Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

The Desire to be a Man
by [?]

[To M. CATULLE MENDES]

… that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”
SHAKESPEARE: JULIUS CAESAR.

Midnight struck at the Bourse, beneath a sky crowded with stars. At this period the demands of martial law were still pressing on the citizens, and the waiters of the establishments still illuminated were hurrying to close down in accordance with the curfew regulations.

Along the boulevards, inside the great café, the gaslight butterflies of the chandeliers took quick flight, one by one, into the darkness. From without came the din of chairs being piled in fours on top of the marble tables; it was the psychological moment when every café-proprietor deems it fitting to point, with an arm ending in a napkin, the Caudine Forks of the low door to the last lingering clients.

On that Sunday, the melancholy wind of October was whistling. A few yellow leaves, dusky and rustling, sped past in the gusts, striking the stones, gliding along the asphalt, and then, like bats, vanished into the gloom, evoking as they did so the image of dreary days past beyond recall.

The theatres of the Boulevard du Crime, where during the evening all the Medicis, all the Salviatis, and all the Montefeltres had stabbed each other to their hearts’ content, rose up like caverns of Silence, their dumb doors guarded by caryatides. Carriages and pedestrians became fewer as each minute passed. Here and there, the sceptical lantern of a ragpicker was already gleaming, like a phosphorescence given off by the piles of filth over which the creatures wandered.

Beneath a lamp-post at the Rue Hauteville, where the corner is occupied by a café of fairly pretentious appearance, stood a solitary passer-by, tall and of saturnine expression. His chin was clean-shaven, his movements recalled a man walking in his sleep, and on his long hair, turning grey, was set a felt hat of the Louis XIII style. His black gloves rested on an ivory-topped cane, and he was wrapped in an old royal-blue cloak, befurred with doubtful astrakhan. He had stopped, as if in mechanical hesitation to cross the causeway separating him from the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle.

Was this belated personage returning to his abode? Had he been brought to this street corner simply by the chance of a nocturnal stroll? It would have been hard to determine from his appearance. But suddenly, to his right, he caught sight of one of those mirrors, narrow and long as his own figure—the sort of public mirrors sometimes attached to the fronts of conspicuous taverns. He halted abruptly, placed himself directly opposite his reflection, and eyed himself with great deliberation from top to toe. Then, suddenly raising his hat with a sweep that recalled its antique mode, he saluted himself with marked courtesy.

His head, thus unexpectedly made visible, allowed one to recognize the famous tragedian Chaudval, originally Lepeinteur, styled Monanteuil, the scion of a very worthy family of St. Malo pilots, whom the mysterious ways of Destiny had led to become a great leading man of the provinces, a top-line name abroad, and a rival (frequently well-matched) of our Frédéric Lemaître.

Whilst he was thus contemplating himself with a sort of stupefaction, the waiters of the café hard by were helping on the overcoats of the last clients and reaching down their hats from the pegs; others were noisily turning out the contents of the nickel money-box and piling a circular heap of the day’s coppers on a tray. This startled haste sprang from the ominous presence of two police officers who had suddenly appeared on the threshold and, with folded arms, were intimidating the dilatory proprietor with a cold stare.

Soon the shutters were bolted into their iron rests, with the exception of the mirrored panel, which, by a strange oversight, was omitted in the midst of the general flurry.

Then a deep silence fell over the boulevard. Chaudval alone, heedless of all this desolation, had stayed in his attitude of ecstasy on the pavement at the corner of the Rue Hauteville, in front of the public glass.

This livid, moon-like mirror apparently gave the artist the sensation which he would have experienced had he been bathing in a pond: for Chaudval was shivering.