Jean-Louis Bouquet (French, 1898-1978) is the least known of the fantasy writers featured on this site. English language references to him are limited to namechecks on a few specialised filmographies, and he’s little enough known in France, though a group of devoted admirers keep his name alive. Roland Stragliati provided a bare-bones biographical outline in a 1971 issue of the Magazine littéraire devoted to la littérature fantastique:
’Born with the century, Jean-Louis Bouquet was in the first instance a man of the cinema. He was known as producer, adapter, developer and script-writer. But already fantasy showed its cloven hoof in two or three of the films made from his scripts in the silent era, Le diable dans la ville [directed by Germaine Dulac] (1925) and La cité foudroyée (The City Destroyed) (1924). Bouquet, who in addition to his work as a script-writer and adapter, has always been more or less writing, only decided to definitively step over the line during the last war, signing a whole series of crime thrillers with the name of Nevers-Séverin. But it was only in 1951, with the publication of Le visage de feu (The Face of Fire), which gathered together four first-rate long stories of the fantastic, that critics started to pay attention to him. At the time André Breton wrote of this collection that he’d read nothing more entrancing since Achim Von Arnim.’
Bouquet published a further collection in 1956, Aux portes des ténèbres, (At the Doors of Darkness) from which ‘The Maidens of the Night’ (‘Les filles de la nuit’) is taken, but nothing more in his lifetime. In 1980 Francis Lacassin edited a posthumous collection, Mondes noirs, and his preface to this (also available online) paints a grim and moving picture of Bouquet’s later years; I’ve added a translation of this account (‘The Darkness Outside’) to the site; it can be read as a biographical appendix to the two stories translated translated here.
The unnamed 1st person protagonist of ‘Maidens’ derives from Bouquet himself – a writer of feuilletons – popular thrillers issued in cheap formats – who aspires to more serious levels of writing; like Bouquet, he lives and works in a studio apartment in the 16th arrondissement. It’s just possible too that the story is touched by more intimate concerns; a central motif, the cruel Venus, treated innocently enough here, is developed in a more erotically charged context in a companion story, ‘Les pénitentes de la Merci’ (‘The Penitents of La Merci’). Lacassin sees ‘The Penitents’ as Bouquet’s peak achievement, and indeed it’s a fascinating story, but ‘Filles de la nuit’ clearly meant a lot to its author; it was his preferred(eponymous) title for the collection, and its likely that he was unhappy when Denoël, the publisher, retitled it as Aux portes des ténèbres. When arrangements for a reprint were under way in 1978, he asked for Filles de la nuit to once more become the collection title.
The lead theme of the supernaturally animated puppet or doll is as almost as familiar in uncanny literature as it is in children’s literature. In the French context Bouquet’s story is anticipated by Henri de Régnier’s marionette tale, ‘Marceline ou la punition fantastique’ (1919), and it’s not inconceivable that Bouquet drew some inspiration from this. However ‘The Maidens of the Night’ is closest in spirit to a work that Bouquet certainly did not know, Sarban’s 1955 novel The Doll Maker, rightly regarded as a minor classic of the genre. Coincidentally written at the same time and published within a year of each other, both are richly atmospheric works that tell essentially the same story; a vulnerable protagonist (female in Sarban’s case) is lured by a mysterious artificer into an uncanny, otherworldly theatre where enchanted spectacles are performed by ‘living’ puppets. The denouement of Bouquet’s version of the story relies rather more heavily on genre conventions, but his is arguably the more sophisticated of the two works; a play of echoes links artificer and victim, hinting at an ambiguous relationship in which one is a distorted and occult projection of the other.
More importantly, Bouquet’s story casts a haunted, moonlit spell of its own; a reader who is receptive will, like the narrator, be conducted into a dark realm of tantalising and troubling marvels. The setting is urban-noir, the pace is leisurely, the language and style are formal and literary, and the story, while clearly located in the 20th century, remains (like Ghelderode’s ‘Diseased Garden’) under the spell of 19th century romanticism.
Two postscripts to this introductory note.
1. In French publications and online sources, Bouquet’s name is given as both Jean-Louis (hyphenated – see cover image of Aux portes des ténèbres) and Jean Louis (unhyphenated – see cover image for Mondes noirs). Inasmuch as I first encountered the name in hyphenated form, that’s what I’m staying with on this blog.
2. ‘Marceline’, the de Régnier story referred to above, has been translated by Brian Stableford as part of his de Régnier collection, A Surfeit of Mirrors (2012). The story in the original French is in de Régnier’s Histoires incertaines.
The Maidens of the Night
For a long time I wrote adventure stories for the enjoyment of humble souls, novels that lead them always amazed and enraptured along cleverly winding trails, across the most well-gardened and best landscaped districts of the imagination.
I’ve never had any illusions about the value of these writings, but I became fleetingly attached to my characters, no matter how rudimentary they were. It grieved me to make them suffer. But without suffering, no clientèle. And so my editor demanded lots of blood, lots of torture and lots of love. I knew the secret anxiety of many authors; in animating so many heroes and heroines with strokes of my pen I often asked myself if I didn’t actually give birth to fragile and precarious beings who were indeed endowed with a perceptible life in a personal universe, where each of them trembled while awaiting the monstrous whims of their demiurge.
I suspect that he had a faint notion of this appeal, this solicitude inspired in me by my own creatures, he whose first visit took me by surprise one evening last year, in the thick of my labours, in the fertile half-lights of my studio apartment in Auteil.
A man dressed in mourning, gaunt, clean-shaven, with a wintry smile, a grey mane of hair and eyes that were so big and gloomy you might have said that they were the mouths of caves under the hirsute thickets of his eyebrows. At the end of his skinny arm he swung a big leather satchel, disfigured by a leprous outbreak of cracks.
Speaking in a humble, apprehensive voice he commenced with apologies for bothering me at work and in my home. He employed eloquent turns of phrase, full of old-fashioned courtesy. He introduced himself as a great admirer of my books; he was, so he declared, enchanted with these quaint fables: he sought to prove this to me with quotations from them. Nothing more irritating than to hear praised in this way works in which the writer has been manifestly unable to give his soul free rein, or else the person who praises is an imbecile and his compliments acquire a sickly aftertaste, or else he’s a flatterer – and then what is it that he wants? I felt the man’s intentions becoming clear when he opened the creaking lock of his bag.
“Let me tell you,” he said, “that the work I do is out of the ordinary. I model figurines and marionettes. To tell the truth, I thought it would be… amusing as a token of the gratitude to the man whose craft has given so many hours of pleasure, to pay him homage with subjects that have been inspired by him and made by my own hands.”
He showed me two dolls, about a foot and a half high and exquisite to look at. One of them, blood red, represented an Indian chief, just as I’d been able to depict him in a studied elaboration of the Seminole style, decorated with spangles and brightly coloured feathers, to the point of evoking those foreign birds whose metallic splendour is destined for the honour of display under glass. The other was the figure of a young woman who, from her red hair, her opulent yellow silk scarf, her leather jacket and her Scottish skirt, pleated with incredible finesse, I recognized as dear Miss Ellen, my favourite girl detective, whose exploits have won me my biggest sales. These dolls, with their expressive faces, their miniature, moving enamel eyes, were moulded in a material that I couldn’t readily identify, that possessed the quality of wax, but also a certain elasticity, voluptuous to touch, that, no doubt in combination with interior springs, gave the limbs a very curious flexibility of articulation.
I wondered about the composition of the paste. At that, the modeller’s grimace stretched to an afflicted rictus in order to explain to me that it was a matter of “a little technical secret” and that he didn’t have the right to divulge it.
“… for I’m nothing but a very modest working artisan. As far as the procedure itself is concerned I owe it to the ingenuity of Monsieur le Baron…”
This Baron was presented to me in nebulous phrases as a rich patron and connoisseur whose passion for a certain category of objects extended to research and personal involvement. However the secret in question wasn’t protected with excessive precautions since, in the same breath, my visitor invited me to accept the two dolls as gifts.
I felt myself seduced; these figurines of such refined workmanship were in some degree my spiritual offspring; but by very reason of their perfection they represented long hours of labour, they were valuable. I didn’t think I could accept them without remunerating their maker.
I’d no sooner mentioned money than the modeller uttered loud protests. He insisted on offering me these playthings. It’s true, he added, that if I was satisfied with his abilities, I could show it by commissioning some further pieces on very advantageous terms.
“Perfect,” I thought. “Here’s my finger caught in a nice little trap.”
But when the man had stated his asking price, I was taken aback, judging it to be very reasonable.
“It’s an artist’s rate,” he declared unctuously, “from one artist to another. I’d be pleased to think I can make you a collector, an adept of these dolls and marionettes.”
