At nine o’clock in the evening the body of the house at the Theatres des Varietes was still all but empty. A few individuals, it is true, were sitting quietly waiting in the balcony and stalls, but these were lost, as it were, among the ranges of seats whose coverings of cardinal velvet loomed in the subdued light of the dimly burning luster. A shadow enveloped the great red splash of the curtain, and not a sound came from the stage, the unlit footlights, the scattered desks of the orchestra. It was only high overhead in the third gallery, round the domed ceiling where nude females and children flew in heavens which had turned green in the gaslight, that calls and laughter were audible above a continuous hubbub of voices, and heads in women’s and workmen’s caps were ranged, row above row, under the wide-vaulted bays with their gilt-surrounding adornments. Every few seconds an attendant would make her appearance, bustling along with tickets in her hand and piloting in front of her a gentleman and a lady, who took their seats, he in his evening dress, she sitting slim and undulant beside him while her eyes wandered slowly round the house.
Two young men appeared in the stalls; they kept standing and looked about them.
“Didn’t I say so, Hector?” cried the elder of the two, a tall fellow with little black mustaches. “We’re too early! You might quite well have allowed me to finish my cigar.”
An attendant was passing.
“Oh, Monsieur Fauchery,” she said familiarly, “it won’t begin for half an hour yet!”
“Then why do they advertise for nine o’clock?” muttered Hector, whose long thin face assumed an expression of vexation. “Only this morning Clarisse, who’s in the piece, swore that they’d begin at nine o’clock punctually.”
For a moment they remained silent and, looking upward, scanned the shadowy boxes. But the green paper with which these were hung rendered them more shadowy still. Down below, under the dress circle, the lower boxes were buried in utter night. In those on the second tier there was only one stout lady, who was stranded, as it were, on the velvet-covered balustrade in front of her. On the right hand and on the left, between lofty pilasters, the stage boxes, bedraped with long-fringed scalloped hangings, remained untenanted. The house with its white and gold, relieved by soft green tones, lay only half disclosed to view, as though full of a fine dust shed from the little jets of flame in the great glass luster.
“Did you get your stage box for Lucy?” asked Hector.
“Yes,” replied his companion, “but I had some trouble to get it. Oh, there’s no danger of Lucy coming too early!”
He stifled a slight yawn; then after a pause:
“You’re in luck’s way, you are, since you haven’t been at a first night before. The Blonde Venus will be the event of the year. People have been talking about it for six months. Oh, such music, my dear boy! Such a sly dog, Bordenave! He knows his business and has kept this for the exhibition season.” Hector was religiously attentive. He asked a question.
“And Nana, the new star who’s going to play Venus, d’you know her?”
“There you are; you’re beginning again!” cried Fauchery, casting up his arms. “Ever since this morning people have been dreeing me with Nana. I’ve met more than twenty people, and it’s Nana here and Nana there! What do I know? Am I acquainted with all the light ladies in Paris? Nana is an invention of Bordenave’s! It must be a fine one!”
He calmed himself, but the emptiness of the house, the dim light of the luster, the churchlike sense of self-absorption which the place inspired, full as it was of whispering voices and the sound of doors banging — all these got on his nerves.
“No, by Jove,” he said all of a sudden, “one’s hair turns gray here. I— I’m going out. Perhaps we shall find Bordenave downstairs. He’ll give us information about things.”
Downstairs in the great marble-paved entrance hall, where the box office was, the public were beginning to show themselves. Through the three open gates might have been observed, passing in, the ardent life of the boulevards, which were all astir and aflare under the fine April night. The sound of carriage wheels kept stopping suddenly; carriage doors were noisily shut again, and people began entering in small groups, taking their stand before the ticket bureau and climbing the double flight of stairs at the end of the hall, up which the women loitered with swaying hips. Under the crude gaslight, round the pale, naked walls of the entrance hall, which with its scanty First Empire decorations suggested the peristyle of a toy temple, there was a flaring display of lofty yellow posters bearing the name of “Nana” in great black letters. Gentlemen, who seemed to be glued to the entry, were reading them; others, standing about, were engaged in talk, barring the doors of the house in so doing, while hard by the box office a thickset man with an extensive, close-shaven visage was giving rough answers to such as pressed to engage seats.
“There’s Bordenave,” said Fauchery as he came down the stairs. But the manager had already seen him.
“Ah, ah! You’re a nice fellow!” he shouted at him from a distance. “That’s the way you give me a notice, is it? Why, I opened my Figaro this morning — never a word!”
“Wait a bit,” replied Fauchery. “I certainly must make the acquaintance of your Nana before talking about her. Besides, I’ve made no promises.”
Then to put an end to the discussion, he introduced his cousin, M. Hector de la Faloise, a young man who had come to finish his education in Paris. The manager took the young man’s measure at a glance. But Hector returned his scrutiny with deep interest. This, then, was that Bordenave, that showman of the sex who treated women like a convict overseer, that clever fellow who was always at full steam over some advertising dodge, that shouting, spitting, thigh-slapping fellow, that cynic with the soul of a policeman! Hector was under the impression that he ought to discover some amiable observation for the occasion.
“Your theater —” he began in dulcet tones.
Bordenave interrupted him with a savage phrase, as becomes a man who dotes on frank situations.
“Call it my brothel!”
At this Fauchery laughed approvingly, while La Faloise stopped with his pretty speech strangled in his throat, feeling very much shocked and striving to appear as though he enjoyed the phrase. The manager had dashed off to shake hands with a dramatic critic whose column had considerable influence. When he returned La Faloise was recovering. He was afraid of being treated as a provincial if he showed himself too much nonplused.
“I have been told,” he began again, longing positively to find something to say, “that Nana has a delicious voice.”
“Nana?” cried the manager, shrugging his shoulders. “The voice of a squirt!”
The young man made haste to add:
“Besides being a first-rate comedian!”
“She? Why she’s a lump! She has no notion what to do with her hands and feet.”
La Faloise blushed a little. He had lost his bearings. He stammered:
“I wouldn’t have missed this first representation tonight for the world. I was aware that your theater —”
“Call it my brothel,” Bordenave again interpolated with the frigid obstinacy of a man convinced.
Meanwhile Fauchery, with extreme calmness, was looking at the women as they came in. He went to his cousin’s rescue when he saw him all at sea and doubtful whether to laugh or to be angry.
“Do be pleasant to Bordenave — call his theater what he wishes you to, since it amuses him. And you, my dear fellow, don’t keep us waiting about for nothing. If your Nana neither sings nor acts you’ll find you’ve made a blunder, that’s all. It’s what I’m afraid of, if the truth be told.”
“A blunder! A blunder!” shouted the manager, and his face grew purple. “Must a woman know how to act and sing? Oh, my chicken, you’re too STOOPID. Nana has other good points, by heaven! — something which is as good as all the other things put together. I’ve smelled it out; it’s deuced pronounced with her, or I’ve got the scent of an idiot. You’ll see, you’ll see! She’s only got to come on, and all the house will be gaping at her.”
