Friday 29 October 2010

An Alchemickal Account of the Devil's Wife, Part the First

Yolande Geoffrion appears to have given up her scribblings, sparing us her sentimental nonsense about the Comedie Italienne. If you wish to know the truth they were the most mendacious and quarrelsome band of foreigners ever to appear in Paris, vain in their estimation of their miserable talents and ridiculous in whichever society they appeared. They were clowns, exaggerated, perhaps deranged, and little loved by their audience. The Hotel de Bourgogne where they played was a magnet that transfixed the Parisian fool’s morbid fascination for the public display of powdered tarts and libertine asses, enjoyed primarily by effete dandies, cardsharps, poets and whores.

Everything bad about Ms Geoffrion she learned from the Italians, no doubt to the great dismay of her English-born bouquiniste uncle and to the shame of her parents so recently laid in their graves. The scoundrels M. Riccoboni and M. Biancolleli. were delighted to have so rapt and mutable a student. She learned to invent tales, to masquerade convincingly as a young man, to sing disreputable verse and to dance so delicately that she soon had young ladies swooning when she appeared as Radamus in La Perniad. For many years she attended the famous salon of Madame d'Épinay as the Comte de Ramon, and was a favorite in polite society until exposed for what she was.

Even her name is an affectation, for there is nothing young about Ms Geoffrion. She seems to have left us without compunction, but that does not surprise me, for she was ever the slothful apprentice, slinking away whenever she was out of sorts. Everyone pretends not to know where she has vanished (though I disbelieve M. Antfarm), I may yet shed some light on whence she came.

And though she might have earned my enmity and scorn for her general deceit, to which even I, Theophrastus Erasmus Fluxus, doctor of philosophy and divers arts, fell victim when I met her in 1741, you will see I shall relate her sad tale without the opprobrium her actions deserve, trusting in the reader’s sense of propriety and outrage to be her just and proper reward. I am aware she has spread tales against my reputation; these do not deserve so much as a sneeze in reply. My character and eminence are unassailable. But I would render an honest, factual account of her misadventures, that you, gentle reader, may be cured of Illusion and returned to the light of Truth and Reason.

I was not a young man then, though not as ancient as I am now, when several drunken companions dragged me to the Comedie Italienne against my protests. I did not by habit waste time listening to the fantastic plots and ridiculous characters of Moliere or Marivaux, who outdid each other making up ever more incredible farces that France has ever seen, insulting the intelligence of the Parisian audiences in abominable verse. Of the and clownish Italians. But as I say, I was pressed into attendance, for my fellows, robbed of their judgment by gallons of Burgundy, insisted that as an educated and discerning man I must come with them to pay homage to “la Columbine Divine.” From their description, she was the very epitome of French wit and dignity bravely holding her own against all manner of foreign intrigue, and God’s answer to every man’s desire. I replied with my own wit and dignity, “I know little about the desires of men like you, and am surely ignorant of any foreign intrigue. Kindly excuse me from your sober company,” but they laughed and repeated my words to each other, and it seemed to give them pleasure to do so in a bizarre accent that bore no resemblance to the way I spoke French, and to lock their arms around mine, one to each side, and to fairly lift me off my feet and out the door. Clearly they desired my companionship and perhaps wished to learn what I thought of their inane theatre. I submitted to their wishes for a block or two, but when I tried to slip away they redoubled their grip on me.

M. de Troy (for that was the name of my companion to my right) told me how the grandmother of our present Columbine had also played the role, as had her mother Eularia, who was married to the famous Harlequin Dominique. “Three generations of coquette in a figure that needs no corset,” he crowed in my ear, “she will make a little man of you, Fluxus!”

M. Auxelle (my left side companion) said, “Yes, she could teach you something you can’t learn in your books, Herr Doctor.”

The hôtel Bourgogne was a massive, gloomy building, the survivor of several fires and riots. The narrow rue Mauconseil was mobbed with carriages, horses, vain men and women of all stations, hawkers and urchins, the ever-importunate beggars hobbling on crutches, soldiers in justaucorps and bandeliers. We pushed through this crowd and into the steaming interior and found our box just as the house lights were being extinguished. Before we plunged into darkness I made out a seething crowd in the narrow parterre below, none who would have paid more than fifteen sous, overdressed couples in the opposite boxes above them, and everywhere the acrid smell of humanity mixed with the burning fat of the footcandles.

The heavy curtains were drawn apart with difficulty on a stage made brilliant by the light of hundreds of tapers that smoked and sputtered, threatening ever to plunge the entire building into an inferno. Looking back at the press of bodies that continued to surge up the narrow stairway we had just ascended, I despaired of ever escaping alive, and gave myself up to what I fully expected to be my last mortal pleasure, now appearing on the boards.