Prosper Mérimée, Carmen from Chapter III (1845)

Transcribed from pages 45-59 of the G.P. Putnam's 1903 edition of Prosper Mérimée's Carmen (1845). Translated by George Burnham Ives.

Scene Two: Don José relates his seduction by Carmen in the marketplace

"I was born," he said, "at Elizondo, in the valley of Baztan. My name is Don José Lizzarrabengoa, and you are familiar enough with Spain, señor, to know at once from my name that I am a Basque and a Christian of the ancient type. I use the title Don because I am entitled to it; and if I were at Elizondo, I would show you my genealogy on a sheet of parchment. My family wished me to be a churchman, and they forced me to study, but I profited little by it. I was too fond of playing tennis—that was my ruin. When we Navaresse play tennis, we forget everything. One day, when I had won, a young man from Alava picked a quarrel with me; we took our maquilas, and again I had the advantage; but that incident compelled me to leave the country. I fell in with some dragoons, and I enlisted in the cavalry regiment of Almanza. The men from our mountains learn the military profession quickly. I soon became a corporal, with the promise of being promoted to quartermaster, when, to my undoing, I was placed on duty at the tobacco factory in Seville. If you have ever been to Seville, you must have seen that great building, outside of the fortifications, close to the Guadalquivir. It seems to me that I can see the doorway and the guard-house beside it at this moment. When on duty Spanish troops either gamble or sleep; I, like an honest Navarese, always tried to find something to do. I was making a chain of brass wire, to hold my primer. Suddenly my comrades said: 'There goes the bell; the girls will be going back to work.' You must know, señor, that there are four or five hundred girls employed in the factory. They roll the cigars in a large room which no man can enter without a permit from the Twenty-four, because they are in the habit of making themselves comfortable, the young ones especially, when it is warm. At the hour when the women return to work, after their dinner, many young men assemble to see them pass, and they make remarks of all colours to them. There are very few of those damsels who will refuse a silk mantilla, and the experts in that fishery have only to stoop to pick up their fish. While the other stared, I remained on my bench, near the door. I was young then; I was always thinking of the old province, and I did not believe that there were any pretty girls without blue petticoats and long plaited tresses falling over their shoulders. Moreover, the Andalusian girls frightened me; I was not accustomed as yet to their manners: always jesting, never a serious word. So I had my nose over my chain, when I heard some civilians say: 'Here comes the gitanella!' I raised my eyes and I saw her. It was a Friday, and I shall never forget it. I saw that Carmen whom you know, at whose house I met you several months ago.

"She wore a very short red skirt, which revealed white silk stockings with more than one hole, and tiny shoes of red morocco, tied with flame-coloured ribbons. She put her mantilla aside, to show her shoulders and a huge bunch of cassia, which protruded from her chemise. She had a cassia flower in the corner of her mouth, too, and as she walked she swung her hips like a filly in the stud at Cordova. In my province a woman in that costume would have compelled everybody to cross themselves. At Seville every one paid her some equivocal compliment on her appearance, and she had a reply for every one, casting sly glances here and there, with her hand on her hip, as impudent as the genuine gypsy that she was. At first sight she did not attract me, and I returned to my work; but she, according to the habit of women and cats, who do not come when you call them, —she halted in front of me and spoke to me.

"'Compadre,' she said in Andalusian fashion, 'will you give me your chain to hold the keys of my strong-box?'

"'It is to hold my primer' [épinglette], I replied.

"'Your épinglette!' she exlaimed, with a laugh. 'Ah! the señor makes lace, since he needs pins!' [épingles]

"Everybody present began to laugh, and I felt the blood rise to my cheeks, nor could I think of any answer to make.

"'Well, my heart,' she continued, 'make me seven ells of black lace for a mantilla, pincushion [épinglier] of my soul!'

"And, taking the flower from her mouth she threw it at me with a jerk of her thumb, and struck me between the eyes. Señor, that produced on me the effect of a bullet. I did not know which way to turn, so I sat as still as a post. When she had gone into the factory, I saw the cassia blossom lying on the ground between my feet; I do not know what made me do it, but I picked it up, unseen by my comrades, and stowed it carefully away in my pocket—the first folly!

"Two or three hours later, I was still thinking of her, when a porter rushed into the guard-house, gasping for breath and with a horrified countenance. He told us that a woman had been murdered in the large room where the cigars were made, and that we must send the guard there. The quartermaster told me to take two men and investigate. I took my two men and I went upstairs. Imagine, señor, that on entering the room I found, first of all, three hundred women in their chemises, or practically that, all shouting and yelling and gesticulating, making such an infernal uproar that you could not have heard God's thunder. On one side a woman lay on the floor, covered with blood, with an X carved on her face by two blows of a knife. On the opposite side from the wounded woman, whom the best of her comrades were assisting, I saw Carmen in the grasp of five or six women.

"'Confession! Confession! I am killed!' shrieked the wounded woman.

"Carmen said nothing; she clenched her teeth and rolled her eyes about like a chameleon.

"'What is all this?' I demanded. I had great difficulty in learning what had taken place, for all the work-girls talked at once. It seemed that the wounded one had boasted of having money enough in her pocket to buy an ass at the fair at Triana.

