Mignonette by Anatole France
Translated by Mrs. Anna Eichberg
TO JULES LEMAÎTRE
In a village of the Bocage I once knew a curé, a holy man who
denied himself every indulgence and who cheerfully practised the virtue
of renunciation, and knew no joy but that of sacrifice. In his garden
he cultivated fruit-trees, vegetables and medicinal plants, but fearing
beauty even in flowers, he would have neither roses nor jasmine. He
only allowed himself the innocent luxury of a few tufts of mignonette
whose twisted stems, so modestly flower-crowned, would not distract his
attention as he read his breviary among his cabbage-plots under the sky
of our dear Father in Heaven.
The holy man had so little distrust of his mignonette that he would
often in passing pick a spray and inhale its fragrance for a long time.
All the plant asked was to be permitted to grow. If one spray was cut,
four grew in its place. So much so, indeed, that, the devil aiding, the
priest's mignonette soon covered a vast extent of his little garden. It
overflowed into the paths and pulled at the good priest's cassock as he
passed, until, distracted by the foolish plant, he would pause as often
as twenty times an hour while he read or said his prayers.
From springtime until autumn the presbytery was redolent of
mignonette. Behold what we may come to and how feeble we are! Not
without reason do we say that all our natural inclinations lead us
towards sin! The man of God had succeeded in guarding his eyes, but he
had left his nostrils undefended, and so the devil, as it were, caught
him by the nose. This saint now inhaled the fragrance of mignonette
with avidity and lust, that is to say, with that sinful instinct which
makes us long for the enjoyment of natural pleasures and which leads us
into all sorts of temptations.
Henceforth he seemed to take less delight in the odours of Paradise
and the perfumes which are our Lady's merits. His holiness dwindled,
and he might, perhaps, have sunk into voluptuousness and become little
by little like those lukewarm souls which Heaven rejects had not
succour come to him in the nick of time.
Once, long ago, in the Thebaid, an angel stole from a hermit a cup
of gold which still bound the holy man to the vanities of earth. A
similar mercy was vouchsafed to this priest of the Bocage. A white hen
scratched the earth about the mignonette with such good-will that it
We are not informed whence this bird came. As for myself, I am
inclined to believe that the angel who in the desert stole the hermit's
cup transformed himself into a white hen on purpose to destroy the only
obstacle which barred the good priest's path towards perfection.