Part 1 out of 6
Etext prepared by Dagny, email@example.com
and Bonnie Sala
THE MAGIC SKIN by HONORE DE BALZAC
To Monsieur Savary, Member of Le Academie des Sciences.
[omitted: a drawing representing the serpentine
path made by the tip of a stick when flourished.]
STERNE--Tristram Shandy, ch. cccxxii.
Towards the end of the month of October 1829 a young man entered the
Palais-Royal just as the gaming-houses opened, agreeably to the law
which protects a passion by its very nature easily excisable. He
mounted the staircase of one of the gambling hells distinguished by
the number 36, without too much deliberation.
"Your hat, sir, if you please?" a thin, querulous voice called out. A
little old man, crouching in the darkness behind a railing, suddenly
rose and exhibited his features, carved after a mean design.
As you enter a gaming-house the law despoils you of your hat at the
outset. Is it by way of a parable, a divine revelation? Or by exacting
some pledge or other, is not an infernal compact implied? Is it done
to compel you to preserve a respectful demeanor towards those who are
about to gain money of you? Or must the detective, who squats in our
social sewers, know the name of your hatter, or your own, if you
happen to have written it on the lining inside? Or, after all, is the
measurement of your skull required for the compilation of statistics
as to the cerebral capacity of gamblers? The executive is absolutely
silent on this point. But be sure of this, that though you have
scarcely taken a step towards the tables, your hat no more belongs to
you now than you belong to yourself. Play possesses you, your fortune,
your cap, your cane, your cloak.
As you go out, it will be made clear to you, by a savage irony, that
Play has yet spared you something, since your property is returned.
For all that, if you bring a new hat with you, you will have to pay
for the knowledge that a special costume is needed for a gambler.
The evident astonishment with which the young man took a numbered
tally in exchange for his hat, which was fortunately somewhat rubbed
at the brim, showed clearly enough that his mind was yet untainted;
and the little old man, who had wallowed from his youth up in the
furious pleasures of a gambler's life, cast a dull, indifferent glance
over him, in which a philosopher might have seen wretchedness lying in
the hospital, the vagrant lives of ruined folk, inquests on numberless
suicides, life-long penal servitude and transportations to
His pallid, lengthy visage appeared like a haggard embodiment of the
passion reduced to its simplest terms. There were traces of past
anguish in its wrinkles. He supported life on the glutinous soups at
Darcet's, and gambled away his meagre earnings day by day. Like some
old hackney which takes no heed of the strokes of the whip, nothing
could move him now. The stifled groans of ruined players, as they
passed out, their mute imprecations, their stupefied faces, found him
impassive. He was the spirit of Play incarnate. If the young man had
noticed this sorry Cerberus, perhaps he would have said, "There is
only a pack of cards in that heart of his."
The stranger did not heed this warning writ in flesh and blood, put
here, no doubt, by Providence, who has set loathing on the threshold
of all evil haunts. He walked boldly into the saloon, where the rattle
of coin brought his senses under the dazzling spell of an agony of
greed. Most likely he had been drawn thither by that most convincing
of Jean Jacques' eloquent periods, which expresses, I think, this
melancholy thought, "Yes, I can imagine that a man may take to
gambling when he sees only his last shilling between him and death."
There is an illusion about a gambling saloon at night as vulgar as
that of a bloodthirsty drama, and just as effective. The rooms are
filled with players and onlookers, with poverty-stricken age, which
drags itself thither in search of stimulation, with excited faces, and
revels that began in wine, to end shortly in the Seine. The passion is
there in full measure, but the great number of the actors prevents you
from seeing the gambling-demon face to face. The evening is a harmony
or chorus in which all take part, to which each instrument in the
orchestra contributes his share. You would see there plenty of
respectable people who have come in search of diversion, for which
they pay as they pay for the pleasures of the theatre, or of gluttony,
or they come hither as to some garret where they cheapen poignant
regrets for three months to come.
Do you understand all the force and frenzy in a soul which impatiently
waits for the opening of a gambling hell? Between the daylight gambler
and the player at night there is the same difference that lies between
a careless husband and the lover swooning under his lady's window.
Only with morning comes the real throb of the passion and the craving
in its stark horror. Then you can admire the real gambler, who has
neither eaten, slept, thought, nor lived, he has so smarted under the
scourge of his martingale, so suffered on the rack of his desire for a
coup of trente-et-quarante. At that accursed hour you encounter eyes
whose calmness terrifies you, faces that fascinate, glances that seem
as if they had power to turn the cards over and consume them. The
grandest hours of a gambling saloon are not the opening ones. If Spain
has bull-fights, and Rome once had her gladiators, Paris waxes proud
of her Palais-Royal, where the inevitable roulettes cause blood to
flow in streams, and the public can have the pleasure of watching
without fear of their feet slipping in it.
Take a quiet peep at the arena. How bare it looks! The paper on the
walls is greasy to the height of your head, there is nothing to bring
one reviving thought. There is not so much as a nail for the
convenience of suicides. The floor is worn and dirty. An oblong table
stands in the middle of the room, the tablecloth is worn by the
friction of gold, but the straw-bottomed chairs about it indicate an
odd indifference to luxury in the men who will lose their lives here
in the quest of the fortune that is to put luxury within their reach.
This contradiction in humanity is seen wherever the soul reacts
powerfully upon itself. The gallant would clothe his mistress in
silks, would deck her out in soft Eastern fabrics, though he and she
must lie on a truckle-bed. The ambitious dreamer sees himself at the
summit of power, while he slavishly prostrates himself in the mire.
The tradesman stagnates in his damp, unhealthy shop, while he builds a
great mansion for his son to inherit prematurely, only to be ejected
from it by law proceedings at his own brother's instance.
After all, is there a less pleasing thing in the world than a house of
pleasure? Singular question! Man is always at strife with himself. His
present woes give the lie to his hopes; yet he looks to a future which
is not his, to indemnify him for these present sufferings; setting
upon all his actions the seal of inconsequence and of the weakness of
his nature. We have nothing here below in full measure but misfortune.
There were several gamblers in the room already when the young man
entered. Three bald-headed seniors were lounging round the green
table. Imperturbable as diplomatists, those plaster-cast faces of
theirs betokened blunted sensibilities, and hearts which had long
forgotten how to throb, even when a woman's dowry was the stake. A
young Italian, olive-hued and dark-haired, sat at one end, with his
elbows on the table, seeming to listen to the presentiments of luck
that dictate a gambler's "Yes" or "No." The glow of fire and gold was
on that southern face. Some seven or eight onlookers stood by way of
an audience, awaiting a drama composed of the strokes of chance, the
faces of the actors, the circulation of coin, and the motion of the
croupier's rake, much as a silent, motionless crowd watches the
headsman in the Place de Greve. A tall, thin man, in a threadbare
coat, held a card in one hand, and a pin in the other, to mark the
numbers of Red or Black. He seemed a modern Tantalus, with all the
pleasures of his epoch at his lips, a hoardless miser drawing in
imaginary gains, a sane species of lunatic who consoles himself in his
misery by chimerical dreams, a man who touches peril and vice as a
young priest handles the unconsecrated wafer in the white mass.
One or two experts at the game, shrewd speculators, had placed
themselves opposite the bank, like old convicts who have lost all fear
of the hulks; they meant to try two or three coups, and then to depart
at once with the expected gains, on which they lived. Two elderly
waiters dawdled about with their arms folded, looking from time to
time into the garden from the windows, as if to show their
insignificant faces as a sign to passers-by.
The croupier and banker threw a ghastly and withering glance at the
punters, and cried, in a sharp voice, "Make your game!" as the young
man came in. The silence seemed to grow deeper as all heads turned
curiously towards the new arrival. Who would have thought it? The
jaded elders, the fossilized waiters, the onlookers, the fanatical
Italian himself, felt an indefinable dread at sight of the stranger.
Is he not wretched indeed who can excite pity here? Must he not be
very helpless to receive sympathy, ghastly in appearance to raise a
shudder in these places, where pain utters no cry, where wretchedness
looks gay, and despair is decorous? Such thoughts as these produced a
new emotion in these torpid hearts as the young man entered. Were not
executioners known to shed tears over the fair-haired, girlish heads
that had to fall at the bidding of the Revolution?
The gamblers saw at a glance a dreadful mystery in the novice's face.
His young features were stamped with a melancholy grace, his looks
told of unsuccess and many blighted hopes. The dull apathy of the
suicide had made his forehead so deadly pale, a bitter smile carved
faint lines about the corners of his mouth, and there was an
abandonment about him that was painful to see. Some sort of demon
sparkled in the depths of his eye, which drooped, wearied perhaps with
pleasure. Could it have been dissipation that had set its foul mark on
the proud face, once pure and bright, and now brought low? Any doctor
seeing the yellow circles about his eyelids, and the color in his
cheeks, would have set them down to some affection of the heart or
lungs, while poets would have attributed them to the havoc brought by
the search for knowledge and to night-vigils by the student's lamp.
But a complaint more fatal than any disease, a disease more merciless
than genius or study, had drawn this young face, and had wrung a heart
which dissipation, study, and sickness had scarcely disturbed. When a
notorious criminal is taken to the convict's prison, the prisoners
welcome him respectfully, and these evil spirits in human shape,
experienced in torments, bowed before an unheard-of anguish. By the
depth of the wound which met their eyes, they recognized a prince
among them, by the majesty of his unspoken irony, by the refined
wretchedness of his garb. The frock-coat that he wore was well cut,
but his cravat was on terms so intimate with his waistcoat that no one
could suspect him of underlinen. His hands, shapely as a woman's were
not perfectly clean; for two days past indeed he had ceased to wear
gloves. If the very croupier and the waiters shuddered, it was because
some traces of the spell of innocence yet hung about his meagre,
delicately-shaped form, and his scanty fair hair in its natural curls.
He looked only about twenty-five years of age, and any trace of vice
in his face seemed to be there by accident. A young constitution still
resisted the inroads of lubricity. Darkness and light, annihilation
and existence, seemed to struggle in him, with effects of mingled
beauty and terror. There he stood like some erring angel that has lost
his radiance; and these emeritus-professors of vice and shame were
ready to bid the novice depart, even as some toothless crone might be
seized with pity for a beautiful girl who offers herself up to infamy.
The young man went straight up to the table, and, as he stood there,
flung down a piece of gold which he held in his hand, without
deliberation. It rolled on to the Black; then, as strong natures can,
he looked calmly, if anxiously, at the croupier, as if he held useless
subterfuges in scorn.
The interest this coup awakened was so great that the old gamesters
laid nothing upon it; only the Italian, inspired by a gambler's
enthusiasm, smiled suddenly at some thought, and punted his heap of
coin against the stranger's stake.
The banker forgot to pronounce the phrases that use and wont have
reduced to an inarticulate cry--"Make your game. . . . The game is
made. . . . Bets are closed." The croupier spread out the cards, and
seemed to wish luck to the newcomer, indifferent as he was to the
losses or gains of those who took part in these sombre pleasures.
