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Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
1838 -1889



(Les Demoiselles De Bienfilartre)

by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

Translated by Hamish Miles



"Light, Light!"
Last words of Goethe

Pascal tells us that, so far as actions are concerned, good and evil are a question of "latitude." One human action, in fact, is called a crime in one place, but somewhere else a good deed; and so inversely.

In Europe, for instance, one generally cherishes one's aged parents; but among certain tribes of America one persuades them to climb up into a tree—and then shakes the tree. If they fall, then it is the sacred duty of every good son, as among the Messenians of old, to despatch them forthwith with a determined tomahawk and spare them the cares of decrepitude. But if they muster the strength to cling on to a branch, why, then they are still fit for the chase or for fishing, and their immolation is accordingly postponed. Again, the northern peoples are fond of drinking wine, that gleaming stream wherein the cherished sunlight lies asleep, and our national religion even advises us that "good wine makes glad the heart of man." But southwards, among our Mahometan neighbours, the act is viewed as a grave misdeed. In Sparta, thieving was both practised and honoured; it was an hieratic institution, an indispensable piece of every sound Lacedemonian's education—whence, no doubt, the Greeks. In Lapland, the father of a family holds it a point of honour that his daughter should receive all the affectionate favours which could be bestowed by the traveller who is enjoying his hospitality. In Bessarabia likewise. In the northern parts of Persia, and among the peoples of Cabul who have their habitation in ancient tombs, you may receive, in some comfortable sepulchre, a hospitable and cordial welcome, but if at the end of twenty-four hours you are not on the very best of terms with every one of your host's offspring, be he fire-worshipper, Parsee, or Wahabite, there is every reason to expect that quite as a matter of course your head will be taken off—the punishment favoured in these climes.

Actions, then, as regards their physical nature, are matters of indifference: it is the conscience of each one of us, and conscience alone, that makes them good or evil. The mysterious seed from which this immense misunderstanding is sprung, is the inborn need which Man feels of creating for himself distinctions and scruples, of forbidding himself such and such an action rather than some other one. One might imagine, in fact, that there exists some great Law, lost and mysterious, forgotten by the whole mass of Mankind, a law after which, in their efforts to recall it, men are blindly groping.

Some years ago there flourished a certain cafe, spacious, luminous, the pride of our boulevards. It was situated almost directly opposite one of our important theatres, the pediment of which recalls that of a pagan temple. It was a daily meeting-place for the choice spirits among the youth, who since then have become distinguished, whether for their work as artists, for their incapacity, or for their attitude during the troubled times through which we have passed.

Among the latter, some have even stood at the helm of the ship of state. And, looking back, they were no small beer, the frequenters of this Arabian Nights cafe. Respectable citizens of Paris bated their breath whenever they mentioned it. Many a time, the prefet of the city used to fling down there, with a careless air, as one might a visiting-card, a choice nose-gay, an unexpected bouquet of police sergeants, who then, with that air of smiling absent-mindedness which is peculiarly their own, proceeded in an effortless way to lay about them with their loaded batons on mischievous and rebellious heads; an attention which, for all its delicacy, was none the less noticeable. On the following day. he was not to be seen there any more.

Out on the terrace, between the row of hackney-cabs and the window front, was a paddock of women, a flowering of chignons plucked from the pencil of Guys. Bedecked with the utmost extremes of fashion, they were ensconced in the chairs beside the round wrought-iron tables painted in bright green. On these tables drinks were set. Their eyes had something of the falcon, something of poultry. Some would hold large bouquets upon their laps, others little dogs, others nothing. You would have said they were waiting for someone.

Amongst these young women two were marked out by their constant attendance. By the regular frequenters of the famous room they were named Olympe and Henriette—just that. These two used to arrive about dusk; they installed themselves in a well-lighted corner, ordered a glass of vespetro or a mazagran, as an excuse rather than from any real need, and then surveyed the passer-by with meticulous scrutiny.

And these were the daughters of Bienfilatre!

Their parents, honest folk, hard-schooled in misfortune, had not had the means of letting them taste the joys of apprenticeship, the vocation of this austere couple consisting mainly of continually hanging, in attitudes of despair, upon that long spiral rope which communicates with the lock of a carriage gateway. A hard life! And to pick up, occasionally and just barely, a few scattered pence! No turn of luck ever came their way. And Bienfilatre grumbled away as he made his morning caramel for himself.

As dutiful daughters, Olympe and Henriette understood early in life that some intervention was necessary. Sisters in the gay life from their tenderest childhood, they consecrated the price of their vigils and their toils to maintaining a degree of comfort in the home, modest, it is true, but honourable. "May God send His blessing on our efforts!" they used to say from time to time, for they had been imbued with good principles, and sooner or later the earliest teachings, based on solid principles, will bear fruit. When anyone was concerned to know if their labours, sometimes excessive, did not affect their health, they would answer evasively, with the gentle and embarrassed air of modesty, and lowering their eyes: "There are consolations...."

