The Three-Legged Woman Meets Her Mate – By Rose Wednesday
In the more Bohemian circles in Paris, between the years of 1879 and 1891, a young courtesan became popular among a certain group of aristocratic men, not for her twenty inch waist, or her diminutive height (at the age of twenty-one she stood only four feet three inches) but for the remarkable open secret hidden beneath her tiny taffeta skirts.
When clothed, she resembled any woman of the period, except in her stature, which was that of a woman replicated in miniature; everything she did had an air of the fairylike. However, the young men that kissed her behind the curtains of their boxes
at the theater and who snaked their manicured hands under her skirt found not two,
but three slim little legs waiting for them. All three ankles, clad in delicate satin and buckskin slippers, were crossed; all three creamy dimpled knees pressed tightly together but gradually yielding to the first tentative, then increasingly ardent explorations that followed. A young man who used both hands would quickly find two sets of loins, both warm and responsive and as tiny as would be expected of such a petite lady. (Very few found her fourth leg, a sad little thing, baby-sized and twisted, that she kept tucked up inside the linings of her skirt. In 1882, she had a surgeon amputate it flush with the hip, because as she said, a woman with three beautiful legs was an Exotic; a woman with a deformed leg, of whatever number, was simply an object of pity.)
Her name was Babette, but her lovers simply called her Bette, for her animal ferocity in bed. She was like an ocelot under her petticoats, slim and long-backed with astonishing sinew in her arms and legs. She was favored by pairs of young men who were romantic in their friendships with each other, who did everything together, and they found her to be a way that they could embrace without touching, love one another more brashly than otherwise; with Bette between them, nobody could accuse them of anything more than being simply adventurous.
Bette, for her part, relished the money and attention. She had been abandoned as
a child and raised by nuns. Her decision to leave and go to the city had been attended by much speculation about how such a small girl, and so hopelessly deformed, could survive on her own. But the nuns had not been aware of her double-sex, or for that matter, her boldness and her sharp business acumen, bordering on ruthless greed. The gentlemen of Paris knew better than to court Bette; she was brisk about money in a way that many of the other high-class girls were not. She asked for payment up front and in cash, and did not trade in promises or love.
Once in 1882, while she was recuperating from the surgery that removed her fourth leg, a young man named Anton fell hopelessly in love with her. She was walking slightly bent from the incision and not wearing her usual corsets, which led popular opinion to suspect that she’d contracted tuberculosis, and to the youngest son of a good family, the idea of a dying prostitute was incredibly romantic. He began to follow her to her usual nighttime haunts, and soon had progressed to hanging around outside her rented rooms with bouquets and medicines prescribed by his family’s physician.
Bette objected violently to these advances, but he could not be dissuaded and she was too small to physically remove him from her doorstep. One night at the theater, she spotted an usher whom she had seen a few times before, a large Negro, rumored to be an African because of the large patterned scar on the back of one hand. She reached out and snatched at the sleeve of his red jacket, which was threadbare at the elbows and too small for the man.
“Pardon me, Miss,” he said, in French that was, she realized, tinged distinctly with American, to the point where no one should have mistaken him for anything else. “How can I help you?”
“I want to hire you,” she said. “I have a little problem in my personal life and I think you could solve it.”
John Lewis had heard of the three-legged whore, as she was sometimes called by the less kind, and he was repulsed by the brashness of her request and by the rumors of the monstrosity of her body under the little taffeta gowns. He recoiled from her touch and tried on a smile.
“I am flattered,” he said, “But I must respectfully decline.”
“Don’t be a dunce, man,” she said, reaching out and striking him on the stomach with the back of her white-gloved hand. “I’ll pay you a good sum to answer the door for me on one occasion and frighten the man who stands there. That’s all I need from you.”
And then she named a price so high that John Lewis was forced to overcome his revulsion and oblige her. He left impressed by her forthrightness but still shaken by the thought that he’d been touched by such a creature.
