Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘Arsène Guillot’
By Prosper Mérimée (1803–1870)
Translation of Grace Elizabeth King

THE LAST mass had just come to an end at St. Roch’s, and the beadle was going his rounds, closing the deserted chapels. He was about drawing the grating of one of these aristocratic sanctuaries, where certain devotees purchase the permission to pray to God apart and distinguished from the rest of the faithful, when he remarked a woman still remaining in it, absorbed seemingly in meditation, her head bent over the back of her chair. “It is Madame de Piennes,” he said to himself, stopping at the entrance of the chapel. Madame de Piennes was well known by the beadle. At that period a woman of the world, young, rich, pretty, who rendered the blessed bread, who gave the altar clothes, who gave much in charity through the mediation of her curate, had some merit for being devout when she did not have some employé of the government for a husband, when she was not an attachée of Madame la Dauphine, and when she had nothing to gain but her salvation by frequenting the church. The beadle wished heartily to go to dinner, for people of his kind dine at one o’clock; but he dared not trouble the devotions of a person so well considered in the parish of St. Roch. He moved away, therefore, making his slipper-shod feet resound against the marble floor, not without hope that, the round of the church made, he would find the chapel empty.  1
  He was already on the other side of the choir, when a young woman entered the church, and walked along one of the side aisles, looking with curiosity about her. She was about twenty-five years old, but one had to observe her with much attention not to think her older. Although very brilliant, her black eyes were sunken, and surrounded by a bluish shadow; her dead-white complexion and her colorless lips indicated suffering; and yet a certain air of audacity and gayety in her glance contrasted with her sickly appearance. Her rose-colored capôte, ornamented with artificial flowers, would have better suited an evening negligé. Under a long cashmere shawl, of which the practiced eye of a woman would have divined that she was not the first proprietor, was hidden a gown of calico, at twenty cents a yard, and a little worn. Finally, only a man would have admired her foot, clothed as it was in common stockings and prunella shoes, very much the worse for wear of the street. You remember, madam, that asphalt was not invented yet.  2
  This woman, whose social position you have guessed, approached the chapel, in which Madame de Piennes still lingered; and after having observed her for a moment with a restless, embarrassed air, she accosted her when she saw her arise and on the point of leaving. “Could you inform me, madam,” she asked in a low voice and with a timid smile,—“could you inform me to whom I should go for a candle?” Such language was too strange to the ears of Madame de Piennes for her to understand it at once. She had the question repeated. “Yes, I should like to burn a candle to St. Roch, but I do not know whom to give the money to.”  3
  Madame de Piennes was too enlightened in her piety for participation in these popular superstitions. Nevertheless she respected them; for there is something touching in every form of adoration, however gross it may be. Supposing that the matter was a vow, or something of the kind, and too charitable to draw from the costume of the young woman of the rose-colored bonnet the conclusions that you perhaps have not feared to form, she showed her the beadle approaching. The unknown one thanked her, and ran towards the man, who appeared to understand her at a word. While Madame de Piennes was taking up her prayer-book and rearranging her veil, she saw the lady of the candle draw out a little purse from her pocket, take from a quantity of small-change a five-franc piece, and hand it to the beadle, giving him at the same time, in a low voice, some long instructions and recommendations, to which he listened with a smile.  4
