Jules Vallès 1881

The Green Dress Coat

Source: Les Refractaires. Parais, G. Charpentier, 1881;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2011.

The Hotel de Velay was on the rue de la Harpe, across from the Hotel des Ternes.

It was the very type of the boarding house. The owner had furnished its rooms with wobbly dressers and beds over which hung gloomy skies attached to filthy ceilings.

The owner, who was called Old Man Mouton, looked like a cat who had dragged a can for too long, and he punctuated his curses with the bang of his heels, a bang that echoed all the more loudly for this heel being the sole of a wooden leg.

He was feared throughout the house. He had been a soldier in the last days of the Empire and had fallen wounded under the fire of the Cossacks. If he deserved sympathy for his wounds, those who lived with him deserved it all the more, for the recounting of his military adventure was the complement, the exordium, and often the middle of his conversation. The amputation had only occurred once; the tale was told over and over again.

He was encouraged in this unhappy path by his penniless tenants who, not being able to put money in his hands, allowed him to eternally fill their ears with his leg and listened to him with religious attention when it was time to pay their monthly rent.

M. Mouton was married; he had a wife and a child.

Madame Mouton must once have been beautiful. Her head was small, her nose Greek, her lips thin, her eyes big and blue. But her smile was common, her voice disagreeable, her gaze cockeyed. Ignorance, troubles, and vices had withered that lovely face. Associating with her husband had contributed to no small extent to making her ugly. The wicked vulgarity of that robust invalid made everything around him filthy and faded.

It was with these two creatures, which some chance inheritance I believe had offered the means to buy the hotel, and who had also earned a few sous owning a greasy spoon in a city in the south of France; it is, I said, with these two beings that Caroline Mouton grew up.

How old was Caroline? She said she was nineteen and could have been twenty-three. What difference did it make? She was as seductive and gay as her parents were repulsive and sad, though she took after her father and mother: like her father she had a certain je ne sais quoi of energy and determination; she recalled what her mother must have been before her fall. She spoke, walked, and acted with a mixture of grace and strength. Her hips were robust, but she tossed the bottom of her gray dress with much coquetry. Her waist, though a bit heavy, bent in a supple way when she played with a kite in the courtyard or fled the advances of the tenants.

The impression she made on Rodolphe Ardoin was strong and decisive.

Rodolphe for his part was barely seventeen, but he looked like he was twenty and would have liked people to believe he was thirty. In the evening it was possible to be fooled in this regard when one saw his bony and dark-skinned face, with above it his thick hair that fell on his shoulders like the mane of a helmet. He had a copper-like voice and burning eyes.

A small, precocious troublemaker, he spoke loudly, smashed windows, crumpled skirts and irritated people. He played at being a man.

That evening he arrived from his home region. A school friend who, parenthetically, was an albino, had directed him to this hotel, not to stay there but rather to have a foretaste of Old Man Mouton’s serving board which, for one franc twenty-five centimes, served, he claimed, meals that would have cost Lucullus piles of sesterces.

They entered. In his corner Old Man Mouton was having his peg caressed by the right hand of a tenant who probably owed him a large sum, for he showed so much concern for this task that it nearly constituted cowardice.

In the kitchen Madame Mouton sweated over a ragout, prudently hunted in the casserole and then cut up the portions, towards which the albino, as a man desirous of proving the truth of his assertions, solicitously directed the gaze of his friend.

But Rodolphe was no longer hungry, and his eyes were elsewhere.

He listened to Caroline’s laugh, watched her walk. Suddenly the desire struck him to attract that young girl’s attention and to count in her life, either for joy or pain.

She seemed without trying to dominate that fleeting society in which were mixed together students who'd seen eighteen springs and plucked heads who had reached their fortieth autumn; serious little Limousins and tanned Auvergnats; lawyers and future galley slaves. They all spoke amiably and in exchange received a smile. Rodolphe noticed with fright that she leaned with gravity over the shoulder of a regular named Guesdon.

He said to himself that that man was her preferred guest, and he hated him from that moment on.

Immediately, impelled by an instinctive pride backed by a native skill he decided to make war on him and began the combat.

He fought him over everything and nothing, about the flies that flew only to fall to ground in their glasses and drown in the cruets; about Robespierre and Pomponette; about the crimes and virtues of the Jesuits and gendarmes... Rodolphe grasped at every occasion to contradict the man he felt to be his enemy. He boldly attacked him and the fever that shook him, in troubling his blood, excited his spirit. He was gay with a gaiety that brought him success, and his albino friend no longer even thought of praising to him the aroma of the dishes, which had a Provençal perfume fit to kill a Norwegian ox.

Everyone listened to him. In order to wound his man he struck out at everyone, cutting to the right and the left. At the table everyone asked who this boy could be who as soon as he arrived assumed such rights. But the albino was a serious client, paying well and finding everything good. And they couldn’t help themselves from laughing at the lively sallies of the intruder, and in any case there was no more point in trying to stop him than in trying to stop a clown from spinning when he executes a perilous leap.

Rodolphe did all this, not for them, but for her: for her and against HIM!

