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   Chapter 4 No.4

A Mummer's Tale By Anatole France Characters: 26754

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


n the dark auditorium large linen sheets protected the balcony and the boxes. The orchestra was covered with a huge dust-cloth, which, being turned back at the edges, left room for a few human figures, indistinctly seen in the gloom: actors, scene-shifters, costumiers, friends of the manager, mothers and lovers and actresses. Here and there shone a pair of eyes from the black recesses of the boxes.

They were rehearsing, for the fifty-sixth time, La Nuit du 23 octobre 1812, a celebrated drama, dating twenty years back, which had not as yet been performed in this theatre. The actors knew their parts, and the following day had been chosen for that last private rehearsal which on stages less austere than that of the Odéon is known as "the dressmakers' rehearsal."

Nanteuil had no part in the play. But she had had business at the theatre that day, and, as she had been informed that Marie-Claire was execrable in the part of General Malet's wife, she had come to have a peep at her, concealed in the depths of a box.

The great scene of the second act was about to begin. The stage setting represented an attic in the private asylum where the conspirator was confined in 1812. Durville, who filled the part of General Malet, had just made his entrance. He was rehearsing in costume: a long blue frock-coat, with a collar reaching above his ears, and riding-breeches of chamois leather. He had even gone so far as to make up his face for the part, the clean-shaven soldierly face of the general of the Empire, ornamented with the "hare's-foot" whiskers which were handed down by the victors of Austerlitz to their sons, the bourgeois of July. Standing erect, his right elbow resting in his left hand, his brow supported by his right hand, his deep voice and his tight-fitting breeches expressed his pride.

"Alone, and without funds, from the depths of a prison, to attack this colossus, who commands a million soldiers, and who causes all the peoples and kings of Europe to tremble. Well, this colossus shall fall crashing to the ground."

From the back of the stage old Maury, who was playing the conspirator Jacquemont, delivered his reply:

"He may crush us in his downfall."

Suddenly cries at once plaintive and angry arose from the orchestra.

The author was exploding. He was a man of seventy, brimming over with youth.

"What do I see there at the back of the stage? It's not an actor, it's a fire-place. We shall have to send for the bricklayers, the marble-workers, to move it. Maury, do get a move on, confound you!"

Maury shifted his position.

"He may crush us in his downfall. I realize that it will not be your fault, General. Your proclamation is excellent. You promise them a constitution, liberty, equality. It is Machiavellian."

Durville replied:

"And in the best sense. An incorrigible breed, they are making ready to violate the oaths that they have not yet taken, and, because they lie, they believe themselves Machiavellis. What will you do with absolute power, you simpletons?"

The strident voice of the author ground out:

"You are right off the track, Dauville."

"I?" asked the astonished Durville.

"Yes, you, Dauville, you do not understand a word of what you are saying."

In order to humiliate them, "to take them down a peg," this man who, in the whole course of his life, had never forgotten the name of a dairy-woman or a hall-porter, disdained to remember the names of the most illustrious actors.

"Dauville, my friend, just do that over again for me."

He could play every part well. Jovial, funereal, violent, tender, impetuous, affectionate, he assumed at will a deep or a piping voice; he sighed, he roared, he laughed, he wept. He could transform himself, like the man in the fairy-tale, into a flame, a river, a woman, a tiger.

In the wings the actors exchanged only short and meaningless phrases. Their freedom of speech, their easy morals, the familiarity of their manners did not prevent their retaining so much of hypocrisy as is needful, in any assemblage of men, if people are to look upon one another without feelings of horror and disgust. There even prevailed, in this workshop in full activity, a seemly appearance of harmony and union, a oneness of feeling created by the thought, lofty or commonplace, of the author, a spirit of order which compelled all rivalries and all illwill to transform themselves into goodwill and harmonious co-operation.

Nanteuil, sitting in her box, felt uneasy at the thought that Chevalier was close at hand. For the last two days, since the night on which he had uttered his obscure threats, she had not seen him again and the fear with which he had inspired her still possessed her. "Félicie, if you wish to prevent a tragedy, I advise you not to see Ligny again." What did those words portend? She pondered deeply over Chevalier. This young fellow, who, only two days earlier, had seemed to her commonplace and insignificant, of whom she had seen a good deal too much, whom she knew by heart-how mysterious and full of secrets he now appeared to her! How suddenly it had dawned upon her that she did not know him! Of what was he capable? She tried to guess. What was he going to do? Probably nothing. All men who are thrown over by a woman utter threats and do nothing. But was Chevalier a man quite like all the rest? People did say that he was crazy. That was mere talk. But she herself did not feel sure that there might not be a spark of insanity in him. She was studying him now with genuine interest. Highly intelligent herself, she had never discovered any great signs of intelligence in him; but he had on several occasions astonished her by the obstinacy of his will. She could remember his performing acts of the fiercest energy. Jealous by nature, there were yet certain matters which he understood. He knew what a woman is compelled to do in order to win a place on the stage, or to dress herself properly; but he could not endure to be deceived for the sake of love. Was he the sort of man to commit a crime, to do something dreadful? That was what she could not decide. She recalled his mania for handling firearms. When she used to visit him in the Rue des Martyrs, she always found him in his room, taking an old shot-gun to pieces and cleaning it. And yet he never went shooting. He boasted of being a dead shot, and carried a revolver on his person. But what did that prove? Never before had she thought so much about him.

