By Alphonse Daudet.
Translated by Antoinette Ogden.
M.Majesté, a seltzer-water manufacturer of the Marais, has just indulged in a little Christmas supper with a few friends of the Place Royale, and walks home humming. The clock at St. Paul’s strikes two. “How late it is!” thinks the good man as he hurries along. But the pavement is slippery, the streets are dark, and then, in this devil of an old neighborhood which belongs to the time when carriages were scarce, there are the greatest number of turns, corners, steps, and posts in front of the houses for the accommodation of horsemen, all of which are calculated to impede a man’s progress, particularly when his legs are heavy and his sight somewhat blurred by the toasts of the Christmas supper.
M. Majesté reaches his destination at last, however. He stops before a great doorway above which gleams in the moonlight the freshly gilded coat-of-arms, the recently retouched armorial-bearings which he has converted into a trade-mark:
Former Hôtel de Nesmond.
M. Majesté, jr.,
The old Nesmond coat-of-arms stands out, resplendent, on all the siphons of the factory, on all the memoranda and letter-heads.
The doorway leads directly to the court,—a large, sunny court which floods the narrow street with light even at noon, when the portals are thrown open. Far back in this court stands a great and ancient structure,—blackened walls covered with lace-work and embroideries of stone, bulging iron balconies, stone balconies with pilasters, great high windows crowned with pediments, and capitals rearing their heads along the upper stories like so many little roofs within the roof, then above it all, set in the very slate, the mansard dormer-windows, like the round mirrors of a boudoir, daintily framed with garlands. From the court to the first story rises a great stone stairway gnawed and worn green by the rains. A meagre vine dangles along the wall, lifeless and black like the rope that swings from the pulley in the attic; and the whole has an indescribable air of sad grandeur and decay.
This is the ancient Hôtel de Nesmond. In the broad light of day it has quite a different aspect. The words “Office,” “Store,” “Entrance to the work-rooms,” in bright gilt letters, seem to rejuvenate the old walls and infuse a new life into them. The drays from the railroad shake the iron portals as they rumble through, and the clerks step out on the landing to receive the goods. The court is obstructed with cases, baskets, straw, wrappers, and pack-cloth. One is conscious of being in a factory. But at night, in the death-like stillness, with the winter moon casting and tangling fantastic shadows through the confused intricacy of all these roofs, the old dwelling of the Nesmonds resumes its lordly air. The court of honor seems to expand; the wrought-iron of the balconies looks like fine lace; the old stairway is full of shadows in the uncertain light, of mysterious recesses like those of a cathedral; there are empty niches and half concealed steps that suggest an altar.
On this particular night M. Majesté is deeply impressed with the grandeur of his dwelling. The echo of his own footsteps startles him as he crosses the great deserted court. The stairway seems even broader than usual, and peculiarly heavy to climb. But that is the Christmas supper, no doubt. At the first landing he stops to take breath; he leans on one of the window-sills. So much for living in a historic mansion! M. Majesté is certainly not a poet, oh, no! and still as he gazes around him at this lordly old place, which seems to be sleeping so peacefully under its benumbed, snow-hooded roofs, as he looks down into this grand, aristocratic old court which the moon floods with a bluish light, weird fancies flash through his brain.
“Suppose the Nesmonds should take it into their heads to come back, eh?”
Just then there is a violent pull at the door-bell. The portal swings open instantly, so brusquely that it puts out the light of the lamp-post in the court. From the shadow of the doorway come rustling sounds and confused whisperings. There seems to be a great crowd wrangling and jostling to get in. There are footmen, a multitude of footmen, coaches with glass panes glimmering in the moonlight, sedan-chairs swaying lightly between two torches whose long flames writhe and twist in the draught of the doorway. In a second the court is crowded; but at the foot of the stairway the confusion ceases. People alight from the coaches, recognize one another, smile, bow, and make their way up the stairs, chatting softly as though they were quite familiar with the house.
There is much rustling of silks and clanking of swords on the landing, and billows of white hair, heavy and dull with powder. Through the faint sound of the airy tread comes a thin, high quiver of voices and little peals of laughter that has lost its vibration. All these people seem old, very old,—eyes that have lost their fire, slumbering jewels that have lost their light, antique brocades that shimmer with a subdued iridescence in the light of the torches, and above it all a thin mist of powder that rises at every courtesy from the white-puffed scaffoldings of these stately heads. In a moment the place seems to be haunted. Torches glitter from window to window and up and down the curving stairways; the very dormers in the mansard twinkle with joy and life. The whole mansion is ablaze with light, as though a great burst of sunset had set its windows aglow.