The “she” was Caroline, “he” was Guesdon. Guesdon, the enemy, remained calm, cold and if he was wounded didn’t let it show. Rodolphe’s verve became increasingly bitter and his tone more harsh. Though young, thanks to his precocious suffering he had a faculty for divination that was nearly pathological, one that didn’t always stop him on the slope into the abyss but which enabled him to see situations clearly. That evening he was indiscreet, boastful, and brutal, but he knew just when to put balm on the scratches and make fun of himself in order to be able to make fun of others.

What did Caroline think?

She was bothered, the queen of that sideshow, by the racket made by the newcomer, bothered because she understood that Guesdon was at stake and she absolutely hated the loudmouth who carried on so. She took her vengeance on the albino, rudely sliding the plates to him, making him wait, loudly grumbling... The albino allowed his white hairs to be insulted and didn’t complain. But never had Mademoiselle Caroline been soon so peeved and furious. It was at this point that Old Man Mouton joined in the conversation. Rodolphe had no difficulty understanding the hobby horse of that heroic old fool, and he played at being the good fellow, told a few spicy stories with veiled words, without too much brutality. Caroline smiled, Guesdon nodded, and the albino asked for more juice. The evening ended with the campaigns of the Empire. And then the people went their separate ways.

“A strange boy,’ the regulars said. “A good fellow,” shouted the old soldier.

“I don’t like him,” Caroline said, looking over at Guesdon, who said nothing.

Rodolphe returned the next day, as one would have imagined he would. He returned in his most beautiful suit: a jonquil vest made from a dress that belonged to his mother, a peasant woman by birth who loved loud colors, and a dress coat the same color as that of Werther, cut from the coat of his father. Rodolphe knew he was poorly dressed, but there was nothing he could do about it. After having picked up the albino along the way, he bravely went to the Hotel de Velay.

He was almost struck dumb when he entered. Everyone there was uncomfortable: one or two men from the south barely greeted him with a warmed-over joke from the night before. His suit made those seated at the end of the table smile.

Rodolphe had on him all the money he possessed. In order to get people to open up and to establish his position, he demanded “extra” of everything, earning himself the sympathy of Mother Mouton, joined to that of Old Man Mouton, who already adored him. Only the daughter was left.

Accosted en route by one of those twelve-year old flower sellers who forcibly put a carnation in your boutonniere, he paid for the red flower with a white coin, and giving the seller the address of the hotel asked her to bring a harvest of bouquets when the bells rang for 7:00.

At 7:00 the bouquets arrived.

Rodolphe, without insisting too much and with an almost delicate gallantry offered Mademoiselle Caroline the basket of flowers, asking her to choose one. She couldn’t refuse, but she accepted as few as possible and took only a handful of roses. Rodolphe thanked her simply.

He shouted much less that day and his evening was passed in mocking his comic envelope. He did it with a humor tinged with melancholy; found kind and funny words for mothers, who think you are as handsome as a gentleman when you're really just dressed like a trained monkey, but who you love for all that. A bit because they feared that terrifying laugher, a bit because they liked him, though they appeared indifferent he assumed a place in the guests’ imagination. In two evening he had succeeded in irritating and preoccupying them: he had his foot in the door. Unpopular or popular, he counted. This was all he wanted.

Guesdon, who had remained on the defensive, hadn’t been provoked. He had left early in order to feign indifference, or perhaps because he really had something to do. Rodolphe didn’t take advantage of his absence for more than a second, the time it took to tear a rose from Caroline’s bouquet right before her eyes , a rose whose perfume he drank with his lips, underlining with his gaze his discrete but oh so expressive caress.

And that was it for that night. He was strong enough not to return for two days. The people expected him and noted that he was missing. The albino was indirectly charged with bringing him back. As if by chance, he returned under his friend’s wing. From that moment he was sure he was going to win.

But this young man brought to maintaining along with the passion of the lover the calm of the observer, a violent resisting force and expenditure of energy.

He maintained a mask of impassivity, but suffered unto death in his love and his pride. His laughter, for those who knew it, at times resembled a cry of pain and he stiffened himself against the emotion by stiffening the muscles of his brain and all the cords of his heart. Happy even so in his suffering, he elevated his adventure to the heights of a difficult and tragic situation. He dreamed of provocation, duels, kidnappings.

Everything happened much more simply. Chance served this romantic escapee from preparatory school, and one beautiful evening he found himself without a rival. Guesdon’s father had died and Guesdon left. He was supposed to be absent for a week, but a fortnight, three weeks, a month passed before he returned. Affairs back home were in a troubled state and money was owed Old Man Mouton. The fort was unprotected and all Rodolphe had to do was attempt to enter.

There was already a breach: his feverish irony had traced a path over which passion could pass. When he was there Caroline often hated him. When he was gone she joined the others in making fun of him, insulting him, but she felt that she was dealing with something stronger than her, and it wasn’t only Guesdon who suffered from the comparison.

Had Guesdon remained his sang-froid and calm would have served as his shield, and Rodolphe could have pierced that hard cold armor with difficulty.

But the day after the departure he held the high ground, and since he had found brazen occasions to sustain his spirit and his courage, dressed in green though he was, his superiority was recognized.

