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If you lived during what the French call the Belle Epoque (1871-1914) in any literate country, you would have stumbled upon Sarah Bernhardt. There was no way of avoiding her name in print. She would shock you with her latest extravagancy or sell you a product of some sort.  Wherever you lived,  on whatever continent—except for Antarctica—Sarah’s feet would have touched it and she would have died on it. People around the world would pay good money to watch Sarah die in French. She was very good at it. Never mind that you did not understand a word she was saying for there was plenty to look at for the price and you could tell with pride that you have seen the Greatest Tragedy Queen Ever.

 

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Just to show you the international weight of Sarah’s personality, here she is as an old lady in the US: urging America to enter the World War One

 

What Bernhardt, also known as The Divine Sarah, meant to her own country is demonstrated in this video which shows that the French Republic staged a funeral worthy of a queen:

 

 

 

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Quand Même, the motto of Sarah Bernhardt, can be translated in different ways but, in this case, it means Nevertheless. There may be difficulties on the path of life. Nevertheless, they will be overcome.

 

 

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One of the reasons of Sarah’s early success was that she was different in appearance.  While the beauty canon favored women of substance, she was thin. Where fashion dictated sculptured hairdos, Sarah’s hair was an uncontrollable puff of frizzy hair. Her Jewish nose was a little too prominent and her complexion a little too white. This difference, instead of being a burden, made her stand apart and therefore be noticed. Her thespian talent, along with her flamboyant personality, both on and off the stage, did the rest. In fact, there was no difference between the theater and the off-stage for wherever she was, Sarah never ceased to perform.

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Seduction was  Sarah’s main weapon on the road to fame. Seduction of the theatre critics, seduction of the theatre-goers, seduction of the press. And if the press reacted in a contrary way, that was good too. She was the first one to understand that bad publicity was better than none.

 

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Poster of Sarah as Hamlet. Sarah was not afraid to show her legs in a male hero’s role. She was not afraid of anything. Be it a trip in an air balloon or a crocodile chase, she’d say “yes” to an exciting proposition. Ever aware of the power of advertising, Sarah chose an artistic association with the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha whose posters are still on sale today

 

A true Renaissance woman, Sarah had a second source of income: painting and sculpture. She was an excellent sculptor, to the point of making Rodin jealous. “She has the audacity to show this filth,” he was heard saying at one of her shows.  Really, Monsieur Rodin? Let’s scroll down to see what the venerable Master considered filthy:

 

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The Death of Ophelia by Sarah Bernhardt

 

Like the queen she was, Sarah had her court. Every change of place meant the shifting of a great many objects, animals, and people. In her Paris apartment, she kept a small zoo, which accompanied her on her travels. The live alligator Ali Baba and a coffin featured among her luggage.

 

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Sarah in her coffin. A publicity stunt, no doubt about it, the photo made the round of the world. Sarah kept the coffin in her bedroom and claimed she slept in it.  She died for real some forty years after this picture was taken.

 

Sarah was a woman of prodigious energy. As the manager of a theatre of which she was the principal attraction, she had little time for rest. She would see the author of a new play at two in the morning because that was the only time she could find in her busy schedule. Trips abroad meant careful planning and an exercise in logistics. While everything was done to make travel as comfortable as possible—a special train containing a luxury wagon for Sarah alone was the standard—the conditions in the place were often primitive. She would play in circus tents, suffer cold in unheated dressing rooms, go hungry when food was not readily available, and she would forge ahead quand même. Her support staff might suffer from exhaustion but Sarah would take it all in a stride with one lung, one kidney and, toward the end of her life, with only one leg.

 

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Sarah during one of her overseas travels

 

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In the American West, cowboys greet Sarah (on the right, in the dark coat) on her arrival. Later, during the performance, they would manifest their enthusiasm with aiming shots at the ceiling

 

Sarah lived long enough to appear in the early movies. She hated to see herself on the screen: stripped of her voice, of her three-dimensional personality, and her interaction with the public, she was nothing more than an unappetizing shadow of her true self. By that time, she already suffered from an excruciating pain in her leg. Furniture had to be strategically placed on the scene so that there would always be a point of support where she could take the weight off her aching leg. As her agony grew beyond endurance, she opted for amputation.

