The Cantatrice

Translated by Brian Stableford
Originally published 1913

To Louis Cochet[1]

Old Hauval — who is still the director of the Opéra-Dramatique — smoothed his flowing beard with a gnarled hand and said: “This is what happened!”


In 189*, in the month of March, there was a performance of Siegfried at Monte Carlo. An extraordinary interpretation made that revival the great lyrical event of the season. I had decided to see it, and I left Paris with a group of artistes, critics and dilettantes who were racing, without knowing it, to the most troubling auditory experience that living men might undergo. I shall spare you the vicissitudes of the journey, for our journey was nothing but vicissitudes: pauses, delays, a forced two-hour halt in Marseilles caused by a railway accident, which I employed as best I could in visiting the city. Suffice it to say that I went, reached Monaco, and arrived at the performance.

It commenced in splendor and continued without a hitch. The program was a list of celebrities. The finest singers in the world were realizing the Wagnerian drama. Caruso played Siegfried, and we were in the depths of the delight into which his power and timbre had plunged us when the bird sang.[2]

You will recall that there is in Siegfried a singing bird — which is to say, a woman, in the wings, who lends the bird the prestige of words and melody. Thus, an invisible woman suddenly began to sing — and then it seemed to us that all the other singers had merely been mewling, roaring or braying since the curtain went up. The sonorous sounds of the impeccable orchestra immediately became screechy and annoying, so magical was that voice. Its purity was only equaled by its strength. It combined all the virtues that sounds can acquire, and did so in a manner so incomparable, unprecedented and superhuman, that everyone wondered, at first, whether a human throat was really emitting that prodigious song, or whether it might be some strange independent voice with a life of its own….

But on listening to it, no, no: that caressant soprano revealed a feminine soul, the ardent heart of a young woman who was breathing it out in a charmingly natural fashion, as a flower yields its perfume….

On listening to it, one divined as its source a vermilion mouth and palpitating white breasts….

One shivered, on listening to it, as if gazing at the freshness of an excessively beautiful virgin….

Who, then, was singing in that fashion? My memory recalled, one by one, the voices of the world’s most famous singers. I knew them all. I thought for a moment that one of them had taken us by surprise by accepting that minor role — but no prima donna could have rivaled, in voice or skill, the fairy who was singing the bird in the wings.

She fell silent. There was a sensational rustle in the audience. The program was consulted. It bore only one name that was obscure, which every eye sought out: Borelli.

The public awaited with bizarre impatience the bird’s next entrance in the scene and the moment when the unknown woman would begin to sing again. For my part, I was subject to a tyrannical desire to hear her voice….

It finally sprang forth, and streamed over us like a subtle and bewitching wave, in which one could have wished to bathe forever….

When La Borelli stopped singing for the second and last time that evening, the crowd must have suffered a chagrin akin to pain, for a great dolorous sigh was heard to swell, from the stalls to the highest boxes. Then the applause burst forth, so impetuous that the orchestra stopped playing. The standing spectators clapped their hands, demanding that the diva appear and take a bow. It was in vain, however, that Caruso extended an inviting arm toward the wings; Mademoiselle — or Madame — Borelli refused, presumably unwilling to exhibit her pretty face in the stage-lights without make-up.

I took advantage of the mundane tumult to slip away to the wings in order to discover the phenomenon. Gunsbourg, the director, intercepted me. He was radiant.

What a revelation, eh, my dear chap!”

But who is she? Borelli, Borelli…a pseudonym? It’s miraculous, the voice of a maiden with the experience of a seasoned artiste! Amazing! What authority! What warmth! What….”

What a revelation, eh!”

Gunsbourg could not get over it. As for me, I had but one idea: to engage La Borelli at the Opéra-Dramatique — and I admit that frankly. But Gunsbourg shook his head mockingly. “That, you know, is something else!”

I assumed that he had contracted with the singer for a long series of performances. He corrected my misapprehension, but swore nevertheless — still in a bantering tone — that Madame Borelli would never appear on the stage of my theater.

Is it that she doesn’t know how to act?” I asked. “Bah! She’ll learn. It’s a mere detail. Her diction already leaves nothing to be desired. Introduce me to her, my dear chap — quickly. I’ll take responsibility for the rest.”