Every bystander thought he saw a drama, the closing scene of a noble
life, in the fortunes of that bit of gold; and eagerly fixed his eyes
on the prophetic cards; but however closely they watched the young
man, they could discover not the least sign of feeling on his cool but
"Even! red wins," said the croupier officially. A dumb sort of rattle
came from the Italian's throat when he saw the folded notes that the
banker showered upon him, one after another. The young man only
understood his calamity when the croupiers's rake was extended to
sweep away his last napoleon. The ivory touched the coin with a little
click, as it swept it with the speed of an arrow into the heap of gold
before the bank. The stranger turned pale at the lips, and softly shut
his eyes, but he unclosed them again at once, and the red color
returned as he affected the airs of an Englishman, to whom life can
offer no new sensation, and disappeared without the glance full of
entreaty for compassion that a desperate gamester will often give the
bystanders. How much can happen in a second's space; how many things
depend on a throw of the die!
"That was his last cartridge, of course," said the croupier, smiling
after a moment's silence, during which he picked up the coin between
his finger and thumb and held it up.
"He is a cracked brain that will go and drown himself," said a
frequenter of the place. He looked round about at the other players,
who all knew each other.
"Bah!" said a waiter, as he took a pinch of snuff.
"If we had but followed HIS example," said an old gamester to the
others, as he pointed out the Italian.
Everybody looked at the lucky player, whose hands shook as he counted
"A voice seemed to whisper to me," he said. "The luck is sure to go
against that young man's despair."
"He is a new hand," said the banker, "or he would have divided his
money into three parts to give himself more chance."
The young man went out without asking for his hat; but the old
watch-dog, who had noted its shabby condition, returned it to him
without a word. The gambler mechanically gave up the tally, and went
downstairs whistling Di tanti Palpiti so feebly, that he himself
scarcely heard the delicious notes.
He found himself immediately under the arcades of the Palais-Royal,
reached the Rue Saint Honore, took the direction of the Tuileries, and
crossed the gardens with an undecided step. He walked as if he were in
some desert, elbowed by men whom he did not see, hearing through all
the voices of the crowd one voice alone--the voice of Death. He was
lost in the thoughts that benumbed him at last, like the criminals who
used to be taken in carts from the Palais de Justice to the Place de
Greve, where the scaffold awaited them reddened with all the blood
spilt here since 1793.
There is something great and terrible about suicide. Most people's
downfalls are not dangerous; they are like children who have not far
to fall, and cannot injure themselves; but when a great nature is
dashed down, he is bound to fall from a height. He must have been
raised almost to the skies; he has caught glimpses of some heaven
beyond his reach. Vehement must the storms be which compel a soul to
seek for peace from the trigger of a pistol.
How much young power starves and pines away in a garret for want of a
friend, for lack of a woman's consolation, in the midst of millions of
fellow-creatures, in the presence of a listless crowd that is burdened
by its wealth! When one remembers all this, suicide looms large.
Between a self-sought death and the abundant hopes whose voices call a
young man to Paris, God only knows what may intervene; what contending
ideas have striven within the soul; what poems have been set aside;
what moans and what despair have been repressed; what abortive
masterpieces and vain endeavors! Every suicide is an awful poem of
sorrow. Where will you find a work of genius floating above the seas
of literature that can compare with this paragraph:
"Yesterday, at four o'clock, a young woman threw herself into the
Seine from the Pont des Arts."
Dramas and romances pale before this concise Parisian phrase; so must
even that old frontispiece, The Lamentations of the glorious king of
Kaernavan, put in prison by his children, the sole remaining fragment
of a lost work that drew tears from Sterne at the bare perusal--the
same Sterne who deserted his own wife and family.
The stranger was beset with such thoughts as these, which passed in
fragments through his mind, like tattered flags fluttering above the
combat. If he set aside for a moment the burdens of consciousness and
of memory, to watch the flower heads gently swayed by the breeze among
the green thickets, a revulsion came over him, life struggled against
the oppressive thought of suicide, and his eyes rose to the sky: gray
clouds, melancholy gusts of the wind, the stormy atmosphere, all
decreed that he should die.
He bent his way toward the Pont Royal, musing over the last fancies of
others who had gone before him. He smiled to himself as he remembered
that Lord Castlereagh had satisfied the humblest of our needs before
he cut his throat, and that the academician Auger had sought for his
snuff-box as he went to his death. He analyzed these extravagances,
and even examined himself; for as he stood aside against the parapet
to allow a porter to pass, his coat had been whitened somewhat by the
contact, and he carefully brushed the dust from his sleeve, to his own
surprise. He reached the middle of the arch, and looked forebodingly
at the water.
"Wretched weather for drowning yourself," said a ragged old woman, who
grinned at him; "isn't the Seine cold and dirty?"
His answer was a ready smile, which showed the frenzied nature of his
courage; then he shivered all at once as he saw at a distance, by the
door of the Tuileries, a shed with an inscription above it in letters
twelve inches high: THE ROYAL HUMANE SOCIETY'S APPARATUS.
A vision of M. Dacheux rose before him, equipped by his philanthropy,
calling out and setting in motion the too efficacious oars which break
the heads of drowning men, if unluckily they should rise to the
surface; he saw a curious crowd collecting, running for a doctor,
preparing fumigations, he read the maundering paragraph in the papers,
put between notes on a festivity and on the smiles of a ballet-dancer;
he heard the francs counted down by the prefect of police to the
watermen. As a corpse, he was worth fifteen francs; but now while he
lived he was only a man of talent without patrons, without friends,
without a mattress to lie on, or any one to speak a word for him--a
perfect social cipher, useless to a State which gave itself no trouble
A death in broad daylight seemed degrading to him; he made up his mind
to die at night so as to bequeath an unrecognizable corpse to a world
which had disregarded the greatness of life. He began his wanderings
again, turning towards the Quai Voltaire, imitating the lagging gait
of an idler seeking to kill time. As he came down the steps at the end
of the bridge, his notice was attracted by the second-hand books
displayed on the parapet, and he was on the point of bargaining for
some. He smiled, thrust his hands philosophically into his pockets,
and fell to strolling on again with a proud disdain in his manner,
when he heard to his surprise some coin rattling fantastically in his
A smile of hope lit his face, and slid from his lips over his
features, over his brow, and brought a joyful light to his eyes and
his dark cheeks. It was a spark of happiness like one of the red dots
that flit over the remains of a burnt scrap of paper; but as it is
with the black ashes, so it was with his face, it became dull again
when the stranger quickly drew out his hand and perceived three
pennies. "Ah, kind gentleman! carita, carita; for the love of St.
Catherine! only a halfpenny to buy some bread!"
A little chimney sweeper, with puffed cheeks, all black with soot, and
clad in tatters, held out his hand to beg for the man's last pence.
Two paces from the little Savoyard stood an old pauvre honteux, sickly
and feeble, in wretched garments of ragged druggeting, who asked in a
thick, muffled voice:
"Anything you like to give, monsieur; I will pray to God for
you . . ."
But the young man turned his eyes on him, and the old beggar stopped
without another word, discerning in that mournful face an abandonment
of wretchedness more bitter than his own.
"La carita! la carita!"
The stranger threw the coins to the old man and the child, left the
footway, and turned towards the houses; the harrowing sight of the
Seine fretted him beyond endurance.
"May God lengthen your days!" cried the two beggars.
As he reached the shop window of a print-seller, this man on the brink
of death met a young woman alighting from a showy carriage. He looked
in delight at her prettiness, at the pale face appropriately framed by
the satin of her fashionable bonnet. Her slender form and graceful
movements entranced him. Her skirt had been slightly raised as she
stepped to the pavement, disclosing a daintily fitting white stocking
over the delicate outlines beneath. The young lady went into the shop,
purchased albums and sets of lithographs; giving several gold coins
for them, which glittered and rang upon the counter. The young man,
seemingly occupied with the prints in the window, fixed upon the fair
stranger a gaze as eager as man can give, to receive in exchange an
indifferent glance, such as lights by accident on a passer-by. For him
it was a leave-taking of love and of woman; but his final and
strenuous questioning glance was neither understood nor felt by the
slight-natured woman there; her color did not rise, her eyes did not
droop. What was it to her? one more piece of adulation, yet another
sigh only prompted the delightful thought at night, "I looked rather
The young man quickly turned to another picture, and only left it when
she returned to her carriage. The horses started off, the final vision
of luxury and refinement went under an eclipse, just as that life of
his would soon do also. Slowly and sadly he followed the line of the
shops, listlessly examining the specimens on view. When the shops came
to an end, he reviewed the Louvre, the Institute, the towers of Notre
Dame, of the Palais, the Pont des Arts; all these public monuments
seemed to have taken their tone from the heavy gray sky.
Fitful gleams of light gave a foreboding look to Paris; like a pretty
woman, the city has mysterious fits of ugliness or beauty. So the
outer world seemed to be in a plot to steep this man about to die in a
painful trance. A prey to the maleficent power which acts relaxingly
upon us by the fluid circulating through our nerves, his whole frame
seemed gradually to experience a dissolving process. He felt the
anguish of these throes passing through him in waves, and the houses
and the crowd seemed to surge to and fro in a mist before his eyes. He
tried to escape the agitation wrought in his mind by the revulsions of
his physical nature, and went toward the shop of a dealer in
antiquities, thinking to give a treat to his senses, and to spend the
interval till nightfall in bargaining over curiosities.
He sought, one might say, to regain courage and to find a stimulant,
like a criminal who doubts his power to reach the scaffold. The
consciousness of approaching death gave him, for the time being, the
intrepidity of a duchess with a couple of lovers, so that he entered
the place with an abstracted look, while his lips displayed a set
smile like a drunkard's. Had not life, or rather had not death,
intoxicated him? Dizziness soon overcame him again. Things appeared to
him in strange colors, or as making slight movements; his irregular
pulse was no doubt the cause; the blood that sometimes rushed like a
burning torrent through his veins, and sometimes lay torpid and
stagnant as tepid water. He merely asked leave to see if the shop
contained any curiosities which he required.
A plump-faced young shopman with red hair, in an otter-skin cap, left
an old peasant woman in charge of the shop--a sort of feminine
Caliban, employed in cleaning a stove made marvelous by Bernard
Palissy's work. This youth remarked carelessly:
"Look round, monsieur! We have nothing very remarkable here
downstairs; but if I may trouble you to go up to the first floor, I
will show you some very fine mummies from Cairo, some inlaid pottery,
and some carved ebony--genuine Renaissance work, just come in, and of
In the stranger's fearful position this cicerone's prattle and
shopman's empty talk seemed like the petty vexations by which narrow
minds destroy a man of genius. But as he must even go through with it,
he appeared to listen to his guide, answering him by gestures or
monosyllables; but imperceptibly he arrogated the privilege of saying
nothing, and gave himself up without hindrance to his closing
meditations, which were appalling. He had a poet's temperament, his
mind had entered by chance on a vast field; and he must see perforce
the dry bones of twenty future worlds.