The next night that Anton made an appearance, carrying a violin, Bette’s spokesman stepped out into the hallway, plucked up the instrument in skillet-sized hands, and cracked it neatly in half, destroying over 350 francs of craftsmanship, as well as the young man’s self-confidence.
“Mademoiselle Babette does not care for the violin,” the man said in his accented French, and Bette, listening through the door, could not help bursting into giggles. She promptly hired the man to stay on as permanent in-house security and began pronouncing his name as the french Jean-Louis. Men who called on Bette became accustomed to having the door opened by a mountain of a man in a tailored suit as extravagant as any they owned.
Bette did not want for male company, and she found most of her enjoyment alone. She enjoyed dressing herself and arranging her hair for no one but her mirror, or walking along the Seine, or reading a book in a second-story teashop while she watched the street below out of one catlike eye. By 1884, she was a wealthy woman, although she still lived in rented rooms for several years.
Franklin Harper, Frank to most, was born in Missouri to a family of otherwise
entirely normal people, although his little sister Callie had become briefly famous
for being possessed by the Devil. He attended school until he was fifteen, where he
was regarded as an average student, although paradoxically a charmer and a frequent instigator of fights. He was a nervous man whose tongue got out of his control when he was frightened; he said in interviews that his mouth and his middle leg must’ve belonged to some other man, because they were braver than the rest of him. “Somewhere,” he’d say, “There’s a bold amputee who can’t say nothing but the tamest things. I pity him, I really do.”
He was a ruthlessly handsome man, although also diminutive, perhaps five and a half feet tall. Unlike Bette, who in public wore skirts that brushed the floor and who never made public mention of her disfigurement, Frank Harper had his suits custom-made to accommodate his third leg and made no secret at all of its presence. He had the bones of
a fourth leg embedded in his torso, as he found out when he began selling his time as a medical subject in his teen years. He had quickly graduated from this job to a traveling group of medical marvels. It was working there that he first encountered a handbill, ragged with age, pinned to a post in Arkansas. It advertised an institution he had never heard of before, called The Circus of the Strange.
The Circus of the Strange was not an ordinary carnival; while it had the normal clowns and freaks and animals, it specialized in acts of the most depraved and licentious nature. The Tattooed Graces were billed as “Beauties kidnapped by Cannibals and marked by their chief as his wives! See them dance the hoola-hoola!” There were also the Sapphic Sisters, a pair of young women joined at the hip who acted as one woman in all matters, and there was a catlike man with a lioness mate, and slim contortionist boys in spangled costumes. The circus traveled at night, camped on the outskirts of towns, and was generally regarded as nonexistent, except that it drew massive crowds. People would come from quite far away to see the Strangers. Frank, suspecting that there was better pay and more fun to be had outside the world of medicine, began searching for them, asking any other circus he passed if they had heard of the Strangers. Often he got spat on for his trouble, but eventually, he found them in Kansas City.
In 1885, at the age of nineteen, Frank walked into the hotel where the Strange troupe was staying, rang for the owners, and proceeded to drop his three-legged trousers in the lobby, to the astonishment of the Tattooed Graces and everyone present.
“That’s my act, right there,” he said. Although inside he was a barely contained ball of nerves, terrified of their eyes, he kept his voice cool and controlled. “You ever seen anything like that?”
“Do they both work?” said Mary Lowell, the youngest of the Graces.
“Do you wanna find out?” he asked, and the owners, a man and a woman who
were secretly a woman and a man, laughed outrageously and shook his hands, and Frank Harper was hired on. At first he simply displayed himself as a sideshow, but later they found a woman small enough to suit his size and had him demonstrate his technique
of switching back and forth, seemingly endlessly. He was the second most popular act, beaten only by the Sapphic Sisters, and that was mostly because they took volunteers from the audience.
In 1888, the Circus of the Strange was commissioned by one of Bette’s former lovers, the American entrepreneur Monsieur Allen Oldman, to come to Paris. They were guaranteed free round-trip passage, and a prominent madam, Claudia Renard, agreed to host some of the top billed stars in her brothel, situated in the narrow streets of the Old City. The owners of the circus agreed almost instantly; they were sure that they could make enough money to make up for the lost time on the travel circuit, and it was not every day that Europe opened its doors so wide and so freely. Some of the performers grumbled about the sea travel, especially the Tattooed Graces, but they were hardly to be listened to, especially when the rest of the company was so excited.