 

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Being without a leg at the age of seventy did not slow Sarah down. She purchased a portable chair and off she went to war.  Since the Franco-Prussian War, forty years earlier, Sarah harbored a hatred for the Germans. The French troops needed to be cheered up with a good tragedy play.

 

Sarah died of uremia after an agony that was partly caught on film. She left behind an unfinished movie she was making during her last illness. Ever the hard worker, she took only three days off work to die. She was seventy-eight.

I purposefully left out Sarah’s rich private life which would need a separate post. To understand her drive for success, it is necessary to say that she was the neglected child of a Dutch courtesan. Her father could have been any of the rich and famous men her mother had serviced, among them Rossini, Dumas the Elder, or the Emperor’s half-brother, the Duke de Morny. It was to the latter that the mother turned for advice concerning the future of her awkward teenage offspring. It was he who suggested the stage.  And it was there, on the stage, that Sarah found the love, the adoration, she missed in her childhood.

In my opinion, the truly successful women of that age had this in common: they were mostly illegitimate, without the father’s authority figure. They had a wide range of freedom and their talent was not stifled by the bourgeois set of morals.

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And now some free advertising: The model in the picture Sarah is painting is the protagonist of the novel Fame and Infamy by the author of this post. More on the sidebar.

 

 

 

 

Related post:

The Franco-Prussian War is described in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880, Mark Twain mocked the French practice of dueling:

“Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold. M. Paul de Cassagnac, the most inveterate of the French duelists, had suffered so often in this way that he is at last a confirmed invalid; and the best physician in Paris has expressed the opinion that if he goes on dueling for fifteen or twenty years more—unless he forms the habit of fighting in a comfortable room where damps and droughts cannot intrude—he will eventually endanger his life.”

Paul de Cassagnac, who fought twenty-two duels, will be mentioned again in this post and in the embedded video you will be able to see his son follow the family’s dueling tradition.

Whatever Mark Twain might have said with his customary sarcasm, the duel was no laughing matter. In the Middle Ages, it was a legitimate procedure to settle a personal dispute. Yet as time went by, an excess of testosterone combined with personal pride made it the prime cause of death among young nobles, who felt obliged to fight for the slightest personal offense. At the rate of 500 deaths a year, France was in danger of losing all of her nobility to trivial disputes. Duels were outlawed by a royal edict. However, the social pressure remained strong and the image of a hero executing a mortal dance to avenge an insult had an irresistible pull. From public places, the duels merely moved to private enclosures or to forest clearings.

After the Revolution, all the royal edicts were abolished including those banning duels. All citizens were allowed to carry arms which led to the democratization of duel: now men of all classes could kill each other just as stupidly as the nobles had done for centuries. Fortunately, most of the duels fought by now ended with the first appearance of blood and a mere scratch was often good enough to satisfy the offended honor. Even so, 200 deaths in duels were registered between 1826 and 1834.

cassagnac3Although in the 19th century a duel kill could be punished as a murder, the authorities were generally indulgent if the result was a mere injury. For instance, in 1868, Paul de Cassagnac was condemned by the Sixth Chamber of the Criminal Court of the Seine to six days in jail and 200 francs fine after his victorious duel with his cousin Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. The four witnesses were sentenced to 50 francs fine each. The victim was left off to lick his wounds. (Lissagaray was put to bed for a month. Barely recovered, he sent his witnesses to Cassagnac to continue the duel. Cassagnac replied: “No, sir. I left you on the ground riddled like a sieve. I could consent to be your opponent, it disgusts me to become your butcher.”)

Now we have heard enough about Paul de Cassagnac to be curious. Who was this duelist extraordinaire? A French Casanova?  Most would think that duels were fought mainly over a lady’s honor, especially in France, but that would be an error. Journalists and politicians were called out more often than wife’s lovers. De Cassagnac, both a journalist and a deputy at the National Assembly, made numerous enemies with his radical views. His son, Paul de Cassagnac Jr., inherited both his father’s dangerous occupations and his fiery temperament. You can see him fighting in the following video clip (second duel).

