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قراءة كتاب Letters to an Unknown

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Letters to an Unknown

Letters to an Unknown

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
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to fear that you will interpret literally every word of disparagement I said of myself. You must understand that my cardinal virtue is modesty; I carry it to excess, and tremble lest it may prejudice you against me. Some other time, when I am more happily inspired, I will give you the exact nomenclature of all my characteristics. It will be a long list. To-day I am not feeling well, and dare not launch forth into this geometrical progression.

You can not possibly guess where I was Saturday night, and what I was doing at midnight. I was on the roof of one of the towers of Notre Dame, drinking orangeade and eating ices, in the company of four of my friends and of a matchless moon, all of us attended by an immense owl that flapped his wings around us. Paris, indeed, in the moonlight and at that hour, presents a truly beautiful picture. It resembles the cities described in the Thousand and One Nights, whose inhabitants were enchanted while they slept. Parisians, as a rule, go to bed at midnight—the more stupid they. Our party was a curious assemblage; there were four nations represented, each one having a different point of view. The tiresome part of it was that some of us felt obliged, in the presence of the moon and of the owl, to assume a sentimental tone, and to utter commonplaces. To tell the truth, everybody began gradually to talk nonsense.

I do not know why and by what association of ideas this semi-poetic evening recalls to my mind another, which was not in the least poetic. I went to a ball given by some of my young friends, to which were invited all the ballet girls of the Opera. These women are, as a rule, dull, but I have observed that in moral feeling they are superior to the men of their class. The only vice which separates them from other women is poverty. You will be singularly edified by all these rhapsodies, so I shall hasten to a close, which I should have done long ago.

Good-bye. Do not bear me a grudge for the unflattering portrait of myself which I have given you.

II

Paris.

Frankness and truth are virtues seldom esteemed by women as desirable; rather are they qualities to be avoided. For this reason you regard me as a Sardanapalus, because I attended a ball at which the ballet girls of the Opera were present. You reproach me for that evening as if it were a crime, and you reproach me for commending those poor girls as if that were a still greater crime. I repeat it, give them wealth, and thereafter only their good qualities will be seen. But an insurmountable barrier has been raised by the aristocracy between the different social classes, so that neither class may discover how much alike are the happenings on each side of the barrier. I want to tell you the story of a ballet girl that I heard in this same shocking society. In a house in the rue Saint Honoré lived a poor woman who never left the little attic room which she rented at three francs a month. She had one daughter twelve years old, who was always neatly dressed, very demure, and extremely reserved in manner. This little girl went out three afternoons in the week and returned alone at midnight. It was known that she was a chorus girl at the Opera. One day she goes down to the porter’s room and asks for a lighted candle. It is given to her. The porter’s wife, surprised not to see her come downstairs again, climbs to the garret, finds the woman dead on her wretched pallet, and the little girl occupied in burning unread an enormous quantity of letters which she was taking from a large trunk. She says: “My mother died last night, and charged me to destroy all her letters without reading them.” This child has never known her mother’s real name; she is now absolutely alone in the world, without any resource but to act the vulture, the monkey, or the devil at the Opera.

Her mother’s last word of counsel was to urge her to be prudent, and to continue to be a ballet girl. She is, moreover, very discreet, deeply religious, and it is with reluctance that she refers to her story. Tell me, please, if it is not infinitely more creditable for this little girl to lead the life she does, than for you who enjoy the singular good fortune of an irreproachable environment, and of a temperament of such refinement that it seems to me to sum up the qualities of an entire civilisation. I must tell you the truth. I can endure the society of ignoble people only at rare intervals, and then only because of an inexhaustible curiosity which I feel for every variety of the human species. I can never tolerate low society among men. To me there is something too repulsive in them, especially in our own countrymen. In Spain, however, I made friends always with the mule-drivers and the toreros. Many a time have I broken bread with people whom an Englishman would not notice for fear of losing his self-respect. I have even drunk from the same bottle with a convict. I must admit that there was no other bottle, and one must drink when he is thirsty. Do not from this imagine that I have a preference for the rabble. It is simply that I like to see other manners, other faces, and to hear another language. The ideas are always the same, and if one eliminates all that is conventional, I believe that good manners may be found elsewhere than in a drawing-room of the faubourg Saint Germain. All this is Arabic to you, and I do not know why I say it.

 

August 8.

I have been a long time finishing this letter. My mother has been extremely ill, and I very anxious. She is now out of danger, and I trust that in a few days she will be in perfect health. I can not endure anxiety, and while her life was in danger I was quite daft.

Adieu.

P.S.—The water-colour which I intended for you is not turning out well, and I am so dissatisfied with it that I shall probably not send it to you. Do not let this prevent you from sending me the needle-work you have made for me. Be sure to choose a trustworthy messenger. As a general rule, never take a woman as a confidante; sooner or later you will regret it. Learn also that nothing is more common than to do wrong merely for the pleasure of doing it. Abandon your optimistic ideas, and realise that we are in this world to struggle and contend with our fellows. In this connection I will tell you that a learned friend of mine, who reads hieroglyphics, says that on the Egyptian coffins were often found these two words, Life, War; which proves that I have not invented the maxim just quoted. In hieroglyphics it is expressed thus: image of an urn and an arm weilding a sword. The first character signifies life, and represents, I believe, one of those vases called canopes. The other is a reduced shield, with an arm holding a lance. There’s science for you!

Again adieu.

III

Paris.

Your reproaches please me greatly. I am, indeed, predestined by the fairies. I ask myself often what I am to you, and what you are to me. To the first question I can have no reply; as for the second, I fancy that I love you as if you were a fourteen-year-old niece of whom I were the guardian. As for your exceedingly moral relative, who has so much ill to say of me, he reminds me of Thwackum, who is always saying, “Can any virtue exist without religion?” Have you read Tom Jones?—a book as immoral as all of mine together. If it has been forbidden you, I am confident you have read it. What a farce of an education is that which you are getting in England! What does it amount to?

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