At the Varietes they were giving the thirty-fourth performance of the Blonde Venus. The first act had just finished, and in the greenroom Simonne, dressed as the little laundress, was standing in front of a console table, surmounted by a looking glass and situated between the two corner doors which opened obliquely on the end of the dressing-room passage. No one was with her, and she was scrutinizing her face and rubbing her finger up and down below her eyes with a view to putting the finishing touches to her make-up. The gas jets on either side of the mirror flooded her with warm, crude light.
“Has he arrived?” asked Prulliere, entering the room in his Alpine admiral’s costume, which was set off by a big sword, enormous top boots and a vast tuft of plumes.
“Who d’you mean?” said Simonne, taking no notice of him and laughing into the mirror in order to see how her lips looked.
“I don’t know; I’ve just come down. Oh, he’s certainly due here tonight; he comes every time!”
Prulliere had drawn near the hearth opposite the console table, where a coke fire was blazing and two more gas jets were flaring brightly. He lifted his eyes and looked at the clock and the barometer on his right hand and on his left. They had gilded sphinxes by way of adornment in the style of the First Empire. Then he stretched himself out in a huge armchair with ears, the green velvet of which had been so worn by four generations of comedians that it looked yellow in places, and there he stayed, with moveless limbs and vacant eyes, in that weary and resigned attitude peculiar to actors who are used to long waits before their turn for going on the stage.
Old Bosc, too, had just made his appearance. He came in dragging one foot behind the other and coughing. He was wrapped in an old box coat, part of which had slipped from his shoulder in such a way as to uncover the gold-laced cloak of King Dagobert. He put his crown on the piano and for a moment or two stood moodily stamping his feet. His hands were trembling slightly with the first beginnings of alcoholism, but he looked a sterling old fellow for all that, and a long white beard lent that fiery tippler’s face of his a truly venerable appearance. Then in the silence of the room, while the shower of hail was whipping the panes of the great window that looked out on the courtyard, he shook himself disgustedly.
“What filthy weather!” he growled.
Simonne and Prulliere did not move. Four or five pictures — a landscape, a portrait of the actor Vernet — hung yellowing in the hot glare of the gas, and a bust of Potier, one of the bygone glories of the Varietes, stood gazing vacant-eyed from its pedestal. But just then there was a burst of voices outside. It was Fontan, dressed for the second act. He was a young dandy, and his habiliments, even to his gloves, were entirely yellow.
“Now say you don’t know!” he shouted, gesticulating. “Today’s my patron saint’s day!”
“What?” asked Simonne, coming up smilingly, as though attracted by the huge nose and the vast, comic mouth of the man. “D’you answer to the name of Achille?”
“Exactly so! And I’m going to get ‘em to tell Madame Bron to send up champagne after the second act.”
For some seconds a bell had been ringing in the distance. The long-drawn sound grew fainter, then louder, and when the bell ceased a shout ran up the stair and down it till it was lost along the passages. “All on the stage for the second act! All on the stage for the second act!” The sound drew near, and a little pale-faced man passed by the greenroom doors, outside each of which he yelled at the top of his shrill voice, “On the stage for the second act!”
“The deuce, it’s champagne!” said Prulliere without appearing to hear the din. “You’re prospering!”
“If I were you I should have it in from the cafe,” old Bosc slowly announced. He was sitting on a bench covered with green velvet, with his head against the wall.
But Simonne said that it was one’s duty to consider Mme Bron’s small perquisites. She clapped her hands excitedly and devoured Fontan with her gaze while his long goatlike visage kept up a continuous twitching of eyes and nose and mouth.
“Oh, that Fontan!” she murmured. “There’s no one like him, no one like him!”
The two greenroom doors stood wide open to the corridor leading to the wings. And along the yellow wall, which was brightly lit up by a gas lamp out of view, passed a string of rapidly moving shadows — men in costume, women with shawls over their scant attire, in a word, the whole of the characters in the second act, who would shortly make their appearance as masqeuraders in the ball at the Boule Noire. And at the end of the corridor became audible a shuffling of feet as these people clattered down the five wooden steps which led to the stage. As the big Clarisse went running by Simonne called to her, but she said she would be back directly. And, indeed, she reappeared almost at once, shivering in the thin tunic and scarf which she wore as Iris.
“God bless me!” she said. “It isn’t warm, and I’ve left my furs in my dressing room!”
Then as she stood toasting her legs in their warm rose-colored tights in front of the fireplace she resumed:
“The prince has arrived.”
“Oh!” cried the rest with the utmost curiosity.
“Yes, that’s why I ran down: I wanted to see. He’s in the first stage box to the right, the same he was in on Thursday. It’s the third time he’s been this week, eh? That’s Nana; well, she’s in luck’s way! I was willing to wager he wouldn’t come again.”
Simonne opened her lips to speak, but her remarks were drowned by a fresh shout which arose close to the greenroom. In the passage the callboy was yelling at the top of his shrill voice, “They’ve knocked!”
“Three times!” said Simonne when she was again able to speak. “It’s getting exciting. You know, he won’t go to her place; he takes her to his. And it seems that he has to pay for it too!”
“Egad! It’s a case of when one ‘has to go out,’” muttered Prulliere wickedly, and he got up to have a last look at the mirror as became a handsome fellow whom the boxes adored.
“They’ve knocked! They’ve knocked!” the callboy kept repeating in tones that died gradually away in the distance as he passed through the various stories and corridors.
Fontan thereupon, knowing how it had all gone off on the first occasion the prince and Nana met, told the two women the whole story while they in their turn crowded against him and laughed at the tops of their voices whenever he stooped to whisper certain details in their ears. Old Bosc had never budged an inch — he was totally indifferent. That sort of thing no longer interested him now. He was stroking a great tortoise-shell cat which was lying curled up on the bench. He did so quite beautifully and ended by taking her in his arms with the tender good nature becoming a worn-out monarch. The cat arched its back and then, after a prolonged sniff at the big white beard, the gluey odor of which doubtless disgusted her, she turned and, curling herself up, went to sleep again on the bench beside him. Bosc remained grave and absorbed.
“That’s all right, but if I were you I should drink the champagne at the restaurant — its better there,” he said, suddenly addressing Fontan when he had finished his recital.
“The curtain’s up!” cried the callboy in cracked and long-drawn accents “The curtain’s up! The curtain’s up!”
The shout sounded for some moments, during which there had been a noise of rapid footsteps. Through the suddenly opened door of the passage came a burst of music and a far-off murmur of voices, and then the door shut to again and you could hear its dull thud as it wedged itself into position once more.
A heavy, peaceful, atmosphere again pervaded the greenroom, as though the place were situated a hundred leagues from the house where crowds were applauding. Simonne and Clarisse were still on the topic of Nana. There was a girl who never hurried herself! Why, yesterday she had again come on too late! But there was a silence, for a tall damsel had just craned her head in at the door and, seeing that she had made a mistake, had departed to the other end of the passage. It was Satin. Wearing a hat and a small veil for the nonce she was affecting the manner of a lady about to pay a call.
“A pretty trollop!” muttered Prulliere, who had been coming across her for a year past at the Cafe des Varietes. And at this Simonne told them how Nana had recognized in Satin an old schoolmate, had taken a vast fancy to her and was now plaguing Bordenave to let her make a first appearance on the stage.
“How d’ye do?” said Fontan, shaking hands with Mignon and Fauchery, who now came into the room.
Old Bosc himself gave them the tips of his fingers while the two women kissed Mignon.
“A good house this evening?” queried Fauchery.
“Oh, a splendid one!” replied Prulliere. “You should see ‘em gaping.”
“I say, my little dears,” remarked Mignon, “it must be your turn!”
Oh, all in good time! They were only at the fourth scene as yet, but Bosc got up in obedience to instinct, as became a rattling old actor who felt that his cue was coming. At that very moment the callboy was opening the door.
“Monsieur Bosc!” he called. “Mademoiselle Simonne!”
Simonne flung a fur-lined pelisse briskly over her shoulders and went out. Bosc, without hurrying at all, went and got his crown, which he settled on his brow with a rap. Then dragging himself unsteadily along in his greatcoat, he took his departure, grumbling and looking as annoyed as a man who has been rudely disturbed.
“You were very amiable in your last notice,” continued Fontan, addressing Fauchery. “Only why do you say that comedians are vain?”
“Yes, my little man, why d’you say that?” shouted Mignon, bringing down his huge hands on the journalist’s slender shoulders with such force as almost to double him up.
