Originally published in Gil Blas 1893, Leon Bloy's "Deux Fantomes" appeared in his collection Histoires Desobligeantes in 1894. The French text can be found here.
Few things were as distressing to polite society as the rupture of this particular friendship.
Madame Cleopatra du Tesson des Mirabelles de Saint-Pothin-sur-le-Gland and Miss Penelope Elfrida Magpie had cherished each other throughout thirty winters, and had even come at last to resemble one another.
The first belonged to that utterly equine race of bluestocking spinsters, merciless and beyond the appeal of sacrifice. She had written a score of volumes of sociologico-historical import, and had deflated with them the egos of an equal number of publishers. There were never enough boxes upon the quays to receive these tomes, which long-suffering journals offered as a bonus to their subscribers, and which were given primarily as a reward to industrious schoolboys at prize-giving assemblies.
Daughter of a tough old translator of Homer, whose death she alone lamented, and an impossible woman smoked out by the seasons whom the world believed to be an old spy, this Corinne of the sarcophagus could never console herself for the fate of having been unable to marry a celebrated man by whom she believed herself to be adored.
Having been beautiful in the days of yore, according to the findings of several eminent palaeographers, she was now, her youth brought to the boil, philosophically resigned to planting the tree of her liberty among the ruins of her dilapidated person.
Dressed eternally in black all the way from the tip of her fingernails, with her hair as tangled as a stork’s nest, the few portions of skin that her utterly British propriety would allow her to exhibit, were viscous with a thick layer of dirt, of which the deepest layers no doubt dated back to the July Revolution.
As for her face, well, she resembled nothing so much as a fried potato mashed about in some scrapings of old cheese. Her hands, furthermore, gave credence to that old Scandinavian proverb that she had “dug up her great-grandmother,” for so the saying goes.
Last (but of course far from least), her entire person exuded the aroma of the sixth floor of a fleabag flophouse.
Despite all this, however, she was the object of some admiration for a group of young Englishwomen whose financial independence had been guaranteed by such industries as ranching or by the international trafficking of those precious Negroes which whiten when they again. They came to Mademoiselle du Tesson’s from all over the United Kingdom, in order to learn literature and those high manners of that great century of which she was the last and the most illustrious pedagogue.
But she felt that these gracious disciples were more friends than they were pupils. Thus persuaded, perhaps by personal experience, that the heart of a young girl is in fact an abyss of crime and turpitude, she would entice them into her confidence, needling them with bizarre questions, with suggestive and shady requests, she managed to pry open their souls.
And in exchange for quenching her thirst for these titillating confessions, she offered her protection. As she had a reputation as a woman of great superiority, her little flock tended to allow her to extract not only their own histories, but indeed the inflamed histories of their parents or relatives.
Mademoiselle du Tesson professed herself a Catholic, but she did not approve of the Mass and spoke with great enthusiasm of the beauties of Protestantism.
Miss Penelope lived exclusively for the happiness of others. This Scotswoman, well-informed as to the nonexistence of God, loved with a democratic fervour all the inhabitants of the Earth.
One encountered her exclusively in the streets, carrying consolation to someone or other. She could not hear of some catastrophe, some malady, some affliction, without immediately rushing to smear out, upon the dolorous or the debased, the ointment of her advice and the poultices of her compassion.
She wanted to be everywhere at once, and often succeeded, by the sheer force of her diligence, to give off the illusion of ubiquity.
Thus she could be found, at the very same time, at the bedside of a man receiving the Last Rites, at the reception of an Immortal upon the staircase of a publisher or journalist, in the salon of some Jew or other, at the opening of the will, and behind the coffin of a corpse.
Thus she insinuated herself, penetrating into the lives of a multitude who in the end began to suspect her the cornerstone of some mysterious structure.
Some even believed her to be an angel, albeit of the class of angels – to be sure – left uncatalogued by Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, stationed at an infinite distance from the Throne of God, on some desolate steppe of heaven, where rivers, those sources of running water, as well as soap, remain unknown.
