Let us begin to love one another over again. And this time it will be all right. And you'll be mine for good, mine only. I am an honest man; you know that. You can depend on me. I'll marry you as soon as I've got a position."

She gazed at him with disdainful surprise. He believed that she had doubts as to his dramatic future, and, in order to banish them, he said, erect on his long legs:

"Don't you believe in my star, Félicie? You are wrong. I can feel that I am capable of creating great parts. Let them only give me a part, and they'll see. And I have in me not only comedy, but drama, tragedy-yes, tragedy. I can deliver verse properly. And that is a talent which is becoming rare in these days. So don't imagine, Félicie, that I am insulting you when I offer you marriage. Far from it! We will marry later on, as soon as it is possible and suitable. Of course, there is no need for hurry. Meanwhile, we will resume our pleasant habits of the Rue des Martyrs. You remember, Félicie; we were so happy there! The bed wasn't wide, but we used to say: "That doesn't matter." I have now two fine rooms in the Rue de la Montagne-Saint-Geneviève, behind Saint-étienne-du-Mont. Your portrait hangs on every wall. You will find there the little bed of the Rue des Martyrs. Listen to me, I beg of you: I have suffered too much; I will not suffer any longer. I demand that you shall be mine, mine only."

While he was speaking, Félicie had taken from the mantelpiece the pack of cards with which her mother played every night, and was spreading them out on the table.

"Mine only. You hear me, Félicie."

"Don't disturb me, I am busy with a game of patience."

"Listen to me, Félicie. I won't have you receiving that fool in your dressing-room."

Looking at her cards she murmured:

"All the blacks are at the bottom of the pack."

"I say that fool. He is a diplomatist, and nowadays the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the refuge of incompetents." Raising his voice, he continued: "Félicie, for your own sake, as well as for mine, listen to me!"

"Well, don't shout, then. Mama is asleep."

He continued in muffled tones:

"Just get it into your head that I don't intend that Ligny shall be your lover."

She raised her spiteful little face, and replied:

"And if he is my lover?"

He moved a step closer to her, raising his chair, gazing at her with the eye of a madman, and laughing a cracked laugh.

"If he is your lover, he won't be so for long."

And he dropped the chair.

Now she was alarmed. She forced herself to smile.

"You know very well I'm joking!"

She succeeded without much difficulty in making him believe that she had spoken thus merely to punish him, because he was getting unbearable. He became calmer. She then informed him that she was tired out, that she was dropping with sleep. At last he decided to go home. On the landing he turned, and said:

"Félicie, I advise you, if you wish to avoid a tragedy, not to see Ligny again."

She cried through the half-open door:

"Knock on the window of the porter's lodge, so that he can let you out!"

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