by Émile Zola, translated by Alison M. Lederer
IN PARIS THEY have everything for sale—silly girls and wise, lies and truth, tears and smiles. You surely know that in this land of business beauty is a commodity in which they deal on a tremendous scale. They buy and sell large eyes and small mouths; noses and chins are valued down to a fine point. This dimple or that mole represents a certain price. And since imitation is always going on, they often counterfeit God’s merchandise; artificial eyebrows traced with burnt matches or false switches stuck on with long hairpins are more highly prized than the genuine article.
All of which is perfectly reasonable. We are a civilized people, and of what use is civilization if it doesn’t help us to deceive and to be deceived in order to make life more worth the living?
But I was really surprised when I learned yesterday that a business man, old Durandeau, whom you know as well as I do, had hit upon the ingenious and astounding inspiration of dealing in ugliness. That they should sell beauty is perfectly comprehensible; that they should sell false beauty is quite natural—it is a sign of progress. But beyond the shadow of a doubt Durandeau has earned the gratitude of all France by putting on the market the commodity, deadwood until now, called ugliness. Understand me, I am speaking of ugliness that is ugly—frank ugliness, honestly sold as ugliness.
You have surely often met women traveling in pairs on the principal avenues. They walk slowly, stopping at the shop-windows with stifled laughter and carrying their clothes gracefully. They lock arms like two old friends with an air of intimacy; almost of the same age, costumed with equal elegance. But you will always find one of them fairly good looking—one of those faces which call for no especial remark. You wouldn’t think of turning around to get a better view, but if by chance you should notice her you could look without displeasure. The other is always atrociously ugly—irritatingly so, an ugliness which catches the eye, which compels passersby to make comparisons between her and her companion. Confess that you have been ensnared, and that sometimes you have started to follow the two women. The monster alone on the avenue would have frightened you. The fairly good-looking young woman would have left you quite indifferent. But they were together, and the ugliness of the one heightened the beauty of the other.
Well, I can tell you: the monster, the atrociously ugly woman, belongs to Durandeau’s Agency. She is one of his “Complements.” The great Durandeau has let her to the insignificant face at five francs an hour.
HERE IS THE story. Durandeau is a business man of originality and invention, a millionaire who can afford to be something of an artist in trade. For many years he bewailed the fact that one had never been able to make a cent out of ugly girls. As for speculating in the pretty ones, it is a delicate business, and Durandeau, who has all the scruples of a rich man, would never think of it. One day he was suddenly inspired. He conceived his original idea in a twinkling, just as all great inventors do. He was walking on the Avenue when he saw in front of him two girls, one pretty and the other ugly. And as he looked he understood that the ugly one was an adjustment which complemented the pretty one. Just as ribbons, rice powder and false tresses are to be had for sale, so it was right and proper, he reasoned, that beauty should be able to purchase ugliness like an ornament which should be becoming.
Durandeau went home to reflect at leisure. The venture which he was meditating must be conducted with the greatest tact. He did not wish to jump pell-mell into an enterprise which would prove a bonanza if it succeeded, but ridiculous if it miscarried. He passed the night in calculations and reading the philosophers who have said the cleverest things about man’s folly and woman’s vanity. Next morning, at dawn, he had come to a decision. Calculation had borne him out: the philosophers had said so much about the vileness of humanity that he counted upon a large patronage.
WOULD I HAD the inspiration I would write the epic of the foundation of Durandeau’s Agency. It would be an epic farcical and sad, full of tears and bursts of laughter.
Durandeau had more trouble than he anticipated in laying in a stock of wares. Wishing to act directly, he contented himself at first with posting on pipes and on the trees in by-places little placards which bore the following legend, written by hand: “Wanted—Ugly girls to do easy work.” He waited eight days, and not a single ugly girl applied. Five or six pretty ones came and begged for work, sobbing. They were just hovering between hunger and vice, and still hoped to save themselves by work. Durandeau, much embarrassed, told them over and over again that they were pretty and wouldn’t do. But they insisted that they were ugly, that it was pure gallantry and quite wrong on his part if he called them pretty. And now, being unable to sell the ugliness which they had not, they are selling the good looks which they have.
