Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
By Thomas Bailey
Boston And New
1885, and 1901
We are accustomed to speak with a certain light irony of the
tendency which women have to gossip, as if the sin itself, if it is a
sin, were of the gentler sex, and could by no chance be a masculine
peccadillo. So far as my observation goes, men are as much given to
small talk as women, and it is undeniable that we have produced the
highest type of gossiper extant. Where will you find, in or out of
literature, such another droll, delightful, chatty busybody as Samuel
Pepys, Esq., Secretary to the Admiralty in the reigns of those
fortunate gentlemen Charles II. and James II. of England? He is the
king of tattlers as Shakespeare is the king of poets.
If it came to a matter of pure gossip, I would back Our Club against
the Sorosis or any women's club in existence. Whenever you see in our
drawing-room four or five young fellows lounging in easy-chairs, cigar
in hand, and now and then bringing their heads together over the small
round Japanese table which is always the pivot of these social circles,
you may be sure that they are discussing Tom's engagement, or Dick's
extravagance, or Harry's hopeless passion for the younger Miss
Fleurdelys. It is here old Tippleton gets execrated for that
everlasting bon mot of his which was quite a success at
dinner-parties forty years ago; it is here the belle of the season
passes under the scalpels of merciless young surgeons; it is here B's
financial condition is handled in a way that would make B's hair stand
on end; it is here, in short, that everything is canvassedeverything
that happens in our set, I mean, much that never happens, and a great
deal that could not possibly happen. It was at Our Club that I learned
the particulars of the Van Twiller affair.
It was great entertainment to Our Club, the Van Twiller affair,
though it was rather a joyless thing, I fancy, for Van Twiller. To
understand the case fully, it should be understood that Ralph Van
Twiller is one of the proudest and most sensitive men living. He is a
lineal descendant of Wouter Van Twiller, the famous old Dutch governor
of New YorkNieuw Amsterdam, as it was then; his ancestors have always
been burgomasters or admirals or generals, and his mother is the Mrs.
Vanrensselaer Van-zandt Van Twiller whose magnificent place will be
pointed out to you on the right bank of the Hudson, as you pass up the
historic river towards Idlewild. Ralph is about twenty-five years old.
Birth made him a gentleman, and the rise of real estatesome of it in
the family since the old governor's timemade him a millionaire. It
was a kindly fairy that stepped in and made him a good fellow also.
Fortune, I take it, was in her most jocund mood when she heaped her
gifts in this fashion on Van Twiller, who was, and will be again, when
this cloud blows over, the flower of Our Club.
About a year ago there came a whisperif the word whisper is not
too harsh a term to apply to what seemed a mere breath floating gently
through the atmosphere of the billiard-roomimparting the intelligence
that Van Twiller was in some kind of trouble. Just as everybody
suddenly takes to wearing square-toed boots, or to drawing his
neckscarf through a ring, so it became all at once the fashion, without
any preconcerted agreement, for everybody to speak of Van Twilier as a
man in some way under a cloud. But what the cloud was, and how he got
under it, and why he did not get away from it, were points that lifted
themselves into the realm of pure conjecture. There was no man in the
club with strong enough wing to his imagination to soar to the
supposition that Van Twiller was embarrassed in money matters. Was he
in love? That appeared nearly as improbable; for if he had been in love
all the worldthat is, perhaps a hundred first familieswould have
known all about it instantly.
He has the symptoms, said Delaney, laughing. I remember once when
Ned! cried Hemming, I protest against any allusion to that
This was one night when Van Twiller had wandered into the club,
turned over the magazines absently in the reading-room, and wandered
out again without speaking ten words. The most careless eye would have
remarked the great change that had come over Van Twiller. Now and then
he would play a game of billiards with De Peyster or Haseltine, or stop
to chat a moment in the vestibule with old Duane; but he was an altered
man. When at the club, he was usually to be found in the small
smoking-room up-stairs, seated on a fauteuil fast asleep, with the last
number of The Nation in his hand. Once, if you went to two or three
places of an evening, you were certain to meet Van Twiller at them all.
You seldom met him in society now.
By and by came whisper number twoa whisper more emphatic than
number one, but still untraceable to any tangible mouthpiece. This time
the whisper said that Van Twiller was in love. But with whom?