Prulliere and Clarisse refrained from laughing aloud. For some time past the whole company had been deriving amusement from a comedy which was going on in the wings. Mignon, rendered frantic by his wife’s caprice and annoyed at the thought that this man Fauchery brought nothing but a certain doubiful notoriety to his household, had conceived the idea of revenging himself on the journalist by overwhelming him with tokens of friendship. Every evening, therefore, when he met him behind scenes he would shower friendly slaps on his back and shoulders, as though fairly carried away by an outburst of tenderness, and Fauchery, who was a frail, small man in comparison with such a giant, was fain to take the raps with a strained smile in order not to quarrel with Rose’s husband.
“Aha, my buck, you’ve insulted Fontan,” resumed Mignon, who was doing his best to force the joke. “Stand on guard! One — two — got him right in the middle of his chest!”
He lunged and struck the young man with such force that the latter grew very pale and could not speak for some seconds. With a wink Clarisse showed the others where Rose Mignon was standing on the threshold of the greenroom. Rose had witnessed the scene, and she marched straight up to the journalist, as though she had failed to notice her husband and, standing on tiptoe, bare-armed and in baby costume, she held her face up to him with a caressing, infantine pout.
“Good evening, baby,” said Fauchery, kissing her familiarly.
Thus he indemnified himself. Mignon, however, did not seem to have observed this kiss, for everybody kissed his wife at the theater. But he laughed and gave the journalist a keen little look. The latter would assurely have to pay for Rose’s bravado.
In the passage the tightly shutting door opened and closed again, and a tempest of applause was blown as far as the greenroom. Simonne came in after her scene.
“Oh, Father Bosc HAS just scored!” she cried. “The prince was writhing with laughter and applauded with the rest as though he had been paid to. I say, do you know the big man sitting beside the prince in the stage box? A handsome man, with a very sedate expression and splendid whiskers!”
“It’s Count Muffat,” replied Fauchery. “I know that the prince, when he was at the empress’s the day before yesterday, invited him to dinner for tonight. He’ll have corrupted him afterward!”
“So that’s Count Muffat! We know his father-in-law, eh, Auguste?” said Rose, addressing her remark to Mignon. “You know the Marquis de Chouard, at whose place I went to sing? Well, he’s in the house too. I noticed him at the back of a box. There’s an old boy for you!”
Prulliere, who had just put on his huge plume of feathers, turned round and called her.
“Hi, Rose! Let’s go now!”
She ran after him, leaving her sentence unfinished. At that moment Mme Bron, the portress of the theater, passed by the door with an immense bouquet in her arms. Simonne asked cheerfully if it was for her, but the porter woman did not vouchsafe an answer and only pointed her chin toward Nana’s dressing room at the end of the passage. Oh, that Nana! They were loading her with flowers! Then when Mme Bron returned she handed a letter to Clarisse, who allowed a smothered oath to escape her. That beggar La Faloise again! There was a fellow who wouldn’t let her alone! And when she learned the gentleman in question was waiting for her at the porter’s lodge she shrieked:
“Tell him I’m coming down after this act. I’m going to catch him one on the face.”
Fontan had rushed forward, shouting:
“Madame Bron, just listen. Please listen, Madame Bron. I want you to send up six bottles of champagne between the acts.”
But the callboy had again made his appearance. He was out of breath, and in a singsong voice he called out:
“All to go on the stage! It’s your turn, Monsieur Fontan. Make haste, make haste!”
“Yes, yes, I’m going, Father Barillot,” replied Fontan in a flurry.
And he ran after Mme Bron and continued:
“You understand, eh? Six bottles of champagne in the greenroom between the acts. It’s my patron saint’s day, and I’m standing the racket.”
Simonne and Clarisse had gone off with a great rustling of skirts. Everybody was swallowed up in the distance, and when the passage door had banged with its usual hollow sound a fresh hail shower was heard beating against the windows in the now-silent greenroom. Barillot, a small, pale-faced ancient, who for thirty years had been a servant in the theater, had advanced familiarly toward Mignon and had presented his open snuffbox to him. This proffer of a pinch and its acceptance allowed him a minute’s rest in his interminable career up and down stairs and along the dressing-room passage. He certainly had still to look up Mme Nana, as he called her, but she was one of those who followed her own sweet will and didn’t care a pin for penalties. Why, if she chose to be too late she was too late! But he stopped short and murmured in great surprise:
“Well, I never! She’s ready; here she is! She must know that the prince is here.”
Indeed, Nana appeared in the corridor. She was dressed as a fish hag: her arms and face were plastered with white paint, and she had a couple of red dabs under her eyes. Without entering the greenroom she contented herself by nodding to Mignon and Fauchery.
“How do? You’re all right?”
Only Mignon shook her outstretched hand, and she hied royally on her way, followed by her dresser, who almost trod on her heels while stooping to adjust the folds of her skirt. In the rear of the dresser came Satin, closing the procession and trying to look quite the lady, though she was already bored to death.
“And Steiner?” asked Mignon sharply.
“Monsieur Steiner has gone away to the Loiret,” said Barillot, preparing to return to the neighborhood of the stage. “I expect he’s gone to buy a country place in those parts.”
“Ah yes, I know, Nana’s country place.”
Mignon had grown suddenly serious. Oh, that Steiner! He had promised Rose a fine house in the old days! Well, well, it wouldn’t do to grow angry with anybody. Here was a position that would have to be won again. From fireplace to console table Mignon paced, sunk in thought yet still unconquered by circumstances. There was no one in the greenroom now save Fauchery and himself. The journalist was tired and had flung himself back into the recesses of the big armchair. There he stayed with half-closed eyes and as quiet as quiet could be, while the other glanced down at him as he passed. When they were alone Mignon scorned to slap him at every turn. What good would it have done, since nobody would have enjoyed the spectacle? He was far too disinterested to be personally entertained by the farcical scenes in which he figured as a bantering husband. Glad of this short-lived respite, Fauchery stretched his feet out languidly toward the fire and let his upturned eyes wander from the barometer to the clock. In the course of his march Mignon planted himself in front of Potier’s bust, looked at it without seeming to see it and then turned back to the window, outside which yawned the darkling gulf of the courtyard. The rain had ceased, and there was now a deep silence in the room, which the fierce heat of the coke fire and the flare of the gas jets rendered still more oppressive. Not a sound came from the wings: the staircase and the passages were deadly still.
That choking sensation of quiet, which behind the scenes immediately precedes the end of an act, had begun to pervade the empty greenroom. Indeed, the place seemed to be drowsing off through very breathlessness amid that faint murmur which the stage gives forth when the whole troupe are raising the deafening uproar of some grand finale.
“Oh, the cows!” Bordenave suddeniy shouted in his hoarse voice.
He had only just come up, and he was already howling complaints about two chorus girls who had nearly fallen flat on the stage because they were playing the fool together. When his eye lit on Mignon and Fauchery he called them; he wanted to show them something. The prince had just notified a desire to compliment Nana in her dressing room during the next interval. But as he was leading them into the wings the stage manager passed.
“Just you find those hags Fernande and Maria!” cried Bordenave savagely.
Then calming down and endeavoring to assume the dignified expression worn by “heavy fathers,” he wiped his face with his pocket handkerchief and added:
“I am now going to receive His Highness.”
The curtain fell amid a long-drawn salvo of applause. Then across the twilight stage, which was no longer lit up by the footlights, there followed a disorderly retreat. Actors and supers and chorus made haste to get back to their dressing rooms while the sceneshifters rapidly changed the scenery. Simonne and Clarisse, however, had remained “at the top,” talking together in whispers. On the stage, in an interval between their lines, they had just settled a little matter. Clarisse, after viewing the thing in every light, found she preferred not to see La Faloise, who could never decide to leave her for Gaga, and so Simonne was simply to go and explain that a woman ought not to be palled up to in that fashion! At last she agreed to undertake the mission.
Then Simonne, in her theatrical laundress’s attire but with furs over her shoulders, ran down the greasy steps of the narrow, winding stairs which led between damp walls to the porter’s lodge. This lodge, situated between the actors’ staircase and that of the management, was shut in to right and left by large glass partitions and resembled a huge transparent lantern in which two gas jets were flaring.
