Tall, slim, looking almost naked under her transparent dress of gauze, which fell in straight folds as far as the gold bracelets on her slender wrists, with languor in her rich voice, and something undulating and feline in the rhythmical swing of her wrist and hips. Tatia Caroly was singing one of those sweet Creole songs which call up some far distant fairy-like country, and unknown caresses, for which the lips remain always thirsting.
Footit, the clown, was leaning against the piano with a blackened face, and with his mouth that looked like a red gash from a saber cut, and his wide open eyes, he expressed feelings of the most extravagant emotion, while some niggers squatted on the ground, and accompanied the orchestra by strumming on some yellow, empty gourds.
But what made the woman and the children in the pantomime of the “New Circus” laugh most, was the incessant quarrel between an enormous Danish hound and a poor old supernumerary, who was blackened like a negro minstrel, and dressed like a Mulatto woman. The dog was always annoying him, followed him, snapped at his legs, and at his old wig, with his sharp teeth, and tore his coat and his silk pocket-handkerchief, whenever he could get hold of it, to pieces. And the man used positively to allow himself to be molested and bitten, played his part with dull resignation, with mechanical unconsciousness of a man who has come down in the world, and who gains his livelihood as best he can, and who has already endured worse things than that.
And when half turning round to the two club men, with whom she had just been dining at the Café Anglais, as she used her large fan of black feathers, in a pretty, supple pose, with the light falling on to the nape of her fair neck, Noele de Fréjus exclaimed: “Wherever did they unearth that horrible, grotesque figure?”
Lord Shelley, who was a pillar of the circuses, and who knew the performances, the length of time the acrobats had been performing, and the private history of all of them, whether clowns or circus riders, replied: “Do not you recognize him, my dear?” “That lump of soot? . . . Are you having a joke with me?”
“He certainly has very much changed, poor fellow, and not to his advantage . . . Nevertheless James Stirling was a model of manly beauty and elegance, and he led such an extravagant life that all sorts of stories were rife about him, and many people declared that he was some high-class adventurer . . . At any rate he thought no more of danger than he did of smoking a good cigar.
“Do you not remember him at the Hippodrome, when he stood on the bare back of a horse, and drove five other tandem fashion at full gallop and without making a mistake, but checking them, or urging them on with his thin, muscular hands, just as he pleased. And he seemed to be riveted on to the horse, and kept on it, as if he had been held on by invisible hands.”
“Yes, I remember him . . . James Stirling,” she said. “The circus rider, James Stirling, on whose account that tall girl Caro, who was also a circus rider, gave that old stager Blanche Taupin a cut right and left across the face with her riding-whip, because she had tried to get him from her . . . But what can have happened to him, to have brought him down to such a position?”
Horrible, hairy monkeys, grimacing under their red and blue masks, had invaded the arena, and with their hair hanging down on to their bare shoulders, looking very funny with their long tails, their gray skin tights and their velvet breeches, these female dancers twisted, jumped, hopped and drew their lascivious and voluptuous circle more closely round Chocolat, who shook the red skirts of his coat, rolled his eyes, and showed his large, white teeth in a foolish smile, as if he were the prey of irresistible desire, and yet terribly afraid of what might happen, and Lord Shelley taking some grapes out of a basket that Noele de Fréjus offered him, said: “It is not a very cheerful story, but then true stories rarely are. At the time when he was still unknown, and when he used to have to tighten his belt more frequently than he got enough to eat and drink, James Stirling followed the destinies of a circus which traveled with its vans from fair to fair and from place to place, and fell in love with a gipsy columbine, who also formed part of this wandering, half starved company.
“She was not twenty, and astonished the others by her rash boldness, her absolute contempt for danger and obstacles, and her strange and adroit strength. She charmed them also by a magic philter which came from her hair, which was darker that a starless night, from her large, black, coaxing, velvety eyes, that were concealed by the fringe of such long lashes that they curled upwards, from her scented skin, that was as soft as rice paper, and every touch of which was a suggestive and tempting caress, from her firm, full, smiling, childlike mouth, which uttered nothing but laughter, jokes, and love songs, and gave promise of kisses.
“She rode bare-backed horses, without bit or bridle, stretched herself out on their backs, as if on a bed, and mingled her disheveled hair with their manes, swaying her supple body to their most impetuous movements, and at other times standing almost on their shoulders or on the crupper, while she juggled with looking-glasses, brass balls, knives that flashed as they twirled rapidly round in the smoky light of the paraffin lamps that were fastened to the tent poles.
“Her name was Sacha, that pretty Slavonic name which has such a sweet and strange sound, and she gave herself to him entirely, because he was handsome, strong, and spoke to women very gently, like one talks to quite little children, who are so easily frightened, and made to cry, and it was on her account that in a quarrel in Holland he knocked down an Italian wild beast tamer, by a blow between the two eyes.