Hold on! She’s already leaving! There she is at the end of the corridor with her husband. Well, are you coming?”

A couple had just emerged into the corridor through a side-door and, having turned their backs toward us, were drawing away. I glimpsed them for a few seconds before they reached the far corner: he, an imposing stature enveloped in dark clothing; she, a meager imprecise form propped up on two crutches that made her shoulders rise and fall rhythmically and dug into her armpits at every tottering step.

The unparalleled cantatrice was a cripple!

I felt a cruel disappointment, whose violence astonished me when I recovered from my stupor.

The Borellis were on their way out. Gunsbourg was waiting.

What does it matter!” I eventually exclaimed, in the ardor of my enthusiasm. “There’s no lameness that can hold her back! After they’ve heard her sing, every composer will want her as an interpreter. They’ll write roles to suit her, episodic, motionless or hidden — roles of admirable originality! Roles for voices, not for characters! What do I know? Then again, we have the resource of concerts — in that respect, the field is wide open. In any case, my dear chap, it’s essential that she be heard. Think of it! Centuries might pass before such a vocal prodigy is reproduced — if it ever is reproduced! I’m astonished that your company-member isn’t famous in spite of her infirmity. Where the Devil did you unearth that nightingale?”

I saw her for the first time a week ago. She arrived in my office one evening, escorted by her husband, or at least by an individual who claimed to be her husband. He’s a rather disquieting character, shady in appearance and manner. Both of them, decked out in unspeakable rags, seemed to be very poor. Their bearing, however, respired the health of vagabonds accustomed to the open air. I thought they’d come from Italy, perhaps as beggars…but in sum, no one knows where they come from. Monsieur Borelli argued the conditions of the engagement with revolting rudeness. He has his hooks into his companion, that’s obvious. She has that constrained physiognomy of Lakmés or Mignons,[3] and surely wouldn’t sing unless someone were forcing her to do it. Poor girl! Did you notice the melancholy quality of her voice?”

No, I hadn’t noticed that. Besides, my project was preoccupying my mind.

Give me their address,” I said, brusquely. “I must take that woman to Paris.”


The Bohemians’ household occupied two small rooms in a fourth-rate hotel called Villa des Mouettes,[4] overlooking the sea. It happened that I was staying nearby. I went there the next day, early in the morning.

Without the least protocol, a boy led me to their apartment. “They’re on the first floor,” he told me, “because of the lady’s incapacity. There’s no lift here, and no rooms on the ground floor.” As the blast of a trumpet shook the whole the building, he added: “He’s the one playing the hunting-horn. He’s already been told three times to shut up.”

We arrived in front of a door that the interior fanfare — savage and scandalous, but not without a certain crude beauty — was causing to vibrate.

My guide knocked. Silence fell abruptly. I perceived a muffled dialogue, the sound of something moving away, being dragged across the carpet, the closing of a door, then the opening of a window…the click-click of a key….

Finally, Borelli appeared.

Face to face, we recoiled. For my part, it was surprise, at the sight of that astonishingly chubby, suntanned, curly-haired gallows-bird — a sort of dangerous Hercules, half-dressed in trousers and a loose jacket, and who…in truth, I don’t know how to express it….

I had a vague sensation of having met that man somewhere before — and recently, damn it! — but in circumstances such that I should never have seen him again. Do you see? The fact of seeing him again seemed — obscurely — impossible. It was a vague impression — so vague that a moment’s reasoning immediately attributed it to the remembrance of some dream.

Borelli’s suspicion was not so quick to dissipate. Anxiety widened his eyes, and I didn’t understand the reason for it — for, far from explaining my reminiscence, my host’s attitude seemed to contradict it. I had a muted consciousness of that relationship.

I bowed. Borelli’s face lit up.

Damn!” he said, blowing into his abnormal cheeks. “You frightened me, with your big white beard! Perbacco, signore—you should warn people, when you resemble someone else so closely!”[5]

I offered him my card. He burst into loud laugher, from which I inferred that he could not read. That is why I told him my name and my position. Then he invited me to sit down.

