Time, May 1890, translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling

A Ball-Mood

Source: Alexander Kielland, Time, May 1890, translated from the Norwegian by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, p. 521-524;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

She had climbed up the marble steps without misadventure, without effort, borne upwards only by her great beauty and her sweet nature. She had conquered her place in the drawing-rooms of the rich and powerful without paying for her admission with her honour or her good name. And yet, none could say whence she had come; only it was whispered about that it was from a very lowly station.

As a foundling in a suburb of Paris she had starved her childhood through, in a life spent amid sin and poverty, of which only those can have a conception who know it from experience. We others, who get our knowledge from books and stories, must depend on our imagination for a small idea of the hereditary misery in a great town. And yet the most terrible pictures we paint for ourselves are probably pale compared with the reality.

It was only a question of time when Sin would seize upon her as a toothed wheel seizes one who comes too close to the machinery, and after whirling her round in a short life of shame and degradation, hurl her, with the machine’s inexorable precision, into some corner, where unknown and unrecognizable, she could end this caricature of a human life. Then, as sometimes happens, she was “discovered” by a rich man, one high in authority, when as a child of fourteen she was running across one of the better streets.

She was on her way to a murky back room in the Rue des Quatre-Vents, where she worked for a woman whose special line was ball-flowers. It was not only her extraordinary beauty that fascinated the rich man: her movements, her whole being, the expression of the half-mature features, all seemed to him to suggest that here a struggle was being waged between an originally fine nature and incipient devilry. And as he had all the incalculable whims of immense wealth, he determined to try the experiment of saving this poor child.

It was not difficult to obtain possession of her, as she belonged to nobody. A name was given her; she was sent to one of the best convents, and her benefactor had the joy of seeing the evil germs die away – vanish. She developed a lovable, somewhat indolent character, a faultless, tranquil nature, and rare beauty. So when she was grown up he married her, himself.

They lived a very pleasant and quiet married life. Notwithstanding the great difference in their ages, he had unbounded trust in her, and she deserved it. In France married folk do not live so close to each other as with us. Their demands one on the other are, therefore, not so great, and their disillusions less. She was not happy, but contented.

Her character inclined to gratitude; wealth did not bore her. On the contrary, it delighted her in an almost childish manner. But no one suspected it, for she was always self-possessed and dignified. People only surmised that all was not right with her origin. But as no one answered, they left off asking: there are so many other things to think of in Paris. She had forgotten her past. She had forgotten it in the same way that we have forgotten the roses, silk ribbons, and faded letters of our youth, because we never think about them. They lie hidden in a drawer which we never open. And yet, if it should happen to us, once in a way, to peep into this secret drawer, we should immediately notice if a single one of these roses, or the very least of these ribbons, was missing. For we remember it all to the smallest detail. Our memories lie there equally fresh, equally sweet, and equally bitter. So had she forgotten her past, locked it away, and thrown the key from her. But in the night she sometimes dreamed terrible things. She again felt how that old witch with whom she had lived shook her by the shoulders and drove her out in the cold morning to go to the woman who made the ball-flowers. She would start up in bed and stare into the darkness in deadly fear. But then she felt over the silk coverlet, and the soft pillows, and her fingers traced out the rich hangings of her magnificent bed, and when the little angel-children of sleep slowly drew aside those heavy dream-curtains, she drank a full draught of that unspeakable satisfaction we experience when we find an evil and ugly dream was only a dream.

Leaning back against the soft cushions she drove to the great ball at the Russian Ambassador’s. The nearer one came to his door, the slower became the pace, until the compact queue was reached, and one only went a step at a time.

In the square before the hotel, richly illuminated with torches and gaslights, a great mass of people had gathered. Not only loungers had stopped there, but a great many working people; loafers, poor women, and ambiguous ladies, stood densely packed together on either side of the line of carriages.

Jokes and coarse jests in the commonest Parisian slang were showered upon the fine folk. She heard words such as she had not heard for many a year, and she reddened at the thought that in the whole row of carriages she was perhaps the only one who understood these coarse expressions of the dregs of Paris. She began to look at the faces round about her; she seemed to know them all. She knew what they thought, what was passing in those closely-packed heads, and little by little a host of memories rushed in upon her. She fought against herself as well as she could, but she did not know herself this evening.