At a first glance the place presented a confused picture in which
every achievement, human and divine, was mingled. Crocodiles, monkeys,
and serpents stuffed with straw grinned at glass from church windows,
seemed to wish to bite sculptured heads, to chase lacquered work, or
to scramble up chandeliers. A Sevres vase, bearing Napoleon's portrait
by Mme. Jacotot, stood beside a sphinx dedicated to Sesostris. The
beginnings of the world and the events of yesterday were mingled with
grotesque cheerfulness. A kitchen jack leaned against a pyx, a
republican sabre on a mediaeval hackbut. Mme. du Barry, with a star
above her head, naked, and surrounded by a cloud, seemed to look
longingly out of Latour's pastel at an Indian chibook, while she tried
to guess the purpose of the spiral curves that wound towards her.
Instruments of death, poniards, curious pistols, and disguised weapons
had been flung down pell-mell among the paraphernalia of daily life;
porcelain tureens, Dresden plates, translucent cups from china, old
salt-cellars, comfit-boxes belonging to feudal times. A carved ivory
ship sped full sail on the back of a motionless tortoise.
The Emperor Augustus remained unmoved and imperial with an air-pump
thrust into one eye. Portraits of French sheriffs and Dutch
burgomasters, phlegmatic now as when in life, looked down pallid and
unconcerned on the chaos of past ages below them.
Every land of earth seemed to have contributed some stray fragment of
its learning, some example of its art. Nothing seemed lacking to this
philosophical kitchen-midden, from a redskin's calumet, a green and
golden slipper from the seraglio, a Moorish yataghan, a Tartar idol,
to the soldier's tobacco pouch, to the priest's ciborium, and the
plumes that once adorned a throne. This extraordinary combination was
rendered yet more bizarre by the accidents of lighting, by a multitude
of confused reflections of various hues, by the sharp contrast of
blacks and whites. Broken cries seemed to reach the ear, unfinished
dramas seized upon the imagination, smothered lights caught the eye. A
thin coating of inevitable dust covered all the multitudinous corners
and convolutions of these objects of various shapes which gave highly
First of all, the stranger compared the three galleries which
civilization, cults, divinities, masterpieces, dominions, carousals,
sanity, and madness had filled to repletion, to a mirror with numerous
facets, each depicting a world. After this first hazy idea he would
fain have selected his pleasures; but by dint of using his eyes,
thinking and musing, a fever began to possess him, caused perhaps by
the gnawing pain of hunger. The spectacle of so much existence,
individual or national, to which these pledges bore witness, ended by
numbing his senses--the purpose with which he entered the shop was
fulfilled. He had left the real behind, and had climbed gradually up
to an ideal world; he had attained to the enchanted palace of ecstasy,
whence the universe appeared to him by fragments and in shapes of
flame, as once the future blazed out before the eyes of St. John in
A crowd of sorrowing faces, beneficent and appalling, dark and
luminous, far and near, gathered in numbers, in myriads, in whole
generations. Egypt, rigid and mysterious, arose from her sands in the
form of a mummy swathed in black bandages; then the Pharaohs swallowed
up nations, that they might build themselves a tomb; and he beheld
Moses and the Hebrews and the desert, and a solemn antique world.
Fresh and joyous, a marble statue spoke to him from a twisted column
of the pleasure-loving myths of Greece and Ionia. Ah! who would not
have smiled with him to see, against the earthen red background, the
brown-faced maiden dancing with gleeful reverence before the god
Priapus, wrought in the fine clay of an Etruscan vase? The Latin queen
caressed her chimera.
The whims of Imperial Rome were there in life, the bath was disclosed,
the toilette of a languid Julia, dreaming, waiting for her Tibullus.
Strong with the might of Arabic spells, the head of Cicero evoked
memories of a free Rome, and unrolled before him the scrolls of Titus
Livius. The young man beheld Senatus Populusque Romanus; consuls,
lictors, togas with purple fringes; the fighting in the Forum, the
angry people, passed in review before him like the cloudy faces of a
Then Christian Rome predominated in his vision. A painter had laid
heaven open; he beheld the Virgin Mary wrapped in a golden cloud among
the angels, shining more brightly than the sun, receiving the prayers
of sufferers, on whom this second Eve Regenerate smiles pityingly. At
the touch of a mosaic, made of various lavas from Vesuvius and Etna,
his fancy fled to the hot tawny south of Italy. He was present at
Borgia's orgies, he roved among the Abruzzi, sought for Italian love
intrigues, grew ardent over pale faces and dark, almond-shaped eyes.
He shivered over midnight adventures, cut short by the cool thrust of
a jealous blade, as he saw a mediaeval dagger with a hilt wrought like
lace, and spots of rust like splashes of blood upon it.
India and its religions took the shape of the idol with his peaked cap
of fantastic form, with little bells, clad in silk and gold. Close by,
a mat, as pretty as the bayadere who once lay upon it, still gave out
a faint scent of sandal wood. His fancy was stirred by a goggle-eyed
Chinese monster, with mouth awry and twisted limbs, the invention of a
people who, grown weary of the monotony of beauty, found an
indescribable pleasure in an infinite variety of ugliness. A salt-
cellar from Benvenuto Cellini's workshop carried him back to the
Renaissance at its height, to the time when there was no restraint on
art or morals, when torture was the sport of sovereigns; and from
their councils, churchmen with courtesans' arms about them issued
decrees of chastity for simple priests.
On a cameo he saw the conquests of Alexander, the massacres of Pizarro
in a matchbox, and religious wars disorderly, fanatical, and cruel, in
the shadows of a helmet. Joyous pictures of chivalry were called up by
a suit of Milanese armor, brightly polished and richly wrought; a
paladin's eyes seemed to sparkle yet under the visor.
This sea of inventions, fashions, furniture, works of art and fiascos,
made for him a poem without end. Shapes and colors and projects all
lived again for him, but his mind received no clear and perfect
conception. It was the poet's task to complete the sketches of the
great master, who had scornfully mingled on his palette the hues of
the numberless vicissitudes of human life. When the world at large at
last released him, when he had pondered over many lands, many epochs,
and various empires, the young man came back to the life of the
individual. He impersonated fresh characters, and turned his mind to
details, rejecting the life of nations as a burden too overwhelming
for a single soul.
Yonder was a sleeping child modeled in wax, a relic of Ruysch's
collection, an enchanting creation which brought back the happiness of
his own childhood. The cotton garment of a Tahitian maid next
fascinated him; he beheld the primitive life of nature, the real
modesty of naked chastity, the joys of an idleness natural to mankind,
a peaceful fate by a slow river of sweet water under a plantain tree
that bears its pleasant manna without the toil of man. Then all at
once he became a corsair, investing himself with the terrible poetry
that Lara has given to the part: the thought came at the sight of the
mother-of-pearl tints of a myriad sea-shells, and grew as he saw
madrepores redolent of the sea-weeds and the storms of the Atlantic.
The sea was forgotten again at a distant view of exquisite miniatures;
he admired a precious missal in manuscript, adorned with arabesques in
gold and blue. Thoughts of peaceful life swayed him; he devoted
himself afresh to study and research, longing for the easy life of the
monk, devoid alike of cares and pleasures; and from the depths of his
cell he looked out upon the meadows, woods, and vineyards of his
convent. Pausing before some work of Teniers, he took for his own the
helmet of the soldier or the poverty of the artisan; he wished to wear
a smoke-begrimed cap with these Flemings, to drink their beer and join
their game at cards, and smiled upon the comely plumpness of a peasant
woman. He shivered at a snowstorm by Mieris; he seemed to take part in
Salvator Rosa's battle-piece; he ran his fingers over a tomahawk form
Illinois, and felt his own hair rise as he touched a Cherokee
scalping-knife. He marveled over the rebec that he set in the hands of
some lady of the land, drank in the musical notes of her ballad, and
in the twilight by the gothic arch above the hearth he told his love
in a gloom so deep that he could not read his answer in her eyes.
He caught at all delights, at all sorrows; grasped at existence in
every form; and endowed the phantoms conjured up from that inert and
plastic material so liberally with his own life and feelings, that the
sound of his own footsteps reached him as if from another world, or as
the hum of Paris reaches the towers of Notre Dame.
He ascended the inner staircase which led to the first floor, with its
votive shields, panoplies, carved shrines, and figures on the wall at
every step. Haunted by the strangest shapes, by marvelous creations
belonging to the borderland betwixt life and death, he walked as if
under the spell of a dream. His own existence became a matter of doubt
to him; he was neither wholly alive nor dead, like the curious objects
about him. The light began to fade as he reached the show-rooms, but
the treasures of gold and silver heaped up there scarcely seemed to
need illumination from without. The most extravagant whims of
prodigals, who have run through millions to perish in garrets, had
left their traces here in this vast bazar of human follies. Here,
beside a writing desk, made at the cost of 100,000 francs, and sold
for a hundred pence, lay a lock with a secret worth a king's ransom.
The human race was revealed in all the grandeur of its wretchedness;
in all the splendor of its infinite littleness. An ebony table that an
artist might worship, carved after Jean Goujon's designs, in years of
toil, had been purchased perhaps at the price of firewood. Precious
caskets, and things that fairy hands might have fashioned, lay there
in heaps like rubbish.
"You must have the worth of millions here!" cried the young man as he
entered the last of an immense suite of rooms, all decorated and gilt
by eighteenth century artists.
"Thousands of millions, you might say," said the florid shopman; "but
you have seen nothing as yet. Go up to the third floor, and you shall
The stranger followed his guide to a fourth gallery, where one by one
there passed before his wearied eyes several pictures by Poussin, a
magnificent statue by Michael Angelo, enchanting landscapes by Claude
Lorraine, a Gerard Dow (like a stray page from Sterne), Rembrandts,
Murillos, and pictures by Velasquez, as dark and full of color as a
poem of Byron's; then came classic bas-reliefs, finely-cut agates,
wonderful cameos! Works of art upon works of art, till the craftsman's
skill palled on the mind, masterpiece after masterpiece till art
itself became hateful at last and enthusiasm died. He came upon a
Madonna by Raphael, but he was tired of Raphael; a figure by Correggio
never received the glance it demanded of him. A priceless vase of
antique porphyry carved round about with pictures of the most
grotesquely wanton of Roman divinities, the pride of some Corinna,
scarcely drew a smile from him.
The ruins of fifteen hundred vanished years oppressed him; he sickened
under all this human thought; felt bored by all this luxury and art.
He struggled in vain against the constantly renewed fantastic shapes
that sprang up from under his feet, like children of some sportive
Are not fearful poisons set up in the soul by a swift concentration of
all her energies, her enjoyments, or ideas; as modern chemistry, in
its caprice, repeats the action of creation by some gas or other? Do
not many men perish under the shock of the sudden expansion of some
moral acid within them?
"What is there in that box?" he inquired, as he reached a large closet
--final triumph of human skill, originality, wealth, and splendor, in
which there hung a large, square mahogany coffer, suspended from a
nail by a silver chain.