Well, he won me over, since, through successive acquisitions, I soon became the owner of two dozen ‘subjects’ all sprung from my novels. They took, on average, a couple of weeks to fabricate. I transformed a big antique bookcase standing at the rear of my studio into a display cabinet. There, a careful arrangement of differently shaded bulbs enabled me to enhance the stature of my little people through a skilful play of illumination.
Soon, exactly as the artificer had wished, I was overtaken by a ridiculously exquisite fondness for my dolls. Looking at them I was lost in wonder at the beauty, the minute precision of the features; I never lost the impression of rediscovering in them, materialized with such disconcerting fidelity, the nebulous adventurers born from my storytelling ruminations. And I also had occasion to admit to myself what a pity it was to see the artisan dedicate such conscientiousness, such fine ability, to such trash.
For four years I’d been working on a manuscript of greater quality than my flimsy little booklets; I was patiently preparing a literary renewal, for which I never considered any page, any phrase, to be sufficiently delicate, sufficiently luminous. There, in an evanescent poetic fabulation, in an enchanted light, under the paradoxical guises of the commedia dell’arte, I harboured some clandestine thoughts, some reveries, some fond torments. One day a sudden curiosity prompted me to confide these pages – unfinished – to the man who had become for me “the Modeller” par excellence of my fantasies.
“Let’s see,” I said to him, “what goblins you’re able to release from these pages.”
When, ten days later, he came to return the notebook, his mouth was full of solid praise. This time he brought a triumphant readiness to his usually painful smile. He had discerned, so he assured me, great riches hidden behind the wild woodlands of my previous little efforts, and he congratulated himself on being henceforth acquainted with my nobler ambitions. He predicted a harvest of laurels for me, handed out those officious-sounding compliments wherein the author waits, often in vain, for a word indicating that his intentions have been really understood; but on this score, in his own particular way, the Modeller was preparing a surprise.
“Do your recognize,” he exclaimed unexpectedly, “your own Pedrolino, the ringleader so dear to you?”
He’d taken from his bottomless bag a new product of his subtle art, a Pierrot dressed in black satin. I studied the little chalk-white head and felt a bizarre emotion in finding the miniature of my own face there, evoked with an undeniably lifelike intensity, but emaciated, hollowed out as though by tragedy; its clear eyes threw out haggard glints of light as they moved in his head.
“It seemed to me that you put a lot of yourself into this character,” the man explained awkwardly.
“I didn’t know I had such disturbing features!” I replied somewhat ironically. “It’s almost as though you’ve foreseen my conclusion, where Pierrot is destined to sink into madness. And why this mournful costume? Have I described anything like that?’
The Modeller took these critical remarks to heart. Full of confusion, he stammered that he was no doubt wrong to interpret certain melancholy and nocturnal aspects of my hero in this way. I hastened to reassure him; on thinking it over there was perhaps an opening out of my conception, a synthesis that was worth savouring…
While speaking I wanted to mend a displaced fold of the collar; the point of a pin hidden in the material wrenched a cry from me. A bead of blood slid onto the throat of the pierrot.
“Now that’s annoying!” I grumbled. “This rubbery material seems as thirsty as a drunkard. Can we remove the stain?”
“Hmmm, hmmm!” the man went with no great conviction. “Better to hide it by raising the collar a little. There, like that!”
“Is this the only figurine that you’ve made this time?” I asked next.
“I’m very tempted,” he replied, “by your Signorina Lucrezia, who’s so adept at making Pierrot’s head spin, with her dazzling frolics and her sweet airs and graces. Alas…”
“I can’t conjure her up; her image escapes me!” he confessed, and his eyes were greedy like a cat spying on a swarm of birds.
Then I was struck by a seductive inspiration, as urgent as the one that had already made me decide to hand over the manuscript. Oh! How could I have guessed at so many consequences! I went to an album to look for images of Elizabeth…
“Since you’re now finding your models in real life, here’s a young person that for better or worse I was glad to keep in mind in sketching the Signorina…”
If I accepted that I was identified with Pedrolino, then this was a foolhardy statement! For, it was true that my Lucrezia was conceived as playful and petulant, but as his actual mistress; and I could only justify the appropriation of Elizabeth’s features by a hopeless love, which I’d overcome with enormous difficulty – overcome poorly! – without, in those fine former days, having received anything in exchange other than tokens of a careless friendship. To be sure, in the sublunary adventures of the Signorina, I expressed certain memories of Elizabeth’s artlessly cruel peccadillos, all vibrantly tempestuous and adorable; an intimate transposition, a secret indulgence of my spirit! But to introduce the equivocal into the world of forms, to want it to be defined, stamped with a visible image, wasn’t this to give way to a kind of sullen bragging, even if the future doll remained reserved for my greedy delectation in the deepest recess of my cabinet?
What’s more I suffered an immediate embarrassment. I thought I was showing the Modeller an anonymous face. Elizabeth had indeed had her moment of notoriety but that was well past, so I didn’t expect her to be recognized after several years of eclipse. At the very first sight of her, my doll-maker uttered her name – the slightly stylized stage name that she’d emblazoned on the screen – and he commented in a tender voice:
“A precious little thing, isn’t she? How pretty she was – I beg your pardon, how pretty she is! Because I hope that her marriage hasn’t made her wilt… What a pity that she retired so soon! She made such a brilliant impression, she showed so much promise. And in real life! What sunshine, what grace, what a buoyant spirit of fun. A never-ending dawn! There are child-women, but I’d rather say that she was a Bengali finch, a bird-girl.
“You’re surprised,” he went on, “to find I know so much about her. I spent a long time around actors; I was a make-up artist. And it’s in studio dressing rooms, in working on live faces, that I’ve carried out my most rewarding studies in the art of modelling. Lots of celebrities owe a little bit of their stardust to my tubes and my brushes; so too with the pretty little thing who inspired you; how many times have I applied subtle shadows to emphasise the liquid of her enormous, heavenly eyes, or outlined in carmine the arc of her lip – so knowingly naïve!
“And wasn’t she just adored, desired, during her short career as an artiste! Ah, what a procession trailing behind her skirts! Connoisseurs, eccentrics, obsessed fanatics, greedy swine… You know, toward the end, she had a fall from a horse and I used her blue silk handkerchief, matching the colour of her eyes, to stem the blood from her cuts. Would you believe that an English fetishist came to lay siege to me, imploring me to give him this red-stained rag? He declared that he was prepared to give me lots of money.
“After all, wasn’t she wise to renounce a sordid fame when all of a sudden she found happiness? It seems that the young bridegroom is delightful, and in addition to his wealth, his château, his title, he’s credited with a brilliant career with the General Staff; he’s ideally equipped as the hero of a romantic novel!”
This speech must have left me with a somewhat grudging look on my face, for the Modeller, looking at me searchingly, suddenly stopped short, dropping into a contrite bass.
“I’ve let my tongue wag on more than I should. I talk, I talk… but these memories, these details can just as easily leave you feeling hurt…”
“Not even in the slightest!” I exclaimed with shameless bad faith.
“Nothing remarkable,” he insisted, humble, forbearing, almost sly, “in the fact that you had feelings for her! Such a beautiful woman…” But I stopped him again.
“You’ve misunderstood. I found her very diverting, that’s all!”
Like an echo he repeated “That’s all,” nodding his lean head, and concluding in all simplicity, “How was it that I never dreamed of basing Lucretia on her?”
A few days later I was in possession of an ornamental Elizabeth done up in the Signorina’s finery, as admirably alike as I could have hoped for, malicious, chic and vivacious.
This doll was aglow with the poignant prestige of features that I had always loved, offering, even more clearly than the others, an illusion of dormant life, suggested by the enigma of gently moving eyes, the flexible docility of the graceful body, the almost disquieting way the artificial flesh yielded to the touch.
I reserved a place of honour for Lucrezia beside Pierrot in my display cabinet; then, on my solitary evenings, I bathed them in floods of multi-coloured light. Director of a toy theatre, I studied the fanciful effect of electric lights on the little faces; I liked to see them surrender to the flow of iridescent light and shadow, absorbing these like furtive reflections of their souls.
All of a sudden a chance association of ideas summoned up the memory of a clumsy chant that I heard a long time ago at the bedside of a little idiot peasant boy, in front of whom a one-eyed healer woman dangled rag dolls.
Match them and match them,
Marry us and marry them
Marry them and untie us
Marry them to Lucifus
There with my mannikins before me I was prey to an icy, suffocating despair. My throat was pierced by a stinging sob and I felt as though my heart would burst under a weight too heavy to bear. My distress was followed by a fit of acrid anger.
