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The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder

Henry Miller


  NOTHING could diminish the lustre of that extraordinary smile which was engraved on Auguste’s sad countenance. In the ring this smile took on a quality of its own, detached, magnified, expressing the ineffable.

  At the foot of a ladder reaching to the moon, Auguste would sit in contemplation, his smile fixed, his thoughts far away. This simulation of ecstasy, which he had brought to perfection, always impressed the audience as the summation of the incongruous. The great favorite had many tricks up his sleeve but this one was inimitable. Never had a buffoon thought to depict the miracle of ascension.

  Night in and night out he would sit thus, waiting to be nubbed by the white horse whose mane fell to the ground in rivulets of gold. The touch of the mare’s warm muzzle on his neck was like the departing kiss of a loved one; it awakened him gently, as gently as the dew enlivening each blade of grass.

  Within the radius of the spotlight lay the world in which he was born anew each evening. It comprised only those objects, creatures and beings which move in the circle of enchantment. A table, a chair, a rug; a horse, a bell, a paper hoop; the eternal ladder, the moon nailed to the roof, the bladder of a goat. With these Auguste and his companions managed each night to reproduce the drama of initiation and martyrdom.

  Bathed in concentric circles of shadow, there rose tier upon tier of faces, broken here and there by empty spaces which the spotlight licked with the avidity of a tongue in search of a missing tooth. The musicians, swimming in dust and magnesium rays, clung to their instruments as if hallucinated, their bodies swaying like reeds in the flickering play of light and shadow. The contortionist always moved to the muffled roll of the drum, the bareback rider was always introduced with a fanfare of trumpets. As for Auguste, sometimes it was the thin squeak of a violin, sometimes the mocking notes of the clarinet, which followed him about as he capered through his antics. But when the moment came to enter the trance, the musicians, suddenly inspired, would pursue Auguste from one spiral of bliss to the next, like chargers nailed to the platform of a carousel which has run wild.

  Each evening, as he applied the maquillage, Auguste would hold a debate with himself. The seals, no matter what they were obliged to do, always remained seals. The horse remained a horse, the table a table. Whereas Auguste, while remaining a man, had to become something more: he had to assume the powers of a very special being with a very special gift. He had to make people laugh. It was not difficult to make people weep, nor even to make them laugh; he had found this out long ago, before he had ever dreamed of joining the circus. Auguste, however, had greater aspirations—he wanted to endow his spectators with a joy which would prove imperishable. It was this obsession which had originally prompted him to sit at the foot of the ladder and feign ecstasy. It was by sheer accident that he had fallen into the semblance of a trance—he had forgotten what it was he was supposed to do next. When he came to, somewhat bewildered and extremely apprehensive, he found himself being applauded wildly. The following evening he repeated the experiment, deliberately this time, praying that the senseless, raucous laughter which he so easily evoked would give way to that joy supreme which he longed to communicate. But each night, despite his almost devout efforts, the same delirious applause awaited him.

  The more successful it was, this little skit at the foot of the ladder, the more wistful Auguste became. Each night the laughter become more jarring to his ears. Finally it became unbearable. One night the laughter suddenly changed to jeers and cat-calls, followed by hats, refuse and more solid objects too. Auguste had failed to “come back.” For thirty minutes the audience had waited; then it had grown uneasy, then suspicious, with the tension finally snapping in an explosive outburst of derision. When Auguste came to in his dressing room, he was astounded to find a physician bending over him. His face and head were a mass of cuts and bruises. The blood had coagulated over the paint, distorting his image beyond recognition. He looked like something which had been abandoned on the butcher’s block.

