The Red Lily, by Anatole France

Chapter 17

Miss Bell Asks a Question

After dinner, Miss Bell was sketching in the drawing-room. She was tracing, on canvas, profiles of bearded Etruscans for a cushion which Madame Marmet was to embroider. Prince Albertinelli was selecting the wool with an almost feminine knowledge of shades. It was late when Choulette, having, as was his habit, played briscola with the cook at the caterer’s, appeared, as joyful as if he possessed the mind of a god. He took a seat on a sofa, beside Madame Martin, and looked at her tenderly. Voluptuousness shone in his green eyes. He enveloped her, while talking to her, with poetic and picturesque phrases. It was like the sketch of a lovesong that he was improvising for her. In oddly involved sentences, he told her of the charm that she exhaled.

“He, too!” said she to herself.

She amused herself by teasing him. She asked whether he had not found in Florence, in the low quarters, one of the kind of women whom he liked to visit. His preferences were known. He could deny it as much as he wished: no one was ignorant of the door where he had found the cordon of his Third Order. His friends had met him on the boulevard. His taste for unfortunate women was evident in his most beautiful poems.

“Oh, Monsieur Choulette, so far as I am able to judge, you like very bad women.”

He replied with solemnity:

“Madame, you may collect the grain of calumny sown by Monsieur Paul Vence and throw handfuls of it at me. I will not try to avoid it. It is not necessary you should know that I am chaste and that my mind is pure. But do not judge lightly those whom you call unfortunate, and who should be sacred to you, since they are unfortunate. The disdained and lost girl is the docile clay under the finger of the Divine Potter: she is the victim and the altar of the holocaust. The unfortunates are nearer God than the honest women: they have lost conceit. They do not glorify themselves with the untried virtue the matron prides herself on. They possess humility, which is the cornerstone of virtues agreeable to heaven. A short repentance will be sufficient for them to be the first in heaven; for their sins, without malice and without joy, contain their own forgiveness. Their faults, which are pains, participate in the merits attached to pain; slaves to brutal passion, they are deprived of all voluptuousness, and in this they are like the men who practise continence for the kingdom of God. They are like us, culprits; but shame falls on their crime like a balm, suffering purifies it like fire. That is the reason why God will listen to the first voice which they shall send to him. A throne is prepared for them at the right hand of the Father. In the kingdom of God, the queen and the empress will be happy to sit at the feet of the unfortunate; for you must not think that the celestial house is built on a human plan. Far from it, Madame.”

Nevertheless, he conceded that more than one road led to salvation. One could follow the road of love.

“Man’s love is earthly,” he said, “but it rises by painful degrees, and finally leads to God.”

The Prince had risen. Kissing Miss Bell’s hand, he said:

“Saturday.”

“Yes, the day after to-morrow, Saturday,” replied Vivian.

Therese started. Saturday! They were talking of Saturday quietly, as of an ordinary day. Until then she had not wished to think that Saturday would come so soon or so naturally.

The guests had been gone for half an hour. Therese, tired, was thinking in her bed, when she heard a knock at the door of her room. The panel opened, and Vivian’s little head appeared.

“I am not intruding, darling? You are not sleepy?”

No, Therese had no desire to sleep. She rose on her elbow. Vivian sat on the bed, so light that she made no impression on it.

“Darling, I am sure you have a great deal of reason. Oh, I am sure of it. You are reasonable in the same way that Monsieur Sadler is a violinist. He plays a little out of tune when he wishes. And you, too, when you are not quite logical, it is for your own pleasure. Oh, darling, you have a great deal of reason and of judgment, and I come to ask your advice.”

Astonished, and a little anxious, Therese denied that she was logical. She denied this very sincerely. But Vivian would not listen to her.

“I have read Francois Rabelais a great deal, my love. It is in Rabelais and in Villon that I studied French. They are good old masters of language. But, darling, do you know the ‘Pantagruel?’ ‘Pantagruel’ is like a beautiful and noble city, full of palaces, in the resplendent dawn, before the street-sweepers of Paris have come. The sweepers have not taken out the dirt, and the maids have not washed the marble steps. And I have seen that French women do not read the ‘Pantagruel.’ You do not know it? Well, it is not necessary. In the ‘Pantagruel,’ Panurge asks whether he must marry, and he covers himself with ridicule, my love. Well, I am quite as laughable as he, since I am asking the same question of you.”

Therese replied with an uneasiness she did not try to conceal:

“As for that, my dear, do not ask me. I have already told you my opinion.”

“But, darling, you have said that only men are wrong to marry. I can not take that advice for myself.”

Madame Martin looked at the little boyish face and head of Miss Bell, which oddly expressed tenderness and modesty.

Then she embraced her, saying:

“Dear, there is not a man in the world exquisite and delicate enough for you.”

She added, with an expression of affectionate gravity:

“You are not a child. If some one loves you, and you love him, do what you think you ought to do, without mingling interests and combinations that have nothing to do with sentiment. This is the advice of a friend.”

Miss Bell hesitated a moment. Then she blushed and arose. She had been a little shocked.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06