 

By the beginning of the 20th century, the duel was the thing of the past in all countries except in France, where it was still going strong until the killing fields of WWI took away the lives of an entire generation. There were a few duels afterward, all duly caught on film, but one would believe that even the French would be entirely done with dueling after the horrors of WWII. Right?

The last duel in Paris (Ribière left, Deferre in the center)

The last duel in Paris (Ribière left, Deferre in the center)

Wrong! The last duel in Paris was fought  April 21st 1967. Again, the point of contention was not an affair of the heart fought over by two young bucks. The participants were two staid politicians in the French hotbed of disagreement: the National Assembly. Deferre, the mayor of Marseille, was constantly interrupted in his speech by the deputy of Val d’Oise, René Ribière. “Mais taissez-vous donc, abruti!” (Shut up, asshole!), shouted Deferre. Refusing to apologize for the insult, he was challenged to a duel. President Charles de Gaulle sent emissaries to cancel the duel, but without success. The participants avoided the police and organized a secret encounter on a private property. The duel lasted four minutes and the referee put an end to it after the second scratch.  Just as well because Ribière, the loser, was getting married the next day. And so, after all the politics, we can finally mention l’amour.

Related post:

Events in the Street: Female duel with sand-filled socks

 

 

 

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bertieThe year is 1855. An enthusiastic crowd lining the boulevards greets Queen Victoria with her husband Prince Albert and the French imperial couple, Napoléon III and the Empress Eugénie, as their open carriages progress across Paris. It is the first visit of a British ruler since 1431 and it has been a tremendous success on several levels. Both monarchs have become firm allies in the Crimean War, the term “entente cordiale” was coined between them, and lasting personal friendships have been born.

Albert is much taken with the elegant Eugénie. “Altogether I’m delighted to see how much he likes her and admires her,” the queen notes in her diary, “as it is so seldom that I see him do so with any woman.” Victoria herself is experiencing a pleasant electric current each time Napoléon III whispers endearments into her ear, compliments her on her dress or tickles the back of her hand with his moustache. No man had ever dared flirt with her and it is all so very French!

If the 10-day visit made such a good impression on the parents, the two children Victoria and Albert brought along were quite smitten. Vicky, the Princess Royal, broke into tears and pleaded for more time in France. Her 13-year old brother Bertie, the future king Edward VII, took a more direct action. The day he found himself alone with Napoléon III, he said: “You have a nice country and I would like to be your son.” When his proposal met with no success, he tried again, this time with Eugénie. “You parents cannot do without you,” she replied. “Not do without us?” Bertie exclaimed. “Don’t fancy that, for there are six more of us, and they don’t want us.”

The unloved Bertie grew up into a playboy. The Prince des Galles, as he was known in France, returned many times, enthusiastically sampling all the pleasures Paris could offer.

Related post:

Mark Twain on Napoleon III

 

 

 

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Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, photo by Nadar

The brothers Goncourt were to 19th century Paris what Samuel Pepys was to 17th century London. Inseparable since birth, never married, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt went through life as a single mind until the premature death of Jules in 1870. They co-authored six novels, but are remembered chiefly for their diaries beginning in 1851. At home in the literary circles as well as in high society, the brothers gathered local gossip and their biting comments are a delight to read. The entries are remarkably sincere and colourful, sparing no one including the authors. The journals end in 1896, the year of Edmond’s death at the age of 74. By the terms of his will, he endowed the Goncourt Academy which has been awarding yearly the prestigious Prix Goncourt for the best novel.

Quotes

Today I begin to understand what love must be, if it exists. When we are parted, we each feel the lack of the other half of ourselves. We are incomplete like a book in two volumes of which the first has been lost. That is what I imagine love to be: incompleteness in absence. Jules de Goncourt

Man is a mind betrayed, not served, by his organs. Edmond de Goncourt

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Posts quoting The Goncourt Journals:

How to Succeed in Paris

Dinner with Courtesans

Degrees of Prostitution

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This drawing of tarts in a low-class brasserie provides food for thought. In the Victorian era, destitute women had few choices for making a living: servitude, drudgery in sweat-shops or, failing that, prostitution.  I think that in our time the four women in the scene could be a real-estate agent, a hairstylist, a marine biologist and a police officer. Or perhaps they’d be tarts again. Who knows? The difference is that women have more choices now.