There was a set of pigeonholes in the place in which were piled letters and newspapers, while on the table various bouquets lay awaiting their recipients in close proximity to neglected heaps of dirty plates and to an old pair of stays, the eyelets of which the portress was busy mending. And in the middle of this untidy, ill-kept storeroom sat four fashionable, white-gloved society men. They occupied as many ancient straw-bottomed chairs and, with an expression at once patient and submissive, kept sharply turning their heads in Mme Bron’s direction every time she came down from the theater overhead, for on such occasions she was the bearer of replies. Indeed, she had but now handed a note to a young man who had hurried out to open it beneath the gaslight in the vestibule, where he had grown slightly pale on reading the classic phrase — how often had others read it in that very place! —”Impossible tonight, my dearie! I’m booked!” La Faloise sat on one of these chairs at the back of the room, between the table and the stove. He seemed bent on passing the evening there, and yet he was not quite happy. Indeed, he kept tucking up his long legs in his endeavors to escape from a whole litter of black kittens who were gamboling wildly round them while the mother cat sat bolt upright, staring at him with yellow eyes.
“Ah, it’s you, Mademoiselle Simonne! What can I do for you?” asked the portress.
Simonne begged her to send La Faloise out to her. But Mme Bron was unable to comply with her wishes all at once. Under the stairs in a sort of deep cupboard she kept a little bar, whither the supers were wont to descend for drinks between the acts, and seeing that just at that moment there were five or six tall lubbers there who, still dressed as Boule Noire masqueraders, were dying of thirst and in a great hurry, she lost her head a bit. A gas jet was flaring in the cupboard, within which it was possible to descry a tin-covered table and some shelves garnished with half-emptied bottles. Whenever the door of this coalhole was opened a violent whiff of alcohol mingled with the scent of stale cooking in the lodge, as well as with the penetrating scent of the flowers upon the table.
“Well now,” continued the portress when she had served the supers, “is it the little dark chap out there you want?”
“No, no; don’t be silly!” said Simonne. “It’s the lanky one by the side of the stove. Your cat’s sniffing at his trouser legs!”
And with that she carried La Faloise off into the lobby, while the other gentlemen once more resigned themselves to their fate and to semisuffocation and the masqueraders drank on the stairs and indulged in rough horseplay and guttural drunken jests.
On the stage above Bordenave was wild with the sceneshifters, who seemed never to have done changing scenes. They appeared to be acting of set purpose — the prince would certainly have some set piece or other tumbling on his head.
“Up with it! Up with it!” shouted the foreman.
At length the canvas at the back of the stage was raised into position, and the stage was clear. Mignon, who had kept his eye on Fauchery, seized this opportunity in order to start his pummeling matches again. He hugged him in his long arms and cried:
“Oh, take care! That mast just missed crushing you!”
And he carried him off and shook him before setting him down again. In view of the sceneshifters’ exaggerated mirth, Fauchery grew white. His lips trembled, and he was ready to flare up in anger while Mignon, shamming good nature, was clapping him on the shoulder with such affectionate violence as nearly to pulverize him.
“I value your health, I do!” he kept repeating. “Egad! I should be in a pretty pickle if anything serious happened to you!”
But just then a whisper ran through their midst: “The prince! The prince! And everybody turned and looked at the little door which opened out of the main body of the house. At first nothing was visible save Bordenave’s round back and beefy neck, which bobbed down and arched up in a series of obsequious obeisances. Then the prince made his appearance. Largely and strongly built, light of beard and rosy of hue, he was not lacking in the kind of distinction peculiar to a sturdy man of pleasure, the square contours of whose limbs are clearly defined by the irreproachable cut of a frock coat. Behind him walked Count Muffat and the Marquis de Chouard, but this particular corner of the theater being dark, the group were lost to view amid huge moving shadows.
In order fittingly to address the son of a queen, who would someday occupy a throne, Bordenave had assumed the tone of a man exhibiting a bear in the street. In a voice tremulous with false emotion he kept repeating:
“If His Highness will have the goodness to follow me — would His Highness deign to come this way? His Highness will take care!”
The prince did not hurry in the least. On the contrary, he was greatly interested and kept pausing in order to look at the sceneshifters’ maneuvers. A batten had just been lowered, and the group of gaslights high up among its iron crossbars illuminated the stage with a wide beam of light. Muffat, who had never yet been behind scenes at a theater, was even more astonished than the rest. An uneasy feeling of mingled fear and vague repugnance took possession of him. He looked up into the heights above him, where more battens, the gas jets on which were burning low, gleamed like galaxies of little bluish stars amid a chaos of iron rods, connecting lines of all sizes, hanging stages and canvases spread out in space, like huge cloths hung out to dry.
“Lower away!” shouted the foreman unexpectedly.
And the prince himself had to warn the count, for a canvas was descending. They were setting the scenery for the third act, which was the grotto on Mount Etna. Men were busy planting masts in the sockets, while others went and took frames which were leaning against the walls of the stage and proceeded to lash them with strong cords to the poles already in position. At the back of the stage, with a view to producing the bright rays thrown by Vulcan’s glowing forge, a stand had been fixed by a limelight man, who was now lighting various burners under red glasses. The scene was one of confusion, verging to all appearances on absolute chaos, but every little move had been prearranged. Nay, amid all the scurry the whistle blower even took a few turns, stepping short as he did so, in order to rest his legs.
“His Highness overwhelms me,” said Bordenave, still bowing low. “The theater is not large, but we do what we can. Now if His Highness deigns to follow me —”
Count Muffat was already making for the dressing-room passage. The really sharp downward slope of the stage had surprised him disagreeably, and he owed no small part of his present anxiety to a feeling that its boards were moving under his feet. Through the open sockets gas was descried burning in the “dock.” Human voices and blasts of air, as from a vault, came up thence, and, looking down into the depths of gloom, one became aware of a whole subterranean existence. But just as the count was going up the stage a small incident occurred to stop him. Two little women, dressed for the third act, were chatting by the peephole in the curtain. One of them, straining forward and widening the hole with her fingers in order the better to observe things, was scanning the house beyond.
“I see him,” said she sharply. “Oh, what a mug!”
Horrified, Bordenave had much ado not to give her a kick. But the prince smiled and looked pleased and excited by the remark. He gazed warmly at the little woman who did not care a button for His Highness, and she, on her part, laughed unblushingly. Bordenave, however, persuaded the prince to follow him. Muffat was beginning to perspire; he had taken his hat off. What inconvenienced him most was the stuffy, dense, overheated air of the place with its strong, haunting smell, a smell peculiar to this part of a theater, and, as such, compact of the reek of gas, of the glue used in the manufacture of the scenery, of dirty dark nooks and corners and of questionably clean chorus girls. In the passage the air was still more suffocating, and one seemed to breathe a poisoned atmosphere, which was occasionally relieved by the acid scents of toilet waters and the perfumes of various soaps emanating from the dressing rooms. The count lifted his eyes as he passed and glanced up the staircase, for he was well-nigh startled by the keen flood of light and warmth which flowed down upon his back and shoulders. High up above him there was a clicking of ewers and basins, a sound of laughter and of people calling to one another, a banging of doors, which in their continual opening and shutting allowed an odor of womankind to escape — a musky scent of oils and essences mingling with the natural pungency exhaled from human tresses. He did not stop. Nay, he hastened his walk: he almost ran, his skin tingling with the breath of that fiery approach to a world he knew nothing of.
“A theater’s a curious sight, eh?” said the Marquis de Chouard with the enchanted expression of a man who once more finds himself amid familiar surroundings.
But Bordenave had at length reached Nana’s dressing room at the end of the passage. He quietly turned the door handle; then, cringing again:
“If His Highness will have the goodness to enter —”
They heard the cry of a startled woman and caught sight of Nana as, stripped to the waist, she slipped behind a curtain while her dresser, who had been in the act of drying her, stood, towel in air, before them.
“Oh, it IS silly to come in that way!” cried Nana from her hiding place. “Don’t come in; you see you mustn’t come in!”
Bordenave did not seem to relish this sudden flight.
“Do stay where you were, my dear. Why, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s His Highness. Come, come, don’t be childish.”
And when she still refused to make her appearance — for she was startled as yet, though she had begun to laugh — he added in peevish, paternal tones:
“Good heavens, these gentlemen know perfectly well what a woman looks like. They won’t eat you.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” said the prince wittily.
With that the whole company began laughing in an exaggerated manner in order to pay him proper court.
“An exquisitely witty speech — an altogether Parisian speech,” as Bordenave remarked.