I explained the purpose of my visit, neglecting to mention crutches and lameness, while surreptitiously taking inventory of the lodgings. Borelli, impelled by false modesty, had hidden his hunting-horn. I was only able to discover miserable impersonal furniture: two chairs; an iron-framed bed; a chest of drawers; a cheapjack clock flanked by two large spiny seashells on the mantelpiece; lithographs and coat-pegs on the walls; and the most wretched trunk imaginable — moldy and falling apart — in a corner, like debris washed on shore after a shipwreck.

Confronted by that indigence, pity gradually softened my attitude. My offers reflected that. They were…what they needed to be.

Borelli listened to them without saying a word. He gazed through the open window at the sea, with piercing eyes. The toes of his bare, sun-bronzed feet played with their sandals. In the opening of his jacket, the brown torso of a Neapolitan athlete could be seen swelling with the rhythm of life. Oh, what a handsome fellow! But where had I seen him before?

Furrowing his brows and clenching his fists, he muttered: “Just my luck!” And he began laughing sarcastically. “I knew I’d be offered loads of gold and silver,” he went on. “Just my luck! I can’t, perbacco! We can’t accept. We can’t go to Paris, you see, Monsieur Director. I’m obliged to refuse. Oh, existence on land isn’t easy! I even wonder if we’ll succeed in living here…you know, don’t you, that Madame Borelli is a cripple?”

I don’t care about that. No one will care about it. She sings, and one is all ears. She sings, and one no longer has eyes….”

Isn’t that so? Isn’t it? You’ve never heard singing like that, eh? Can you believe that she has such treasures in her throat? Oh, tell me, anyway — do you think I could make a lot of money with her? What would you say to concerts in the dark? Darkness and music — they go together. No one ever saw her…then again, it would economize on lighting. What do you think? Tell me, Monsieur Director? I’m thinking about a tour along the coast: Nice, Marseilles….”

Profoundly sickened by the manners of this boor, who spoke of his wife and a great artiste as a curious object, I nevertheless replied: “But why don’t you want to try Paris? I guarantee….”

The enormous lout cut me off, curtly. “Basta! Basta! I said the coast; it will be the coast! We only do seaside resorts. It’s for health reasons, Madame’s whim, family secrets — anything you want, but that’s — the — way — it — is! The coast or nothing.”

He had the same effect on me as a rare wild beast. My opinion was further reinforced when Borelli, having distinguished the splashing sound of ablutions in the next room — which, moreover, must have splashed the surroundings copiously — ran to the connecting door, opened it by a crack, and cursed the author of the splashing in singularly barbarous terms. He was terrible in his fury and vehemence.

There was no response, but Madame Borelli — at least, I assume that it was her — continued taking her bath in a more subdued fashion.

The other, mollified, returned to me. “I regret it, damn it! I regret it, perbacco! — for the wages, as is reasonable…and also…you seem like a nice old fellow. We’d be fixed up….”

He looked me up and down with disdainful benevolence.

I’m at your disposal,” I replied, politely.

The bumpkin misunderstood the conventional meaning of the formula. “Really?” he said. “Really and truly?” Drawing closer, he looked me in the eye without restraint. “Really, truly and honestly?”

The sad lot of the singer moved me to such pity that I made a sign of acquiescence with my eyes and head.

With that, Borelli said to me in a low voice: “Well then listen: you can do me a big favor.”

Go on.”

If you….” He stared at me severely, then, satisfied with my attitude, resumed in a confidential mode, perhaps a trifle hesitantly: “If you see a man hereabouts who resembles you like your mirror image, tell me right away.”

I pretended to accept the mission. “A man with a long white beard? Very old?”

Rather!” said Borelli, with a bitterly ironic smile.

How is he dressed?”

He seemed perplexed. “Dressed? In faith…not very fashionably, doubtless. Baroque, probably. Ah! There’s this: try to get a look at his forehead. His forehead ought to bear the mark of a…an overly heavy hat, worn for a long time. Just now, when you appeared, that’s how I knew you weren’t him…but it’s the beard, most of all, that you’ll pick out.”

What if he’s shaved?”

My interlocutor smiled again, this time without bitterness. The thought of my mysterious double stripped of his beard seemed to fill him with delight. “Have no fear, Monsieur Director. There are beards one does not shave off. And thanks, you know — he is, so to speak, a creditor…who’s tracking me….”

