Works, by Guy de Maupassant

Virtue in the Ballet

It is a strange feeling of pleasure that the writer about the stage and the characters of the theatrical feels, when he occasionally discovers a good, honest human heart in the twilight behind the scenes. Of all the witches and semi-witches of that eternal Walpurgis night, whose boards represent the world, the ladies of the ballet have at all times and in all places been regarded at least like saints, although Hackländer repeatedly told in vain in his earlier novels, to convince us that true virtue appears in tights and short petticoats and is only to be found in ballet girls. I fear that the popular voice is right as a general rule, but is equally true that here and there one finds a pearl in the dust, and even in the dirt, and the short story that I am about to relate, will best illustrate my assertion.

Whenever a new, youthful dancer appeared at the Vienna Opera House, the habitués began to go after her, and did not rest, until the fresh young rose had been plucked by some hand or other, though often it was old and trembling. For how could those young and pretty, sometimes even beautiful girls who, with every right to life, love and pleasure, were poor and had to subsist on a very small salary, resist the seduction of the smell of flowers and of the flash of diamonds? And if one resisted it, it was love, some real, strong passion, that gave her the strength for this, generally, however, only to go after luxury all the more shamelessly and selfishly, when her lover forsook her.

At the beginning of the winter season of 185 — the pleasing news was spread among the habitués, that a girl of dazzling beauty was going to appear very shortly in the ballet at the Court Theater. When the evening came, nobody had yet seen that much discussed phenomenon, but report spread her name from mouth to mouth; it was Satanella. The moment when the troop of elastic figures in fluttering petticoats jumped onto the stage, every opera-glass in the boxes and stalls was directed on the stage, and at the same instant the new dancer was discovered, although she timidly kept in the background.

She was one of those girls who are surrounded by the bright halo of virginity, but who at the same time present a splendid type of womanhood; she had the voluptuous form of Rubens’ second wife, whom they called, not untruly, the risen Green Helen, and her head with its delicate nose, its small full mouth, and its dark inquiring eyes, reminded people of the celebrated picture of the Flemish Venus in the Belvedere in Vienna.

She took the old guard of the Vienna Court Theater by storm, and the very next morning a perfect shower of billets doux, jewels and bouquets fell into the poor ballet girl’s attic. For a moment she was dazzled by all this splendor and looked at the gold bracelets, the brooches set with rubies and emeralds, and at the sparkling earrings, with flushed cheeks, but then an unspeakable terror of being lost and of sinking into degradation, seized her, and she pushed the jewels away and was about to send them back. But as is usual in such cases, her mother intervened in favor of the generous gentlemen, and so the jewels were accepted, but the notes which accompanied them were not answered at present. A second and a third discharge of Cupid’s artillery followed, without making any impression on that virtuous girl; in consequence a greater number of her admirers grew quiet, though some continued to send her presents, and to assail her with love letters, and one had the courage to go still further.

He was a wealthy banker, who had just called on the mother of Henrietta, as we will call the fair-haired ballet girl, and then one evening, quite unexpectedly, on the girl herself. He by no means met with the reception which he had expected from the pretty girl in a faded cotton gown; Henrietta treated him with a certain amount of good humored respect, which had a much more unpleasant effect on him than that coldness and prudery, which is so often synonymous with coquetry and selfish speculation, among a certain class of women. In spite of everything, however, he soon went to see her daily, and lavished his wealth, without her asking him for anything, on the beautiful dancer, and he gave her no chance of refusing, for he relied on the mother for everything. She took pretty, small apartments for her daughter and herself in the Kärntnerstrasse and furnished them elegantly, hired a cook and housemaid, made an arrangement with a fly-driver, and lastly clothed her daughter’s lovely limbs in silk, velvet and valuable lace.

Henrietta persistently held her tongue at all this; only once she said to her mother in the presence of the Stock Exchange Jupiter:

“Have you won a prize in the lottery?”

“Of course, I have,” her mother replied with a laugh.