"'I say,' said Carmen, who had a tongue of her own, 'isn't a broomstick good enough for you?' The other, offended by the insult, perhaps because she was conscious that she was vulnerable on that point, replied that she was not a connoisseur in broomsticks, as she had not the honour to be a gypsy or a godchild of Satan, but that the Señorita Carmencita would soon make the acquaintance of her ass, when the corregidor took her out to ride, with two servants behind to keep the flies away. 'Well!' said Carmen, 'I'll make watering-troughs for flies on your cheek, and I'll paint a checker-board on it.' And with that, vli, vlan! she began to draw St. Andrew's crosses on the other's face with the knife with which she cut off the ends of the cigars.

"The case was clear enough; I took Carmen by the arm. 'You must come with me, my sister,' I said to her courteously. She darted a glance at me, as if she recognised me; but she said, with a resigned air:

"'Let us go. Where's my mantilla?'

"She put it over her head in such wise as to show only one of her great eyes, and followed my two men, as mild as a sheep. When we reached the guard-house, the quartermaster said that it was a serious matter, and that she must be taken to prison. It fell to my lot again to escort her there. I placed her between two dragoons, and marched behind, as a corporal should do under such circimstances. We started for the town. At first the gypsy kept silent; but on Rue de Serpent—you know that street; it well deserves its name because of the détours it makes—she began operations by letting her mantilla fall over her shoulders, in order to show me her bewitching face, and turning toward me as far as she could, she said:

"'Where are you taking me, my officer?'

"'To prison, my poor child,' I replied, as gently as possible, as a good solider should speak to a prisoner, especially to a woman.

"'Alas! what will become of me? Señor officer, take pity on me. You are so young, so good looking!' Then she added, in a lower tone: 'Let me escape, and I'll give you a piece of the bar lachi which will make all women love you.'

The bar lachi, señor, is the lodestone, with which the gypsies claim that all sorts of spells may be cast when one knows how to use it. Give a woman a pinch of ground lodestone in a glass of white wine, and she ceases to resist.—I replied with as much gravity as I could command:

"'We are not here to talk nonsense; you must go to prison—that is the order, and there is no way to avoid it.'

"We natives of the Basque country have an accent which makes it wasy for the Spaniards to identify us; on the other hand, there is not one of them who can learn to say even baï, jaona [yes, sir]. So that Carmen had no difficulty in guessing that I came from the provinces. You must know, señor, that the gypsies, being of no country, are always travelling, and speak all languages, and that most of them are perfectly at home in Portugal, in France, in the Basque provinces, in Catalonia, everywhere; they even make themselves understood by the Moors and the English. Carmen knew Basque very well.

"'Laguna ene bihotsarena, comrade of my heart,' she said to me abruptly, 'are you from the provinces?'

"Our language, señor, is so beautiful, that, when we hear it in a foreign land, it makes us tremble.—I would like to have a confessor from the provinces," added the bandit in a lower tone.

He continued after a pause:

"'I am from Elizondo,' I replied in Basque, deeply moved to hear my native tongue spoken.

"'And I am from Etchalar,' said she. That is a place about four hours' journey from us. 'I was brought to Seville by gypsies. I have been working in the factory to earn money to return to Navarre, to my poor mother, who has no one but me to support her, and a little barratcea with twenty cider-apple trees! Ah! if I was at home, by the white mountain! They insulted me because I don't belong in this land of thieves and dealers in rotten oranges; and those hussies all leagued against me, because I told them that all their Seville jacques, with their knives, wouldn't frighten one of our boys with his blue cap and his maquila. Comrade, my friend, won't you do anything for a countrywoman?'

"She lied, señor, she always lied. I doubt whether the girl ever said a true word in her life; but when she spoke, I believed her; it was too much for me. She murdered the Basque language, yet I believed that she was a Navarrese. Her eyes alone, to say nothing of her mouth and her colour, proclaimed her a gypsy. I was mad, I paid no heed to anything. I thought that if Spaniards had dared to speak slightingly to me of the provinces, I would have slashed their faces as she had slashed her comrade's. In short, I was like a drunken man; I began to say foolish things, I was on the verge of doing them.

"'If I should push you and you should fall, my countryman,' she continued, in Basque, 'it would take more than these two Castilian recruits to hold me.'

"Faith, I forgot orders and everything, and said to her:

"'Well, my dear, my countrywoman, try it, and may Our Lady of the Mountain be with you!'

"At that moment we were passing one of the narrow lanes of which there are so many in Seville. All of a sudden Carmen turned and struck me with her fist in the breast. I purposely fell backward. With one spring she leaped over me and began to run, showing us a fleet pair of legs! Basque legs are famous; hers were quite equal to them—as swift and as well moulded. I sprang up instantly; but I held my lance horizontally so as to block the street, so that my men were delayed for a moment when they attempted to pursue her. Then I began to run myself, and they at my heels. But overtake her! there was no danger of that, with our spurs, and sabres, and lances! In less time than it takes to tell it, the prisoner had disappeared. Indeed, all the women in the quarter favoured her flight, laughed at us, and sent us in the wrong direction. After much marching and countermarching, we were obliged to return to the guard-house without a receipt from the governor of the prison.

"My men, to avoid being punished, said that Carmen had talked Basque with me; and to tell the truth, it did not seem any too natural that a blow with the fist of so dimunitive a girl should upset a fellow of my build so easily. It all seemed decidedly suspicious, or rather it seemed only too clear. When I went off duty I was reduced to the ranks and sent to prison for a month. That was my first punishment since I had been in the service. Farewell to the uniform of the quartermaster, which I fancied that I had already won!