By W. S. Gilbert.*
* The author has taken steps to reserve to himself the right of dramatizing this story.
In 1745, Mdlle. Céline was “leading lady” at the Theatre Francais. She was a very beautiful woman, twenty-five years old, and of irreproachable character, Mdlle. Celine was only her stage name, inasmuch as she was the wife of Philippe de Quillac, late a lieutenant in the Royal Body Guard, and now an actor of small parts in the theatre of which his wife was a distinguished ornament.
De Quillac was a young man of good family, and of some small fortune. He honestly fell in love with Celine while he was still a lieutenant in the army, and honestly married her, and as a consequence of this social down-step (for actors and actresses were held as little better than outcasts in those days), he had to resign his commission. Having nothing better to do, he took to the stage, for which, it must be admitted, he had no special talent.
Nevertheless, his own industry, backed by his wife’s influence, obtained for him an engagement at the Francais — a consummation which he had earnestly desired
to bring about, in order that he might be constantly at his wife’s side. In truth, she
stood greatly in need of a protector, for the Duc de Richelieu had condescended to make
two distinct attempts to carry her away, as she left the stage door.
Her personal beauty, which was considerable, would probably have been insufficient
of itself to incite that distinguished blackguard to take such determined steps. But
her reputation as a spotless woman was a standing insult to him, and he made up his
mind to avenge it. He laid siege to her in the orthodox fashion of those clumsy times.
He sent her flowers, with notes in them. He composed immetrical quatrains in her
honour. He obtained access to her at rehearsals, and delivered monstrous compliments, puffed out with complicated allegory.
He was so obliging as to invite her to supper on many occasions, and on one occasion he carried his condescension so far as to offer to sup with her. These delicate overtures were a source of incessant irritation, both to Celine and to her husband. De Quillac sent many challenges to the Duc de Richelieu, but they were treated with contempt. De Quillac was an actor, and it was impossible for a nobleman of Richelieu’s rank to cross swords with him.
Eventually Richelieu’s attentions became more definite, and they finally culminated in two attempts to carry her off, as she was leaving the theatre after performance. These experiments were made, not by Richelieu himself, but by his servants, who, having no great interest at stake, allowed themselves to be readily defeated by De Quillac and other actors of the theatre.
These renewed insults, and the impossibility of bringing their instigator to account,
rendered De Quillac’s life intolerable, and at length he and his wife determined to lay
such a snare for their distinguished enemy as would bring him fairly into De Quillac’s
power. To achieve this end, Celine gave out that as she found it impossible to get on
with her husband, they had resolved to separate. She further explained that a life of
respectability was rather a Quixotic end to aim at, and that she had resolved, thence-
forward, to see a little more of the world, and to taste a little more freely of its pleasures; and to this sensible determination she was encouraged by the approval of many
distinguished persons of both sexes, whose careers were so strictly in accordance with
their proffered advice, that their good faith in giving it was placed beyond suspicion.
The news quickly reached Richelieu’s ears,and he, also, was pleased to compliment her,
in an atrocious ode, on her extreme good sense. This was the more disinterested on
his part, as his appetite for the chase was in direct ratio to the difficulty of the country, as he was candid enough to explain to her in the last verse but one. That she might
not, however, be unduly cast down by this information, he assured her, in the last verse,
that he intended, despite the facilities that this new order of things seemed to promise,
to renew his solicitations at an early opportunity. Celine intimated her determination
to signalize her new method of life by a pleasant supper party, to which Richelieu,
the Abbe Dubois, M. de la Ferte, and many other eminent debauchees of the Court of
Louis XV., were invited.
The night of the supper arrived, and Celine received her guests in a salon on the ground floor of her hotel. She was, to all appearances, in admirable spirits, and received them with infinite good humour. Richelieu arrived last, and the frankness of her welcome, tempered as it was by a touch of profound respect for his exalted rank, seemed to him to be the very essence of good breeding. Supper was eventually announced, but at this stage Celine pleaded a headache,and on this plea contrived to remain behind.Richelieu, infinitely pained at the news, was so good as to offer to remain with her until she should feel well enough to rejoin her friends — an offer which Celine gratefully accepted.
Left alone with her, he, as a matter of course, condoled with her on her affliction,and suggested many remedies, which she pettishly rejected.
“Bah! Monsieur le Duc, are you so young a hand as not to understand that there
are headaches for which a congenial tete-a-tete is the best remedy? These friends of
yours — they worry me. They talk so much, and they do not talk well. I can listen to
you, but not to them.”
