The Mysterious Reason
During this time, the farewell ceremony was taking place.
I have already said that this magnificent function was being given
on the occasion of the retirement of M. Debienne and M. Poligny,
who had determined to "die game," as we say nowadays. They had been
assisted in the realization of their ideal, though melancholy,
program by all that counted in the social and artistic world of Paris.
All these people met, after the performance, in the foyer of the ballet,
where Sorelli waited for the arrival of the retiring managers
with a glass of champagne in her hand and a little prepared speech
at the tip of her tongue. Behind her, the members of the corps
de ballet, young and old, discussed the events of the day in whispers
or exchanged discreet signals with their friends, a noisy crowd
of whom surrounded the supper-tables arranged along the slanting floor.
A few of the dancers had already changed into ordinary dress; but most
of them wore their skirts of gossamer gauze; and all had thought it
the right thing to put on a special face for the occasion: all, that is,
except little Jammes, whose fifteen summers--happy
to have forgotten the ghost and the death of Joseph Buquet. She never
ceased to laugh and chatter, to hop about and play practical jokes,
until MM. Debienne and Poligny appeared on the steps of the foyer,
when she was severely called to order by the impatient Sorelli.
Everybody remarked that the retiring managers looked cheerful,
as is the Paris way. None will ever be a true Parisian who has
not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one
of sadness, boredom or indifference over his inward joy. You know
that one of your friends is in trouble; do not try to console him:
he will tell you that he is already comforted; but, should he have met
with good fortune, be careful how you congratulate him: he thinks
it so natural that he is surprised that you should speak of it.
In Paris, our lives are one masked ball; and the foyer of the ballet
is the last place in which two men so "knowing" as M. Debienne
and M. Poligny would have made the mistake of betraying their grief,
however genuine it might be. And they were already smiling rather
too broadly upon Sorelli, who had begun to recite her speech,
when an exclamation from that little madcap of a Jammes broke
the smile of the managers so brutally that the expression of distress
and dismay that lay beneath it became apparent to all eyes:
"The Opera ghost!"
Jammes yelled these words in a tone of unspeakable terror; and her
finger pointed, among the crowd of dandies, to a face so pallid,
so lugubrious and so ugly, with two such deep black cavities
under the straddling eyebrows, that the death's head in question
immediately scored a huge success.
"The Opera ghost! The Opera ghost!" Everybody laughed and pushed
his neighbor and wanted to offer the Opera ghost a drink, but he
was gone. He had slipped through the crowd; and the others vainly
hunted for him, while two old gentlemen tried to calm little Jammes
and while little Giry stood screaming like a peacock.
Sorelli was furious; she had not been able to finish her speech;
the managers had kissed her, thanked her and run away as fast as
the ghost himself. No one was surprised at this, for it was known
that they were to go through the same ceremony on the floor above,
in the foyer of the singers, and that finally they were themselves
to receive their personal friends, for the last time, in the great
lobby outside the managers' office, where a regular supper would
Here they found the new managers, M. Armand Moncharmin and
M. Firmin Richard, whom they hardly knew; nevertheless, they were
lavish in protestations of friendship and received a thousand
flattering compliments in reply, so that those of the guests who had
feared that they had a rather tedious evening in store for them
at once put on brighter faces. The supper was almost gay and a
particularly clever speech of the representative of the government,
mingling the glories of the past with the successes of the future,
caused the greatest cordiality to prevail.
The retiring managers had already handed over to their successors
the two tiny master-keys which opened all the
doors--thousands of doors--of
the Opera house. And those little keys, the object of general curiosity,
were being passed from hand to hand, when the attention of some of
the guests was diverted by their discovery, at the end of the table,
of that strange, wan and fantastic face, with the hollow eyes,
which had already appeared in the foyer of the ballet and been
greeted by little Jammes' exclamation:
"The Opera ghost!"
