It was the evening on which MM. Debienne and Poligny, the managers ofthe Opera, were giving a last gala performance to mark theirretirement. Suddenly the dressing-room of La Sorelli, one of theprincipal dancers, was invaded by half-a-dozen young ladies of theballet, who had come up from the stage after "dancing" Polyeucte. Theyrushed in amid great confusion, some giving vent to forced andunnatural laughter, others to cries of terror. Sorelli, who wished tobe alone for a moment to "run through" the speech which she was to maketo the resigning managers, looked around angrily at the mad andtumultuous crowd. It was little Jammes--the girl with the tip-tiltednose, the forget-me-not eyes, the rose-red cheeks and the lily-whiteneck and shoulders--who gave the explanation in a trembling voice:
"It's the ghost!" And she locked the door.
Sorelli's dressing-room was fitted up with official, commonplaceelegance. A pier-glass, a sofa, a dressing-table and a cupboard or twoprovided the necessary furniture. On the walls hung a few engravings,relics of the mother, who had known the glories of the old Opera in theRue le Peletier; portraits of Vestris, Gardel, Dupont, Bigottini. Butthe room seemed a palace to the brats of the corps de ballet, who werelodged in common dressing-rooms where they spent their time singing,quarreling, smacking the dressers and hair-dressers and buying oneanother glasses of cassis, beer, or even rhum, until the call-boy'sbell rang.
Sorelli was very superstitious. She shuddered when she heard littleJammes speak of the ghost, called her a "silly little fool" and then,as she was the first to believe in ghosts in general, and the Operaghost in particular, at once asked for details:
"Have you seen him?"
"As plainly as I see you now!" said little Jammes, whose legs weregiving way beneath her, and she dropped with a moan into a chair.
Thereupon little Giry--the girl with eyes black as sloes, hair black asink, a swarthy complexion and a poor little skin stretched over poorlittle bones--little Giry added:
"If that's the ghost, he's very ugly!"
"Oh, yes!" cried the chorus of ballet-girls.
And they all began to talk together. The ghost had appeared to them inthe shape of a gentleman in dress-clothes, who had suddenly stoodbefore them in the passage, without their knowing where he came from.He seemed to have come straight through the wall.
"Pooh!" said one of them, who had more or less kept her head. "You seethe ghost everywhere!"
And it was true. For several months, there had been nothing discussedat the Opera but this ghost in dress-clothes who stalked about thebuilding, from top to bottom, like a shadow, who spoke to nobody, towhom nobody dared speak and who vanished as soon as he was seen, no oneknowing how or where. As became a real ghost, he made no noise inwalking. People began by laughing and making fun of this specterdressed like a man of fashion or an undertaker; but the ghost legendsoon swelled to enormous proportions among the corps de ballet. Allthe girls pretended to have met this supernatural being more or lessoften. And those who laughed the loudest were not the most at ease.When he did not show himself, he betrayed his presence or his passingby accident, comic or serious, for which the general superstition heldhim responsible. Had any one met with a fall, or suffered a practicaljoke at the hands of one of the other girls, or lost a powderpuff, itwas at once the fault of the ghost, of the Opera ghost.
After all, who had seen him? You meet so many men in dress-clothes atthe Opera who are not ghosts. But this dress-suit had a peculiarity ofits own. It covered a skeleton. At least, so the ballet-girls said.And, of course, it had a death's head.
Was all this serious? The truth is that the idea of the skeleton camefrom the description of the ghost given by Joseph Buquet, the chiefscene-shifter, who had really seen the ghost. He had run up againstthe ghost on the little staircase, by the footlights, which leads to"the cellars." He had seen him for a second--for the ghost hadfled--and to any one who cared to listen to him he said:
"He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeletonframe. His eyes are so deep that you can hardly see the fixed pupils.You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man's skull. His skin,which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, buta nasty yellow. His nose is so little worth talking about that youcan't see it side-face; and THE ABSENCE of that nose is a horriblething TO LOOK AT. All the hair he has is three or four long dark lockson his forehead and behind his ears."
This chief scene-shifter was a serious, sober, steady man, very slow atimagining things. His words were received with interest and amazement;and soon there were other people to say that they too had met a man indress-clothes with a death's head on his shoulders. Sensible men whohad wind of the story began by saying that Joseph Buquet had been thevictim of a joke played by one of his assistants. And then, one afterthe other, there came a series of incidents so curious and soinexplicable that the very shrewdest people began to feel uneasy.
For instance, a fireman is a brave fellow! He fears nothing, least ofall fire! Well, the fireman in question, who had gone to make a roundof inspection in the cellars and who, it seems, had ventured a littlefarther than usual, suddenly reappeared on the stage, pale, scared,trembling, with his eyes starting out of his head, and practicallyfainted in the arms of the proud mother of little Jammes. And why?Because he had seen coming toward him, AT THE LEVEL OF HIS HEAD, BUTWITHOUT A BODY ATTACHED TO IT, A HEAD OF FIRE! And, as I said, afireman is not afraid of fire.
