Catherine de' Medici
Honore de Balzac
Part 7 out of 7
he succeeded, I failed; but Louis XIV. found the Protestants without
arms, whereas in my reign they had powerful armies, statesmen,
warriors, and all Germany on their side.' At these words, slowly
uttered, I felt an inward shudder pass through me. I fancied I
breathed the fumes of blood from I know not what great mass of
victims. Catherine was magnified. She stood before me like an evil
genius; she sought, it seemed to me, to enter my consciousness and
"He dreamed all that," whispered Beaumarchais; "he certainly never
"'My reason is bewildered,' I said to the queen. 'You praise yourself
for an act which three generations of men have condemned, stigmatized,
and--' 'Add,' she rejoined, 'that historians have been more unjust
toward me than my contemporaries. None have defended me. I, rich and
all-powerful, am accused of ambition! I am taxed with cruelty,--I who
have but two deaths upon my conscience. Even to impartial minds I am
still a problem. Do you believe that I was actuated by hatred, that
vengeance and fury were the breath of my nostrils?' She smiled with
pity. 'No,' she continued, 'I was cold and calm as reason itself. I
condemned the Huguenots without pity, but without passion; they were
the rotten fruit in my basket and I cast them out. Had I been Queen of
England, I should have treated seditious Catholics in the same way.
The life of our power in those days depended on their being but one
God, one Faith, one Master in the State. Happily for me, I uttered my
justification in one sentence which history is transmitting. When
Birago falsely announced to me the loss of the battle of Dreux, I
answered: "Well then; we will go to the Protestant churches." Did I
hate the reformers? No, I esteemed them much, and I knew them little.
If I felt any aversion to the politicians of my time, it was to that
base Cardinal de Lorraine, and to his brother the shrewd and brutal
soldier who spied upon my every act. They were the real enemies of my
children; they sought to snatch the crown; I saw them daily at work
and they wore me out. If /we/ had not ordered the Saint-Bartholomew,
the Guises would have done the same thing by the help of Rome and the
monks. The League, which was powerful only in consequence of my old
age, would have begun in 1573.' 'But, madame, instead of ordering that
horrible murder (pardon my plainness) why not have employed the vast
resources of your political power in giving to the Reformers those
wise institutions which made the reign of Henri IV. so glorious and so
peaceful?' She smiled again and shrugged her shoulders, the hollow
wrinkles of her pallid face giving her an expression of the bitterest
sarcasm. 'The peoples,' she said, 'need periods of rest after savage
feuds; there lies the secret of that reign. But Henri IV. committed
two irreparable blunders. He ought neither to have abjured
Protestantism, nor, after becoming a Catholic himself, should he have
left France Catholic. He, alone, was in a position to have changed the
whole of France without a jar. Either not a stole, or not a
conventicle--that should have been his motto. To leave two bitter
enemies, two antagonistic principles in a government with nothing to
balance them, that is the crime of kings; it is thus that they sow
revolutions. To God alone belongs the right to keep good and evil
perpetually together in his work. But it may be,' she said
reflectively, 'that that sentence was inscribed on the foundation of
Henri IV.'s policy, and it may have caused his death. It is impossible
that Sully did not cast covetous eyes on the vast wealth of the
clergy,--which the clergy did not possess in peace, for the nobles
robbed them of at least two-thirds of their revenue. Sully, the
Reformer, himself owned abbeys.' She paused, and appeared to reflect.
'But,' she resumed, 'remember you are asking the niece of a Pope to
justify her Catholicism.' She stopped again. 'And yet, after all,' she
added with a gesture of some levity, 'I should have made a good
Calvinist! Do the wise men of your century still think that religion
had anything to do with that struggle, the greatest which Europe has
ever seen?--a vast revolution, retarded by little causes which,
however, will not be prevented from overwhelming the world because I
failed to smother it; a revolution,' she said, giving me a solemn
look, 'which is still advancing, and which you might consummate. Yes,
/you/, who hear me!' I shuddered. 'What! has no one yet understood
that the old interests and the new interests seized Rome and Luther as
mere banners? What! do they not know Louis IX., to escape just such a
struggle, dragged a population a hundredfold more in number than I
destroyed from their homes and left their bones on the sands of Egypt,
for which he was made a saint? while I--But I,' she added, '/failed/.'