  Both left the church at the same time; but, the lady of the candle walking very fast, Madame de Piennes soon lost sight of her, although she followed in the same direction. At the corner of the street she lived in, she met her again. Under her temporary cashmere the unknown was trying to conceal a loaf of bread bought in a neighboring shop. On recognizing Madame de Piennes she bent her head, could not suppress a smile, and hastened her step. Her smile seemed to say: “Well, what of it? I am poor. Laugh at me if you will. I know very well that one does not go to buy bread in a rose-colored capote and cashmere shawl.” The mixture of false shame, resignation, and good-humor did not escape Madame de Piennes. She thought, not without sadness, of the probable position of the young woman. “Her piety,” she said to herself, “is more meritorious than mine. Assuredly her offering of a five-franc piece is a much greater sacrifice than what I give to the poor out of my superfluity, without the imposition of a single privation.” She then recalled the widow’s mite, more acceptable to God than the gaudy charities of the rich. “I do not do enough good,” she thought; “I do not do all that I might.” While mentally addressing these reproaches to herself, she entered her house.  5
  The candle, the loaf of bread, and above all the offering of an only five-franc piece, engraved upon the memory of Madame de Piennes the figure of the young woman, whom she regarded as a model of piety. She met her rather often afterwards, in the street, near the church, but never at service. Every time the unknown passed her she bent her head and smiled slightly. The smile by its humility pleased Madame de Piennes. She would have liked to find an occasion to serve the poor girl, who had first interested her, but who now excited her pity; for she remarked that the rose-colored capôte had faded and the cashmere shawl had disappeared. No doubt it had returned to the second-hand dealer. It was evident that St. Roch was not paying back a hundredfold the offering made him.  6
  One day Madame de Piennes saw enter St. Roch a bier, followed by a man rather poorly dressed and with no crape on his hat. For more than a month she had not met the young woman of the candle, and the idea came to her that this was her funeral. Nothing was more probable, she was so pale and thin the last time Madame de Piennes saw her. The beadle, questioned, interrogated in his turn the man following the bier. He replied that he was the concierge of a house, Rue Louis-le-Grand, and that one of his tenants dying,—a Madame Guillot, who had no friends nor relations, only a daughter,—he, the concierge, out of pure kindness of heart, was going to the funeral of a person who was nothing whatever to him. Immediately Madame de Piennes imagined that her unknown one had died in misery, leaving a little girl without help; and she promised herself to make inquiries, by means of an ecclesiastic whom she ordinarily employed for her good deeds.  7
  Two days following, a cart athwart the street stopped her carriage for a few seconds, as she was leaving her door. Looking out of the window absent-mindedly, she saw standing against a wall the young girl whom she believed dead. She recognized her without difficulty, although paler and thinner than ever, dressed in mourning, but shabbily, without gloves or a hat. Her expression was strange. Instead of her habitual smile, her features were all contracted; her great black eyes were haggard; she turned them towards Madame de Piennes, but without recognizing her, for she saw nothing. In her whole countenance was to be read, not grief, but furious determination. The image of the young girl and her desperate expression pursued Madame de Piennes for several hours.  8
  On her return she saw a great crowd in the street. All the porters’ wives were at their doors, telling their neighbors some tale that was being listened to with vivid interest. The groups were particularly crowded before a house near to the one in which Madame de Piennes lived. All eyes were turned towards an open window in the third story, and in each little circle one or two arms were raised to point it out to the attention of the public; then all of a sudden the arms would fall towards the ground, and all eyes would follow the movement. Some extraordinary event had happened.  9
  “Ah, madame!” said Mademoiselle Josephine, as she unfastened the shawl of Madame de Piennes, “My blood is all frozen! Never have I seen anything so terrible—that is, I did not see, though I ran to the spot the moment after. But all the same—”  10
  “What has happened? Speak quickly, Mademoiselle.”  11
  “Well, madame—three doors from here, a poor young girl threw herself out of the window, not three minutes ago; if madame had arrived a moment earlier, she could have heard the thud.”  12
  “Ah, heaven! And the unfortunate thing has killed herself!”  13
  “Madame, it gave one the horrors to look at it. Baptiste, who has been in the wars, said he had never seen anything like it. From the third story, madame!”  14
  “Did the blow kill her?”  15
  “Oh, madame! she was still moving, she talked even. ‘I want them to finish me!’ she was saying. But her bones were in a jelly. Madame may imagine what a terrible fall it was.”  16