“Idiot, pathetic idiot. So here they are, your joys, your triumphs. While she’s off somewhere else enjoying the bliss of a perfect marriage, while she parades herself as blithe as a bird-girl in a sky-blue universe; at the very moment when she must be getting ready for bed, ready to rapturously abandon herself once more in the arms of her dashing captain, here’s the fate that’s been allotted to you! Enjoy looking through eyes that are still stuck in childhood! Thanks to this race of puppets you too can celebrate your fine wedding night…
Match them and match them…
Why had an unjust destiny condemned me to love Elizabeth? The Modeller said that the same misfortune had befallen others – lots of others; but did I owe this, like them, to the industrial spread of illusory images? No, not for me the sudden bedazzlement in the depths of a dark room by an intangible helter-skelter of rays of light in the form of a woman. My far more tenacious passion fed on more substantial roots.
My first meetings with Elizabeth dated from the time when her adolescent existence was shared between the dull days of her mother’s parlour, in a shabby milieu of small-time hangers-on, and the beautiful summers of the Valois Prieuré, where I once more came across her on holiday.
What a scintillating and dangerous girl! What the Modeller had hailed in her as a “never-ending dawn” was in fact a multifaceted character, a ceaseless gleam and sparkle of successive attitudes, ranging from wicked mischievousness to dreamy reticence, never allowing the depths of the crystal to be easily scrutinised. Elizabeth further possessed a certain agility of spirit, a gift of mimicry with which she was able to adapt with stunning speed to a new situation. So in spite of the failings of a limited education she always found the appropriate expression, the right words for the occasion, enabling her to momentarily impress a cultivated gathering. In an age in which a spirit of cruelty, of curt cynicism, a horror of naked sentiment, prevailed – has always prevailed – she transposed these acid tones to her own casual register and performed to perfection. Born a hundred years earlier she would just as easily have profited from the languid female affectations of the bygone century.
She had realized immediately that I was in love with her and she didn’t find it disagreeable to drag an admirer ten years older than herself behind her brand new chariot; but she artfully avoided any real coming to accounts, she pretended to believe that there was nothing between us but a game.
I thought I had experience on my side and that little by little I could find a way into this uninhabited heart; I wasted time on skirmishes, hesitating to risk a battle that might prove too costly. Once, however, I dared…
Both of us surprised by tremendous storm in the walkways of the Prieuré, we took what shelter was offered by the little gothic ruin situated there. Very down-to earth, Elizabeth fumed at the harm done to her blond hair, curled with such meticulous care! And the already distant grumbling of the thunder provided a counterpoint, like heavy mockery.
A flow of sunshine set the glassy curtains of rain on fire. At the same time, in the dizzying debris of pearls and cinders, the glory of a rainbow was spread out on the pale cameo of the clouds. I dragged Elizabeth away from her worries about her hair so that she could admire this magnificent spectacle. I had frequently tried to persuade her to pay attention to chance sightings of beauty, whether humble or opulent; I assured her that an existence endowed with the privilege of a keen sensual vision, would always find itself enriched. But what I sought above all was a temporary communion of feelings, of ideas, and I hoped to be able to lead them gently toward an atunement, a mutuality of tastes.
On this occasion Elizabeth at first seemed impatient, moody; but her features relaxed while she looked out, brightened up like the sky, and she started to hum the celebrated hymn of thanksgiving that arises following the storm in the Pastoral Symphony one of the most inspired strokes of Beethoven’s genius.
To flatter her as she took wing, I sought to pay her adroit compliments; but it seemed that Zetta – as she was known to her friends – herself, of her own volition, sank more and more definitely into the arms of a dreamy emotion. Her song died away. In the angle of her long eyelashes I surprised the true birth of tear, a limpid, beautiful tear. At last I saw the face I loved transformed in the divine upsurge of an inner sensibility! I told Elizabeth how moving she was thus!… She replied with a grave smile of gratitude. Her little hand clasped mine nervously. By their magnetic fixity her big blue eyes encouraged my speech; so much so that all of a sudden I came to the three words, from my heart to hers, repressed for so long.
Elizabeth had turned her blushing face away; she remained silent, breathing deeply. I begged her to give me a sign, a simple sign, that would give me hope. And her head bowed slowly to my shoulder. Her lips placed themselves at my mercy; recklessly I stole a kiss from them.
“Zetta,” I stammered, “you’re now my little fiancée, aren’t you?” She let a long pause slip away, drew a long sigh, then as though struck by a frightening thought, she impetuously freed herself to exclaim, but in a voice ripe with melodrama:
“Heavens sir! What would your father the King say, and the Lord High Chamberlain?”
Pitilessly tearing me from my state of enchantment, enjoying my stupefaction, she immediately resumed her piquant, mutinous manner:
“Not bad, eh, the expressions on my face? Oh but I work on them, I follow courses of study; I’m making good progress in emotional scenes, I’m already able to cry a river. Admit it, weren’t you a little bit fooled?”
Flippantly, on the spur of the moment, Elizabeth revealed to me her ambition for the stage. I made the mistake of opposing such a rash course of action. Directly, what utter derision!
“Look, let’s be absolutely serious! Is this how you hope to win the prize, my dear? First off, a word of advice; the rainbows, the fine speeches, all the old folderol – if you want to seduce a modern girl you’ll have to leave all that behind in the closet. Yes my friend, you are in-corr-ig-ib-ly romantic…”
…and the vicious word trilled prettily in her drawling voice. But the worst of it was a certain note of affectionate superiority in which shone forth the proud self-assurance of a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl. Wounded, I found it convenient in turn to take refuge in irony.
“It’s a funny kind of folderol, so laughable in real life and so fascinating as soon it’s a matter of the stage! After all, don’t we see modern young girls conscientiously labouring to learn the skill of tears?”
“Well, that’s true too,” she acknowledged with perfect candour.
Then, having assured herself that it was no longer raining, she left, tripping along the soaked pathway, not forgetting to drop graceful curtsies to the park statues as she passed them, one of her usual drolleries.
Thus Elizabeth. And, appearance sometimes to the contrary, there was no deliberate perverseness in her actions, nothing fundamentally malicious. Only this, that she wasn’t able to distinguish clearly what was good from what was bad, since nothing had as yet awakened her to the only source of moral instruction, suffering.
As soon as her vocation was confirmed I understood that my hopes were all in vain. Too many temptations would be offered to the marvellous child, against which I had neither the means nor the will to fight. Reason determined the path I chose to follow; I quickly distanced myself.
But why was it that I felt taking root in me, then growing, in spite of the months and years, an obstinate, irrational belief that the line of my life would once more encounter Elizabeth’s? A formless premonition, a nebulous light in the night of the future, what did it presage for he who wanted nothing but peace and forgetfulness?
Once more, on this same evening when a gloomy mood held me captive in front of the little figure of the Signorina, all too well achieved with her mocking look, I posed the insoluble puzzle to myself.
“Zetta, Zetta! I swore that I would never try to take another step in your direction! If my premonition is to prove true, then it’s you who needs to come back to me! Yes, you Zetta… you’ll come back…”
I’d reached the point of speaking aloud, with the easy satisfaction of having the last word over and against a partner who only knew how to smile and bring a sparkle to her attentive eyes.
Two days later I received a letter from Elizabeth. It was more than five years since she’d taken any notice of me.
“ – Signorina, would you happen to have in your clay a bit of the power that the wizards used to put into their mannikins?” I asked little Lucretia, recognizing the big zig-zag writing on the sky-blue paper – the blue so loved by Zetta. But my humour lacked conviction: whatever the raison d’être, anything emanating from Elizabeth became a serious matter for me.
The letter disturbed me then left me deeply moved. She was pierced by furtive torments, furtively communicated. The little Bengali finch-girl seemed a long way away from the glorious self-assurance of yesteryear, disoriented, depressed, anxiety-ridden. She complained about her great moral isolation. “Wait, wait? Could her husband be tired of her? Straying? Stranger things have been known to happen!” Finally Elizabeth admitted her guilt, regretted having disregarded her “so very few real friends”, having turned away from them, then, abruptly, asked to see me again. She needed advice…
The most disordered, vehement hopes ran riot in my imagination like an impulsive gale. Destiny – so often cursed, so often interrogated – had it after all effectuated an about-turn?
I needed to fulfil the wish expressed in this letter as soon as possible. I also needed to create the most favourable atmosphere for this anticipated meeting. What would be the best place to choose? I had no luxuries other than walks in the park and teahouses to set against the wealthy surroundings, the sphere in which Elizabeth spent her days. Better the humble quiet of my apartment, which, with a little outlay, I could very soon adorn with a few happy details, those ‘nothings’ so pleasing to a woman’s eye. I got down to a furious fever of work. I called on the aid of a neighbor, an upholsterer by trade, a helpful and handy individual. Then, to arrange a time for the meeting, I wrote to Elizabeth in terms that I hoped were considered and marked with the sentiment of my unswerving loyalty.