There sat the ghost, as natural as could be, except that he neither
ate nor drank. Those who began by looking at him with a smile ended
by turning away their heads, for the sight of him at once provoked
the most funereal thoughts. No one repeated the joke of the foyer,
no one exclaimed:
"There's the Opera ghost!"
He himself did not speak a word and his very neighbors could not
have stated at what precise moment he had sat down between them;
but every one felt that if the dead did ever come and sit at
the table of the living, they could not cut a more ghastly figure.
The friends of Firmin Richard and Armand Moncharmin thought that this
lean and skinny guest was an acquaintance of Debienne's or Poligny's,
while Debienne's and Poligny's friends believed that the cadaverous
individual belonged to Firmin Richard and Armand Moncharmin's party.
The result was that no request was made for an explanation;
no unpleasant remark; no joke in bad taste, which might have offended
this visitor from the tomb. A few of those present who knew the story
of the ghost and the description of him given by the chief scene-shifter--they
did not know of Joseph Buquet's death--thought, in their own minds,
that the man at the end of the table might easily have passed for him;
and yet, according to the story, the ghost had no nose and the person
in question had. But M. Moncharmin declares, in his Memoirs,
that the guest's nose was transparent: "long, thin and transparent"
are his exact words. I, for my part, will add that this might
very well apply to a false nose. M. Moncharmin may have taken
for transparcncy what was only shininess. Everybody knows
that orthopaedic science provides beautiful false noses for
those who have lost their noses naturally or as the result of an operation.
Did the ghost really take a seat at the managers'
that night, uninvited? And can we be sure that the figure was
that of the Opera ghost himself? Who would venture to assert
as much? I mention the incident, not because I wish for a second
to make the reader believe--or even to try to make him believe--that
the ghost was capable of such a sublime piece of impudence;
but because, after all, the thing is impossible.
M. Armand Moncharmin, in chapter eleven of his Memoirs, says:
"When I think of this first evening, I can not separate the secret
confided to us by MM. Debienne and Poligny in their office from
the presence at our supper of that ghostly person whom none of us knew."
What happened was this: MM. Debienne and Poligny, sitting at
the center of the table, had not seen the man with the death's head.
Suddenly he began to speak.
"The ballet-girls are right," he said. "The death of that poor
Buquet is perhaps not so natural as people think."
Debienne and Poligny gave a start.
"Is Buquet dead?" they cried.
"Yes," replied the man, or the shadow of a man, quietly. "He was found,
this evening, hanging in the third cellar, between a
and a scene from the Roi de Lahore."
The two managers, or rather ex-managers, at once rose and stared
strangely at the speaker. They were more excited than they need
have been, that is to say, more excited than any one need be by
the announcement of the suicide of a chief scene-shifter. They looked
at each other. They, had both turned whiter than the
At last, Debienne made a sign to MM. Richard and Moncharmin;
Poligny muttered a few words of excuse to the guests; and all four
went into the managers' office. I leave M. Mencharmin to complete
the story. In his Memoirs, he says:
"MM. Debienne and Poligny seemed to grow more and more excited,
and they appeared to have something very difficult to tell us.
First, they asked us if we knew the man, sitting at the end of the table,
who had told them of the death of Joseph Buquet; and, when we answered
in the negative, they looked still more concerned. They took the
master-keys from our hands, stared at them for a moment and advised
us to have new locks made, with the greatest secrecy, for the rooms,
closets and presses that we might wish to have hermetically closed.
They said this so funnily that we began to laugh and to ask if there
were thieves at the Opera. They replied that there was something worse,
which was the ghost. We began to laugh again, feeling sure that
they were indulging in some joke that was intended to crown our
little entertainment. Then, at their request, we became `serious,'
resolving to humor them and to enter into the spirit of the game.
They told us that they never would have spoken to us of the ghost,
if they had not received formal orders from the ghost himself
to ask us to be pleasant to him and to grant any request that he
might make. However, in their relief at leaving a domain where
that tyrannical shade held sway, they had hesitated until the last
moment to tell us this curious story, which our skeptical minds
were certainly not prepared to entertain. But the announcement of
the death of Joseph Buquet had served them as a brutal reminder that,
whenever they had disregarded the ghost's wishes, some fantastic
or disastrous event had brought them to a sense of their dependence.