  “But the unhappy creature! Did some one go to her relief; was a physician sent for—a priest?”  17
  “A priest, madame knows that as well as I. But if I were a priest— A wretched creature, so abandoned as to kill herself! And besides, she had no behavior,—that is easily seen. She belonged to the Opera, so they told me: all those girls end badly. She put herself in the window; she tied her skirts with a pink ribbon, and—flop!”  18
  “It is the poor young girl in mourning!” cried Madame de Piennes, speaking to herself.  19
  “Yes, madame: her mother died three or four days ago. It must have turned her head. And with that, her lover perhaps had left her in the lurch. And then rent day came—and no money. And that kind doesn’t know how to work.”  20
  “Do you know if the unhappy girl has what she needs in her condition,—linen, a mattress? Find out immediately.”  21
  “I shall go for madame, if madame wishes,” cried the maid; enchanted to think of seeing, close by, a woman who had tried to kill herself. “But,” she added, “I don’t know if I should have the strength to look at her,—a woman fallen from the third story! When they bled Baptiste I felt sick: it was stronger than I.”  22
  “Well then, send Baptiste,” cried Madame de Piennes; “but let me know immediately how the poor thing is getting along.”  23
  Luckily her physician, Dr. K——, arrived as she was giving the order. He came to dine with her, according to his custom, every Tuesday, the day for Italian opera.  24
  “Run quick, doctor!”—without giving him time to put down his cane or take off his muffler. “Baptiste will take you. A poor girl has just thrown herself from a third-story window, and she is without attention.”  25
  “Out of the window!” said the doctor. “If it was high, I shall probably have nothing to do.”  26
  At the end of an hour the doctor reappeared, slightly unpowdered, and his handsome jabot of batiste in disorder.  27
  “These people who set out to kill themselves,” he said, “are born with a caul. The other day they brought to my hospital a woman who had sent a pistol shot into her mouth. A poor way! she broke three teeth and made an ugly hole in her left cheek. She will be a little uglier, that is all. This one throws herself from a third-story window. A poor devil of an honest man, falling by accident from a first-story, would break his skull. This girl breaks her leg, has two ribs driven in, and gets the inevitable bruises—and that is all. But the worst of it is, the ratin on this turbot is completely dried up, I fear for the roast, and we shall miss the first act of Othello.”  28
  “And the unfortunate creature—did she tell you what drove her to it?”  29
  “Oh, madame, I never listen to those stories. I ask them, ‘Had you eaten before?’ and so forth, and so forth,—because that is necessary for the treatment. Parbleu! When one kills one’s self, it is because one has some bad reason for it. You lose a sweetheart, a landlord puts you out of doors,—and you jump from the window to get even with him. And one is no sooner in the air than one begins to repent.”  30
  “I hope she repents, poor child.”  31
  “No doubt, no doubt. She cried and made fuss enough to distract me. What makes it the more interesting in her case is, that if she had killed herself she would have been the gainer, in not dying of consumption—for she is consumptive. To be in such a hurry, when all she had to do was to let it come!”  32
  The girl lay on a good bed sent by Madame de Piennes, in a little chamber furnished with three straw-seated chairs and a small table. Horribly pale, with flaming eyes. She had one arm outside of the covering, and the portion of that arm uncovered by the sleeve of her gown was livid and bruised, giving an idea of the state of the rest of her body. When she saw Madame de Piennes, she lifted her head, and said with a sad faint smile:—  33
  “I knew that it was you, madame, who had had pity upon me. They told me your name, and I was sure that it was the lady whom I met near St. Roch.”  34
  “You seem to be in a poor way here, my poor child,” said Madame de Piennes, her eyes traveling over the sad furnishment of the room. “Why did they not send you some curtains? You must ask Baptiste for any little thing you need.”  35
  “You are very good, madame. What do I lack? Nothing. It is all over. A little more or a little less, what difference does it make?”  36
  And turning her head, she began to cry.  37
  “Do you suffer much, my poor child?” said Madame de Piennes, sitting by the bed.  38
  “No, not much. Only I feel all the time in my ears the wind when I was falling, and then the noise—crack! when I fell on the pavement.”  39