She bowed her head and was silent for some moments. I no longer beheld
a queen, but rather one of those ancient druidesses to whom human
lives are sacrificed; who unroll the pages of the future and exhume
the teachings of the past. But soon she uplifted her regal and
majestic form. 'Luther and Calvin,' she said, 'by calling the
attention of the burghers to the abuses of the Roman Church, gave
birth in Europe to a spirit of investigation which was certain to lead
the peoples to examine all things. Examination leads to doubt. Instead
of faith, which is necessary to all societies, those two men drew
after them, in the far distance, a strange philosophy, armed with
hammers, hungry for destruction. Science sprang, sparkling with her
specious lights, from the bosom of heresy. It was far less a question
of reforming a Church than of winning indefinite liberty for man
--which is the death of power. I saw that. The consequence of the
successes won by the religionists in their struggle against the
priesthood (already better armed and more formidable than the Crown)
was the destruction of the monarchical power raised by Louis IX. at
such vast cost upon the ruins of feudality. It involved, in fact,
nothing less than the annihilation of religion and royalty, on the
ruins of which the whole burgher class of Europe meant to stand. The
struggle was therefore war without quarter between the new ideas and
the law,--that is, the old beliefs. The Catholics were the emblem of
the material interests of royalty, of the great lords, and of the
clergy. It was a duel to the death between two giants; unfortunately,
the Saint-Bartholomew proved to be only a wound. Remember this:
because a few drops of blood were spared at that opportune moment,
torrents were compelled to flow at a later period. The intellect which
soars above a nation cannot escape a great misfortune; I mean the
misfortune of finding no equals capable of judging it when it succumbs
beneath the weight of untoward events. My equals are few; fools are in
the majority: that statement explains it all. If my name is execrated
in France, the fault lies with the commonplace minds who form the mass
of all generations. In the great crises through which I passed, the
duty of reigning was not the mere giving of audiences, reviewing of
troops, signing of decrees. I may have committed mistakes, for I was
but a woman. But why was there then no man who rose above his age? The
Duke of Alba had a soul of iron; Philip II. was stupefied by Catholic
belief; Henri IV. was a gambling soldier and a libertine; the Admiral,
a stubborn mule. Louis XI. lived too soon, Richelieu too late.
Virtuous or criminal, guilty or not in the Saint-Bartholomew, I accept
the onus of it; I stand between those two great men,--the visible link
of an unseen chain. The day will come when some paradoxical writer
will ask if the peoples have not bestowed the title of executioner
among their victims. It will not be the first time that humanity has
preferred to immolate a god rather than admit its own guilt. You are
shedding upon two hundred clowns, sacrificed for a purpose, the tears
you refuse to a generation, a century, a world! You forget that
political liberty, the tranquillity of a nation, nay, knowledge
itself, are gifts on which destiny has laid a tax of blood!' 'But,' I
exclaimed, with tears in my eyes, 'will the nations never be happy at
less cost?' 'Truth never leaves her well but to bathe in the blood
which refreshes her,' she replied. 'Christianity, itself the essence
of all truth, since it comes from God, was fed by the blood of
martyrs, which flowed in torrents; and shall it not ever flow? You
will learn this, you who are destined to be one of the builders of the
social edifice founded by the Apostles. So long as you level heads you
will be applauded, but take your trowel in hand, begin to reconstruct,
and your fellows will kill you.' Blood! blood! the word sounded in my
ears like a knell. 'According to you,' I cried, 'Protestantism has the
right to reason as you do!' But Catherine had disappeared, as if some
puff of air had suddenly extinguished the supernatural light which
enabled my mind to see that Figure whose proportions had gradually
become gigantic. And then, without warning, I found within me a
portion of myself which adopted the monstrous doctrine delivered by
the Italian. I woke, weeping, bathed in sweat, at the moment when my
reason told me firmly, in a gentle voice, that neither kings nor
nations had the right to apply such principles, fit only for a world
"How would you save a falling monarchy?" asked Beaumarchais.
"God is present," replied the little lawyer.
"Therefore," remarked Monsieur de Calonne, with the inconceivable
levity which characterized him, "we have the agreeable resource of
believing ourselves the instruments of God, according to the Gospel of
As soon as the ladies discovered that the tale related only to a
conversation between the queen and the lawyer, they had begun to
whisper and to show signs of impatience,--interjecting, now and then,
little phrases through his speech. "How wearisome he is!" "My dear,
when will he finish?" were among those which reached my ear.
