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(Les Demoiselles De Bienfilatre)

by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam

from Contes Cruels (1883, 1927 ed.)

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

   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

   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

   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 abbé 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

   "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, 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!"

(Prepared by Laurence Roberts)