He had held up his big hands which were trembling under the influence of his eager enthusiasm, and now, having relieved his feelings, he lowered his voice and grumbled to himself:
“Yes, she’ll go far! Oh yes, s’elp me, she’ll go far! A skin — oh, what a skin she’s got!”
Then as Fauchery began questioning him he consented to enter into a detailed explanation, couched in phraseology so crude that Hector de la Faloise felt slightly disgusted. He had been thick with Nana, and he was anxious to start her on the stage. Well, just about that time he was in search of a Venus. He — he never let a woman encumber him for any length of time; he preferred to let the public enjoy the benefit of her forthwith. But there was a deuce of a row going on in his shop, which had been turned topsy-turvy by that big damsel’s advent. Rose Mignon, his star, a comic actress of much subtlety and an adorable singer, was daily threatening to leave him in the lurch, for she was furious and guessed the presence of a rival. And as for the bill, good God! What a noise there had been about it all! It had ended by his deciding to print the names of the two actresses in the same-sized type. But it wouldn’t do to bother him. Whenever any of his little women, as he called them — Simonne or Clarisse, for instance — wouldn’t go the way he wanted her to he just up with his foot and caught her one in the rear. Otherwise life was impossible. Oh yes, he sold ‘em; HE knew what they fetched, the wenches!
“Tut!” he cried, breaking off short. “Mignon and Steiner. Always together. You know, Steiner’s getting sick of Rose; that’s why the husband dogs his steps now for fear of his slipping away.”
On the pavement outside, the row of gas jets flaring on the cornice of the theater cast a patch of brilliant light. Two small trees, violently green, stood sharply out against it, and a column gleamed in such vivid illumination that one could read the notices thereon at a distance, as though in broad daylight, while the dense night of the boulevard beyond was dotted with lights above the vague outline of an ever-moving crowd. Many men did not enter the theater at once but stayed outside to talk while finishing their cigars under the rays of the line of gas jets, which shed a sallow pallor on their faces and silhouetted their short black shadows on the asphalt. Mignon, a very tall, very broad fellow, with the square-shaped head of a strong man at a fair, was forcing a passage through the midst of the groups and dragging on his arm the banker Steiner, an exceedingly small man with a corporation already in evidence and a round face framed in a setting of beard which was already growing gray.
“Well,” said Bordenave to the banker, “you met her yesterday in my office.”
“Ah! It was she, was it?” ejaculated Steiner. “I suspected as much. Only I was coming out as she was going in, and I scarcely caught a glimpse of her.”
Mignon was listening with half-closed eyelids and nervously twisting a great diamond ring round his finger. He had quite understood that Nana was in question. Then as Bordenave was drawing a portrait of his new star, which lit a flame in the eyes of the banker, he ended by joining in the conversation.
“Oh, let her alone, my dear fellow; she’s a low lot! The public will show her the door in quick time. Steiner, my laddie, you know that my wife is waiting for you in her box.”
He wanted to take possession of him again. But Steiner would not quit Bordenave. In front of them a stream of people was crowding and crushing against the ticket office, and there was a din of voices, in the midst of which the name of Nana sounded with all the melodious vivacity of its two syllables. The men who stood planted in front of the notices kept spelling it out loudly; others, in an interrogative tone, uttered it as they passed; while the women, at once restless and smiling, repeated it softly with an air of surprise. Nobody knew Nana. Whence had Nana fallen? And stories and jokes, whispered from ear to ear, went the round of the crowd. The name was a caress in itself; it was a pet name, the very familiarity of which suited every lip. Merely through enunciating it thus, the throng worked itself into a state of gaiety and became highly good natured. A fever of curiosity urged it forward, that kind of Parisian curiosity which is as violent as an access of positive unreason. Everybody wanted to see Nana. A lady had the flounce of her dress torn off; a man lost his hat.
“Oh, you’re asking me too many questions about it!” cried Bordenave, whom a score of men were besieging with their queries. “You’re going to see her, and I’m off; they want me.”
He disappeared, enchanted at having fired his public. Mignon shrugged his shoulders, reminding Steiner that Rose was awaiting him in order to show him the costume she was about to wear in the first act.
“By Jove! There’s Lucy out there, getting down from her carriage,” said La Faloise to Fauchery.
It was, in fact, Lucy Stewart, a plain little woman, some forty years old, with a disproportionately long neck, a thin, drawn face, a heavy mouth, but withal of such brightness, such graciousness of manner, that she was really very charming. She was bringing with her Caroline Hequet and her mother — Caroline a woman of a cold type of beauty, the mother a person of a most worthy demeanor, who looked as if she were stuffed with straw.
“You’re coming with us? I’ve kept a place for you,” she said to Fauchery. “Oh, decidedly not! To see nothing!” he made answer. “I’ve a stall; I prefer being in the stalls.”
Lucy grew nettled. Did he not dare show himself in her company? Then, suddenly restraining herself and skipping to another topic:
“Why haven’t you told me that you knew Nana?”
“Nana! I’ve never set eyes on her.”
“Honor bright? I’ve been told that you’ve been to bed with her.”
But Mignon, coming in front of them, his finger to his lips, made them a sign to be silent. And when Lucy questioned him he pointed out a young man who was passing and murmured:
“Nana’s fancy man.”
Everybody looked at him. He was a pretty fellow. Fauchery recognized him; it was Daguenet, a young man who had run through three hundred thousand francs in the pursuit of women and who now was dabbling in stocks, in order from time to time to treat them to bouquets and dinners. Lucy made the discovery that he had fine eyes.
“Ah, there’s Blanche!” she cried. “It’s she who told me that you had been to bed with Nana.”
Blanche de Sivry, a great fair girl, whose good-looking face showed signs of growing fat, made her appearance in the company of a spare, sedulously well-groomed and extremely distinguished man.
“The Count Xavier de Vandeuvres,” Fauchery whispered in his companion’s ear.
The count and the journalist shook hands, while Blanche and Lucy entered into a brisk, mutual explanation. One of them in blue, the other in rose-pink, they stood blocking the way with their deeply flounced skirts, and Nana’s name kept repeating itself so shrilly in their conversation that people began to listen to them. The Count de Vandeuvres carried Blanche off. But by this time Nana’s name was echoing more loudly than ever round the four walls of the entrance hall amid yearnings sharpened by delay. Why didn’t the play begin? The men pulled out their watches; late-comers sprang from their conveyances before these had fairly drawn up; the groups left the sidewalk, where the passers-by were crossing the now-vacant space of gaslit pavement, craning their necks, as they did so, in order to get a peep into the theater. A street boy came up whistling and planted himself before a notice at the door, then cried out, “Woa, Nana!” in the voice of a tipsy man and hied on his way with a rolling gait and a shuffling of his old boots. A laugh had arisen at this. Gentlemen of unimpeachable appearance repeated: “Nana, woa, Nana!” People were crushing; a dispute arose at the ticket office, and there was a growing clamor caused by the hum of voices calling on Nana, demanding Nana in one of those accesses of silly facetiousness and sheer animalism which pass over mobs.
