Works, by Guy de Maupassant

An Honest Ideal

Among my numerous friends in Vienna, there is one who is an author, and who has always amused me by his childish idealism.

Not by his idealism from an abstract point of view, for in spite of my Pessimism I am an absurd Idealist, and because I am perfectly well aware of this, I as a rule never laugh at people’s Idealism, but his sort of Idealism was really too funny.

He was a serious man of great capabilities who only just fell short of being learned, with a clear, critical intellect; a man without any illusions about Society, the State, Literature, or anything else, and especially not about women; but yet he was the craziest Optimist as soon as he got upon the subject of actresses, theatrical princesses and heroines; he was one of those men, who, like Hackländer, cannot discover the Ideal of Virtue anywhere, except in a ballet girl.

My friend was always in love with some actress or other; of course only Platonically, and from preference with some girl of rising talent, whose literary knight he constituted himself, until the time came when her admirers laid something much more substantial than laurel wreaths at her feet; then he withdrew and sought for fresh talent which would allow itself to be patronized by him.

He was never without the photograph of his ideal in his breast pocket, and when he was in a good temper he used to show me one or other of them, whom I had never seen, with a knowing smile, and once, when we were sitting in a café in the Prater, he took out a portrait without saying a word, and laid it on the table before me.

It was the portrait of a beautiful woman, but what struck me in it first of all was not the almost classic cut of her features, but her white eyes.

“If she had not the black hair of a living woman, I should take her for a statue,” I said.

“Certainly,” my friend replied; “for a statue of Venus, perhaps for the Venus of Milo, herself.”

“Who is she?”

“A young actress.”

“That is a matter of course in your case; what I meant was, what is her name?”

My friend told me, and it was a name which is at present one of the best known on the German stage, with which a number of terrestrial adventures are connected, as every Viennese knows, with which those of Venus herself were only innocent toying, but which I then heard for the first time.

My idealist described her as a woman of the highest talent, which I believed, and as an angel of purity, which I did not believe; on that particular occasion, however, I at any rate did not believe the contrary.

A few days later, I was accidentally turning over the leaves of the portrait album of another intimate friend of mine, who was a thoroughly careless, somewhat dissolute Viennese, and I came across that strange female face with the dead eyes again.

“How did you come by the picture of this Venus?” I asked him.

“Well, she certainly is a Venus,” he replied, “but one of that cheap kind who are to be met with in the Graben1, which is their ideal grove. . . . ”

1 The street where most of the best shops are to be found, and much frequented by venial beauties. — TRANSLATOR.]

“Impossible!”

“I give you my word of honor it is so.”

I could say nothing more after that. So my intellectual friend’s new ideal, that woman of the highest dramatic talent, that wonderful woman with the white eyes, was a street Venus!

But my friend was right in one respect. He had not deceived himself with regard to her wonderful dramatic gifts, and she very soon made a career for herself; far from being a mute character on a suburban stage, she rose in two years to be the leading actress at one of the principal theaters.

My friend interested himself on her behalf with the manager of it, who was not blinded by any prejudices. She acted in a rehearsal, and pleased him; whereupon he sent her to star in the provinces, and my friend accompanied her, and took care she was well puffed.

She went on the boards as Schiller’s Marie Stuart, and achieved the most brilliant success, and before she had finished her starring tour, she obtained an engagement at a large theater in a Northern town, where her appearance was the signal for a triumphant success.

Her reputation, that is, her reputation as a most gifted actress, grew very high in less than a year, and the manager of the Court theater invited her to star at the Court theater.

She was received with some suspicion at first, but she soon overcame all prejudices and doubts; the applause grew more and more vehement at every act, and at the close of the performance, her future was decided. She obtained a splendid engagement, and soon afterwards became an actress at the Court theater.

A well-known author wrote a racy novel, of which she was the heroine; one of the leading bankers and financiers was at her feet; she was the most popular personage, and the lioness of the capital; she had splendid apartments, and all her surroundings were of the most luxurious character, and she had reached that height in her career at which my idealistic friend, who had constituted himself her literary knight, quietly took his leave of her, and went in search of fresh talent.

But the beautiful woman with the dead eyes and the dead heart seemed to be destined to be the scourge of the Idealists, quite against her will, for scarcely had one unfolded his wings and flown away from her, than another fell out of the nest into her net.

A very young student, who was neither handsome, nor of good family, and certainly not rich or even well off, but who was enthusiastic, intellectual and impressionable, saw her as Marie Stuart in The Maid of Orleans, The Lady with the Camelias, and most of the plays of the best French play writers, for the manager was making experiments with her, and she was doing the same with her talents.

