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Short Story Classics




Emile Zola



by Emile Zola


IN Paris, everything's for sale: wise virgins, foolish virgins, truth and lies, tears and smiles.

You must certainly be aware that in such a commercially-minded place, beauty is a commodity and the object of an obnoxious trade. People buy and sell big bright eyes and charming little mouths; noses and chins are all quoted at their exact valuation. A particular dimple or beauty-spot can command a steady income. And since there's always fraud somewhere or other, at times you have to copy nature's handiwork, so that eyebrows drawn with burnt match-ends, and false hairpieces fetch better prices than the real article.

This is quite fair and reasonable. We're a civilized people and what's the good of being civilized if it doesn't help us to take other people in and be taken in ourselves, thereby making life less tedious.

But I must confess to being really astonished yesterday when I learnt that old Durandeau, that businessman known to all and sundry, had come up with the astoundingly ingenious idea of finding a market for ugliness.

Selling beauty is something I can understand, even selling false beauty seems perfectly natural, it's a sign of progress. But I think the businessman I mentioned really has deserved well of his country by putting into circulation such a hitherto unsalable article as ugliness. Don't misunderstand me, I'm talking about real ugliness, ugly ugliness, sold on the open market.

I'm sure you've occasionally seen women in couples, walking slowly along the pavement, stopping in front of shop-windows, giggling and swishing their long skirts in a very fetching way. They go along arm-in-arm like good friends, talking as if they have known each other for ages. They're about the same age and both smartly dressed. But one of them is always relatively good-looking, not the sort of face you'd write home about or turn round to examine more closely, but had you caught sight of it accidentally, you'd have viewed it without displeasure. The other woman is always hideous, the sort of ugliness that grates on your nerves but which you can't take your eyes off; it forces the passerby to draw comparisons between her and her companion.

Own up: you've sometimes been taken in and started to follow the couple. In isolation, the hideous one would have disgusted you and the moderately good-looking one would have left you cold. But together, the ugliness of the one has magnified the good looks of the other.

Well, let me explain to you that the hideously ugly one, the monstrosity, belongs to Durandeau's agency. She's on the staff of Rentafoil. The great Durandeau had hired her out to the ordinary looking one at five francs an hour.


Let me tell you the full story.

Durandeau is an imaginative and original entrepreneur, a multi-millionaire who has succeeded in turning business into an art. For many years he had been bewailing the fact that no one had hitherto been able to make money out of ugly girls. As for pretty ones, trading in them is a tricky matter and I can assure you that the idea of such a thing has never crossed his mind; he's rich enough to be able to afford scruples.

One day he received a sudden illumination from heaven. As with all great inventions, this brainwave sprang quite unexpectedly into his head. He was walking along the boulevard one day when he saw two girls tripping along in front of him. One was pretty and one was ugly and as he looked the realization dawned on him that the ugly one was an adornment worn, as it were, by the pretty one. Just as you buy ribbons and face-powder and false plaits, it was only right and proper, he said to himself, that the pretty one should buy the ugly one as a suitable embellishment, a foil.

Durandeau went home to ponder over the matter. The commercial operation that he had in mind needed to be conducted with great care. He didn't want to launch out rashly into an enterprise which would be a stroke of genius if it succeeded and preposterous if it failed. He spent the night doing his sums and reading up those philosophers who have written most wisely about the stupidity of men and the vanity of women. When dawn came, his mind was made up: his arithmetic had made sense and the philosophers had shown such a low opinion of mankind that he felt able to rely on a large number of prospective clients.


If my Muse were more inspired, I'd produce a splendid epic on the creation of Durandeau's agency. It would be farcical and sad, full of tears and full of laughter.

Durandeau had greater difficulty than he had anticipated in acquiring his stock-in-trade. At first, using the direct approach, he had little hand-written notices stuck on rainwater-pipes, on trees and in out-of-the-way corners. These notices read as follows: 'Ugly girls required. Undemanding work.'

He waited a week and not a single ugly girl came forward. Five or six pretty ones turned up who were facing the desperate alternative of starving to death or a life of vice but still hoping to find work to rescue themselves. Durandeau was dreadfully embarrassed and assured them repeatedly that they were pretty and of no use to him. They insisted that they were ugly and that it was pure gallantry and callousness on his part to describe them as anything else. Since they were unable to sell their non-existent ugliness, I expect by now they'll have found buyers for their undoubted beauty.