The list of possible Mrs. Van Twillers was carefully examined by
experienced hands, and a check placed against a fine old Knickerbocker
name here and there, but nothing satisfactory arrived at. Then that
same still small voice of rumor, but now with an easily detected
staccato sharpness to it, said that Van Twiller was in lovewith an
actress! Van Twiller, whom it had taken all these years and all this
waste of raw material in the way of ancestors to bring to
perfectionRalph Van Twiller, the net result and flower of his race,
the descendant of Wouter, the son of Mrs. Van-rensselaer Vanzandt Van
Twillerin love with an actress! That was too ridiculous to be
believedand so everybody believed it. Six or seven members of the
club abruptly discovered in themselves an unsuspected latent passion
for the histrionic art. In squads of two or three they stormed
successively all the theatres in townBooth's, Wallack's, Daly's Fifth
Avenue (not burnt down then), and the Grand Opera House. Even the
shabby homes of the drama over in the Bowery, where the Germanic
Thespis has not taken out his naturalization papers, underwent rigid
exploration. But no clue was found to Van Twiller's mysterious
attachment. The opéra bouffe, which promised the widest field
for investigation, produced absolutely nothing, not even a crop of
suspicions. One night, after several weeks of this, Delaney and I
fancied that we caught sight of Van Twiller in the private box of an
up-town theatre, where some thrilling trapeze performance was going on,
which we did not care to sit through; but we concluded afterwards that
it was only somebody who looked like him. Delaney, by the way, was
unusually active in this search. I dare say he never quite forgave Van
Twiller for calling him Muslin Delaney. Ned is fond of ladies' society,
and that's a fact.
The Cimmerian darkness which surrounded Van Twiller's inamorata left
us free to indulge in the wildest conjectures. Whether she was
black-tressed Melpomene, with bowl and dagger, or Thalia, with the fair
hair and the laughing face, was only to be guessed at. It was popularly
conceded, however, that Van Twiller was on the point of forming a
Up to this period he had visited the club regularly. Suddenly he
ceased to appear. He was not to be seen on Fifth Avenue, or in the
Central Park, or at the houses he generally frequented. His
chambersand mighty comfortable chambers they wereon Thirty-fourth
Street were deserted. He had dropped out of the world, shot like a
bright particular star from his orbit in the heaven of the best
The following conversation took place one night in the
Where's Van Twiller?
Who's seen Van Twiller?
What has become of Van Twiller?
Delaney picked up the Evening Post, and readwith a solemnity that
betrayed young Firkins into exclaiming, By Jove, now!
Married, on the 10th instant, by the Rev. Friar Laurence, at the
residence of the bride's uncle, Montague Capulet, Esq., Miss Adrienne
Le Couvreur to Mr. Ralph Van Twiller, both of this city. No cards.
Free List suspended, murmured De Peyster.
It strikes me, said Frank Livingstone, who had been ruffling the
leaves of a magazine at the other end of the table, that you fellows
are in a great fever about Van Twiller.
So we are.
Well, he has simply gone out of town.
Up to the old homestead on the Hudson.
It's an odd time of year for a fellow to go into the country.
He has gone to visit his mother, said Livingstone.
I did n't know, Delaney, that there was any statute in force
prohibiting a man from visiting his mother in February if he wants to.
Delaney made some light remark about the pleasure of communing with
Nature with a cold in her head, and the topic was dropped.
Livingstone was hand in glove with Van Twilier, and if any man
shared his confidence it was Livingstone. He was aware of the gossip
and speculation that had been rife in the club, but he either was not
at liberty or did not think it worth while to relieve our curiosity. In
the course of a week or two it was reported that Van Twiller was going
to Europe; and go he did. A dozen of us went down to the Scythia to see
him off. It was refreshing to have something as positive as the fact
that Van Twiller had sailed.
Shortly after Van Twiller's departure the whole thing came out.
Whether Livingstone found the secret too heavy a burden, or whether it
transpired through some indiscretion on the part of Mrs. Vanrensselaer
Vanzandt Van Twiller, I cannot say; but one evening the entire story
was in the possession of the club.
Van Twiller had actually been very deeply interestednot in an
actress, for the legitimate drama was not her humble walk in life,
butin Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski, whose really perilous feats on
the trapeze had astonished New York the year before, though they had
failed to attract Delaney and me the night we wandered into the up-town
theatre on the trail of Van Twiller's mystery.
