Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet and other profitable tales/Edmée, or Charity well Bestowed
EDMÉE, OR CHARITY WELL
ORTEUR, the founder of l’Etoile, the political and literary editor of La Revue Nationale and of Le Nouveau Siècle Illustré, Horteur, having received me in his editorial room, from the depths of his editorial arm-chair addressed me thus:
“My good Marteau, write me a story for the special number of Le Nouveau Siècle. Three hundred lines for New Year's Day. Something amusing with a high society atmosphere.”
I told Horteur that that was not in my line, at least not in the sense in which he understood it, but that I was prepared to write him a story.
“I should like it to be entitled,” he said, “a tale for the rich.”
“I should prefer a tale for the poor.”
“That is what I mean. A tale to inspire the rich with pity for the poor.”
“But that is precisely what I object to. I do not want the rich to have pity on the poor.”
“No, it is not curious, but scientific. In my opinion the pity of the rich for the poor is an insult and a denial of human brotherhood. If you wish me to address the rich I shall say: ‘Spare the poor your pity: they have no use for it. Wherefore pity and not justice? You have an account with them. Settle it. This is no question of sentiment. It is a matter of economics. If that which you are pleased to give them is calculated to prolong their poverty and your wealth, the gift is iniquitous and the tears you mingle with it will not render it just. “You must make restitution,” as the attorney said to the judge after good Brother Maillard’s sermon. You give alms in order to avoid making restitution. You give a little in order to keep much, and you gloat over it. For a like reason the tyrant of Samos threw his ring into the sea. But the Nemesis of the gods declined to receive the offering. A fisherman brought back the tyrant his ring in a fish’s belly. And Polycrates was despoiled of all his wealth’.”
“You are joking.”
“I am not joking. I want to make the rich understand that they are benevolent on the cheap, that their generosity costs them little, that they only make the creditor curl his lip, and that such is not the way to conduct business. It is an opinion which may be of use to them.”
"And these are the ideas you propose to express in Le Nouveau Siècle in order to increase the circulation! Not a bit of it my friend! Not a bit of it!"
"Why do you insist on the rich man assuming towards the poor an attitude different from that which he assumes towards the rich and powerful? He pays the rich what he owes them, and if he owe them nothing he pays them nothing. That is honest. If he be honest let him do the same for the poor. And do not say that the rich owe the poor nothing. I do not believe that a single rich man thinks so. It is upon the extent of the debt that opinions begin to differ. And no one is in a hurry to solve the problem. It is thought better to leave the matter vague. Every one is aware that he is in debt. But what he owes is uncertain, and so from time to time a little is paid on account. That is called philanthropy, and it is profitable."
"But, my dear fellow, there is no common sense in what you have been saying. Possibly I am more of a Socialist than you, but I am practical. To relieve suffering, to prolong a life, to redress some particle of social injustice is to attain a result. The little good one does is at any rate done. It is not everything but it is something. If the story I ask you to write goes home to the hearts of a hundred of my rich subscribers and induces them to give it will be so much won from evil and suffering. Thus little by little the lot of the poor is rendered bearable."
"Is it good for the lot of the poor to be bearable? Poverty is indispensable to wealth and wealth to poverty. These two evils beget one another and foster one another. The condition of the poor does not need to be improved, but to be suppressed. I will not encourage the rich to give alms, because their alms are poisoned, because their alms do good to the giver and harm to the receiver, because in short, wealth being of itself hard and cruel it must not put on the deceitful appearance of kindness. Since you wish me to write a story for the rich, I will say to them: 'Your poor are your dogs whom you feed in order that they may bite. Your bedesmen become the hounds of the propertied classes who bay at the proletariat. The rich give only to those who ask. The workers ask nothing, and they receive nothing'."
"But the infirm, the aged and the orphaned?..." "They have the right to live. For them I would not excite pity, I would appeal to justice."
"All this is mere theorizing! To return to reality. You will write me a New Year's Story, and you may introduce a suggestion of Socialism. Socialism is quite fashionable. It is even a distinction. Of course I am not referring to the Socialism of Guesde or of Jaurès, but to a moderate Socialism such as men of the world intelligently and rightly oppose to collectivism. Have some young faces in your story. It will be illustrated and readers like pictures to be pleasing. Bring a young girl on the scene, a charming young girl. It will not be difficult."
"No, it is not difficult."
"Could you not introduce a little chimney-sweep? I have an illustration ready, a coloured engraving, which represents a young girl giving alms to a little chimney-sweep on the steps of the Madeleine. This would be an opportunity for using it.… It is cold, the snow is falling: the pretty girl is dropping a coin into the chimney-sweep's hand. Can you see it?"
"I see it."
"You will develop that theme."
"I will develop it. The little sweep, in a transport of gratitude throws his arms round the girl's neck. She happens to be the daughter of the Comte de Linotte. He gives her a kiss, imprinting on the charming child's cheek a little round O of soot. A perfectly enchanting little O, quite round and quite black. He loves her. Edmée (her name is Edmée) is not indifferent to so sincere and ingenuous an attachment.… I fancy the idea is sufficiently pathetic."
"Yes. You will be able to make something of it."
"You encourage me to continue. On her return to her sumptuous home in the Boulevard Malesherbes, for the first time in her life Edmée is reluctant to wash her face: she would like to preserve the imprint of those lips on her cheek. Meanwhile the little sweep has followed her to her door. Rapt in ecstasy he stands beneath the adorable young girl's window.… Will that do? "
"Why, yes! "
"I continue. The next morning, lying on her little white bed, Edmée sees the little sweep coming down the chimney. Without any ado he throws himself on the charming child and covers her with little round O's of soot. I omitted to tell you that he is extremely handsome. While thus delightfully occupied he is surprised by the Comtesse de Linotte. She screams, she calls for help. But so absorbed is he that he neither sees nor hears."
"My dear Marteau.…"
"So absorbed is he that he neither sees nor hears. The Comte hastens into the room. He has the soul of a true aristocrat. He takes up the little sweep by the seat of his breeches…and throws him out of the window—"
"My dear Marteau.…"
"I hasten to conclude.… Nine months later the little sweep married the high-born maiden. And it was high time too. Such was the result of charity well bestowed."
"My dear Marteau, you have amused yourself long enough at my expense."
"Not a bit of it. I must finish. Having married Mademoiselle de Linotte, the little sweep became a papal count and was ruined on the Turf. To-day he is a stove dealer at Montparnasse in the Rue de la Gaîté. His wife keeps his shop and sells stoves at eighteen francs apiece payable in eight months."
"My dear Marteau it isn't the least bit funny."
"Beware, my dear Horteur. What I have just told you is really Lamartine's Chute d'un Ange and Alfred de Vigny's Eloa. And, taking it all round, it is better than your tearful tales, which make folk believe that they are very kind when they are not kind at all, that they do good when they do nothing of the sort, that it is easy for them to be benevolent when it is the most difficult thing in the world. My story is moral. Moreover it is optimistic and ends well. For, in her shop in the Rue de la Gaîté, Edmeé found the happiness which in amusements and festivities she would have sought in vain, had she been married to a diplomat or an officer.… My dear editor, are we agreed: Will you have Edmée, or Charity well Bestowed for the Nouveau Siècle Illustré?"
"You ask me that in all seriousness? …"
"In all seriousness I ask you. If you will not have my story, I will publish it elsewhere."
"In some high class journal."
"I dare you to do so."
"You will see."
The Figaro, under the editorship of Monsieur de Rodays, published Edmée ou La Charité bien placée. It was, so to speak, offered as a New Year's gift to the readers of that paper.