"The Venus of Ille" by Prosper Merimee (first published in the French literary magazine Revue des Deux Mondes, May 15, 1837, as "La Venus d'Ille"; reprinted many times, including in Modern Masterpieces of Short Prose Fiction, edited by Alice Vinton Waite & Edith Mendall Taylor, 1911)
The narrator, an archaeologist, is going to Ille, a little town in the south of France where the inhabitants were as apt to speak Catalan as French. He has a letter of introduction to Monsieur de Peyrehorade, a wealthy landowner who is an expert on local sites. His Catalan guide assumes the narrator is going to view the "statue." This is the first he heard of any statue. It seems that two weeks before, the guide and another man were hired by Peyrehorade to dig up an olive tree that had died over the winter. As they dug, they hit something metal, which turned out to be a blackened life-sized bronze statue of a semi-nude woman. Incredibly detailed, the figure portrayed an exquisitely beautiful woman. After it was unearth and stood up, the statue suddenly fell, crushing the leg of the other workman. The beauty of the statue, however, began to circulate through the province.
Our narrator also learned that Peyrehorade's only son was due to married in a few days to a girl from the only family in the area richer than the Peyrehorade. The narrator was relunctant to intrude at such a time, but Peyrehorade was expecting him. Indeed the narrator was received warmly and treated like royalty. The narrator, you see, was from Paris, a seat of civilization where everyone is sophisticated and knowledgeable of the ways of the world while Peyrehorade and his neighbors were poor rustic folk who felt that a visit from a Parisian was the ultimate compliment. this city mouse-country mouse theme is repeated a number of times throughout the story.
Peyrehorade is a man of enthusiasms, especially proud of the statue, which he recognizes as that of Venus, albeit its origins are unknown. His wife is a plump woman whose only goal in life seems to have been to feed guests far more food that they could consume. The son, Alphonse, is crude and strong, a man, it turns out is far more interested in his betrothed's dowry than in her. His bride-to be is a shy, lovely, well-mannered girl of eighteen. The narrator considers the upcoming nuptials to be a grave mistake.
On examining the statue, out narrator cannot help but be fascinated by her face, which is the most beautiful he had ever seen. But there is also something else -- a distinct sense of cruelty was also there, undefined but somehow always present behind the surface.
Alphonse, ever aware of the cost of things, has a somewhat gaudy antique marriage ring to give his bride. The original ring was more than suited for a marriage ring, but someone in the past had added a number of diamonds (twelve hundred francs worth) large enough to make the wearing of it impractical, catching the gems on clothes and gloves. Until the ceremony, Alphonse was wearing the ring on his finger. He also wore a less expensive and more (suitable as a wedding ring) ring on another finger -- tht one had been given to him by a woman he had hooked up with two years earlier.
I am not the greatest expert on religious and local lore, but scheduling a wedding on a Friday is evidently a superstitious no-no. Peyrahorant deliberately named Friday as the date for his son's wedding because Friday was "Venus's day." The landowner was becoming obsessed with his statue. (Also, because the wedding was to be on Friday, no dancing was allowed.)
Come the day of the wedding, Alphonse is decked to the nines, but then he happens to see some Spaniards playing tennis on the court that Peyrahorant had donated to the town. Alphonse was the best tennis player in the area and tennis was far more important than his bride-to-be. He challenged the best playing Spaniard to a match. The Spaniard immediately garnered the first point: Alphonse misses hitting the ball because the diamond ring had snagged on his glove. Alphonse then removed the rings and placed it on one of the statue's finger. Alphonse went on to completely smoke his opponent.
Alphonse's mother then came out and saw her son sweaty and dishevelled from the game. She ordered him to get cleaned up quickly. Within five minutes they were on their way to the ceremony. At the wedding Alphonse realized that he had left the diamond ring on the statue's finger. Luckily (?) he had the other ring -- the one given him by a former lover -- that he could use. At the wedding feat Alphonse snuck out to retrieve the ring (twelve thousand francs worth of diamonds, remember?) but the statue had closed its hand, making the ring impossible to move. Alphonse was shaken and wondered if he was now wed to the statue of Venus.
The bridal chamber was on the opposite end of the hall which held our narrator's bedroom. During the night he heard heavy steps going up the stairs and to the bridal room. He assumed this was Alphonse's heavy tread. Later the same steps were heard going down the stairs. The bride's screams woke the household the next morning -- Alphonse was dead, his chest crushed by a powerful embrace...
Prosper Merimee (1803-1870) was one of the pioneers of the novella. His story "Carmen" became the basis of the famous Bezet opera. He was also well-known for the novellas "Colomba" and "Mateo Falcon." An important figure in France's Romantic movement, he was elected to the French Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Letters and to the Academie francaise. For almost twenty years, he served as Inspector-General of Historical Monuments. While there, he and one-time lover George Sand were instrumental in discovering and preserving the tapestries The Lady and the Unicorn . His scholarship and vast knowledge of history has helped preserve much of French culture. He was also noted for his many translations and criticisms of Russian literature.
"The Venus of Ille" is available to read on many internet sites.