What passed through the soul of the one, the heart of the other I don’t know. But the illness, if love is an illness, progressed rapidly. Caroline put her pride into appearing to guide and tame that daring irregular and he, one morning when they were alone, with a gaiety full of tenderness, told her the secret of his fever, explained to her how she was the muse who, without intending to, dictated to him his epigrams and his anger and, holding to his breast a notebook that smelled of iris, the odor of Caroline’s handkerchiefs, showed her, written day by day, the history of his passion for her.

She smiled, one of those embarrassed and triumphant smiles that betray the flight of virtue and the joy of love, and Rodolphe squeezed in his feverish hands a hand that palpitated warmly as if he were holding a dove.

We surprised them through the curtain, still chaste but overcome with intoxication. From that day forward, nothing. Questioned, Rodolphe made it understood that he didn’t want people to insist and he put so much energy into preventing people from talking that, around them at least, the silence protected the delicacy of their love.

They were both so discrete. Rodolphe, normally so loud suddenly became so reserved that no one dared affirm that Caroline had succumbed and that they embraced in the shadows.

All that people saw was that at a certain moment Caroline redoubled her attentions and increased her tenderness towards Rodolphe, he having become poor because his father had cut off his provisions.

And then one morning there was, between a pensionnaire who paid sixty-five francs and Rodolphe who ate for thirty-five, an unmotivated provocation. They were going to fight.

The pensionnaire was wounded, but Rodolphe didn’t reappear. On the contrary the one who had touched his sword, returned wearing a sling like a banner. The sling smelled of iris. It was made of a scarf of Caroline’s. I knew that she was his mistress.

I was told that Rodolphe has since left France and gone far away. And he had Caroline’s caresses? Had they loved each other in what innocents call crime? The following piece of his verse will tell us this story.

One morning a newspaper was tossed on Caroline’s counter. In a corner were the following verses:

The Green Dress Coat
It was.... Do you know when?
My arms opened wide to embrace the world
And good god, I hadn’t slept in two nights.

I was a poet, marching on Paris
When the Auvergnat put my bag down before your door:
true happiness sometimes happens in just this way..
You were fresh, lovely, a rose in May,
Your neck, your nose...what can I say:
I loved you.

But you loved me not, I seemed like a fool;
I spoke too loudly, my eyes were too wide;
I was handsome
But badly dressed.
I had a yellow vest and a green dress coat.

But do you remember that one November night
I spoke to you so softly, my sweet, in your room,
And bravely kissed you
And your lip didn’t dare forbid me from daring?

Do you recall we sent away the maid?
You called me “darling,” I called you “my sweet"
I gently held your heart to mine
And made the provinces look good.

How long did these games last?
How long did it take the drifting snows
To melt in my childish arms?
And when you said “God forbids this"
Didn’t you know it?

When you're a woman you forget this.
But I counted the days, madame,
And before tossing the dead wood into the fire
Allow me to remember.

Wait! There in my old wallet
Is a little leaf
A final flower I wanted to save,
That makes me smile as it makes me dream.

We were angry that day:
You called me monster, viper
If I recall aright: I wanted to kill the cat
And even asked that it be burned.

O women, to earn your caresses
We expend goldmines of tenderness;
For you we would sell our honor and our names
|And want to have as much as we give.

We're jealous of an unfortunate smile
Of a song that pleases, of roses you breathe,
And my soul was wounded by an unheeding jest
I was jealous of the cat my pussycat kissed!

And yet your lips were not miserly.
Every midnight they paid me my due
And do you remember how
Beneath the table
Our skillful I was at mixing together our knees?

Do you remember how,
Near the porcelain heater,
We stood dreamily in the silence?
We had only a few minutes
We were going to block out the world:
I killed myself loving you.

Do you remember, my love, when the storm raged
And the people said I was as wild as it was
And that I should be sent away with the other madmen
Or remain with you on bread and water.

We threw letters and all into the furnace,
In my sack there were still five shirts,
Eight pairs of blue knee-stockings,
And for a tie, your arms around my neck.

Seeking, we found a few little things:
A brigand’s hat and some red slippers
The slippers so tight they broke my feet
But I didn’t have the time to wear them out.

For food and twenty francs I tutored a Negro boy,
But you, training you graceful fingers in theft
Swiped brandy from your mother’s table,
And love poured absinthe and honey,
And your lips, moist with tenderness,
Said: “One night we'll die, my love, of a caress.”

So I told you that I knew
How long we stayed together,
How long she waited to take another
How many hours my heart beat in yours.

A winter, a spring, showered in love
I'll count the nights: can we count the kisses?
But I left my room in sorrow one day,
Ten minutes before six, on September 20
God, in a dream, had appeared in the night
(Since that moment, I no longer believe in him)

It was dead
There was nothing left to say
Taken all in all
I'd done well.

I don’t regret the time I lost
And you gave me more than I was due.
And don’t you know, after all was said and done
I saw you, my little one
In the café on the rue de Frondeurs
Where masons and writers dine
It’s there that every night I took my seat
I saw you pass in the mirror
It’s there that, for you, I froze away a winter.

It’s there that I wore out my green dress coat.

This story is a fable.