Nana vouchsafed no further reply, but the curtain began moving. Doubtless she was making up her mind. Then Count Muffat, with glowing cheeks, began to take stock of the dressing room. It was a square room with a very low ceiling, and it was entirely hung with a light-colored Havana stuff. A curtain of the same material depended from a copper rod and formed a sort of recess at the end of the room, while two large windows opened on the courtyard of the theater and were faced, at a distance of three yards at most, by a leprous-looking wall against which the panes cast squares of yellow light amid the surrounding darkness. A large dressing glass faced a white marble toilet table, which was garnished with a disorderly array of flasks and glass boxes containing oils, essences and powders. The count went up to the dressing glass and discovered that he was looking very flushed and had small drops of perspiration on his forehead. He dropped his eyes and came and took up a position in front of the toilet table, where the basin, full of soapy water, the small, scattered, ivory toilet utensils and the damp sponges, appeared for some moments to absorb his attention. The feeling of dizziness which he had experienced when he first visited Nana in the Boulevard Haussmann once more overcame him. He felt the thick carpet soften under foot, and the gasjets burning by the dressing table and by the glass seemed to shoot whistling flames about his temples. For one moment, being afraid of fainting away under the influence of those feminine odors which he now re-encountered, intensified by the heat under the low-pitched ceiling, he sat down on the edge of a softly padded divan between the two windows. But he got up again almost directly and, returning to the dressing table, seemed to gaze with vacant eyes into space, for he was thinking of a bouquet of tuberoses which had once faded in his bedroom and had nearly killed him in their death. When tuberoses are turning brown they have a human smell.
“Make haste!” Bordenave whispered, putting his head in behind the curtain.
The prince, however, was listening complaisantly to the Marquis de Chouard, who had taken up a hare’s-foot on the dressing table and had begun explaining the way grease paint is put on. In a corner of the room Satin, with her pure, virginal face, was scanning the gentlemen keenly, while the dresser, Mme Jules by name, was getting ready Venus’ tights and tunic. Mme Jules was a woman of no age. She had the parchment skin and changeless features peculiar to old maids whom no one ever knew in their younger years. She had indeed shriveled up in the burning atmosphere of the dressing rooms and amid the most famous thighs and bosoms in all Paris. She wore everlastingly a faded black dress, and on her flat and sexless chest a perfect forest of pins clustered above the spot where her heart should have been.
“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” said Nana, drawing aside the curtain, “but you took me by surprise.”
They all turned round. She had not clothed herself at all, had, in fact, only buttoned on a little pair of linen stays which half revealed her bosom. When the gentlemen had put her to flight she had scarcely begun undressing and was rapidly taking off her fishwife’s costume. Through the opening in her drawers behind a corner of her shift was even now visible. There she stood, bare-armed, bare-shouldered, bare-breasted, in all the adorable glory of her youth and plump, fair beauty, but she still held the curtain with one hand, as though ready to draw it to again upon the slightest provocation.
“Yes, you took me by surprise! I never shall dare —” she stammered in pretty, mock confusion, while rosy blushes crossed her neck and shoulders and smiles of embarrassment played about her lips.
“Oh, don’t apologize,” cried Bordenave, “since these gentlemen approve of your good looks!”
But she still tried the hesitating, innocent, girlish game, and, shivering as though someone were tickling her, she continued:
“His Highness does me too great an honor. I beg His Highness will excuse my receiving him thus —”
“It is I who am importunate,” said the prince, “but, madame, I could not resist the desire of complimenting you.”
Thereupon, in order to reach her dressing table, she walked very quietly and just as she was through the midst of the gentlemen, who made way for her to pass.
She had strongly marked hips, which filled her drawers out roundly, while with swelling bosom she still continued bowing and smiling her delicate little smile. Suddenly she seemed to recognize Count Muffat, and she extended her hand to him as an old friend. Then she scolded him for not having come to her supper party. His Highness deigned to chaff Muffat about this, and the latter stammered and thrilled again at the thought that for one second he had held in his own feverish clasp a little fresh and perfumed hand. The count had dined excellently at the prince’s, who, indeed, was a heroic eater and drinker. Both of them were even a little intoxicated, but they behaved very creditably. To hide the commotion within him Muffat could only remark about the heat.
“Good heavens, how hot it is here!” he said. “How do you manage to live in such a temperature, madame?”
And conversation was about to ensue on this topic when noisy voices were heard at the dressing-room door. Bordenave drew back the slide over a grated peephole of the kind used in convents. Fontan was outside with Prulliere and Bosc, and all three had bottles under their arms and their hands full of glasses. He began knocking and shouting out that it was his patron saint’s day and that he was standing champagne round. Nana consulted the prince with a glance. Eh! Oh dear, yes! His Highness did not want to be in anyone’s way; he would be only too happy! But without waiting for permission Fontan came in, repeating in baby accents:
“Me not a cad, me pay for champagne!”
Then all of a sudden he became aware of the prince’s presence of which he had been totally ignorant. He stopped short and, assuming an air of farcical solemnity, announced:
“King Dagobert is in the corridor and is desirous of drinking the health of His Royal Highness.”
The prince having made answer with a smile, Fontan’s sally was voted charming. But the dressing room was too small to accommodate everybody, and it became necessary to crowd up anyhow, Satin and Mme Jules standing back against the curtain at the end and the men clustering closely round the half-naked Nana. The three actors still had on the costumes they had been wearing in the second act, and while Prulliere took off his Alpine admiral’s cocked hat, the huge plume of which would have knocked the ceiling, Bosc, in his purple cloak and tinware crown, steadied himself on his tipsy old legs and greeted the prince as became a monarch receiving the son of a powerful neighbor. The glasses were filled, and the company began clinking them together.
“I drink to Your Highness!” said ancient Bosc royally.
“To the army!” added Prulliere.
“To Venus!” cried Fontan.
The prince complaisantly poised his glass, waited quietly, bowed thrice and murmured:
“Madame! Admiral! Your Majesty!”
Then he drank it off. Count Muffat and the Marquis de Chouard had followed his example. There was no more jesting now — the company were at court. Actual life was prolonged in the life of the theater, and a sort of solemn farce was enacted under the hot flare of the gas. Nana, quite forgetting that she was in her drawers and that a corner of her shift stuck out behind, became the great lady, the queen of love, in act to open her most private palace chambers to state dignitaries. In every sentence she used the words “Royal Highness” and, bowing with the utmost conviction, treated the masqueraders, Bosc and Prulliere, as if the one were a sovereign and the other his attendant minister. And no one dreamed of smiling at this strange contrast, this real prince, this heir to a throne, drinking a petty actor’s champagne and taking his ease amid a carnival of gods, a masquerade of royalty, in the society of dressers and courtesans, shabby players and showmen of venal beauty. Bordenave was simply ravished by the dramatic aspects of the scene and began dreaming of the receipts which would have accrued had His Highness only consented thus to appear in the second act of the Blonde Venus.
“I say, shall we have our little women down?” he cried, becoming familiar.
Nana would not hear of it. But notwithstanding this, she was giving way herself. Fontan attracted her with his comic make-up. She brushed against him and, eying him as a woman in the family way might do when she fancies some unpleasant kind of food, she suddenly became extremely familiar:
“Now then, fill up again, ye great brute!”
Fontan charged the glasses afresh, and the company drank, repeating the same toasts.
“To His Highness!”
“To the army!”
But with that Nana made a sign and obtained silence. She raised her glass and cried:
“No, no! To Fontan! It’s Fontan’s day; to Fontan! To Fontan!”
Then they clinked glasses a third time and drank Fontan with all the honors. The prince, who had noticed the young woman devouring the actor with her eyes, saluted him with a “Monsieur Fontan, I drink to your success!” This he said with his customary courtesy.
But meanwhile the tail of his highness’s frock coat was sweeping the marble of the dressing table. The place, indeed, was like an alcove or narrow bathroom, full as it was of the steam of hot water and sponges and of the strong scent of essences which mingled with the tartish, intoxicating fumes of the champagne. The prince and Count Muffat, between whom Nana was wedged, had to lift up their hands so as not to brush against her hips or her breast with every little movement. And there stood Mme Jules, waiting, cool and rigid as ever, while Satin, marveling in the depths of her vicious soul to see a prince and two gentlemen in black coats going after a naked woman in the society of dressed-up actors, secretly concluded that fashionable people were not so very particular after all.
But Father Barillot’s tinkling bell approached along the passage. At the door of the dressing room he stood amazed when he caught sight of the three actors still clad in the costumes which they had worn in the second act.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he stammered, “do please make haste. They’ve just rung the bell in the public foyer.”