In July 1865, one of the Goncourt brothers (more about them in a future post) records his visit to a brothel where both the surroundings and the women were a step above the previous bleak picture:

“Just past the Ecole Militaire, a front shop with white curtains. Another story above a large number on the door. The Big 9. A large room lighted from above by the van daylight. Some tables and a bar lined with bottles of liquor. There are Zouaves (*), soldiers, and workmen in smock and grey sitting at the tables with tarts perched on their knees. The girls wear white or colored blouses and dark skirts. They are young and pretty, with pink fingernails and their hair carefully dressed with little ornaments in it. Smoking cigarettes or drawing on a friend’s Maryland, they walk up and down in pairs between the tables, playfully jostling each other, or else they sit playing draughts. Singers turn up now and then to sing some dirty ditty in a bass voice. The waiters have big black mustaches. The girls call the pimp who runs the establishment “the old marquis”. A negress goes by in a sleeveless dress.

“One the first floor, there is a long corridor with a lot of tiny cells just big enough to contain a little window with broken blinds, a bed, a chest of drawers, and, on the floor, the inevitable basin and jug of water. On the wall there is one of those colored pictures entitled Spring or Summer that you win at a fair and, hanging from the mirror, a little Zouave doll.

“These twenty-sou women are not at all like the terrifying creatures drawn by Constantin Guys, but poor little things trying to ape the language and dress of the higher class prostitutes.”

Constantin Guys: Girls in a Bordello

Moving up the scale of prostitution to the very top, the Goncourts report the following:

“April 7, 1857

Anna Deslions

“Rose [Goncourts’ housekeeper] has just seen in the concierge’s lodge the night-clothes—or morning-clothes if you prefer—that our neighbor La Deslions (see the post Dinner with Courtesans) sends by her maid to the house of the man to whom she is giving a night. It seems that she has a different outfit for each of her lovers in the color that he prefers. This one consists of a white satin dressing gown, quilted and pinked, with gold-embroidered slippers in the same color—a dressing gown costing between twelve and fifteen hundred francs—a nightdress in batiste trimmed with Valenciennes lace, with embroidered insertions costing three hundred francs, and a petticoat trimmed with three lace flounces at three or four hundred francs each, a total of some three thousand francs taken to any house whose master can afford her.” (For comparison, the daily wage of a maid was one franc.)

(*) Zouaves: Body of light infantry in the French army, composed of Algerian recruits, popular for their exotic uniform.

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Charles Frederic Worth 1826–1895

By an anonymous author

When Charles Frederick Worth died in 1895, telegraph carried the news around the world and orbituaries were published in thousands of newspapers. His family received telegrams of condolence from European royalty as well as from clients scattered on every continent. His funeral was attended by two thousand mourners, many of them people of high standing. A king was being laid to rest.

Born in 1825 in Lincolnshire, England, young Charles Worth was destined to become a solicitor like his father and grandfather. However, his father’s drinking and gambling ruined the family finances and when Charles was thirteen, his mother apprenticed him with a printer.

The job was dirty and boring, and a year later, the boy switched to a career in the drapery business. He became an apprentice at Swan and Edgar, drapers in London. To compensate for his lack of education, young Charles read current novels, and when an errand brought him to the vicinity of the new National Gallery, he often went inside. He studied attentively the historical styles of costumes in the paintings. Certain aspects of fashion, he noticed, came round in circles and this knowledge later helped him in refreshing his own designs.

At that time though, he had no other ambition than to succeed in the drapery business. When his seven-year apprenticeship was over, he recognized the need of completing his experience in Paris, the birthplace of fashion trends. In 1846, with no knowledge of the language, and only £5 in his pocket, he arrived in France. After two years of penury and odd jobs, he became a sales assistant at Gagelin, the best of Parisian mercers. He remained there for twelve years, eventually reaching the post of leading salesman in the shawls and mantles department.

Modeling the above articles had fallen to a pretty demoiselle de magasin and it was not long after that Charles Worth and Marie Vernet became an item. To display shawls at their best, Worth designed a few simple dresses for Marie and, soon, the clients became more interested in his creations than in the merchandise on sale. In 1850, he finally talked his employers into establishing a small dressmaking department in the store with a team of seamstresses and himself as the cutter.