When Bette heard that the Circus of the Strange was coming, at first she paid it no mind.
“These shows always think they are so shocking,” she said one day over breakfast, nibbling a piece of toast as she read the newspaper. She had subscriptions to American and English newspapers as well; she followed international politics as a spectator sport.
“I see that they have tattooed women,” Jean-Louis said. He had leaned himself against the doorway between the parlor, where she took her breakfast, and the kitchen, where he supposedly took his. Over the last few years Bette had begun to talk at him about the events of the day while she ate, mostly to gather her thoughts. He was the one who had shown her the handbill; it had come tucked inside a gold-flocked invitation to a private performance at a theater that had been rented out for the purpose. “And two women joined together. I’ve never seen such a thing.”
“Perhaps it is strange if you have only ever been with one man or one woman,” Babette said, her delicate mouth crammed with toast. “But when you have known as many people as I have, you come to realize that inside our clothes we are all monstrous. Did I tell you where the gentleman from Vienna tried to put himself?”
“You should have called me if he was giving you trouble,” Jean-Louis said reproachfully.
“Oh, he was no trouble,” she said. “I boxed him on the ear and told him he had two choices of place already and shouldn’t go looking for a third.”
Jean-Louis was reading the handbill again, and he paused at the final line, where there was a large hand-colored illustration of a dapper man with a top hat, a cane, and three legs.
“Mademoiselle Babette,” he said, his voice sounding to his own ears far away, “Have you ever heard of there being another person like yourself?”
“Nonsense,” she said. “I am an original. There are no other three-legged women in this world. She must be a hoax.”
She stood up abruptly and snatched the handbill from his grip with her tiny fingers. She scanned the lines, and then came to the bottom of the page.
“A three-legged man,” she said, slowly. She turned the words over in her mouth. “A man, who is like me. Do you suppose…?”
Jean-Louis felt a sinking sensation in his chest. He would not identify it for several more days, but when he did he would be surprised that he did not recognize it sooner for what it was: pure bitter jealousy.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Do you want me to ask?”
“Oh, no,” she said. She clapped her little hands together. “I intend to find out for myself.”
Bette was not a sentimental woman. At the age of thirty, she was still content
to be unmarried and without a permanent lover. She’d never found a man who had not irritated her eventually, either with constant chatter or with insistence that she be faithful. They were constantly underfoot if they stayed the night, always getting in the way of Jean-Louis’s elegant breakfast-making dance and taking up the attention that she would otherwise pay to her newspapers and her coffee. And one man could never wholly satisfy her; only in the arms of two at once did she ever approach the heights of ecstasy.
But she kept the handbill close to her for the next several days. In idle moments she would take it out of her bag and unfold it, and look at the picture of the diminutive man, with his rosy cheeks, his bright eyes and his three feet tapdancing merrily in their red shoes. She began to think of what it might be like to have a life with this man. She had the first romantic thought of her life, which was that it she might find bliss with someone whose body matched hers exactly, and whose mind was aligned to the same sort of pleasures as her own. They would understand each other perfectly, as no one else in the world possibly could. Perhaps they had been made for each other.
The show was in July, shortly before the beginnings of the summer holiday when everyone evaporated from Paris. It was one of the last big gatherings of the season and so everyone from the luxurious part of the underworld was there, everyone dressed in lightweight silks and cottons because of the heat. They piled into the little theater that had been rented out, and Bette, alone in public as always, went from friend to friend, man to man, standing on her tiptoes to kiss cheeks and clasp hands. She maneuvered her way to one of the seats near the front, pleading her height with an old gentleman friend who gave up his seat for her, but not before offering that she sit on his lap. She dismissed the idea with a look of utter scorn. She wanted to be alone when she first saw the three-legged man.