Nanteuil was tormenting herself in this fashion in her box, when Jenny Fagette came to join her there; Jenny Fagette, slender and fragile, the incarnation of Alfred de Musset's Muse, who at night wore out her eyes of periwinkle-blue by scribbling society notes and fashion articles. A mediocre actress, but a clever and wonderfully energetic woman, she was Nanteuil's most intimate friend. They recognized in each other remarkable qualities, qualities which differed from those which each discovered in herself, and they acted in concert as the two great Powers of the Odéon. Nevertheless, Fagette was doing her best to take Ligny away from her friend; not from inclination, for she was insensible as a stick and held men in contempt, but with the idea that a liaison with a diplomatist would procure her certain advantages, and above all, in order not to miss the opportunity of doing something scandalous. Nanteuil was aware of this. She knew that all her sister-actresses, Ellen Midi, Duvernet, Herschell, Falempin, Stella, Marie-Claire, were trying to take Ligny from her. She had seen Louise Dalle, who dressed like a music-mistress, and always had the air of being about to storm an omnibus, and retained, even in her provocations and accidental contacts, the appearance of incurable respectability, pursue Ligny with her lanky legs, and beset him with the glances of a poverty-stricken Pasiphae. She had also surprised the oldest actress of the theatre, their excellent mother Ravaud, in a corridor, baring, at Ligny's approach, all that was left to her, her magnificent arms, which had been famous for forty years.

Fagette, with disgust, and the tip of a gloved finger, called Nanteuil's attention to the scene through which Durville, old Maury and Marie-Claire were struggling.

"Just look at those people. They look as if they were playing at the bottom of thirty fathoms of water."

"It's because the top lights are not lit."

"Not a bit of it. This theatre always looks as if it were at the bottom of the sea. And to think that I, too, in a moment, have to enter that aquarium. Nanteuil, you must not stop longer than one season in this theatre. One is drowned in it. But look at them, look at them!"

Durville was becoming almost ventriloqual in order to seem more solemn and more virile:

"Peace, the abolition of the combined martial and civil law, and of conscription, higher pay for the troops; in the absence of funds, a few drafts on the bank, a few commissions suitably distributed, these are infallible means."

Madame Doulce entered the box. Unfastening her cloak with its pathetic lining of old rabbit-skin, she produced a small dog's-eared book.

"They are Madame de Sévigné's letters," she said. "You know that next Sunday I am going to give a reading of the best of Madame de Sévigné's letters."

"Where?" asked Fagette.

"Salle Renard."

It must have been some remote and little known hall, for Nanteuil and Fagette had not heard of it.

"I am giving this reading for the benefit of the three poor orphans left by Lacour, the actor, who died so sadly of consumption this winter. I am counting on you, my darlings, to dispose of some tickets for me."

"All the same, she really is ridiculous, Marie-Claire!" said Nanteuil.

Some one scratched at the door of the box. It was Constantin Marc, the youthful author of a play, La Grille, which the Odéon was going to rehearse immediately; and Constantin Marc, although a countryman living in the forest, could henceforth breathe only in the theatre. Nanteuil was to take the principal part in the play. He gazed upon her with emotion, as the precious amphora destined to be the receptacle of his thought.

Meanwhile Durville continued hoarsely:

"If our France can be saved only at the price of our life and honour, I shall say, with the man of '93: 'Perish our memory!'"

Fagette pointed her finger at a bloated youth, who was sitting in the orchestra, resting his chin on his walking-stick.

"Isn't that Baron Deutz?"

"Need you ask!" replied Nanteuil. "Ellen Midi is in the cast. She plays in the fourth act. Baron Deutz has come to display himself."

"Just wait a minute, my children; I have a word to say to that ill-mannered cub. He met me yesterday in the Place de la Concorde, and he didn't bow to me."