Durandeau, in the face of this result, understood that only pretty girls have the courage of owning imaginary ugliness. As for the really ugly ones, they would never come of their own will and admit the unmeasurable size of their mouths nor the extraordinary smallness of their eyes. Advertise by hand-bills that you will give ten francs to every ugly girl who will present herself, and you will not be impoverished.
Durandeau gave up advertising. He hired half-a-dozen emissaries and turned them loose on the city in quest of monstrosities. There was a general recruiting of the ugliness of Paris. The emissaries, men of tact and taste, had ticklish business. Their methods depended upon the character and position of those they approached; brusque when the subject was in dire need of money, more gentle when they were dealing with some girl not yet on the brink of starvation. It is impossible for a polite man to say to a woman: “Madam, you are ugly. I will pay you for your ugliness so much a day.”
Some memorable episodes occurred in this hunt for the poor girls who weep before their mirrors. Sometimes the emissaries were hot upon the scent. They had seen in the street a woman of ideal ugliness, and they did their best to bring her before Durandeau, to earn the thanks of the master. Some of them had recourse to extreme methods.
Every morning Durandeau received and inspected the stock gathered the day before. Comfortably ensconced in an armchair, in yellow housecoat and black satin cap, he had the new recruits file past him, each with the emissary who had captured her. Then he would turn away, blink his eyes, and look like a fancier—displeased or satisfied. He would pause and hesitate; then to get a better view he would have the goods turned around and would examine them on all sides. Sometimes he would even rise, touch their hair and examine their faces, as a merchant feels of a woolen or as a grocer satisfies himself about candles or pepper. When the ugliness was unquestionable, when the expression was stupid and dull, Durandeau would rub his hands gleefully and congratulate the emissary; he would even have embraced the monster. But he was chary of new kinds of ugliness. When the eyes glistened and the lips had sharp smiles, he frowned and mumbled to himself that such a type of ugliness, if it was not exactly fit for love, might do for passion. He showed marked coldness to the emissary, and told the woman to come back again, later on, when she was older.
It is not as easy as one might think to be an expert on ugliness, to make a collection of women truly ugly, quite harmless to pretty girls. Durandeau proved his genius in the selections he made, for he showed how deep a knowledge he had of the heart and of the emotions. The great criterion for him, of course, was the face, and he accepted only discouraging faces—those which froze by their grossness and stupidity.
The day on which the agency was finally opened, when it placed at the disposal of pretty women ugly ones suited to their complexions and their particular styles of beauty, he issued the following prospectus:
Paris, 1st May, 18—
AGENCY FOR COMPLEMENTS,
18 Rue M—, Paris
10 to 4.
I have the honor of advising you that I have just established this house, which must be of the greatest service for the maintenance of woman’s beauty. I am the inventor of an article which will set off with a new glory nature’s graces.
Heretofore adornment has been patent. Laces and jewels are obvious. You can easily detect a false switch in the coiffure, and whether the purple of the lips and the delicate pink of the cheeks are tinted.
Now, I have set myself to the solution of this problem—impossible at first blush—to beautify women, leaving everyone to guess whence comes the added touch. Without an extra ribbon, without touching the skin, my purpose has been to find for them an infallible means of attracting all eyes, and yet not overdoing nature’s tender grace.
I believe I flatter myself that I have completely solved the apparently insoluble problem to which I addressed myself.
And today every lady who will honor me with her confidence can secure, at a low figure, the admiration of all eyes.
My device is extremely simple and reliable. I need only describe it, Madam, and you will understand at once exactly how it acts.
Have you ever noticed a poor woman in close proximity with a beauty in silks and laces, who is giving her alms from her gloved hand? Did you mark how the silk shone in contrast with the tatters; how well all that richness was set off and how it gained from contrast with the misery?
Madam, I have to offer to handsome faces the most complete line of ugly ones that can be found anywhere. Seedy garments set off new. My ugly faces set off pretty ones.
No more false teeth; no more false switches; no more false necks! No more make-up, costly costumes, enormous expenditures for colors and laces!—Only “Complements,” which one takes by the arm and leads along the Avenue, to set off one’s beauty, and win the tender glances of the gentlemen.