The department prospered from the start. With his intimate knowledge of textiles combined with English tailoring techniques, Worth engineered gowns that fitted to perfection while taking into account the characteristics of the material. This was a new approach to dressmaking and Worth’s employers showed their appreciation by including several of his dresses at their exhibit during the Great Exposition in London in 1851. The dresses brought the firm of Gagelin a prize medal. Another medal followed in 1855 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Thus exposed to the public, Worth’s work brought an ever increasing number of customers to the Parisian firm.

By now Worth had married Marie, who was to give him two sons: Gaston (born in 1853) and Jean-Philippe (1856). One would think that following his success with dressmaking, his employers would do their best to keep him with the firm. Yet his demand for a partnership was refused and Worth, justifiably angry, teamed up with another disgruntled employee to open a new dressmaking establishment of Worth & Bobergh in rue de la Paix.

The timing was perfect. The net of railways spreading across Europe and the United States, coupled with fast steam ships, brought to Paris and unprecedented number of foreign visitors. Furthermore, the city was now the capital of the Second Empire with all the pomp and display attached to it. With a continuous round of state visits, ambassadorial functions, receptions, balls, and gala performances, the demand for sumptuous dresses escalated vertiginously. Heading the court was Napoléon III’s beautiful wife Eugénie, the arbiter in all matters of fashion.

Princess Metternich – an unlikely, but powerful herald of fashion

To attract attention of such an exalted personage, Worth needed an ally. He aimed at the Princess of Metternich, the wife of a new Austrian Ambassador. Vivacious, although not beautiful, the princess soon found her niche at the court and became a leading fashion-setter. At first, she found the idea of a male milliner utterly ridiculous–at the time, all dressmaking firms were headed by females–but seduced by the album of designs presented by Marie Worth, she finally ordered two dresses. The Empress saw them and Worth was made.

Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III

In 1864, Worth got the monopoly of supplying all evening and state wear for the empress and became the most expensive dressmaker in Paris. Following the empress’s example, other illustrious ladies flocked to his establishment. Worth’s dresses were worn in most Europeans courts but he also dressed the demi-monde. Princess or a highly paid tart, actress, or American millionairess, the Maison Worth was open to all in the spirit of financial democracy.

That a man should see strange women in their underwear, that he should touch their bodies, rankled with the moralists of the era. Enemies were many, but no critique, no moral indignation, could stop Worth’s meteoric rise. Never before had a simple dressmaker consorted with the high and mighty almost as an equal. Before an important ball or masque princesses, duchesses, and countesses came to rue de la Paix for inspection. They paraded before Worth while he decided on last minute changes, on the emplacement of a sash, or the angle of a headdress, and even approved the jewelry. His aim was to create a complete image. His were no longer dresses but “compositions” – too precious to be ruined by a wrong accessory. In an interview, he said:

Those ladies are wisest who leave the choice to us. By so doing they are always better pleased in the end, and the reputation of the house is sustained. Curiously enough, the persons who realize this fact most clearly are precisely those whom you might fancy the most difficult to please. For example, a telegram comes from the Empress of Russia, “Send me a dinner dress!” Nothing more. We are left absolute freedom as to style and material. Not that the Empress is indifferent in the matter of dress. Quite the contrary. She will sometimes require that all the ladies costumes at a certain ball be pink, or red, or blue. And her own dresses are always masterpieces of elegance. The point is that she trusts our judgment rather than her own. In the same way recently we have received over twenty telegrams from Madrid for ball dresses, and we shall make them as we think fit.

To order a dress at Worth’s was a simple procedure. Once the measurements were taken and a dummy made, the client only had to send in a request. With 1200 employees, he turned out hundreds of outfits a week and, if needed, he was able to deliver an elaborate ball gown within 24 hours.

Each time he wanted to launch a new fashion, he recruited his wife and the Princess Metternich. They would go to the races or another notable event wearing the new designs. Such was the prestige of the two women, that no other promotion was necessary.

The crinoline of the 1850’s and 1860’s was the greatest fashion aberration with the tight corsets of the 80’s and 90’s as second runners.