"What, Baron Deutz? He couldn't have seen you!"

"He saw me perfectly well. But he was with his people. I am going to have him on toast. Just you watch, my dears."

She called him very softly:

"Deutz! Deutz!"

The Baron came towards her, smiling and well-pleased with himself, and leaned his elbows on the edge of the box.

"Tell me, Monsieur Deutz, when you met me yesterday, were you in very bad company that you did not raise your hat to me?"

He looked at her in astonishment.

"I? I was with my sister."

"Oh!"

On the stage, Marie-Claire, hanging upon Durville's neck, was exclaiming:

"Go! Victorious or defeated, in good or evil fortune, your glory will be equally great. Come what may, I shall know how to show myself the wife of a hero."

"That will do, Madame Marie-Claire!" said Pradel.

Just at that moment Chevalier made his entry, and immediately the author, tearing his hair, let loose a flood of imprecations:

"Do you call that an entry? It's a tumble, a catastrophe, a cataclysm! Ye gods! A meteor, an aerolith, a bit of the moon falling on to the stage would be less horribly disastrous! I will take off my play! Chevalier, come in again, my good fellow!"

The artist who had designed the costumes, Michel, a fair young man with a mystic's beard, was seated in the first row, on the arm of a stall. He leaned over and whispered into the ear of Roger, the scene-painter:

"And to think it's the fifty-sixth time that he's dropped on Chevalier with the same fury!"

"Well, you know, Chevalier is rottenly bad," replied Roger, without hesitation.

"It isn't that he is bad," returned Michel indulgently. "But he always seems to be laughing, and nothing could be worse for a comedy actor. I knew him when he was quite a kid, at Montmartre. At school his masters used to ask him: 'Why are you laughing?' He was not laughing; he had no desire to laugh; he used to get his ears boxed from morning to night. His parents wanted to put him in a chemical factory. But he had dreams of the stage, and spent his days on the Butte Montmartre, in the studio of the painter Montalent. Montalent at that time was working day and night on his Death of Saint Louis, a huge picture which was commissioned for the cathedral of Carthage. One day, Montalent said to him--"

"A little less noise!" shouted Pradel.

"Said to him: 'Chevalier, since you have nothing to do, just sit for Philippe the Bold.' 'With pleasure,' said Chevalier. Montalent told him to assume the attitude of a man bowed down with grief. More, he stuck t

wo tears as big as spectacle lenses on his cheeks. He finished his picture, forwarded it to Carthage, and had half a dozen bottles of champagne sent up. Three months later he received from Father Cornemuse, the head of the French Missions in Tunis, a letter informing him that his painting of the Death of Saint Louis, having been submitted to the Cardinal-Archbishop, had been refused by His Eminence, because of the unseemly expression on the face of Philippe the Bold who was laughing as he watched the saintly King, his father, dying on a bed of straw. Montalent could not make head or tail of it; he was furious, and wanted to take proceedings against the Cardinal-Archbishop. His painting was returned to him; he unpacked it, gazed at it in gloomy silence, and suddenly shouted: 'It's true-Philippe the Bold appears to be splitting his sides with laughter. What a fool I have been! I gave him the head of Chevalier, who always seems to be laughing, the brute!'"

"Will you be quiet there!" yelled Pradel.

And the author exclaimed:

"Pradel, my dear boy, just pitch all those people into the street."

Indefatigable, he was arranging the scene:

"A little farther, Trouville, there. Chevalier, you walk up to the table, you pick up the documents one by one, and you say: 'Senatus-Consultum. Order of the day. Despatches to the departments. Proclamation,' Do you understand?"

"Yes, Master. 'Senatus-Consultum. Order of the day. Despatches to the departments. Proclamation.'"

"Now, Marie-Claire, my child, a little more life, confound it! Cross over! That's it! Very good. Back again! Good! Very good! Buck up! Ah, the wretched woman! She's spoiling it all!"

He called the stage manager.

"Romilly, give us a little more light, one can't see an inch. Dauville, my dear friend, what are you doing there in front of the prompter's box! You seem glued to it! Just get into your head, once for all, that you are not the statue of General Malet, that you are General Malet in person, that my play is not a catalogue of wax-work figures, but a living moving tragedy, one which brings the tears into your eyes, and--"

Words failed him, and he sobbed for a long while into his handkerchief. Then he roared:

"Holy thunder! Pradel! Romilly! Where is Romilly? Ah, there he is, the villain! Romilly, I told you to put the stove nearer the dormer-window. You have not done so. What are you thinking of, my friend?"

