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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The White Violets

By Henri Murger (1822–1861)

From ‘The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter’

ABOUT this time Rodolphe was very much in love with his cousin Angela, who couldn’t bear him; and the thermometer was twelve degrees below freezing-point.

Mademoiselle Angela was the daughter of Monsieur Monetti, the chimney-doctor, of whom we have already had occasion to speak. She was eighteen years old, and had just come from Burgundy, where she had lived five years with a relative who was to leave her all her property. This relative was an old lady who had never been young, apparently,—certainly never handsome,—but had always been very ill-natured, although—or perhaps because—very superstitious. Angela, who at her departure was a charming child, and promised to be a charming girl, came back at the end of the five years a pretty enough young lady, but cold, dry, and uninteresting. Her secluded provincial life, and the narrow and bigoted education she had received, had filled her mind with vulgar prejudices, shrunk her imagination, and converted her heart into a sort of organ limited to fulfilling its function of physical balance-wheel. You might say that she had holy water in her veins instead of blood. She received her cousin with an icy reserve; and he lost his time whenever he attempted to touch the chord of her recollections—recollections of the time when they had sketched out that flirtation, in the Paul-and-Virginia style, which is traditional between cousins of different sexes. Still Rodolphe was very much in love with his cousin Angela, who couldn’t bear him; and learning one day that the young lady was going shortly to the wedding-ball of one of her friends, he made bold to promise Angela a bouquet of violets for the ball. And after asking permission of her father, Angela accepted her cousin’s gallant offer—always on condition that the violets should be white.

Overjoyed at his cousin’s amiability, Rodolphe danced and sang his way back to Mount St. Bernard, as he called his lodging—why, will be seen presently. As he passed by a florist’s in crossing the Palais Royal, he saw some white violets in the showcase, and was curious enough to ask their price. A presentable bouquet could not be had for less than ten francs; there were some that cost more.

“The deuce!” exclaimed Rodolphe; “ten francs! and only eight days to find this fortune! It will be a hard pull, but never mind; my cousin shall have her flowers.”

This happened in the time of Rodolphe’s literary genesis, as the transcendentalists would say. His only income at that period was an allowance of fifteen francs a month, made him by a friend, who after living a long while in Paris as a poet, had by the help of influential acquaintances gained the mastership of a provincial school. Rodolphe, who was the child of prodigality, always spent his allowance in four days; and not choosing to abandon his holy but not very profitable profession of elegiac poet, lived for the rest of the month on the rare droppings from the basket of Providence. This long Lent had no terrors for him; he passed through it gayly, thanks to his stoical temperament, and to the imaginary treasures which he expended every day while waiting for the first of the month,—that Easter which terminated his fast. He lived at this time at the very top of one of the loftiest houses in Paris. His room was shaped like a belvidere, and was a delicious habitation in summer; but from October to April a perfect little Kamtchatka. The four cardinal winds which penetrated by the four windows—there was one on each of the four sides—made fearful music in it throughout the cold seasons. Then, in irony as it were, there was a huge fireplace, the immense chimney of which seemed a gate of honor reserved for Boreas and his retinue. On the first attack of cold, Rodolphe had recourse to an original system of warming: he cut up successively what little furniture he had, and at the end of a week his stock was considerably abridged,—in fact, he had only a bed and two chairs left; it should be remarked that these three articles were insured against fire by their nature, being of iron. This manner of heating himself he called moving up the chimney.

It was January; and the thermometer, which indicated twelve degrees below freezing-point on the Spectacle Quay, would have stood two or three lower if moved to the belvidere, which Rodolphe called indifferently Mount St. Bernard, Spitzenberg, and Siberia. The night when he had promised his cousin the white violets, he was seized with a great rage on returning home: the four cardinal winds, in playing puss-in-the-corner round his chamber, had broken a pane of glass—the third time in a fortnight. After exploding in a volley of frantic imprecations upon Eolus and all his family, and plugging up the breach with a friend’s portrait, Rodolphe lay down, dressed as he was, between his two mattresses, and dreamed of white violets all night.