In the middle of my preparations, at nightfall, I received a fresh visit from the Modeller. He always showed up at these late hours; this time he had a request to make.
“The Baron,” he said, “is organizing an exhibition – a private one – in his personal residence in Passy. A celebration of the art of the doll and the marionette! All my pieces will be on display, at least all those I can secure for display. I would particularly like to include your collection, which features several of my finest creations.”
Now I had already been wondering whether I would leave my puppets in their cabinet for Elizabeth’s visit, an event I so counted on for a positive psychological outcome that I found making up my mind all but impossible: “First of all there’s the matter of Lucretia. Would it be wise to show her? Too heavily laden? Too sickly-sweet? How to explain her costume? Should I reveal my secret imaginings so soon? Then again, my hang-dog Pierrot, what a fine advocate he would be! And what about the other figurines…? Would my infatuation with dolls enhance me in the eyes of a young woman looking for a manly friend?” After reflecting briefly I gave the Modeller permission to take away all these colourful toys right there and then.
‘…except for Signorina!’ I said at the last minute.
What a disappointment for the man! “Except for…?” he groaned. “You don’t want to let me have the Lucrezia, maybe my finest creation?”
I insisted on making this exception. I may have asked myself a lot of pointed questions about the advisability of showing the thing to Elizabeth, this certainly didn’t mean I was willing to casually abandon her to the gaze of strangers in an exhibition whose ‘private’ character didn’t seem to me to adequately avoid the risk of recognition, indiscretions and public talk, all those things I could really do without at a time when I was planning a rendezvous with the model. Without my having to explain myself, the supplicant saw that I wasn’t willing to concede.
“What a pity! Perhaps you’ll change your mind when you’ve appreciated how splendid the show will be! Oh, this will be a parade of enchantments where the most perfect of moving dolls will trip the light fantastic.”
Far from tempting me, the notion troubled me.
“But that’s well beyond the limits of an exhibition! You intend to involve my ‘characters’ in playing out actual scenarios? They’d run the risk of damage, of losing their bloom.”
The Modeller launched into reassuring declarations, though full of disingenuous additions: he would undertake nothing – nothing! – beyond what would meet with my approval; but he was convinced that after he’d demonstrated a certain animating machinery, an extraordinary invention by the Baron, I would want to see the transformation of my own puppets, which were, besides, perfectly adapted for this exercise.
“And when will the gatherings take place?”
“I presume that your Baron reserves these entertainments for a circle of friends…”
“Have I said anything about gatherings? The connoisseurs that the Baron honours with his esteem are solitaries, sometimes misanthropes. What gives them pleasure is to find themselves at whatever hour of day or night, door ajar and curtain open on a dearly loved little fantastical world. Oh no! Never elbow to elbow, never a hubbub for those who like to discover in private the surreal life of the marionettes, but rather the calm lair of the magician. I hope you’ll visit our exhibition. Well, I’d advise you to choose one of the times of greatest solitude; one of the coming evenings for example! There would be nothing indiscreet about that; the Baron knows neither night nor day. I’ll manage the dolls especially for you, and I guarantee you exceptional pleasures.”
I suspected the Baron of being socially exclusive, anxious not to introduce me into the circle of his customary acquaintances while offering me the satisfaction that sheer civility required. That was enough to irritate me; on the other hand, however, this privacy so insistently offered was balm for my resolutely unsociable nature, inimical to new faces. So I accepted the Modeller’s proposal without hesitation.
I felt full of optimistic happiness on the evening that I directed my steps toward the Baron’s residence. The next day was the day of my great expectations, those of the meeting with Elizabeth. The apartment on which I closed the door was tidied up, restored, radiant with hangings, silks, new velvet. It only remained to pass the intervening hours as pleasantly as possible.
I reached the disorderly tangle of roads on the slopes of Passy; there I saw old hovels that had possessed some elegance in the time of the Empress piling up their worn stones at the end of black patches of garden, as though frightened by the effort needed to maintain stability, side by side with multi-storied concrete colossi, made still larger by the prestige of the night and the motionless swarm of their luminous eyes. This district is peculiarly haunted by a spectral railway, a line long since disused, and whose long rails of rusted steel emerge here and there from the ground, no sooner to be buried again, but not without having exhibited some mummified remains of a splendour that was altogether out of the ordinary: architectural buttresses crowned with palatial balustrades; tunnel-mouths converted as monumentally designed doorways; prettily old-fashioned footbridges; little gems of stations in the manner of those that, once upon a time, were reserved for well-known destinations. In search of an alleyway where I expected to find the Baron’s apartments I skirted, blue in the light of the moon, a hollow at the bottom of which one of these fossilized stations reposed on a funeral bed of wild grass in a shroud of rotting metallic lace; my imagination, ever industrious, had already determined to locate the beginning of a detective thriller there when at last I glimpsed, close by, the dwelling I was looking for.
The mansion would have seemed as desolate as its neighbour if it hadn’t been for the comforting light of a little lamp under a main entrance which, by virtue of its angular columns, was slightly reminiscent of the Brandenburg Gate, but so reduced in size that its pretentions were laughable. While I was trying in vain to find a concierge in the adjacent lodges the Modeller was suddenly at my side, welcoming me. He’d been keeping an eye out for me.
He led me into a dark courtyard, confusingly planted with shrubs. Low buildings extended on each side, with no lights that I could see. We reached a door in the left wing through which my host conducted me into a kind of orangery. There, pressing a switch, he finally spread some light around us.
“My workshop,” he said. ‘The Baron takes his inspiration from the aristocrats of past centuries; he provides me with complete hospitality.’
The location was littered, with tables, with console-tables loaded with instruments and the embryos of dolls. A man was peacefully sleeping there, buried in an old padded armchair, and I noticed that his features resembled those of my companion, save that they were sagging, fatter too and further slackened by the relaxation of sleep. The Modeller regarded the sleeper with an affectionate nod of the head.
“My brother!’ he explained in a whisper. ‘He helps me in my work; he does the roughing out and takes care of the smaller jobs.”
Then, with a gesture that invited me to follow him, he moved toward an interior door. When he’d opened it his fingers swept the switches of an electrical terminal and I saw a long gallery light up section by section, the mouldings on its panelled ceiling decorated with dull old gold paint.
We steered our way between two transparent walls made of stacked glass display cases that made a multitude of dolls lined up on crystal shelves available to our gaze. These figurines offered the most contrastingly varied array of costumes and features; they came from every historical horizon, from legend and from ethnographic study; but they also, every one, possessed a unity of fabrication, a quality of flesh that I already knew well. Evidently all these were the work of my Modeller, or perhaps of artisans trained in his workshop, for the quantity of pieces implied an extraordinary amount of labour. However, remarkable as these little artworks were individually, their accumulation quickly tired the eye, no attempt at originality or imagination being involved in their mode of display. It was more of a warehousing than an exhibition arranged according to up-to-date taste. By way of information I could see nothing but numbered labels, in preparation, I supposed, for a catalogue. Last but not least, the lighting was dim and less than ideal for appreciating the detail of the exhibits. My disappointment came into focus when I recognized my little collection, well sited but looking wan, tarnished in that thankless ambience.
The tour too was quickly over. First the Modeller let me move around without providing the slightest commentary. Then he suddenly said:
“No doubt you disapprove of a certain monotony in this display. The fact is that the real interest lies elsewhere. Our marionette connoisseurs know enough to be able to judge with a single glance, just like that! They choose the ones that appeal to them most – except, of course, for those that their owners loan only for display purposes! – and order them through to the theatre. The majority rightfully belong to the Baron, who allows his guests complete freedom of choice.”
While he was talking I saw someone all in black coming toward us, advancing in complete silence, his walk betraying some difficulty of movement, a perpetual and painful tremor. The arrival’s face was masked, like those victims of facial mutilation who don’t want their gruesome scars to be seen. On his appearance the Modeller whispered quickly: “Here he is!”
The pedestrian stopped in front of us. I saw two inquisitive gleams of light through the holes in the dismal-looking veil. My guide went forward. Utterly obsequious, he jabbered in manic haste:
“…sieur le Baron, p’mit me to present t’you one of ‘r most distinguished ‘xhibitors…” The Baron inclined his whole upper body toward me with rather stiff courtesy, and, with a gesture that was just as stiff, he held out his hand – a gloved hand that might have been made of ebony. He didn’t say a word; he walked on with ataxic steps and I remained alone with the Modeller.
