He had been registered under the names of Jean Marie Mathieu Valot, but he was never called anything but Mademoiselle. He was the idiot of the district, but not one of those wretched, ragged idiots who live on public charity. He lived comfortably on a small income which his mother had left him, and which his guardian paid him regularly, and so he was rather envied than pitied. And then, he was not one of those idiots with wild looks, and the manners of an animal, for he was by no means an unpleasing object, with his half-open lips and smiling eyes, and especially in his constant make-up in female dress. For he dressed like a girl, and showed by that, how little he objected to being called Mademoiselle.
And why should he not like the nickname which his mother had given him affectionately, when he was a mere child, and so delicate and weak, with such a fair complexion, a poor little diminutive lad, that he was not as tall as many girls of the same age? It was in pure love that, in his earlier years, his mother whispered that tender Mademoiselle to him, while his old grandmother used to say jokingly:
“The fact is, that as for the tip-cat he has got, it is really not worth mentioning in a Christian. No offense to God in saying so.” And his grandfather who was equally fond of a joke, used to add: “I only hope he will not lose it, as he grows bigger, like tadpoles do their tails!”
And they treated him as if he had really been a girl and coddled him, the more so as they were very prosperous, and did not require a man to keep things together.
When his mother and grandparents were dead, Mademoiselle was almost as happy with his paternal uncle, an unmarried man, who had carefully attended the idiot, and who had grown more and more attached to him by dint of looking after him; and the worthy man continued to call Jean Marie Mathieu Valot, Mademoiselle.
He was called so in all the country round as well, not with the slightest intention of hurting his feelings, but, on the contrary, because all thought they would please the poor gentle creature who harmed nobody.
The very street boys meant no harm by it, accustomed as they were to call the tall idiot in a frock and cap, so; but it would have struck them as very extraordinary, and would have led them to in rude fun, if they had seen him dressed like a boy.
Mademoiselle, however, took care of that, for his dress was as dear to him as his nickname. He delighted in wearing it, and, in fact, cared for nothing else, and what gave it a particular zest was, that he knew that he was not a girl, and that he was living in disguise. And this was evident, by the exaggerated feminine bearing and walk he put on, as if to show that it was not natural to him. His enormous, carefully frilled cap was adorned with large variegated ribbons. His petticoat, with numerous flounces, was distended behind by many hoops. He walked with short steps, and with exaggerated swaying of the hips, while his folded arms and crossed hands were distorted into pretensions of comical coquetry.
On such occasions, if anybody wished to make friends with him, it was necessary to say:
“Ah! Mademoiselle, what a nice girl you make.”
That put him into a good humor, and he used to reply, much pleased:
“Don’t I? But people can see I only do it for a joke.”
But, nevertheless, when they were dancing at village festivals in the neighborhood, he would always be invited to dance as Mademoiselle, and would never ask any of the girls to dance with him; and one evening when somebody asked him the reason for this, he opened his eyes wide, laughed as if the man had said something very stupid, and replied:
“I cannot ask the girls because I am not dressed like a lad. Just look at my dress, you fool!”
As his interrogator was a judicious man, he said to him:
“Then dress like one, Mademoiselle.”
He thought for a moment, and then said with a cunning look:
“But if I dress like a lad, I shall no longer be a girl; but then, I am a girl;” and he shrugged his shoulders as he said it.
But the remark seemed to make him think.
For some time afterwards, when he met the same person, he asked him abruptly:
“If I dress like a lad, will you still call me Mademoiselle?”
“Of course, I shall,” the other replied. “You will always be called so.”
The idiot appeared delighted, for there was no doubt that he thought more of his nickname than he did of his dress, and the next day he made his appearance in the village square without his petticoats and dressed as a man. He had taken a pair of trousers, a coat and a hat, from his guardian’s clothes-press, and this created quite a revolution in the neighborhood, for the people, who had been in the habit of smiling at him kindly when he was dressed as a woman, looked at him in astonishment and almost in fear, while the indulgent could not help laughing, and visibly making fun of him.
The involuntary hostility of some, and the too evident ridicule of others, the disagreeable surprise of all, were too palpable for him not to see it, and to be hurt by it, and it was still worse when a street urchin said to him in a jeering voice, as he danced round him:
“Oh! oh! Mademoiselle, you wear trousers! Oh! oh! Mademoiselle!”