“Bah, the public will have to wait!” said Bordenave placidly.
However, as the bottles were now empty, the comedians went upstairs to dress after yet another interchange of civilities. Bosc, having dipped his beard in the champagne, had taken it off, and under his venerable disguise the drunkard had suddenly reappeared. His was the haggard, empurpled face of the old actor who has taken to drink. At the foot of the stairs he was heard remarking to Fontan in his boozy voice:
“I pulverized him, eh?”
He was alluding to the prince.
In Nana’s dressing room none now remained save His Highness, the count and the marquis. Bordenave had withdrawn with Barillot, whom he advised not to knock without first letting Madame know.
“You will excuse me, gentlemen?” asked Nana, again setting to work to make up her arms and face, of which she was now particularly careful, owing to her nude appearance in the third act.
The prince seated himself by the Marquis de Chouard on the divan, and Count Muffat alone remained standing. In that suffocating heat the two glasses of champagne they had drunk had increased their intoxication. Satin, when she saw the gentlemen thus closeting themselves with her friend, had deemed it discreet to vanish behind the curtain, where she sat waiting on a trunk, much annoyed at being compelled to remain motionless, while Mme Jules came and went quietly without word or look.
“You sang your numbers marvelously,” said the prince.
And with that they began a conversation, but their sentences were short and their pauses frequent. Nana, indeed, was not always able to reply. After rubbing cold cream over her arms and face with the palm of her hand she laid on the grease paint with the corner of a towel. For one second only she ceased looking in the glass and smilingly stole a glance at the prince.
“His Highness is spoiling me,” she murmured without putting down the grease paint.
Her task was a complicated one, and the Marquis de Chouard followed it with an expression of devout enjoyment. He spoke in his turn.
“Could not the band accompany you more softly?” he said. “It drowns your voice, and that’s an unpardonable crime.”
This time Nana did not turn round. She had taken up the hare’s-foot and was lightly manipulating it. All her attention was concentrated on this action, and she bent forward over her toilet table so very far that the white round contour of her drawers and the little patch of chemise stood out with the unwonted tension. But she was anxious to prove that she appreciated the old man’s compliment and therefore made a little swinging movement with her hips.
Silence reigned. Mme Jules had noticed a tear in the right leg of her drawers. She took a pin from over her heart and for a second or so knelt on the ground, busily at work about Nana’s leg, while the young woman, without seeming to notice her presence, applied the rice powder, taking extreme pains as she did so, to avoid putting any on the upper part of her cheeks. But when the prince remarked that if she were to come and sing in London all England would want to applaud her, she laughed amiably and turned round for a moment with her left cheek looking very white amid a perfect cloud of powder. Then she became suddenly serious, for she had come to the operation of rouging. And with her face once more close to the mirror, she dipped her finger in a jar and began applying the rouge below her eyes and gently spreading it back toward her temples. The gentlemen maintained a respectful silence.
Count Muffat, indeed, had not yet opened his lips. He was thinking perforce of his own youth. The bedroom of his childish days had been quite cold, and later, when he had reached the age of sixteen and would give his mother a good-night kiss every evening, he used to carry the icy feeling of the embrace into the world of dreams. One day in passing a half-open door he had caught sight of a maidservant washing herself, and that was the solitary recollection which had in any way troubled his peace of mind from the days of puberty till the time of marriage. Afterward he had found his wife strictly obedient to her conjugal duties but had himself felt a species of religious dislike to them. He had grown to man’s estate and was now aging, in ignorance of the flesh, in the humble observance of rigid devotional practices and in obedience to a rule of life full of precepts and moral laws. And now suddenly he was dropped down in this actress’s dressing room in the presence of this undraped courtesan.
He, who had never seen the Countess Muffat putting on her garters, was witnessing, amid that wild disarray of jars and basins and that strong, sweet perfume, the intimate details of a woman’s toilet. His whole being was in turmoil; he was terrified by the stealthy, all-pervading influence which for some time past Nana’s presence had been exercising over him, and he recalled to mind the pious accounts of diabolic possession which had amused his early years. He was a believer in the devil, and, in a confused kind of way, Nana was he, with her laughter and her bosom and her hips, which seemed swollen with many vices. But he promised himself that he would be strong — nay, he would know how to defend himself.
“Well then, it’s agreed,” said the prince, lounging quite comfortably on the divan. “You will come to London next year, and we shall receive you so cordially that you will never return to France again. Ah, my dear Count, you don’t value your pretty women enough. We shall take them all from you!”
“That won’t make much odds to him,” murmured the Marquis de Chouard wickedly, for he occasionally said a risky thing among friends. “The count is virtue itself.”
Hearing his virtue mentioned, Nana looked at him so comically that Muffat felt a keen twinge of annoyance. But directly afterward he was surprised and angry with himself. Why, in the presence of this courtesan, should the idea of being virtuous embarrass him? He could have struck her. But in attempting to take up a brush Nana had just let it drop on the ground, and as she stooped to pick it up he rushed forward. Their breath mingled for one moment, and the loosened tresses of Venus flowed over his hands. But remorse mingled with his enjoyment, a kind of enjoyment, moreover, peculiar to good Catholics, whom the fear of hell torments in the midst of their sin.
At this moment Father Barillot’s voice was heard outside the door.
“May I give the knocks, madame? The house is growing impatient.”
“All in good time,” answered Nana quietly.
She had dipped her paint brush in a pot of kohl, and with the point of her nose close to the glass and her left eye closed she passed it delicately along between her eyelashes. Muffat stood behind her, looking on. He saw her reflection in the mirror, with her rounded shoulders and her bosom half hidden by a rosy shadow. And despite all his endeavors he could not turn away his gaze from that face so merry with dimples and so worn with desire, which the closed eye rendered more seductive. When she shut her right eye and passed the brush along it he understood that he belonged to her.
“They are stamping their feet, madame,” the callboy once more cried. “They’ll end by smashing the seats. May I give the knocks?”
“Oh, bother!” said Nana impatiently. “Knock away; I don’t care! If I’m not ready, well, they’ll have to wait for me!”
She grew calm again and, turning to the gentlemen, added with a smile:
“It’s true: we’ve only got a minute left for our talk.”
Her face and arms were now finished, and with her fingers she put two large dabs of carmine on her lips. Count Muffat felt more excited than ever. He was ravished by the perverse transformation wrought by powders and paints and filled by a lawless yearning for those young painted charms, for the too-red mouth and the too-white face and the exaggerated eyes, ringed round with black and burning and dying for very love. Meanwhile Nana went behind the curtain for a second or two in order to take off her drawers and slip on Venus’ tights. After which, with tranquil immodesty, she came out and undid her little linen stays and held out her arms to Mme Jules, who drew the short-sleeved tunic over them.
“Make haste; they’re growing angry!” she muttered.
The prince with half-closed eyes marked the swelling lines of her bosom with an air of connoisseurship, while the Marquis de Chouard wagged his head involuntarily. Muffat gazed at the carpet in order not to see any more. At length Venus, with only her gauze veil over her shoulders, was ready to go on the stage. Mme Jules, with vacant, unconcerned eyes and an expression suggestive of a little elderly wooden doll, still kept circling round her. With brisk movements she took pins out of the inexhaustible pincushion over her heart and pinned up Venus’ tunic, but as she ran over all those plump nude charms with her shriveled hands, nothing was suggested to her. She was as one whom her sex does not concern.
“There!” said the young woman, taking a final look at herself in the mirror.
Bordenave was back again. He was anxious and said the third act had begun.
“Very well! I’m coming,” replied Nana. “Here’s a pretty fuss! Why, it’s usually I that waits for the others.”
The gentlemen left the dressing room, but they did not say good-by, for the prince had expressed a desire to assist behind the scenes at the performance of the third act. Left alone, Nana seemed greatly surprised and looked round her in all directions.
“Where can she be?” she queried.
She was searching for Satin. When she had found her again, waiting on her trunk behind the curtain, Satin quietly replied:
“Certainly I didn’t want to be in your way with all those men there!”
And she added further that she was going now. But Nana held her back. What a silly girl she was! Now that Bordenave had agreed to take her on! Why, the bargain was to be struck after the play was over! Satin hesitated. There were too many bothers; she was out of her element! Nevertheless, she stayed.
