At an imagined castle in an imagined land, maidservants are washing the steps, gate and threshold of the castle, but a porter mocks them: "Scrub on. Pour on water ... pour on all the water of the Flood! You will never be able to wash this castle clean...."
At the edge of a spring in a twilight forest, Mélisande, a lovely young girl, is discovered by Golaud, the grandson of King Arkel. She cries that she will throw herself in the water if he touches her. Golaud reassures her, and asks if any one has hurt her. Yes, she says, everyone. Where has she come from? She answers, "I have come from far away ... I am lost." He bids her to come with him, but where he does not know. "I, too, am lost," he tells her.
Golaud takes her to his grandfather's dreary castle where people walk with heavy hearts. Here, old King Arkel says, its people see "only the reverse of their destinies--we never get what we long for most.... And yet, whatever happens may be right in the end...." Golaud learns nothing more about Mélisande, but he marries her. With them live Yniold, Golaud's son by a first wife, and his brother, Pelléas, the younger grandson of King Arkel.
Pelléas at length realizes that he is coming to love Mélisande. He attempts to leave the castle, but his father is ill and bids him remain. Struggling with his problem, he walks on the seashore and meets Mélisande. He tells her that he is going away. Her sorrow at this news is revealing, but their innocent relationship continues; they meet again at an abandoned spring called "Blind Man's Well" because it is reputed to have restored sight.
Mélisande, at the spring's edge, plays with her wedding ring and it falls into the water. "I threw it too high, toward the sun," she explains to Pelléas; but later, she is afraid to tell Golaud the truth. "I dropped it at the seashore," she says, "but I know where it is." Golaud bids her find it, suggesting, when she pleads fear of going alone, that she asks Pelléas to accompany her.
She answers: "Pelléas?... With Pelléas?...Oh, I am so unhappy ... so unhappy!..."
Pelléas again attempts to leave the castle, but is dissuaded. He comes upon Mélisande at a tower window, combing her long hair and singing:
- "My hair falls foaming
- Down from the tower;
- It waits for thy coming
- This long, long hour.
- This long, long hour..."
Pelléas calls to her: "I have never seen so many stars.... Bend forward, Mélisande, that I may look at your unbound hair.... Lean out and let me touch your hand, Mélisande ... I leave tomorrow." She answers: "If you go, I will not give my hand.... Will you stay?" Pelléas says that he will stay awhile. As Mélisande leans out to touch his hand her hair falls over him.
"All your locks, Mélisande, all your locks have fallen about me," he murmurs. "I hold them in my arms ... I bathe my face within them ... They are sweet, sweet, as if they fell from Heaven.... You are my prisoner tonight, Mélisande--all night, all night...." Golaud comes upon them, watches them for a moment, and sadly speaks: "You are children ... Do not play in the darkness ... What strange children!"
Later, Golaud sits with Yniold under Mélisande's window and asks the child if "little mother" is often with Uncle Pelléas. The boy answers: "Yes, yes ... Always, when you are not there ... They weep ... They seem to be afraid ... Kiss? Oh, yes ... once ... when it rained." Golaud lifts the child to see above the sill, and the boy reports Pelléas and Mélisande within: "They just stand and stare ... They never close their eyes ... Take me down, little father .... I am terribly afraid...."
One day, Golaud flies into an unexplained rage; he seizes Mélisande by her hair, forcing her to the ground. She declares this the end of his love, and, at a fountain in the forest, keeps a rendezvous with Pelléas who is leaving at last. Now they openly confess their love, lingering until they hear the palace gates closing. Happy that they cannot go back, they embrace--then see Golaud approaching. They pray that he will kill them both. They kiss each other. Pelléas cries: "The stars are descending!" Mélisande is crying out, "On me, too!" when Golaud's sword pierces his brother. Mélisande flees, her husband in pursuit.
The servants, talking of the tragedy, report that both Golaud and Mélisande have been found outstretched before the castle gate, Golaud wounded by his own sword and Mélisande dying, though hardly scratched. Says one: "Ah me, and she was delivered of her babe only three days ago." Pelléas, another declares, was found at the bottom of Blind Man's Well.
The physician finds that Mélisande's wound could not have killed a bird, yet she is "dying without a reason ... just as she was born without a purpose." Golaud laments: "I have killed her without a cause!... They had kissed like little children ... merely kissed ... They were brother and sister... And I, in spite of myself, I killed them!"
Mélisande awakens. At Golaud's plea for forgiveness, she asks what it is that she is to forgive. He replies: "I have wrought you so much evil, Mélisande.... I see it all so clearly now--when it is too late....Tell the truth to a dying man, Mélisande.... Did you love him--with a forbidden love? ... Were you ... were you guilty?"
She answers: "No ... we were not guilty.... The truth ... The sun is down ... I am so afraid of the great cold ..." Her baby is brought to her, but she can only look sorrowfully upon it and mourn: "She is so little ... and she is weeping ... I pity her..." She closes her eyes. Golaud begs her to listen, pleading: "It was not my fault!... It was a power beyond me!"
But old Arkel silences him: "Hush!... She must not be disturbed.... The human soul likes to depart in silence ... alone."
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