BY GUY DE MAUPASSANT
"Bah! Monsieur," the old mountebank said to me;
"it is a matter of exercise and habit, that is
all! Of course, one requires to be a little
gifted that way and not to be butter-fingered,
but what is chiefly necessary is patience and
daily practice for long, long years."
His modesty surprised me all the more, because
of all performers who are generally infatuated
with their own skill, he was the most wonderfully
clever one I had met. Certainly I had frequently
seen him, for everybody had seen him in some
circus or other, or even in traveling shows,
performing the trick that consists of putting
a man or woman with extended arms against a
wooden target, and in throwing knives between
their fingers and round their heads, from a
distance. There is nothing very extraordinary
in it, after all, when one knows the tricks of
the trade, and that the knives are not the least
sharp, and stick into the wood at some distance
from the flesh. It is the rapidity of the throws,
the glitter of the blades, and the curve which
the handles make toward their living object,
which give an air of danger to an exhibition
that has become commonplace, and only requires
very middling skill.
But here there was no trick and no deception,
and no dust thrown into the eyes. It was done
in good earnest and in all sincerity. The knives
were as sharp as razors, and the old mountebank
planted them close to the flesh, exactly in the
angle between the fingers. He surrounded the
head with a perfect halo of knives, and the
neck with a collar from which nobody could have
extricated himself without cutting his carotid
artery; while, to increase the difficulty, the
old fellow went through the performance without
seeing, his whole face being covered with a
close mask of thick oilcloth.
Naturally, like other great artists, he was not
understood by the crowd, who confounded him with
vulgar tricksters, and his mask only appeared to
them a trick the more, and a very common trick
into the bargain.
"He must think us very stupid," they said. "How
could he possibly aim without having his eyes
And they thought there must be imperceptible
holes in the oilcloth, a sort of latticework
concealed in the material. It was useless for
him to allow the public to examine the mask
for themselves before the exhibition began. It
was all very well that they could not discover
any trick, but they were only all the more
convinced that they were being tricked. Did
not the people know that they ought to be
I had recognized a great artist in the old
mountebank, and I was quite sure that he was
altogether incapable of any trickery. I had told
him so, while expressing my admiration to him;
and he had been touched by my open admiration
and above all by the justice I had done him.
Thus we became good friends, and he explained
to me, very modestly, the real trick which
the crowd does not understand, the eternal trick
contained in these simple words: "To be gifted
by nature and to practice every day for long,
He had been especially struck by the certainty
which I expressed that any trickery must become
impossible to him. "Yes," he said to me, "quite
impossible! Impossible to a degree which you
cannot imagine. If I were to tell you! But where
would be the use?"
His face clouded over, and his eyes filled with
tears. I did not venture to force myself into
his confidence. My looks, however, were not so
discreet as my silence, and begged him to speak;
so he responded to their mute appeal.
"After all," he said; "why should I not tell
you about it? You will understand me." And he
added, with a look of sudden ferocity: "She
understood it, at any rate!"
"Who?" I asked.
"My strumpet of a wife," he replied. "Ah!
Monsieur, what an abominable creature she
was--if you only knew! Yes, she understood
it too well, too well, and that is why I
hate her so; even more on that account, than
for having deceived me. For that is a natural
fault, is it not, and may be pardoned? But
the other thing was a crime, a horrible crime."
The woman who stood against the wooden target
every night with her arms stretched out and
her fingers extended, and whom the old mountebank
fitted with gloves and with a halo formed of
his knives, which were as sharp as razors and
which he planted close to her, was his wife.