That a man like Van Twiller should be fascinated even for an instant
by a common circus-girl seems incredible; but it is always the
incredible thing that happens. Besides, Mademoiselle Olympe was not a
common circus-girl; she was a most daring and startling gymnaste, with
a beauty and a grace of movement that gave to her audacious performance
almost an air of prudery. Watching her wondrous dexterity and pliant
strength, both exercised without apparent effort, it seemed the most
natural proceeding in the world that she should do those unpardonable
things. She had a way of melting from one graceful posture into
another, like the dissolving figures thrown from a stereopticon. She
was a lithe, radiant shape out of the Grecian mythology, now poised up
there above the gaslights, and now gleaming through the air like a
slender gilt arrow.
I am describing Mademoiselle Olympe as she appeared to Van Twiller
on the first occasion when he strolled into the theatre where she was
performing. To me she was a girl of eighteen or twenty years of age
(maybe she was much older, for pearl-powder and distance keep these
people perpetually young), slightly but exquisitely built, with sinews
of silver wire; rather pretty, perhaps, after a manner, but showing
plainly the effects of the exhaustive drafts she was making on her
physical vitality. Now, Van Twiller was an enthusiast on the subject of
calisthenics. If I had a daughter, Van Twiller used to say, I would
n't send her to a boarding-school, or a nunnery; I 'd send her to a
gymnasium for the first five years. Our American women have no
physique. They are lilies, pallid, prettyand perishable. You marry an
American woman, and what do you marry? A headache. Look at English
girls. They are at least roses, and last the season through. Walking
home from the theatre that first night, it flitted through Van
Twiller's mind that if he could give this girl's set of nerves and
muscles to any one of the two hundred high-bred women he knew, he would
marry her on the spot and worship her forever.
The following evening he went to see Mademoiselle Olympe again.
Olympe Zabriski, he soliloquized, as he sauntered through the
lobbywhat a queer name! Olympe is French, and Zabriski is Polish. It
is her nom de guerre, of course; her real name is probably Sarah
Jones. What kind of creature can she be in private life, I wonder? I
wonder if she wears that costume all the time, and if she springs to
her meals from a horizontal bar. Of course she rocks the baby to sleep
on the trapeze. And Van Twiller went on making comical domestic
tableaux of Mademoiselle Zabriski, like the clever, satirical dog he
was, until the curtain rose.
This was on a Friday. There was a matinée the next day, and he
attended that, though he had secured a seat for the usual evening
entertainment. Then it became a habit of Van Twiller's to drop into the
theatre for half an hour or so every night, to assist at the interlude,
in which she appeared. He cared only for her part of the programme, and
timed his visits accordingly. It was a surprise to himself when he
reflected, one morning, that he had not missed a single performance of
Mademoiselle Olympe for nearly two weeks.
This will never do, said Van Twiller. Olympehe called her
Olympe, as if she were an old acquaintance, and so she might have been
considered by that timeis a wonderful creature; but this will never
do. Van, my boy, you must reform this altogether.
But half past nine that night saw him in his accustomed orchestra
chair, and so on for another week. A habit leads a man so gently in the
beginning that he does not perceive he is ledwith what silken threads
and down what pleasant avenues it leads him! By and by the soft silk
threads become iron chains, and the pleasant avenues Avernus!
Quite a new element had lately entered into Van Twiller's enjoyment
of Mademoiselle Olympe's ingenious featsa vaguely born apprehension
that she might slip from that swinging bar; that one of the thin cords
supporting it might snap, and let her go headlong from the dizzy
height. Now and then, for a terrible instant, he would imagine her
lying a glittering, palpitating heap at the foot-lights, with no color
in her lips! Sometimes it seemed as if the girl were tempting this kind
of fate. It was a hard, bitter life, and nothing but poverty and sordid
misery at home could have driven her to it. What if she should end it
all some night, by just unclasping that little hand? It looked so small
and white from where Van Twiller sat!
This frightful idea fascinated while it chilled him, and helped to
make it nearly impossible for him to keep away from the theatre. In the
beginning his attendance had not interfered with his social duties or
pleasures; but now he came to find it distasteful after dinner to do
anything but read, or walk the streets aimlessly, until it was time to
go to the play. When that was over, he was in no mood to go anywhere
but to his rooms. So he dropped away by insensible degrees from his
habitual haunts, was missed, and began to be talked about at the club.
Catching some intimation of this, he ventured no more in the orchestra
stalls, but shrouded himself behind the draperies of the private box in
which Delaney and I thought we saw him on one occasion.