“I am infinitely flattered, Madame, at the compliment you are so good as to pay me. I cannot doubt its good faith, for it is a conclusion that you have arrived at after
“You allude to the silence with which I have hitherto received your attention. You
must remember that I was not a free agent. The acts of a woman who is embarrassed by
the incessant presence of a jealous husband must not be judged too strictly. But there,
he is gone, and I am to all intents a widow.”
“You would have been a widow in very truth, long since, if I had found it possible to
comply with his pressing invitations. But what could I do? Personally, I have the
profoundest respect for his calling, but in my position I was helpless. Am I forgiven?”
And so saying, he took her hand affectionately in his.
“I did not desire his death, Monsieur, nor do I now. He has done for me all that was necessary ; he has gone to Marseilles, and he has pledged his word that he will not
return. Nay, Monsieur le Duc, be reasonable.”
The Duke had placed his arm around her waist.
“You must make some allowance. I am hungry — here is a feast. Have I not said
“Nay, Monsieur, I cannot allow this. Remove your arm, I pray ; your friends will be returning. If they should see us thus.”
“My friends will not return yet awhile, and when they do they will give us fair notice
of their approach. Celine, I love you. Celine, I have waited long and patiently. Celine, I __”
At this point he looked over her shoulder, and saw, standing behind her, De Quillac, white and stern, with a drawn sword in his hand. The truth flashed upon Richelieu in a moment.
“This is a trap,” said he.
“It is a trap,” replied Celine.
“It is a trap,” repeated De Quillac.
“For many months you have grossly insulted my wife, and, through my wife, myself.
I have sent you challenge after challenge, but my messages were ignored by you. Inflamed
beyond endurance at the many outrages you have dared to inflict upon us, we have devised
this plan to get you into our power.”
“And this is with your consent, Madame?”
“What do you wish me to do?”
“Those doors lead to the garden. You must fight me there, to-night.”
“And if I refuse?”
“I will kill you where you stand.”
“But you are an actor, and, by your profession, proscribed. I cannot fight an actor.”
“Monsieur, I have laboured long and wearily to attain the position which I have
just achieved — that of a member of the Theatre Francais. It has been the aim of
my ambition, and that long-coveted reward has, within the last few days, been conferred
on me. Here is my engagement, signed and sealed. By this act” — and here he tore
the paper into two pieces — “I annul my engagement, and I pledge you my honour
that under no circumstances will I ever appear on the stage again. Now, M. le Duc,
I am no longer an actor, and you cannot refuse to meet me.”
“Madame,” said Richelieu, turning to Celine, “I have no desire to injure you or
your husband. I have wronged you sufficiently, and I would willingly make amends.
I implore you not to expose your husband to the danger he is courting.”
Celine’s lip quivered for a moment; it was for a moment only.
“Monsieur le Duc, you must fight my husband.”
“Let me remind you,” said the Duke, “that I am one of the most skilful swordsmen in France. Let me place distinctly before your eyes the fact that in going out with me your husband runs no risk, for he encounters a certainty. I implore you to use your influence to check him, if you have any regard for him, for if I cross swords with him, I assure you, on my honour, that I will kill him.”
Celine was deadly pale, but her resolution did not desert her.
“Monsieur le Duc, you must fight my husband.”
“Good. It shall be as you will. I make but one stipulation — that the fact that I have consented to meet an actor shall never be known to any but ourselves.”
“You have my promise,” said De Quillac.
“And mine,” said Celine.
“Then, sir,” said the Duke, “if you will be so good as to lead the way, I will do myself the honour to follow you,”
De Quillac turned to his wife, and, taking her in his arms, kissed her fondly,
“I am ready. Monsieur,” said he.
And the Duke and the actor went through the folding-doors into the garden.
At this point the full significance of the Duke’s warning seemed to dawn upon her.
The loss that she was, almost to a certainty, about to sustain — the knowledge that this
great risk was undertaken on her behalf, with her consent, and almost at her instigation,
destroyed the stern stuff of which the woman was made. She rushed to the door
that had just closed.
“Philippe! — come back! for the love of Heaven, come back!”
It was too late, for, through another door came her guests, warmed with wine. With a
supreme effort she assumed a thoughtless gaiety of carriage, and entered, almost recklessly, into the tone of persiflage which prevailed among those who had supped. She felt that it was impossible to be silent — she must say something, or do something incessantly, or her fortitude would assuredly break down.
“Come, Abbe, what shall we do? Have you nothing to propose? Shall we sing — dance — what shall we do? But be quick! I cannot bear delay.Suggest something, for Heaven’s sake”
Several suggestions were made. Each in turn was eagerly acquiesced in by Celine.
At length some one recollected that Celine had a singular faculty for improvisation.
