A Masked Ball

I had said that I was not at home to anybody, but one of my friends insisted on coming in.

My servant announced M. Antony R____ and behind Joseph’s livery I caught sight of the skirt of a black greatcoat. It was probable that the wearer of it had for his part seen the flap of my dressing-gown, so it was impossible for me to remain in hiding.

‘Very well, let him come in,’ said I out loud. ‘The devil take him!’ was my sotto voce comment.

When you are working only the woman you love can disturb you with impunity, because deep down she has always some part in what you are doing.

I, therefore, went to meet him with the half-sulky face of an author who has been intruded on at one of the moments when he hates interruption; but he looked so pale and upset that the first words I said to him were, ‘Why, what is the matter with you? Whatever has happened?’

‘Give me time to get my breath,’ he said, ‘and I will tell you all about it. Perhaps it is a dream, or maybe I am mad.’ He threw himself into an armchair and let his head drop between his hands.

I surveyed him with astonishment. His hair was wet from the rain, and his boots, his knees and the bottoms of his trousers were covered with mud. I went to the window and his cabriolet waiting. I could make nothing of it. Seeing my mystification he said, ‘I’ve been to Pere-Lachaise cemetery. Oh, that accursed masked ball!’

I was still completely puzzled, wondering what a masked ball and Pere-Lachaise could have to do with one another. As he still did not speak, I began to roll a cigarette in my fingers with all the patience of a Spaniard. When it was ready I offered it to Antony, knowing he usually enjoyed a smoke. He merely gave it a nod of thanks, but refused it. The he suddenly cried out, ‘For God’s sake, Alexandre, listen to me!’

‘But I’ve been waiting to listen to you for the last quarter of an hour,’ I protested, ‘and you haven’t told me anything.’

‘Oh, I’ll tell you something, or try to - something extraordinary that has happened to me. You remember the Opera Ball where I last met you?’

‘Yes. Well?’

‘After leaving you, feeling bored, lonely and depressed, I decided to go to the Varietés, which I had been told was a notorious curiosity to be visited just to see to what depths our society can sink. Oh, why, why, why, did I ever go? I tell you, it must have been fate. I don’t know how to describe it to you. I could scarcely believe that what I saw was possible. The place was crowded with men and women of the streets, God knows what else, all cavorting around like dervishes. I went up one of the staircases, and leaning against a pillar I looked down over this sea of scarcely human beings, all in grotesque dominos, all leaping and thrashing around to the strains of a band which could hardly be heard through their obscure shrieks, yells, laughs and cries. You should have seen them!

‘They caught hold of each other by the hands, the arms, the neck. A huge circle was formed, men and women stamping their feet, throwing up above the dim clouds of dust caught by the pale light of the chandeliers, circling at growing speed with obscure posturings, suggestive gestures and cries. Quicker and quicker they circled, swaying backward like drunken men, howling like lost women, delirious rather than joyous, more furious than gratified. They were like a chain-gang of lost souls performing an infernal penance under the lashes of demons. All this din, all this hum, this confusion, this music, were in my head as much as in the hall. I soon came to doubt whether what was before my eyes was dream or reality; I asked myself whether it was not I who was mad and they reasonable. Strange temptations came upon me, to throw myself into the midst of this pandemonium, like Faust visiting the witches’ sabbath, and I felt then that I should cry, gesticulate, posture and laugh as they did. Oh, there is only one step from such a state of madness. I was horrified; I flung myself out of place, pursued to the outer door by howls that were more like the amatory roaring from a den of wild beasts than anything else.

‘I paused for an instant under the portico to recover. I did not wish to put myself at risk in the street with my mind in such a tumult, as it still was. I might have stumbled under the wheels of a carriage, not seeing it coming. I was like a drunken man must be when he begins to regain sufficient sense in his fuddled brain to realize his state, and who, feeling his will, though not yet his power, come back, props himself up against a post in the street or a tree in the park.

‘At that moment a carriage drew up at the door, and a woman got out, or rather flung herself out of it. She passed under the peristyle, turning her head right and left like a person who is lost. She was clad in a black domino and her face was hidden under a velvet mask. She presented herself at the door.

‘“Your ticket?” said the door-keeper.

‘“My ticket?” she answered. “I have none.”

‘“Then get one at the office.”