“They adored each other so, that they never thought of their poverty, but redoubled their caresses when they had nothing to eat, not even an unripe apple stolen from an orchard, nor a lump of bread which they had begged on the road, of some charitable soul. And they embraced each other more ardently still, when they were obliged to stop for the night in the open country, and shivered in the old, badly-closed vans, and had to be very sparing with the wood, and could not illuminate the snow with those large bivouac fires, whose smoke rises in such fantastic, spiral curls, and whose flames look like a spot of blood, at a distance, seen through the mist.
“It was one of those Bohemian quasi-matrimonial arrangements, which are often more enduring than ours, and in which a man and a woman do not part for a mere caprice, a dream, or a piece of folly.
“But by-and-bye she was no longer good for anything, and had to give up appearing on the program, for she was in the family way. James Stirling worked for both, and thought that he should die of grief when she was brought to bed, and after three days of intense suffering, died with her hand in his.
“And now, all alone, crushed by grief, so ill that at times he thought his heart had stopped, the circus rider lived for the child which the dead woman had left him as a legacy. He bought a goat, so that it might have pure milk, and brought it up with such infinite, deep, womanly tenderness, that the child called him ‘Mamma,’ and in the circus they nick-named him: Mamma Stirling.
“The boy was like his mother, and one might have said that he had brought James luck, for he had made his mark, was receiving a good income, and appeared in every performance. Well-made and agile, and profiting by the lessons which he received at the circus, little Stirling was soon fit to appear on the posters, and the night when he made his first appearance at Franconi’s, old Tom Pears, the clown, who understood such matters better than most, exclaimed: ‘My boy, you will make your way, if you don’t break your neck first!’ ‘I will take care of that, Monsieur Pears,’ the lad replied, with a careless shrug of the shoulder.
“He was extremely daring, and when he threw himself from one trapeze to the other, in a bold flight through the air, one might almost have fancied in the silvery electric light, that he was some fabulous bird with folded wings, and he executed all his feats with unequalled, natural grace, without seeming to make an effort, but he unbraced his limbs of steel, and condensed all his strength in one supreme, mad leap. His chest, under its pearl-gray tights, hardly rose, and there was not a drop of perspiration on his forehead, among the light curls which framed it, like a golden halo.
“He had an almost disdainful manner of smiling at the public, as if he had been working like an artist, who loves his profession, and who is amused at danger, rather than like an acrobat who is paid to amuse people after dinner; and during his most difficult feats he often uttered a shrill cry, like that of some wild beast which defies the sportsman, as it falls on its prey. But that sportsman is always on the alert, and he is the Invisible, which closes the brightest eyes, and the most youthful lips for ever.
“And in spite of oneself, one was excited by it, and could have wished, from a superstitious instinct, that he would not continually have that defiant cry, which seemed to give him pleasure, on his lips. James Stirling watched over him like the mother of an actress does, who knows that she is in some corner, and fears dangerous connections, in which the strongest are entangled and ruined, and they lived together in a boarding-house near the Arc de Triumph.
“It was a very simple apartment, with immense posters of every color and in every language pinned to the wall, on which the name of Stirling appeared in large, striking letters; photographs with inscriptions, and tinsel wreaths, though there were two of real laurel, that were covered with dust, and were gradually falling to pieces.
“One night, the young fellow for the first time did not come home, and only returned in time for rehearsal, tired, with blue rims under his eyes, his lips cracked with feverish heat, and with pale cheeks, but with such a look of happiness, and such a peculiar light in his eyes, that Mamma Stirling felt as if he had been stabbed, and had not the strength to find fault with him; and emboldened, radiant, longing to give vent to the mad joy which filled his whole being, to express his sensations, and recount his happiness, like a lad talking to his elder brother, he told James Stirling his love intrigue from beginning to end, and how much in love he was with the light-haired girl who had clasped him in her arms, and initiated him into the pleasures of the flesh.
“It had been coming for some time, he said. She went to every performance, and always occupied the same box. She used to send him letters by the boxopener, letters which smelt like bunches of violets, and always smiled at him when he came into the ring to bow to the public, amidst the applause and recalls, and it was that smile, those red, half-open lips, which seemed to promise so many caresses and delicious words, that had attracted him like some strange, fragrant fruit. Sometimes she came with gentlemen in evening dress, and with gardenias in their button-holes, who seemed to bore her terribly, if not to disgust her. And he was happy, although he had never yet spoken to her, that she had not that smile for them which she had for him, and that she appeared dull and sad, like somebody who is homesick, or who has got a great longing for something.
“On other evenings, she used to be quite alone, with black pearls in the lobes of her small ears, that were like pink shells, and got up and left her box as soon as he had finished his performance on the trapeze . . . while the evening before she carried him off almost forcibly in her carriage, without even giving him time to get rid of his tights, and the india-rubber armlets that he wore on his wrists. Oh! that return to the cold, in the semi-obscurity, through which the trembling light of the street lamps shone, that warm, exciting clasp of her arms round him, which imprisoned him, and by degrees drew him close to that warm body, whose slightest throb and shiver he felt, as if she had been clothed in impalpable gauze, and whose odor mounted to his head like fumes of whisky, an odor in which there was something of everything, of the animal, of the woman, of spices, of flowers, and something that he did not yet know.