  “You were out of your mind then, my dear friend: you repent now, do you not?”  40
  “Yes; but when one is unhappy, one cannot keep one’s head.”  41
  “I regret not having known your position sooner. But, my child, in no circumstances of life should we abandon ourselves to despair.”  42
  “Ah! I do not know,” cried the sick girl, “what got into me; there were a hundred reasons if one. First, when mamma died, that was a blow. Then I felt myself abandoned—no one interested in me. And at last, some one of whom I thought more than of all the rest of the world put together—madame, to forget even my name! Yes, I am named Arsène Guillot,—G, u, i, double l: he writes it with a y!”  43
  “And so you have been deceived, poor child?” resumed Madame de Piennes after a moment of silence.  44
  “I? No. How can a miserable girl like myself be deceived? Only he did not care for me any longer. He was right: I am not the kind for him. He was always good and generous. I wrote to him, telling him how it was with me, and if he wished— Then he wrote to me—what hurt me very much.—The other day, when I came back to my room, I let fall a looking-glass that he had given me; a Venetian mirror, he called it. It broke. I said to myself, ‘That is the last stroke! That is a sign that all is at an end.’ I had nothing more from him. All the jewelry I had pawned. And then I said to myself, that if I destroyed myself that would hurt him, and I would be revenged. The window was open, and I threw myself out of it.”  45
  “But, unfortunate creature that you are! the motive was as frivolous as the action was criminal.”  46
  “Well—what then? When one is in trouble, one does not reflect. It is very easy for happy people to say, ‘Be reasonable.’”  47
  “I know it,—misfortune is a poor counselor; nevertheless, even in the midst of the most painful trials there are things one should not forget. I saw you a short while ago perform an act of piety at St. Roch. You have the happiness to believe. Your religion, my dear, should have restrained you, at the very moment you were abandoning yourself to despair. You received your life from God. It does not belong to you. But I am wrong to scold you now, poor little one. You repent, you suffer: God will have mercy upon you.”  48
  Arsène bent her head, and tears moistened her eyelids.  49
  “Ah, madame!” she said with a great sigh, “you believe me to be better than I am.—You believe me to be pious.—I am not very much so.—I was not taught—and if you saw me at church burning a candle, it was because I—did not know what else to put my wits at.”  50
  “Well, my dear, it was a good thought. In misfortune, it is always to God that one must turn.”  51
  “They told me—that if I burned a candle to St. Roch— But no, madame, I cannot tell you that. A lady like you does not know what one can do when one has not a sou.”  52
  “One must ask God for courage above all.”  53
  “Anyway, madame, I do not wish to make myself out better than I am; and it would be stealing to profit by the charity you show me, without knowing what I am. I am an unfortunate girl— But in this world one lives as one can.—To come to an end, madame, I burned a candle because my mother said that when one burned a candle to St. Roch, eight days never passed without finding some one—”  54
  Madame de Piennes with downcast eyes murmured faintly: “Your mother! Poor thing! how can you dare to say it?”  55
  “Oh, my mother was like all mothers—all the mothers of such as we. She supported her mother; I supported her;—fortunately I have no child— I see, madame, that it frightens you—but what would you have? You have been well reared; you have never lacked. When one is rich, it is easy to be honest. As for me, I would have been honest had I had the means. I never loved but one man, and he left me.—See, madame, I am talking to you this way, so frankly, although I see what you think of me; and you are right. But you are the only honest woman I ever talked to in my life—and you look so good—that a while ago I said to myself, ‘Even when she knows what I am, she will take pity on me.’ I am going to die, and I ask of you only one favor: to have a mass said for me in the church where I first saw you. One single prayer, that is all, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”  56
  “No, you will not die,” cried Madame de Piennes, greatly moved. “God will have pity upon you, poor sinful one. You will repent of your faults and he will pardon you. Those who have reared you are more guilty than you are. Only have courage and hope. Try above all to be calmer, my poor child. The body must be cured; the soul is ill too; but I will answer for its cure.”  57