But above all the din the bell that precedes the rise of the curtain became audible. “They’ve rung; they’ve rung!” The rumor reached the boulevard, and thereupon followed a stampede, everyone wanting to pass in, while the servants of the theater increased their forces. Mignon, with an anxious air, at last got hold of Steiner again, the latter not having been to see Rose’s costume. At the very first tinkle of the bell La Faloise had cloven a way through the crowd, pulling Fauchery with him, so as not to miss the opening scene. But all this eagerness on the part of the public irritated Lucy Stewart. What brutes were these people to be pushing women like that! She stayed in the rear of them all with Caroline Hequet and her mother. The entrance hall was now empty, while beyond it was still heard the long-drawn rumble of the boulevard.
“As though they were always funny, those pieces of theirs!” Lucy kept repeating as she climbed the stair.
In the house Fauchery and La Faloise, in front of their stalls, were gazing about them anew. By this time the house was resplendent. High jets of gas illumined the great glass chandelier with a rustling of yellow and rosy flames, which rained down a stream of brilliant light from dome to floor. The cardinal velvets of the seats were shot with hues of lake, while all the gilding shonc again, the soft green decorations chastening its effect beneath the too-decided paintings of the ceiling. The footlights were turned up and with a vivid flood of brilliance lit up the curtain, the heavy purple drapery of which had all the richness befitting a palace in a fairy tale and contrasted with the meanness of the proscenium, where cracks showed the plaster under the gilding. The place was already warm. At their music stands the orchestra were tuning their instruments amid a delicate trilling of flutes, a stifled tooting of horns, a singing of violin notes, which floated forth amid the increasing uproar of voices. All the spectators were talking, jostling, settling themselves in a general assault upon seats; and the hustling rush in the side passages was now so violent that every door into the house was laboriously admitting the inexhaustible flood of people. There were signals, rustlings of fabrics, a continual march past of skirts and head dresses, accentuated by the black hue of a dress coat or a surtout. Notwithstanding this, the rows of seats were little by little getting filled up, while here and there a light toilet stood out from its surroundings, a head with a delicate profile bent forward under its chignon, where flashed the lightning of a jewel. In one of the boxes the tip of a bare shoulder glimmered like snowy silk. Other ladies, sitting at ease, languidly fanned themselves, following with their gaze the pushing movements of the crowd, while young gentlemen, standing up in the stalls, their waistcoats cut very low, gardenias in their buttonholes, pointed their opera glasses with gloved finger tips.
It was now that the two cousins began searching for the faces of those they knew. Mignon and Steiner were together in a lower box, sitting side by side with their arms leaning for support on the velvet balustrade. Blanche de Sivry seemed to be in sole possession of a stage box on the level of the stalls. But La Faloise examined Daguenet before anyone else, he being in occupation of a stall two rows in front of his own. Close to him, a very young man, seventeen years old at the outside, some truant from college, it may be, was straining wide a pair of fine eyes such as a cherub might have owned. Fauchery smiled when he looked at him.
“Who is that lady in the balcony?” La Faloise asked suddenly. “The lady with a young girl in blue beside her.”
He pointed out a large woman who was excessively tight-laced, a woman who had been a blonde and had now become white and yellow of tint, her broad face, reddened with paint, looking puffy under a rain of little childish curls.
“It’s Gaga,” was Fauchery’s simple reply, and as this name seemed to astound his cousin, he added:
“You don’t know Gaga? She was the delight of the early years of Louis Philippe. Nowadays she drags her daughter about with her wherever she goes.”
La Faloise never once glanced at the young girl. The sight of Gaga moved him; his eyes did not leave her again. He still found her very good looking but he dared not say so.
Meanwhile the conductor lifted his violin bow and the orchestra attacked the overture. People still kept coming in; the stir and noise were on the increase. Among that public, peculiar to first nights and never subject to change, there were little subsections composed of intimate friends, who smilingly forgathered again. Old first-nighters, hat on head, seemed familiar and quite at ease and kept exchanging salutations. All Paris was there, the Paris of literature, of finance and of pleasure. There were many journalists, several authors, a number of stock-exchange people and more courtesans than honest women. It was a singularly mixed world, composed, as it was, of all the talents and tarnished by all the vices, a world where the same fatigue and the same fever played over every face. Fauchery, whom his cousin was questioning, showed him the boxes devoted to the newspapers and to the clubs and then named the dramatic critics — a lean, dried-up individual with thin, spiteful lips and, chief of all, a big fellow with a good-natured expression, lolling on the shoulder of his neighbor, a young miss over whom he brooded with tender and paternal eyes.
But he interrupted himself on seeing La Faloise in the act of bowing to some persons who occupied the box opposite. He appeared surprised.
“What?” he queried. “You know the Count Muffat de Beuville?”
“Oh, for a long time back,” replied Hector. “The Muffats had a property near us. I often go to their house. The count’s with his wife and his father-in-law, the Marquis de Chouard.”
And with some vanity — for he was happy in his cousin’s astonishment — he entered into particulars. The marquis was a councilor of state; the count had recently been appointed chamberlain to the empress. Fauchery, who had caught up his opera glass, looked at the countess, a plump brunette with a white skin and fine dark eyes.
“You shall present me to them between the acts,” he ended by saying. “I have already met the count, but I should like to go to them on their Tuesdays.”
Energetic cries of “Hush” came from the upper galleries. The overture had begun, but people were still coming in. Late arrivals were obliging whole rows of spectators to rise; the doors of boxes were banging; loud voices were heard disputing in the passages. And there was no cessation of the sound of many conversations, a sound similar to the loud twittering of talkative sparrows at close of day. All was in confusion; the house was a medley of heads and arms which moved to and fro, their owners seating themselves or trying to make themselves comfortable or, on the other hand, excitedly endeavoring to remain standing so as to take a final look round. The cry of “Sit down, sit down!” came fiercely from the obscure depths of the pit. A shiver of expectation traversed the house: at last people were going to make the acquaintance of this famous Nana with whom Paris had been occupying itself for a whole week!
Little by little, however, the buzz of talk dwindled softly down among occasional fresh outbursts of rough speech. And amid this swooning murmur, these perishing sighs of sound, the orchestra struck up the small, lively notes of a waltz with a vagabond rhythm bubbling with roguish laughter. The public were titillated; they were already on the grin. But the gang of clappers in the foremost rows of the pit applauded furiously. The curtain rose.
“By George!” exclaimed La Faloise, still talking away. “There’s a man with Lucy.”
He was looking at the stage box on the second tier to his right, the front of which Caroline and Lucy were occupying. At the back of this box were observable the worthy countenance of Caroline’s mother and the side face of a tall young man with a noble head of light hair and an irreproachable getup.
“Do look!” La Faloise again insisted. “There’s a man there.”
Fauchery decided to level his opera glass at the stage box. But he turned round again directly.
“Oh, it’s Labordette,” he muttered in a careless voice, as though that gentle man’s presence ought to strike all the world as though both natural and immaterial.