  His contract abruptly terminated, Auguste fled from the world he knew. Having no desire to resume his life as a clown, he took to wandering. He drifted unknown, unrecognized, among the millions whom he had taught to laugh. There was no resentment in his heart, only a deep sadness. It was a constant fight to keep back the tears. At first he accepted this new condition of the heart. It was nothing more, he told himself, than a malaise created by the sudden interruption of a lifelong routine. But when months had gone by he gradually came to realize that he was mourning the loss of something which had been taken from him—not the power to make people laugh, all no! that he no longer cared about—something else, something deeper than that, something which was uniquely his own. Then one day it dawned on him that it was long, long ago since he had known the state of bliss. He trembled so upon discovering this that he could not wait to get to his room. Instead of rushing to his hotel, however, he hailed a taxi and ordered the driver to take him to the outskirts of the town. But where to exactly? the driver wanted to know. “Wherever there are trees,” said Auguste impatiently. “But make haste, I beg—it’s urgent.”

  Outside a coal yard they came upon a lone tree. Auguste ordered the driver to stop. “Is this the place?” asked the driver innocently.

  “Yes, leave me in peace,” responded Auguste.

  For an endless time, it seemed, Auguste struggled to recreate a semblance of the mood which usually served as a prelude to the nightly performance at the foot of the ladder. Unfortunately the light was harsh: a scorching sun seared his eyeballs. “I shall just sit here,” he thought to himself, “until night falls. When the moon comes out everything will fall into place.” In a few moments he dozed off. It was a heavy sleep in which he dreamed that he was back again in the ring. Everything was as it had always been, except that it was no longer a circus in which things were going on. The roof had disappeared, the walls had fallen away. Above him was the real moon high in the heavens, a moon that seemed to race through stationary clouds. Instead of the usual circular tiers of benches there rose at a gentle incline, and straight to the sky, literally walls of people. Not a laugh could be heard, not a murmur. They hung there, these vast multitudes of spectres, suspended in fathomless space, each and every one of them crucified. Paralyzed with fear, Auguste forgot what it was he was supposed to do. After an intolerable period of suspense, during which it seemed to him that he was more cruelly deserted and abandoned than the Saviour himself had ever been, Auguste made a frantic dash to escape the arena. But in whichever direction he ran the exits were blocked. In desperation he took to the ladder, started climbing feverishly, and climbed and climbed until his breath gave out. After due pause he ventured to open his eyes wide and look about him. First he looked downward. The foot of the ladder was almost invisible, so far below lay the earth. Then he looked upward; rung after rung stretched above him, endlessly, piercing the clouds, piercing the very blue in which the stars were cushioned. Straight to the moon rose the ladder. It was a moon which lay beyond the stars, a moon infinitely remote, glued like a frozen disk to the vault above. Auguste began to weep and then to sob. Like an echo, faint, restrained at first, but gradually swelling into an oceanic wail, there came to his ears the groans and sobs of the countless multitude which walled him about. “Horrible,” muttered Auguste. “It is like birth and death at once. I am a prisoner in Purgatory.” With this he swooned, falling backwards into nothingness. He regained consciousness just as he realized that the earth was pressing forward to receive him. That, he knew, would be the end of Auguste, the real end, the death of deaths. And then, like a knife gleam, there came a flash of memory. Not another second was left him; a ha
lf second, perhaps, and he would be no more. What was it that had stirred in the depths of his being, flashed like a blade, only to precede him into oblivion? He thought with such rapidity that in the fleeting fraction of a second which was left him he was able to summon up the whole pageant of his life. But the most important moment in his life, the jewel about which all the meaningful events of the past clustered, he could not revive. It was revelation itself which was foundering with him. For he knew now that at some moment in time all had been made clear to him. And now that he was about to die, this, the supreme gift, was being snatched from him. Like a miser, with a cunning and an ingenuity beyond all reckoning, Auguste succeeded in doing the impossible: seizing this last fraction of a second which had been allotted him, he began dividing it into infinitesimal moments of duration. Nothing he had experienced during the forty years of his life, not all the moments of joy put together, could begin to compare with the sensual delight he now experienced in husbanding these splintered fragments of an exploded fraction of a second. But when he had chopped this last moment of time into infinitesimal bits, so that it spread about him like a vast web of duration, he made the alarming discovery that he had lost the power to remember. He had blanked himself out.

