A SABLE SPECTER
The Mysterious Woman Who Haunted the Jardin Mabille
In the season of 1880, at eleven o’clock every night, an elegantly-appointed brougham, the horses seventeen hands high, with black satin coats, the coachman in black, the clothes fitting him like paper on the wall, a white camellia in his buttonhole, dashed up to the brilliantly-lighted entrance of the Mabille Garden. So punctually did this vehicle arrive that after a little while a group of men used to wait at the gate in order to time their watches by it, and the young Marquis de Gallifet lost fifty thousand francs by betting that on a particularly wet and stormy night in August the carriage would fail to appear. Ehrich Rothschild pocketed the money, for the carriage did appear at the very second. The sole occupant of this exquisitely appointed vehicle, whose upholsterings were all as black as the horses’ and driver’s coats, was a woman. She dressed in black satin, her gown being cut in the shape of a riding habit, and clinging to a most svelte and lissome form. She wore no ornament save one—a diamond star which served to fasten her black point lace veil to her hair. The diamond, almost as large as a pigeon’s egg, was of the purest water and shone like a star. The habit of the mysterious lady was to alight from the magnificent carriage, enter the gardens, take one turn around them, to sip one glass of vermouth, and then leave, her footman, a reticent giant in black, walking behind her at a distance of two or three yards. No one saw her face. The veil came down over the eyes and nose, leaving her rich red lips exposed, and a deliciously molded white chin, rendered additionally white on account of its black surroundings. Her pocket-handkerchief was black, her shoes and stockings were of the same raven hue, and her petticoats, at least such of them as revealed themselves as she alighted from the brougham, were of somber dye.
A SENSATIONAL WAGER
It is only necessary to say that she created a sensation, and that all the “mashers” were inquirers as to whom she was, and where she came from. Half a dozen looked knowing, pretending to be in on the secret, but as they were not able to divulge any thing they only got laughed at for their pains. Night after night this strange apparition would glide through the gardens, never speaking to anyone, and always followed by the giant. She very soon became known as the “Lady in Black,” and it was not very long until a cavalier was found bold enough to swear that he would not only address her, but would accompany her home. This young boaster was the Count Maltonnier, a very wealthy and fast scapegrace, whose father, the Marquis de Villette-Pieux-Cotine, allowed him to pull at pleasure at the very long family purse, and he backed himself to perform this singularly audacious feat in large sums, both at the Jockey Club and at the Circle.
Maltonnier dined at Vefour’s, in the Palais Royal, and having primed himself with wine, and accompanied by Ehrich Rothschild, his alter ego, and other self—they were always together—drove out to the Mabille, so as to reach the gardens by just a few minutes before eleven o’clock. The young men stood inside the entrance awaiting the last stroke of eleven, when up dashed the brougham. The giant footman leaped from the box, threw open the door, and flung down the steps, and offering his arm to the lady assisted her to alight. Then the lady moved majestically in the garden followed as usual by the giant.
The count, as soon as the lady passed in, at once slipped up to her and blowing low, and removing his hat, presented her with a bouquet composed entirely of black roses, saying never a word. The lady did not start—on the contrary, she accepted the bouquet, smiled, did not speak, and glided onward.
“Move Number One,” said the count.
“By the beard of St. Denis,” murmured Rothschild, “it promises well.”
The two young men passed into the crowd, and crossing the path of the “Lady in Black” five or six times, lifted their hats—the count staring at her, or seemingly expecting recognition. Now, it so happened that Nina Vermuth was at the Mabille on this particular night, and being exceedingly jealous of Count Maltonnier, beheld with feelings the very reverse of amiability, his decided avoidance of her, and was not long in detecting that he only had his eyes for the “Lady in Black.”
A JEALOUS EXPLOSION
Nina, although ordinarily a well-conducted propriety-in-public-loving young lady, on this occasion had been dining with a banker adorer, and had partaken of just enough champagne to raise all the deviltry in her nature.
The Count had followed the “Lady in Black” at a respectful distance and determined to come to closer quarters as soon as the unknown should seat herself in the little kiosk to take her accustomed petit cerre of vermouth. He went to the waiter who served her and ordered him to place another glass and chair, adding a twenty-franc piece by the way of a retainer. The waiter, in terror of the giant footman, at first refused point blank, but the twenty-franc piece brought his courage back to the sticking-point. He boldly placed a second glass and a second chair, and so boldly that the footman imagined the order had come from his mistress. The very instant that the waiter emerged from the kiosk the bold count stepped in, having told Rothschild to await him at the outer gate in order to see him enter the carriage with the incognito. Bowling low, he seated himself opposite the “Lady in Black,” the giant footman looking askance the while. She never moved; she never gave sign or token of his presence.
“Madame,” he said, filling his glass, “I drink to your very good health.”
She was silent.
“Madame,” he continued in a low voice, “you will think me bold, audacious, but my audacity must be translated to admiration. I have long admired your elegant figure, your graceful walk, your beautiful mouth and chin. Curiosity has overcome every other feeling—curiosity—“
“Will lead you to my footman to be kicked into the Champs Elysees,” she interposed, in a sweet, smiling voice.