"Ah, monsieur keeps the key of it," said the stout assistant
mysteriously. "If you wish to see the portrait, I will gladly venture
to tell him."
"Venture!" said the young man; "then is your master a prince?"
"I don't know what he is," the other answered. Equally astonished,
each looked for a moment at the other. Then construing the stranger's
silence as an order, the apprentice left him alone in the closet.
Have you never launched into the immensity of time and space as you
read the geological writings of Cuvier? Carried by his fancy, have you
hung as if suspended by a magician's wand over the illimitable abyss
of the past? When the fossil bones of animals belonging to
civilizations before the Flood are turned up in bed after bed and
layer upon layer of the quarries of Montmartre or among the schists of
the Ural range, the soul receives with dismay a glimpse of millions of
peoples forgotten by feeble human memory and unrecognized by permanent
divine tradition, peoples whose ashes cover our globe with two feet of
earth that yields bread to us and flowers.
Is not Cuvier the great poet of our era? Byron has given admirable
expression to certain moral conflicts, but our immortal naturalist has
reconstructed past worlds from a few bleached bones; has rebuilt
cities, like Cadmus, with monsters' teeth; has animated forests with
all the secrets of zoology gleaned from a piece of coal; has
discovered a giant population from the footprints of a mammoth. These
forms stand erect, grow large, and fill regions commensurate with
their giant size. He treats figures like a poet; a naught set beside a
seven by him produces awe.
He can call up nothingness before you without the phrases of a
charlatan. He searches a lump of gypsum, finds an impression in it,
says to you, "Behold!" All at once marble takes an animal shape, the
dead come to life, the history of the world is laid open before you.
After countless dynasties of giant creatures, races of fish and clans
of mollusks, the race of man appears at last as the degenerate copy of
a splendid model, which the Creator has perchance destroyed.
Emboldened by his gaze into the past, this petty race, children of
yesterday, can overstep chaos, can raise a psalm without end, and
outline for themselves the story of the Universe in an Apocalypse that
reveals the past. After the tremendous resurrection that took place at
the voice of this man, the little drop in the nameless Infinite,
common to all spheres, that is ours to use, and that we call Time,
seems to us a pitiable moment of life. We ask ourselves the purpose of
our triumphs, our hatreds, our loves, overwhelmed as we are by the
destruction of so many past universes, and whether it is worth while
to accept the pain of life in order that hereafter we may become an
intangible speck. Then we remain as if dead, completely torn away from
the present till the valet de chambre comes in and says, "Madame la
comtesse answers that she is expecting monsieur."
All the wonders which had brought the known world before the young
man's mind wrought in his soul much the same feeling of dejection that
besets the philosopher investigating unknown creatures. He longed more
than ever for death as he flung himself back in a curule chair and let
his eyes wander across the illusions composing a panorama of the past.
The pictures seemed to light up, the Virgin's heads smiled on him, the
statues seemed alive. Everything danced and swayed around him, with a
motion due to the gloom and the tormenting fever that racked his
brain; each monstrosity grimaced at him, while the portraits on the
canvas closed their eyes for a little relief. Every shape seemed to
tremble and start, and to leave its place gravely or flippantly,
gracefully or awkwardly, according to its fashion, character, and
A mysterious Sabbath began, rivaling the fantastic scenes witnessed by
Faust upon the Brocken. But these optical illusions, produced by
weariness, overstrained eyesight, or the accidents of twilight, could
not alarm the stranger. The terrors of life had no power over a soul
grown familiar with the terrors of death. He even gave himself up,
half amused by its bizarre eccentricities, to the influence of this
moral galvanism; its phenomena, closely connected with his last
thoughts, assured him that he was still alive. The silence about him
was so deep that he embarked once more in dreams that grew gradually
darker and darker as if by magic, as the light slowly faded. A last
struggling ray from the sun lit up rosy answering lights. He raised
his head and saw a skeleton dimly visible, with its skull bent
doubtfully to one side, as if to say, "The dead will none of thee as
He passed his hand over his forehead to shake off the drowsiness, and
felt a cold breath of air as an unknown furry something swept past his
cheeks. He shivered. A muffled clatter of the windows followed; it was
a bat, he fancied, that had given him this chilly sepulchral caress.
He could yet dimly see for a moment the shapes that surrounded him, by
the vague light in the west; then all these inanimate objects were
blotted out in uniform darkness. Night and the hour of death had
suddenly come. Thenceforward, for a while, he lost consciousness of
the things about him; he was either buried in deep meditation or sleep
overcame him, brought on by weariness or by the stress of those many
thoughts that lacerated his heart.
Suddenly he thought that an awful voice called him by name; it was
like some feverish nightmare, when at a step the dreamer falls
headlong over into an abyss, and he trembled. He closed his eyes,
dazzled by bright rays from a red circle of light that shone out from
the shadows. In the midst of the circle stood a little old man who
turned the light of the lamp upon him, yet he had not heard him enter,
nor move, nor speak. There was something magical about the apparition.
The boldest man, awakened in such a sort, would have felt alarmed at
the sight of this figure, which might have issued from some
sarcophagus hard by.
A curiously youthful look in the unmoving eyes of the spectre forbade
the idea of anything supernatural; but for all that, in the brief
space between his dreaming and waking life, the young man's judgment
remained philosophically suspended, as Descartes advises. He was, in
spite of himself, under the influence of an unaccountable
hallucination, a mystery that our pride rejects, and that our
imperfect science vainly tries to resolve.
Imagine a short old man, thin and spare, in a long black velvet gown
girded round him by a thick silk cord. His long white hair escaped on
either side of his face from under a black velvet cap which closely
fitted his head and made a formal setting for his countenance. His
gown enveloped his body like a winding sheet, so that all that was
left visible was a narrow bleached human face. But for the wasted arm,
thin as a draper's wand, which held aloft the lamp that cast all its
light upon him, the face would have seemed to hang in mid air. A gray
pointed beard concealed the chin of this fantastical appearance, and
gave him the look of one of those Jewish types which serve artists as
models for Moses. His lips were so thin and colorless that it needed a
close inspection to find the lines of his mouth at all in the pallid
face. His great wrinkled brow and hollow bloodless cheeks, the
inexorably stern expression of his small green eyes that no longer
possessed eyebrows or lashes, might have convinced the stranger that
Gerard Dow's "Money Changer" had come down from his frame. The
craftiness of an inquisitor, revealed in those curving wrinkles and
creases that wound about his temples, indicated a profound knowledge
of life. There was no deceiving this man, who seemed to possess a
power of detecting the secrets of the wariest heart.
The wisdom and the moral codes of every people seemed gathered up in
his passive face, just as all the productions of the globe had been
heaped up in his dusty showrooms. He seemed to possess the tranquil
luminous vision of some god before whom all things are open, or the
haughty power of a man who knows all things.
With two strokes of the brush a painter could have so altered the
expression of this face, that what had been a serene representation of
the Eternal Father should change to the sneering mask of a
Mephistopheles; for though sovereign power was revealed by the
forehead, mocking folds lurked about the mouth. He must have
sacrificed all the joys of earth, as he had crushed all human sorrows
beneath his potent will. The man at the brink of death shivered at the
thought of the life led by this spirit, so solitary and remote from
our world; joyless, since he had no one illusion left; painless,
because pleasure had ceased to exist for him. There he stood,
motionless and serene as a star in a bright mist. His lamp lit up the
obscure closet, just as his green eyes, with their quiet malevolence,
seemed to shed a light on the moral world.
This was the strange spectacle that startled the young man's returning
sight, as he shook off the dreamy fancies and thoughts of death that
had lulled him. An instant of dismay, a momentary return to belief in
nursery tales, may be forgiven him, seeing that his senses were
obscured. Much thought had wearied his mind, and his nerves were
exhausted with the strain of the tremendous drama within him, and by
the scenes that had heaped on him all the horrid pleasures that a
piece of opium can produce.
But this apparition had appeared in Paris, on the Quai Voltaire, and
in the nineteenth century; the time and place made sorcery impossible.
The idol of French scepticism had died in the house just opposite, the
disciple of Gay-Lussac and Arago, who had held the charlatanism of
intellect in contempt. And yet the stranger submitted himself to the
influence of an imaginative spell, as all of us do at times, when we
wish to escape from an inevitable certainty, or to tempt the power of
Providence. So some mysterious apprehension of a strange force made
him tremble before the old man with the lamp. All of us have been
stirred in the same way by the sight of Napoleon, or of some other
great man, made illustrious by his genius or by fame.
"You wish to see Raphael's portrait of Jesus Christ, monsieur?" the
old man asked politely. There was something metallic in the clear,
sharp ring of his voice.
He set the lamp upon a broken column, so that all its light might fall
on the brown case.
At the sacred names of Christ and Raphael the young man showed some
curiosity. The merchant, who no doubt looked for this, pressed a
spring, and suddenly the mahogany panel slid noiselessly back in its
groove, and discovered the canvas to the stranger's admiring gaze. At
sight of this deathless creation, he forgot his fancies in the show-
rooms and the freaks of his dreams, and became himself again. The old
man became a being of flesh and blood, very much alive, with nothing
chimerical about him, and took up his existence at once upon solid
The sympathy and love, and the gentle serenity in the divine face,
exerted an instant sway over the younger spectator. Some influence
falling from heaven bade cease the burning torment that consumed the
marrow of his bones. The head of the Saviour of mankind seemed to
issue from among the shadows represented by a dark background; an
aureole of light shone out brightly from his hair; an impassioned
belief seemed to glow through him, and to thrill every feature. The
word of life had just been uttered by those red lips, the sacred
sounds seemed to linger still in the air; the spectator besought the
silence for those captivating parables, hearkened for them in the
future, and had to turn to the teachings of the past. The untroubled
peace of the divine eyes, the comfort of sorrowing souls, seemed an
interpretation of the Evangel. The sweet triumphant smile revealed the
secret of the Catholic religion, which sums up all things in the
precept, "Love one another." This picture breathed the spirit of
prayer, enjoined forgiveness, overcame self, caused sleeping powers of
good to waken. For this work of Raphael's had the imperious charm of
music; you were brought under the spell of memories of the past; his
triumph was so absolute that the artist was forgotten. The witchery of
the lamplight heightened the wonder; the head seemed at times to
flicker in the distance, enveloped in cloud.
"I covered the surface of that picture with gold pieces," said the
"And now for death!" cried the young man, awakened from his musings.
His last thought had recalled his fate to him, as it led him
imperceptibly back from the forlorn hopes to which he had clung.
"Ah, ha! then my suspicions were well founded!" said the other, and
his hands held the young man's wrists in a grip like that of a vice.
