Laurence Sterne. (1713–1768). A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
The Act of Charity. Paris
I count little of the many things I see pass at broad noonday, in large and open streets.—Nature is shy, and hates to act before spectators; but in such an unobserved corner you sometimes see a single short scene of hers, worth all the sentiments of a dozen French plays compounded together—and yet they are absolutely fine;—and whenever I have a more brilliant affair upon my hands than common, as they suit a preacher just as well as a hero, I generally make my sermon out of ’em—and for the text—“Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia”—is as good as any one in the Bible.
There is a long dark passage issuing out from the Opera Comique into a narrow street; ’t is trod by a few who humbly wait for a fiacre or wish to get off quietly o’ foot when the opera is done. At the end of it, towards the theater, ’t is lighted by a small candle, the light of which is almost lost before you get half-way down, but near the door—’t is more for ornament than use: you see it as a fix’d star of the least magnitude; it burns—but does little good to the world, that we know of.
In returning along this passage, I discern’d, as I approach’d within five or six paces of the door, two ladies standing arm in arm with their backs against the wall, waiting, as I imagined, for a fiacre—as they were next the door, I thought they had a prior right; so edged myself up within a yard or little more of them, and quietly took my stand—I was in black, and scarce seen.
The lady next me was a tall lean figure of a woman, of about thirty-six; the other of the same size and make, of about forty; there was no mark of wife or widow in any one part of either of them—they seem’d to be two upright vestal sisters, unsapp’d by caresses, unbroke in upon by tender salutations: I could have wish’d to have made them happy—their happiness was destin’d, that night, to come from another quarter.
A low voice, with a good turn of expression, and sweet cadence at the end of it, begg’d for a twelve-sou piece betwixt them, for the love of Heaven. I thought it singular that a beggar should fix the quota of an alms—and that the sum should be twelve times as much as what is usually given in the dark. They both seem’d astonish’d at it as much as myself.—Twelve sous! said one.—A twelve-sou piece! said the other—and made no reply.
The poor man said, he knew not how to ask less of ladies of their rank; and bow’d down his head to the ground.
Poo! said they—we have no money.
The beggar remained silent for a moment or two, and renew’d his supplication.
Do not, my fair young ladies, said he, stop your good ears against me.—Upon my word, honest man! said the younger, we have no change.—Then God bless you, said the poor man, and multiply those joys which you can give to others without change!—I observed the elder sister put her hand into her pocket.—I’ll see, said she, if I have a sou.—A sou! give twelve, said the supplicant; Nature has been bountiful to you, be bountiful to a poor man.
I would, friend, with all my heart, said the younger, if I had it.
My fair charitable! said he, addressing himself to the elder—what is it but your goodness and humanity which makes your bright eyes so sweet, that they outshine the morning even in this dark passage? and what was it which made the Marquis de Santerre and his brother say so much of you both as they just pass’d by?
The two ladies seemed much affected; and impulsively at the same time they both put their hands into their pocket, and each took out a twelve-sou piece.
The contest betwixt them and the poor supplicant was no more—it was continued betwixt themselves, which of the two should give the twelve-sou piece in charity—and to end the dispute, they both gave it together, and the man went away.