Behind the cousins people shouted “Silence!” They had to cease talking. A motionless fit now seized the house, and great stretches of heads, all erect and attentive, sloped away from stalls to topmost gallery. The first act of the Blonde Venus took place in Olympus, a pasteboard Olympus, with clouds in the wings and the throne of Jupiter on the right of the stage. First of all Iris and Ganymede, aided by a troupe of celestial attendants, sang a chorus while they arranged the seats of the gods for the council. Once again the prearranged applause of the clappers alone burst forth; the public, a little out of their depth, sat waiting. Nevertheless, La Faloise had clapped Clarisse Besnus, one of Bordenave’s little women, who played Iris in a soft blue dress with a great scarf of the seven colors of the rainbow looped round her waist.
“You know, she draws up her chemise to put that on,” he said to Fauchery, loud enough to be heard by those around him. “We tried the trick this morning. It was all up under her arms and round the small of her back.”
But a slight rustling movement ran through the house; Rose Mignon had just come on the stage as Diana. Now though she had neither the face nor the figure for the part, being thin and dark and of the adorable type of ugliness peculiar to a Parisian street child, she nonetheless appeared charming and as though she were a satire on the personage she represented. Her song at her entrance on the stage was full of lines quaint enough to make you cry with laughter and of complaints about Mars, who was getting ready to desert her for the companionship of Venus. She sang it with a chaste reserve so full of sprightly suggestiveness that the public warmed amain. The husband and Steiner, sitting side by side, were laughing complaisantly, and the whole house broke out in a roar when Prulliere, that great favorite, appeared as a general, a masquerade Mars, decked with an enormous plume and dragging along a sword, the hilt of which reached to his shoulder. As for him, he had had enough of Diana; she had been a great deal too coy with him, he averred. Thereupon Diana promised to keep a sharp eye on him and to be revenged. The duet ended with a comic yodel which Prulliere delivered very amusingly with the yell of an angry tomcat. He had about him all the entertaining fatuity of a young leading gentleman whose love affairs prosper, and he rolled around the most swaggering glances, which excited shrill feminine laughter in the boxes.
Then the public cooled again, for the ensuing scenes were found tiresome. Old Bosc, an imbecile Jupiter with head crushed beneath the weight of an immense crown, only just succeeded in raising a smile among his audience when he had a domestic altercation with Juno on the subject of the cook’s accounts. The march past of the gods, Neptune, Pluto, Minerva and the rest, was well-nigh spoiling everything. People grew impatient; there was a restless, slowly growing murmur; the audience ceased to take an interest in the performance and looked round at the house. Lucy began laughing with Labordette; the Count de Vandeuvres was craning his neck in conversation behind Blanche’s sturdy shoulders, while Fauchery, out of the corners of his eyes, took stock of the Muffats, of whom the count appeared very serious, as though he had not understood the allusions, and the countess smiled vaguely, her eyes lost in reverie. But on a sudden, in this uncomfortable state of things, the applause of the clapping contingent rattled out with the regularity of platoon firing. People turned toward the stage. Was it Nana at last? This Nana made one wait with a vengeance.
It was a deputation of mortals whom Ganymede and Iris had introduced, respectable middle-class persons, deceived husbands, all of them, and they came before the master of the gods to proffer a complaint against Venus, who was assuredly inflaming their good ladies with an excess of ardor. The chorus, in quaint, dolorous tones, broken by silences full of pantomimic admissions, caused great amusement. A neat phrase went the round of the house: “The cuckolds’ chorus, the cuckolds’ chorus,” and it “caught on,” for there was an encore. The singers’ heads were droll; their faces were discovered to be in keeping with the phrase, especially that of a fat man which was as round as the moon. Meanwhile Vulcan arrived in a towering rage, demanding back his wife who had slipped away three days ago. The chorus resumed their plaint, calling on Vulcan, the god of the cuckolds. Vulcan’s part was played by Fontan, a comic actor of talent, at once vulgar and original, and he had a role of the wildest whimsicality and was got up as a village blacksmith, fiery red wig, bare arms tattooed with arrow-pierced hearts and all the rest of it. A woman’s voice cried in a very high key, “Oh, isn’t he ugly?” and all the ladies laughed and applauded.
Then followed a scene which seemed interminable. Jupiter in the course of it seemed never to be going to finish assembling the Council of Gods in order to submit thereto the deceived husband’s requests. And still no Nana! Was the management keeping Nana for the fall of the curtain then? So long a period of expectancy had ended by annoying the public. Their murmurings began again.
“It’s going badly,” said Mignon radiantly to Steiner. “She’ll get a pretty reception; you’ll see!”
At that very moment the clouds at the back of the stage were cloven apart and Venus appeared. Exceedingly tall, exceedingly strong, for her eighteen years, Nana, in her goddess’s white tunic and with her light hair simply flowing unfastened over her shoulders, came down to the footlights with a quiet certainty of movement and a laugh of greeting for the public and struck up her grand ditty:
“When Venus roams at eventide.”
From the second verse onward people looked at each other all over the house. Was this some jest, some wager on Bordenave’s part? Never had a more tuneless voice been heard or one managed with less art. Her manager judged of her excellently; she certainly sang like a squirt. Nay, more, she didn’t even know how to deport herself on the stage: she thrust her arms in front of her while she swayed her whole body to and fro in a manner which struck the audience as unbecoming and disagreeable. Cries of “Oh, oh!” were already rising in the pit and the cheap places. There was a sound of whistling, too, when a voice in the stalls, suggestive of a molting cockerel, cried out with great conviction:
“That’s very smart!”
All the house looked round. It was the cherub, the truant from the boardingschool, who sat with his fine eyes very wide open and his fair face glowing very hotly at sight of Nana. When he saw everybody turning toward him be grew extremely red at the thought of having thus unconsciously spoken aloud. Daguenet, his neighbor, smilingly examined him; the public laughed, as though disarmed and no longer anxious to hiss; while the young gentlemen in white gloves, fascinated in their turn by Nana’s gracious contours, lolled back in their seats and applauded.
“That’s it! Well done! Bravo!”
Nana, in the meantime, seeing the house laughing, began to laugh herself. The gaiety of all redoubled itself. She was an amusing creature, all the same, was that fine girl! Her laughter made a love of a little dimple appear in her chin. She stood there waiting, not bored in the least, familiar with her audience, falling into step with them at once, as though she herself were admitting with a wink that she had not two farthings’ worth of talent but that it did not matter at all, that, in fact, she had other good points. And then after having made a sign to the conductor which plainly signified, “Go ahead, old boy!” she began her second verse:
“’Tis Venus who at midnight passes —”
Still the same acidulated voice, only that now it tickled the public in the right quarter so deftly that momentarily it caused them to give a little shiver of pleasure. Nana still smiled her smile: it lit up her little red mouth and shone in her great eyes, which were of the clearest blue. When she came to certain rather lively verses a delicate sense of enjoyment made her tilt her nose, the rosy nostrils of which lifted and fell, while a bright flush suffused her cheeks. She still swung herself up and down, for she only knew how to do that. And the trick was no longer voted ugly; on the contrary, the men raised their opera glasses. When she came to the end of a verse her voice completely failed her, and she was well aware that she never would get through with it. Thereupon, rather than fret herself, she kicked up her leg, which forthwith was roundly outlined under her diaphanous tunic, bent sharply backward, so that her bosom was thrown upward and forward, and stretched her arms out. Applause burst forth on all sides. In the twinkling of an eye she had turned on her heel and was going up the stage, presenting the nape of her neck to the spectators’ gaze, a neck where the red-gold hair showed like some animal’s fell. Then the plaudits became frantic.