Bette ignored the first several acts, which she considered trivial and silly. She had no eyes for the man with his lioness, and even ignored the pair of teenage contortionists, although normally their youthful good looks would have suited her exactly. Never even remotely interested in other women, whom she regarded as being only partial creatures, she let her eyes shut a little during the Tattooed Graces, the chorus girls and the Veiled Dancer. It was only when the drumroll began that she sat up a little straighter.
“And now,” said Mrs. Henrietta Boylan, the tall and slender Mistress of the Circus, with her pronounced Adam’s apple hidden by a choker and her toast-rack chest padded out with cotton, “We present to you the most extraordinary marvel of our time, a man with three legs, two hearts, and—well, you should see for yourself!”
And Bette sat up straight, and ducked all three of her legs underneath her to make herself a little taller, so that she could see better.
He came out from behind the curtain dressed in a suit made especially for Paris,
a blue one with red lining inside the jacket. He came out tapdancing, spinning in tight circles with his cane extended and all three feet moving with extraordinary, perfect grace. Bette had feared that he was a hoax but when she saw him she knew instantly that his body, like hers, was real flesh and blood. No leg made of wood could execute those sharp little steps.
When the miniature woman in a red dress with a blue petticoat came out onto the stage with him, also dancing, and carrying a basket of flowers, she rolled her eyes. But soon the two were dancing in harmony with such grace that she found herself watching them, rapt and slightly jealous. She had never quite mastered the ordinary dances, but this young American clearly had invented his own, and the woman stepped with him, her eyes never leaving his.
(At home, at this time, Jean-Louis lay on his bed, fully dressed, staring at the ceiling. The tiny monster for whom he worked had grown more attractive to him with each passing year. When she had been sick the previous winter and he’d been in charge of lifting her in and out of bed, he had at last seen that third leg, and ever since the, in the private corners of his mind, he had imagined parting those legs, taking both hands and plunging them into her body up to the wrist. But he had never considered before that it was anything more than the kind of idle thought men had about women, and, he suspected, that women had about men as well. He felt sick with fear now, as miserable as any dog, and he did not know what to do with himself. He got up and paced, and read, and tidied the kitchen for the fourth time that night. He brushed a dab of lint off of his dark suit and tried to swallow his bile.)
When the act progressed to its natural conclusion (done in a fashion intended more
for show than for pleasure, but still remarkable in its choreography), Bette found that tears were welling up in her eyes, and she had to blink them away. She was better, she told herself. She would not be overruled by some midget who was only sixty-six percent the woman she was. Once the three-legged man had met her, she reasoned, to keep herself from crying, he would abandon this other woman. And all would be well.
She could not bring herself to sit through the Sapphic Sisters. She excused herself, and went straight to the theater’s manager, and requested permission to speak to the three- legged man. He was delighted by her request.
“Found your true love?” he asked.
“Quite possibly,” she said solemnly.
She let him take her by the hand as though she were a little girl, though ordinarily
Bette resented such treatment. He opened the side door and pointed her down the ushers’ hall that led to the dressing rooms, and told her it was the third door on the left.
“Good luck, Mademoiselle,” he said with a wink, and closed the door behind her.
By the light of a few gas lamps she made her way to the third door, where she knocked.
“Who is it?” called a female voice, and she said, “Mademoiselle Babette Collier, to see the three-legged man. It is most important.”
The miniscule woman opened the door. She started to say something, but Bette pinched her arm, dragged the girl out into the hallway, and stepped swiftly past her while the girl was still standing outside, trying to figure out what had just happened. Bette slammed the door and locked it, and then looked around the room.
Frank Harper looked up from his basin, where he was scrubbing the stage makeup from his face. He stared at the tiny woman in front of him for a moment.
“Monsieur?” she said, and then she said the few English words that she’d had Jean-Louis coach her in that afternoon. “Please to mee-chew.”
“Enchante,” he said absentmindedly in French, and then in English, “Who let you in here?”
She didn’t know the words but she understood the tone. Silently, she lifted her skirt to show him the three silk slippers.
He laughed and scratched the back of his head.