Your patronage is respectfully solicited, Madam. You will find here the ugliest and most varied assortment. You are at liberty to select and suit your beauty with the type of ugliness which best becomes it.
Rates: 5 francs an hour; 50 francs a day.
I am, Madam, most respectfully,
N.B.—The Agency supplies likewise well-trained mothers, fathers, uncles, and aunts. Charges moderate.
THE SUCCESS WAS great. Next day the Agency was opened for business. The office was crowded with customers, each of whom chose her “Complement,” and marched her off in a sort of ferocious joy. Can you imagine what a pleasure it is for a handsome woman to lean on the arm of an ugly one? She enhances her own beauty, and thoroughly enjoys the ugliness of the other. Durandeau was a great philosopher.
It must not be supposed, however, that the working of the Agency was perfectly easy. A thousand unforseen obstacles arose. The difficulty of acquiring a stock in trade was nothing beside that of satisfying customers. A lady would come in and ask for a “Complement.” They showed the stock and bade her choose, presuming only to give a hint of advice now and then. Thereupon, the lady would flit from one “Complement” to another, disdainful, finding the poor girls too ugly or not ugly enough, complaining that not one of the uglinesses suited her own style of beauty. The clerks pointed out to her the crooked nose of this one, the receding forehead of another; they were put to their wits’ end.
At other times the lady herself was frightfully ugly—so much so that Durandeau, had he been there, would have been possessed of a mad desire to procure her at any price. She came to have her beauty heightened, she would say; she wanted a young “Complement”—not too ugly, since she needed only slight adornment. The clerks, in despair, stationed her before a large mirror and paraded behind her the entire stock. But she herself would have taken the prize. Then she would sweep out, indignant that they had the presumption to offer her such looking objects.
Little by little, however, the patronage settled down. Each “Complement” had her regular customers. Durandeau could rest assured in his heart of having helped humanity take a great step in advance.
I doubt whether the position of the “Complement” is thoroughly appreciated. It has its joys, which are shown to the world; but it has also its tears, which are hidden. The “Complement” is ugly. She is a slave; she draws her salary for being a slave and for being ugly. As for the rest, she is well-dressed, she shakes hands with celebrities, she lives in carriages, she luncheons and dines at the famous restaurants, she passes her evenings at the theatre. She is apparently on terms of intimacy with famous beauties; and the uninitiated think her of the inner circle at the races and at first nights. All day she is in a whirl of gaiety. At night she eats her heart out, in tears. She has taken off her finery, which belongs to the Agency; she is alone in her attic room, before her little mirror, which tells the truth. She is face to face with all her ugliness, and she realizes that she will never be loved. She whose business it is to kindle emotion for others will never taste a kiss herself.
MY PRESENT PURPOSE has been only to outline the establishment of the Agency, and to transmit the name of Durandeau to posterity. Such men have their positions well defined in history. Some day perhaps I will write the “Confessions of a Complement.” I knew one of the unfortunates, and her sufferings touched me to the quick. She used to enjoy the patronage of some women whom all Paris knows; and they were pretty hard on her. Have pity, my ladies! Do not tear the laces which bedeck you; be gentle to the ugly, without whom you would not be so engaging.
My “Complement” was a spirited creature, who, I imagine, had read a great deal of Walter Scott. I can think of nothing sadder than a cripple in love or an ugly woman yearning for the ideal. The poor girl fell in love with all the men whose eyes her dreadful face deflected to her patronesses. She has lived many a little drama. She was frightfully jealous of those women who paid for the use of her, as one pays for a pot of pommade or a pair of boots. She was a thing let for so much an hour, and it always turned out a good bargain. Can you imagine her bitterness, all the while she was smiling and prattling with those women who were stealing the love that should have been hers? And those very pretty women who took a spiteful delight in cajoling her intimately before the world treated her like a servant when alone; they would have liked to crush her for fun, as they might break the ornaments on their étagères.
But of what account is a suffering soul to the progress of the world? Humanity marches on. Durandeau will be blessed by generations yet unborn for having put on the market a line of goods unheard of before, for having invented a device to make woman’s conquest easier.