“And they were despotic, imperious, divine kisses, when she put her lips to his and kept them there, as if to make him dream of an eternity of bliss, sucking in his breath, hurting his lips, intoxicating, overwhelming him with delight, exhausting him, while she held his head in both her hands, as if in a vice. And the carriage rolled on at a quick trot, through the silence of the snow, and they did not even hear the noise of the wheels, which buried themselves in that white carpet, as if it had been cotton-wool. Suddenly, however, tired and exhausted she leant against him with closed eyes and moist lips, and then they talked at random, like people who are not quite themselves, and who have uncorked too many bottles of champagne on a benefit night.
“She questioned him, and laughed at his theatrical slang, wrapped her otter-skin rug round his legs, and murmured: ‘Come close to me, darling; at any rate, you are not cold, I hope?’ When they reached her pretty little house, with old tapestry and delicate colored plush hangings, they found supper waiting for them, and she amused herself by attending to him herself, with the manners of a saucy waitress . . . And then there were kisses, constant, insatiable, maddening kisses, and the lad exclaimed, with glistening eyes, at the thoughts of future meetings: ‘If you only knew how pretty she is! And then, it is nicer than anything else in the world to obey her, to do whatever she wants, and to allow oneself to be loved as she wishes!’
“Mamma Stirling was very uneasy, but resigned himself to the inevitable, and seeing how infatuated the boy was, he took care not to be too sharp with him, or to keep too tight a hand upon the reins. The woman who had debauched the lad was a fast woman, and nothing else, and after all, the old stager preferred that to one of those excitable women who are as dangerous for a man as the plague, whereas a girl of that sort can be taken and left again, and one does not risk one’s heart at the same time as one does one’s skin, for a man knows what they are worth. He was mistaken, however. Nelly d’Argine, she is married to a Yankee, now, and has gone to New York with him, was one of those vicious women whom a man can only wish his worst enemy to have, and she had merely taken a fancy to the young fellow because she was bored to death, and because her senses were roused like the embers which break out again, when a fire is nearly out.
“Unfortunately, he had taken the matter seriously, and was very jealous, and as suspicious as a deer, and had never imagined that this love affair could come to an end, and proud, with his hot gipsy blood, he wished to be the only lover, the only master who paid, and who could not be shown the door, like a troublesome and importunate parasite.
“Stirling had saved some money, by dint of a hard struggle, and had invested it in the Funds against a rainy day, when he should be too old to work, and to gain a livelihood, and when he saw how madly in love his son was, and how obstinate in his lamentable folly, he gave him all his savings and deprived himself of his stout and gin, so that the boy might have money to give to his mistress, and might continue to be happy, and not have any cares, and so between them, they kept Nelly.
“Stirling’s debts accumulated, and he mortgaged his salary for years in advance to the usurers who haunt circuses as if they were gambling hells, who are on the watch for passions, poverty and disappointments, who keep plenty of ready stamped bill paper in their pockets, as well as money, which they haggle over, coin by coin. But in spite of all this, the lad sang, made a show, and amused himself, and used to say to him, as he kissed him on both cheeks: ‘How kind you are, in spite of everything!’
“In a month’s time, as he was becoming too exacting, he followed her, questioned her and worried her with perpetual scenes, Nelly found that she had had enough of her gymnast; he was a toy which she had done with and worn out, and which was now only in her way, and only worth throwing into the gutter. She was satiated with him, and became once more the tranquil woman whom nothing can move, and who baits her ground quite calmly, in order to find a husband and to make a fresh start. And so she turned the young fellow out of doors, as if he had been some beggar soliciting alms. He did not complain, however, and did not say anything to Mamma Stirling, but worked as he had done in the past, and mastered himself with superhuman energy, so as to hide the grief that was gnawing at his heart and killing him, and the disenchantment with everything that was making him sick of life.
“Some time afterwards, when there was to be a special display for the officers, seeing Nelly d’Argine there in a box surrounded by her usual admirers, appearing indifferent to everything that was going on, and not even apparently noticing that he was performing, and was being heartily applauded, he threw his trapeze forward as far as he could, at the end of his performance, and exerting all his strength, and certain that he should fall beyond the protecting net, he flung himself furiously into space.
“A cry of horror resounded from one end of the house to the other, when he was picked up disfigured, and with nearly every bone in his body broken. The unfortunate young fellow was no longer breathing, his chest was crushed in, and blood-stained froth was issuing from his lips, and Nelly d’Argine made haste to leave the house with her friends, saying in a very vexed voice:
“‘It is very disgusting to come in the hopes of being amused, and to witness an accident!’
“And Mamma Stirling, who was ruined and in utter despair, and who cared for nothing more in this world, after that took to drinking, used to get constantly drunk, and rolled from public-house to public-house, and bar to bar, and as the worst glass of vitrol still cost a penny, he became reduced to undertaking the part which you have seen, to dabble in the water, to blacken himself, and to allow himself to be bitten.
“Ah! What a wretched thing life is for those who are kind, and who have too much heart!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58