The younger man smiled wearily at his mistake, and said gently:
"You, sir, have nothing to fear; it is not your life, but my own that
is in question. . . . But why should I hide a harmless fraud?" he went
on, after a look at the anxious old man. "I came to see your treasures
to while away the time till night should come and I could drown myself
decently. Who would grudge this last pleasure to a poet and a man of
While he spoke, the jealous merchant watched the haggard face of his
pretended customer with keen eyes. Perhaps the mournful tones of his
voice reassured him, or he also read the dark signs of fate in the
faded features that had made the gamblers shudder; he released his
hands, but, with a touch of caution, due to the experience of some
hundred years at least, he stretched his arm out to a sideboard as if
to steady himself, took up a little dagger, and said:
"Have you been a supernumerary clerk of the Treasury for three years
without receiving any perquisites?"
The stranger could scarcely suppress a smile as he shook his head.
"Perhaps your father has expressed his regret for your birth a little
too sharply? Or have you disgraced yourself?"
"If I meant to be disgraced, I should live."
"You have been hissed perhaps at the Funambules? Or you have had to
compose couplets to pay for your mistress' funeral? Do you want to be
cured of the gold fever? Or to be quit of the spleen? For what blunder
is your life forfeit?"
"You must not look among the common motives that impel suicides for
the reason of my death. To spare myself the task of disclosing my
unheard-of sufferings, for which language has no name, I will tell you
this--that I am in the deepest, most humiliating, and most cruel
trouble, and," he went on in proud tones that harmonized ill with the
words just uttered, "I have no wish to beg for either help or
The two syllables which the old man pronounced resembled the sound of
a rattle. Then he went on thus:
"Without compelling you to entreat me, without making you blush for
it, and without giving you so much as a French centime, a para from
the Levant, a German heller, a Russian kopeck, a Scottish farthing, a
single obolus or sestertius from the ancient world, or one piastre
from the new, without offering you anything whatever in gold, silver,
or copper, notes or drafts, I will make you richer, more powerful, and
of more consequence than a constitutional king."
The young man thought that the older was in his dotage, and waited in
bewilderment without venturing to reply.
"Turn round," said the merchant, suddenly catching up the lamp in
order to light up the opposite wall; "look at that leathern skin," he
The young man rose abruptly, and showed some surprise at the sight of
a piece of shagreen which hung on the wall behind his chair. It was
only about the size of a fox's skin, but it seemed to fill the deep
shadows of the place with such brilliant rays that it looked like a
small comet, an appearance at first sight inexplicable. The young
sceptic went up to this so-called talisman, which was to rescue him
from all points of view, and he soon found out the cause of its
singular brilliancy. The dark grain of the leather had been so
carefully burnished and polished, the striped markings of the graining
were so sharp and clear, that every particle of the surface of the bit
of Oriental leather was in itself a focus which concentrated the
light, and reflected it vividly.
He accounted for this phenomenon categorically to the old man, who
only smiled meaningly by way of answer. His superior smile led the
young scientific man to fancy that he himself had been deceived by
some imposture. He had no wish to carry one more puzzle to his grave,
and hastily turned the skin over, like some child eager to find out
the mysteries of a new toy.
"Ah," he cried, "here is the mark of the seal which they call in the
East the Signet of Solomon."
"So you know that, then?" asked the merchant. His peculiar method of
laughter, two or three quick breathings through the nostrils, said
more than any words however eloquent.
"Is there anybody in the world simple enough to believe in that idle
fancy?" said the young man, nettled by the spitefulness of the silent
chuckle. "Don't you know," he continued, "that the superstitions of
the East have perpetuated the mystical form and the counterfeit
characters of the symbol, which represents a mythical dominion? I have
no more laid myself open to a charge of credulity in this case, than
if I had mentioned sphinxes or griffins, whose existence mythology in
a manner admits."
"As you are an Orientalist," replied the other, "perhaps you can read
He held the lamp close to the talisman, which the young man held
towards him, and pointed out some characters inlaid in the surface of
the wonderful skin, as if they had grown on the animal to which it
"I must admit," said the stranger, "that I have no idea how the
letters could be engraved so deeply on the skin of a wild ass." And he
turned quickly to the tables strewn with curiosities and seemed to
look for something.
"What is it that you want?" asked the old man.
"Something that will cut the leather, so that I can see whether the
letters are printed or inlaid."
The old man held out his stiletto. The stranger took it and tried to
cut the skin above the lettering; but when he had removed a thin
shaving of leather from them, the characters still appeared below, so
clear and so exactly like the surface impression, that for a moment he
was not sure that he had cut anything away after all.
"The craftsmen of the Levant have secrets known only to themselves,"
he said, half in vexation, as he eyed the characters of this Oriental
"Yes," said the old man, "it is better to attribute it to man's agency
than to God's."
The mysterious words were thus arranged:
[Drawing of apparently Sanskrit characters omitted]
Or, as it runs in English:
POSSESSING ME THOU SHALT POSSESS ALL THINGS.
BUT THY LIFE IS MINE, FOR GOD HAS SO WILLED IT.
WISH, AND THY WISHES SHALL BE FULFILLED;
BUT MEASURE THY DESIRES, ACCORDING
TO THE LIFE THAT IS IN THEE.
THIS IS THY LIFE,
WITH EACH WISH I MUST SHRINK
EVEN AS THY OWN DAYS.
WILT THOU HAVE ME? TAKE ME.
GOD WILL HEARKEN UNTO THEE.
SO BE IT!
"So you read Sanskrit fluently," said the old man. "You have been in
Persia perhaps, or in Bengal?"
"No, sir," said the stranger, as he felt the emblematical skin
curiously. It was almost as rigid as a sheet of metal.
The old merchant set the lamp back again upon the column, giving the
other a look as he did so. "He has given up the notion of dying
already," the glance said with phlegmatic irony.
"Is it a jest, or is it an enigma?" asked the younger man.
The other shook his head and said soberly:
"I don't know how to answer you. I have offered this talisman with its
terrible powers to men with more energy in them than you seem to me to
have; but though they laughed at the questionable power it might exert
over their futures, not one of them was ready to venture to conclude
the fateful contract proposed by an unknown force. I am of their
opinion, I have doubted and refrained, and----"
"Have you never even tried its power?" interrupted the young stranger.
"Tried it!" exclaimed the old man. "Suppose that you were on the
column in the Place Vendome, would you try flinging yourself into
space? Is it possible to stay the course of life? Has a man ever been
known to die by halves? Before you came here, you had made up your
mind to kill yourself, but all at once a mystery fills your mind, and
you think no more about death. You child! Does not any one day of your
life afford mysteries more absorbing? Listen to me. I saw the
licentious days of Regency. I was like you, then, in poverty; I have
begged my bread; but for all that, I am now a centenarian with a
couple of years to spare, and a millionaire to boot. Misery was the
making of me, ignorance has made me learned. I will tell you in a few
words the great secret of human life. By two instinctive processes man
exhausts the springs of life within him. Two verbs cover all the forms
which these two causes of death may take--To Will and To have your
Will. Between these two limits of human activity the wise have
discovered an intermediate formula, to which I owe my good fortune and
long life. To Will consumes us, and To have our Will destroys us, but
To Know steeps our feeble organisms in perpetual calm. In me Thought
has destroyed Will, so that Power is relegated to the ordinary
functions of my economy. In a word, it is not in the heart which can
be broken, or in the senses that become deadened, but it is in the
brain that cannot waste away and survives everything else, that I have
set my life. Moderation has kept mind and body unruffled. Yet, I have
seen the whole world. I have learned all languages, lived after every
manner. I have lent a Chinaman money, taking his father's corpse as a
pledge, slept in an Arab's tent on the security of his bare word,
signed contracts in every capital of Europe, and left my gold without
hesitation in savage wigwams. I have attained everything, because I
have known how to despise all things.
"My one ambition has been to see. Is not Sight in a manner Insight?
And to have knowledge or insight, is not that to have instinctive
possession? To be able to discover the very substance of fact and to
unite its essence to our essence? Of material possession what abides
with you but an idea? Think, then, how glorious must be the life of a
man who can stamp all realities upon his thought, place the springs of
happiness within himself, and draw thence uncounted pleasures in idea,
unspoiled by earthly stains. Thought is a key to all treasures; the
miser's gains are ours without his cares. Thus I have soared above
this world, where my enjoyments have been intellectual joys. I have
reveled in the contemplation of seas, peoples, forests, and mountains!
I have seen all things, calmly, and without weariness; I have set my
desires on nothing; I have waited in expectation of everything. I have
walked to and fro in the world as in a garden round about my own
dwelling. Troubles, loves, ambitions, losses, and sorrows, as men call
them, are for me ideas, which I transmute into waking dreams; I
express and transpose instead of feeling them; instead of permitting
them to prey upon my life, I dramatize and expand them; I divert
myself with them as if they were romances which I could read by the
power of vision within me. As I have never overtaxed my constitution,
I still enjoy robust health; and as my mind is endowed with all the
force that I have not wasted, this head of mine is even better
furnished than my galleries. The true millions lie here," he said,
striking his forehead. "I spend delicious days in communings with the
past; I summon before me whole countries, places, extents of sea, the
fair faces of history. In my imaginary seraglio I have all the women
that I have never possessed. Your wars and revolutions come up before
me for judgment. What is a feverish fugitive admiration for some more
or less brightly colored piece of flesh and blood; some more or less
rounded human form; what are all the disasters that wait on your
erratic whims, compared with the magnificent power of conjuring up the
whole world within your soul, compared with the immeasurable joys of
movement, unstrangled by the cords of time, unclogged by the fetters
of space; the joys of beholding all things, of comprehending all
things, of leaning over the parapet of the world to question the other
spheres, to hearken to the voice of God? There," he burst out,
vehemently, "there are To Will and To have your Will, both together,"
he pointed to the bit of shagreen; "there are your social ideas, your
immoderate desires, your excesses, your pleasures that end in death,
your sorrows that quicken the pace of life, for pain is perhaps but a
violent pleasure. Who could determine the point where pleasure becomes
pain, where pain is still a pleasure? Is not the utmost brightness of
the ideal world soothing to us, while the lightest shadows of the
physical world annoy? Is not knowledge the secret of wisdom? And what
is folly but a riotous expenditure of Will or Power?"
"Very good then, a life of riotous excess for me!" said the stranger,
pouncing upon the piece of shagreen.
"Young man, beware!" cried the other with incredible vehemence.
"I had resolved my existence into thought and study," the stranger
replied; "and yet they have not even supported me. I am not to be
gulled by a sermon worthy of Swedenborg, nor by your Oriental amulet,
nor yet by your charitable endeavors to keep me in a world wherein
existence is no longer possible for me. . . . Let me see now," he
added, clutching the talisman convulsively, as he looked at the old
man, "I wish for a royal banquet, a carouse worthy of this century,
which, it is said, has brought everything to perfection! Let me have
young boon companions, witty, unwarped by prejudice, merry to the
verge of madness! Let one wine succeed another, each more biting and
perfumed than the last, and strong enough to bring about three days of
delirium! Passionate women's forms should grace that night! I would be
borne away to unknown regions beyond the confines of this world, by
the car and four-winged steed of a frantic and uproarious orgy. Let us
ascend to the skies, or plunge ourselves in the mire. I do not know if
one soars or sinks at such moments, and I do not care! Next, I bid
this enigmatical power to concentrate all delights for me in one
single joy. Yes, I must comprehend every pleasure of earth and heaven
in the final embrace that is to kill me. Therefore, after the wine, I
wish to hold high festival to Priapus, with songs that might rouse the
dead, and kisses without end; the sound of them should pass like the
crackling of flame through Paris, should revive the heat of youth and
passion in husband and wife, even in hearts of seventy years."