‘The domina came back under the peristyle, fumbling madly in all her pockets.

‘“No money!” she cried. “Ah, this ring. An entrance ticket for this ring.”

‘“Impossible,” said the woman who was giving out the cards. “We do not do that sort of business.” Having said this, she pushed back the brilliant, which fell to the ground and rolled towards me. The domina remained motionless, forgetting the ring, wrapped in thought. I picked it up and handed it to her. I saw through her mask her eyes fix themselves on mine; she looked at me hesitatingly for a moment, then suddenly putting her arm under mine, “You must get me in,” she said, “for pity’s sake, you must.”

‘“I was leaving, Madam,” I said.

‘“Then give me six francs for this ring and you will have done me a service for which I shall bless you all my life.”

‘I put the ring back on her finger, went to the office and took two tickets. We went in together.

‘On reaching the corridor I felt her stagger. She clutched my arm. “Are you ill?” I asked.

‘“No, it is nothing,” she rejoined. “A dizziness, that’s all.” And she drew me into the hall.

‘We re-entered this sordid Bedlam. Three times we went the round of it, forcing our way through the waves of masks, which tumbled and foamed over one another, she wincing at every obscure expression, I blushing to be seen my arm to a woman who would listen to such words. Then we came back to the far end of the hall. She sank onto a seat. I remained standing before her, my hand resting on the arm of her chair.

‘“Oh, all this must seem very strange to you,” she said, “but not more than it does to me, I assure you. I had no idea of it,” (she was watching the ball), “for I have never seen such things even in my dreams. But they wrote to me, you see, that he would be here with a woman, and what sort of a woman can it be who would come to such a place?”

‘I made a gesture of surprise, which she understood.

‘“Yet I am here, am I not, you mean to say? Oh, as for me, that’s another matter; I am looking for him, I am his wife. But these people are drawn here by madness and debauchery. But with me, me, it is infernal jealousy. I would have gone anywhere after him; I would have spent the night in a cemetery; I would have gone to the Place de Greve on an execution day. And yet I swear to you that as a girl I never once went out in the street without my mother; as a woman I never stepped out of doors without a footman behind me. But, here I am like all the women who know the way to this place, taking the arm of a man I do not know, and colouring under my mask at the opinion I must be giving him of me. I know all that. Have you ever been jealous, monsieur?”

‘“Frightfully,” was my answer.

‘“Then you can forgive me, for you know it all. You know the voice that cries to you ‘go’, as if speaking into the ear of a maniac. You have felt the hand that urges you on to shame and crime, like that of fate. You know that at such a moment one is capable of anything if it will only bring revenge.”

‘I was going to answer her, but she rose all of a sudden, her eyes fixed on two domains that were passing before us at that moment.

‘“Hush, hush!” she cried, and dragged me along in their wake. I was thrown into the thick of an intrigue about which I understood nothing. I felt all the threads of it beneath my fingers, yet none led me to an end; but this poor woman seemed so upset that she interested me.

‘I obeyed like a child, so imperious is a true passion, and we started in pursuit of the two masks, one of whom was clearly a man and the other a woman. They were talking in an undertone and the sounds scarcely reached our ears.

‘“It’s he,” she murmured, “it is his voice; yes, and his figure.”

‘The taller of the two domains began to laugh.

‘“Yes, yes! it is his laugh,” she said; “the letter was true then. Oh God! God!”

‘Meanwhile the masks went on and we kept following them; they left the arena and we followed them. They took the staircase leading to the boxes, and we went up after them. They did not stop till they reached the upper tier; we clung to them like their shadows. They entered a small private box, and the door closed upon them.

‘The poor creature on my arm frightened me by her agitation. I could not see her face, but pressed against me as she was I could feel her heart beat, her frame shiver, her limbs shake. There was something strange in the way I became aware of these unheard-of sufferings, the sight of which was before my eyes, the victim of which I did not know in the least, and the cause of which I knew as little. Yet nothing in the world would have induced me to desert her at such a time.

‘When we saw the two masks enter the box and the door close on them she remained motionless for a moment as if thunderstruck. Then she rushed towards the door to listen. Placed as she was the slightest movement might betray her presence and ruin her. I pulled her violently by the arm, unfastened the spring of the adjoining box and drew her into it with me, then, lowering the bars, pulled the door to.

