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   Chapter 20 No.20

A Mummer's Tale By Anatole France Characters: 12637

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


t Easter an event of great importance increased her joy. She was engaged at the Comédie-Fran?aise. For some time past, without mentioning the subject, she had been trying for this engagement. Her mother had helped her in the steps she had taken. Madame Nanteuil was lovable now that she was loved. She now wore straight corsets and petticoats that she could display anywhere. She frequented the offices of the Ministry, and it is said that, being solicited by the deputy-chief of a department in the Beaux-Arts, she had yielded with very good grace. At least, so Pradel said.

He would exclaim joyfully:

"You wouldn't recognize her now, Mother Nanteuil! She has become most desirable, and I like her better than her little vixen of a daughter. She has a better disposition."

Like the rest of them, Félicie had disdained, despised, disparaged the Comédie-Fran?aise. She had said, as all the others did: "I should hardly care to get into that house." And no sooner did she belong to it than she was filled with proud and joyful exultation. What increased her pleasure twofold was that she was to make her debut in L'école des Femmes. She already studying the part of Agnès with an obscure old professor, Monsieur Maxime, of whom she thought highly because he was acquainted with all the traditions of the stage. At night she was playing Cécile in La Grille, and she was living in a feverish turmoil of work she received a letter in which Robert de Ligny informed her that he was returning to Paris.

During his stay at The Hague he had made certain experiments which had proved to him the strength of his love for Félicie. He had had women who were reported to be pretty and pleasing. But neither Madame Bourmdernoot of Brussels, tall and fresh looking, nor the sisters Van Cruysen, milliners on the Vijver, nor Suzette Berger of the Folies-Marigny, then on tour through Northern Europe, had given him a sense of pleasure in its completeness. When in their company he had regretted Félicie, and had discovered that of all women, he desired her alone. Had it not been for Madame Bourmdernoot, the sisters Van Cruysen, and Suzette Berger, he would never have known how priceless Félicie Nanteuil was to him. If one must be literal it may be argued that he was unfaithful to her. That is the correct expression. There are others which come to the same thing and which are not such good form. But if one looks into the matter more closely he had not deceived her. He had sought her, he had sought her out of herself and had learned that he would find her in herself alone. In his futile wisdom he was almost angered and alarmed; he was uneasy at having to stake the multitude of his desires upon so slender a substance, in so unique and fragile a vessel. And he loved Félicie all the more because he loved her with a certain depth of rage and hatred.

On the very day of his arrival in Paris, he made an appointment with her in a bachelor's flat, which a rich colleague in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had placed at his disposal. It was situated in the Avenue de l'Alma, on the ground-floor of an attractive-looking house, and consisted of a couple of small rooms hung with a design of suns with brown hearts and golden rays, which rose, uniform, peaceful, and shadowless on the cheerful wall. The rooms were modern in style; the furniture was of a pale green, decorated with flowering branches; its outlines followed the gentle curves of the liliaceous plants, and assumed something of the tender feeling of moist vegetation. The cheval-glass leant slightly forward in its frame of bulbous plants of supple form, terminating in closed corollas, and in this frame the mirror had the coolness of water. A white bearskin lay stretched at the foot of the bed.

"You! You! It's you!" was all she could say.

She saw the pupils of his eyes shining and heavy with desire, and while she gazed at him a cloud gathered before her eyes. The subtle fire of her blood, the burning of her loins, the warm breath of her lungs, the fiery colour of her face, were all blended in her mouth, and she pressed on her lover's lips a long, long kiss, a kiss pregnant with all these fires and as fresh as a flower in the dew.

They asked one another twenty things at a time, and their questions intermingled.

"Were you wretched, Robert, when you were away from me?"

"So you are making your début at the Comédie?

"Is The Hague a pretty place?"

"Yes, a quiet little town. Red, grey, yellow houses, with stepped gables, green shutters, and geraniums at the windows."

"What did you do there?"

"Not much. I walked round the Vijver."

"You did not go with women, I should hope?"

"No, upon my word. How pretty you are, my darling! Are you well again now?"

"Yes, I am cured."

And in sudden entreaty she said:

"Robert, I love you. Do not leave me. If you were to leave me I know for certain I could never take another lover. And what would become of me? You know that I can't do without love."

He replied brusquely, in a harsh voice, that he loved her only too well, that he thought of nothing but of her.

"I'm going crazy with it."

His harshness delighted and reassured her better than the nerveless tenderness of oaths and promises could have done. She smiled and began to undress herself generously.

"When do you make your début at the Comédie?"

"This very month."

She opened her little bag, and took from it, together with her face-powder, her call for the rehearsal, which she held out to Robert. It was a source of unending delight to her to gaze admiringly at this document, because it bore the heading of the Comédie, with the remote and awe-inspiring date of its foundation.

"You see, I make my début as Agnès in L'école des Femmes."

"It's a fine part."

"I believe you."

And, while she was undressing, the lines surged to her lips, and she whispered them:

"Moi, j'ai blessé quelqu'un? fis-je tout étonnée

Oui, dit-elle, blessé; mais blessé tout de bon;

Et c'est l'homme qu'hier vous v?tes au balcon

Las! qui pourrait, lui dis-je, en avoir été cause?

Sur lui, sans y penser, fis-je choir quelque chose?"

"You see, I have not grown thin."

"Non, dit-elle, vos yeux ont fait ce coup fatal,

Et c'est de leurs regards qu'est venu tout son mal."

"If anything, I am a little plumper, but not too much."