The poor student was enraptured with the celebrated actress, and at the same time conceived a passion for the woman, which bordered on madness.

He saved up penny by penny, he nearly starved himself, only in order that he might be able to pay for a seat in the gallery whenever she acted, and be able to devour her with his eyes. He always got a seat in the front row, for he was always outside three hours before the doors opened, so as to be one of the first to gain his Olympus, the seat of the theatrical enthusiasts; he grew pale, and his heart beat violently when she appeared; he laughed when she laughed, shed tears when she wept, applauded her, as if he had been paid to do it by the highest favors that a woman can bestow, and yet she did not know him, and was ignorant of his very existence.

The regular frequenters of the Court theater noticed him at last, and spoke about his infatuation for her, until at last she heard about him, but still did not know him, and although he could not send her any costly jewelry, and not even a bouquet, yet at last he succeeded in attracting her attention.

When she had been acting and the theater had been empty for a long time, and she left it, wrapped in valuable furs and got into the carriage of her banker, which was waiting for her at the stage door, he always stood there, often up to his ankles in snow, or in the pouring rain.

At first she did not notice him, but when her maid said something to her in a whisper on one occasion, she looked round in surprise, and he got a look from those large eyes, which were not dead then, but dark and bright; a look which recompensed him for all his sufferings and filled him with proud hopes, which constantly gained more power over the young Idealist, who was usually so modest.

At last there was a thorough, silent understanding between the theatrical princess and the dumb adorer. When she put her foot on the carriage step, she looked round at him, and every time he stood there, devouring her with his eyes; she saw it and got contentedly into her carriage, but she did not see how he ran after the carriage, and how he reached her house, panting for breath, when she did, nor how he lay down outside after the door had closed behind her.

One stormy summer night, when the wind was howling in the chimneys, and the rain was beating against the windows and on the pavement, the poor student was again lying on the stone steps outside her house, when the front door was opened very cautiously and quietly; for it was not the banker who was leaving the house, but a wealthy young officer whom the girl was letting out; he kissed the pretty little Cerebus as he put a gold coin into her hand, and then accidentally trod on the Idealist, who was lying outside.

They all three simultaneously uttered a cry; the girl blew out the candle, the officer instinctively half drew his sword, and the student ran away.

Ever since that night, the poor, crazy fellow went about with a dagger, which he concealed in his belt, and it was his constant companion to the theater, and the stage door, when the actress’s carriage used to wait for her, and to her house, where he nightly kept his painful watch.

His first idea was to kill his fortunate rival, then himself, then the theatrical princess, but at last, he lay down again outside her door, or stood on the pavement and watched the shadows, that flitted hither and thither on her window, turned by the magic spell of the lovely actress.

And then, the most incredible thing happened, something which he could never have hoped for, and which he scarcely believed when it did occur.

One evening, when she had been playing a very important part, she kept the carriage waiting much longer than usual; but at last she appeared, and got into it; she did not shut the door, however, but beckoned to the young Idealist to follow her.

He was almost delirious with joy, just as a moment before he had been almost mad from despair, and obeyed her immediately, and during the drive he lay at her feet and covered her hands with kisses. She allowed it quietly and even merrily, and when the carriage stopped at her door, she let him lift her out of the carriage, and went upstairs leaning on his arm.

There, the lady’s maid showed him into a luxuriously furnished drawing-room, while the actress changed her dress.

Presently she appeared in her dressing gown, sat down carelessly in an easy chair, and asked him to sit down beside her.

“You take a great interest in me?” she said.

“You are my ideal!” the student cried enthusiastically.

The theatrical princess smiled, and said:

“Well, I will at any rate be an honest ideal; I will not deceive you, and you shall not be able to say that I have misused your youthful enthusiasm. I will give myself to you. . . . ”

“Oh! Heavens!” the poor Idealist exclaimed, throwing himself at her feet.

“Wait a moment! Wait a moment!” she said with a smile. “I have not finished yet. I can only love a man who is in a position to provide me with all those luxuries which an actress, or, if you like, which I cannot do without. As far as I know, you are poor, but I will belong to you, only for to-night, however, and in return you must promise me not to rave about me, or to follow me, from to-night. Will you do this?”

The wretched Idealist was kneeling before her; he was having a terrible mental struggle.

“Will you promise me to do this?” she said again.

“Yes,” he said, almost groaning.

The next morning a man, who had buried his Ideal, tottered downstairs. He was pale enough; almost as pale as a corpse; but in spite of this, he is still alive, and if he has any Ideal at all at present, it is certainly not a theatrical princess.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09