Give her a suitable subject, and she would extemporize a poem upon it, in excellent
rhymed Alexandrines. It was suggested that she should favour the company with an
example of her remarkable facility in this respect.
“With pleasure — anything you please — give me a subject — quick! quick! — I cannot wait.”
It was debated among the company whether the subject to be proposed should belong to the domain of comedy or of tragedy. Some were for one — some for the other. To Celine, it was a matter of indifference, so that the question was quickly settled. At length a gentleman present solved the difficulty by proposing that she should extemporize in comedy first, and in tragedy afterwards. Celine was ready — all that she waited for was a subject.
A comedy-subject was proposed. An unsuccessful lover had surreptitiously obtained access to his mistress’s chamber in a woman’s disguise. It was enough. Celine, in the character of the lady, commenced her improvisation. She detected the imposture, and proceeded, in withering terms, to ridicule the contemptible device to which her suitor had resorted.
At this point, one of the guests — a Monsieur L’Estrange — exclaimed:
“Hush! I pray your pardon for this interruption; but I am certain I heard a sound of swords clashing in the garden.”
“It is nothing, sir,” said Celine. “My servants are amusing themselves. We are enjoying ourselves here — let them have their enjoyment also. It is nothing, I assure you.”
She proceeded with the improvisation.She pointed out to her disguised lover how well a woman’s garb befitted such a woman’s soul as his, and recommended him to adhere to a costume which he carried with such address. Her manner was buoyant and defiant — perhaps a little too much so; still everyone was delighted with the exhibition. At a critical point in the verse, L’Estrange,who had been listening at the garden-door, again interrupted her:
“Madame, I am bound to interrupt you again. The clashing of swords is distinctly
audible. I am certain you cannot be aware of what is going on. You must permit me
to examine the garden.”
Celine rushed to the door, locked it, and withdrew the key.
“It is nothing. Monsieur, I assure you. You must not enter the garden. The fact
is, that I am preparing a little surprise for you all, and if you go into the garden at this
moment, you will destroy everything. Pray permit me to continue.”
So saying, she gave the key of the door to the physician to the theatre, who happened to be among the guests, enjoining him, at the same time, not to part with it on any consideration.
She attempted to resume her improvisation, but she found it difficult to take up the thread at the point at which it had been broken. It was, in truth, a struggle between comedy and tragedy, and tragedy had the best of it, for a loud exclamation, as from a man in acute pain, broke upon her ear, and her resolution gave way at once.
“Gentlemen, I cannot go on. It is useless to attempt to disguise my agitation from you. You must see that I am terribly over wrought. Gentlemen, for the love of Heaven, interfere to save my husband. He is in that garden, engaged in a duel with the Duc de Richelieu! The shriek that we all heard was his — he is dying — perhaps dead ! For God’s sake interfere to save him, if it be not too late!”
And so saying, she endeavoured, but vainly, to break open the door which she had so recently locked.
At first the guests were alarmed, till they recollected that the exhibition of comedy was to be succeeded by one of tragedy, and they concluded that this was but the fulfilment of the second half of her promise.
“Admirable! What passion — what earnestness!” and a round of applause rang through the room.
“Gentlemen, pray do not mock me. I am not acting; I am in earnest. My husband is dying, perhaps dead. For Heaven’s love, help him while there is yet time!”
A murmur of admiration was the only reply that this appeal elicited. The spectators were as men spell-bound.
“Doctor, you have the key ; I gave it to you. I love him. He is in deadly peril Give me the key, I say, give me the key, or I shall die! ”
It was agreed by all present that Celine had surpassed herself— that is to say, by all but one.
“Gentlemen,” said the Doctor, ” this lady is not acting ; she is in earnest. See, her colour comes and goes.”
“Nonsense, Doctor! Madame is acting, and acting admirably. Strange that so old a hand as you should be deceived.”
“It would be strange indeed if I were deceived, but I am not. I take upon myself to believe that she is in mortal earnest, and in that belief I shall comply with her wish.”
Undeterred by the ridicule with which his resolve was received, he went to the door and unlocked it. Celine rushed eagerly towards it, when she saw, standing in the open
doorway, her husband, pale, stern, and unwounded.
A few hurried whispers passed between them.
“You are safe?”
“And the Duke?”
“Wounded to the death.”
With a great effort she recovered her presence of mind, and taking her husband’s hand, led him forward.
“This, ladies and gentlemen,” said she, “is the little surprise of which I spoke. I am delighted to think that my attempt at improvised tragedy has met with your cordial approval.”
A prolonged round of applause followed this announcement. It was admitted on all
hands that, admirably as she had shone in Comedy, it was in Tragedy that she carried
off the palm.
Published ca. 1880