Good lesson Well
Learnt by Anatole France
IN the days of King Louis XI there lived at Paris, in a matted
chamber, a citizen dame called Violante, who was comely and well-liking
in all her person. She had so bright a face that Master Jacques
Tribouillard, doctor in law and a renowned cosmographer, who was often
a visitor at her house, was used to tell her:
Seeing you, madame, I deem credible and even hold it proven, what
Cucurbitus Piger lays down in one of his scholia on Strabo, to wit,
that the famous city and university of Paris was of old known by the
name of Lutetia or Leucecia, or some such like word coming from
Leukê, that is to say, 'the white,' forasmuch as the ladies of the
same had bosoms white as snow,yet not so clear and bright and white
as is your own, madame.
To which Violante would say in answer:
'T is enough for me if my bosom is not fit to fright folks, like
some I wot of. And, if I show it, why,'tis to follow the fashion. I
have not the hardihood to do otherwise than the rest of the world.
Now Madame Violante had been wedded, in the flower of her youth, to
an Advocate of the Parlement, a man of a harsh temper and sorely set on
the arraignment and punishing of unfortunate prisoners. For the rest,
he was of sickly habit and a weakling, of such a sort he seemed more
fit to give pain to folks outside his doors than pleasure to his wife
within. The old fellow thought more of his blue bags than of his better
half, though these were far otherwise shapen, being bulgy and fat and
formless. But the lawyer spent his nights over them.
Madame Violante was too reasonable a woman to love a husband that
was so unlovable. Master Jacques Tribouillard upheld she was a good
wife, as steadfastly and surely confirmed and stablished in conjugal
virtue as Lucretia the Roman. And for proof he alleged that he had
altogether failed to turn her aside from the path of honour. The
judicious observed a prudent silence on the point, holding that what is
hid will only be made manifest at the last Judgment Day. They noted how
the lady was over fond of gewgaws and laces and wore in company and at
church gowns of velvet and silk and cloth of gold, purfled with
miniver; but they were too fair-minded folk to decide whether, damning
as she did Christian men who saw her so comely and so finely dressed to
the torments of vain longing, she was not damning her own soul too with
one of them. In a word, they were well ready to stake Madame Violante's
virtue on the toss of a coin, cross or pile,which is greatly to the
honour of that fair lady.
The truth is her Confessor, Brother Jean Turelure, was for ever
Think you, madame, he would ask her, that the blessed St.
Catherine won heaven by leading such a life as yours, baring her bosom
and sending to Genoa for lace ruffles?
But he was a great preacher, very severe on human weaknesses, who
could condone naught and thought he had done everything when he had
inspired terror. He threatened her with hell fire for having washed her
face with ass's milk.
As a fact, no one could say if she had given her old husband a meet
and proper head-dress, and Messire Philippe de Coetquis used to warn
the honest dame in a merry vein:
See to it, I say! He is bald, he will catch his death of cold!
Messire Philippe de Coetquis was a knight of gallant bearing, as
handsome as the knave of hearts in the noble game of cards. He had
first encountered Madame Violante one evening at a ball, and after
dancing with her far into the night, had carried her home on his
crupper, while the Advocate splashed his way through the mud and mire
of the kennels by the dancing light of the torches his four tipsy
lackeys bore. In the course of these merry doings, a-foot and on
horseback, Messire Philippe de Coetquis had formed a shrewd notion that
Madame Violante had a limber waist and a full, firm bosom of her own,
and there and then had been smit by her charms.
He was a frank and guileless wight and made bold to tell her
outright what he would have of her,to wit, to hold her naked in his
To which she would make answer:
Messire Philippe, you know not what you say. I am a virtuous
Or another time:
Messire Philippe, come back again tomorrow,
And when he came next day she would ask innocently:
Nay, where is the hurry?
These never-ending postponements caused the Chevalier no little
distress and chagrin. He was ready to believe, with Master
Tribouillard, that Madame Violante was indeed a Lucretia, so true is it
that all men are alike in fatuous self-conceit! And we are bound to say
she had not so much as suffered him to kiss her mouth,only a pretty
diversion after all and a bit of wanton playfulness.
Things were in this case when Brother Jean Turelure was called to
Venice by the General of his Order, to preach to sundry Turks lately
converted to the true Faith.
Before setting forth, the good Brother went to take leave of his
fair Penitent, and upbraided her with more than usual sternness for
living a dissolute life. He exhorted her urgently to repent and pressed
her to wear a hair-shirt next her skin,an incomparable remedy against
naughty cravings and a sovran medicine for natures over prone to the
sins of the flesh.
She besought him: Good Brother, never ask too much of me.
But he would not hearken, and threatened her with the pains of hell
if she did not amend her ways. Then he told her he would gladly execute
any commissions she might be pleased to entrust him with. He was in
hopes she would beg him to bring her back some consecrated medal, a
rosary, or, better still, a little of the soil of the Holy Sepulchre
which the Turks carry from Jerusalem together with dried roses, and
which the Italian monks sell.