"Hé, mon Dieu! ma surprise est, fis-je, sans seconde;

Mes yeux ont-ils du mal pour en donner au monde?"

He listened to the lines with pleasure. If on the one hand he did not know much more of the literature of bygone days or of French tradition than his youthful contemporaries, he had more taste and more lively interests. And, like all Frenchmen, he loved Molière, understood him, and felt him profoundly.

"It's delightful," he said. "Now, come to me."

She let her chemise slip downwards with a calm and beneficent grace. But, because she wished to make herself desired, and because she loved comedy, she began Agnès' narrative:

"J'étais sur le balcon à travailler au frais,

Lorsque je vis passer sous les arbres d'auprès

Un jeune homme bien fait qui, rencontrant ma vue...."

He called her, and drew her to him. She glided from his arms, and, advancing toward the mirror, she continued to recite and act before the glass.

"D'une humble révérence aussit?t me salue."

Bending her knee, at first slightly, then lower, then, with her left leg brought forward, and her right thrown, back, she curtsied deeply.

"Moi, pour ne point manquer à la civilité,

Je fis la révérence aussi de mon c?té."

He called her more urgently. But she dropped a second curtsy, the pauses of which she accentuated with amusing precision. And she went on reciting and dropping curtsies at the places indicated by the text and by the traditions of the stage.

"Soudain il me refait une autre révérence;

Moi, j'en refais de même une autre en diligence;

Et lui, d'une troisième aussit?t repartant,

D'une troisième aussi j'y repars à l'instant."

She executed every detail of stage business, seriously and conscientiously, taking pains to give a perfect rendering. Her poses, some of which were disconcerting, requiring as they did a skirt to explain them, were almost all pretty, while all were interesting, inasmuch as they brought into relief the firm muscles under the soft envelope of a young body, and revealed at every movement correspondences and harmonies which are not commonly observed.

When clothing her nudity with the propriety of her attitudes and the ingenuousness of her expressions she was the incarnation, through mere chance and caprice, of a gem of art, an allegory of Innocence in the style of Allegrain or Clodion. And the great lines of the comedy rang out with delicious purity from this animated figurine. Robert, enthralled in spite of himself, suffered her to go on to the very end. What entertained him above all was that the most public of all things, a stage scene, should be presented to him in so private and secret a fashion. And, while watching the ceremonious actions of this girl in all her nudity, he was at the same time revelling in the philosophical pleasure of discovering how dignity is produced in the best social circles.

"Il passe, vient, repasse et toujours de plus belle

Me fait à chaque fois une révérence nouvelle,

Et moi qui tous ses tours fixement regardais,

Nouvelle révérence aussi je lui rendais...."

In the meantime she admired in the mirror her freshly-budded breasts, her supple waist, her arms, a trifle slender, round and tapering, and her smooth, beautiful knees; and, seeing all this subservient to the fine art of comedy, she became animated and exalted; a slight flush, like rouge, tinted her cheeks.

"Tant que si sur ce point la nuit ne f?t venue,

Toujours comme cela je me serais tenue,

Ne voulaut point céder, ni recevoir l'ennui

Qu'il me p?t estimer moins civile que lui...."

He called to her from the bed, where he was lying on his elbow.

"Now come!"

Whereupon, full of animation and with heightened colour, she exclaimed:

"Don't you think that I, too, love you!"

She flung herself beside her lover. Supple and wholly surrendered, she threw back her head, offering to his kisses her eyes veiled with shadowy lashes and her half-parted lips, from which gleamed a moist flash of white.

Of a sudden she started to her knees. Her staring eyes were filled with unspeakable terror. A hoarse scream escaped from her throat, followed by a wail as long drawn out and gentle as an organ note. Turning her head, she pointed to the white fur spread out at the foot of the bed.

"There! There! He is lying there like a crouching dog, with a hole in his head. He is looking at me, with the blood trickling from the corner of his mouth."

Her eyes, wide open, rolled up, showing the whites. Her body stretched backward like a bow, and, when it had recovered its suppleness, she fell as if dead.

He bathed her temples with cold water, and brought her back to consciousness. In a childlike voice she whimpered that every joint in her body was broken. Feeling a burning sensation in the hollow of her hand, she looked, and saw that the palm was cut and bleeding.

She said:

"It's my nails, they've gone into my hand. See, my nails are full of blood!"

She thanked him tenderly for his ministrations, and apologized sweetly for causing him so much trouble.

"It was not for that you came, was it?"

She tried to smile, and looked around her.

"It's nice, here."

Her gaze met the call to rehearsal lying open on the bedside table, and she sighed:

"What is the use of my being a great actress if I am not happy?"

Without realizing it, she was repeating word for word what Chevalier had said when she rejected his advances.

Then, raising her still stupefied head from the pillow in which it had lain buried, she turned her mournful eyes toward her lover, and said to him resignedly:

"We did indeed love each other, we two. It is over. We shall never again belong to each other; no, never. He forbids it!"

THE END

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Transcriber's Note

The following typos have been corrected.

Page Typo Correction

92 disease. disease."

103 Saint-Etienne-du-Mont Saint-étienne-du-Mont

104 Saint-êtienne-du-Mont Saint-étienne-du-Mont

138 dimunitive diminutive

141 magificent magnificent

141 Saint-êtienne-du-Mont Saint-étienne-du-Mont

The following inconsistent hyphenations in the source text were left unchanged:

ill-will/illwill

fire-place/fireplace

box-wood/boxwood

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