By now Durandeau had realized that only pretty women have the courage to make a false confession of ugliness. The ugly ones would never admit of their own free will that their mouths were too big and their eyes ludicrously small. You could put up notices all over Paris offering ten francs to every ugly woman who cared to apply without the slightest risk of becoming impoverished.

So Durandeau gave up his idea of notices and commissioned half-a-dozen agents to scour the city in search of female monstrosities: a general mobilization of the ugly women of Paris. The agents--men of tact and taste--had a tricky assignment, needing to take into account temperament and situation. Thus, when the person concerned needed money urgently, they didn't beat about the bush; when they were dealing with girls not yet on the point of starving, they had to show greater subtlety. It's not easy for someone polite to go up to a woman and say: 'Madame, you're ugly; I'll pay you so much per day for your ugliness.'

This hunt for girls who dare not face their mirrors without bursting into tears led to many memorable moments. Sometimes the agents would see passing in the street an ideally ugly woman and were so keen to show her to Durandeau that they could barely restrain themselves. Indeed, some of them stopped at nothing.

Every morning Durandeau held court to inspect the goods that had been rounded up the day before. Sprawling in his armchair in a yellow dressing-gown and black satin skull cap, he had the new recruits parade in front of him, each accompanied by her agent. He would lean back and scrutinize them through half-closed eyes, with the air of a satisfied or disappointed connoisseur; he would slowly take a pinch of snuff and reflect; then, to get a better look, he'd make the article turn round and examine it from every angle; sometimes he would even stand up and feel the hair or peep into the face like a tailor stroking a piece of cloth or a grocer checking the quality of a lump of tallow or some pepper. When the ugliness was blatant, when the face was stupid and heavy, Durandeau would rub his hands together and congratulate the agent. He would almost have liked to embrace the monstrosity herself. But he mistrusted any signs of singularity in a woman: eyes that were bright or lips with an ironical twist would make him scowl and he would say to himself that an ugly woman like that might not excite love but could well excite passion. He would give the agent a black look and tell the woman to come back again later--when she was old.

It's not as easy as you might think to be an expert in ugliness and gather a collection of really ugly women unlikely to spoil the chances of pretty ones. Durandeau's deep knowledge of the human heart and its passions made him a collector of genius. For him, the expression was the essential, and he chose only faces that were intimidating by reason of their appalling dullness and stupidity.

The day he felt in a position to offer beautiful women past their prime a full selection of ugly ones to match their colouring and their particular brand of beauty, he opened his agency with the following prospectus:

L. Durandeau Paris, May 1st, 18. .
18, Rue M. . .
in Paris
Office hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Dear Madame,

I have the honour to inform you that I have recently established a firm with the express purpose of providing a unique service for the preservation of a lady's beauty. I have invented an article of fashion which will add new lustre to your own natural beauty.

Hitherto the means of enhancing a lady's beauty have been painfully obvious. Jewels and other finery are clearly visible and it is also well known that false hairpieces exist and rosy cheeks come out of a box.

I have endeavoured to confront this apparently insoluble problem of making ladies even lovelier while hiding from any indiscreet eye the origin of their adornment. The question was this: could we find some infallible method of ensuring that she should attract favourable attention and avoid wasteful expenditure of time and energy without recourse to one single extra ribbon or facial adornment.

I think that I may flatter myself that I have completely mastered this thorny problem.

Today, any lady prepared to honour me with her patronage will, for a derisory sum, attract the eyes of an admiring public.

My article of fashion is extremely simple and its effect is guaranteed. I need only describe it to you, Madame, for you to understand immediately how it operates.

Have you not ever seen a beggar-woman being given alms from the elegantly gloved hand of a fine lady dressed in silk and other finery? Did you not notice how splendid the sheen of her silk looked against the beggar-woman's rags and how her wealth stood out with even greater elegance by comparison with the other's poverty?

Madame, I have the pleasure and privilege of providing your lovely countenance with the richest collection of ugly faces to be found anywhere. Tattered rags emphasize the chic of new clothes: my ugly faces bring out the full charm of pretty ones.

Away with false teeth, false hair, false busts! Away with expensive cosmetics and costly toiletries, away with make-up and lace! Simply Foils whose arm you can take, with whom you can walk through the streets to bring out your beauty and attract the fond gaze of the gentlemen!