The daughters of Bienfilatre were among those work-women who, as they say, "go to their day's work at night." They accomplished with as much dignity as possible (considering certain prejudices people have) a thankless and often painful task. They were not amongst those idle women who proscribe, as degrading, the hand made horny and sacred by work, and they never blushed for it. Several fine anecdotes were told of them which would have stirred the ashes of Monthyon in his noble cenotaph. One evening, for instance, they had vied in emulation of each other and had surpassed even themselves, in order to meet the expense of burying an aged uncle, who in any case had left them nothing but the memory of sundry cuffs on the ear, distributed long ago in the days of their childhood. Moreover, they were favourably looked upon by all the frequenters of this worthy resort, amongst whom were some who were not the kind to make allowances. A glance or smile of theirs always found the response of a friendly signal, a waved "Good evening." Never had reproach or complaint been levelled against them by anyone. Their commerce was recognized by all as kindly and affable. In short, they owed no man anything, they honoured all their engagements, and in consequence they could hold up their heads without fear. They were exemplary: did they not put something aside against the unforeseen, something "for a rainy day," so as one day to retire honourably from business? They were orthodox: did they not close on Sundays? And as "good young girls," they never lent an ear to the blandishments of young sparks, fit only to turn maidens aside from the straight path of work and duty. They considered that nowadays the only gratuitous thing in love is the moon. Their motto was: "Celerity, Security, Discretion." And on their professional cards they added "Specialties."

One day, Olympe, the younger sister, broke down. Up to then irreproachable, this unhappy child yielded to temptations to which, more than other people (who will perhaps be too prompt in blaming her), she was inevitably exposed by the surroundings of her life. In short, she took a false step: she loved.

It was her first error. But who, after all, has ever fathomed the abyss to which a first error can lead us? A young student, frank, handsome, gifted with an impassioned artist's soul (but poor as Job himself), a youth named Maxime, whose family name we suppress, beguiled her with pretty words, and led her astray.

He inspired a heavenly passion in this poor girl who, considering her situation, had no more right to experience this than Eve had to taste of the divine fruit of the Tree of Life. From that day onwards all her duties were forgotten. Everything fell into disorder and confusion. When a girl has her head filled with love—the game is up !

And as for her sister—alas! the noble Henriette was now bending, as it were, beneath the burden! Sometimes she used to clasp her head between her hands, with grave doubts of everything, of the family, of principles, of society even! "They're nothing but words!" she exclaimed. One day she had met Olympe clothed in a little black dress, bare-headed, with a small tin milk-basin in her hand. As she passed, Henriette had said to her, without any appearance of recognizing her: "Sister, your conduct is unpardonable. You might at least have some respect for appearances!"

By these words she perhaps hoped for a return to propriety.

All was in vain. Henriette felt that Olympe was lost. She blushed, and passed on.

The fact is that there had been gossiping in the celebrated room. When she arrived alone in the evening, Henriette's welcome was no longer the same. She noticed differences, and humiliating ones. She was remarked to be colder since the news of Olympe's downfall. Proudly she smiled, like the young Spartan with the fox gnawing at his vitals, but, deep within that sensitive and upright heart, all these blows told. To the truly delicate, a trifle will often hurt more keenly than a gross outrage, and in this respect Henriette had the most sensitive of feelings. How she must have suffered!

And the evenings too, at the family supper! The father and mother, with bowed heads, ate in silence. Not even one word passed of the absent one. With the dessert, when the moment for the liqueur came, Henriette and her mother would exchange a quick, secret glance, wipe away each a tear, and clasp hands silently under the table. And the old door-keeper, completely upset, then tugged unbidden at the cord, to conceal a tear. Sometimes, turning away his head, he abruptly put his hand up to his buttonhole as if to tear away some vague decorations.

On one occasion the porter even made an attempt to reclaim his daughter. Gloomily he took it upon himself to mount the several flights of stairs where the young man lodged. Arrived there, he sobbed: "My poor child, I want her!"

"Sir," answered Maxime, "I love her, and I beg you to grant me her hand."

"Wretch!" exclaimed Bienfilatre as he hurried off, revolted by this "cynicism."

Henriette had drained the cup to the dregs. One last attempt was necessary, and so she resigned herself to risking everything, even scandal. Learning one evening that the deplorable Olympe was to go to the cafe to settle some small debt remaining from the old days, she warned the family, and a procession was made towards the illuminated cafe.

Like Mallonia dishonoured by Tiberius, and presenting herself before the Roman senate to lay accusation against her violator before stabbing herself in despair, Henriette entered the room of the austere. The father and mother, from a sense of dignity, remained by the door. Coffee was being drunk. At the sight of Henriette faces lengthened gravely and with a certain severity, but when it was seen that she wanted to speak, the long panels of the newspapers were lowered on to the marble tables, and there fell a religious silence: there was question of a judgment.