She was – alas! – a rather messy angel, and I think that this was the origin, little-known, of the attraction that orbited this mad planet around the fixed star Cleopatra, whom she considered to be a sage.
It is difficult to adjudicate which of the two prevailed in filth. It was a dispute of dirt, a gallantry of grime, a strife of spots and impure sediments, a tussle of tatters, a tournament of teardrops, a struggle of sighs and stale smells, and singed stenches.
These two creatures, moreover, loved one another far from blindly, and judged one another, on general occasion, with complete clarity:
“This Penelope is really too sluttish,” trumpeted the Tesson. “One really needs a dredge to clean her.”
“I cannot conceive,” piped up Miss Magpie in her turn, “that our dear Cleopatra neglects herself on this point. It is generally believed that she has resolved to inspire disgust in others. The local council should send down a team…”
With these few exceptions, they found themselves infinitely well suited to one another, and their friendship worked beautifully.
A serious thing, however, divided them. Cleopatra wished to marry – to whom was immaterial. “So long as we do not live a ‘life in twain’,” Cleopatra said, “we do not live in reality. A woman left by herself is like milk left on shelf.” With great patience and an elevation of opinion difficult to match, she developed in her chosen circle a general assent to this axiom.
Penelope declared, quite on the contrary, that marriage was little more than a state of ignominy, and that the feigned necessity of sleeping alongside a gentleman was an insubordinate abomination.
These two incorrigible virgins thus frequently came to blows on this particular subject. But the victory always remained with the voracious Cleopatra, who perpetually crushed – ever so playfully – the objections of her opponent. She would concede but one solitary point – the evident inferiority of men – and this concession afforded Miss Magpie so much pleasure that the discussion was always cut short.
For better or worse, it remained taken for granted that the union of the sexes was a physiological law and that the all too legitimate horror of distinguished women for this hideous coupling was insurmountable only in appearance.
“The field of literature needs women!” concluded the professoress with brio, “and marriage is the only way to get them in - however haphazardly! And so what if it pushes men aside?”
One day, unbeknownst to her friend, Cleopatra decided to found a matrimonial agency, a quite small agency – very discreet, of course – which but quietly tooted the horn of its own offerings and placed its advertisements in newspapers of irreproachable reputation.
An anonymous flyer, printed on rose-colored paper, informed lovers that the “Guardian Angel of the Heart” undertook as projects nothing but “love-marriages.” He did not immerse himself in machinations of money, did not offer up dubious virginities, did not scintillate the eyes of adventurers with diamond chandeliers by the millions.
No, the Guardian Angel had been sent on an exclusive mission to bring together the “hearts of the elite” who, without him, would never be known, to facilitate meetings and conversations of a guaranteed innocence. He sounded the call of ignored maidenheads, lilies in the shadows, of pure souls ravaged by a world unable to understand, unsuitable for these alliances, which were completely and absolutely irreproachable.
This noble enterprise had some success. Old maids, trembling with hope, sprang forth from their lairs and rushed to deposit their lives’ savings into the hands of Cleopatra. A teacher from Geneva, an old woman austere and duly decorated, affably received visitors of either sex and wrote out all correspondence. The founder only appeared in person in difficult cases, where a certain degree of eloquence was required, calling herself Madame Aristide.
One fine day, “about that time where all swarm in love” (as La Fontaine would say), Penelope (yes, Penelope!) arrived in person to present herself, in search of an ideal husband.
Unfortunately for the reader, I was not present, but from what I gather Miss Magpie’s requirements were somewhat excessive, and it seems that they required the intervention of Madame Aristide…
What a meeting! What a scene! Cleopatra – her anonymity violated – enraged! Penelope, furious at having her desires discovered in flagrante delicto, as it were, suddenly let loose their souls – their true shrew’s souls – a thousand times more odious than those carcasses they called bodies, and set each upon the other.
Rather, I think, like the overturning of chamber pots.