The close of the act was not so exciting. Vulcan wanted to slap Venus. The gods held a consultation and decided to go and hold an inquiry on earth before granting the deceived husband satisfaction. It was then that Diana surprised a tender conversation between Venus and Mars and vowed that she would not take her eyes off them during the whole of the voyage. There was also a scene where Love, played by a little twelve-year-old chit, answered every question put to her with “Yes, Mamma! No, Mamma!” in a winy-piny tone, her fingers in her nose. At last Jupiter, with the severity of a master who is growing cross, shut Love up in a dark closet, bidding her conjugate the verb “I love” twenty times. The finale was more appreciated: it was a chorus which both troupe and orchestra performed with great brilliancy. But the curtain once down, the clappers tried in vain to obtain a call, while the whole house was already up and making for the doors.
The crowd trampled and jostled, jammed, as it were, between the rows of seats, and in so doing exchanged expressions. One phrase only went round:
“It’s idiotic.” A critic was saying that it would be one’s duty to do a pretty bit of slashing. The piece, however, mattered very little, for people were talking about Nana before everything else. Fauchery and La Faloise, being among the earliest to emerge, met Steiner and Mignon in the passage outside the stalls. In this gaslit gut of a place, which was as narrow and circumscribed as a gallery in a mine, one was well-nigh suffocated. They stopped a moment at the foot of the stairs on the right of the house, protected by the final curve of the balusters. The audience from the cheap places were coming down the steps with a continuous tramp of heavy boots; a stream of black dress coats was passing, while an attendant was making every possible effort to protect a chair, on which she had piled up coats and cloaks, from the onward pushing of the crowd.
“Surely I know her,” cried Steiner, the moment he perceived Fauchery. “I’m certain I’ve seen her somewhere — at the casino, I imagine, and she got herself taken up there — she was so drunk.”
“As for me,” said the journalist, “I don’t quite know where it was. I am like you; I certainly have come across her.”
He lowered his voice and asked, laughing:
“At the Tricons’, perhaps.”
“Egad, it was in a dirty place,” Mignon declared. He seemed exasperated. “It’s disgusting that the public give such a reception to the first trollop that comes by. There’ll soon be no more decent women on the stage. Yes, I shall end by forbidding Rose to play.”
Fauchery could not restrain a smile. Meanwhile the downward shuffle of the heavy shoes on the steps did not cease, and a little man in a workman’s cap was heard crying in a drawling voice:
“Oh my, she ain’t no wopper! There’s some pickings there!”
In the passage two young men, delicately curled and formally resplendent in turndown collars and the rest, were disputing together. One of them was repeating the words, “Beastly, beastly!” without stating any reasons; the other was replying with the words, “Stunning, stunning!” as though he, too, disdained all argument.
La Faloise declared her to be quite the thing; only he ventured to opine that she would be better still if she were to cultivate her voice. Steiner, who was no longer listening, seemed to awake with a start. Whatever happens, one must wait, he thought. Perhaps everything will be spoiled in the following acts. The public had shown complaisance, but it was certainly not yet taken by storm. Mignon swore that the piece would never finish, and when Fauchery and La Faloise left them in order to go up to the foyer he took Steiner’s arm and, leaning hard against his shoulder, whispered in his ear:
“You’re going to see my wife’s costume for the second act, old fellow. It IS just blackguardly.”
Upstairs in the foyer three glass chandeliers burned with a brilliant light. The two cousins hesitated an instant before entering, for the widely opened glazed doors afforded a view right through the gallery — a view of a surging sea of heads, which two currents, as it were, kept in a continuous eddying movement. But they entered after all. Five or six groups of men, talking very loudly and gesticulating, were obstinately discussing the play amid these violent interruptions; others were filing round, their heels, as they turned, sounding sharply on the waxed floor. To right and left, between columns of variegated imitation marble, women were sitting on benches covered with red velvet and viewing the passing movement of the crowd with an air of fatigue as though the heat had rendered them languid. In the lofty mirrors behind them one saw the reflection of their chignons. At the end of the room, in front of the bar, a man with a huge corporation was drinking a glass of fruit syrup.
But Fauchery, in order to breathe more freely, had gone to the balcony. La Faloise, who was studying the photographs of actresses hung in frames alternating with the mirrors between the columns, ended by following him. They had extinguished the line of gas jets on the facade of the theater, and it was dark and very cool on the balcony, which seemed to them unoccupied. Solitary and enveloped in shadow, a young man was standing, leaning his arms on the stone balustrade, in the recess to the right. He was smoking a cigarette, of which the burning end shone redly. Fauchery recognized Daguenet. They shook hands warmly.
“What are you after there, my dear fellow?” asked the journalist. “You’re hiding yourself in holes and crannies — you, a man who never leaves the stalls on a first night!”
“But I’m smoking, you see,” replied Daguenet.
Then Fauchery, to put him out of countenance:
“Well, well! What’s your opinion of the new actress? She’s being roughly handled enough in the passages.”
“Bah!” muttered Daguenet. “They’re people whom she’ll have had nothing to do with!”
That was the sum of his criticism of Nana’s talent. La Faloise leaned forward and looked down at the boulevard. Over against them the windows of a hotel and of a club were brightly lit up, while on the pavement below a dark mass of customers occupied the tables of the Cafe de Madrid. Despite the lateness of the hour the crowd were still crushing and being crushed; people were advancing with shortened step; a throng was constantly emerging from the Passage Jouffroy; individuals stood waiting five or six minutes before they could cross the roadway, to such a distance did the string of carriages extend.
“What a moving mass! And what a noise!” La Faloise kept reiterating, for Paris still astonished him.
The bell rang for some time; the foyer emptied. There was a hurrying of people in the passages. The curtain was already up when whole bands of spectators re-entered the house amid the irritated expressions of those who were once more in their places. Everyone took his seat again with an animated look and renewed attention. La Faloise directed his first glance in Gaga’s direction, but he was dumfounded at seeing by her side the tall fair man who but recently had been in Lucy’s stage box.
“What IS that man’s name?” he asked.
Fauchery failed to observe him.
