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Is there something about aesthetic beauty that can soothe the soul of even the most troubled individual? That's the question at the center of Booth Tarkington's eminently entertaining short novel The Beautiful Lady. In the story, a down-on-his-luck Italian who is barely scraping by in Paris has his whole life turned upside down by a chance encounter with the enchanting temptress referred to in the book's title.
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The Beautiful Lady
Nothing could have been more painful to my sensitiveness than to occupy myself, confused with blushes, at the center of the whole world as a living advertisement of the least amusing ballet in Paris.
To be the day's sensation of the boulevards one must possess an eccentricity of appearance conceived by nothing short of genius; and my misfortunes had reduced me to present such to all eyes seeking mirth. It was not that I was one of those people in uniform who carry placards and strange figures upon their backs, nor that my coat was of rags; on the contrary, my whole costume was delicately rich and well chosen, of soft grey and fine linen (such as you see worn by a marquis in the pe'sage at Auteuil) according well with my usual air and countenance, sometimes esteemed to resemble my father's, which were not wanting in distinction.
To add to this my duties were not exhausting to the body. I was required only to sit without a hat from ten of the morning to midday, and from four until seven in the afternoon, at one of the small tables under the awning of the Cafe' de la Paix at the corner of the Place de l'Opera--that is to say, the centre of the inhabited world. In the morning I drank my coffee, hot in the cup; in the afternoon I sipped it cold in the glass. I spoke to no one; not a glance or a gesture of mine passed to attract notice.
Yet I was the centre of that centre of the world. All day the crowds surrounded me, laughing loudly; all the voyous making those jokes for which I found no repartee. The pavement was sometimes blocked; the passing coachmen stood up in their boxes to look over at me, small infants were elevated on shoulders to behold me; not the gravest or most sorrowful came by without stopping to gaze at me and go away with rejoicing faces. The boulevards rang to their laughter--all Paris laughed!
For seven days I sat there at the appointed times, meeting the eye of nobody, and lifting my coffee with fingers which trembled with embarrassment at this too great conspicuosity! Those mournful hours passed, one by the year, while the idling bourgeois and the travellers made ridicule; and the rabble exhausted all effort to draw plays of wit from me.
I have told you that I carried no placard, that my costume was elegant, my demeanour modest in all degree.
"How, then, this excitement?" would be your disposition to inquire. "Why this sensation?"
It is very simple. My hair had been shaved off, all over my ears, leaving only a little above the back of the neck, to give an appearance of far-reaching baldness, and on my head was painted, in ah! so brilliant letters of distinctness:
Tous les Soirs
Such was the necessity to which I was at that time reduced! One has heard that the North Americans invent the most singular advertising, but I will not believe they surpass the Parisian. Myself, I say I cannot express my sufferings under the notation of the crowds that moved about the Cafe' de la Paix! The French are a terrible people when they laugh sincerely. It is not so much the amusing things which cause them amusement; it is often the strange, those contrasts which contain something horrible, and when they laugh there is too frequently some person who is uncomfortable or wicked. I am glad that I was born not a Frenchman; I should regret to be native to a country where they invent such things as I was doing in the Place de l'Opera; for, as I tell you, the idea was not mine.
As I sat with my eyes drooping before the gaze of my terrible and applauding audiences, how I mentally formed cursing words against the day when my misfortunes led me to apply at the Theatre Folie-Rouge for work! I had expected an audition and a role of comedy in the Revue; for, perhaps lacking any experience of the stage, I am a Neapolitan by birth, though a resident of the Continent at large since the age of fifteen. All Neapolitans can act; all are actors; comedians of the greatest, as every traveller is cognizant. There is a thing in the air of our beautiful slopes which makes the people of a great instinctive musicalness and deceptiveness, with passions like those burning in the old mountain we have there. They are ready to play, to sing--or to explode, yet, imitating that amusing Vesuvio, they never do this last when you are in expectancy, or, as a spectator, hopeful of it.