As the prince was coming down the little wooden staircase a strange sound of smothered oaths and stamping, scuffling feet became audible on the other side of the theater. The actors waiting for their cues were being scared by quite a serious episode. For some seconds past Mignon had been renewing his jokes and smothering Fauchery with caresses. He had at last invented a little game of a novel kind and had begun flicking the other’s nose in order, as he phrased it, to keep the flies off him. This kind of game naturally diverted the actors to any extent.
But success had suddenly thrown Mignon off his balance. He had launched forth into extravagant courses and had given the journalist a box on the ear, an actual, a vigorous, box on the ear. This time he had gone too far: in the presence of so many spectators it was impossible for Fauchery to pocket such a blow with laughing equanimity. Whereupon the two men had desisted from their farce, had sprung at one another’s throats, their faces livid with hate, and were now rolling over and over behind a set of side lights, pounding away at each other as though they weren’t breakable.
“Monsieur Bordenave, Monsieur Bordenave!” said the stage manager, coming up in a terrible flutter.
Bordenave made his excuses to the prince and followed him. When he recognized Fauchery and Mignon in the men on the floor he gave vent to an expression of annoyance. They had chosen a nice time, certainly, with His Highness on the other side of the scenery and all that houseful of people who might have overheard the row! To make matters worse, Rose Mignon arrived out of breath at the very moment she was due on the stage. Vulcan, indeed, was giving her the cue, but Rose stood rooted to the ground, marveling at sight of her husband and her lover as they lay wallowing at her feet, strangling one another, kicking, tearing their hair out and whitening their coats with dust. They barred the way. A sceneshifter had even stopped Fauchery’s hat just when the devilish thing was going to bound onto the stage in the middle of the struggle. Meanwhile Vulcan, who had been gagging away to amuse the audience, gave Rose her cue a second time. But she stood motionless, still gazing at the two men.
“Oh, don’t look at THEM!” Bordenave furiously whispered to her. “Go on the stage; go on, do! It’s no business of yours! Why, you’re missing your cue!”
And with a push from the manager, Rose stepped over the prostrate bodies and found herself in the flare of the footlights and in the presence of the audience. She had quite failed to understand why they were fighting on the floor behind her. Trembling from head to foot and with a humming in her ears, she came down to the footlights, Diana’s sweet, amorous smile on her lips, and attacked the opening lines of her duet with so feeling a voice that the public gave her a veritable ovation.
Behind the scenery she could hear the dull thuds caused by the two men. They had rolled down to the wings, but fortunately the music covered the noise made by their feet as they kicked against them.
“By God!” yelled Bordenave in exasperation when at last he had succeeded in separating them. “Why couldn’t you fight at home? You know as well as I do that I don’t like this sort of thing. You, Mignon, you’ll do me the pleasure of staying over here on the prompt side, and you, Fauchery, if you leave the O.P. side I’ll chuck you out of the theater. You understand, eh? Prompt side and O.P. side or I forbid Rose to bring you here at all.”
When he returned to the prince’s presence the latter asked what was the matter.
“Oh, nothing at all,” he murmured quietly.
Nana was standing wrapped in furs, talking to these gentlemen while awaiting her cue. As Count Muffat was coming up in order to peep between two of the wings at the stage, he understood from a sign made him by the stage manager that he was to step softly. Drowsy warmth was streaming down from the flies, and in the wings, which were lit by vivid patches of light, only a few people remained, talking in low voices or making off on tiptoe. The gasman was at his post amid an intricate arrangement of cocks; a fireman, leaning against the side lights, was craning forward, trying to catch a glimpse of things, while on his seat, high up, the curtain man was watching with resigned expression, careless of the play, constantly on the alert for the bell to ring him to his duty among the ropes. And amid the close air and the shuffling of feet and the sound of whispering, the voices of the actors on the stage sounded strange, deadened, surprisingly discordant. Farther off again, above the confused noises of the band, a vast breathing sound was audible. It was the breath of the house, which sometimes swelled up till it burst in vague rumors, in laughter, in applause. Though invisible, the presence of the public could be felt, even in the silences.
“There’s something open,” said Nana sharply, and with that she tightened the folds of her fur cloak. “Do look, Barillot. I bet they’ve just opened a window. Why, one might catch one’s death of cold here!”
Barillot swore that he had closed every window himself but suggested that possibly there were broken panes about. The actors were always complaining of drafts. Through the heavy warmth of that gaslit region blasts of cold air were constantly passing — it was a regular influenza trap, as Fontan phrased it.
“I should like to see YOU in a low-cut dress,” continued Nana, growing annoyed.
“Hush!” murmured Bordenave.
On the stage Rose rendered a phrase in her duet so cleverly that the stalls burst into universal applause. Nana was silent at this, and her face grew grave. Meanwhile the count was venturing down a passage when Barillot stopped him and said he would make a discovery there. Indeed, he obtained an oblique back view of the scenery and of the wings which had been strengthened, as it were, by a thick layer of old posters. Then he caught sight of a corner of the stage, of the Etna cave hollowed out in a silver mine and of Vulcan’s forge in the background. Battens, lowered from above, lit up a sparkling substance which had been laid on with large dabs of the brush. Side lights with red glasses and blue were so placed as to produce the appearance of a fiery brazier, while on the floor of the stage, in the far background, long lines of gaslight had been laid down in order to throw a wall of dark rocks into sharp relief. Hard by on a gentle, “practicable” incline, amid little points of light resembling the illumination lamps scattered about in the grass on the night of a public holiday, old Mme Drouard, who played Juno, was sitting dazed and sleepy, waiting for her cue.
Presently there was a commotion, for Simonne, while listening to a story Clarisse was telling her, cried out:
“My! It’s the Tricon!”
It was indeed the Tricon, wearing the same old curls and looking as like a litigious great lady as ever.
When she saw Nana she went straight up to her.
“No,” said the latter after some rapid phrases had been exchanged, “not now.” The old lady looked grave. Just then Prulliere passed by and shook hands with her, while two little chorus girls stood gazing at her with looks of deep emotion. For a moment she seemed to hesitate. Then she beckoned to Simonne, and the rapid exchange of sentences began again.
“Yes,” said Simonne at last. “In half an hour.”
But as she was going upstairs again to her dressing room, Mme Bron, who was once more going the rounds with letters, presented one to her. Bordenave lowered his voice and furiously reproached the portress for having allowed the Tricon to come in. That woman! And on such an evening of all others! It made him so angry because His Highness was there! Mme Bron, who had been thirty years in the theater, replied quite sourly. How was she to know? she asked. The Tricon did business with all the ladies — M. le Directeur had met her a score of times without making remarks. And while Bordenave was muttering oaths the Tricon stood quietly by, scrutinizing the prince as became a woman who weighs a man at a glance. A smile lit up her yellow face. Presently she paced slowly off through the crowd of deeply deferential little women.
“Immediately, eh?” she queried, turning round again to Simonne.
Simonne seemed much worried. The letter was from a young man to whom she had engaged herself for that evening. She gave Mme Bron a scribbled note in which were the words, “Impossible tonight, darling — I’m booked.” But she was still apprehensive; the young man might possibly wait for her in spite of everything. As she was not playing in the third act, she had a mind to be off at once and accordingly begged Clarisse to go and see if the man were there. Clarisse was only due on the stage toward the end of the act, and so she went downstairs while Simonne ran up for a minute to their common dressing room.
In Mme Bron’s drinking bar downstairs a super, who was charged with the part of Pluto, was drinking in solitude amid the folds of a great red robe diapered with golden flames. The little business plied by the good portress must have been progressing finely, for the cellarlike hole under the stairs was wet with emptied heeltaps and water. Clarisse picked up the tunic of Iris, which was dragging over the greasy steps behind her, but she halted prudently at the turn in the stairs and was content simply to crane forward and peer into the lodge. She certainly had been quick to scent things out! Just fancy! That idiot La Faloise was still there, sitting on the same old chair between the table and the stove! He had made pretense of sneaking off in front of Simonne and had returned after her departure. For the matter of that, the lodge was still full of gentlemen who sat there gloved, elegant, submissive and patient as ever. They were all waiting and viewing each other gravely as they waited. On the table there were now only some dirty plates, Mme Bron having recently distributed the last of the bouquets. A single fallen rose was withering on the floor in the neighborhood of the black cat, who had lain down and curled herself up while the kittens ran wild races and danced fierce gallops among the gentlemen’s legs. Clarisse was momentarily inclined to turn La Faloise out. The idiot wasn’t fond of animals, and that put the finishing touch to him! He was busy drawing in his legs because the cat was there, and he didn’t want to touch her.
