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Several years ago, I read a memorable short story included as an example (of what, I don't recall) in a book about writing. The story was set in a historical era of France. I believe it was translated from the French, and written in the era it depicted, although I'm not sure about either of those facts.

The plot concerned a group of poor soldiers who pool all their money to purchase one of them a night with a famous prostitute - possessor of the "dearest charms in all France." They determine the lucky beneficiary by lottery. When he tells the lady in question his story, she declares she can be as generous as his comrades and that he will not pay a "single sou" for the privilege of her time.

The punchline is that she refunds him, not the entire amount, but just the few coins he used to buy into the lottery! I haven't been able to find or identify either this story, or the book that quoted it. Does anyone have any thoughts?

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    The story opens with a long description of the woman, who is famous throughout France; the 'poor soldiers' are a class of cadets at a French military academy, agonizing over the fact that she will be retired long before any of them can hope to afford her. This appeared in more than one collection of humourous short stories, and I think was originally English. Perhaps Ludwig Bemelmans?
    – Barnaby
    Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 0:14
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    Performed as a sketch in Three Piece Suite by Diana Rigg. Excellent 👍
    – Roberto
    Commented Apr 3 at 12:21

1 Answer 1

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+100

This is "Entrance Fee" by Alexander Woollcott.

That was how the Cosette Sweepstakes were started. There followed then all the anxious distraction of ways and means, with such Spartan exploits in self-denial, such Damon-and-Pythias borrowings, such flagrant letters of perjured appeal to unsuspecting aunts and godmothers, as Saint-Cyr had never known. But by the appointed time the last man had his, or somebody's, five francs.

"Saint-Cyr has paid me the prettiest compliment I have ever known," she said, "and I am the proudest woman in France this day. But surely I must do my part. You shall go back and tell them all that Cosette is a woman of sentiment. When you are an old, old man in the Vendée you shall tell your grandchildren that once in your youth you knew the dearest favors in France, and they cost you not a sou. Not a sou."

At that she hauled open the little drawer where he had seen her lock up the lottery receipts the night before.

"Here," she said, with a lovely gesture. "I give you back your money."

And she handed him his five francs

I read it in 1995 in a school library in the UK as an exchange student, found it on Google books searching for "Saint-Cyr cadets lottery"

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    Oh wow. This is one of the ID questions that I thought was never going to be answered, after so many years and attempts (one of the highest-scoring unanswered questions too). You really are a guru of ID solving. I know I already have a bounty currently open on one of your impressive answers, but I might have to open another one for this.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 4:33
  • Thank you so much! I had despaired of ever finding this one... Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 13:31
  • I bought a copy of "The Portable Woollcott" and this is definitely the right story! And also, Woollcott is an unexpected delight to read. His work is a time capsule of a different century's pop culture. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 15:11
  • And I thought I had finally found the answer, and I see I am nearly a year late. I read it originally in Clifton Fadiman's 1941 collection, Reading I've Liked.
    – Barnaby
    Commented Feb 19 at 19:40

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