At the Opera Ball, a boy had danced half the night with a partner whose youthful tones were so delicious, whose tenderness was so attractive, that he implored her a hundred times to unmask. " If I do, you'll get up and go away," she gasped at last, fondling his hand. He vowed that it was her temperament that fascinated him, and she took the mask off—and he saw the sunken face of an old, old woman.
Horrified, he left her.
In the same season, another man supplicated to a girl for her love—a girl with a face so beautiful that it made him forget the strangeness of her voice, which was flat and feeble. And the girl, who looked no more than nineteen, replied with exhaustion : "I outlived such emotions long ago. To tell you the truth, the subject sounds to me ridiculous. All I want to-day is peace and quiet".
Wearily she left him.
These two incidents, peculiar as they are, were the outcome of an occurrence queerer still—an occurrence at the tragic epoch of a woman's life when her glass says: " Stop fooling yourself. You've crumpled to that ! "
Madame de Val Fleury had begun to combat the advance of age the day after she detected the first shadowy threat of crowsfeet, as she turned her perfect neck before the mirror. Her triumph was a fleeting one, and the later conquests were briefer yet. Scarcely had the enemy been driven from the glorious eyes when it crept about the chiselled nose and mouth; no sooner was its attack upon her face withheld than it showed greyly in her hair. But she never abandoned the contest, she fought with Time continuously. And although there were moods of depression, as measures more and more drastic were required, custom and vanity enabled her, year by year, decade by decade, to view her reflection with complacence. She beheld it through a haze of illusion, in applying the colour to her shrivelled cheeks. She did not note that the chestnut transformation that had looked so natural on a counter looked spurious on her head; did not see how piteously the perfect neck had sagged.
But one May morning the mirror said : " Stop fooling yourself. You've crumpled to that!" and madame de Val Fleury sat and saw her face withered as it was—and madame de Val Fleury wailed for her lost loveliness as she had never wailed for her dead husband and son.
A dress that she was to wear for the first time, and that had cost five thousand francs, lay on the bed. She did not glance towards it. She leant her elbows on the toilet table and stared at the brutal glass. And beyond the glass she viewed the ghost of her empire, scenes where famous beauties had turned involuntarily at her entrance. It was the women's homage, the reluctant admiration of her own sex that she mourned for, as she brooded there. In her backward gaze she saw why, as the years sped, she had squandered more and more on her modistes—saw bitterly that she had struggled to prolong, by her clothes, the fast-waning jealousy of her face.
And at Longchamp that day she knew herself to be only an old, unattractive woman, magnificently attired.
Not more than a month after this, madame de Val Fleury had the annoyance to lose a pendant sapphire that she was wearing. A reward, not illiberal, was offered, and when she woke from her nap one afternoon she was relieved to learn that the stone had been picked up by a poor girl, who was waiting in the hall to see her.
" If she is clean, I will see her here," said madame de Val Fleury.
The young girl who entered, in a threadbare frock, had been dowered with beauty so extraordinary that all the lady's pleasure at recovering her jewel was swamped in envy. The eyes, the complexion, the exquisite modelling of the features held her mute for an instant.
Subduing a sigh, she said : " I hear you have found my sapphire? "
" Yes, madame".
" Let me look. Where did you find it ? " " It was in the road, madame, just against the kerb, in the rue de Berri".
" Ah, yes. I am glad you saw it. It was a piece of luck for you, too, hein? " She rose and opened her desk.
" Yes, indeed, madame," said the girl, clasping her hands.
" What are you—I mean, what do you do for a living? "
" I work at madame Wilhelmine's, madame".
" The milliner's ? Why don't you go as mannequin somewhere ?—you are—er—pretty".
" They tell me my figure is not good enough, madame".
" That's true. Your figure is bad," said the lady, more amiably. " Well, you could sit to artists for the face. You could earn more money that way than Wilhelmine pays you, I should think".
" I know only one honest way to make as much money as I want, madame," said the girl, in a low voice. " I want a good deal".
" Tiens ! The State lotteries, of course".
" No, madame; a likelier way than that".
" Oh ! And what do you call a good deal ? "
" Madame understands that I am very poor. A trifle to madame would be a good deal to me. Say, a hundred thousand francs".
" A hundred thousand francs! Such a sum is not a trifle to anybody. You know a way to make it ? "
" Thanks to this reward, I have a chance to make it," assented the girl, folding the bank notes that had been given to her.
" And not the lotteries ? "
" No, madame; a journey for which I lacked the fare. But I bore madame ? " " No, no; go on".
" Eh bien, I am sick of poverty; I would far rather part with my face and gain wealth than remain beautiful and a beggar".
" You would far rather- What do you say ? "
" I am going to the Face Exchange, madame," said the girl resolutely.
The old woman looked at her stupefied. " The what? " she asked in a whisper.
" Madame has not heard of it? It is held once a year. Of course one may fail; one may not be able to strike a bargain—and even if one does, the miracle may not occur. But something tells me I shall be fortunate".
Madame de Val Fleury shrank back on the couch, frightened—she could not doubt that the girl was insane. After a moment, nerving herself to approach the bell, she stammered, " Yes, yes, I remember now. I daresay it is the best thing you can do. Good afternoon to you. I wish you every success." And as she sniffed at the smelling salts brought by her maid, she murmured, trembling, " Mad. How terrible ! Quite, quite mad".