How could any person wonder, then, that I, finding myself suddenly destitute in Paris, should apply at the theatres? One after another, I saw myself no farther than the director's door, until (having had no more to eat the day preceding than three green almonds, which I took from a cart while the good female was not looking) I reached the Folie-Rouge. Here I was astonished to find a polite reception from the director. It eventuated that they wished for a person appearing like myself a person whom they would outfit with clothes of quality in all parts, whose external presented a gentleman of the great world, not merely of one the galant-uomini, but who would impart an air to a table at a cafe' where he might sit and partake. The contrast of this with the emplacement of the establishment on his bald head-top was to be the success of the idea. It was plain that I had no baldness, my hair being very thick and I but twenty-four years of age, when it was explained that my hair could be shaved. They asked me to accept, alas! not a part in the Revue, but a specialty as a sandwich-man. Knowing the English tongue as I do, I may afford the venturesomeness to play upon it a little: I asked for bread, and they offered me not a role, but a sandwich!
It must be undoubted that I possessed not the disposition to make any fun with my accomplishments during those days that I spent under the awning of the Cafe' de la Paix. I had consented to be the advertisement in greatest desperation, and not considering what the reality would be. Having consented, honour compelled that I fulfil to the ending. Also, the costume and outfittings I wore were part of my emolument. They had been constructed for me by the finest tailor; and though I had impulses, often, to leap up and fight through the noisy ones about me and run far to the open country, the very garments I wore were fetters binding me to remain and suffer. It seemed to me that the hours were spent not in the centre of a ring of human persons, but of un-well-made pantaloons and ugly skirts. Yet all of these pantaloons and skirts had such scrutinous eyes and expressions of mirth to laugh like demons at my conscious, burning, painted head; eyes which spread out, astonished at the sight of me, and peered and winked and grinned from the big wrinkles above the gaiters of Zouaves, from the red breeches of the gendarmes, the knickerbockers of the cyclists, the white ducks of sergents de ville, and the knees of the boulevardiers, bagged with sitting cross-legged at the little tables. I could not escape these eyes;--how scornfully they twinkled at me from the spurred and glittering officers' boots! How with amaze from the American and English trousers, both turned up and creased like folded paper, both with some dislike for each other but for all other trousers more.
It was only at such times when the mortifications to appear so greatly embarrassed became stronger than the embarrassment itself that I could by will power force my head to a straight construction and look out upon my spectators firmly. On the second day of my ordeal, so facing the laughers, I found myself facing straight into the monocle of my half-brother and ill- wisher, Prince Caravacioli.
At this, my agitation was sudden and very great, for there was no one I wished to prevent perceiving my condition more than that old Antonio Caravacioli! I had not known that he was in Paris, but I could have no doubt it was himself: the monocle, the handsome nose, the toupee', the yellow skin, the dyed-black moustache, the splendid height--it was indeed Caravacioli! He was costumed for the automobile, and threw but one glance at me as he crossed the pavement to his car, which was in waiting. There was no change, not of the faintest, in that frosted tragic mask of a countenance, and I was glad to think that he had not recognized me.
And yet, how strange that I should care, since all his life he had declined to recognize me as what I was! Ah, I should have been glad to shout his age, his dyes, his artificialities, to all the crowd, so to touch him where it would most pain him! For was he not the vainest man in the whole world? How well I knew his vulnerable point: the monstrous depth of his vanity in that pretense of youth which he preserved through superhuman pains and a genius of a valet, most excellently! I had much to pay Antonio for myself, more for my father, most for my mother. This was why that last of all the world I would have wished that old fortune-hunter to know how far I had been reduced!
Then I rejoiced about that change which my unreal baldness produced in me, giving me a look of forty years instead of twenty-four, so that my oldest friend must take at least three stares to know me. Also, my costume would disguise me from the few acquaintances I had in Paris (if they chanced to cross the Seine), as they had only seen me in the shabbiest; while, at my last meeting with Antonio, I had been as fine in the coat as now.
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