The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard

The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard


"Monsieur de Lessay, on finding that I had graduated at the Ecole des Chartes, judged me worthy to assist him in preparing his historical atlas.The plan was to illustrate, by a series of maps, what the old philosopher termed the Vicissitudes of Empires from the time of Noah down to that of Charlemagne.Monsieur de Lessay had stored up in his head all the errors of the eighteenth century in regard to antiquity.I belonged, so far as my historical studies were concerned, to the new school; and I was just at that age when one does not know how to dissemble.The manner in which the old man understood, or, rather, misunderstood, the epoch of the Barbarians--his obstinate determination to find in remote antiquity only ambitious princes, hypocritical and avaricious prelates, virtuous citizens, poet-philosophers, and other personages who never existed outside of the novels of Marmontel,--made me dreadfully unhappy, and at first used to excite me into attempts at argument,--rational enough, but perfectly useless and sometimes dangerous, for Monsieur de Lessay was very irascible, and Clementine was very beautiful.

Between her and him I passed many hours of torment and of delight.

I was in love; I was a coward, and I granted to him all that he demanded of me in regard to the political and historical aspect which the Earth--that was at a later day to bear Clementine--presented in the time of Abraham, of Menes, and of Deucalion.

"As fast as we drew our maps, Mademoiselle de Lessay tinted them in water-colours.Bending over the table, she held the brush lightly between two fingers; the shadow of her eyelashes descended upon her cheeks, and bather her half-closed eyes in a delicious penumbra.

Sometimes she would lift her head, and I would see her lips pout.

There was so much expression in her beauty that she could not breathe without seeming to sigh; and her most ordinary poses used to throw me into the deepest ecstasies of admiration.Whenever I gazed at her I fully agreed with Monsieur de Lessay that Jupiter had once reigned as a despot-king over the mountainous regions of Thessaly, and that Orpheus had committed the imprudence of leaving the teaching of philosophy to the clergy.I am not now quite sure whether I was a coward or a hero when I accorded al this to the obstinate old man.

"Mademoiselle de Lessay, I must acknowledge, paid very little attention to me.But this indifference seemed to me so just and so natural that I never even dreamed of thinking I had a right to complain about it; it made me unhappy, but without my knowing that I was unhappy at the time.I was hopeful;--we had then only got as far as the First Assyrian Empire.

"Monsieur de Lessay came every evening to take coffee with my father.

I do not know how they became such friends; for it would have been difficult to find two characters more oppositely constituted.My father was a man who admired very few things, but was still capable of excusing a great many.Still, as he grew older, he evinced more and more dislike of everything in the shape of exaggeration.He clothed his ideas with a thousand delicate shades of expression, and never pronounced an opinion without all sorts of reservations.

These conversational habits, natural to a finely trained mind, used greatly to irritate the dry, terse old aristocrat, who was never in the least disarmed by the moderation of an adversary--quite the contrary! I always foresaw one danger.That danger was Bonaparte.

My father had not himself retained an particular affection for his memory; but, having worked under his direction, he did not like to hear him abused, especially in favour of the Bourbons, against whom he had serious reason to feel resentment.Monsieur de Lessay, more of a Voltairean and a Legitimist than ever, now traced back to Bonaparte the origin of every social, political, and religious evil.

Such being the situation, the idea of Uncle Victor made me feel particularly uneasy.This terrible uncle had become absolutely unsufferable now that his sister was no longer there to calm him down.The harp of David was broken, and Saul was wholly delivered over to the spirit of madness.The fall of Charles X.had increased the audacity of the old Napoleonic veteran, who uttered all imaginable bravadoes.He no longer frequented our house, which had become too silent for him.But sometimes, at the dinner-hour, we would see him suddenly make his appearance, all covered with flowers, like a mausoleum.Ordinarily he would sit down to table with an oath, growled out from the very bottom of his chest, and brag, between every two mouthfuls, of his good fortune with the ladies as a vieux brave.Then, when the dinner was over, he would fold up his napkin in the shape of a bishop's mitre, gulp down half a decanter of brandy, and rush away with the hurried air of a man terrified at the mere idea of remaining for any length of time, without drinking, in conversation with an old philosopher and a young scholar.I felt perfectly sure that, if ever he and Monsieur de Lessay should come together, all would be lost.But that day came, Madame!

"The captain was almost hidden by flowers that day, and seemed so much like a monument commemorating the glories of the Empire that one would have liked to pass a garland of immortelles over each of his arms.He was in an extraordinarily good humour; and the first person to profit by that good humour was our cook--for he put his arm around her waist while she was placing the roast on the table.

Anatole France