Now, I find it very perplexing to explain what Van Twiller was
wholly unable to explain to himself. He was not in love with
Mademoiselle Olympe. He had no wish to speak to her, or to hear her
speak. Nothing could have been easier, and nothing further from his
desire, than to know her personally. A Van Twiller personally
acquainted with a strolling female acrobat! Good heavens I That was
something possible only with the discovery of perpetual motion. Taken
from her theatrical setting, from her lofty perch, so to say, on the
trapeze-bar, Olympe Zabriski would have shocked every aristocratic
fibre in Van Twiller's body. He was simply fascinated by her marvellous
grace and élan, and the magnetic recklessness of the girl. It
was very young in him and very weak, and no member of the Sorosis, or
all the Sorosisters together, could have been more severe on Van
Twiller than he was on himself. To be weak, and to know it, is
something of a punishment for a proud man. Van Twiller took his
punishment, and went to the theatre, regularly.
When her engagement comes to an end, he meditated, that will
finish the business.
Mademoiselle Olympe's engagement finally did come to an end, and she
departed. But her engagement had been highly beneficial to the
treasury-chest of the up-town theatre, and before Van Twiller could get
over missing her she had returned from a short Western tour, and her
immediate reappearance was underlined on the play-bills.
On a dead-wall opposite the windows of Van Twiller's sleeping-room
there appeared, as if by necromancy, an aggressive poster with
Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski on it in letters at least a foot high.
This thing stared him in the face when he woke up, one morning. It gave
him a sensation as if she had called on him overnight, and left her
From time to time through the day he regarded that poster with a
sardonic eye. He had pitilessly resolved not to repeat the folly of the
previous month. To say that this moral victory cost him nothing would
be to deprive it of merit. It cost him many internal struggles. It is a
fine thing to see a man seizing his temptation by the throat, and
wrestling with it, and trampling it under foot like St. Anthony. This
was the spectacle Van Twiller was exhibiting to the angels.
The evening Mademoiselle Olympe was to make her reappearance, Van
Twiller, having dined at the club, and feeling more like himself than
he had felt for weeks, returned to his chamber, and, putting on
dressing-gown and slippers, piled up the greater portion of his library
about him, and fell to reading assiduously. There is nothing like a
quiet evening at home with some slight intellectual occupation, after
one's feathers have been stroked the wrong way.
When the lively French clock on the mantel-piecea base of
malachite surmounted by a flying bronze Mercury with its arms spread
gracefully on the air, and not remotely suggestive of Mademoiselle
Olympe in the act of executing her grand flight from the trapezewhen
the clock, I repeat, struck nine, Van Twilier paid no attention to it.
That was certainly a triumph. I am anxious to render Van Twiller all
the justice I can, at this point of the narrative, inasmuch as when the
half hour sounded musically, like a crystal ball dropping into a silver
bowl, he rose from the chair automatically, thrust his feet into his
walking-shoes, threw his overcoat across his arm, and strode out of the
To be weak and to scorn your weakness, and not to be able to conquer
it, is, as has been said, a hard thing; and I suspect it was not with
unalloyed satisfaction that Van Twiller found himself taking his seat
in the back part of the private box night after night during the second
engagement of Mademoiselle Olympe. It was so easy not to stay away!
In this second edition of Van Twiller's fatuity, his case was even
worse than before. He not only thought of Olympo quite a number of
times between breakfast and dinner, he not only attended the interlude
regularly, but he began, in spite of himself, to occupy his leisure
hours at night by dreaming of her. This was too much of a good thing,
and Van Twiller regarded it so. Besides, the dream was always the
samea harrowing dream, a dream singularly adapted to shattering the
nerves of a man like Van Twiller. He would imagine himself seated at
the theatre (with all the members of Our Club in the parquette),
watching Mademoiselle Olympe as usual, when suddenly that young lady
would launch herself desperately from the trapeze, and come flying
through the air like a firebrand hurled at his private box. Then the
unfortunate man would wake up with cold drops standing on his forehead.