So she had not lost the key of the secret drawer. Reluctantly she drew it forth, and her memories overwhelmed her. She remembered how she herself – half a child – had, with greedy eyes, devoured the fine ladies who drove, in their grand dresses, to balls and theatres; how often she had wept in bitter envy over the flowers she was painfully putting together for the adorning, of others. Here she saw the same greedy eyes, the same inextinguishable hate-filled envy. And the gloomy, serious men, who passed, in review, the equipages with half-contemptuous, half-threatening glances – she knew it all. Had she not herself, when a little girl, crouched in a corner with wide-open eyes, listening to speeches about the injustices of life, the tyranny of wealth, the rights of the worker, to seize which he need but stretch forth his hand? She knew they hated everything, from the well-fed horses and the solemn coachmen, to the bright glittering carriages. But most they hated those who sat within these – the insatiable vampires, and the ladies whose jewels and finery cost more gold than the work of a whole life could bring to many of them.

And as she watched the line of carriages slowly moving through the masses, there arose another memory, a half-forgotten picture of her school-days in the convent. Suddenly she could not help thinking of the story about Pharaoh, who, with his war-chariots, wanted to pursue the Jews through the Red Sea. She saw the waves, which she had always fancied red as blood, standing like a wall on either side of the Egyptians. Then the voice of Moses rang out; he stretched forth his rod above the waters, the waves of that red sea rushed together and swallowed up Pharaoh and all his host, She knew that the wall standing on either side of her was wilder, more rapacious than the waves of the sea: she knew only a voice was needed to set this sea of men in movement, so that rushing, whirling in, it would swallow up, with its blood-red waves, all the splendour of wealth and power.

Her heart throbbed, she leant back trembling in the corner of her carriage. But this was not from fear. It was that those without should not see her, because she felt abashed in their sight. For the first time in her life her good fortune rose up before her as an injustice, as something of which she was ashamed. Was this her place in the soft, elegant equipage, amid the tyrants and blood-suckers? Did she not rather belong to those without, to the swaying masses, to those children of hate?

Half-forgotten thoughts and sensations raised their heads like beasts of prey that have long been bound down. She felt strange and homeless in her brilliant life, and with a kind of demoniacal yearning she remembered the terrible place whence she had come. She clutched at her costly lace shawl; then there came over her a wild desire to tear it, to rend something in pieces – when the carriage drove up beneath the portal.

The footman threw open the door, and with her gentle smile, her tranquil bearing, she slowly alighted.

A young attaché sort of creature rushed forward, and was happy because she took his arm, and yet more delighted because he thought he saw an unusual lustre in her glance; but he was in the seventh heaven when he felt her arm tremble.

Full of pride and hope, he conducted her with careful elegance up the smooth marble steps.

“Tell me, dear Madame, what kindly fairy was it that gave you this wonderful christening gift, by virtue of which you, and all that is yours, have something specially your own? Though it be but a flower in your hair, it has a charm of its own, as if it had been moistened by fresh morning dew. And when you dance, it is as if the floor undulated, and fitted itself to your steps.”

The Count himself was quite amazed at this long and successful compliment, for generally he had no gift of coherent expression. And so he expected that the fair woman would express her appreciation. But he was disappointed. She leant-over the balcony where they were enjoying the cool of the evening after dancing, while she looked out at the crowd and the carriages still arriving. She did not seem to have appreciated the Count’s courage. But he heard her mutter the inexplicable word “Pharaoh.”

He was about to protest, when she turned round, and taking a few steps towards the room, passed right in front of him, and looked at him with large surprised eyes, such as the Count had never before seen.

“I scarcely think there was any kindly fairy, barely indeed a cradle, at my birth, Count. But your acuteness has made a great discovery in what you say about my flowers. It is the tears, Count, which envy and ignominy, disappointments and regrets have wept over them. And when it seems to you that the floor sways to our dancing, that is because it trembles beneath the hate of millions.”

She had spoken with her usual calm, and with a friendly bow she disappeared into the room. The Count remained quite confused. He cast a glance over the mass of people. It was a sight he had often seen; he had cracked many stupid and a few good jokes about this many-headed monster. But not until this evening had it occurred to him that at bottom this monster was the most uncomfortable surrounding one could imagine for a palace. Strange and inconvenient thoughts whirled round in the Count’s brain, where there was plenty of room for them. He was quite out of countenance, and it took him a whole polka to recover his spirits.

Alexander Kielland.