“Now there’s a man of few words!” I said. “He’s surely suffered some terrible accident, yes? And his love of dolls must surely stem from this distress that keeps him apart from the world.”
The other made no response to my main point, as though its validity made confirmation unnecessary. He merely felt the need to specify:
“…his love of marionettes!”
“But,” I noted, astonished, “you talk about marionettes and I can’t see strings on any of them, or any means of moving them!”
The Modeller smiled a superior smile: “We’re past the stage of accessories that can be seen all too easily and that break the illusion. Our… strings – ” I felt him hesitate on the word “are slender and subtle enough to leave our creatures with the illusion of an autonomous existence.
“ And why waste time in explanations?” he added. “Let’s go to the room where our performances take place and you can judge our methods for yourself.”
Passing along a corridor that opened up between two displays, he lifted a curtain, unveiled a low entrance and ushered me into the much-vaunted theatre.
What a radiant flood of light there! In a classic proscenium with draped curtains, the successive scenes of a deliciously childlike décor stood out, representing a blond and rosy desert seen from the opening of a rocky cavern. On either side distant clumps of palm trees symmetrically measured out spaces that extended to infinity under a broad, clear sky. It was all designed in coloured washes, like an immense watercolour. A puppet in a glittering robe was stationed stage centre, standing straight without any apparent means of support, its provoking immobility giving the impression of a magic charm cast over the tableau. Perhaps a performance had been interrupted, just there and then, on some impulsive whim!
On first stepping into the room I was halted by a wooden parapet, like the balcony overlooking a stage, curving inward and covered with claret-red velvet. On my left and on my right two partitions in studded upholstery and embellished with candleholders further sought to convey the impression of the luxurious interior of a theatre box. In the space thus enclosed several gilt armchairs vied obligingly for my choice. Beyond the parapet, electric footlights arranged at ground level marked the outer limits of the stage, whose boards were raked in a noticeable incline toward the rear. Inside the box a peculiar piece of furniture was located, a great big apparatus that looked like an organ, with several keyboards and arrays of levers; on its upper surface I also saw rows of little valves, like those of telephone exchanges; some were lit up. The Modeller had already sat down in front of this instrument, and he invited me to take a seat.
I observed the doll frozen on the stage. It was the figure of a woman, with a head that was too small for a body that was too long, and a smiling face, in no way unpleasant, but whose roundness made it appear rather silly. A frenzied plume of feathers and flounces made it look like the princesses in Lully’s operas.
“What does she represent?”
“It’s the Devil,” the Modeller cheerfully explained. “The Devil is very much in fashion as the host in marionette theatre. He governs here on a permanent footing.
“But,” I said, “ he doesn’t look at all traditional.”
The artisan struck a note on the keyboard. The puppet’s head, swivelling round on itself, showed its other side, which was the face of a goat whose shiny horns provided the support for the feather head-dress. On the Modeller’s second flourish the doll resumed its initial appearance.
The apparatus enraptured me.
“What a marvellous procedure, it seems to do away with lots of awkward pulling of strings above the stage.”
“I promised you astonishing things!” the man replied with affected modesty. “This décor leads me to think that a temptation of St. Anthony was performed a little while ago. Do you want to see a short scene while the props are still in place?”
The Modeller’s agile fingers ranged over the instrument panel, pulling strings, pressing buttons and keys. The bland, soothing music of the ballet from Faust filled the theatre with a pleasant sound. The female devil gently moved her head, her hands made little beckoning gestures. There emerged from the wings two groups of six enticingly plump negro dancing girls whose sinuous flexibility was something extraordinary. To be sure, the action of these marionettes retained a degree of stiffness, a ‘disjointedness’ of movement that was intrinsic to the genre, but in the final analysis they reached a level of relative perfection that was really remarkable and that was obtained by my neighbour’s mysterious and sustained playing of the keyboards. A new character was suddenly thrust onto the stage, not St. Anthony as I was expecting, but his pig, running in a very human way on his two hind trotters. While the Devil beat time the animal charged the ballerinas in transports of lust that were so comical I burst out laughing.
A blinding darkness hid the spectacle from me and at the same moment the music died with brutal abruptness. Almost immediately the lights came on again. Décor and characters had disappeared and the mouth of the scene showed me no more than a kaleidoscopic chaos, a heap of coloured polyhedrons that would have delighted an artist from the heyday of Cubism.
“That was only an appetiser!” the Modeller said disdainfully. “Let’s pass on to displays that will be more directly and personally interesting to you.”
He promptly spun round a numbered dial positioned beside his keyboard; but nothing new appeared on the stage corresponding to this action. Furthermore the man seemed unsurprised to be awaiting an operation that evidently required an appreciable amount of time.
Greedily, I took advantage of this pause to flood him with questions about the mechanism of the theatre; the Modeller promptly resumed his most melancholy grimace to remind me that, like other things, this apparatus was the invention and the property of the Baron who guarded his secrets.
The silhouette of a man, arms loaded with dolls, passed in front of us, between the parapet and the ramp. My partner in conversation stopped him with a gesture, seized one of the figurines, St. Anthony’s pig to be exact, and held it out for me to see.
“Here’s a beast,” he said, “that’s played its part several hundred times. Would you like to confirm please that it’s in perfect condition. Not a single blemish, no deterioration of the material. If you were to be so good as to give your permission for the use I’d like to put your dolls to, then I hope this will reassure you.”
Another shadowy figure had appeared alongside the first and I saw that the new arrival carried several pieces from my collection. The Modeller gazed at me with beseeching insistence. “Okay!” I replied, intrigued.
The two supernumeraries vanished, while the master of ceremonies explained to me in a confidential voice that he was assisted by two young relatives apprenticed to his craft. No doubt he’d managed to foist his whole family on the Baron’s munificence!
The silver peal of a bell sent a signal for which the Modeller had been waiting and he bent once more to his keyboards. On the instrument panel the diminutive bulbs of the valves lit up. And, this time without any plunge into darkness, the theatre revealed to me the stupefying revelation of a new décor; the Cubist puzzle had undergone a sort of explosion: for a moment thousands of coloured fragments spun round, were reabsorbed into an overall tonality of nocturnal blue, then regular masses took shape with such rapidity that I couldn’t venture the slightest guess as to the method of transformation.
In the foreground I distinguished the entrance to a tunnel under which a zone of utter darkness showed no details beyond the vague glimmer of a railway line. Towards the ‘far distance’ a pale arc of light indicated the point of exit. Beyond that there stretched the skeletal scaffolding of a ruined station.
A movingly sad music enveloped the tableau and I saw Miss Ellen, my doll-detective, approaching, skipping cautiously along and, to guess by her pantomime, applying herself to meticulous investigations while a threatening Chinese shadow stirred in the interior of the tunnel, in front of the rear illumination. The absence of any perceptible strings lent my dear little lady an amusing spontaneity; but right from start of the scene I’d been so surprised that my powers of attention were occluded: because everything – this setting, this sortie by my heroine – corresponded to the basic elements of the mystery novel that I’d dreamed up in front of the disused station. No doubt the close proximity of a picturesque location might have provided the marionette specialists with the inspiration for a décor for their repertoire; nevertheless the coincidence of ideas was extraordinary. For a length of time that it would be difficult for me to reckon, I remained confused, lost in the mist, and released only from that state by the conclusion of the sketch.
The Modeller was gazing at me. Incapable of a straightforward opinion, I blurted out confused compliments that didn’t fool him since he then informed me in a humble voice, “I wanted to improvise, I listened to I don’t know what fancy. Let’s see if I can’t find a more fruitful vein with Pedrolino.”
He’d scarcely finished speaking before the stage, once more changing its appearance, showed me a twilit park, adorned with statues and an antique ruin. This landscape was in the Italian style, but by virtue of its layout, its perspective, it irresistibly reminded me of the Prieuré where I’d undergone with Elizabeth the misadventure of the storm. And in the alley, tinged red and purple by the setting sun, I saw myself going forward with the slightly jerky steps of a marionette, in the costume of the black pierrot.
This spectacle filled me with unease. At first I tried to explain this away through the anodyne laws of logic; “The Modeller has read my manuscript. Wouldn’t he have found lots of descriptions of similar gardens there?” A new accompaniment made itself heard at that same moment, but as a distant murmur, and I seemed to hear, straying amidst the soft stream of music, several bars of the Pastoral Symphony. An illusion created by my obsessed mind? However, the pierrot performed a scene in which he waited in attitudes evocative of sorrow. He looked out for the arrival of someone; he kicked his heels in vain, he leaped forward, arms outstretched, to come to a halt, crestfallen; he’d been deceived by a shadow.