“Merciful saints! they will set the house on fire!” thinks M. Majesté; and having recovered from his stupor, he makes an effort to shake the numbness from his legs, and hurries down into the court, where the footmen have just lighted a great bonfire. M. Majesté goes up to them, speaks to them; but they do not answer; they stand there chatting among themselves softly, and not the faintest breath issues from their lips into the freezing shadow of the night.
M. Majesté is somewhat put out. He is reassured, however, when he realizes that this great fire with its long straight flames is a most peculiar fire, which emits no heat,—which simply glows, but does not burn. The good man therefore sets his mind at rest, goes upstairs again, and makes his way into the store.
These stores on the first floor must have been grand reception-halls in their day. Particles of tarnished gold still cling to the angles.
Mythological frescos circle about the ceilings, wind round the mirrors, hover above the doorways, vague and subdued, like bygone memories. Unfortunately there are no curtains or furniture anywhere, nothing but baskets, great cases filled with leaden-headed siphons, and the withered limb of an old lilac bush rising in black outline outside the window. M. Majesté enters. He finds the rooms crowded and brilliantly illumined. He bows, but nobody seems to notice him. The women, in their satin wraps, lean on their cavaliers’ arms and flirt with ceremonious, mincing graces. They promenade, chat, separate into groups. All these old marquises really seem quite at home. One little shade stops, all of a quiver, before a painted pier-glass; then she glances smilingly at a Diana that rises out of the wood-work, lithe and roseate, with a crescent on her brow.
“This is I; think of it! And here I am!”
“Nesmond, come and see your crest!” and they laugh immoderately at the sight of the Nesmond coat-of-arms displayed on the wrappers above the name of Majesté, Jr.
“Ha, ha, ha! Majesté! There are some majesties left in France after all, then!”
And there is no end of merriment, of mincing coquetries. Little trills of laughter rise like the notes of a flute in the air. Some one exclaims suddenly,—
“Yes, indeed, champagne. Come, Countess, what say you to a little Christmas supper?”
They have mistaken M. Majesté’s seltzer-water for champagne. They naturally find it somewhat flat. But these poor little ghosts have such unsteady heads! The foam of the seltzer-water somehow excites them and makes them feel like dancing. Minuets are immediately organized. Four rare violinists provided by Nesmond strike out with an old melody by Rameau, full of triplets, quaint and melancholy in its vivacity; and you should see the pretty little grandmothers turn slowly and bow gravely in time with the music.
Their very finery seems freshened and rejuvenated by the sound, and so do the waistcoats of cloth-of-gold, the brocaded coats and diamond-buckled shoes. The panels themselves seem to awake. The old mirror, scratched and dim, which has stood encased in the wall for over two hundred years, recognizes them all, glows softly upon them, showing them their own images with a pale vagueness like a tender regret.
In the midst of all this elegance M. Majesté feels somewhat ill at ease.
He is huddled in a corner, and looks on from behind a case of bottles.
But gradually the day dawns. Through the glass doors of the store one can see the court growing light, then the top of the windows, then all one side of the great parlor. Before the light of day the figures melt and disappear. The four little violinists alone are belated in a corner; and M. Majesté watches them evaporate as the daylight creeps upon them. In the court below he can just see the vague form of a sedan-chair, a powdered head sprinkled with emeralds, and the last spark of a torch that a lackey has dropped on the pavement, and which blends with the sparks from the wheels of a dray, rumbling in noisily through the open portals.
Antoinette Ogden was best known as a travel writer and translator. She wrote a book of French lessons and an article in the Atlantic Monthly which became her best-known work, A Drive through the Black Hills. [bio: Gorgia’s Press]
About Alphonse Daudet, author. (See Wikipedia)
This short story was originally written by Alphonse Daudet and Antoinette Ogden translated and edited it for her book Christmas Stories from French and Spanish Writers. This book was published by A.C. McClurg (Chicago) in 1892 and is now in the public domain.