‘“If you want to listen,” I said, “at least listen from here.”

‘She fell on one knee and glued her ear to the partition, while I stood erect on the other side, with folded arms and head bent in thought. All that I had been able to see of this woman had seemed to me perfectly beautiful. The lower part of her face, which her mask did not hide, was young and soft and rounded; her lips were red and delicately moulded; her teeth, whose whiteness was set off by the black velvet mask she wore, were small and finely set; her hand was a model for an artist; her waist you could put your fingers around. Her hair, black and silky, escaped in profusion from the hood of her domino, and the little foot which peeped out from her dress seemed scarcely big enough to support her body, light, graceful and airy though it was. Oh, she must be a marvellous creature! Happy the man who should be privileged to hold her in his arms, to see all the faculties of such a soul employed in loving him, to feel her heart an his, palpitating with amorous ecstasy.

‘Such were my thoughts when suddenly I saw my companion rise to her feet. Turning to me, she said in a broken and frenzied tone, “Monsieur, I am beautiful, I swear to you; I am young, only nineteen. Up till now I have been pure. Well -” here she threw both her arms round my neck, “Well, I am yours, take me!”

‘At the same moment I felt her lips on mine, kissing me wildly, despairingly. Ten minutes later she was in my embrace -

‘She came to herself again slowly. I could see through her mask how haggard here eyes were. The lower part of her face was pale, and I could hear her teeth chattering as if in the chill of fever. I can still see it all. She remembered what had taken place and fell at my feet. “If you have any compassion,” she said sobbing, “any pity, never look at me again, never seek to know me. Forget everything that has happened between us; I will remember for both of us.”

‘At these words she rose as quickly as a thought that escapes us, fled to the door, opened it, and turning once more to me cried, “Do not follow me, Monsieur, please do not follow.”

‘The door, flung to violently, closed between her and me, hiding her from my gaze. She might have been an apparition. I have not seen her since.

‘I have not seen her since, I say, and during the ten months that have passed I have looked for her everywhere: at balls, at theatres, in places of public resort. Every time I saw in the distance a woman with a slender waist, a little foot and black hair, I followed her, I went close to her, I looked her in the face in the hope that her blushes would betray her. But, I never did find her again; I did not see her anywhere but at nights, in my dreams. Ah, then, then she came back; then I felt her; I was conscious of her embraces, her kisses, her caresses, so ardent that there was something infernal in them. Then the mask fell and the strangest countenance appeared to me, sometimes blurred, sometimes clouded, now brilliant as if with an aureole about it, now pale, with the skull white and bare, and eyes in hollow sockets and teeth hideous and sparse. In a word, since that night I have lived consumed with an insane love for a woman I do not know, hoping always and always thwarted in my hopes, jealous without having the right to be so, or knowing of whom I should be jealous, not daring to own such madness, and yet haunted, consumed, devoured by her.’

As he ended these words he drew a letter from his pocket. I took it and read, ‘Perhaps you have forgotten a poor woman who has forgotten nothing, who is dying of not being able to forget. When you receive this letter I shall be dead. Go to Pere-Lachaise cemetery and tell the lodge-keeper to show you to the name of Marie, and when you find yourself before that grave, kneel and pray.’

‘Well,’ Antony continued, ‘I got that letter yesterday and went this morning. The lodge-keeper took me to the tomb and I remained there two hours on my knees, praying and crying. Do you understand? She was there! The burning soul had taken its flight; the body, worn out by its emotions, had bent to breaking under the weight of jealousy and remorse. She was there, beneath my feet, and had lived and died a stranger to me! Yes, a stranger, yet assuming in my life such a place as she does in the tomb - a stranger, yet enclosing within my heart as cold and lifeless a corpse as the one that was laid in the grave. Ah, did you ever know such bitter irony! I have lost all hope. I shall never see her again. I could dig up her grave and still not find the lineaments which would enable to reconstruct her face. And I love her still! Do you realize it, Alexandre? I love her madly. I would kill myself to be with her again—yet she must remain unknown to me for all eternity, as she was in this world!’

At these words he tore the letter from my hand, kissed it again and again and began weeping like a child.

I put my arm around him, and not knowing what to say to comfort him, I wept with him.