  The following day, emotionally exhausted by the ravages of this dream, Auguste decided to remain in his room. It was only towards evening that he bestirred himself. He had spent the whole day in bed, listlessly toying with the throngs of memory which for some inexplicable reason had descended upon him like a plague of locusts, finally, weary of being buffeted about in this vast cauldron of reminiscence, he dressed himself and sauntered out to lose himself in the crowd. It was with some difficulty that he managed to recall the name of the town through whose streets he was strolling.

  At the outskirts of the town he came upon a group of circus folk, one of those fugitive bands of players who live on wheels. Auguste’s heart began to beat wildly. Impulsively he rushed to one of the roulottes—they had been drawn up in the form of a circle—and timidly mounted the little steps which had been dropped from the rear of the vehicle. He was about to knock when the neighing of a horse close beside him arrested him. The next instant the muzzle of the horse was grazing his back. A deep joy pervaded Auguste’s whole being. Putting his arms about the animal’s neck, he spoke in gentle, soothing words, as if greeting a long lost friend.

  The door behind him opened suddenly and a woman’s voice smothered an exclamation of surprise. Startled almost out of his wits, he mumbled: “It’s only me, Auguste.”

  “Auguste?” she repeated after him. “Don’t know him.”

  “Excuse me,” he mumbled apologetically, “I must be going.”

  He had gone only a few steps when he heard the woman shouting: “Hey there, Auguste, come back here! What are you running away for?”

  He stopped dead, turned around, hesitated a moment, then broke into a broad grin. The woman flew towards him, arms outstretched. A mild panic seized Auguste. For a brief moment he had a notion to turn and flee. But it was too late. The woman’s arms were now about him, clasping him tight.

  “Auguste, Auguste!” she exclaimed over and over. “To think I didn’t recognize you!”

  At this Auguste paled. It was the first time in all his wandering that any one had caught up with him. The woman was still holding him like a vise. Now she was kissing him, first on one check, then the other, then the brow, then the lips. Auguste was quaking.

  “Could I have a lump of sugar?” he begged, as soon as he could disengage himself.


  “Yes, for the horse,” said Auguste.

  While the woman rummaged about inside the van Auguste made himself comfortable on the little steps. With soft, tremulous muzzle the horse was licking the back of his neck. It was just at this moment, strange coincidence, that the moon shook itself clear of the distant tree tops. A wonderful calm fell upon Auguste. For just a few seconds—it could have been hardly more than that—he enjoyed a sort of twilight sleep. Then the woman came bouncing out, her loose skirt brushing his shoulder as she leapt to the ground.

  “We all thought you were dead,” were her first words, as she seated herself on the grass by his feet. “The whole world has been looking for you,” she added rapidly, passing him one lump of sugar after another.

  Auguste listened mutely as the woman rattled on. The sense of her words came to him slowly, very slowly, as if traveling to his ears from some far distance. What enthralled him was the delicious sensation which spread through his body whenever the warm wet muzzle of the horse licked the palm of his hand. He was reliving intensely that intermediate stage which he used to experience nightly at the foot of the ladder, the period between the falling away of bliss and the wild burst of applause which always came to his ears like the roll of distant thunder.

  Auguste never even thought of returning to the hotel to gather his few belongings. He spread a blanket on the ground beside a fire and, locked within the magic circle of wheels and wagons, he lay awake following the lurid course of the moon. When he at last closed his eyes it was with the decision to follow the troupe. He knew that he could trust them to keep his identity secret.