“Ah yes, it’s Labordette,” he said at last with the same careless movement. The scenery of the second act came as a surprise. It represented a suburban Shrove Tuesday dance at the Boule Noire. Masqueraders were trolling a catch, the chorus of which was accompanied with a tapping of their heels. This ‘Arryish departure, which nobody had in the least expected, caused so much amusement that the house encored the catch. And it was to this entertainment that the divine band, let astray by Iris, who falsely bragged that he knew the Earth well, were now come in order to proceed with their inquiry. They had put on disguises so as to preserve their incognito. Jupiter came on the stage as King Dagobert, with his breeches inside out and a huge tin crown on his head. Phoebus appeared as the Postillion of Lonjumeau and Minerva as a Norman nursemaid. Loud bursts of merriment greeted Mars, who wore an outrageous uniform, suggestive of an Alpine admiral. But the shouts of laughter became uproarious when Neptune came in view, clad in a blouse, a high, bulging workman’s cap on his head, lovelocks glued to his temples. Shuffling along in slippers, he cried in a thick brogue.
“Well, I’m blessed! When ye’re a masher it’ll never do not to let ‘em love yer!”
There were some shouts of “Oh! Oh!” while the ladies held their fans one degree higher. Lucy in her stage box laughed so obstreperously that Caroline Hequet silenced her with a tap of her fan.
From that moment forth the piece was saved — nay, more, promised a great success. This carnival of the gods, this dragging in the mud of their Olympus, this mock at a whole religion, a whole world of poetry, appeared in the light of a royal entertainment. The fever of irreverence gained the literary first-night world: legend was trampled underfoot; ancient images were shattered. Jupiter’s makeup was capital. Mars was a success. Royalty became a farce and the army a thing of folly. When Jupiter, grown suddenly amorous of a little laundress, began to knock off a mad cancan, Simonne, who was playing the part of the laundress, launched a kick at the master of the immortals’ nose and addressed him so drolly as “My big daddy!” that an immoderate fit of laughter shook the whole house. While they were dancing Phoebus treated Minerva to salad bowls of negus, and Neptune sat in state among seven or eight women who regaled him with cakes. Allusions were eagerly caught; indecent meanings were attached to them; harmless phrases were diverted from their proper significations in the light of exclamations issuing from the stalls. For a long time past the theatrical public had not wallowed in folly more irreverent. It rested them.
Nevertheless, the action of the piece advanced amid these fooleries. Vulcan, as an elegant young man clad, down to his gloves, entirely in yellow and with an eyeglass stuck in his eye, was forever running after Venus, who at last made her appearance as a fishwife, a kerchief on her head and her bosom, covered with big gold trinkets, in great evidence. Nana was so white and plump and looked so natural in a part demanding wide hips and a voluptuous mouth that she straightway won the whole house. On her account Rose Mignon was forgotten, though she was made up as a delicious baby, with a wicker-work burlet on her head and a short muslin frock and had just sighed forth Diana’s plaints in a sweetly pretty voice. The other one, the big wench who slapped her thighs and clucked like a hen, shed round her an odor of life, a sovereign feminine charm, with which the public grew intoxicated. From the second act onward everything was permitted her. She might hold herself awkwardly; she might fail to sing some note in tune; she might forget her words — it mattered not: she had only to turn and laugh to raise shouts of applause. When she gave her famous kick from the hip the stalls were fired, and a glow of passion rose upward, upward, from gallery to gallery, till it reached the gods. It was a triumph, too, when she led the dance. She was at home in that: hand on hip, she enthroned Venus in the gutter by the pavement side. And the music seemed made for her plebeian voice — shrill, piping music, with reminiscences of Saint-Cloud Fair, wheezings of clarinets and playful trills on the part of the little flutes.
Two numbers were again encored. The opening waltz, that waltz with the naughty rhythmic beat, had returned and swept the gods with it. Juno, as a peasant woman, caught Jupiter and his little laundress cleverly and boxed his ears. Diana, surprising Venus in the act of making an assignation with Mars, made haste to indicate hour and place to Vulcan, who cried, “I’ve hit on a plan!” The rest of the act did not seem very clear. The inquiry ended in a final galop after which Jupiter, breathless, streaming with perspiration and minus his crown, declared that the little women of Earth were delicious and that the men were all to blame.
The curtain was falling, when certain voices, rising above the storm of bravos, cried uproariously:
Thereupon the curtain rose again; the artistes reappeared hand in hand. In the middle of the line Nana and Rose Mignon stood side by side, bowing and curtsying. The audience applauded; the clappers shouted acclamations. Then little by little the house emptied.
“I must go and pay my respects to the Countess Muffat,” said La Faloise. “Exactly so; you’ll present me,” replied Fauchery; “we’ll go down afterward.”
But it was not easy to get to the first-tier boxes. In the passage at the top of the stairs there was a crush. In order to get forward at all among the various groups you had to make yourself small and to slide along, using your elbows in so doing. Leaning under a copper lamp, where a jet of gas was burning, the bulky critic was sitting in judgment on the piece in presence of an attentive circle. People in passing mentioned his name to each other in muttered tones. He had laughed the whole act through — that was the rumor going the round of the passages — nevertheless, he was now very severe and spoke of taste and morals. Farther off the thin-lipped critic was brimming over with a benevolence which had an unpleasant aftertaste, as of milk turned sour.
Fauchery glanced along, scrutinizing the boxes through the round openings in each door. But the Count de Vandeuvres stopped him with a question, and when he was informed that the two cousins were going to pay their respects to the Muffats, he pointed out to them box seven, from which he had just emerged. Then bending down and whispering in the journalist’s ear:
“Tell me, my dear fellow,” he said, “this Nana — surely she’s the girl we saw one evening at the corner of the Rue de Provence?”
“By Jove, you’re right!” cried Fauchery. “I was saying that I had come across her!”
La Faloise presented his cousin to Count Muffat de Beuville, who appeared very frigid. But on hearing the name Fauchery the countess raised her head and with a certain reserve complimented the paragraphist on his articles in the Figaro. Leaning on the velvet-covered support in front of her, she turned half round with a pretty movement of the shoulders. They talked for a short time, and the Universal Exhibition was mentioned.
“It will be very fine,” said the count, whose square-cut, regular-featured face retained a certain gravity.
“I visited the Champ de Mars today and returned thence truly astonished.”
“They say that things won’t be ready in time,” La Faloise ventured to remark. “There’s infinite confusion there —”
But the count interrupted him in his severe voice:
“Things will be ready. The emperor desires it.”
Fauchery gaily recounted how one day, when he had gone down thither in search of a subject for an article, he had come near spending all his time in the aquarium, which was then in course of construction. The countess smiled. Now and again she glanced down at the body of the house, raising an arm which a white glove covered to the elbow and fanning herself with languid hand. The house dozed, almost deserted. Some gentlemen in the stalls had opened out newspapers, and ladies received visits quite comfortably, as though they were at their own homes. Only a well-bred whispering was audible under the great chandelier, the light of which was softened in the fine cloud of dust raised by the confused movements of the interval. At the different entrances men were crowding in order to talk to ladies who remained seated. They stood there motionless for a few seconds, craning forward somewhat and displaying the great white bosoms of their shirt fronts.
“We count on you next Tuesday,” said the countess to La Faloise, and she invited Fauchery, who bowed.