“He’ll nip you; take care!” said Pluto, who was a joker, as he went upstairs, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
After that Clarisse gave up the idea of hauling La Faloise over the coals. She had seen Mme Bron giving the letter to Simonne’s young man, and he had gone out to read it under the gas light in the lobby. “Impossible tonight, darling — I’m booked.” And with that he had peaceably departed, as one who was doubtless used to the formula. He, at any rate, knew how to conduct himself! Not so the others, the fellows who sat there doggedly on Mme Bron’s battered straw-bottomed chairs under the great glazed lantern, where the heat was enough to roast you and there was an unpleasant odor. What a lot of men it must have held! Clarisse went upstairs again in disgust, crossed over behind scenes and nimbly mounted three flights of steps which led to the dressing rooms, in order to bring Simonne her reply.
Downstairs the prince had withdrawn from the rest and stood talking to Nana. He never left her; he stood brooding over her through half-shut eyelids. Nana did not look at him but, smiling, nodded yes. Suddenly, however, Count Muffat obeyed an overmastering impulse, and leaving Bordenave, who was explaining to him the working of the rollers and windlasses, he came up in order to interrupt their confabulations. Nana lifted her eyes and smiled at him as she smiled at His Highness. But she kept her ears open notwithstanding, for she was waiting for her cue.
“The third act is the shortest, I believe,” the prince began saying, for the count’s presence embarrassed him.
She did not answer; her whole expression altered; she was suddenly intent on her business. With a rapid movement of the shoulders she had let her furs slip from her, and Mme Jules, standing behind, had caught them in her arms. And then after passing her two hands to her hair as though to make it fast, she went on the stage in all her nudity.
“Hush, hush!” whispered Bordenave.
The count and the prince had been taken by surprise. There was profound silence, and then a deep sigh and the far-off murmur of a multitude became audible. Every evening when Venus entered in her godlike nakedness the same effect was produced. Then Muffat was seized with a desire to see; he put his eye to the peephole. Above and beyond the glowing arc formed by the footlights the dark body of the house seemed full of ruddy vapor, and against this neutral-tinted background, where row upon row of faces struck a pale, uncertain note, Nana stood forth white and vast, so that the boxes from the balcony to the flies were blotted from view. He saw her from behind, noted her swelling hips, her outstretched arms, while down on the floor, on the same level as her feet, the prompter’s head — an old man’s head with a humble, honest face — stood on the edge of the stage, looking as though it had been severed from the body. At certain points in her opening number an undulating movement seemed to run from her neck to her waist and to die out in the trailing border of her tunic. When amid a tempest of applause she had sung her last note she bowed, and the gauze floated forth round about her limbs, and her hair swept over her waist as she bent sharply backward. And seeing her thus, as with bending form and with exaggerated hips she came backing toward the count’s peephole, he stood upright again, and his face was very white. The stage had disappeared, and he now saw only the reverse side of the scenery with its display of old posters pasted up in every direction. On the practicable slope, among the lines of gas jets, the whole of Olympus had rejoined the dozing Mme Drouard. They were waiting for the close of the act. Bosc and Fontan sat on the floor with their knees drawn up to their chins, and Prulliere stretched himself and yawned before going on. Everybody was worn out; their eyes were red, and they were longing to go home to sleep.
Just then Fauchery, who had been prowling about on the O.P. side ever since Bordenave had forbidden him the other, came and buttonholed the count in order to keep himself in countenance and offered at the same time to show him the dressing rooms. An increasing sense of languor had left Muffat without any power of resistance, and after looking round for the Marquis de Chouard, who had disappeared, he ended by following the journalist. He experienced a mingled feeling of relief and anxiety as he left the wings whence he had been listening to Nana’s songs.
Fauchery had already preceded him up the staircase, which was closed on the first and second floors by low-paneled doors. It was one of those stairways which you find in miserable tenements. Count Muffat had seen many such during his rounds as member of the Benevolent Organization. It was bare and dilapidated: there was a wash of yellow paint on its walls; its steps had been worn by the incessant passage of feet, and its iron balustrade had grown smooth under the friction of many hands. On a level with the floor on every stairhead there was a low window which resembled a deep, square venthole, while in lanterns fastened to the walls flaring gas jets crudely illuminatcd the surrounding squalor and gave out a glowing heat which, as it mounted up the narrow stairwell, grew ever more intense.
When he reached the foot of the stairs the count once more felt the hot breath upon his neck and shoulders. As of old it was laden with the odor of women, wafted amid floods of light and sound from the dressing rooms above, and now with every upward step he took the musky scent of powders and the tart perfume of toilet vinegars heated and bewildered him more and more. On the first floor two corridors ran backward, branching sharply off and presenting a set of doors to view which were painted yellow and numbered with great white numerals in such a way as to suggest a hotel with a bad reputation. The tiles on the floor had been many of them unbedded, and the old house being in a state of subsidence, they stuck up like hummocks. The count dashed recklessly forward, glanced through a half-open door and saw a very dirty room which resembled a barber’s shop in a poor part of the town. In was furnished with two chairs, a mirror and a small table containing a drawer which had been blackened by the grease from brushes and combs. A great perspiring fellow with smoking shoulders was changing his linen there, while in a similar room next door a woman was drawing on her gloves preparatory to departure. Her hair was damp and out of curl, as though she had just had a bath. But Fauchery began calling the count, and the latter was rushing up without delay when a furious “damn!” burst from the corridor on the right. Mathilde, a little drab of a miss, had just broken her washhand basin, the soapy water from which was flowing out to the stairhead. A dressing room door banged noisily. Two women in their stays skipped across the passage, and another, with the hem of her shift in her mouth, appeared and immediately vanished from view. Then followed a sound of laughter, a dispute, the snatch of a song which was suddenly broken off short. All along the passage naked gleams, sudden visions of white skin and wan underlinen were observable through chinks in doorways. Two girls were making very merry, showing each other their birthmarks. One of them, a very young girl, almost a child, had drawn her skirts up over her knees in order to sew up a rent in her drawers, and the dressers, catching sight of the two men, drew some curtains half to for decency’s sake. The wild stampede which follows the end of a play had already begun, the grand removal of white paint and rouge, the reassumption amid clouds of rice powder of ordinary attire. The strange animal scent came in whiffs of redoubled intensity through the lines of banging doors. On the third story Muffat abandoned himself to the feeling of intoxication which was overpowering him. For the chorus girls’ dressing room was there, and you saw a crowd of twenty women and a wild display of soaps and flasks of lavender water. The place resembled the common room in a slum lodging house. As he passed by he heard fierce sounds of washing behind a closed door and a perfect storm raging in a washhand basin. And as he was mounting up to the topmost story of all, curiosity led him to risk one more little peep through an open loophole. The room was empty, and under the flare of the gas a solitary chamber pot stood forgotten among a heap of petticoats trailing on the floor. This room afforded him his ultimate impression. Upstairs on the fourth floor he was well-nigh suffocated. All the scents, all the blasts of heat, had found their goal there. The yellow ceiling looked as if it had been baked, and a lamp burned amid fumes of russet-colored fog. For some seconds he leaned upon the iron balustrade which felt warm and damp and well-nigh human to the touch. And he shut his eyes and drew a long breath and drank in the sexual atmosphere of the place. Hitherto he had been utterly ignorant of it, but now it beat full in his face.
“Do come here,” shouted Fauchery, who had vanished some moments ago. “You’re being asked for.”
At the end of the corridor was the dressing room belonging to Clarisse and Simonne. It was a long, ill-built room under the roof with a garret ceiling and sloping walls. The light penetrated to it from two deep-set openings high up in the wall, but at that hour of the night the dressing room was lit by flaring gas. It was papered with a paper at seven sous a roll with a pattern of roses twining over green trelliswork. Two boards, placed near one another and covered with oilcloth, did duty for dressing tables. They were black with spilled water, and underneath them was a fine medley of dinted zinc jugs, slop pails and coarse yellow earthenware crocks. There was an array of fancy articles in the room — a battered, soiled and well-worn array of chipped basins, of toothless combs, of all those manifold untidy trifles which, in their hurry and carelessness, two women will leave scattered about when they undress and wash together amid purely temporary surroundings, the dirty aspect of which has ceased to concern them.
“Do come here,” Fauchery repeated with the good-humored familiarity which men adopt among their fallen sisters. “Clarisse is wanting to kiss you.”