“Well, I’ll be!” he said. “If that don’t beat everything…”
Up close, Bette was struck by how young he was. He must have been barely
twenty-two, and she a woman of thirty. She felt a sudden apprehension about the whole business, but she pressed on. She raised her skirt a little higher while looking directly into his eyes. He nodded slowly and said something in English that she couldn’t understand, and then he crossed to the door.
He let the little woman back in and rattled a few things off to her in English. She looked astonished, and then she laughed. She turned to Bette and spoke to her in French. “Frank say you are like him but you are embarrassed,” she said. “No reason to be.
We’re all just people, after all.” She laughed. “I’m Mabel.”
Over the next several hours, as night became morning, Mabel sat with them and
translated between them in her halting grammar-school French. Bette wasn’t sure if it was the tenuous language of the girl, but she felt childish, doomed to express herself badly, and Frank wasn’t doing much better. He was not a bright man, she suspected. More than a three-legged man, she realized, he was an American, and not an expatriate but a true son of the soil. She found herself stripping all the allusions from her speech, all the turns of phrase that she would have used with her French lovers, until she was saying only the barest facts about herself. She was raised by nuns. She had many admirers—which had to be amended down to “friends”, because Mabel could not understand admirers, lovers, or perverts. For his part, Frank said mostly that Paris was beautiful, that he had two brothers and a sister, and that his sister possessed something or other that was apparently of great interest to him. She could not bring herself to believe that she could be bored by him, but the realization crept up on her gradually.
Finally when Mabel started to look tired, Bette thanked her and suggested she go and get some rest. The girl hemmed and hawed for a moment but then tripped off down the hall, rubbing at her eyes. And then Frank and Bette were alone.
She leaned forward a little, and so did he, as though she were going to tell him a secret. When she kissed him, he recoiled and said something in English.
“Don’t be silly,” she said in French, and she tried to put a hand onto his thigh, but he brushed it aside. She was suddenly embarrassed and could not help but think that it was because she was getting old, and the thought wounded her. She had always been vain and the idea that she was no longer beautiful stung her.
She stood up and walked to the door, and made some noises of departure. He nodded, and she left. She had the theater’s manager call her a coach, but then changed her mind and decided to walk so that she could cry to herself alone. It was not a long walk but by the time she got home dawn had broken and her shoes were worn down. Her face was red and puffy with crying. She stopped at the landing to slap her cheeks a few times and to dab at her eyes with her handkerchief before she went into the flat.
Jean-Louis was in the kitchen, working on breakfast. She could see him through the open kitchen door, sliding easily back and forth between the stove and a platter on the table, piling it with thin crepes.
“I’m home,” she called, more tentatively than she had expected.
He jumped a little, but recovered quickly and turned to her.
“Breakfast is almost ready,” he said. “How was the show?”
“The three-legged man is an utter hoax,” she said. “The audience didn’t notice but
I can’t be fooled.” She looked at him quizzically, realizing that his suit was rumpled, as though he’d laid down in it. “Why are you so disheveled? You look like you haven’t slept all night.”
“Some nights are like that,” he said.
She nodded and rubbed at her eyes. She was tired, she realized, more tired than
she had been in a long time. After her breakfast with Jean-Louis, she decided, she would sleep the whole day.
“I’m getting too old for this, Monsieur,” she said. “Everyone seems like a hoax these days. I sometimes believe that you and I are the only real people in the world.”
The words sounded silly when she said them, and she thought of retracting them. But since he was solid in a world of ephemeral men, constant in his habits and his deference, smooth in his movements and gifted in allusion and at that very moment laying before her a breakfast that she so desperately wanted after a night of humiliation—for all that, she ceded in her mind that there might be, at least in this one case, someone besides herself who could be called complete.
Rose Wednesday graduated from the University of Maine with an MA in English. She has been published on Treehouse Online and has an upcoming publication on Timber Online. Rose lives in Virginia with her partners and an undefined number of cats.
She is working on a long-term digital narrative, Animalipedia, which you can find at animalipedia.tumblr.com.