Compardin, the clever manager of the Eden Réunis Theater, as the theater critics invariably called him, was reckoning on a great success, and had invested his last franc in the affair, without thinking of the morrow, or of the bad luck which had been pursuing him so inexorably for months past. For a whole week, the walls, the kiosks, shopfronts, and even the trees, had been placarded with flaming posters, and from one end of Paris to the other carriages were to be seen which were covered with fancy sketches by Chéret, representing two strong, well-built men who looked like ancient athletes. The younger of them, who was standing with his arms folded, had the vacant smile of an itinerant mountebank, and the other, who was dressed in what was supposed to be the costume of a Mexican trapper, held a revolver in his hand. There were large-type advertisements in all the papers that the Montefiores would appear without fail at the Eden Réunis, the next Monday.
Nothing else was talked about, for the puff and humbug attracted people. The Montefiores, like fashionable knickknacks, succeeded that whimsical jade Rose Péché, who had gone off the preceding autumn, between the third and fourth acts of the burlesque, "Ousca Iscar," in order to make a study of love in company of a young fellow of seventeen, who had just entered the university. The novelty and difficulty of their performance revived and agitated the curiosity of the public, for there seemed to be an implied threat of death, or, at any rate, of wounds and of blood in it, and it seemed as if they defied danger with absolute indifference. And that always pleases women; it holds them and masters them, and they grow pale with emotion and cruel enjoyment. Consequently, all the seats in the large theater were let almost immediately, and were soon taken for several days in advance. And stout Compardin, losing his glass of absinthe over a game of dominoes, was in high spirits, seeing the future through rosy glasses, and exclaimed in a loud voice: "I think I have turned up trumps, by George!"
The Countess Regina de Villégby was lying on the sofa in her boudoir, languidly fanning herself. She had only received three or four intimate friends that day, Saint Mars Montalvin, Tom Sheffield, and her cousin Madame de Rhouel, a Creole, who laughed as incessantly as a bird sings. It was growing dusk, and the distant rumbling of the carriages in the Avenue of the Champs-Élysées sounded like some somnolent rhythm. There was a delicate perfume of flowers; the lamps had not been brought in yet, and chatting and laughing filled the room with a confused noise.
"Would you pour out the tea?" the Countess said, suddenly, touching Saint Mars's fingers, who was beginning an amorous conversation in a low voice, with her fan. And while he slowly filled the little china cup, he continued: "Are the Montefiores as good as the lying newspapers make out?"
Then Tom Sheffield and the others all joined in. They had never seen anything like it, they declared; it was most exciting, and made one shiver unpleasantly, as when the espada comes to close quarters with the infuriated brute at a bull fight.
Countess Regina listened in silence, and nibbled the petals of a tea rose.
"How I should like to see them!" giddy Madame de Rhouel exclaimed.
"Unfortunately, cousin," the Countess said, in the solemn tones of a preacher, "a respectable woman dare not let herself be seen in improper places."
They all agreed with her. Nevertheless, Madame de Villégby was present at the Montefiores' performance, two days later, dressed all in black, and wearing a thick veil, at the back of a stage box.
Madame de Villégby was as cold as a steel buckler. She had married as soon as she left the convent in which she had been educated, without any affection or even liking for her husband; the most sceptical respected her as a saint, and she had a look of virgin purity on her calm face as she went down the steps of the Madeleine on Sundays, after high mass.
Countess Regina stretched herself nervously, grew pale, and trembled like the strings of a violin, on which an artist had been playing some wild symphony. She inhaled the nasty smell of the sawdust, as if it had been the perfume of a bouquet of unknown flowers; she clenched her hands, and gazed eagerly at the two mountebanks, whom the public applauded rapturously at every feat. And contemptuously and haughtily she compared those two men, who were as vigorous as wild animals that have grown up in the open air, with the rickety limbs that look so awkward in the dress of an English groom.
Count de Villégby had gone back to the country, to prepare for his election as Councillor-General, and the very evening that he started, Regina again took the stage box at the Eden Réunis. Consumed by sensual ardor as if by some love philter, she scribbled a few words on a piece of paper—the eternal formula that women write on such occasions.
"A carriage will be waiting for you at the stage door after the performance—An unknown woman who adores you."
And then she gave it to a box opener, who handed it to the Montefiore who was the champion pistol shot.
