Hitherto that portly lady’s hair had been black. But now, as suddenly as darkness vanishes in a tropic dawn, it was become light. No gradual approach of the grey, for the black had been equally artificial. The wig is the region without twilight. Only in the swart moustache had the grey crept on, so that perhaps the growing incongruity had necessitated the sudden surrender to age.
To both Madame Depine and Madame Valiere the grey wig came like a blow on the heart.
It was a grisly embodiment of their secret griefs, a tantalising vision of the unattainable. To glide reputably into a grey wig had been for years their dearest desire. As each saw herself getting older and older, saw her complexion fade and the crow’s-feet gather, and her eyes grow hollow, and her teeth fall out and her cheeks fall in, so did the impropriety of her brown wig strike more and more humiliatingly to her soul. But how should a poor old woman ever accumulate enough for a new wig? One might as well cry for the moon—or a set of false teeth. Unless, indeed, the lottery—?
And so, when Madame Depine received a sister-in-law from Tonnerre, or Madame Valiere’s nephew came up by the excursion train from that same quiet and incongruously christened townlet, the Parisian personage would receive the visitor in the darkest corner of the salon, with her back to the light, and a big bonnet on her head—an imposing figure repeated duskily in the gold mirrors. These visits, instead of a relief, became a terror. Even a provincial knows it is not convenable for an old woman to wear a brown wig. And Tonnerre kept strict record of birthdays.
Tears of shame and misery had wetted the old ladies’ hired pillows, as under the threat of a provincial visitation they had tossed sleepless in similar solicitude, and their wigs, had they not been wigs, would have turned grey of themselves. Their only consolation had been that neither outdid the other, and so long as each saw the other’s brown wig, they had refrained from facing the dread possibility of having to sell off their jewellery in a desperate effort of emulation. Gradually Madame Depine had grown to wear her wig with vindictive endurance, and Madame Valiere to wear hers with gentle resignation. And now, here was Madame la Proprietaire, a woman five years younger and ten years better preserved, putting them both to the public blush, drawing the hotel’s attention to what the hotel might have overlooked, in its long habituation to their surmounting brownness.