At the end of five days, Rodolphe had found nothing to help him toward realizing his dream. He must have the bouquet the day after to-morrow. Meanwhile the thermometer fell still lower, and the luckless poet was ready to despair as he thought that the violets might have risen higher. Finally his good angel had pity on him, and came to his relief as follows:—

One morning, Rodolphe went to take his chance of getting a breakfast from his friend Marcel the painter, and found him conversing with a woman in mourning. It was a widow who had just lost her husband, and who wanted to know how much it would cost to paint on the tomb which she had erected, a man’s hand, with this inscription beneath:—

  • To get the work at a cheaper rate, she observed to the artist that when she was called to rejoin her husband, he would have another hand to paint,—her hand, with a bracelet on the wrist, and the supplementary line beneath:—

  • “I shall put this clause in my will,” she said, “and require that the task be intrusted to you.”

    “In that case, madame,” replied the artist, “I will do it at the price you offer—but only in the hope of seeing your hand. Don’t go and forget me in your will.”

    “I should like to have this as soon as possible,” said the disconsolate one: “nevertheless, take your time to do it well; and don’t forget the scar on the thumb. I want a living hand.”

    “Don’t be afraid, madame, it shall be a speaking one,” said Marcel, as he bowed the widow out.

    But hardly had she crossed the threshold when she returned, saying:—

    “I have one thing more to ask you, sir: I should like to have inscribed on my husband’s tomb something in verse which would tell of his good conduct and his last words. Is that good style?”

    “Very good style—they call that an epitaph—the very best style.”

    “You don’t know any one who would do that for me cheap? There is my neighbor M. Guérin, the public writer; but he asks the clothes off my back.”

    Here Rodolphe darted a look at Marcel, who understood him at once.

    “Madame,” said the artist, pointing to Rodolphe, “a happy fortune has conducted hither the very person who can be of service to you in this mournful juncture. This gentleman is a renowned poet; you couldn’t find a better.”

    “I want something very melancholy,” said the widow; “and the spelling all right.”

    “Madame,” replied Marcel, “my friend spells like a book. He had all the prizes at school.”

    “Indeed!” said the widow: “my grandnephew has just had a prize too; he is only seven years old.”

    “A very forward child, madame.”

    “But are you sure that the gentleman can make very melancholy verses?”

    “No one better, madame, for he has undergone much sorrow in his life. The papers always find fault with his verses for being too melancholy.”

    “What!” cried the widow, “do they talk about him in the papers? He must know quite as much, then, as M. Guérin, the public writer.”

    “And a great deal more. Apply to him, madame, and you will not repent of it.”

    After having explained to Rodolphe the sort of inscription in verse which she wished to place on her husband’s tomb, the widow agreed to give Rodolphe ten francs if it suited her—only she must have it very soon. The poet promised she should have it the very next day.

    “Oh, good genius of an Artemisia!” cried Rodolphe, as the widow disappeared. “I promise you that you shall be suited—full allowance of melancholy lyrics, better got up than a duchess, orthography and all. Good old lady! May Heaven reward you with a life of a hundred and seven years—equal to that of good brandy!”

    “I object,” said Marcel.

    “That’s true,” said Rodolphe: “I forgot that you have her hand to paint, and that so long a life would make you lose money;” and lifting his hands he gravely ejaculated, “Heaven, do not grant my prayer! Ah!” he continued, “I was in jolly good luck to come here.”

    “By the way,” asked Marcel, “what did you want?”

    “I recollect—and now especially that I have to pass the night in making these verses, I cannot do without what I came to ask you for: namely, first, some dinner; secondly, tobacco and candle; thirdly, your polar-bear costume.”

    “To go to the masked ball?”

    “No indeed; but as you see me here, I am as much frozen up as the grand army in the retreat from Russia. Certainly my green frock coat and Scotch plaid trousers are very pretty, but much too summery: they would do to live under the equator, but for one who lodges near the Pole, as I do, a white-bear skin is more suitable,—indeed, I may say necessary.”