Oh! that interminable waiting in a malodorous cab, the overwhelming emotion, and the nausea of disgust, the fear, the desire of waking the coachman who was nodding on the box, of giving him her address, and telling him to drive her home. But she remained with her face against the window, mechanically watching the dark passage illuminated by a gas lamp, at the "actors' entrance," through which men were continually hurrying, who talked in a loud voice, and chewed the end of cigars which had gone out. She sat as if she were glued to the cushions, and tapped impatiently on the bottom of the cab with her heels.
When the actor, who thought it was a joke, made his appearance, she could hardly utter a word, for evil pleasure is as intoxicating as adulterated liquor. So face to face with this immediate surrender, and this unconstrained immodesty, he at first thought that he had to do with a street-walker.
Regina felt various sensations, and a morbid pleasure throughout her whole person. She pressed close to him, and raised her veil to show how young, beautiful, and desirable she was. They did not speak a word, like wrestlers before a combat. She was eager to be locked up with him, to give herself to him, and, at last, to know that moral uncleanness, of which she was, of course, ignorant as a chaste wife; and when they left the room in the hotel together, where they had spent hours like amorous deer, the man dragged himself along, and almost groped his way like a blind man, while Regina was smiling, though she exhibited the serene candor of an unsullied virgin, like she did on Sundays, after mass.
Then she took the second. He was very sentimental, and his head was full of romance. He thought the unknown woman, who merely used him as her plaything, really loved him, and he was not satisfied with furtive meetings. He questioned her, besought her, and the Countess made fun of him. Then she chose the two mountebanks in turn They did not know it, for she had forbidden them ever to talk about her to each other, under the penalty of never seeing her again, and one night the younger of them said with humble tenderness, as he knelt at her feet:
"How kind you are, to love me and to want me! I thought that such happiness only existed in novels, and that ladies of rank only made fun of poor strolling mountebanks, like us!"
Regina knitted her golden brows.
"Do not be angry," he continued "because I followed you and found out where you lived, and your real name and that you are a countess, and rich, very rich."
"You fool!" she exclaimed, trembling with anger. "People make you believe things, as easily as they can a child!"
She had had enough of him ; he knew her name, and might compromise her The Count might possibly come back from the country before the elections and then the mountebank began to love her. She no longer had any feeling, any desire for those two lovers, whom a fillip from her rosy fingers could bend to her will. It was time to go on to the next chapter, and to seek for fresh pleasures elsewhere.
"Listen to me," she said to the champion shot, the next night, "I would rather not hide anything from you. I like your comrade; I have given myself to him, and I do not want to have anything more to do with you."
"My comrade!" he repeated.
"Well, what then? The change amuses me!"
He uttered a furious cry, and rushed at Regina with clenched fists. She thought he was going to kill her, and closed her eyes, but he had not the courage to hurt that delicate body, which he had so often covered with caresses, and in despair, and hanging his head, he said hoarsely:
"Very well, we shall not meet again, since it is your wish."
The house at the Eden Réunis was as full as an overfilled basket. The violins were playing a soft and delightful waltz of Gungl's, which the reports of a revolver accentuated.
The Montefiores were standing opposite to one another, as in Chéret's picture, and about a dozen yards apart. An electric light was thrown on the younger, who was leaning against a large white target, and very slowly the other traced his living outline with bullet after bullet. He aimed with prodigious skill, and the black dots showed on the cardboard, and marked the shape of his body. The applause drowned the orchestra, and increased continually, when suddenly a shrill cry of horror resounded from one end of the hall to the other. The women fainted, the violins stopped, and the spectators jostled each other. At the ninth ball, the younger brother had fallen to the ground, an inert mass, with a gaping wound in his forehead. His brother did not move, and there was a look of madness on his face, while the Countess de Villégby leaned on the ledge of her box, and fanned herself calmly, as implacably as any cruel goddess of ancient mythology.
The next day, between four and five, when she was surrounded by her usual friends in her little, warm, Japanese drawing-room, it was strange to hear in what a languid and indifferent voice she exclaimed :
"They say that an accident happened to one of those famous clowns, the Monta—the Monte—what is the name, Tom?"
"The Montefiores, Madame!"
And then they began to talk about Angèle Velours, who was going to buy the former Folies, at the Hôtel Drouot, before marrying Prince Storbeck.