The fireman's name was Pampin.
The corps de ballet was flung into consternation. At first sight, thisfiery head in no way corresponded with Joseph Buquet's description ofthe ghost. But the young ladies soon persuaded themselves that theghost had several heads, which he changed about as he pleased. And, ofcourse, they at once imagined that they were in the greatest danger.Once a fireman did not hesitate to faint, leaders and front-row andback-row girls alike had plenty of excuses for the fright that madethem quicken their pace when passing some dark corner or ill-lightedcorridor. Sorelli herself, on the day after the adventure of thefireman, placed a horseshoe on the table in front of thestage-door-keeper's box, which every one who entered the Operaotherwise than as a spectator must touch before setting foot on thefirst tread of the staircase. This horse-shoe was not invented byme--any more than any other part of this story, alas!--and may still beseen on the table in the passage outside the stage-door-keeper's box,when you enter the Opera through the court known as the Cour del'Administration.
To return to the evening in question.
"It's the ghost!" little Jammes had cried.
An agonizing silence now reigned in the dressing-room. Nothing washeard but the hard breathing of the girls. At last, Jammes, flingingherself upon the farthest corner of the wall, with every mark of realterror on her face, whispered:
Everybody seemed to hear a rustling outside the door. There was nosound of footsteps. It was like light silk sliding over the panel.Then it stopped.
Sorelli tried to show more pluck than the others. She went up to thedoor and, in a quavering voice, asked:
But nobody answered. Then feeling all eyes upon her, watching her lastmovement, she made an effort to show courage, and said very loudly:
"Is there any one behind the door?"
"Oh, yes, yes! Of course there is!" cried that little dried plum of aMeg Giry, heroically holding Sorelli back by her gauze skirt."Whatever you do, don't open the door! Oh, Lord, don't open the door!"
But Sorelli, armed with a dagger that never left her, turned the keyand drew back the door, while the ballet-girls retreated to the innerdressing-room and Meg Giry sighed:
Sorelli looked into the passage bravely. It was empty; a gas-flame, inits glass prison, cast a red and suspicious light into the surroundingdarkness, without succeeding in dispelling it. And the dancer slammedthe door again, with a deep sigh.
"No," she said, "there is no one there."
"Still, we saw him!" Jammes declared, returning with timid littlesteps to her place beside Sorelli. "He must be somewhere prowlingabout. I shan't go back to dress. We had better all go down to thefoyer together, at once, for the 'speech,' and we will come up againtogether."
And the child reverently touched the little coral finger-ring which shewore as a charm against bad luck, while Sorelli, stealthily, with thetip of her pink right thumb-nail, made a St. Andrew's cross on thewooden ring which adorned the fourth finger of her left hand. She saidto the little ballet-girls:
"Come, children, pull yourselves together! I dare say no one has everseen the ghost."
"Yes, yes, we saw him--we saw him just now!" cried the girls. "He hadhis death's head and his dress-coat, just as when he appeared to JosephBuquet!"
"And Gabriel saw him too!" said Jammes. "Only yesterday! Yesterdayafternoon--in broad day-light----"
"Gabriel, the chorus-master?"
"Why, yes, didn't you know?"
"And he was wearing his dress-clothes, in broad daylight?"
"Why, no, the ghost!"
"Certainly! Gabriel told me so himself. That's what he knew him by.Gabriel was in the stage-manager's office. Suddenly the door openedand the Persian entered. You know the Persian has the evil eye----"
"Oh, yes!" answered the little ballet-girls in chorus, warding offill-luck by pointing their forefinger and little finger at the absentPersian, while their second and third fingers were bent on the palm andheld down by the thumb.
"And you know how superstitious Gabriel is," continued Jammes."However, he is always polite. When he meets the Persian, he just putshis hand in his pocket and touches his keys. Well, the moment thePersian appeared in the doorway, Gabriel gave one jump from his chairto the lock of the cupboard, so as to touch iron! In doing so, he torea whole skirt of his overcoat on a nail. Hurrying to get out of theroom, he banged his forehead against a hat-peg and gave himself a hugebump; then, suddenly stepping back, he skinned his arm on the screen,near the piano; he tried to lean on the piano, but the lid fell on hishands and crushed his fingers; he rushed out of the office like amadman, slipped on the staircase and came down the whole of the firstflight on his back. I was just passing with mother. We picked him up.He was covered with bruises and his face was all over blood. We werefrightened out of our lives, but, all at once, he began to thankProvidence that he had got off so cheaply. Then he told us what hadfrightened him. He had seen the ghost behind the Persian, THE GHOSTWITH THE DEATH'S HEAD just like Joseph Buquet's description!"
Jammes had told her story ever so quickly, as though the ghost were ather heels, and was quite out of breath at the finish. A silencefollowed, while Sorelli polished her nails in great excitement. It wasbroken by little Giry, who said:
"Joseph Buquet would do better to hold his tongue."
