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   Chapter 6 No.6

A Mummer's Tale By Anatole France Characters: 12701

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


n the cab, beyond the fortifications, which were skirted by the deserted boulevard, Félicie and Robert held one another in a close embrace.

"Don't you love your own Félicie? Tell me! Doesn't it flatter your vanity to possess a little woman who makes people cheer and clap her, who is written about in the newspapers? Mamma pastes all my notices in her album. The album is full already."

He replied that he had not waited for her to succeed before discovering how charming she was; and, in fact, their liaison had begun when she was making an obscure first appearance at the Odéon in a revival which had fallen flat.

"When you told me that you wanted me, I didn't keep you waiting, did I? We didn't take long about that! Wasn't I right? You are too sensible to think badly of me because I didn't keep things dragging along. When I saw you for the first time I felt that I was to be yours, so it wasn't worth while delaying. I don't regret it. Do you?"

The cab stopped at a short distance from the fortifications, in front of a garden railing.

This railing, which had not been painted for a long time, stood on a wall faced with pebbles, low and broad enough to permit of children perching themselves on it. It was screened half-way up by a sheet of iron with a toothed edge, and its rusty spikes did not rise more than ten feet above the ground. In the centre, between two pillars of masonry surmounted by cast-iron vases, the railing formed a gate opening in the middle, filled in across its lower part, and furnished, on the inside, with worm-eaten slatted shutters.

They alighted from the cab. The trees of the boulevard, in four straight lines, lifted their frail skeletons in the fog. They heard, through the wide silence, the diminishing rattle of their cab, on its way back to the barrier, and the trotting of a horse coming from Paris.

"How dismal the country is!" she said, with a shiver.

"But, my darling, the Boulevard de Villiers is not the country."

He could not open the gate, and the lock creaked. Irritated by the sound, she said:

"Open it, do: the noise is getting on my nerves."

She noticed that the cab which had come from Paris had stopped near their house, at about the tenth tree from where she stood; she looked at the thin, steaming horse and the shabby driver, and asked:

"What is that carriage?"

"It's a cab, my pet."

"Why does it stop here?"

"It has not stopped here? It's stopping in front of the next house."

"There is no next house; there's only a vacant lot."

"Well, then, it has stopped in front of a vacant lot. What more can I tell you?"

"I don't see anyone getting out of it."

"The driver is perhaps waiting for a fare."

"What, in front of a vacant lot!"

"Probably, my dear. This lock has got rusty."

She crept along, hiding herself behind the trees, toward the spot where the cab had stopped, and then returned to Ligny, who had succeeded in unlocking the gate.

"Robert, the blinds of the cab are down."

"Well, then, there's a loving couple inside."

"Don't you think there's something queer about that cab?"

"It is not a thing of beauty, but all cabs are ugly. Come in."

"Isn't somebody following us?"

"Whom do you expect to follow us?"

"I don't know. One of your women friends."

But she was not saying what was in her thoughts.

"Do come in, my darling."

When she had entered the garden she said:

"Be sure to close the gate properly, Robert."

Before them stretched a small oval grass-plot.

Behind it stood the house, with its flight of three steps, sheltered by a zinc portico, its six windows, and its slate roof.

Ligny had rented it for a year from an old merchant's clerk, who had wearied of it because nocturnal prowlers used to steal his fowls and rabbits. On either side of the grass-plot a gravel path led to the steps. They took the path on the right. The gravel creaked beneath their feet.

"Madame Simonneau has forgotten to close the shutters again," said Ligny.

Madame Simonneau was a woman from Neuilly, who came every morning to clean up.

A large Judas-tree, leaning to one side, and to all appearance dead, stretched one of its round black branches as far as the portico.

"I don't quite like that tree," said Félicie; "its branches are like great snakes. One of them goes almost into our room."

They went up the three front steps; and, while he was looking through his bunch of keys for the key of the front door, she rested her head on his shoulder.

* * *

Félicie, when unveiling her beauty, displayed a serene pride which made her adorable. She revealed such a quiet satisfaction in her nudity that her chemise, when it fell to her feet, made the onlooker think of a white peacock.

And when Robert saw her in her nakedness, bright as the streams or stars, he said:

"At least you don't make one badger you! Its curious: there are women, who, even if you don't ask them for anything, surrender themselves completely, go just as far as it's possible to go, yet all the time they won't let you see so much as a finger-breadth of skin."

"Why?" asked Félicie, playing with the airy threads of her hair.

Robert de Ligny had experience of women. Yet he did not realize what an insidious question this was. He had received some training in moral science, and in replying he derived inspiration from the professors whose classes he had attended.

"It is doubtless a matter of training, religious principles, and an innate feeling which survives even when--"

This was not at all what he ought to have replied, for Félicie, shrugging her shoulders, and placing her hands upon her smoothly polished hips, interrupted him sharply:

"Well, you are simple! It's because they've got bad figures! Training! Religion! It makes me boil to hear such rubbish! Have I been brought up any worse than other women? Have I less religion than they have? Tell me, Robert, how many really well-made women have you ever seen? Just reckon them up on your fingers. Yes, there are heaps of women who won't show their shoulders or anything. Take Fagette; she won't let even women see her undress; when she puts a clean chemise on she holds the old one between her teeth. Sure enough, I should do the same if I were built as she is!"