The girl, however, had given away her heart long before, and quite contrary to all precedent, to a man whose very name she was ignorant of, and who sent her no diamonds, and not even any flowers. But he was young and good-looking, and stood so retiringly, and so evidently in love, at the small side door of the Opera House every night, when she got out of her antediluvian rickety fly, and also when she got into it again after the performance, that she could not help noticing him. Soon, he began to follow her wherever she went, and once he summoned up courage to speak to her, when she had been to see a friend in a remote suburb. He was very nervous, but she thought all that he said very clear and logical, and she did not hesitate for a moment to confess that she returned his love.

“You have made me the happiest, and at the same time the most wretched of men,” he said after a pause.

“What do you mean?” she said innocently.

“Do you not belong to another man?” he asked her in a sad voice.

She shook her abundant, light curls.

“Up till now, I have belonged to myself alone, and I will prove it to you, by requesting you to call upon me frequently and without restraint. Everyone shall know that we are lovers. I am not ashamed of belonging to an honorable man, but I will not sell myself.”

“But your splendid apartments, and your dresses,” her lover interposed shyly, “you cannot pay for them out of your salary.”

“My mother has won a large prize in the lottery, or made a hit on the Stock Exchange.” And with these words, the determined girl cut short all further explanations.

That same evening the young man paid his first visit, to the horror of the girl’s mother, who was so devoted to the Stock Exchange, and he came again the next day, and nearly every day. Her mother’s reproaches were of no more avail than Jupiter’s furious looks, and when the latter one day asked for an explanation as to certain visits, the girl said proudly:

“That is very soon explained. He loves me as I love him, and I presume you can guess the rest.”

And he certainly did guess the rest, and disappeared, and with him the shower of gold ceased.

The mother cried and the daughter laughed. “I never gave the worn out old rake any hopes, and what does it matter to me, what bargain you made with him? I always thought that you had been lucky on the Stock Exchange. Now, however, we must seriously consider about giving up our apartments, and make up our minds to live as we did before.”

“Are you really capable of making such a sacrifice for me, to renounce luxury and to have my poverty?” her lover said.

“Certainly I am! Is not that a matter of course when one loves?” the ballet girl replied in surprise.

“Then let me inform you, my dear Henrietta,” he said, “that I am not so poor as you think; I only wished to find out, whether I could make myself loved for my own sake, I have done so. I am Count L— — and though I am a minor and dependent on my parents, yet I have enough to be able to retain your pretty rooms for you, and to offer you, if not a luxurious, at any rate a comfortable existence.”

On hearing this, Mamma dried her tears immediately. Count L—— became the girl’s acknowledged lover, and they passed the happiest hours together. Unselfish as the girl was, she was yet such a thoroughly ingenuous Viennese, that, whenever she saw anything that took her fancy, whether it was a dress, a cloak or one of those pretty little ornaments for a side table, she used to express her admiration in such terms, as forced her lover to make her a present of the object in question. In this way, Count L—— incurred enormous debts, which his father paid repeatedly; at last, however, he inquired into the cause of all this extravagance, and when he discovered it, he gave his son the choice of giving up his connection with the dancer, or of relinquishing all claims on the paternal money box.

It was a sorrowful evening, when Count L—— told his mistress of his father’s determination.

“If I do not give you up, I shall be able to do nothing for you,” he said at last, “and I shall not even know how I should manage to live myself, for my father is just the man to allow me to want, if I defy him. That, however, is a very secondary consideration; but as a man of honor, I cannot bind you, who have every right to luxury and enjoyment, to myself, from the moment when I cannot even keep you from want, and so I must set you at liberty.”

“But I will not give you up,” Henrietta said proudly.

The young Count shook his head sadly.

“Do you love me?” the ballet girl said, quickly.

“More than my life.”

“Then we will not separate, as long as I have anything,” she continued.

And she would not give up her connection with him, and when his father actually turned Count L—— into the street, she took her lover into her own lodgings. He obtained a situation as a copyist clerk in a lawyer’s office, and she sold her valuable dresses and jewels, and so they lived for more than a year.

The young man’s father did not appear to trouble his head about them, but nevertheless he knew everything that went on in their small home, and knew every article that the ballet girl sold; until at last, softened by such love and strength of character, he himself made the first advances to a reconciliation with his son.

At the present time, Henrietta wears the diamonds which formerly belonged to the old Countess, and it is long since she was a ballet girl, for now she sits by the side of her husband in a carriage on whose panels their armorial bearings are painted.

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