I invite you, Madame, to honour me with your custom. You will find in my agency the greatest possible variety of ugly creations. You will be able to select the exact type of ugliness most suitable to your particular style of beauty.

My charge for this unique service is a paltry five francs an hour or fifty francs for the whole day.

I remain, Madame, your humble and devoted servant,

N. B. My agency also has a stock of Mothers and Fathers, Uncles and Aunts at extremely reasonable prices.


The venture was a great success. When the agency opened the very next morning, the office was crowded with female customers each choosing her own foil and carrying it off with a tigerish delight. You can't imagine the pleasure of a pretty woman leaning on the arm of an ugly one. Not only was she enhancing her own beauty, she was enjoying someone else's ugliness. Durandeau is a great philosopher.

However, don't imagine that organizing this service was an easy matter. There were innumerable hitches. It had been difficult enough to organize the supply; it was far worse trying to satisfy the demand.

When one lady appeared and asked for a foil, they displayed the goods and invited her to make her choice, contenting themselves merely with offering a few helpful hints. The lady then went disdainfully from one foil to the next, finding all the poor girls either too ugly or not ugly enough, on the grounds that not one of them had the right kind of ugliness to suit her own special sort of beauty. The assistants did their best by pointing out a splendidly crooked nose here, an enormous slit of a mouth there: they might have saved their breath.

At other times the lady herself was appallingly ugly and if he happened to be present, Durandeau would be itching to take her on to his staff at any price. This lady wanted a foil to set off her beauty, she declared; she wanted a young one, not too ugly, since her beauty needed little embellishment. The despairing assistants placed her in front of a large mirror and paraded their whole stock beside her. She still took the prize for ugliness and flounced off indignantly, furious that they had dared to offer her such inferior articles.

Gradually, however, a regular clientele became established and each foil had her regular customers. Durandeau was able to relax with the inner satisfaction of having achieved a new breakthrough in civilization.

I don't know if you can realize what it is like to be a foil; they have their joys and public triumphs but they also have their very private sorrows.

Foils are ugly; they're slaves and they suffer since their money comes from being slaves and ugly. On the other hand, they're well-dressed, they wear jewellery, they walk arm-in-arm with the upper crust of the ladies of the town, go everywhere by carriage, eat in the best restaurants and spend their evenings at the theatre. They're on familiar terms with fashionable cocottes and the simple-minded think they belong to the high society of race-goers and first-nighters.

They spend all day in a whirl of gaiety. At night, they fret and fume and sob. They've had to take off their fine dress which belongs to the agency, they're all alone in their attic, sitting in front of a bit of broken mirror which tells them the truth. Their ugliness is staring them mercilessly in the face and they're quite aware that nobody will ever love them. They may help to excite desire but never will they know the joy of being kissed themselves.


I've tried to tell you here the story of the creation of Durandeau's agency and make his name known to posterity. Such men have their special niche in the hall of fame.

One day I may write the Secret Memoirs of a Foil. I knew one such unfortunate girl whose sad tale was heartrending. Her customers were ladies of the town known to everyone in Paris and they treated her quite shamefully. Please, ladies, don't misuse your foils, be kind towards the ugly ducklings without whose help you wouldn't even be pretty at all!

This foil I knew was an emotional sort of girl whom I suspect of reading too much Walter Scott.* I know nothing sadder than a hunchback in love or an ugly woman full of romantic ideals. The wretc ed girl kept falling in love with all the young men whose eyes were caught by her unfortunate face, which then led their attention on to her employer. It was like a mirror being in love with the larks which it lures down within the range of the huntsman's gun.

She had many harrowing experiences. She was terribly jealous of those women who bought her like a skin-cream or a pair of boots. She was an object hired for so much an hour and it so happened that this object had feelings. Can you imagine her resentment while she had to smile and joke familiarly with the women who were depriving her of her share of love? Those professional Beauties who took malicious pleasure in using honeyed words in public and treating her like a skivvy in private, whom they would have smashed with no more concern than they would have broken a china figure in their display-cabinet.

But what importance has a tormented soul when progress is at stake? Mankind marches on. Durandeau will be blessed by future generations because he has created a market for a hitherto unsaleable commodity and invented a fashion article which makes love easier.



Last updated:
July 12, 2008
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