Right there and then I had the feeling of being myself projected into the scene; for several seconds I led a double life, in the box and in the middle of a deserted park, whose painted components admittedly retained in my eyes their artificial character, but having acquired massive dimensions, such as they would appear in the eyes of a little puppet.
Was I really alone in this artificial garden? The shadow that had deceived me, hadn’t it just slipped once more between two panels of cut-out greenery? I suddenly became aware of the big woman with the vacant smile that I had been told was the Devil. She took no notice of me, she went on her way… In fact wasn’t it actually her yet again that I’d glimpsed a short while ago profiled at the bottom of the tunnel where my zealous Miss Ellen was conducting her investigations?
In the midst of these strange preoccupations I found myself once more whole and complete in the depths of my armchair, as though psychical strings had suddenly snapped, and I considered, as coolly as you please the pierrot’s despair; then, once more, part of my being slid toward the world of fiction. All the time I was in this condition I heard the Modeller reciting a passage from my manuscript – modulating from high to low in order to further specify his intentions – a desolate call from Pedrolino: “Come to me, to me, sweet Maidens of the Night! Come, consoling angels! Circle round me, precious illusions, hopes born in the darkness! Come closer! Talk to me! Yes, for pity’s sake tell me lies once more!”
In the dimming light figures flew around the black pierrot: simple female heads carried on blue-coloured wings. Having been spellbound once more by the scene, I now thought I saw the features of these graceful monsters close at hand, and discovered that they bore an upsetting resembled to Elizabeth’s .
“Stop!” I cried to the Modeller.
I tore myself from the soft comfort of the armchair. On my feet, trembling, my brow in a cold sweat, I fought against the enchantment.
“What’s the matter?” the marionettist asked me in a voice that was altogether too complacent. And, as I explained that a feeling of acute distress had spoiled this performance for me, he quietly replied, “Oh! You’re an authentic connoisseur! The first contact is dizzying, overwhelmingly intoxicating for sensibilities like yours.”
With a simple command from his fingers, the scene was plunged into black night.
“Dizzying! Intoxicating! No, no!” I protested; “ But these strange games take too complete possession of what’s inside me, even though it’ s your hands, your thoughts that direct these puppets.”
“There’s no doubt,” the Modeller replied gravely, “that a profound mystery reigns over this little quadrangular world; the marionettes sometimes acquire a quality of mediumicity, compelling, attracting, transmitting whatever seems bound up with our innermost secrets.”
I felt a sudden desire to examine the figures of these ‘Maidens of the Night,’ inspired by my poetic enthusiasms. My companion called out an order and soon I held in the hollow of my hand one of the flying heads, from which hung down a double strip of silk, the withered glory of wings. Astonishment! The face was well and truly that of Elizabeth.
The artisan anticipated my remarks.
“For accessories like these I make use of my ‘studies’. You must understand that a piece like the Lucrezia can only be achieved after several trials.”
I found the mere existence of these objects displeasing in the extreme; but how could I admit this without appearing ridiculous? Did I have patent rights over the features of Mme. D’A***, ex-actress? Overcome, exhausted, I made a sudden farewell.
“You’ll come back to us, won’t you?” The Modeller inquired ceremoniously.
The following morning found me freed from the previous evening’s ghosts and revelling in the final preparations for an intimately tender reception.
I’d remembered Elizabeth’s little sins, her fondness for sweets, for pictures, for bric-a-brac, and I’d provided food for all her tastes in order to bathe her in an agreeable atmosphere. Although the weather was mild I lit a fire in my big fireplace because I knew that that childhood light was something Zetta liked. Then, eager to please, to shine in her eyes, I carefully rehearsed in my mind the words and phrases that I intended to slip into our conversation.
In the hours directly preceding the time fixed for the visit it seemed to me that the movement of the clock – in the time-honoured expression –was unbearably slow. Nevertheless they were nothing compared to the hours that followed…
I’d already been resigned to the fact that Elizabeth wasn’t very punctual. But the minute hand of my clock went impassively twice round the dial without the anxiously awaited visit coming to put an end to the agonizing tedium. A doubt wormed its way into me, furtively at first, then, as the hours passed, becoming increasingly bitter. Confronted with the evidence I argued the odds with myself: “Has she been delayed?… prevented from coming?… Can I still hope that she’ll come today?” I sought in the blue notepaper, so categorical, so beseeching, for the reassurance that only an unforeseeable misfortune, a “matter of insurmountable odds” could have caused a disappointment as painful for Zetta as for myself.
Obeying a prudent sense of discretion, I’d denied myself use of the telephone; but as for “her”, what circumstances were so grave as to prevent any possibility of letting me know what had hindered her? An obstinate hope drove me to my door with every unidentified noise that came from the outside corridor. One of them, louder than the others, brutally called to my mind Pedrolino’s pantomime in the twilight desolation of his park. The flight of daylight and the encroachment of darkness passed a sentence without remission on the woebegone lover, just like down there, and this wretched parallel tore a bitter laugh from me:
“Come to me,” I repeated in a mocking voice, at the nadir of my disappointment, “come, sweet Maidens of the Night! Come consoling angels. Circle round me…” I went over to open the curtains of the display cabinet, I uncovered the allegorical image of my nocturnal vagabondage, the Lucrezia doll that I had temporarily put out of sight. I greeted the reappearance of her triumphant, puerile smile with thoughts that bore the stamp of cold derision. “So, you who I esteemed as my occult intermediary when I received Zetta’s letter,” – I was only half-joking – “you, who were pretentiously claimed by your creator to belong to a surreal species, endowed with mysterious qualities! Explain this fine non-event to me. Explain…”
This storm of exclamations, actually unleashed against the usual suspect, a hostile Destiny, without really indicting Elizabeth’s motives or purpose, was calmed by a faint ring at my doorbell. I flew to the entrance. Alas! I found nobody there save Germain, my editor’s good associate partner, come to inquire about the work I’d promised. Germain, too, was a longstanding friend and I felt bound to make him decently welcome. Hiding my frustration as well as I could, I ushered him into the apartment. Then I was embarrassed by the sight of the doll, which remained in view. In my haste, I’d closed the curtain too thoughtlessly; a stretch of the cloth remained snagged on a jagged piece of wood, and through the gap Lucretia seemed to be bowing with the false modesty of a third rate actress overwhelmed with encores. Straight away she caught the attention of my guest.
Now Germain not only knew Elizabeth, he was one of the few intimates who, as it happened, was able now and again to talk about her; he met her sometimes when she was staying in Paris since their respective houses were neighbours on a square on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. But, of course, I’d never revealed to the bachelor the depths of my feelings for the young woman. The presence of such a miniature in my home might seem rather bewilderingly freakish.
I forestalled his surprise; in an indifferent voice I pretended that I’d found “that plaything”, a relic of Elizabeth’s time as an actress, at the bottom of an old chest. “It’s an amusing souvenir and still as good as new, don’t you think?” Germain swallowed my explanation without suspecting any deceit, so that I was quickly minded to ask disingenuous questions.
“Have you seen her recently, our charming Mme. D’A***?”
“Yes, yes indeed! She’s in Paris at the moment.”
“Have you heard…?” I hesitated.
“Ah, I’ve been told some odd things about her. It would seem that she’s reached the point of disillusionment, disappointment with her marriage.”
My visitor shook with innocent laughter.
“Now there’s a person who can never be satisfied, because there never has been a husband as attentive, as loving. And, as the saying goes, she has him at her beck and call.”
Germain spent a quarter of an hour illustrating his claim with examples, with anecdotes, he assured me, that kept the whole neighbourhood entertained, but these images corresponded so little with Elizabeth’s vague and secret grievances that I was met with nothing but a flurry of new puzzles. When I was alone again my mood sank further into a dangerous depression, where subtle suspicions started to bubble up.
What I did then can only be explained by a surreptitious logic coiled in the deepest recesses of our being, peripheral to received consciousness and its nobler aims. That same evening the Modeller heard me knocking at his door…
It was entirely understandable that I would wish to tear myself away from the sorrows of a day of misery; but among a thousand possible distractions, why seek out the one that, just as easily as on the previous evening, might aggravate the poison of treacherous thoughts? And why, in an ill-considered scheme, bring the Lucrezia doll to the little theatre?
Seeing her, the Modeller welcomed me with expressions of gratitude that I immediately interrupted, for he seemed to think that I’d decided to let her appear in the exhibition.
“No, no! The only favour I ask is to see her too brought to life, with the incredible inspiration that’s been so successful in bringing the others to life.”