A laugh burst from the little old man. It rang in the young man's ears
like an echo from hell; and tyrannously cut him short. He said no
"Do you imagine that my floors are going to open suddenly, so that
luxuriously-appointed tables may rise through them, and guests from
another world? No, no, young madcap. You have entered into the compact
now, and there is an end of it. Henceforward, your wishes will be
accurately fulfilled, but at the expense of your life. The compass of
your days, visible in that skin, will contract according to the
strength and number of your desires, from the least to the most
extravagant. The Brahmin from whom I had this skin once explained to
me that it would bring about a mysterious connection between the
fortunes and wishes of its possessor. Your first wish is a vulgar one,
which I could fulfil, but I leave that to the issues of your new
existence. After all, you were wishing to die; very well, your suicide
is only put off for a time."
The stranger was surprised and irritated that this peculiar old man
persisted in not taking him seriously. A half philanthropic intention
peeped so clearly forth from his last jesting observation, that he
"I shall soon see, sir, if any change comes over my fortunes in the
time it will take to cross the width of the quay. But I should like us
to be quits for such a momentous service; that is, if you are not
laughing at an unlucky wretch, so I wish that you may fall in love
with an opera-dancer. You would understand the pleasures of
intemperance then, and might perhaps grow lavish of the wealth that
you have husbanded so philosophically."
He went out without heeding the old man's heavy sigh, went back
through the galleries and down the staircase, followed by the stout
assistant who vainly tried to light his passage; he fled with the
haste of a robber caught in the act. Blinded by a kind of delirium, he
did not even notice the unexpected flexibility of the piece of
shagreen, which coiled itself up, pliant as a glove in his excited
fingers, till it would go into the pocket of his coat, where he
mechanically thrust it. As he rushed out of the door into the street,
he ran up against three young men who were passing arm-in-arm.
Such were the gratifying expressions exchanged between them.
"Why, it is Raphael!"
"Good! we were looking for you."
"What! it is you, then?"
These three friendly exclamations quickly followed the insults, as the
light of a street lamp, flickering in the wind, fell upon the
astonished faces of the group.
"My dear fellow, you must come with us!" said the young man that
Raphael had all but knocked down.
"What is all this about?"
"Come along, and I will tell you the history of it as we go."
By fair means or foul, Raphael must go along with his friends towards
the Pont des Arts; they surrounded him, and linked him by the arm
among their merry band.
"We have been after you for about a week," the speaker went on. "At
your respectable hotel de Saint Quentin, where, by the way, the sign
with the alternate black and red letters cannot be removed, and hangs
out just as it did in the time of Jean Jacques, that Leonarda of yours
told us that you were off into the country. For all that, we certainly
did not look like duns, creditors, sheriff's officers, or the like.
But no matter! Rastignac had seen you the evening before at the
Bouffons; we took courage again, and made it a point of honor to find
out whether you were roosting in a tree in the Champs-Elysees, or in
one of those philanthropic abodes where the beggars sleep on a
twopenny rope, or if, more luckily, you were bivouacking in some
boudoir or other. We could not find you anywhere. Your name was not in
the jailers' registers at the St. Pelagie nor at La Force! Government
departments, cafes, libraries, lists of prefects' names, newspaper
offices, restaurants, greenrooms--to cut it short, every lurking place
in Paris, good or bad, has been explored in the most expert manner. We
bewailed the loss of a man endowed with such genius, that one might
look to find him at Court or in the common jails. We talked of
canonizing you as a hero of July, and, upon my word, we regretted
As he spoke, the friends were crossing the Pont des Arts. Without
listening to them, Raphael looked at the Seine, at the clamoring waves
that reflected the lights of Paris. Above that river, in which but now
he had thought to fling himself, the old man's prediction had been
fulfilled, the hour of his death had been already put back by fate.
"We really regretted you," said his friend, still pursuing his theme.
"It was a question of a plan in which we included you as a superior
person, that is to say, somebody who can put himself above other
people. The constitutional thimble-rig is carried on to-day, dear boy,
more seriously than ever. The infamous monarchy, displaced by the
heroism of the people, was a sort of drab, you could laugh and revel
with her; but La Patrie is a shrewish and virtuous wife, and willy-
nilly you must take her prescribed endearments. Then besides, as you
know, authority passed over from the Tuileries to the journalists, at
the time when the Budget changed its quarters and went from the
Faubourg Saint-Germain to the Chaussee de Antin. But this you may not
know perhaps. The Government, that is, the aristocracy of lawyers and
bankers who represent the country to-day, just as the priests used to
do in the time of the monarchy, has felt the necessity of mystifying
the worthy people of France with a few new words and old ideas, like
philosophers of every school, and all strong intellects ever since
time began. So now Royalist-national ideas must be inculcated, by
proving to us that it is far better to pay twelve million francs,
thirty-three centimes to La Patrie, represented by Messieurs Such-and-
Such, than to pay eleven hundred million francs, nine centimes to a
king who used to say _I_ instead of WE. In a word, a journal, with two
or three hundred thousand francs, good, at the back of it, has just
been started, with a view to making an opposition paper to content the
discontented, without prejudice to the national government of the
citizen-king. We scoff at liberty as at despotism now, and at religion
or incredulity quite impartially. And since, for us, 'our country'
means a capital where ideas circulate and are sold at so much a line,
a succulent dinner every day, and the play at frequent intervals,
where profligate women swarm, where suppers last on into the next day,
and light loves are hired by the hour like cabs; and since Paris will
always be the most adorable of all countries, the country of joy,
liberty, wit, pretty women, mauvais sujets, and good wine; where the
truncheon of authority never makes itself disagreeably felt, because
one is so close to those who wield it,--we, therefore, sectaries of
the god Mephistopheles, have engaged to whitewash the public mind, to
give fresh costumes to the actors, to put a new plank or two in the
government booth, to doctor doctrinaires, and warm up old Republicans,
to touch up the Bonapartists a bit, and revictual the Centre; provided
that we are allowed to laugh in petto at both kings and peoples, to
think one thing in the morning and another at night, and to lead a
merry life a la Panurge, or to recline upon soft cushions, more
"The sceptre of this burlesque and macaronic kingdom," he went on, "we
have reserved for you; so we are taking you straightway to a dinner
given by the founder of the said newspaper, a retired banker, who, at
a loss to know what to do with his money, is going to buy some brains
with it. You will be welcomed as a brother, we shall hail you as king
of these free lances who will undertake anything; whose perspicacity
discovers the intentions of Austria, England, or Russia before either
Russia, Austria or England have formed any. Yes, we will invest you
with the sovereignty of those puissant intellects which give to the
world its Mirabeaus, Talleyrands, Pitts, and Metternichs--all the
clever Crispins who treat the destinies of a kingdom as gamblers'
stakes, just as ordinary men play dominoes for Kirschenwasser. We have
given you out to be the most undaunted champion who ever wrestled in a
drinking-bout at close quarters with the monster called Carousal, whom
all bold spirits wish to try a fall with; we have gone so far as to
say that you have never yet been worsted. I hope you will not make
liars of us. Taillefer, our amphitryon, has undertaken to surpass the
circumscribed saturnalias of the petty modern Lucullus. He is rich
enough to infuse pomp into trifles, and style and charm into
dissipation . . . Are you listening, Raphael?" asked the orator,
"Yes," answered the young man, less surprised by the accomplishment of
his wishes than by the natural manner in which the events had come
He could not bring himself to believe in magic, but he marveled at the
accidents of human fate.
"Yes, you say, just as if you were thinking of your grandfather's
demise," remarked one of his neighbors.
"Ah!" cried Raphael, "I was thinking, my friends, that we are in a
fair way to become very great scoundrels," and there was an
ingenuousness in his tones that set these writers, the hope of young
France, in a roar. "So far our blasphemies have been uttered over our
cups; we have passed our judgments on life while drunk, and taken men
and affairs in an after-dinner frame of mind. We were innocent of
action; we were bold in words. But now we are to be branded with the
hot iron of politics; we are going to enter the convict's prison and
to drop our illusions. Although one has no belief left, except in the
devil, one may regret the paradise of one's youth and the age of
innocence, when we devoutly offered the tip of our tongue to some good
priest for the consecrated wafer of the sacrament. Ah, my good
friends, our first peccadilloes gave us so much pleasure because the
consequent remorse set them off and lent a keen relish to them; but
"Oh! now," said the first speaker, "there is still left----"
"What?" asked another.
"There is a word as high as the gallows and deeper than the Seine,"
"Oh, you don't understand me; I mean political crime. Since this
morning, a conspirator's life is the only one I covet. I don't know
that the fancy will last over to-morrow, but to-night at least my
gorge rises at the anaemic life of our civilization and its railroad
evenness. I am seized with a passion for the miseries of retreat from
Moscow, for the excitements of the Red Corsair, or for a smuggler's
life. I should like to go to Botany Bay, as we have no Chartreaux left
us here in France; it is a sort of infirmary reserved for little Lord
Byrons who, having crumpled up their lives like a serviette after
dinner, have nothing left to do but to set their country ablaze, blow
their own brains out, plot for a republic or clamor for a war----"
"Emile," Raphael's neighbor called eagerly to the speaker, "on my
honor, but for the revolution of July I would have taken orders, and
gone off down into the country somewhere to lead the life of an
"And you would have read your breviary through every day."
"You are a coxcomb!"
"Why, we read the newspapers as it is!"
"Not bad that, for a journalist! But hold your tongue, we are going
through a crowd of subscribers. Journalism, look you, is the religion
of modern society, and has even gone a little further."
"What do you mean?"
"Its pontiffs are not obliged to believe in it any more than the
Chatting thus, like good fellows who have known their De Viris
illustribus for years past, they reached a mansion in the Rue Joubert.
Emile was a journalist who had acquired more reputation by dint of
doing nothing than others had derived from their achievements. A bold,
caustic, and powerful critic, he possessed all the qualities that his
defects permitted. An outspoken giber, he made numberless epigrams on
a friend to his face; but would defend him, if absent, with courage
and loyalty. He laughed at everything, even at his own career. Always
impecunious, he yet lived, like all men of his calibre, plunged in
unspeakable indolence. He would fling some word containing volumes in
the teeth of folk who could not put a syllable of sense into their
books. He lavished promises that he never fulfilled; he made a pillow
of his luck and reputation, on which he slept, and ran the risk of
waking up to old age in a workhouse. A steadfast friend to the gallows
foot, a cynical swaggerer with a child's simplicity, a worker only
from necessity or caprice.