"During these unexpected utterances made in a tone of the most secret
and important confidence, I looked at Richard. Richard, in his
student days, had acquired a great reputation for practical joking,
and he seemed to relish the dish which was being served up to him
in his turn. He did not miss a morsel of it, though the seasoning
was a little gruesome because of the death of Buquet. He nodded
his head sadly, while the others spoke, and his features assumed
the air of a man who bitterly regretted having taken over the Opera,
now that he knew that there was a ghost mixed up in the business.
I could think of nothing better than to give him a servile imitation
of this attitude of despair. However, in spite of all our efforts,
we could not, at the finish, help bursting out laughing in the faces
of MM. Debienne and Poligny, who, seeing us pass straight from
the gloomiest state of mind to one of the most insolent merriment,
acted as though they thought that we had gone mad.
"The joke became a little tedious; and Richard asked half-seriously
and half in jest:
"'But, after all, what does this ghost of yours want?'
"M. Poligny went to his desk and returned with a copy of the
memorandum-book. The memorandum-book begins with the
words saying that 'the management of the Opera shall give to
the performance of the National Academy of Music the splendor that
becomes the first lyric stage in France' and ends with Clause 98,
which says that the privilege can be withdrawn if the manager
infringes the conditions stipulated in the memorandum-book.
This is followed by the conditions, which are four in number.
"The copy produced by M. Poligny was written in black ink
and exactly similar to that in our possession, except that,
at the end, it contained a paragraph in red ink and in a queer,
labored handwriting, as though it had been produced by dipping
the heads of matches into the ink, the writing of a child
that has never got beyond the down-strokes and has not learned
to join its letters. This paragraph ran, word for word, as follows:
"'5. Or if the manager, in any month, delay for more than a fortnight
the payment of the allowance which he shall make to the Opera ghost,
an allowance of twenty thousand francs a month, say two hundred
and forty thousand francs a year.'
"M. Poligny pointed with a hesitating finger to this last clause,
which we certainly did not expect.
"'Is this all? Does he not want anything else?' asked Richard,
with the greatest coolness.
"'Yes, he does,' replied Poligny.
"And he turned over the pages of the memorandum-book until he
came to the clause specifying the days on which certain private
boxes were to be reserved for the free use of the president of
the republic, the ministers and so on. At the end of this clause,
a line had been added, also in red ink:
"'Box Five on the grand tier shall be placed at the disposal
of the Opera ghost for every performance.'
"When we saw this, there was nothing else for us to do but to rise
from our chairs, shake our two predecessors warmly by the hand
and congratulate them on thinking of this charming little joke,
which proved that the old French sense of humor was never likely
to become extinct. Richard added that he now understood why MM.
Debienne and Poligny were retiring from the management of the National
Academy of Music. Business was impossible with so unreasonable
"'Certainly, two hundred and forty thousand francs are not be picked up
for the asking,' said M. Poligny, without moving a muscle of his face.
'And have you considered what the loss over Box Five meant to us?
We did not sell it once; and not only that, but we had to return
the subscription: why, it's awful! We really can't work to keep ghosts!
We prefer to go away!'
"'Yes,' echoed M. Debienne, 'we prefer to go away. Let us go.'
"And he stood up. Richard said: 'But, after all all, it seems
to me that you were much too kind to the ghost. If I had such
a troublesome ghost as that, I should not hesitate to have him arrested.'
"'But how? Where?' they cried, in chorus. 'We have never seen him!'
"'But when he comes to his box?'
"'We have never seen him in his box.'
"'Then sell it.'
"'Sell the Opera ghost's box! Well, gentlemen, try it.'
"Thereupon we all four left the office. Richard and I had 'never
laughed so much in our lives.'"
Next: Box Five