Not a word was said of the play; Nana’s name was not once mentioned. The count was so glacially dignified that he might have been supposed to be taking part at a sitting of the legislature. In order to explain their presence that evening he remarked simply that his father-in-law was fond of the theater. The door of the box must have remained open, for the Marquis de Chouard, who had gone out in order to leave his seat to the visitors, was back again. He was straightening up his tall, old figure. His face looked soft and white under a broad-brimmed hat, and with his restless eyes he followed the movements of the women who passed.
The moment the countess had given her invitation Fauchery took his leave, feeling that to talk about the play would not be quite the thing. La Faloise was the last to quit the box. He had just noticed the fair-haired Labordette, comfortably installed in the Count de Vandeuvres’s stage box and chatting at very close quarters with Blanche de Sivry.
“Gad,” he said after rejoining his cousin, “that Labordette knows all the girls then! He’s with Blanche now.”
“Doubtless he knows them all,” replied Fauchery quietly. “What d’you want to be taken for, my friend?”
The passage was somewhat cleared of people, and Fauchery was just about to go downstairs when Lucy Stewart called him. She was quite at the other end of the corridor, at the door of her stage box. They were getting cooked in there, she said, and she took up the whole corridor in company with Caroline Hequet and her mother, all three nibbling burnt almonds. A box opener was chatting maternally with them. Lucy fell out with the journalist. He was a pretty fellow; to be sure! He went up to see other women and didn’t even come and ask if they were thirsty! Then, changing the subject:
“You know, dear boy, I think Nana very nice.”
She wanted him to stay in the stage box for the last act, but he made his escape, promising to catch them at the door afterward. Downstairs in front of the theater Fauchery and La Faloise lit cigarettes. A great gathering blocked the sidewalk, a stream of men who had come down from the theater steps and were inhaling the fresh night air in the boulevards, where the roar and battle had diminished.
Meanwhile Mignon had drawn Steiner away to the Cafe des Varietes. Seeing Nana’s success, he had set to work to talk enthusiastically about her, all the while observing the banker out of the corners of his eyes. He knew him well; twice he had helped him to deceive Rose and then, the caprice being over, had brought him back to her, faithful and repentant. In the cafe the too numerous crowd of customers were squeezing themselves round the marble-topped tables. Several were standing up, drinking in a great hurry. The tall mirrors reflected this thronging world of heads to infinity and magnified the narrow room beyond measure with its three chandeliers, its moleskin-covered seats and its winding staircase draped with red. Steiner went and seated himself at a table in the first saloon, which opened full on the boulevard, its doors having been removed rather early for the time of year. As Fauchery and La Faloise were passing the banker stopped them.
“Come and take a bock with us, eh?” they said.
But he was too preoccupied by an idea; he wanted to have a bouquet thrown to Nana. At last he called a waiter belonging to the cafe, whom he familiarly addressed as Auguste. Mignon, who was listening, looked at him so sharply that he lost countenance and stammered out:
“Two bouquets, Auguste, and deliver them to the attendant. A bouquet for each of these ladies! Happy thought, eh?”
At the other end of the saloon, her shoulders resting against the frame of a mirror, a girl, some eighteen years of age at the outside, was leaning motionless in front of her empty glass as though she had been benumbed by long and fruitless waiting. Under the natural curls of her beautiful gray-gold hair a virginal face looked out at you with velvety eyes, which were at once soft and candid.
She wore a dress of faded green silk and a round hat which blows had dinted. The cool air of the night made her look very pale.
“Egad, there’s Satin,” murmured Fauchery when his eye lit upon her.
La Faloise questioned him. Oh dear, yes, she was a streetwalker — she didn’t count. But she was such a scandalous sort that people amused themselves by making her talk. And the journalist, raising his voice:
“What are you doing there, Satin?”
“I’m bogging,” replied Satin quietly without changing position.
The four men were charmed and fell a-laughing. Mignon assured them that there was no need to hurry; it would take twenty minutes to set up the scenery for the third act. But the two cousins, having drunk their beer, wanted to go up into the theater again; the cold was making itself felt. Then Mignon remained alone with Steiner, put his elbows on the table and spoke to him at close quarters.
“It’s an understood thing, eh? We are to go to her house, and I’m to introduce you. You know the thing’s quite between ourselves — my wife needn’t know.”
Once more in their places, Fauchery and La Faloise noticed a pretty, quietly dressed woman in the second tier of boxes. She was with a serious-looking gentleman, a chief clerk at the office of the Ministry of the Interior, whom La Faloise knew, having met him at the Muffats’. As to Fauchery, he was under the impression that her name was Madame Robert, a lady of honorable repute who had a lover, only one, and that always a person of respectability.
But they had to turn round, for Daguenet was smiling at them. Now that Nana had had a success he no longer hid himself: indeed, he had just been scoring triumphs in the passages. By his side was the young truant schoolboy, who had not quitted his seat, so stupefying was the state of admiration into which Nana had plunged him. That was it, he thought; that was the woman! And he blushed as he thought so and dragged his gloves on and off mechanically. Then since his neighbor had spoken of Nana, he ventured to question him.
“Will you pardon me for asking you, sir, but that lady who is acting — do you know her?”
“Yes, I do a little,” murmured Daguenet with some surprise and hesitation.
“Then you know her address?”
The question, addressed as it was to him, came so abruptly that he felt inclined to respond with a box on the ear.
“No,” he said in a dry tone of voice.
And with that he turned his back. The fair lad knew that he had just been guilty of some breach of good manners. He blushed more hotly than ever and looked scared.
The traditional three knocks were given, and among the returning throng, attendants, laden with pelisses and overcoats, bustled about at a great rate in order to put away people’s things. The clappers applauded the scenery, which represented a grotto on Mount Etna, hollowed out in a silver mine and with sides glittering like new money. In the background Vulcan’s forge glowed like a setting star. Diana, since the second act, had come to a good understanding with the god, who was to pretend that he was on a journey, so as to leave the way clear for Venus and Mars. Then scarcely was Diana alone than Venus made her appearance. A shiver of delight ran round the house. Nana was nude. With quiet audacity she appeared in her nakedness, certain of the sovereign power of her flesh. Some gauze enveloped her, but her rounded shoulders, her Amazonian bosom, her wide hips, which swayed to and fro voluptuously, her whole body, in fact, could be divined, nay discerned, in all its foamlike whiteness of tint beneath the slight fabric she wore. It was Venus rising from the waves with no veil save her tresses. And when Nana lifted her arms the golden hairs in her armpits were observable in the glare of the footlights. There was no applause. Nobody laughed any more. The men strained forward with serious faces, sharp features, mouths irritated and parched. A wind seemed to have passed, a soft, soft wind, laden with a secret menace. Suddenly in the bouncing child the woman stood discovered, a woman full of restless suggestion, who brought with her the delirium of sex and opened the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was smiling still, but her smile was now bitter, as of a devourer of men.
“By God,” said Fauchery quite simply to La Faloise.