“Even so,” he retorted, “my curiosity to know what you are like will enable me to bear anything – everything.”
She sipped her vermuth.
“Any thing more?” she asked.
“Only let me see your face,” he said. “I am sure it is lovely—divine.”
“It might disappoint you.”
“You are a very positive young man,” said the lady, “and I will overlook your idiotic conduct on account of its folly.”
“You forgive me then,” he cried, stretching out his hand to clasp hers, but at that moment Nina Vermuth, who had watched them unperceived, sprang past the giant footman, and, clutching the veil of the “Lady in Black,” shouted: “You infernal hussy from the slums of the fish market, I will soon see your ugly red face.”
MALTONNIER LEAPED AT HIS MISTRESS
“No, Nina,” he replied, “you shall not make known this lady’s identity.”
And by sheer force he compelled Nina’s vengeful hand to relax its vigorous grip of the veil.
The giant footman entered, and was about to pounce upon the Count when the lady in black interfered.
“Wait outside, Jules,” she said.
Nina Vermuth was not tamely going to submit either to the coldness of the lady or the wrath of the Count.
“I will have that veil torn off your face before you leave this garden, my good fisherwoman,” she cried, “as sure as my name is Nina Vermuth. There is no deception about me. I lead a gay life and I own it. What are you? A death’s head for all I know. Mathy,” addressing the Count, “come along with me, or I’ll have you mobbed, and I’ll do it. There are a dozen girls in that dancing circle who are full of champagne and deviltry, and who would not ask better fun. Are you for peace or war? Will you leave this black beetle or stay?”
“I will protect this lady from insult, no matter from what quarter it may come.”
“Be it so–you have chosen,” and with a wild laugh Nina rushed away in the direction of the dancers.
“She is intoxicated and capable of doing anything,” cried the Count. “Come this way, Madame; take my arm. I know every turning in the Mabille, and there is a secret door at the back of that elm tree. Let your servant go to the carriage. Be quick!”
Already a din of excited sounds came from the dancers—there was not a second to be lost.
“Jules, go to the carriage—I will be there in a minute.”
The “Lady in Black” took Maltonnier’s proposed arm, and he led her around at a run to the left of the kiosk, and behind a gigantic elm tree. There stood a small door. It was locked; with one kick from the heel of his boot Count Maltonnier burst it open, and, hurrying his fair companion through a sort of lane full of broken bottles, lobster-shells and all sorts of abominations, reached the entrance, which was a blaze of light. At the gate stood Ehrich Rothschild, stupefied, bewildered, having followed the footman.
“Step in quickly,” cried the Count to the “Lady in Black.”
Jumping into the carriage and banging the door after him, ere Rothschild could recover from his amazement the vehicle was disappearing at the turn into the Champs Elysees.
“Well won!” cried Ehrich Rothschild to Colonel St. Maur, of the Voltigeurs of the Guard, who had also watched the proceedings as umpire.
“Well won, indeed, Ehrich! That means a hundred thousand francs out of the Rothschild exchequer. Poor beggars, can they afford it?” and with a light laugh the warrior sauntered toward the Rue Royale.
In the meantime the adventurous Count Maltonnier and the “Lady in Black” tore down the Champs Elysees.
“I hope you will forgive me,” he pleaded, in a tender tone.
“I suppose I must,” she replied.
“And won’t you tell me your name?”
“Yes. I will tell it to you. I am Jeanette Crilly. You are not a bit the wiser now, are you?”
“Oh, yes I am, Jeannette Crilly. And why do you always dress in black, always drive in a black carriage lined with black and drawn by black horses; always have your servant in black; always come to the Mabille at a certain hour and to the second?”
“Just to have myself talked about.”
“Because I am paid ten francs a day on account of my figure, which is perfect. My face is ugly.”
“Ten francs a day for what?”
“Well, I don’t mind telling you, as I commence to distribute hand-bills tomorrow night. I am advertising the St. Etienne soap.”
“Good heavens! And this carriage, these horses, these servants—“
“Are all in the employment of the St. Etienne Soap-Works Company on the Quai Sylvestre. I shall send you a few dozen cards to-morrow.”
The Count Maltonnier won his wager, and, what is more, he fell over head and ears in love with Jeannette Crilly, who was an honest girl enough, and she is now Countess de Maltonnier.
She did not go to the Mabille after that remarkable night, and the Soap Company had to provide itself with a new medium of advertisement.
Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 23 Sep 1882: p. 11
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The Jardin Mabille was, like London’s Vauxhall Gardens, a pleasure-resort, bal venue, and haunt of the rich and the fashionable, as well as of those fashionable grand-horizontals who wished to ally themselves with wealth. (But really, Nina Vermuth?) This excellent post gives a history and some images of Jardin Mabille. Mrs Daffodil is amused by the ambiguous description of Mme. Crilly as “honest enough.” St. Etienne Soap-Works Company seems to have been a real manufactory, so is not the soap-maker’s ingenious scheme perhaps the earliest example of what is known today as “viral marketing?”