He looked at the sea, thoughtfully.

In order to prolong the conversation and, if possible, get more deeply into the confidence of the enigmatic churl, I ventured: “I can see that you love the sea.”

He emerged from his reverie, and his reddened cheeks puffed out. “Me? The sea?” he gasped. “Ugh…why ask me that? No, I don’t love the sea. It stinks, doesn’t it? You can smell the tide. Don’t you think that you can smell the fish even from here? No? That’s not what you were trying to insinuate? No? I can!” He raised his voice abruptly, in a menacing fashion: “I can! It smells of fish here!”

His keen eyes sparkled, fixed on mine. I thought I ought to withdraw without further ado, and took my leave of the irritable nomad, asking him to convey to Madame Borelli the assurance of my utter admiration and the regret I bore for not having been able to offer my homage to her.

She’s getting dressed,” Borelli countered.

I was not yet outside when the fanfare thundered more loudly than before.

The Hercules with the pygean[6] cheeks had closed his window — but I perceived, at the next one, the desperate face of a woman who was gazing at the sea and weeping.


I saw the Borellis again that same evening, at the theater and in the wings. A veritable multitude was crowding the auditorium to heard Siegfried’s bird sing. Our Parisian party had remained in Monte Carlo in its entirety, contrary to the plans we had made to return to Paris the day after the performance. The previous night’s audience had returned in full, replete with melomaniac fervor. For lack of a smaller folding-seat, Gunsbourg had offered me a stool behind one of the scenery-supports. It was the best way of getting close to Madame Borelli. I watched out for her.

They arrived. The most lamentable of all the memories I have is that of the invalid advancing jerkily on her crutches in the midst of other actors magnificent in their carriage and radiant with pride. The unfortunate woman was clad in poverty-stricken Sunday clothes. I shall long remember her shapeless and colorless bonnet, undoubtedly the victim of many a downpour, diabolically positioned, but on a superb chignon whose fawn-colored tresses were tightly wound, compressing their fabulous opulence. And her bodice! The poor woman! How many times had she laundered that smock to get it into that urine-colored state? And her skirt! Her pitiful skirt, with its faded hues, superannuated petticoats, “decorated” with garlands and worn braid — her sinister skirt, knotted at the base like a sack, upon the secret monstrosity of her legs!

She moved heavily, positioning the sack, then the crutches, then the sack….

I couldn’t tell you whether she was pretty; one only saw her sadness. She looked as if she had been born on the Day of the Dead.

Monsieur Borelli held her close. I perceived a vague similarity between them, like a family resemblance, a certain wild, russet, suntanned quality that linked them confusedly together. Brother and sister? Cousins? Or simply compatriots?

On seeing me, the man stopped short. He resumed walking immediately, his expression reassured and his cheeks puffed out.

It’s a bit strong! I can’t get used to your beard!” he said to me, as he shook my hand. Then, very quickly, he whispered in my ear: “No news? The old man? Good.” He straightened up again. “This is my wife, Monsieur Director.”

I tried to get the cantatrice to talk. She murmured a few yesses and a few discouraging noes…besides, the performance was under way; we didn’t have the right to talk. The music reigned.

Siegfried’s horn resounded. Borelli gripped my shoulder and whispered; “Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that trumpet beautiful? That’s what I call a nice piece, easy to remember….”

Suddenly, the voice of the bird emerged from the lips of the invalid, so close to me that my throat resonated with it. It was as if the atmosphere were saturated with a maddening sonorous aroma. Seized by vertigo, intoxication, gratitude, I became unsteady on my feet. Scene-shifters, chorus girls, bit-part players and even singers — the entire personnel of the theater — formed a circle around the cripple. There was something in her voice other than genius and sweetness; there was an inexplicable power of attraction. And in the half-light of the place, magnified, transfigured by the love of her art, the golden-haired cripple acquired an irresistible beauty….

She finished. The continuing opera was a tiresome racket. I emerged from an opium dream. La Borelli was no longer anything more than a sad and badly-dressed creature, who could not be cheered up by my praises. The ovations left her indifferent. Her escort led her away hurriedly — “to avoid indiscretions at the exit,” he said. I wanted to go with them; he refused, will an ill grace.