She relapsed into silence, and, with quiet arrogan

ce, slowly ran the palms of her hands over her sides and her loins, observing proudly:

"And the best of it is that there's not too much of me anywhere."

She was conscious of the charm imparted to her beauty by the graceful slenderness of her outlines.

Now her head, thrown back on the pillow, was bathed in the masses of her golden tresses, which lay streaming in all directions; her slender body, slightly raised by a pillow slipped beneath her loins, lay motionless at full length; one gleaming leg was extended along the edge of the bed, ending in a sharply chiselled foot like the point of a sword. The light from the great fire which had been lit in the fireplace gilded her flesh, casting palpitating lights and shadows over her motionless body, clothing it in mystery and splendour, while her outer clothing and her underlinen, lying on the chairs and the carpet, waited, like a docile flock.

She raised herself on her elbow, resting her cheek in her hand.

"You are the first, really you are, I am not lying: the others don't exist."

He felt no jealousy in respect of the past; he had no fear of comparisons. He questioned her:

"Then the others?"

"To begin with, there were only two: my professor, and he of course doesn't count, and there was the man I told you about, a solid sort of a person, whom my mother saddled me with."

"No more?"

"I swear it."

"And Chevalier?"

"Chevalier? He? Good gracious, no! You wouldn't have had me look at him!"

"And the solid sort of person found by your mother, he, too, does not count any more?"

"I assure you that, with you, I am another woman. It's the solemn truth that you are the first to possess me. It's queer, all the same. Directly I set eyes on you I wanted you. Quite suddenly I felt I must have you. I felt it somehow. What? I should find it very hard to say. Oh, I didn't stop to think. With your conventional, stiff, frigid manners, and your appearance, like a curly-haired little wolf, you pleased me, that was all! And now I could not do without you. No, indeed, I couldn't."

He assured her that on her surrender he had been deliciously surprised; he said all sorts of pretty, caressing things, all of which had been said before.

Taking his head in her hands, she said:

"You have really the teeth of a wolf. I think it was your teeth that made me want you the first day. Bite me!"

He pressed her to his bosom, and felt her firm supple body respond to his embrace. Suddenly she released herself:

"Don't you hear the gravel creaking?"

"No."

"Listen: I can hear a sound of footsteps on the path."

Sitting upright, her body bent forward, she strained her ears.

He was disappointed, excited, irritated, and perhaps his self-esteem was slightly hurt.

"What has come over you? It's absurd."

She cried very sharply:

"Do hold your tongue!"

She was listening intently to a slight sound, near at hand, as of breaking branches.

Suddenly she leapt from the bed with such instinctive agility, with a movement so like the rapid spring of a young animal, that Ligny, although by no means of a literary turn of mind, thought of the cat metamorphosed into a woman.

"Are you crazy? Where are you going?"

Raising a corner of the curtain, she wiped the moisture from the corner of a pane, and peered out through the window. She saw nothing but the night. The noise had ceased altogether.

During this time, Ligny, lying moodily against the wall, was grumbling:

"As you will, but, if you catch a cold, so much the worse for you!"

She glided back into bed. At first he remained somewhat resentful; but she wrapped him about with the delicious freshness of her body.

When they came to themselves they were surprised to see by one of their watches that it was seven o'clock.

Ligny lit the lamp, a paraffin lamp, supported on a column, with a cut-glass container inside which the wick was curled up like a tape-worm. Félicie was very quick in dressing herself. They had to descend one floor by a wooden staircase, dark and narrow. He went ahead, carrying the lamp, and halted in the passage.

"You go out, darling, before I put the lamp out."

She opened the door, and immediately recoiled with a loud shriek. She had seen Chevalier standing on the outer steps, with arms extended, tall, black, erect as a crucifix. His hand grasped a revolver. The glint of the weapon was not perceptible; nevertheless she saw it quite distinctly.

"What's the matter?" demanded Ligny, who was turning down the wick of the lamp.

"Listen, but don't come near me!" cried Chevalier in a loud voice. "I forbid you to belong to one another. This is my dying wish. Good-bye, Félicie."

And he slipped the barrel of the revolver into his mouth.

Crouching against the passage wall, she closed her eyes. When she reopened them, Chevalier was lying on his side, across the doorway. His eyes were wide open, and he seemed to be gazing at them with a smile. A thread of blood was trickling from his mouth over the flagstones of the porch. A convulsive tremor shook his arm. Then he ceased to move. As he lay there, huddled up; he seemed smaller than usual.

On hearing the report of the revolver, Ligny had hurriedly come forward. In the darkness of the night he raised the body, and immediately lowering it gently to the ground he attempted to strike matches, which the wind promptly extinguished. At last, by the flare of one of the matches, he saw that the bullet had carried away part of the skull, that the meninges were laid bare over an area as large as the palm of the hand; this area was grey, oozing blood, and very irregular in shape, its outlines reminding Ligny of the map of Africa. He was conscious of a sudden feeling of respect in the presence of this dead man. Placing his hands under the armpits, he dragged Chevalier with the minutest precautions into the room at the side. Leaving him there, he hurried through the house in quest of Félicie, calling to her.

He found her in the bedroom, with her head buried under the bed-clothes of the unmade bed, crying: "Mamma! Mamma!" and repeating prayers.

"Don't stay here, Félicie."

She went downstairs with him. But, on reaching the hall, she said:

"You know very well that we can't go out that way."

He showed her out by the kitchen door.

* * *

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