One of the greatest changes Worth executed was the abolition of the Second Empire crinoline. This absurd cage worn under wide skirts achieved such enormous proportions that the wearers could not function properly. By 1870, the crinoline was gone to be replaced by a bustle. The latter was a padding device attached to the waist. It supported an overskirt drawn to the sides and piled in folds over the bustle. The silhouette was still full but all the bulk was concentrated at the back.

Worth had grown enormously wealthy. He possessed a coat of arms and received guests of high standing in his sumptuous villa at the outskirts of Paris. Neither the events of Franco-Prussian War, nor the fall of the empire and the Commune uprising that devastated Paris had ill effects on his business. The court may be gone, but clients kept coming, keeping him busy to the end of his life. Many other male couturiers followed in his path, but none has achieved the sublime power Worth held over fashion for thirty-five years. He remains the true inventor of the Haute Couture.

Related post: The Hoop Crinoline: Living in a cage

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From the Goncourt Journal

Text written in 1857

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June 7th

Dinner at Asseline’s with Anna Deslions, Adèle Courtois, a certain Juliette, and her sister.

Anna Deslions, Bianchi’s former mistress and the woman who ruined Lauriston: thick black hair, magnificently untidy; velvety eyes with a glance like a warm caress; a big nose but sharply defined; thin lips and a full face—the superb head of an Italian youth, touched with gold by Rembrandt.

Adèle Courtois, an old, nondescript tart boosted by Figaro.

Juliette, a little pastel-portrait with her rumpled, frizzled hair worn low on the forehead—she is mad about low foreheads—a slightly crazy La Tour, a little blonde with something of the Rosalba picture in the Louvre, Woman with Monkey, partaking of the monkey as well as the woman. And her sister, a dried-up little thing and pregnant into the bargain: looking like a big-bellied spider.

And to provide a piano accompaniment to the evening’s festivities, Quidant, a bordello jester with a thoroughly Parisian sense of humour, a ferocious irony: hoarse-voiced, mealy-mouthed, red-faced, and slit-eyed.

Anna Deslions

The ladies were all wearing long white dresses, with hundreds of frills and furbelows, cut very low at the back in the shape of a triangle. The conversation at first turned on the Emperor’s mistresses. Juliette said:

“Giraud is doing my portrait, and this year he is painting Mme de Castiglione.”

“No, she’s finished,” said Adèle. “I have that on good authority. It’s La Serrano now. La Castiglione  and the Empress have quarrelled. … You know the witty thing Constance said? ‘If I resisted the Emperor, I should have been Empress.’”

Juliette was in a crazy mood, bursting in a nervous laughter without rhyme or reason, and talking with the spirited irony of a professional actress. Some name was mentioned and Deslions said to Juliette:

“You know, that man you were madly in love with and for whom you committed suicide.”

“Oh, I’ve committed suicide three times.”

“You know whom I mean. What’s – his – name . . .”

Juliette put her hand over her eyes like someone peering into the distance, and screwed up her eyes to see if she could not recognize the gentleman in question coming along the highroad of her memories. Then she burst out laughing and said:

“It reminds me of the Scala at Milan. There was a gentleman there who kept bowing to me over and over again.  And I said to myself ‘I know that mouth.’ All I could remember was the mouth!”

“Do you remember”, asked Deslions, “When we went out in that filthy weather to see the place where Gérard de Nerval hanged himself?”

“Yes, and I even believe it was you who paid for the cab. I touched the bar; it was that that brought me luck. You know, Adèle, it was the week after that. . .”

After dinner Quidant did an imitation on the piano of that thrill of cuckoo with one note missing. The ladies started waltzing, the blonde and the brunette, Juliette and Anna, dancing together, all white in a room lined in red rep. With a playful air, Juliette caught Anna’s necklace between her teeth and bit a magnificent black pearl hanging from the end of it. But the pearl was genuine and did not break.

In the midst of this merriment, there was an icy chill, an instinctive hostility between women, who would draw in their claws as soon as someone bared her teeth. Now and then all the women would start talking Javanese, following every syllable with a va. Prisons have got slang; brothels have got Javanese. They talk it very fast and it is unintelligible to a man.

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