An hour later, unable to calm the agitation that the emotion, though brief, had left within me, I was wandering along the edge of the sea, some distance away from the houses. The silhouette of a man standing on a rock was suddenly outlined in the darkness.

The new moon illuminated the marine landscape faintly. I thought I recognized Borelli. Divided between dread and curiosity, I advanced furtively through the boulders on the shore, continually losing sight of him only to discover him closer at hand, as motionless as his pedestal. It was definitely him, like a statue.

Where had I met him before?

Remembering the scares that the unexpected sight of me gave him, I paused some distance away and announced myself joyfully. He shivered nonetheless upon his rock, like a cypress in a gust of wind.

Borelli seemed to be lost in contemplation before the nocturnal sea. A large cloak draped him in Romanticism. Diffuse objects were heaped at his feet.

You can’t tell me that you don’t love Amphitrite!” I exclaimed, in a bantering tone. “To come at this hour to admire her….”

So what?” he grunted. “Is it any of your business? Yes, I love the sea, but not so much as solitude, you know!”

I was astonished to hear him speaking so loudly, in a voice that overwhelmed the sound of the waves, when I was so close to him. I felt his anger. He said to me, point-blank: “Why don’t you dare to interrogate me about what’s on the ground beside me?”

But I hadn’t even given it a thought.…” I replied, disconcerted.

Borelli shrugged his shoulders. I observed that his eyes were uniquely occupied with the sea. He studied its moving expanse unrelentingly. It was quiet and pallid in the moonlight. A dolphin was playing in the waves; its contortions and the flips of its tail were visible from time to time in fugitive gleams. The lighthouses, all in a line, gesticulated variously with their infinite arms of light.

You haven’t given it a thought?” he mocked. “Go on! You’re scared. I hate intruders — you know that very well. Leave me in peace, my dear Monsieur!”

I was only an old man, devoid of vigor….

Listen, Borelli — I’m going, that’s understood. It’s far from my intention to be disagreeable to you, my lad. But don’t say that I’m scared. I’m not scared. What are those things at your feet?”

Go away!” bellowed the colossus. “Peace! Peace! Peace! If not….”

I beat the retreat at a steady pace, mastering a furious desire to run away as fast as my legs could carry me.

As I went back into Monte Carlo, I wondered if it might be wise to take advantage of the absence of the redoubtable cicisbeo to attempt to have a conversation with Madame Borelli. The lateness of the hour held me back. Both the adventurers’ windows were dark; the invalid’s slumber seemed to be a delight that should only be broken in exchange for another. I passed on.


The adventure seemed supremely exciting to me; a voice captivated me; a woman excited my charity; a man intrigued my suspicion. I allowed my traveling companions to leave without me.

In the early afternoon, Borelli had himself announced. I received him in my room. It was a social visit, or so he claimed. No allusion was made to the previous night’s incident. After a few superfluous remarks, though, he asked me straight out to lend him twenty-five louis.

Very annoyed, I procrastinated, changing the subject; I offered him my compliments with regard to the affluence that the singer was attracting to the theater and the principality. Thanks to her, the accommodation was fully booked for a fortnight and the hotels were overflowing.

On that, the husband-impresario told me that he was going to demand a serious pay-increase from Gunsbourg, or his wife would not sing again. I assume that he was on the point of reiterating his request for five hundred francs, but an unexpected occurrence interrupted him.

His face changed. With his ear cocked, he gestured to me to be silent. Before I had heard whatever it was, the fanatic hurled himself on to the balcony.

All the passers-by and strollers were heading in the same direction at a hurried pace, with a hypnotic and taciturn gait that was alarming at first glance. In the distance, in the direction of the Villa des Mouettes, an extraordinary voice launched forth in disorganized song — and it was toward that voice that all those people were marching like sleep-walkers.

My visitor lost his temper. “I’ve forbidden her, though….”

What happened next was immediate. Four bounds had taken him to the foot of the staircase, as he too hastened toward the magnetic singer.

Was it the effect of the indomitable curiosity that linked me to their destiny? Was it by virtue of the melodious magnetism? At any rate, the fact is that I bounded after him.