  To help set up the tent, to roll the big rugs out, to move the props about, to water the horses and groom them, to do the thousand and one chores which were required of him, all this was sheer joy to Auguste. He lost himself with abandon in the pursuance of the menial tasks which filled his days. Now and then he indulged himself in the luxury of observing the performance as a spectator. It was with new eyes he noted the skill and the fortitude of his companions in travel. The miming of the clowns particularly intrigued him; it was a dumb show whose language was more eloquent to him now than when he was one of them. He had a sense of freedom which he had forfeited as a performer. O, but it was good to throw off one’s role, to immerse oneself in the humdrum of life, to become as dust and yet … well, to know that one was still part of it all, still useful, perhaps even more useful thus. What egotism it was to imagine that because he could make men laugh and cry he was rendering them a great boon! He no longer received applause, nor gales of laughter, nor adulation. He was receiving something far better, far more sustaining—smiles. Smiles of gratitude? No. Smiles of recognition. He was accepted again as a human being, accepted for himself, for whatever it was that distinguished him from, and at the same time united him with, his fellow man. It was like receiving small change which, when one is in need, regenerates the heart’s flow in a way that bank notes never do.

  With these warm smiles which he garnered like ripe grain each day Auguste expanded, blossomed anew. Endowed with a feeling of inexhaustible bounty, he was always eager to do more than was demanded of him. Nothing one could ask of him was too much—that was how he felt. There was a little phrase he mumbled to himself continually as he went about his tasks: “à votre service.” With the animals he would raise his voice, there being no need to withhold such simple words from them. “À votre service,” he would say to the mare, as he slipped the feed bag over her head. To the seals likewise, as he patted their gleaming backs. Sometimes, too, stumbling out of the big tent into the starlit night, he would look above as if trying to pierce the veil which protects our eyes from the glory of creation, and he would murmur softly and reverently: “À votre service, Grand Seigneur!”

  Never had Auguste known such peace, such contentment, such deep, lasting joy. Pay days he would go to town with his meagre earnings and wander through the shops, searching for gifts to bring the children—and the animals too. For himself a bit of tobacco, nothing more.

  Then one day Antoine, the clown, fell ill. Auguste was sitting in front of one of the roulottes, mending an old pair of trousers, when the news was brought him. He mumbled a few words of sympathy and continued with his mending. He realized immediately, of course, that this unexpected event involved him. He would he asked to substitute for Antoine, no doubt about it. Auguste endeavored to quell the excitement which was rapidly mou
nting in him. He tried to think quietly and soberly what answer he would give when the moment came.

  He waited and waited for someone to return, hut no one came. No one else could take Antoine’s place, he was certain of that. What was holding them back then? Finally he got up and wandered about, just to let them know he was there, that they could put the question to him whenever they wished. Still no one made effort to engage him in conversation.

  At last he decided to break the ice himself. Why not, after all? Why shouldn’t he volunteer his services? He felt so fortified, so full of good will towards every one. To be a clown again, it was nothing, nothing at all. He could just as well be a table, a chair, a ladder, if need he. He wanted no special privileges; he was one of them, ready to share their sorrows and misfortunes.

  “Look,” he said to the boss whom he had finally collared, “I’m thoroughly prepared to take Antoine’s place tonight. That is,” and he hesitated a moment, “unless you have someone else in mind.”

  “No, Auguste, there is no one else, as you know. It’s good of you to offer …”

  “But what?” snapped Auguste. “Are you afraid perhaps that I can no longer perform?”

  “No, not that, not that. No, it would be a privilege to have you …”

  “But what then?” demanded Auguste, almost trembling with apprehension, for he realized now that it was delicacy and tact with which he had to deal.

  “Well, it’s like this,” the boss began in his slow, lumbering way. “You see, we’ve been talking it over among ourselves. We know how things are with you. Now then, if you were to take Antoine’s place … damn it, what am I saying? Come, don’t stand there looking at me like that! Look, Auguste, what I’m trying to say is … well, just this … we don’t want to open old wounds. You understand?”

  Auguste felt the tears rushing to his eyes. He grasped the other’s two big hands, held them gently in his own and, without opening his mouth, poured out his thanks.