Mars in the meantime, with his plume of feathers, came hurrying to the trysting place and found himself between the two goddesses. Then ensued a passage which Prulliere played with great delicacy. Petted by Diana, who wanted to make a final attack upon his feelings before delivering him up to Vulcan, wheedled by Venus, whom the presence of her rival excited, he gave himself up to these tender delights with the beatified expression of a man in clover. Finally a grand trio brought the scene to a close, and it was then that an attendant appeared in Lucy Stewart’s box and threw on the stage two immense bouquets of white lilacs. There was applause; Nana and Rose Mignon bowed, while Prulliere picked up the bouquets. Many of the occupants of the stalls turned smilingly toward the ground-floor occupied by Steiner and Mignon. The banker, his face blood-red, was suffering from little convulsive twitchings of the chin, as though he had a stoppage in his throat.
What followed took the house by storm completely. Diana had gone off in a rage, and directly afterward, Venus, sitting on a moss-clad seat, called Mars to her. Never yet had a more glowing scene of seduction been ventured on. Nana, her arms round Prulliere’s neck, was drawing him toward her when Fontan, with comically furious mimicry and an exaggerated imitation of the face of an outraged husband who surprises his wife in FLAGRANTE DELICTO, appeared at the back of the grotto. He was holding the famous net with iron meshes. For an instant he poised and swung it, as a fisherman does when he is going to make a cast, and by an ingenious twist Venus and Mars were caught in the snare; the net wrapped itself round them and held them motionless in the attitude of happy lovers.
A murmur of applause swelled and swelled like a growing sigh. There was some hand clapping, and every opera glass was fixed on Venus. Little by little Nana had taken possession of the public, and now every man was her slave.
A wave of lust had flowed from her as from an excited animal, and its influence had spread and spread and spread till the whole house was possessed by it. At that moment her slightest movement blew the flame of desire: with her little finger she ruled men’s flesh. Backs were arched and quivered as though unseen violin bows had been drawn across their muscles; upon men’s shoulders appeared fugitive hairs, which flew in air, blown by warm and wandering breaths, breathed one knew not from what feminine mouth. In front of him Fauchery saw the truant schoolboy half lifted from his seat by passion. Curiosity led him to look at the Count de Vandeuvres — he was extremely pale, and his lips looked pinched — at fat Steiner, whose face was purple to the verge of apoplexy; at Labordette, ogling away with the highly astonished air of a horse dealer admiring a perfectly shaped mare; at Daguenet, whose ears were blood-red and twitching with enjoyment. Then a sudden idea made him glance behind, and he marveled at what he saw in the Muffats’ box. Behind the countess, who was white and serious as usual, the count was sitting straight upright, with mouth agape and face mottled with red, while close by him, in the shadow, the restless eyes of the Marquis de Chouard had become catlike phosphorescent, full of golden sparkles. The house was suffocating; people’s very hair grew heavy on their perspiring heads. For three hours back the breath of the multitude had filled and heated the atmosphere with a scent of crowded humanity. Under the swaying glare of the gas the dust clouds in mid-air had grown constantly denser as they hung motionless beneath the chandelier. The whole house seemed to be oscillating, to be lapsing toward dizziness in its fatigue and excitement, full, as it was, of those drowsy midnight desires which flutter in the recesses of the bed of passion. And Nana, in front of this languorous public, these fifteen hundred human beings thronged and smothered in the exhaustion and nervous exasperation which belong to the close of a spectacle, Nana still triumphed by right of her marble flesh and that sexual nature of hers, which was strong enough to destroy the whole crowd of her adorers and yet sustain no injury.
The piece drew to a close. In answer to Vulcan’s triumphant summons all the Olympians defiled before the lovers with ohs and ahs of stupefaction and gaiety. Jupiter said, “I think it is light conduct on your part, my son, to summon us to see such a sight as this.” Then a reaction took place in favor of Venus. The chorus of cuckolds was again ushered in by Iris and besought the master of the gods not to give effect to its petition, for since women had lived at home, domestic life was becoming impossible for the men: the latter preferred being deceived and happy. That was the moral of the play. Then Venus was set at liberty, and Vulcan obtained a partial divorce from her. Mars was reconciled with Diana, and Jove, for the sake of domestic peace, packed his little laundress off into a constellation. And finally they extricated Love from his black hole, where instead of conjugating the verb AMO he had been busy in the manufacture of “dollies.” The curtain fell on an apotheosis, wherein the cuckolds’ chorus knelt and sang a hymn of gratitude to Venus, who stood there with smiling lips, her stature enhanced by her sovereign nudity.
The audience, already on their feet, were making for the exits. The authors were mentioned, and amid a thunder of applause there were two calls before the curtain. The shout of “Nana! Nana!” rang wildly forth. Then no sooner was the house empty than it grew dark: the footlights went out; the chandelier was turned down; long strips of gray canvas slipped from the stage boxes and swathed the gilt ornamentation of the galleries, and the house, lately so full of heat and noise, lapsed suddenly into a heavy sleep, while a musty, dusty odor began to pervade it. In the front of her box stood the Countess Muffat. Very erect and closely wrapped up in her furs, she stared at the gathering shadows and waited for the crowd to pass away.
In the passages the people were jostling the attendants, who hardly knew what to do among the tumbled heaps of outdoor raiment. Fauchery and La Faloise had hurried in order to see the crowd pass out. All along the entrance hall men formed a living hedge, while down the double staircase came slowly and in regular, complete formation two interminable throngs of human beings. Steiner, in tow of Mignon, had left the house among the foremost. The Count de Vandeuvres took his departure with Blanche de Sivry on his arm. For a moment or two Gaga and her daughter seemed doubtful how to proceed, but Labordette made haste to go and fetch them a conveyance, the door whereof he gallantly shut after them. Nobody saw Daguenet go by. As the truant schoolboy, registering a mental vow to wait at the stage door, was running with burning cheeks toward the Passage des Panoramas, of which he found the gate closed, Satin, standing on the edge of the pavement, moved forward and brushed him with her skirts, but he in his despair gave her a savage refusal and vanished amid the crowd, tears of impotent desire in his eyes. Members of the audience were lighting their cigars and walking off, humming:
When Venus roams at eventide.
Satin had gone back in front of the Cafe des Varietes, where Auguste let her eat the sugar that remained over from the customers’ orders. A stout man, who came out in a very heated condition, finally carried her off in the shadow of the boulevard, which was now gradually going to sleep.
Still people kept coming downstairs. La Faloise was waiting for Clarisse; Fauchery had promised to catch up Lucy Stewart with Caroline Hequet and her mother. They came; they took up a whole corner of the entrance hall and were laughing very loudly when the Muffats passed by them with an icy expression. Bordenave had just then opened a little door and, peeping out, had obtained from Fauchery the formal promise of an article. He was dripping with perspiration, his face blazed, as though he were drunk with success.
“You’re good for two hundred nights,” La Faloise said to him with civility. “The whole of Paris will visit your theater.”
But Bordenave grew annoyed and, indicating with a jerk of his chin the public who filled the entrance hall — a herd of men with parched lips and ardent eyes, still burning with the enjoyment of Nana — he cried out violently:
“Say ‘my brothel,’ you obstinate devil!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02