Frédéric Boutet: M. Arthur (complete)
“M. Arthur, the sensational apeman of the Sunda Islands!”
That was what the old fairground tout, who spun this yarn, gave out.
The apeman made a big success during the three days of the festival, everyone from the little town parading by to see him in the square; his cage installed at center, eclipsing every other act.
For the enjoyment of the spectators, M. Arthur gamboled, grimaced hideously, hurled raucous cries, beat his chest with his long arms, then danced with a tambourine, smoked cigarettes, juggled and balanced, showing grace and wonderful poise. His only fault, explained the tout, was that he was a little savage, so not to be approached too near, but that passed quickly…
Soon he’ll mount the stage at all the great music halls, a venue worthy of him. Then, it won’t be six sous paid to see him, but ten francs.
However, this Sunday evening, at the end of the festival, Arthur seemed nervous, preoccupied. During his last show he’d missed twice with his juggling knives, and made impatient movements, ill-repressed, when he had to dance with his tambourine.
The last stragglers gone, he heaved a sigh of relief. “Papa!” His voice was piercing.
“Not so loud. The people are barely away.” The old man counted his receipts. “We made fourteen francs more than yesterday.” This, added with satisfaction. “It’s going like butter. What do you want?”
“I’m leaving. I want to make a clean breast of it. Since we’ll be gone tomorrow, I must know first…”
Not answering, the old man hoisted his shoulders. Arthur in feverish haste pulled off a sort of cap, the fur of a wild beast, that covered his entire head and merged into brown makeup on his cheeks. Plunging his face into a bucket, he washed with a great splash of water.
“Do you want me to unlace you?” asked his father.
“Don’t bother,” said Arthur, drying himself. “I’m fine like this.”
He took off his multicolored spangled loincloth, and over the leotard that imitated the skin of a beast, covering his body and limbs, passed a hurried pair of pants and a waistcoat. He shod himself in green tapestry slippers, embroidered with rose gold, and stood. He looked, under the smoking lamp, pallid and hideous…his oversized head close-shaved, his small eyes bulging, a flattened nose and large mouth that opened almost to the points of his ears. His body was like a ball, with the arms too long and the legs too short. He topped himself with an old cap, and took two steps.
“Go out by the back of the caravan, and don’t let anyone see you,” growled the tout.
“There’s no one left. And I’m not stupid.” He was off.
“If this is not rotten luck,” groaned the old man, and made to pack their bags…as they were leaving in the early morning.
It was half an hour before Arthur returned without a word, throwing his cap in a corner, seating himself on a stepladder.
“Well?” asked the father.
“I can’t.” Arthur spoke in a strangled voice.
The old man lifted his head and looked across. On Arthur’s cheeks he saw tears flowing, washing the makeup still in the hollows.
“What did she say?”
“It’s because of my mouth.” Arthur spoke with simplicity. “She says my mouth is too gross for her to marry me. That when I’m an ape, all right, but as my natural self…too vulgar.”
“Does she know how much you get?”
“She’s aware. She hesitates and tells me she can’t decide. There’s no percentage…”
“No percentage!” repeated the old man indignantly. “There is no percentage! Have we ever seen…? Oh, it reasons very sharp, being it can’t even make coffee grounds, and it can’t earn a hundred sous in a day, and it has nothing but its skin, and it makes bold to refuse someone as smashing as you, as an act… What perfidy! But you must use your head, my dear old fellow, and find yourself a better little pet…”
“I don’t want to!” moaned Arthur. “I want her. She is the one I love.”
There was a silence.
“It’s your fault!” He stood in anger. “Why did you disfigure me, the way you did when I was small, and put hooks in my mouth to make it gape, and worse, crushed my nose! And made me sleep in a box, to make me hunchbacked, and worse…”
But the old man interrupted. “Oh, this is the most! Now you reproach me for filling your hands with silver? We are carnies from father to son, in the family! Papa, who was a sword swallower, made me a snake-man, and I make you an apeman! Is it my fault you were too lopsided for me to make you an acrobat? You were born ugly, all I did was help out nature! You would have liked me to make you a factory hand, eh? Or a peasant, to scrape at the earth? That you’d have been, is that right, lazy as you are? You have plenty going on the side, no? My aunt!”
But Arthur had taken a fragment of glass, and under the smoking lamp, examined himself. “It’s true. I’m ugly,” he murmured at last. He turned to the old man. “You are an unnatural father!”
The old man stood too, cursing. “An unnatural father! You shut up! Here, you ought to be thanking me on your knees for making you what you are! How many poor buggers would like being in your place? It’s easy, sure, raking in the jack without exerting yourself… You’re ugly, she says, the frog. Go figure! It’s your fortune, that mouth. You’re a curiosity, you’re a phenomenon! You, my lad, are amazing! You’ll go to Paris…it’s me telling you this…and not as an apeman. That’s for the villages, that malarkey. As an artiste, get it? As an eccentric…perfect! I’ll invent your tricks…me! I have the imagination. You only have to work a little, instead of crying like a calf for a girl who’d harm your career anyway. Your mouth, that’s your glory, and the least part of your fortune, and the least that will be on your posters. ‘M. Arthur!’ Big letters like that, and you’ll have gold, you’ll have women, you’ll have whores, everything! You ought to thank me on your knees for making you what you are! What better could you want?”
He laid his hand on a shoulder, but Arthur pushed him away.
“I want to be like the rest of the world!” he cried in a rage. And threw himself on the floor of the caravan, onto his bed.
“Idiot!” groused the old man. He returned to his packing.
But added to himself, more indulgently, listening to Arthur’s sobs: “Oh well, he’s young.”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)