The rehearsal was suddenly brought to a standstill by a serious difficulty. Chevalier, the bearer of documents on which hung the fate of the Empire, was to escape from his prison by the dormer-window. The stage "business" had not yet been settled; it had been impossible to do so before the setting of the stage was completed. It was now discovered that the measurements had been wrongly taken, and the dormer-window was not accessible.

The author leapt on to the stage.

"Romilly, my friend, the stove is not in the place fixed on. How can you expect Chevalier to get out through the dormer-window? Push the stove to the right at once."

"I'm willing enough," said Romilly, "but we shall be blocking up the door."

"What's that? We shall be blocking up the door?"

"Precisely."

The manager of the theatre, the stage-manager, the scene-shifters stood examining the stage-setting with gloomy attention, while the author held his peace.

"Don't worry, Master," said Chevalier. "There's no need to change anything. I shall be able to jump out all right."

Climbing on to the stove, he did indeed succeed in grasping the sill of the window, and in hoisting himself up until his elbows rested on it, a feat that had seemed impossible.

A murmur of admiration rose from the stage, the wings, and the house. Chevalier had produced an astonishing impression by his strength and agility.

"Splendid!" exclaimed the author. "Chevalier, my friend, that is perfect. The fellow is as nimble as a monkey. I'll be hanged if any of you could do as much. If all the parts were in such good hands as that of Florentin, the play would be lauded to the skies."

Nanteuil, in her box, almost admired him. For one brief second he had seemed to her more than man, both man and gorilla, and the fear with which he had inspired her was immeasurably increased. She did not love him; she had never loved him; she did not desire him; it was a long time since she had really wanted him; and, for some days past, she had been unable to imagine herself taking pleasure in any other than Ligny; but had she at that moment found herself alone with Chevalier she would have felt powerless, and she would have sought to appease him by her submission as one appeases a supernatural power.

On the stage, while an Empire salon was being lowered from the flies, through all the noise of the running gear and the grounding of the supports, the author held the whole of the company, as well as all the supers, in the hollow of his hand, and at the same time gave them all advice, or illustrated what he wanted of them.

"You, the big woman, the cake-seller, Madame Ravaud, haven't you ever heard the women calling in the Champs-élysées: 'Eat your fill, ladies! This way for a treat!' It is sung. Just learn the tune by to-morrow. And you, drummer-boy, just give me your drum; I'm going to teach you how to beat the roll, confound it! Fagette, my child, what the mischief are you doing at a ball given by the Minister of Police, if you haven't any stockings with golden clocks? Take off those knitted woollen stockings immediately. This is the very last play that I shall produce in this theatre. Where is the colonel of the 10th cohort? So it's you? Well then, my friend, your soldiers march past like so many pigs. Madame Marie-Claire, come forward a little, so that I may teach you how to curtsy."

He had a hundred eyes, a hundred mouths, and arms and legs everywhere.

In the house, Romilly was shaking hands with Monsieur Gombaut, of the Academy of Moral Sciences, who had dropped in as a neighbour.

"You may say what you will, Monsieur Gombaut, it is perhaps not accurate as far as facts are concerned, but it's drama."

"Malet's conspiracy," replied Monsieur Gombaut, "remains, and will doubtless remain for a long time to come, an historical enigma. The author of this drama has taken advantage of those points which are obscure in order to introduce dramatic elements. But what, to my thinking, is beyond a doubt, is that General Malet, although associated with Royalists, was himself a Republican, and was working for the re-establishment of popular Government. In the course of his examination during the trial, he pronounced a sublime and profound utterance. When the presiding judge of the court-martial asked him: 'Who were your accomplices?' Malet replied: 'All France, and you yourself, had I succeeded.'"

Leaning on the edge of Nanteuil's box, an aged sculptor, as venerable and as handsome as an ancient satyr, was gazing with glistening eye and smiling lips at the stage, which at that moment was in a state of commotion and confusion.

"Are you pleased with the play, Master?" Nanteuil asked him.

And the Master, who had no eyes for anything but bones, tendons and muscles, replied:

"Yes, indeed, mademoiselle; yes, indeed! I see over there a little creature, little Midi, whose shoulder attachment is a jewel."

He outlined it with his thumb. Tears welled up into his eyes.

Chevalier asked if he might enter the box. He was happy, less on account of his prodigious success than at seeing Félicie. He dreamed, in his infatuation, that she had come for his sake, that she loved him, that she was returning to him.

She feared him, and, as she was timid, she flattered him.

"I congratulate you, Chevalier. You were simply astounding. Your exit is a marvel. You can take my word for it. I am not the only one to say so. Fagette thought you were wonderful."

"Really?" asked Chevalier.

It was one of the happiest moments of his life.