There is one redeeming feature in this infatuation of Van Twiller's
which the sober moralist will love to look uponthe serene
unconsciousness of the person who caused it. She went through her
rôle with admirable aplomb, drew her salary, it may be assumed,
punctually, and appears from first to last to have been ignorant that
there was a miserable slave wearing her chains nightly in the left-hand
That Van Twiller, haunting the theatre with the persistency of an
ex-actor, conducted himself so discreetly as not to draw the fire of
Mademoiselle Olympe's blue eyes shows that Van Twiller, however deeply
under a spell, was not in love. I say this, though I think if Van
Twiller had not been Van Twiller, if he had been a man of no family and
no position and no money, if New York had been Paris and Thirty-fourth
Street a street in the Latin Quarterbut it is useless to speculate on
what might have happened. What did happen is sufficient.
It happened, then, in the second week of Queen Olympe's second
unconscious reign, that an appalling Whisper floated up the Hudson,
effected a landing at a point between Spuyten Duyvel Creek and Cold
Spring, and sought out a stately mansion of Dutch architecture standing
on the bank of the river. The Whisper straightway informed the lady
dwelling in this mansion that all was not well with the last of the Van
Twillers; that he was gradually estranging himself from his peers, and
wasting his nights in a play-house watching a misguided young woman
turning unmaidenly somersaults on a piece of wood attached to two
Mrs. Vanrensselaer Vanzandt Van Twiller came down to town by the
next train to look into this little matter.
She found the flower of the family taking an early breakfast, at 11
a.m., in his cosey apartments on Thirty-fourth Street. With the least
possible circumlocution she confronted him with what rumor had reported
of his pursuits, and was pleased, but not too much pleased, when he
gave her an exact account of his relations with Mademoiselle Zabriski,
neither concealing nor qualifying anything. As a confession, it was
unique, and might have been a great deal less entertaining. Two or
three times in the course of the narrative, the matron had some
difficulty in preserving the gravity of her countenance. After
meditating a few minutes, she tapped Van Twiller softly on the arm with
the tip of her parasol, and invited him to return with her the next day
up the Hudson and make a brief visit at the home of his ancestors. He
accepted the invitation with outward alacrity and inward disgust.
When this was settled, and the worthy lady had withdrawn, Van
Twiller went directly to the establishment of Messrs Ball, Black, and
Company, and selected, with unerring taste, the finest diamond bracelet
procurable. For his mother? Dear me, no! She had the family jewels.
I would not like to state the enormous sum Van Twiller paid for this
bracelet. It was such a clasp of diamonds as would have hastened the
pulsation of a patrician wrist. It was such a bracelet as Prince
Camaralzaman might have sent to the Princess Badoura, and the Princess
Badouramight have been very glad to get.
In the fragrant Levant morocco case, where these happy jewels lived
when they were at home, Van Twiller thoughtfully placed his card, on
the back of which he had written a line begging Mademoiselle Olympe
Zabriski to accept the accompanying trifle from one who had witnessed
her graceful performances with interest and pleasure. This was not done
inconsiderately. Of course I must enclose my card, as I would to any
lady, Van Twiller had said to himself. A Van Twiller can neither
write an anonymous letter nor make an anonymous present. Blood entails
its duties as well As its privileges.
The casket despatched to its destination, Van Twiller felt easier in
his mind. He was under obligations to the girl for many an agreeable
hour that might otherwise have passed heavily. He had paid the debt,
and he had paid it en prince, as became a Van Twiller. He spent
the rest of the day in looking at some pictures at Goupil's, and at the
club, and in making a few purchases for his trip up the Hudson. A
consciousness that this trip up the Hudson was a disorderly retreat
came over him unpleasantly at intervals.
When he returned to his rooms late at night, he found a note lying
on the writing-table. He started as his eye caught the words
Theatre stamped in carmine letters on one corner of the envelope. Van
Twiller broke the seal with trembling fingers.
Now, this note some time afterwards fell into the hands of
Livingstone, who showed it to Stuyvesant, who showed it to Delaney, who
showed it to me, and I copied it as a literary curiosity. The note ran
Mr. Van Twiller,
Dear SiRi am verry greatfull to you for that Bracelett. it
come just in the nic of time for me. The Mademoiselle
Zabriski dodg is about Plaid out. my beard is getting to
much for me. i shall have to grow a mustash and take to some
other line of busyness, I dont no what now, but will let you
no. You wont feel bad if i sell that Bracelett. i have seen
Abrahams Moss and he says he will do the square thing. Pleas
accep my thanks for youre Beautifull and Unexpected present.
Youre respectfull servent,
Charles Montmorenci Walters.
The next day Van Twiller neither expressed nor felt any
unwillingness to spend a few weeks with his mother at the old
And then he went abroad.