"Why should he hold his tongue?" asked somebody.
"That's mother's opinion," replied Meg, lowering her voice and lookingall about her as though fearing lest other ears than those presentmight overhear.
"And why is it your mother's opinion?"
"Hush! Mother says the ghost doesn't like being talked about."
"And why does your mother say so?"
This reticence exasperated the curiosity of the young ladies, whocrowded round little Giry, begging her to explain herself. They werethere, side by side, leaning forward simultaneously in one movement ofentreaty and fear, communicating their terror to one another, taking akeen pleasure in feeling their blood freeze in their veins.
"I swore not to tell!" gasped Meg.
But they left her no peace and promised to keep the secret, until Meg,burning to say all she knew, began, with her eyes fixed on the door:
"Well, it's because of the private box."
"What private box?"
"The ghost's box!"
"Has the ghost a box? Oh, do tell us, do tell us!"
"Not so loud!" said Meg. "It's Box Five, you know, the box on thegrand tier, next to the stage-box, on the left."
"I tell you it is. Mother has charge of it. But you swear you won'tsay a word?"
"Of course, of course."
"Well, that's the ghost's box. No one has had it for over a month,except the ghost, and orders have been given at the box-office that itmust never be sold."
"And does the ghost really come there?"
"Then somebody does come?"
"Why, no! The ghost comes, but there is nobody there."
The little ballet-girls exchanged glances. If the ghost came to thebox, he must be seen, because he wore a dress-coat and a death's head.This was what they tried to make Meg understand, but she replied:
"That's just it! The ghost is not seen. And he has no dress-coat andno head! All that talk about his death's head and his head of fire isnonsense! There's nothing in it. You only hear him when he is in thebox. Mother has never seen him, but she has heard him. Mother knows,because she gives him his program."
"Giry, child, you're getting at us!"
Thereupon little Giry began to cry.
"I ought to have held my tongue--if mother ever came to know! But Iwas quite right, Joseph Buquet had no business to talk of things thatdon't concern him--it will bring him bad luck--mother was saying solast night----"
There was a sound of hurried and heavy footsteps in the passage and abreathless voice cried:
"Cecile! Cecile! Are you there?"
"It's mother's voice," said Jammes. "What's the matter?"
She opened the door. A respectable lady, built on the lines of aPomeranian grenadier, burst into the dressing-room and dropped groaninginto a vacant arm-chair. Her eyes rolled madly in her brick-dustcolored face.
"How awful!" she said. "How awful!"
"What about him?"
"Joseph Buquet is dead!"
The room became filled with exclamations, with astonished outcries,with scared requests for explanations.
"Yes, he was found hanging in the third-floor cellar!"
"It's the ghost!" little Giry blurted, as though in spite of herself;but she at once corrected herself, with her hands pressed to her mouth:"No, no!--I, didn't say it!--I didn't say it!----"
All around her, her panic-stricken companions repeated under theirbreaths:
"Yes--it must be the ghost!"
Sorelli was very pale.
"I shall never be able to recite my speech," she said.
Ma Jammes gave her opinion, while she emptied a glass of liqueur thathappened to be standing on a table; the ghost must have something to dowith it.
The truth is that no one ever knew how Joseph Buquet met his death.The verdict at the inquest was "natural suicide." In his Memoirs ofManager, M. Moncharmin, one of the joint managers who succeeded MM.Debienne and Poligny, describes the incident as follows:
"A grievous accident spoiled the little party which MM. Debienne andPoligny gave to celebrate their retirement. I was in the manager'soffice, when Mercier, the acting-manager, suddenly came darting in. Heseemed half mad and told me that the body of a scene-shifter had beenfound hanging in the third cellar under the stage, between a farm-houseand a scene from the Roi de Lahore. I shouted:
"'Come and cut him down!'
"By the time I had rushed down the staircase and the Jacob's ladder,the man was no longer hanging from his rope!"
So this is an event which M. Moncharmin thinks natural. A man hangs atthe end of a rope; they go to cut him down; the rope has disappeared.Oh, M. Moncharmin found a very simple explanation! Listen to him:
"It was just after the ballet; and leaders and dancing-girls lost notime in taking their precautions against the evil eye."
There you are! Picture the corps de ballet scuttling down the Jacob'sladder and dividing the suicide's rope among themselves in less timethan it takes to write! When, on the other hand, I think of the exactspot where the body was discovered--the third cellar underneath thestage!--imagine that SOMEBODY must have been interested in seeing thatthe rope disappeared after it had effected its purpose; and time willshow if I am wrong.
The horrid news soon spread all over the Opera, where Joseph Buquet wasvery popular. The dressing-rooms emptied and the ballet-girls,crowding around Sorelli like timid sheep around their shepherdess, madefor the foyer through the ill-lit passages and staircases, trotting asfast as their little pink legs could carry them.
 I have the anecdote, which is quite authentic, from M. PedroGailhard himself, the late manager of the Opera.