    “Take the fur!” said Marcel: “it’s a good idea; warm as a dish of charcoal,—you will be like a roll in an oven in it.”

    Rodolphe was already inside the animal skin.

    “Now,” said he, “the thermometer is going to be sold a trifle.”

    “Are you going out so?” said Marcel to his friend, after they had finished an ambiguous repast served in a penny dish.

    “I just am,” replied Rodolphe: “do you think I care for public opinion? Besides, to-day is the beginning of carnival.”

    He went half over Paris with all the gravity of the beast whose skin he occupied. Only on passing before a thermometer in an optician’s window, he couldn’t help taking a sight at it.

    Having returned home, not without causing great terror to his porter, Rodolphe lit his candle, carefully surrounding it with an extempore shade of paper to guard it against the malice of the winds, and set to work at once. But he was not long in perceiving that if his body was almost entirely protected from the cold, his hands were not; a terrible numbness seized his fingers, which let the pen fall.

    “The bravest man cannot struggle against the elements,” said the poet, falling back helpless in his chair. “Cæsar passed the Rubicon, but he could not have passed the Beresina.”

    All at once he uttered a cry of joy from the depths of his bearskin breast, and jumped up so suddenly as to overturn some of his ink on its snowy fur. He had an idea!

    Rodolphe drew from beneath his bed a considerable mass of papers, among which were a dozen huge manuscripts of his famous drama, ‘The Avenger.’ This drama, on which he had spent two years, had been made, unmade, and remade so often that all the copies together weighed fully fifteen pounds. He put the last version on one side, and dragged the others towards the fireplace.

    “I was sure that with patience I should dispose of it somehow,” he exclaimed. “What a pretty fagot! If I could have foreseen what would happen, I could have written a prologue, and then I should have more fuel to-night. But one can’t foresee everything.” He lit some leaves of the manuscript, in the flame of which he thawed his hands. In five minutes the first act of ‘The Avenger’ was over, and Rodolphe had written three verses of his epitaph.

    It would be impossible to describe the astonishment of the four winds when they felt fire in the chimney.

    “It’s an illusion,” quoth Boreas, as he amused himself by brushing back the hair of Rodolphe’s bearskin.

    “Let’s blow down the pipe,” suggested another wind, “and make the chimney smoke.” But just as they were about to plague the poor poet, the south wind perceived Monsieur Arago at a window of the Observatory threatening them with his finger; so they all made off, for fear of being put under arrest. Meanwhile the second act of ‘The Avenger’ was going off with immense success, and Rodolphe had written ten lines. But he only achieved two during the third act.

    “I always thought that third act too short,” said Rodolphe: “luckily the next one will take longer; there are twenty-three scenes in it, including the great one of the throne.” As the last flourish of the throne-scene went up the chimney in fiery flakes, Rodolphe had only three couplets more to write. “Now for the last act. This is all monologue. It may last five minutes.” The catastrophe flashed and smoldered, and Rodolphe in a magnificent transport of poetry had enshrined in lyric stanzas the last words of the illustrious deceased. “There is enough left for a second representation,” said he, pushing the remainder of the manuscript under his bed.

    At eight o’clock next evening, Mademoiselle Angela entered the ball-room; in her hand was a splendid nosegay of white violets, and among them two budding roses, white also. During the whole night, men and women were complimenting the young girl on her bouquet. Angela could not but feel a little grateful to her cousin, who had procured this little triumph for her vanity; and perhaps she would have thought more of him but for the gallant persecutions of one of the bride’s relatives, who had danced several times with her. He was a fair-haired youth, with a magnificent mustache curled up at the ends, to hook innocent hearts. The bouquet had been pulled to pieces by everybody; only the two white roses were left. The young man asked Angela for them; she refused—only to forget them after the ball on a bench, whence the fair-haired youth hastened to take them.

    At that moment it was fourteen degrees below freezing-point in Rodolphe’s belvidere. He was leaning against his window looking out at the lights in the ball-room, where his cousin Angela, who didn’t care for him, was dancing.