From every direction, people were running toward the barbed call of the voice. What she was singing resembled nothing familiar. It sprang forth, twisting and overflowing in delightful cries. It was the entirety of springtime, singing the entirety of love. Men, subjugated, were heading toward the infernal canticle as little birds head toward the eyes of a serpent. There were some women trying to hold some of them back, and others who were following them toward the voice. Arms extended, eyes crazed, their feverish legs were working mechanically. A host of fanatical automata was pressing at the doorway of the Villa des Mouettes and beneath the singer’s open window. Borelli threw himself into it with a forceful leap, waving his arms and legs, progressing with great thrusts of the hips and shoulders into the bosom of that living wave, with the gestures and a swimmer and an amphibious flexibility. The ecstatic members of the crowd allowed themselves to be brutalized. They were listening, with their mouths open and their nostrils flared, as if their mouths and nostrils were listening, drinking and breathing in the voice, obedient to its despotic tones: Closer! Closer! Forwards! That was what was being ordered without being spoken.

Like everyone else, I was held voluptuously captive by the toils of the melody, and I immersed myself involuntarily in the human heap in order to get closer, at any price, my eardrums fascinated, my soul numbed….

It was resonating in the depths of a gulf, into which all those amorous individuals withed to precipitate themselves.

The charm lasted until the intervention of the plump manager. His outburst reached us as a fearful summons, proffered in an idiom that was impossible to comprehend….

Then, crushed by a silence more silent than any other, we looked at one another as if emerging from an adorable and shameful dementia. Everyone resumed his interrupted journey, head empty, nerves jangling, full of astonishment and confusion. Many had glided as far as the threshold of the room; they slipped away, blushing. A few were weeping. Life recommenced; the noises of it set all their teeth on edge.


That kind of scandal only had fortunate consequences for my friend Gunsbourg. Madame Borelli sang the bird as she had the night before, in the presence of an elite audience which crammed the corridors and blocked the exits, a noisy and profuse crush; but Wagner’s music on her lips was not sufficiently imperious a spell to draw the legion of her admirers into the wings.

I was placed in the orchestra stalls.

On raising my eyes, I perceived in the balcony, directly above my head, an old gentleman whose long white beard made me shiver. The opera-glasses revealed the image that mirrors habitually relay back to me, with the difference that, of the two of us, it was me that was the reflection. I was the faded, soft and discolored replica of that august old man; the copy of which he was the original. With the complexion of an old sea-dog,[7] a Roman nose, two turquoise flames beneath shadowy eyebrows, and his forehead barred by a reddish line like those left by heavy helmets, he looked like the venerable admiral of a squadron of yore, a commander grown old in naval glory, a doge of Venice, mistress of the sea, immortal or resurrected. A frock-coat constrained the amplitude of his torso. Many a lady was peering at that combined patriarchal and military majesty through her opera-glasses. Royal names were running from mouth to mouth in his respect.

There was no doubt about it: this was Signor Borelli’s enemy — perhaps even his ancestor and the ancestor of he singer; for, it must be admitted, the family resemblance I had already noted assimilated all three of their faces.

That of the old man took on an expression of tragic grandeur when the bird began to sing. Its ancient solemn rectitude shifted nervously, as if to deplore….

Bravos. Encores, Hurrahs. Disorder.

I tried to find him again. He had disappeared.

Ought I to warn the interested party? I hesitated over that until the final act and concluded by opting in favor of the old man, against the persecutor of my protégée. Borelli’s adversary could only be a friend of the oppressed woman, an ally for me; it was, therefore, her and not the Italian who had to be informed as soon as possible.

In the hope that the plump man would devote himself once again to the shadowy task in which I had disturbed him on the strand on the previous night, and which, no doubt, would prevent him from leaving the shore, I went to the Mouettes.

The drowsy concierge mumbled that neither Monsieur nor Madame Borelli had come back from the theater — to which he swore — and that, moreover, they never came back before three or four o’clock in the morning, which he had already told me a little while ago, and that he did not understand why I had woken him up twice in succession to ask him the same thing.

The news of this double absence confused my ideas and upset my plan. Moreover, the old man had been there. I resolved to bring the matter into the light, and set off resolutely for the rocks where Borelli had snapped at me. Having had second thoughts, though, I turned back; I climbed to the top of the cliff that bordered that part of the shore, from whose heights I would be able to look down on the setting and the action.