And it grew worse and worse, when a whole band of these vagabonds were on his heels, hooting and yelling after him, as if he had been somebody in a masquerading dress, during the carnival.
It was quite certain that the unfortunate creature looked much more as if he were in a disguise now than he had done formerly. By dint of living like a girl, and by even exaggerating the feminine walk and manners, he had totally lost all masculine looks and ways. His smooth face, his long flax like hair, required a cap with ribbons, and became a caricature under the high chimney-pot hat of the old doctor, his grandson.
Mademoiselle’s shoulders, and especially her swelling stern danced about wildly in this old fashioned coat and wide trousers. And nothing was as funny as the contrast between his quiet dress and slow trotting pace, the winning way he combed his head, and the conceited movements of his hands, with which he fanned himself, like a silly girl.
Soon the older lads and the girls, the old women, men of ripe age and even the Judicial Councilor joined the little brats, and hooted Mademoiselle, while the astonished idiot ran away, and rushed into the house with terror. There he took his poor head between both hands, and tried to comprehend the matter. Why were they angry with him? For it was quite evident that they were angry with him. What wrong had he done, and whom had he injured, by dressing as a boy? Was he not a boy, after all? For the first time in his life, he felt a horror for his nickname, for had he not been insulted through it? But immediately he was seized with a horrible doubt.
“Suppose that, after all, I was a girl?”
He would have liked to ask his guardian about it but he did not want to, for he somehow felt, although only obscurely, that he, worthy man, might not tell him the truth, out of kindness. And, besides, he preferred to find out for himself, without asking anyone.
All his idiot’s cunning, which had been lying latent up till then, because he never had any occasion to make use of it, now came out and urged him to a solitary and dark action.
The next day he dressed himself as a girl again, and made his appearance as if he had perfectly forgotten his escapade of the day before, but the people, especially the street boys, had not forgotten it. They looked at him sideways, and, even the best of them, could not help smiling, while the little blackguards ran after him and said:
“Oh! oh! Mademoiselle, you had on a pair of breeches!”
But he pretended to hear, moreover, to guess to whom they were alluding. He seemed as happy, and glad to look about him as he usually did, with half open lips and smiling eyes. As usual, he wore an enormous cap with variegated ribbons, and large petticoats as usual, he walked with short, mincing steps, swaying and wriggling his hips and crupper, and he gesticulated like a coquette, and licked his lips, when they called him Mademoiselle, while in his head, he would have liked too have jumped at the throat of those who called him so.
Days and months passed, and by degrees these about him forgot all about his strange escapade, but he had never left off thinking about it, nor trying to find out, for which he was ever on the alert — how he could find out what were his qualities as a boy, and how could he assert them victoriously. Really innocent, he had reached the age of twenty without knowing anything about it, or without ever having any natural impulse to discover it, but being tenacious of purpose, curious and dissembling, he asked no questions, but observed all that was said and done.
Often at their village dances, he had heard young fellows boasting about girls whom they had seduced, and praising such and such a young fellow, and often, also, after a dance, he saw the couples go away together, with their arms round each other’s waists. They had no suspicions of him, and he listened and watched, until, at last, he discovered what was going on.
And, then, one night, when dancing was over, and the couples were going away with their arms round each other’s waists, a terrible screaming was heard at the corner of the woods through which those going to the next village, had to pass. It was Josephine, pretty Josephine, for she was brave as well, and when her screams were heard, they ran to her assistance, and they arrived only just in time to rescue her, half strangled from Mademoiselle’s clutches.
The idiot had watched her, and had thrown himself upon her in order to treat her as the other young fellows did the girls, but she resisted him so stoutly that he took her by the throat and squeezed with all his might until she could not breathe, and was nearly dead.
In rescuing Josephine from him, they had thrown him on the ground, but he jumped up again immediately, foaming at the mouth and slobbering, and exclaimed:
“I am not a girl any longer, I am a young man, I am a young man, I tell you.”
And he proudly essayed to convince them that it was so, but the evidence that he could adduce was very slight.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58