But Madame Violante preferred a quite other request:
Good Brother, dear Brother, as you are going to Venice, where such
cunning workmen in this sort are to be found, I pray you bring me back
a Venetian mirror, the clearest and truest can be gotten.
Brother Jean Turelure promised to content her wish.
While her Confessor was abroad, Madame Violante led the same life as
before. And when Messire Philippe pressed her: Were it not well to
take our pleasure together? she would answer: Nay! 't is too hot.
Look at the weathercock if the wind will not change anon. And the good
folk who watched her ways were in despair of her ever giving a proper
pair of horns to her crabbed old husband. 'T is a sin and a shame!
On his return from Italy Brother Jean Turelure presented himself
before Madame Violante and told her he had brought what she desired.
Look, madame, he said, and drew from under his gown a
Here, madame, is your mirror. This death's-head was given me for
that of the prettiest woman in all Venice. She was what you are, and
you will be much like her anon.
Madame Violante, mastering her surprise and horror, answered the
good Father in a well-assured voice that she understood the lesson he
would teach her and she would not fail to profit thereby.
I shall aye have present in my mind, good Brother, the mirror you
have brought me from Venice, wherein I see my likeness not as I am at
present, but as doubtless I soon shall be. I promise you to govern my
behaviour by this salutary thought.
Brother Jean Turelure was far from expecting such pious words. He
expressed some satisfaction.
So, madame, he murmured, you see yourself the need of altering
your ways. You promise me henceforth to govern your behaviour by the
thought this fleshless skull hath brought home to you. Will you not
make the same promise to God as you have to me?
She asked if indeed she must, and he assured her it behoved her so
Well, I will give this promise then, she declared.
Madame, this is very well. There is no going back on your word
I shall not go back on it, never fear.
Having won this binding promise, Brother Jean Turelure left the
place, radiant with satisfaction. And as he went from the house, he
cried out loud in the street:
Here is a good work done! By Our Lord God's good help, I have
turned and set in the way toward the gate of Paradise a lady, who,
albeit not sinning precisely in the way of fornication spoken of by the
Prophet, yet was wont to employ for men's temptation the clay whereof
the Creator had kneaded her that she might serve and adore him withal.
She will forsake these naughty habits to adopt a better life. I have
throughly changed her. Praise be to God!
Hardly had the good Brother gone down the stairs when Messire
Philippe de Coetquis ran up them and scratched at Madame Violante's
door. She welcomed him with a beaming smile, and led him into a closet,
furnished with carpets and cushions galore, wherein he had never been
admitted before. From this he augured well. He offered her sweetmeats
he had in a box.
Here be sugar-plums to suck, madame; they are sweet and sugared,
but not so sweet as your lips.
To which the lady retorted he was a vain, silly fop to make boast of
a fruit he had never tasted.
He answered her meetly, kissing her forthwith on the mouth.
She manifested scarce any annoyance and said only she was an honest
woman and a true wife. He congratulated her and advised her not to lock
up this jewel of hers in such close keeping that no man could enjoy it.
For, of a surety, he swore, you will be robbed of it, and that right
Try then, said she, cuffing him daintily over the ears with her
pretty pink palms.
But he was master by this time to take whatsoever he wished of her.
She kept protesting with little cries:
I won't have it. Fie! fie on you, messire! You must not do it. Oh!
sweetheart... oh! my love... my life! You are killing me!
Anon, when she had done sighing and dying, she said sweetly:
Messire Philippe, never flatter yourself you have mastered me by
force or guile. You have had of me what you craved, but 't was of mine
own free will, and I only resisted so much as was needful that I might
yield me as I liked best. Sweetheart, I am yours. If, for all your
handsome face, which I loved from the first, and despite the tenderness
of your wooing, I did not before grant you what you have just won with
my consent, 't was because I had no true understanding of things. I had
no thought of the flight of time and the shortness of life and love;
plunged in a soft languor of indolence, I reaped no harvest of my youth
and beauty. However, the good Brother Jean Turelure hath given me a
profitable lesson. He hath taught me the preciousness of the hours. But
now he showed me a death's-head, saying: 'Suchlike you will be soon.'
This taught me we must be quick to enjoy the pleasures of love and make
the most of the little space of time reserved to us for that end.
These words and the caresses wherewith Madame Violante seconded them
persuaded Messire Philippe to turn the time to good account, to set to
work afresh to his own honour and profit and the pleasure and glory of
his mistress, and to multiply the sure proofs of prowess which it
behoves every good and loyal servant to give on suchlike an occasion.
After which, she was ready to cry quits. Taking him by the hand, she
guided him back to the door, kissed him daintily on the eyes, and
Sweetheart Philippe, is it not well done to follow the precepts of
the good Brother Jean Turelure?