"In the language of Maitre Alcofribas, we are about to make a famous
troncon de chiere lie," he remarked to Raphael as he pointed out the
flower-stands that made a perfumed forest of the staircase.
"I like a vestibule to be well warmed and richly carpeted," Raphael
said. "Luxury in the peristyle is not common in France. I feel as if
life had begun anew here."
"And up above we are going to drink and make merry once more, my dear
Raphael. Ah! yes," he went on, "and I hope we are going to come off
conquerors, too, and walk over everybody else's head."
As he spoke, he jestingly pointed to the guests. They were entering a
large room which shone with gilding and lights, and there all the
younger men of note in Paris welcomed them. Here was one who had just
revealed fresh powers, his first picture vied with the glories of
Imperial art. There, another, who but yesterday had launched forth a
volume, an acrid book filled with a sort of literary arrogance, which
opened up new ways to the modern school. A sculptor, not far away,
with vigorous power visible in his rough features, was chatting with
one of those unenthusiastic scoffers who can either see excellence
anywhere or nowhere, as it happens. Here, the cleverest of our
caricaturists, with mischievous eyes and bitter tongue, lay in wait
for epigrams to translate into pencil strokes; there, stood the young
and audacious writer, who distilled the quintessence of political
ideas better than any other man, or compressed the work of some
prolific writer as he held him up to ridicule; he was talking with the
poet whose works would have eclipsed all the writings of the time if
his ability had been as strenuous as his hatreds. Both were trying not
to say the truth while they kept clear of lies, as they exchanged
flattering speeches. A famous musician administered soothing
consolation in a rallying fashion, to a young politician who had just
fallen quite unhurt, from his rostrum. Young writers who lacked style
stood beside other young writers who lacked ideas, and authors of
poetical prose by prosaic poets.
At the sight of all these incomplete beings, a simple Saint Simonian,
ingenuous enough to believe in his own doctrine, charitably paired
them off, designing, no doubt, to convert them into monks of his
order. A few men of science mingled in the conversation, like nitrogen
in the atmosphere, and several vaudevillistes shed rays like the
sparking diamonds that give neither light nor heat. A few paradox-
mongers, laughing up their sleeves at any folk who embraced their
likes or dislikes in men or affairs, had already begun a two-edged
policy, conspiring against all systems, without committing themselves
to any side. Then there was the self-appointed critic who admires
nothing, and will blow his nose in the middle of a cavatina at the
Bouffons, who applauds before any one else begins, and contradicts
every one who says what he himself was about to say; he was there
giving out the sayings of wittier men for his own. Of all the
assembled guests, a future lay before some five; ten or so should
acquire a fleeting renown; as for the rest, like all mediocrities,
they might apply to themselves the famous falsehood of Louis XVIII.,
Union and oblivion.
The anxious jocularity of a man who is expending two thousand crowns
sat on their host. His eyes turned impatiently towards the door from
time to time, seeking one of his guests who kept him waiting. Very
soon a stout little person appeared, who was greeted by a
complimentary murmur; it was the notary who had invented the newspaper
that very morning. A valet-de-chambre in black opened the doors of a
vast dining-room, whither every one went without ceremony, and took
his place at an enormous table.
Raphael took a last look round the room before he left it. His wish
had been realized to the full. The rooms were adorned with silk and
gold. Countless wax tapers set in handsome candelabra lit up the
slightest details of gilded friezes, the delicate bronze sculpture,
and the splendid colors of the furniture. The sweet scent of rare
flowers, set in stands tastefully made of bamboo, filled the air.
Everything, even the curtains, was pervaded by elegance without
pretension, and there was a certain imaginative charm about it all
which acted like a spell on the mind of a needy man.
"An income of a hundred thousand livres a year is a very nice
beginning of the catechism, and a wonderful assistance to putting
morality into our actions," he said, sighing. "Truly my sort of virtue
can scarcely go afoot, and vice means, to my thinking, a garret, a
threadbare coat, a gray hat in winter time, and sums owing to the
porter. . . . I should like to live in the lap of luxury a year, or
six months, no matter! And then afterwards, die. I should have known,
exhausted, and consumed a thousand lives, at any rate."
"Why, you are taking the tone of a stockbroker in good luck," said
Emile, who overheard him. "Pooh! your riches would be a burden to you
as soon as you found that they would spoil your chances of coming out
above the rest of us. Hasn't the artist always kept the balance true
between the poverty of riches and the riches of poverty? And isn't
struggle a necessity to some of us? Look out for your digestion, and
only look," he added, with a mock-heroic gesture, "at the majestic,
thrice holy, and edifying appearance of this amiable capitalist's
dining-room. That man has in reality only made his money for our
benefit. Isn't he a kind of sponge of the polyp order, overlooked by
naturalists, which should be carefully squeezed before he is left for
his heirs to feed upon? There is style, isn't there, about those bas-
reliefs that adorn the walls? And the lustres, and the pictures, what
luxury well carried out! If one may believe those who envy him, or who
know, or think they know, the origins of his life, then this man got
rid of a German and some others--his best friend for one, and the
mother of that friend, during the Revolution. Could you house crimes
under the venerable Taillefer's silvering locks? He looks to me a very
worthy man. Only see how the silver sparkles, and is every glittering
ray like a stab of a dagger to him? . . . Let us go in, one might as
well believe in Mahomet. If common report speak truth, here are thirty
men of talent, and good fellows too, prepared to dine off the flesh
and blood of a whole family; . . . and here are we ourselves, a pair
of youngsters full of open-hearted enthusiasm, and we shall be
partakers in his guilt. I have a mind to ask our capitalist whether he
is a respectable character. . . ."
"No, not now," cried Raphael, "but when he is dead drunk, we shall
have had our dinner then."
The two friends sat down laughing. First of all, by a glance more
rapid than a word, each paid his tribute of admiration to the splendid
general effect of the long table, white as a bank of freshly-fallen
snow, with its symmetrical line of covers, crowned with their pale
golden rolls of bread. Rainbow colors gleamed in the starry rays of
light reflected by the glass; the lights of the tapers crossed and
recrossed each other indefinitely; the dishes covered with their
silver domes whetted both appetite and curiosity.
Few words were spoken. Neighbors exchanged glances as the Maderia
circulated. Then the first course appeared in all its glory; it would
have done honor to the late Cambaceres, Brillat-Savarin would have
celebrated it. The wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, white and red, were
royally lavished. This first part of the banquet might been compared
in every way to a rendering of some classical tragedy. The second act
grew a trifle noisier. Every guest had had a fair amount to drink, and
had tried various crus at this pleasure, so that as the remains of the
magnificent first course were removed, tumultuous discussions began; a
pale brow here and there began to flush, sundry noses took a purpler
hue, faces lit up, and eyes sparkled.
While intoxication was only dawning, the conversation did not overstep
the bounds of civility; but banter and bon mots slipped by degrees
from every tongue; and then slander began to rear its little snake's
heard, and spoke in dulcet tones; a few shrewd ones here and there
gave heed to it, hoping to keep their heads. So the second course
found their minds somewhat heated. Every one ate as he spoke, spoke
while he ate, and drank without heeding the quantity of the liquor,
the wine was so biting, the bouquet so fragrant, the example around so
infectious. Taillefer made a point of stimulating his guests, and
plied them with the formidable wines of the Rhone, with fierce Tokay,
and heady old Roussillon.
The champagne, impatiently expected and lavishly poured out, was a
scourge of fiery sparks to these men; released like post-horses from
some mail-coach by a relay; they let their spirits gallop away into
the wilds of argument to which no one listened, began to tell stories
which had no auditors, and repeatedly asked questions to which no
answer was made. Only the loud voice of wassail could be heard, a
voice made up of a hundred confused clamors, which rose and grew like
a crescendo of Rossini's. Insidious toasts, swagger, and challenges
Each renounced any pride in his own intellectual capacity, in order to
vindicate that of hogsheads, casks, and vats; and each made noise
enough for two. A time came when the footmen smiled, while their
masters all talked at once. A philosopher would have been interested,
doubtless, by the singularity of the thoughts expressed, a politician
would have been amazed by the incongruity of the methods discussed in
the melee of words or doubtfully luminous paradoxes, where truths,
grotesquely caparisoned, met in conflict across the uproar of brawling
judgments, of arbitrary decisions and folly, much as bullets, shells,
and grapeshot are hurled across a battlefield.
It was at once a volume and a picture. Every philosophy, religion, and
moral code differing so greatly in every latitude, every government,
every great achievement of the human intellect, fell before a scythe
as long as Time's own; and you might have found it hard to decide
whether it was wielded by Gravity intoxicated, or by Inebriation grown
sober and clear-sighted. Borne away by a kind of tempest, their minds,
like the sea raging against the cliffs, seemed ready to shake the laws
which confine the ebb and flow of civilization; unconsciously
fulfilling the will of God, who has suffered evil and good to abide in
nature, and reserved the secret of their continual strife to Himself.
A frantic travesty of debate ensued, a Walpurgis-revel of intellects.
Between the dreary jests of these children of the Revolution over the
inauguration of a newspaper, and the talk of the joyous gossips at
Gargantua's birth, stretched the gulf that divides the nineteenth
century from the sixteenth. Laughingly they had begun the work of
destruction, and our journalists laughed amid the ruins.
"What is the name of that young man over there?" said the notary,
indicating Raphael. "I thought I heard some one call him Valentin."
"What stuff is this?" said Emile, laughing; "plain Valentin, say you?
Raphael DE Valentin, if you please. We bear an eagle or, on a field
sable, with a silver crown, beak and claws gules, and a fine motto:
NON CECIDIT ANIMUS. We are no foundling child, but a descendant of the
Emperor Valens, of the stock of the Valentinois, founders of the
cities of Valence in France, and Valencia in Spain, rightful heirs to
the Empire of the East. If we suffer Mahmoud on the throne of
Byzantium, it is out of pure condescension, and for lack of funds and
With a fork flourished above Raphael's head, Emile outlined a crown
upon it. The notary bethought himself a moment, but soon fell to
drinking again, with a gesture peculiar to himself; it was quite
impossible, it seemed to say to secure in his clientele the cities of
Valence and Byzantium, the Emperor Valens, Mahmoud, and the house of
"Should not the destruction of those ant-hills, Babylon, Tyre,
Carthage, and Venice, each crushed beneath the foot of a passing
giant, serve as a warning to man, vouchsafed by some mocking power?"
said Claude Vignon, who must play the Bossuet, as a sort of purchased
slave, at the rate of fivepence a line.
"Perhaps Moses, Sylla, Louis XI., Richelieu, Robespierre, and Napoleon
were but the same man who crosses our civilizations now and again,
like a comet across the sky," said a disciple of Ballanche.
"Why try to fathom the designs of Providence?" said Canalis, maker of
"Come, now," said the man who set up for a critic, "there is nothing
more elastic in the world than your Providence."