Muffat entered the room at last. But what was his surprise when he found the Marquis de Chouard snugly enscounced on a chair between the two dressing tables! The marquis had withdrawn thither some time ago. He was spreading his feet apart because a pail was leaking and letting a whitish flood spread over the floor. He was visibly much at his ease, as became a man who knew all the snug corners, and had grown quite merry in the close dressing room, where people might have been bathing, and amid those quietly immodest feminine surroundings which the uncleanness of the little place rendered at once natural and poignant.
“D’you go with the old boy?” Simonne asked Clarisse in a whisper.
“Rather!” replied the latter aloud.
The dresser, a very ugly and extremely familiar young girl, who was helping Simonne into her coat, positively writhed with laughter. The three pushed each other and babbled little phrases which redoubled their merriment.
“Come, Clarisse, kiss the gentleman,” said Fauchery. “You know, he’s got the rhino.”
And turning to the count:
“You’ll see, she’s very nice! She’s going to kiss you!”
But Clarisse was disgusted by the men. She spoke in violent terms of the dirty lot waiting at the porter’s lodge down below. Besides, she was in a hurry to go downstairs again; they were making her miss her last scene. Then as Fauchery blocked up the doorway, she gave Muffat a couple of kisses on the whiskers, remarking as she did so:
“It’s not for you, at any rate! It’s for that nuisance Fauchery!”
And with that she darted off, and the count remained much embarrassed in his father-in-law’s presence. The blood had rushed to his face. In Nana’s dressing room, amid all the luxury of hangings and mirrors, he had not experienced the sharp physical sensation which the shameful wretchedness of that sorry garret excited within him, redolent as it was of these two girls’ self-abandonment. Meanwhile the marquis had hurried in the rear of Simonne, who was making off at the top of her pace, and he kept whispering in her ear while she shook her head in token of refusal. Fauchery followed them, laughing. And with that the count found himself alone with the dresser, who was washing out the basins. Accordingly he took his departure, too, his legs almost failing under him. Once more he put up flights of half-dressed women and caused doors to bang as he advanced. But amid the disorderly, disbanded troops of girls to be found on each of the four stories, he was only distinctly aware of a cat, a great tortoise-shell cat, which went gliding upstairs through the ovenlike place where the air was poisoned with musk, rubbing its back against the banisters and keeping its tail exceedingly erect.
“Yes, to be sure!” said a woman hoarsely. “I thought they’d keep us back tonight! What a nuisance they are with their calls!”
The end had come; the curtain had just fallen. There was a veritable stampede on the staircase — its walls rang with exclamations, and everyone was in a savage hurry to dress and be off. As Count Muffat came down the last step or two he saw Nana and the prince passing slowly along the passage. The young woman halted and lowered her voice as she said with a smile:
“All right then — by and by!”
The prince returned to the stage, where Bordenave was awaiting him. And left alone with Nana, Muffat gave way to an impulse of anger and desire. He ran up behind her and, as she was on the point of entering her dressing room, imprinted a rough kiss on her neck among little golden hairs curling low down between her shoulders. It was as though he had returned the kiss that had been given him upstairs. Nana was in a fury; she lifted her hand, but when she recognized the count she smiled.
“Oh, you frightened me,” she said simply.
And her smile was adorable in its embarrassment and submissiveness, as though she had despaired of this kiss and were happy to have received it. But she could do nothing for him either that evening or the day after. It was a case of waiting. Nay, even if it had been in her power she would still have let herself be desired. Her glance said as much. At length she continued:
“I’m a landowner, you know. Yes, I’m buying a country house near Orleans, in a part of the world to which you sometimes betake yourself. Baby told me you did — little Georges Hugon, I mean. You know him? So come and see me down there.”
The count was a shy man, and the thought of his roughness had frightened him; he was ashamed of what he had done and he bowed ceremoniously, promising at the same time to take advantage of her invitation. Then he walked off as one who dreams.
He was rejoining the prince when, passing in front of the foyer, he heard Satin screaming out:
“Oh, the dirty old thing! Just you bloody well leave me alone!”
It was the Marquis de Chouard who was tumbling down over Satin. The girl had decidedly had enough of the fashionable world! Nana had certainly introduced her to Bordenave, but the necessity of standing with sealed lips for fear of allowing some awkward phrase to escape her had been too much for her feelings, and now she was anxious to regain her freedom, the more so as she had run against an old flame of hers in the wings. This was the super, to whom the task of impersonating Pluto had been entrusted, a pastry cook, who had already treated her to a whole week of love and flagellation. She was waiting for him, much irritated at the things the marquis was saying to her, as though she were one of those theatrical ladies! And so at last she assumed a highly respectable expression and jerked out this phrase:
“My husband’s coming! You’ll see.”
Meanwhile the worn-looking artistes were dropping off one after the other in their outdoor coats. Groups of men and women were coming down the little winding staircase, and the outlines of battered hats and worn-out shawls were visible in the shadows. They looked colorless and unlovely, as became poor play actors who have got rid of their paint. On the stage, where the side lights and battens were being extinguished, the prince was listening to an anecdote Bordenave was telling him. He was waiting for Nana, and when at length she made her appearance the stage was dark, and the fireman on duty was finishing his round, lantern in hand. Bordenave, in order to save His Highness going about by the Passage des Panoramas, had made them open the corridor which led from the porter’s lodge to the entrance hall of the theater. Along this narrow alley little women were racing pell-mell, for they were delighted to escape from the men who were waiting for them in the other passage. They went jostling and elbowing along, casting apprehensive glances behind them and only breathing freely when they got outside. Fontan, Bosc and Prulliere, on the other hand, retired at a leisurely pace, joking at the figure cut by the serious, paying admirers who were striding up and down the Galerie des Varietes at a time when the little dears were escaping along the boulevard with the men of their hearts. But Clarisse was especially sly. She had her suspicions about La Faloise, and, as a matter of fact, he was still in his place in the lodge among the gentlemen obstinately waiting on Mme Bron’s chairs. They all stretched forward, and with that she passed brazenly by in the wake of a friend. The gentlemen were blinking in bewilderment over the wild whirl of petticoats eddying at the foot of the narrow stairs. It made them desperate to think they had waited so long, only to see them all flying away like this without being able to recognize a single one. The litter of little black cats were sleeping on the oilcloth, nestled against their mother’s belly, and the latter was stretching her paws out in a state of beatitude while the big tortoise-shell cat sat at the other end of the table, her tail stretched out behind her and her yellow eyes solemnly following the flight of the women.
“If His Highness will be good enough to come this way,” said Bordenave at the bottom of the stairs, and he pointed to the passage.
Some chorus girls were still crowding along it. The prince began following Nana while Muffat and the marquis walked behind.
It was a long, narrow passage lying between the theater and the house next door, a kind of contracted by-lane which had been covered with a sloping glass roof. Damp oozed from the walls, and the footfall sounded as hollow on the tiled floor as in an underground vault. It was crowded with the kind of rubbish usually found in a garret. There was a workbench on which the porter was wont to plane such parts of the scenery as required it, besides a pile of wooden barriers which at night were placed at the doors of the theater for the purpose of regulating the incoming stream of people. Nana had to pick up her dress as she passed a hydrant which, through having been carelessly turned off, was flooding the tiles underfoot. In the entrance hall the company bowed and said good-by. And when Bordenave was alone he summed up his opinion of the prince in a shrug of eminently philosophic disdain.
“He’s a bit of a duffer all the same,” he said to Fauchery without entering on further explanations, and with that Rose Mignon carried the journalist off with her husband in order to effect a reconciliation between them at home.
Muffat was left alone on the sidewalk. His Highness had handed Nana quietly into his carriage, and the marquis had slipped off after Satin and her super. In his excitement he was content to follow this vicious pair in vague hopes of some stray favor being granted him. Then with brain on fire Muffat decided to walk home. The struggle within him had wholly ceased. The ideas and beliefs of the last forty years were being drowned in a flood of new life. While he was passing along the boulevards the roll of the last carriages deafened him with the name of Nana; the gaslights set nude limbs dancing before his eyes — the nude limbs, the lithe arms, the white shoulders, of Nana. And he felt that he was hers utterly: he would have abjured everything, sold everything, to possess her for a single hour that very night. Youth, a lustful puberty of early manhood, was stirring within him at last, flaming up suddenly in the chaste heart of the Catholic and amid the dignified traditions of middle age.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02