What was it that I wanted then? To push to the point of no return the emotion caused by Elizabeth’s non-appearance, and on which just now the Signorina had already made the first claim? Was it the barren need to invoke her absence, a need that was punished with sarcastic blows by the sharp, humiliating realisation of the absurdity of such an expedient? The disturbing alternative to an unfulfilled fervor and a furious appetite for mental self-flagellation? My conduct certainly wasn’t free from this embarrassing appetite, but beyond that it was urged on by a more worrying, more perilous curiosity; it turned me in the direction of a black horizon full of fascinating gleams of light, those that the Demon conjures up in order to hasten our shipwreck! From the session of the previous evening I remembered those psychical currents that had for a moment bound me to the artificial little creatures orbiting in my mind. The word mediumicity, so audaciously ventured by the marionettist with respect to his creatures, caused something to take seed in me. I wanted to know what reactions, what reverberations – what intuitions perhaps – would be conveyed to me by the miniature image of Elizabeth blossoming magically into life.
The Modeller, as eager as ever, agreed to my request. Evidently he’d decided to gratify me in all things. When, conducted by him, I reached the theatre entrance, the silent Baron crossed our path as he had done yesterday in the gallery. He privileged me with another greeting, another gloved handshake. But, as the masked man walked haltingly away from us, why was it that the absurd, gratuitous idea struck me that I’d just shaken hands with an automaton? And that if I’d dared tear the veil away, I’d have discovered a replica of my own face?
Seconds later I was installed in the box and confronting a shadowy scene. The Modeller didn’t immediately take his place at the instrument panel; he proposed a preliminary surprise.
“I haven’t forsaken your little Italian subjects,” he said. “Here’s a new one: the Captain!”
He handed me a red-nosed puppet proudly armed with a cuirass and sporting a tremendous mustache. The artisan had done well in conveying the exaggerated caricature that was my protagonist, his fatuousness, his laughable belligerence. Now the distaste I felt on viewing this amusing character was something I didn’t want to admit to: the Captain had served as the vehicle of my hatred of Elizabeth’s husband – a blind hatred inasmuch as I didn’t know the man – and what I beheld there was a little monster born from my mean and dishonest spite.
“The Modeller’s imagination,” I thought, “certainly scents an incredible opportunity to close in on my inner torments.” He was starting to awaken an irrational fear in me; the man was too obliging; he smiled too much! While finally sitting down in front of his keyboards, he asked me what I wanted to see performed.
“Just as you did yesterday! Take as your theme what you already know so well!… If you’re happy to do so, then deduce… elaborate… Aren’t there pages still to be written?”
“I’m honoured, very honoured!” he replied, while an assistant carried the dolls to the rear of the stage.
Soon the scene was lit up and I witnessed, anew, the mirage of the garden where Pedrolino lived. He was already there, the solitary little man in black, immobile and dreaming in front of the ruin; all around him a lacework of make-believe vegetation had acquired the hues of autumn; a play of light intermittently described the golden descent of leaves. A bell-like music evoked the farewells of sorrowful birds…
But this time the sylvan décor only took up a part of the theatre, where, thanks to a traditionally sanctioned convention, stage right showed a cross-section of an elegant house located on the fringes of the park. There, in a rococo salon, the Signorina came in and whirled round a blue parrot standing on a perch on a small table, while the music, as though revitalised by her arrival, suddenly struck up in the most agitated of Offenbach’s rhythms.
I didn’t experience any of the strange sensations that had assailed me during the previous performance; I remained merely a spectator of the tableau; animated in this way, Lucretia seduced my eye with her fanciful dance, but without communicating any exceptional impressions to me.
The Captain made his entry with forceful martial greetings and a prolonged kiss on her hand. The blue parrot uttered a mocking laugh that was conveyed by closed notes on an invisible trumpet. As for the characters, they drew on the conventions of the pantomime, but with great success in spite of their mechanically imitative gestures.
Lucrezia seized a baton – and I admired the cleverness of the artifice that allowed the little hand of a doll to manipulate such an accessory. The Signorina’s whim converted the salon into an arena and she invited her partner to run in circles round the little table. At each of his turns in front of his inamorata the Captain encountered the extended baton and had to jump over it like a circus horse.
I recognized this as a pleasing adaptation of one of my chapters, where the gallant braggart, in order to assert his superiority over Pedrolino, declares himself able to jump high enough to unhook the moon from the sky and offer it to his fair lady, and she wouldn’t let things rest until the exploit had been attempted, and as the Captain, having cooled down, pleaded the necessity of some training, she made him do daily exercises.
But the scene was quickly full of incidents that were not of my making. Following a particularly grotesque jump, the bird promptly unloosed the crac-rac-rac mechanism of its laugh. Annoyed, the Captain called a halt. His stern trainer gestured impatiently at him, issued unmistakeable orders while tapping her foot; but the other figure was obstinate, shaking his head to indicate his refusal. Soon it was Beauty’s turn to show her temper. Receiving no further satisfaction from the rebel, she went to sulk in front of a window.
Seeing her like this, the Captain lost a great deal of his vainglory. He now looked at Lucretia with an air of disquiet. Twice he made as if to approach her. His pride, however, carried the day, and he suddenly strode offstage, like a man unsure of his purpose.
Scarcely had he disappeared than Lucretia, disappointed, meditating her revenge, took action. She noticed Pedrolino outside, lost to the world, and then the joy of a Machiavellian scheme moved her feet to a little dance while the parrot joyfully flapped its wings. Then the Signorina went to the little table, took a pen propped in a Lilliputian inkbottle, scrawled it over notepaper – blue notepaper! – that she entrusted to the bird’s beak. And she opened the window. Moments later the pierrot in black, roused from his dream, read the message and gave himself over to joyful gambols.
Stunned by such an allusive tableau I turned toward the Modeller, an impetuous question already on my lips. I withheld it on seeing man’s looks; his eyes were empty, like those of a somnambulist, and yet there was the manifestation of calm and terrible power in the firm concentration of his features, in the decision of his masterful gestures. I remembered the words he had uttered the previous day in attesting to the profound mystery emanating from these human figurines. What distant source was the animator drawing on?
Having taken a notepad, Pedrolino scribbled a hasty reply that the bird carried to the Signorina in a beat of its wings. She gaily grabbed hold of the note. The harsh exuberance of her exultant satisfaction, displayed in a fresh skipping dance with abundantly added entrechats, contrasted with the humble joy of the pierrot’s modest gestures at the rear of the ruins.
Suddenly Lucrezia froze in a thoughtful pose, pretending to be absorbed in reading the letter. At that moment, the Captain came back, his arms full of dwarf roses. At the sight of him, the Signorina concealed Pedrolino’s message, but in a way that was calculatedly maladroit. Naturally the jealous lover caught the movement. Dropping his flowers he advanced, already provoked, exacting and inquisitorial. Lucretia mocked him, pirouetted in front of him, lightly eluding his grasp. And then, in a capricious volte-face, she held out the note to her angry beau. No sooner had the Captain glanced over the paper than he flew into a rage and, mustaches quivering, drew his sword. The Signorina, nonchalant, danced more prettily than ever and, in addition, blew two fine kisses from the tip of her fingers in the direction of the park. Confronted with this cynical fearlessness, the Captain’s rage melted like caramel. Crestfallen, the braggart admitted the error of his ways and flung himself to his knees. And the Signorina, her baton back in her hand, invited him, under her capable supervision, to immediately resume the exercise of leaping over it.
But in the park, flooded by the deepening blues of the evening, Pedrolino, full of happiness, approached carrying a violin and bow. He stationed himself under the window to play a serenade.
Through the mesh of music, the inflexible rhythms that controlled the Captain’s task clashed with the loving and sad sweetness of his melody.
The pierrot played the most poignant of strains, but in vain! The Signorina, completely absorbed by her beloved game, cared about nothing but her athlete. An exceptionally heart-rending note from the violin seemed to irritate her. In between two of the Captain’s leaps she closed the shutters of the window with her handy baton. And the blue parrot beat its wings against the windowpane while unloosing its cackle, this time at Pedrolino’s expense. As for the moon-promiser, he ran round and round and jumped in utter rapture, honoured by the dedicated attention of his beautiful lady.
Outside, a further ring of figures came into view… dark parody! The Maidens of the Night came flying, called by the violin, and encircled the pierrot in black. Suddenly the house was lost in shadows and nothing remained but the nocturnal park where a damned violinist conducted a phantasmal ball.
“Precious illusions, hopes born in the dark! Come close! Speak to me! For pity’s sake, tell me lies again…”
I believe that, trembling in front of the stage, it was me who voiced them, these all too familiar cries. For the last few seconds the frightening enchantment once more pressed down on me. The Modeller ended the spectacle with his usual instant abruptness; He was once again an old man full of consideration for me.
“Once more some emotional overindulgence,” he said. “But all the same I hope that you liked my comedy?”
