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Olympe and Henriette
by [?]


“Light, Light!”
Last words of Goethe

Pascal tells us that, so far as actions are concerned, good and evil are a question of “latitude.” One human action, in fact, is called a crime in one place, but somewhere else a good deed; and so inversely.

In Europe, for instance, one generally cherishes one’s aged parents; but among certain tribes of America one persuades them to climb up into a tree—and then shakes the tree. If they fall, then it is the sacred duty of every good son, as among the Messenians of old, to despatch them forthwith with a determined tomahawk and spare them the cares of decrepitude. But if they muster the strength to cling on to a branch, why, then they are still fit for the chase or for fishing, and their immolation is accordingly postponed. Again, the northern peoples are fond of drinking wine, that gleaming stream wherein the cherished sunlight lies asleep, and our national religion even advises us that “good wine makes glad the heart of man.” But southwards, among our Mahometan neighbours, the act is viewed as a grave misdeed. In Sparta, thieving was both practised and honoured; it was an hieratic institution, an indispensable piece of every sound Lacedemonian’s education—whence, no doubt, the Greeks. In Lapland, the father of a family holds it a point of honour that his daughter should receive all the affectionate favours which could be bestowed by the traveller who is enjoying his hospitality. In Bessarabia likewise. In the northern parts of Persia, and among the peoples of Cabul who have their habitation in ancient tombs, you may receive, in some comfortable sepulchre, a hospitable and cordial welcome, but if at the end of twenty-four hours you are not on the very best of terms with every one of your host’s offspring, be he fire-worshipper, Parsee, or Wahabite, there is every reason to expect that quite as a matter of course your head will be taken off—the punishment favoured in these climes.

Actions, then, as regards their physical nature, are matters of indifference: it is the conscience of each one of us, and conscience alone, that makes them good or evil. The mysterious seed from which this immense misunderstanding is sprung, is the inborn need which Man feels of creating for himself distinctions and scruples, of forbidding himself such and such an action rather than some other one. One might imagine, in fact, that there exists some great Law, lost and mysterious, forgotten by the whole mass of Mankind, a law after which, in their efforts to recall it, men are blindly groping.

Some years ago there flourished a certain cafe, spacious, luminous, the pride of our boulevards. It was situated almost directly opposite one of our important theatres, the pediment of which recalls that of a pagan temple. It was a daily meeting-place for the choice spirits among the youth, who since then have become distinguished, whether for their work as artists, for their incapacity, or for their attitude during the troubled times through which we have passed.

Among the latter, some have even stood at the helm of the ship of state. And, looking back, they were no small beer, the frequenters of this Arabian Nights cafe. Respectable citizens of Paris bated their breath whenever they mentioned it. Many a time, the prefet of the city used to fling down there, with a careless air, as one might a visiting-card, a choice nose-gay, an unexpected bouquet of police sergeants, who then, with that air of smiling absent-mindedness which is peculiarly their own, proceeded in an effortless way to lay about them with their loaded batons on mischievous and rebellious heads; an attention which, for all its delicacy, was none the less noticeable. On the following day. he was not to be seen there any more.

Out on the terrace, between the row of hackney-cabs and the window front, was a paddock of women, a flowering of chignons plucked from the pencil of Guys. Bedecked with the utmost extremes of fashion, they were ensconced in the chairs beside the round wrought-iron tables painted in bright green. On these tables drinks were set. Their eyes had something of the falcon, something of poultry. Some would hold large bouquets upon their laps, others little dogs, others nothing. You would have said they were waiting for someone.