"Well, sir, Louis XIV. sacrificed more lives over digging the
foundations of the Maintenon's aqueducts, than the Convention expended
in order to assess the taxes justly, to make one law for everybody,
and one nation of France, and to establish the rule of equal
inheritance," said Massol, whom the lack of a syllable before his name
had made a Republican.
"Are you going to leave our heads on our shoulders?" asked Moreau (of
the Oise), a substantial farmer. "You, sir, who took blood for wine
"Where is the use? Aren't the principles of social order worth some
"Hi! Bixiou! What's-his-name, the Republican, considers a landowner's
head a sacrifice!" said a young man to his neighbor.
"Men and events count for nothing," said the Republican, following out
his theory in spite of hiccoughs; "in politics, as in philosophy,
there are only principles and ideas."
"What an abomination! Then you would ruthlessly put your friends to
death for a shibboleth?"
"Eh, sir! the man who feels compunction is your thorough scoundrel,
for he has some notion of virtue; while Peter the Great and the Duke
of Alva were embodied systems, and the pirate Monbard an
"But can't society rid itself of your systems and organizations?" said
"Oh, granted!" cried the Republican.
"That stupid Republic of yours makes me feel queasy. We sha'n't be
able to carve a capon in peace, because we shall find the agrarian law
"Ah, my little Brutus, stuffed with truffles, your principles are all
right enough. But you are like my valet, the rogue is so frightfully
possessed with a mania for property that if I left him to clean my
clothes after his fashion, he would soon clean me out."
"Crass idiots!" replied the Republican, "you are for setting a nation
straight with toothpicks. To your way of thinking, justice is more
dangerous than thieves."
"Oh, dear!" cried the attorney Deroches.
"Aren't they a bore with their politics!" said the notary Cardot.
"Shut up. That's enough of it. There is no knowledge nor virtue worth
shedding a drop of blood for. If Truth were brought into liquidation,
we might find her insolvent."
"It would be much less trouble, no doubt, to amuse ourselves with
evil, rather than dispute about good. Moreover, I would give all the
speeches made for forty years past at the Tribune for a trout, for one
of Perrault's tales or Charlet's sketches."
"Quite right! . . . Hand me the asparagus. Because, after all, liberty
begets anarchy, anarchy leads to despotism, and despotism back again
to liberty. Millions have died without securing a triumph for any one
system. Is not that the vicious circle in which the whole moral world
revolves? Man believes that he has reached perfection, when in fact he
has but rearranged matters."
"Oh! oh!" cried Cursy, the vaudevilliste; "in that case, gentlemen,
here's to Charles X., the father of liberty."
"Why not?" asked Emile. "When law becomes despotic, morals are
relaxed, and vice versa.
"Let us drink to the imbecility of authority, which gives us such an
authority over imbeciles!" said the good banker.
"Napoleon left us glory, at any rate, my good friend!" exclaimed a
naval officer who had never left Brest.
"Glory is a poor bargain; you buy it dear, and it will not keep. Does
not the egotism of the great take the form of glory, just as for
nobodies it is their own well-being?"
"You are very fortunate, sir----"
"The first inventor of ditches must have been a weakling, for society
is only useful to the puny. The savage and the philosopher, at either
extreme of the moral scale, hold property in equal horror."
"All very fine!" said Cardot; "but if there were no property, there
would be no documents to draw up."
"These green peas are excessively delicious!"
"And the cure was found dead in his bed in the morning. . . ."
"Who is talking about death? Pray don't trifle, I have an uncle."
"Could you bear his loss with resignation?"
"Gentlemen, listen to me! HOW TO KILL AN UNCLE. Silence! (Cries of
"Hush! hush!") In the first place, take an uncle, large and stout,
seventy years old at least, they are the best uncles. (Sensation.) Get
him to eat a pate de foie gras, any pretext will do."
"Ah, but my uncle is a thin, tall man, and very niggardly and
"That sort of uncle is a monster; he misappropriates existence."
"Then," the speaker on uncles went on, "tell him, while he is
digesting it, that his banker has failed."
"How if he bears up?"
"Let loose a pretty girl on him."
"And if----?" asked the other, with a shake of the head.
"Then he wouldn't be an uncle--an uncle is a gay dog by nature."
"Malibran has lost two notes in her voice."
"No, sir, she has not."
"Yes, sir, she has."
"Oh, ho! No and yes, is not that the sum-up of all religious,
political, or literary dissertations? Man is a clown dancing on the
edge of an abyss."
"You would make out that I am a fool."
"On the contrary, you cannot make me out."
"Education, there's a pretty piece of tomfoolery. M. Heineffettermach
estimates the number of printed volumes at more than a thousand
millions; and a man cannot read more than a hundred and fifty thousand
in his lifetime. So, just tell me what that word education means. For
some it consists in knowing the name of Alexander's horse, of the dog
Berecillo, of the Seigneur d'Accords, and in ignorance of the man to
whom we owe the discovery of rafting and the manufacture of porcelain.
For others it is the knowledge how to burn a will and live respected,
be looked up to and popular, instead of stealing a watch with half-a-
dozen aggravating circumstances, after a previous conviction, and so
perishing, hated and dishonored, in the Place de Greve."
"Will Nathan's work live?"
"He has very clever collaborators, sir."
"He is a great man; let us say no more about him."
"You are all drunk!"
"The consequence of a Constitution is the immediate stultification of
intellects. Art, science, public works, everything, is consumed by a
horribly egoistic feeling, the leprosy of the time. Three hundred of
your bourgeoisie, set down on benches, will only think of planting
poplars. Tyranny does great things lawlessly, while Liberty will
scarcely trouble herself to do petty ones lawfully."
"Your reciprocal instruction will turn out counters in human flesh,"
broke in an Absolutist. "All individuality will disappear in a people
brought to a dead level by education."
"For all that, is not the aim of society to secure happiness to each
member of it?" asked the Saint-Simonian.
"If you had an income of fifty thousand livres, you would not think
much about the people. If you are smitten with a tender passion for
the race, go to Madagascar; there you will find a nice little nation
all ready to Saint-Simonize, classify, and cork up in your phials, but
here every one fits into his niche like a peg in a hole. A porter is a
porter, and a blockhead is a fool, without a college of fathers to
promote them to those positions."
"You are a Carlist."
"And why not? Despotism pleases me; it implies a certain contempt for
the human race. I have no animosity against kings, they are so
amusing. Is it nothing to sit enthroned in a room, at a distance of
thirty million leagues from the sun?"
"Let us once more take a broad view of civilization," said the man of
learning who, for the benefit of the inattentive sculptor, had opened
a discussion on primitive society and autochthonous races. "The vigor
of a nation in its origin was in a way physical, unitary, and crude;
then as aggregations increased, government advanced by a decomposition
of the primitive rule, more or less skilfully managed. For example, in
remote ages national strength lay in theocracy, the priest held both
sword and censer; a little later there were two priests, the pontiff
and the king. To-day our society, the latest word of civilization, has
distributed power according to the number of combinations, and we come
to the forces called business, thought, money, and eloquence.
Authority thus divided is steadily approaching a social dissolution,
with interest as its one opposing barrier. We depend no longer on
either religion or physical force, but upon intellect. Can a book
replace the sword? Can discussion be a substitute for action? That is
"Intellect has made an end of everything," cried the Carlist. "Come
now! Absolute freedom has brought about national suicides; their
triumph left them as listless as an English millionaire."
"Won't you tell us something new? You have made fun of authority of
all sorts to-day, which is every bit as vulgar as denying the
existence of God. So you have no belief left, and the century is like
an old Sultan worn out by debauchery! Your Byron, in short, sings of
crime and its emotions in a final despair of poetry."
"Don't you know," replied Bianchon, quite drunk by this time, "that a
dose of phosphorus more or less makes the man of genius or the
scoundrel, a clever man or an idiot, a virtuous person or a criminal?"
"Can any one treat of virtue thus?" cried Cursy. "Virtue, the subject
of every drama at the theatre, the denoument of every play, the
foundation of every court of law. . . ."
"Be quiet, you ass. You are an Achilles for virtue, without his heel,"
"What will you bet that I will drink a bottle of champagne like a
flash, at one pull?"
"What a flash of wit!"
"Drunk as lords," muttered a young man gravely, trying to give some
wine to his waistcoat.
"Yes, sir; real government is the art of ruling by public opinion."
"Opinion? That is the most vicious jade of all. According to you
moralists and politicians, the laws you set up are always to go before
those of nature, and opinion before conscience. You are right and
wrong both. Suppose society bestows down pillows on us, that benefit
is made up for by the gout; and justice is likewise tempered by red-
tape, and colds accompany cashmere shawls."
"Wretch!" Emile broke in upon the misanthrope, "how can you slander
civilization here at table, up to the eyes in wines and exquisite
dishes? Eat away at that roebuck with the gilded horns and feet, and
do not carp at your mother. . ."
"Is it any fault of mine if Catholicism puts a million deities in a
sack of flour, that Republics will end in a Napoleon, that monarchy
dwells between the assassination of Henry IV. and the trial of Louis
XVI., and Liberalism produces Lafayettes?"
"Didn't you embrace him in July?"
"Then hold your tongue, you sceptic."
"Sceptics are the most conscientious of men."
"They have no conscience."
"What are you saying? They have two apiece at least!"
"So you want to discount heaven, a thoroughly commercial notion.
Ancient religions were but the unchecked development of physical
pleasure, but we have developed a soul and expectations; some advance
has been made."
"What can you expect, my friends, of a century filled with politics to
repletion?" asked Nathan. "What befell The History of the King of
Bohemia and his Seven Castles, a most entrancing conception? . . ."
"I say," the would-be critic cried down the whole length of the table.
"The phrases might have been drawn at hap-hazard from a hat, 'twas a
work written 'down to Charenton.' "
"You are a fool!"
"And you are a rogue!"
"They are going to fight."
"No, they aren't."
"You will find me to-morrow, sir."
"This very moment," Nathan answered.
"Come, come, you pair of fire-eaters!"
"You are another!" said the prime mover in the quarrel.
"Ah, I can't stand upright, perhaps?" asked the pugnacious Nathan,
straightening himself up like a stag-beetle about to fly.
He stared stupidly round the table, then, completely exhausted by the
effort, sank back into his chair, and mutely hung his head.
"Would it not have been nice," the critic said to his neighbor, "to
fight about a book I have neither read nor seen?"
"Emile, look out for your coat; your neighbor is growing pale," said
"Kant? Yet another ball flung out for fools to sport with, sir!
Materialism and spiritualism are a fine pair of battledores with which
charlatans in long gowns keep a shuttlecock a-going. Suppose that God
is everywhere, as Spinoza says, or that all things proceed from God,
as says St. Paul . . . the nincompoops, the door shuts or opens, but
isn't the movement the same? Does the fowl come from the egg, or the
egg from the fowl? . . . Just hand me some duck . . . and there, you
have all science."
"Simpleton!" cried the man of science, "your problem is settled by
"Professors' chairs were not made for philosophy, but philosophy for
the professors' chairs. Put on a pair of spectacles and read the