Making no reply I reclaimed my Lucretia. I was in a hurry to leave that place, but without forgetting my firm determination; I didn’t want to relinquish the doll for any further length of time. As soon she was brought to me I grabbed her with so little self-possession that the artisan felt obliged to warn me: “Take care! You’ll damage her!”
I passed a restless night. My thoughts were in such a feverish turmoil that sleep was out of the question.
I’d decided it was useless to ask the Modeller to cast even the smallest amount of light on the themes that inspired what he called ‘his comedy.’ He would only have obstructed me yet again with vague terms full of the murk that enveloped not only his intentions but also his entire existence. I was in any event ready to credit extra-sensory intuitions, psychical auras by means of which the marionettes became poles of magnetic attraction: but where – in whose troubled soul – was the drama revealed by the moving puppets really being played out? Deep within myself perhaps, and on no grounds other than suspicions bred in an unquiet mind? No, no! With all the certainty of an instinct that is sharpened by the threat of danger, an inner voice confirmed that I wasn’t acting as a transmitter of this strange game, not even unconsciously, and that, on the contrary, the impulses I was receiving came from outside me, on a path leading to unpredictable developments.
But when I abandoned these speculations and thought only of the notification provided by the magical puppets, I was overcome with anger: didn’t the little scene so gaily managed by the Signorina acquire in its symbolism an agonizing resemblance to the truth when I compared it with Elizabeth’s behaviour? She who as younger woman had performed a comedy of tears at the Prieuré purely for the fun of it, wouldn’t she now be capable of more serious imbroglios or mystifications if the need presented itself? A slight marital disagreement, the disappointment of an unfulfilled whim would be enough to goad her into maliciously worrying her husband! My simple letter of reply could have provided poisoned spices for her design. “Who knows,” I went on, “if she isn’t exploiting all her old admirers one after another – and there were quite a few! – with only one aim in mind, to continually impress on her husband how lucky he was in gaining her favour?”
The morning arrived without my having noticed; for, on my return from the Baron’s mansion, I had seated myself in front of the fire, lit several hours earlier for Elizabeth’s sake, and had rekindled its dying flames. Far more than my body it was my spirit that shivered in solitude. These dancing flames, changing from orange-red to ash-pale, harmonised with the ardent misery of my preoccupations. It took a slight noise to first make me aware of hours having passed, a letter that the caretaker slid under my door. Then at last I saw that my windows were pale as shrouds.
I ran to pick the letter up. I recognized the blue vellum. My hands trembled nervously and anxiety dimmed my sight while I tore open the envelope. Finally I read…
How could a few brief lines be so full of frivolous cruelty? Elizabeth apologized for not having come – as casually as though it concerned no more than a cup of tea. She regretted having given way to a passing mood of melancholy and “perhaps” had let it be understood that she wasn’t entirely happy, when, as far she was concerned, her husband proved to be “adorable”. She ended with the claim that she would certainly have enjoyed seeing me again, but that new and engrossing concerns were going to occupy her for the foreseeable future; she begged me not to worry myself on her behalf and to believe her to be very much contented with her home life.
“There it is!” I said, so exactly did this epistolatory denouement fit the outlines of the Italian farce mimed by Lucretia: “With an adroit flourish of the baton, she’s just shut the window!” I was overcome by a rending pain; it was all over. I would never again see Elizabeth. I would wander through my night alone. In an actual hallucination, purple, phantasmal dancing shadows were paraded several times right in front of my eyes: “Come, consoling angels! Circle round me…!”
As I struggled to overcome the obsession, I saw the Signorina smiling pitilessly from the depths of the armchair where I’d placed her.
“You,” I shouted at her, “at least you aren’t going to haunt me any more!” And seizing her by the neck I threw her into the middle of the flames.
Once the act was done, the reasoning of my rational self applauded loudly; since Elizabeth had escaped from me forever, better, all told, to destroy this figurine in which my nostalgic passion was perpetuated.
Coldly, I looked at the tongues of flame blackening the artificial body and devouring the minuscule clothes with their rapid kisses. I was still irritated by the smile, the insistent smile of the tortured doll. “Isn’t that enough to give you an experience of suffering, you who, as an actress, knew how to glow with the whole life of your model?” But my own thoughts, gross and barbarous, responded by calling to mind the wax dolls or “poppets” that once upon a time witches, resourceful in the magic arts, modelled in the likeness of the persons they wanted to torment or kill. A tremor ran through me: “And suppose there was even the smallest spark of truth in those black practices?” In that moment I knew how much I still loved Elizabeth: well might I desecrate, punish her image; but the merest idea of injuring her, her, sent a chill through my veins. But then I reassured myself: “Am I going to give way to superstition now? And, according to the necromancers themselves, the thing could only be effective if it was supplied with a bit of living matter stolen from the victim – hair, drop of blood –…”
Then, seared by the fire, the body of the doll burst open from the throat on down, and the lips of the wound spewed out a rag of sky-blue silk marked by brown stains. I scarcely had time to see it before it was obliterated by the flames….
“Damned witch-doctor! Fiend of hell!” I shouted, addressing the Modeller. “What kind of game are you playing at here?” I remembered the bizarre anecdote he’d told me concerning Elizabeth’s fall from a horse. I was gripped by a frantic fear, stronger than all my powers of reason. This stained rag – I realized what it was …
My good friend Germain was more than a little surprised by my visiting him so early in the morning. “An accident? An upset?” On the way I’d thought about saying that I was in the grip of a foreboding – better still a terrible nightmare; I wanted to convince my friend there and then to find out how Elizabeth was. When I was in his rooms the insanity of my excuse became evident to me. I remained dumbstruck, not knowing what to say…
Just then Céline, his maid, rushed in and spoke to her employer without having noticed me. She was breathless, beside herself.
“Ah monsieur! What a terrible thing! One minute we’re here and the next minute gone! Madame d’A***, the pretty actress…! Yesterday, believe me, she was still healthy and fresh as a rose in May. Ah well, in the evening she started to moan and groan, no, from what I’ve been told better say that she raved deliriously! She was speaking to people who weren’t there… At last they managed to calm her down; they thought she was sleeping. Suddenly, this morning…”
“Shut up!” I yelled in the woman’s face. “Shut up! I don’t want to know!”
Germain gave me a look in which I could clearly read a suspicion of madness. No matter; my course of action seemed to me clearly indicated. I flung myself toward the fireplace where a poker with a gold cross-piece glinted; and, a moment later, I was outside, brandishing the weapon…
“Through your chest, old clown! Right where the Signorina’s body burst open!”
Useless bluster! He was more powerful than me, the demonic Modeller, but this was something I only understood when, in the house of marionettes, I found myself in the presence of strangers: first of that scared, fat, bearded man who assured me he was the Baron, with no resemblance to the man in black with the limping walk; then of that flabby creature who I had glimpsed sleeping on my first visit, and who I would have identified as “the Brother” if he hadn’t specifically denied having any brother while declaring himself to be the only artisan allowed into the place.
I didn’t want to acknowledge these denials. Scornful of refusals and threats I scoured every nook and cranny of the deserted studio, the gallery, the theatre, and found nothing but wooden puppets hanging from coarse strings, utterly commonplace décors. No machinery, no trace of any magical instrument! No sign of busy assistants!
And my dolls? They too had disappeared! Oh! I guessed what admirable use the Modeller would make of them. It wasn’t for nothing that he’d placed that fatal pin under Pedrolino’s collar, destined to provide the puppet with a drop of my blood! I’d become his toy, his thing. Already I saw them surging up from nothingness, the winged heads, inscribing their diaphanous circles on the reality of the whereabouts
“To me, come to me, sweet Maidens of the Night…”
Nevertheless I continued to rush up and down for a long time, making threats, searching for the invisible magus. I was in pursuit; I was pursued myself. A pack of people was on my heels, crying: “Catch the madman!” Breathless, I explored tortuous cellars, deep courtyards; I descended interminable stone stairwells at random; I probed massive subterranean passages. I was – as I don’t know what white-coated man explained while looking at me pityingly – halted in the bowels of a ruined tunnel. And so? Weren’t shadows lurking there? Wasn’t it precisely in the deepest darkness that I needed to pin him down, the infernal creature? But why argue here, or even touch upon the great mystery of appearances and subtle truths? I say it again, whatever they do with me, these people for whom the word “obsession” doesn’t even retain its authentic meaning, what does it matter to me right now!
Elizabeth! Poor, unfortunate Elizabeth! No, you didn’t deserve your fate! No, you weren’t guilty, poor bird-girl, no more than are the Bengali finches feeding on insects in their sunlit realm. Forgive me! And you, Maidens of the Night, sweet-faced furies, come closer; in mirroring for me, one after another, the beloved image of my Zetta, torment me without respite!