In a corner. ashamed and making herself almost invisible, Olympe and her little black dress could be distinguished at a small isolated table.

Henriette spoke. During her speech one could catch glimpses of the Bienfilatres, uneasy, watching without hearing. At last the father could bear it no longer. He pushed the door ajar, and leaning forward with attentive ear, one hand on the door-handle, he listened.

And shreds of phrases reached him whenever Henriette raised her voice a little: One should keep to one's own sort. ... Such conduct... it was putting all respectable folk against one... A silly boy who doesn't give a brass farthing...! A good-for-nothing...! The weight of ostracism on her.... Throwing off her responsibilities.... A girl who has flung away her reputation... who stares like a stupid... and only a little while ago... could keep her end up with anyone.... She hoped that the words of these gentlemen, which had more authority than hers, that the counsels of their enlightened experience... would bring her back to saner ideas, more practical.... One isn't in this world for one's amusement.... She implored them to intervene.... She had appealed to memories of childhood...! To the call of the blood! All in vain! Not one answering chord could be struck in her. A lost girl! And what an aberration...! Alas! Alas!

At that moment, bowed down, the father entered the distinguished gathering-place. At this spectacle of unmerited woe, everyone rose. There are some sorrows before which one does not try to proffer consolation. Silently everyone came up to shake the hand of the deserving old man, to give discreet evidence of their sharing his misfortune.

Olympe withdrew, pale and shamefaced. For an instant, with the sense of guilt in her heart, she had hesitated, on the point of throwing herself into the arms of the family and of friendship, ever open to repentance. But passion had carried her away. A first love throws down into the heart deep-spreading roots which will stifle earlier sentiments, even to their smallest germs.

All the same, the shock of the scandal had dealt a shattering blow to Olympe's personality. Her tortured conscience rose in revolt, and next day a fever seized her. She took to her bed. Quite literally she died of shame. The physical was slain by the moral. The sheath was worn out by the blade.

Lying in her tiny room, and feeling that the hour of her passing was at hand, she called out. Some good souls among the neighbours brought her a heavenly minister. One of them let fall the remark that Olympe was very weak, and ought to be fortified. Whereupon a maid-of-all-work brought up some soup for her.

The priest appeared.

The old ecclesiastic strove to calm her with words of peace, forgetfulness, and forgiveness.

"I have had a lover..." murmured Olympe, using these words to accuse herself of her disgrace.

She omitted all the peccadilloes, the complainings, the impatience of her life. That, and that only, came to her mind. It obsessed her. "A lover! For pleasure! Without a penny of gain!" There lay the crime.

She was not concerned to whittle away her transgression by telling of her former life, always up till then pure and full of self-denial. In all that, she felt certain, she was beyond reproach. But to have succumbed to this shame, to have faithfully cherished a love for a youth who had no position and, in the truthful and avenging words of her sister, never gave her so much as a brass farthing! Henriette, who had never yielded, appeared to her as crowned with a halo. She felt herself condemned, and dreaded already the thunder-bolts of the All-powerful Judge, face to face with whom she might now at any moment be standing.

The priest, used to all the woes of humanity, attributed to delirium certain points in Olympe's confessions which seemed to him to be inexplicable, diffuse even. There was in this perhaps a quid pro quo, certain of the poor girl's expressions having once or twice left the abbe wondering. But as repentance, remorse, was his sole concern, the detail of the sin mattered little; the good-will of the penitent and her sincere grief—these were enough. And at the very moment when he was about to raise his hand to grant the absolution, the door burst noisily open: it was Maxime, glowing, with a joyful, beaming air, with a handful of a few silver crowns and three or four gold pieces which he was tossing and jingling triumphantly. His family had raised the money on the occasion of his examinations: it was for his entrance....

At first Olympe did not notice this significant and extenuating circumstance. She threw out her arms towards him, with horror.

Maxime had stopped short, stupefied at what he saw before him.

"Courage, my daughter!" murmured the priest, who read in this gesture of Olympe's a final farewell to her partner in guilty and immodest joys.

In reality it was only the young man's crime that she was thrusting from her—and the crime was that of not being "serious."

But on the instant when the august pardon was descending upon her, a heavenly smile lit up her innocent features: the priest imagined that she felt herself saved, that through the mortal shadows of these last moments there shone for her some dim seraphic vision. But in reality Olympe had just caught sight, vaguely, of the pieces of the sacred metal gleaming between the transfigured fingers of Maxime. Then, and only then, did she experience the life-giving effects of the supreme forgiveness! A veil was rent asunder. A miracle! By this manifest sign she saw herself pardoned from on high, and ransomed.

Dazzled, with conscience set at rest, she closed her eyelids as if to gather strength before spreading her wings towards the everlasting blue. Then her lips were parted, and like the perfume of a lily her last breath issued forth, murmuring the words of hope—" It has grown light!"



Last updated:
December 29, 2003
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