My heart was beating rapidly. I felt strange.

The nebulous night was not as favorable to watchers as the one before, and the moon was still on the point of rising. The sea — the ancient sea, the Latin sea — lulling its eternal insomnia, was reciting its pagan legends and the poem of its mythology in the darkness. Flecks of foam whitened it here and there. Clouds being sparse, the clarity of the sky showed me the fugitive gleams of the nautical play of a dolphin in the far distance. But then the thunderous clamor of a horn went up — a horn sounding Siegfried’s fanfare!

I stopped.

Beneath my post, there was a statue standing on a pedestal: Borelli, who was sounding the trumpet-call on an instrument so small that it could not be seen; Borelli alone; a sculptural Borelli.

Ah! I thought, suddenly. God, how stupid I am! I didn’t realize it until now. He doesn’t resemble any actual citizen! It’s the Tritons he resembles, with his bloated cheeks! The Tritons of painters and sculptors! The two decorative Tritons of the water-pavilion at the Palais de Longchamp, in Marseilles, at which I was looking only the other day! All well and good! That’s why it seemed impossible to encounter him, since he wasn’t in the land of dreams!”

The fanfare having concluded, Borelli called out to someone — but he was still alone. I was looking at him from behind. He was standing between the sea and me, on the rock, in his overcoat. His calls multiplied, and became more precipitate, to the point at which he seemed to be hurling invective at the waves. He really was calling out, but to whom? Darkness. No one.

He crouched down, and leapt down from the rock. He was no longer visible….

Oh! Yes: at the very edge, on the fringe of the waves.

And the horn began to sound again — no longer Siegfried’s leitmotiv but long howls reminiscent of what hunting jargon terms a compulsory summons. And then again, another bitter discourse shouted in the solitude, into the Mediterranean darkness: the liquid desert where a single dolphin was frolicking. And then the insistent trumpet call again, imperative, roaring….

Nothing more.

The moon was veiled with cloud.

Borelli was dragging something out of the sea — something that resisted him. Like a fisherman hauling in his net — the simulacrum of a fisherman hauling in his net, of which absolutely nothing could be seen. Ah! The thing had yielded, had broken; having fallen backwards, he blasphemed. I heard foreign words, imprecations….

He was struggling on the spot. Suddenly, I saw that he was naked. In the same instant, he slid sinuously into the water, swimming with the rapidity of a seal, with great thrusts of his shoulders and hips, just as he had surged through the middle of the crowd….

Fascination, equal to a passion, made me tremble. The most fantastic thing of all, however, had not yet occurred.

While the Hercules was swimming out into the open sea, becoming blurred in the depths of the darkness — heading almost directly for the dolphin, which could no longer be made out — I heard a kind of whinnying sound, out at sea. Several others followed, mingling together; gigantic, paradoxical whinnying sounds, with an unusual resonance; a choir of stallions imitating the barking concert of seals; horses crossed with walruses; ambiguous striders of the shadows and the sea….

At that moment, another of Borelli’s calls reached me, above the din.

An infinitely distant voice answered him….

I just had time to throw myself flat on the ground and stick my fingers I my ears. I had just felt myself marching forward, toward the edge of the cliff. One more step, and I would have been dead. For that faraway voice, from the remotest distance, as the hallucinatory voice of Madame Borelli, frenzied now, and triumphant, who was singing her springtime song like a hymn of deliverance!

Slowly, I relaxed the vice-like grip of my fists upon my ears; by that means I established that the human voice and the whinnyings had vanished.

The moon emerged from a mass of cloud.

In the sea, a moving dot was heading straight for the shore; another dot, gleaming was following it a few fathoms behind: two men. The first came ashore. That was Borelli again. Dripping and painting, he headed for Monte Carlo. The second stood up at the same spot, and immediately launched himself on the heels of the fugitive. That one was an old man, and he was a giant — the old man whose feeble miniature I was. His long white beard floated in the wind of the pursuit. A golden crown helmeted him with spikes and fire. Although devoid of clothes, he would have been reminiscent of Charlemagne had he not been more sovereign than any emperor. At the end of one superb and menacing arm he was brandishing a sort of fork, like a lance and like a scepter.