She might have been a woman of forty, and must
have been fairly pretty, but with a perverse
prettiness; she had an impudent mouth, a mouth
that was at the same time sensual and bad,
with the lower lip too thick for the thin, dry
I had several times noticed that every time
he planted a knife in the board, she uttered
a laugh, so low as scarcely to be heard, but
which was very significant when one heard it,
for it was a hard and very mocking laugh. I
had always attributed that sort of reply to an
artifice which the occasion required. It was
intended, I thought, to accentuate the danger
she incurred and the contempt that she felt
for it, thanks to the sureness of the thrower's
hands, and so I was very much surprised when
the mountebank said to me:
"Have you observed her laugh, I say? Her evil
laugh which makes fun of me, and her cowardly
laugh which defies me? Yes, cowardly, because
she knows that nothing can happen to her,
nothing, in spite of all she deserves, in spite
of all that I ought to do to her, in spite of
all that I want to do to her."
"What do you want to do?"
"Confound it! Cannot you guess? I want to kill
"To kill her, because she has--"
"Because she has deceived me? No, no, not that,
I tell you again. I have forgiven her for that
a long time ago, and I am too much accustomed
to it! But the worst of it is that the first
time I forgave her, when I told her that all
the same I might someday have my revenge by
cutting her throat, if I chose, without seeming
to do it on purpose, as if it were an accident,
"Oh! So you said that to her?"
"Of course I did, and I meant it. I thought I
might be able to do it, for you see I had the
perfect right to do so. It was so simple, so
easy, so tempting! Just think! A mistake of
less than half an inch, and her skin would be
cut at the neck where the jugular vein is,
and the jugular would be severed. My knives
cut very well! And when once the jugular is
cut--good-bye. The blood would spurt out,
and one, two, three red jets, and all would
be over; she would be dead, and I should have
had my revenge!"
"That is true, certainly, horribly true!"
"And without any risk to me, eh? An accident,
that is all; bad luck, one of those mistakes
which happen every day in our business. What
could they accuse me of? Whoever would think
of accusing me even? Homicide through imprudence,
that would be all! They would even pity me,
rather than accuse me. 'My wife! My poor wife!'
I should say, sobbing. 'My wife, who is so
necessary to me, who is half the breadwinner,
who takes part in my performance!' You must
acknowledge that I should be pitied!"
"Certainly; there is not the least doubt about
"And you must allow that such a revenge would
he a very nice revenge, the best possible
revenge which I could have with assured
"Evidently that is so."
"Very well! But when I told her so, as I have
told you, and more forcibly still, threatening
her, as I was mad with rage and ready to do
the deed that I had dreamed of on the spot,
what do you think she said?"
"That you were a good fellow, and would certainly
not have the atrocious courage to--"
"Tut! tut! tut! I am not such a good fellow
as you think. I am not frightened of blood,
and that I have proved already, though it
would be useless to tell you how and where.
But I had no necessity to prove it to her,
for she knows that I am capable of a good
many things, even of crime; especially of
"And she was not frightened?"
"No. She merely replied that I could not do
what I said; you understand. That I could
not do it!"
"Ah! Monsieur, so you do not understand?
Why do you not? Have I not explained to you
by what constant, long, daily practice I
have learned to plant my knives without
seeing what I am doing?"
"Yes, well, what then?"
"Well! Cannot you understand what she has
understood with such terrible results, that
now my hand would no longer obey me if I
wished to make a mistake as I threw?"
"Is it possible?"
"Nothing is truer, I am sorry to say. For
I really have wished to have the revenge
which I have dreamed of, and which I thought
so easy. Exasperated by that bad woman's
insolence and confidence in her own safety,
I have several times made up my mind to kill
her, and have exerted all my energy and all
my skill to make my knives fly aside when
I threw them to make a border round her neck.
I have tried with all my might to make them
deviate half an inch, just enough to cut her
throat. I wanted to, and I have never succeeded,
never. And always the slut's horrible laugh
makes fun of me, always, always."
And with a deluge of tears, with something
like a roar of unsatiated and muzzled rage,
he ground his teeth as he wound up: "She knows
me, the jade; she is in the secret of my work,
of my patience, of my trick, routine, whatever
you may call it! She lives in my innermost being,
and sees into it more closely than you do, or
than I do myself. She knows what a faultless
machine I have become, the machine of which
she makes fun, the machine which is too well
wound up, the machine which cannot get out
of order--and she knows that I cannot make a
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~