A shrieking voice issued from the deserted heights of the third galleries, sounding through the house like the whistle of a locomotive.

"One can't hear a word you say, my children; speak louder and pronounce your words distinctly!"

The author appeared, infinitely small, in the shadow of the dome.

Thereupon the utterance of the players who were collected at the front of the stage, around a naphtha flare, rose more distinctly:

"The Emperor will allow the troops to rest for some weeks at Moscow; then with the rapidity of an eagle he will swoop down upon St. Petersburg."

"Spades, clubs, trump, two points to me."

"There we shall spend the winter, and next spring we shall penetrate into India, crossing Persia, and the British power will be a thing of the past."

"Thirty-six in diamonds."

"And I the four aces."

"By the way, gentlemen, what say you to the Imperial decree concerning the actors of Paris, dated from the Kremlin? There's an end of the squabbles between Mademoiselle Mars and Mademoiselle Leverd."

"Do look at Fagette," said Nanteuil. "She is charming in that blue Marie-Louise dress trimmed with chinchilla."

Madame Doulce brought out from under her furs a stack of tickets already soiled through having been too frequently offered.

"Master," she said, addressing Constantin Marc, "you know that next Sunday I am to give a reading, with appropriate remarks, of the best letters of Madame de Sévigné, for the benefit of the three poor orphans left by Lacour, the actors who died this winter in so deplorable a fashion."

"Had he any talent?" asked Constantin Marc.

"None whatever," said Nanteuil.

"Well, then, in what way is his death deplorable?"

"Oh, Master," sighed Madame Doulce, "do not pretend to be unfeeling."

"I am not pretending to be unfeeling. But here is something that surprises me: the value which we set upon the lives of those who are not of the slightest interest to us. We seem as though we believe that life is in itself something precious. Yet nature teaches us plainly enough that nothing is more worthless and contemptible. In former days people were less besmeared with sentimentalism. Each of us held his own life to be infinitely precious, but he did not profess any respect whatever for the life of others. We were nearer to nature in those days. We were created to devour one another. But our debilitated, enervated, hypocritical race wallows in a sly cannibalism. While we are gulping one another down we declare that life is sacred, and we no longer dare to confess that life is murder."

"That life is murder," echoed Chevalier dreamily, without grasping the meaning of the words.

Then he poured forth a string of nebulous ideas:

"Murder and bloodshed, that may be! But amusing bloodshed, and comical murder. Life is a burlesque catastrophe, a terrible comedy, the mask of carnival over blood-stained cheeks. That is what life means to the artist; the artist on the stage, and the artist in action."

Nanteuil uneasily sought a meaning in these confused phrases.

The actor continued excitedly:

"Life is yet another thing: it is the flower and the knife, it is to see red one day and blue the next, it is hatred and love, ravishing, delightful hatred, cruel love."

"Monsieur Chevalier," asked Constantin Marc in the quietest of tones, "does it not seem to you natural to be a murderer, and do you not think that it is merely the fear of being killed that prevents us from killing?"

Chevalier replied in deep, pensive tones:

"Most certainly not! It would not be the fear of being killed that would prevent me from killing. I have no fear of death. But I feel a respect for the life of others. I am humane in spite of myself. I have for some time past been seriously considering the question which you have just asked me, Monsieur Constantin Marc. I have pondered over it day and night, and I know now that I could not kill any one.'"

At this, Nanteuil, filled with joy, cast upon him a look of contempt. She feared him no longer, and she could not forgive him for having alarmed her.

She rose.

"Good evening; I have a headache. Good-bye till to-morrow, Monsieur Constantin Marc." And she went out briskly.

Chevalier ran after her down the corridor, descended the stage staircase behind her, and rejoined her by the stage doorkeeper's box.

"Félicie, come and dine with me to-night at our cabaret. I should be so glad if you would! Will you?"

"Good gracious, no!"

"Why won't you?"

"Leave me alone; you are bothering me!"

She tried to escape. He detained her.

"I love you so! Don't be too cruel to me!"

Taking a step towards him, her lips curling back from her clenched teeth, she hissed into his ear:

"It's all over, over, over! You hear me? I am fed up with you."

Then, very gently and solemnly, he said:

"It is the last time that we two shall speak together. Listen, Félicie, before there is a tragedy I ought to warn you. I cannot compel you to love me. But I do not intend that you shall love another. For the last time I advise you not to see Monsieur de Ligny again, I shall prevent your belonging to him."

"You will prevent me? You? My poor dear fellow!"

In a still more gentle tone he replied:

"I mean it; I shall do it. A man can get what he wants; only he must pay the price."

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