[To M. THEODORE DE BANVILLE]
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
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:
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
"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!
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
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
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,
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!"