The pursuit disappeared into the unknown.

I remained alone with the immensity.

After an hour of waiting in the moonlight, I decided to leave the theater of that equivocal drama. Before doing anything else, however, I went down a path to the place that Borelli had haunted for two nights in a row, to my knowledge — and every night, in my belief.

I found his felt hat there and his Romantic cloak. Next to them, on a parcel of old clothes, easily recognizable as Madame Borelli’s, were two crutches forming a cross. There was also a large spiny seashell on the cloak: a conch.

By virtue of searching for the place where I had glimpsed the nocturnal wanderer trying to haul in the thing whose rupture had made him fall over, I ended up discovering a stake solidly planted in the sand, on the tide-line. It still retained a fine and resilient steel cord, which plunged into the sea. I pulled out about two hundred meters — all of it. It ended in a large collar, or rather a girdle — a leather girdle with a padlock, which had been cut a little while before.

As for Borelli, his body was blocking the path half way to Monte Carlo. He was lying face down, facing Monaco. Death, aided by the moonlight, was whitening his colossal back to the point of giving it a green tinge. Three parallel wounds, equidistant and in the same line, offered evidence of a single thrust of an avenging trident.


[1] Louis Cochet is quite a common name, and there were several notable people of that name when the story was written; the one most likely to be the intended dedicate is the architect Philip-Louis Cochet.

[2] Enrico Caruso (1873−1921) was world famous by the time this story was published, but in the 1890s, when it is set, he was still singing in provincial Italian theaters; he did not make it to La Scala until 1900 and his recording career did not begin until 1902.

[3] Lakmé (1883) and Mignon (1866) are both light operas. The former has words by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille and music by Léo Delibes; it is based on a work by Pierre Loti and set in India; the latter has words by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, inspired by Goethe (Mignon is a character in Wilhelm Meister) and music by Ambroise Thomas.

[4] “Seamew Villa.”

[5] The Italian exclamation “Perbacco!” is an approximate equivalent of the English “Wow!”

[6] This Greek-derived adjective does not appear in the English dictionary any more than the French one, but it signifies “buttock-shaped”.

[7] The term I have construed metaphorically in substituting the English “sea-dog” is loup de mer [sea wolf], which is applied more literally to several different fish and marine mammals, nowadays most commonly to the sea bass. It is conceivable that Renard might have a comparison of that genre in mind.

Maurice RenardMaurice Renard (1879−1935) was a French author who wrote primarily in the mode of what he described as “the scientific-marvelous.” His work occupies a space in between traditional science fiction and the weird (perhaps the “marvel” part of his own coinage). While little critical attention seems to have been given to Renard’s work in Anglo-American scholarship, he has generally been viewed in high esteem by European counterparts. Renard dedicated and made conscious reference to H.G. Wells in one of his best known works, Doctor Lerne – Undergod, which has come to be seen by many as an early progenitor of the mad scientist novel. Perhaps his most famous novel is The Hands of Orlac, adapted to film several times, which concerns a pianist who receives the transplanted hands of a murderer and becomes a murderer himself.

Although he worked as a journalist and contributor to pulp magazines of the time, Renard did not fully support himself with his writing until after he had studied law and become an attorney. But by the end of his career, he had written some eighteen novels, hundreds of short stories, and numerous plays, poetic works, and essays, the latter of which were frequently dedicated to formulating a theory of the scientific-marvelous as a distinct literary genre. “The Cantatrice” focuses significantly more on the “marvelous” part of this construct, featuring a series events that progressively become more uncanny.

Best known as the author of nearly eighty novels of science fiction, Brian Stableford has also translated dozens of works, primarily from French into English. In 2011, he received a special award from the inaugural year of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards in recognition of the excellence of his work. In addition to works by Maurice Renard, such as A Man Among the Microbes and The Doctored Man (which includes “The Cantatrice”), Stableford has also translated works by Paul Féval, Jean Lorrain, and Judith Gautier. He has edited several anthologies, such as The Dedalus Book of British Fantasy: The 19th Century, and authored numerous nonfiction works, many of which examine sociological aspects of speculative fiction. From 1979 to 1988, he worked as lecturer in sociology at the University of Reading, after which he became a full-time writer and part-time lecturer.