  She had risen while speaking, rolling in her fingers a piece of paper that contained a few louis.  58
  “Take this,” she said, “if you have any little fancy—” slipping it under the pillow.  59
  “No, madame!” cried Arsène impetuously, thrusting back the paper: “I do not wish anything from you but what you have promised. Good-by. We shall see one another no more. Have me taken to a hospital, so that I can die without bothering any one. You would never be able to make anything out of me. A great lady like you will have prayed for me; I am content. Adieu.”  60
  And turning around as much as the apparatus that held her to the bed would permit, she hid her head in the pillow, so as to keep from seeing anything further.  61
  “Listen, Arsène,” said Madame de Piennes in a grave tone. “I have plans for you: I want to make an honest woman of you. I have confidence in your repentance. I shall see you often, I shall take care of you. One day you will owe me your self-esteem,”—taking her hand, which she pressed lightly.  62
  “You have touched me,” cried the poor girl, “you have pressed my hand.”  63
  And before Madame de Piennes could withdraw her hand, she seized it and covered it with tears and kisses.  64
  “Calm yourself, calm yourself, my dear,” said Madame de Piennes. “You must not talk any more. Now I know all, and I understand you better than you understand yourself. It is I who am to be the doctor of your head—your poor weak head. And you must obey me—I insist upon that—just like any other doctor. I shall send you in a priest, one of my friends. You must listen to him. I shall choose good books for you; you must read them. We will talk together sometimes. And when you get better, we will busy ourselves about your future.”  65
  The nurse entered, fetching a vial from the druggist. Arsène continued to weep.  66
  Repentance was not difficult for poor Arsène, who, with the exception of a few hours of gross pleasure, had known only the miseries of life.  67
  The poor girl was in a pitiable condition. It was evident that her last hour was near. Her respiration was nothing more than a painful rattle; and Madame de Piennes was told that several times during the morning she had been delirious, and that the physician did not think she could last until the next day. Arsène, however, recognized her protectress and thanked her for coming.  68
  “You will not tire yourself any more by mounting my stairs,” she said in a faint voice.  69
  Every word seemed to cost her a painful effort, and exhaust the little strength she had left. They had to bend over her to hear her. Madame de Piennes took her hand; it was already cold and inanimate.  70
  Max arrived shortly after, and silently approached the bed of the dying girl. She made him a slight sign of the head, and noticing that he had a book in his hand,—“You will not read to-day,” she murmured faintly.  71
  Abbé Dubignon, who had been all the morning with Arsène, observing with what rapidity her strength was being exhausted, wished to use for her salvation the few moments that yet remained to her. He motioned Madame de Piennes and Max aside; and bending over the bed of suffering, he spoke to the poor girl those solemn and consoling words that religion reserves for such moments. In a corner of the room, madame was on her knees praying; Max, standing at a window, seemed transformed into a statue.  72
  “You pardon all those who have offended you, my daughter?” said the priest in a moved voice.  73
  “Yes. May they be happy,” said the dying girl, making an effort to be heard.  74
  “Trust in the mercy of God, my daughter,” resumed the Abbé: “repentance opens the gates of heaven.”  75
  For several minutes longer the Abbé continued his exhortations; then he ceased to speak, in doubt whether he had not a corpse before him. Madame de Piennes softly arose to her feet, and each one remained for awhile motionless, anxiously looking at the livid face of Arsène. Each one was holding breath, for fear of disturbing the terrible slumber that perhaps had commenced for her; the ticking of a watch on the stand by the bed was distinctly heard in the room.  76
  “She has passed away, the poor young lady,” at last said the nurse, after holding her snuff-box before the lips of Arsène: “see, the glass is not dimmed. She is dead.”  77
  “Poor child,” cried Max, coming out of the stupor in which he seemed sunk, “what happiness has she known in this world!”  78
  Of a sudden, as if recalled by his voice, Arsène opened her eyes: “I have loved,” she said in a lifeless voice. “I have loved,” she repeated with a sad smile. They were her last words.  79

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.