When the strange little man had ceased speaking the ladies too were
silent; Monsieur Bodard was sound asleep; the surgeon, half drunk;
Monsieur de Calonne was smiling at the lady next him. Lavoisier,
Beaumarchais, and I alone had listened to the lawyer's dream. The
silence at this moment had something solemn about it. The gleam of the
candles seemed to me magical. A sentiment bound all three of us by
some mysterious tie to that singular little man, who made me, strange
to say, conceive, suddenly, the inexplicable influences of fanaticism.
Nothing less than the hollow, cavernous voice of Beaumarchais's
neighbor, the surgeon, could, I think, have roused me.
"I, too, have dreamed," he said.
I looked at him more attentively, and a feeling of some strange horror
came over me. His livid skin, his features, huge and yet ignoble, gave
an exact idea of what you must allow me to call the /scum/ of the
earth. A few bluish-black spots were scattered over his face, like
bits of mud, and his eyes shot forth an evil gleam. The face seemed,
perhaps, darker, more lowering than it was, because of the white hair
piled like hoarfrost on his head.
"That man must have buried many a patient," I whispered to my neighbor
"I wouldn't trust him with my dog," he answered.
"I hate him involuntarily."
"For my part, I despise him."
"Perhaps we are unjust," I remarked.
"Ha! to-morrow he may be as famous as Volange the actor."
Monsieur de Calonne here motioned us to look at the surgeon, with a
gesture that seemed to say: "I think he'll be very amusing."
"Did you dream of a queen?" asked Beaumarchais.
"No, I dreamed of a People," replied the surgeon, with an emphasis
which made us laugh. "I was then in charge of a patient whose leg I
was to amputate the next day--"
"Did you find the People in the leg of your patient?" asked Monsieur
"Precisely," replied the surgeon.
"How amusing!" cried Madame de Genlis.
"I was somewhat surprised," went on the speaker, without noticing the
interruption, and sticking his hands into the gussets of his breeches,
"to hear something talking to me within that leg. I then found I had
the singular faculty of entering the being of my patient. Once within
his skin I saw a marvellous number of little creatures which moved,
and thought, and reasoned. Some of them lived in the body of the man,
others lived in his mind. His ideas were things which were born, and
grew, and died; they were sick and well, and gay, and sad; they all
had special countenances; they fought with each other, or they
embraced each other. Some ideas sprang forth and went to live in the
world of intellect. I began to see that there were two worlds, two
universes,--the visible universe, and the invisible universe; that the
earth had, like man, a body and a soul. Nature illumined herself for
me; I felt her immensity when I saw the oceans of beings who, in
masses and in species, spread everywhere, making one sole and uniform
animated Matter, from the stone of the earth to God. Magnificent
vision! In short, I found a universe within my patient. When I
inserted my knife into his gangrened leg I cut into a million of those
little beings. Oh! you laugh, madame; let me tell you that you are
eaten up by such creatures--"
"No personalities!" interposed Monsieur de Calonne. "Speak for
yourself and for your patient."
"My patient, frightened by the cries of his animalcules, wanted to
stop the operation; but I went on regardless of his remonstrances;
telling him that those evil animals were already gnawing at his bones.
He made a sudden movement of resistance, not understanding that what I
did was for his good, and my knife slipped aside, entered my own body,
"He is stupid," said Lavoisier.
"No, he is drunk," replied Beaumarchais.
"But, gentlemen, my dream has a meaning," cried the surgeon.
"Oh! oh!" exclaimed Bodard, waking up; "my leg is asleep!"
"Your animalcules must be dead," said his wife.
"That man has a vocation," announced my little neighbor, who had
stared imperturbably at the surgeon while he was speaking.
"It is to yours," said the ugly man, "what the action is to the word,
the body to the soul."
But his tongue grew thick, his words were indistinct, and he said no
more. Fortunately for us the conversation took another turn. At the
end of half an hour we had forgotten the surgeon of the king's pages,
who was fast asleep. Rain was falling in torrents as we left the
"The lawyer is no fool," I said to Beaumarchais.
"True, but he is cold and dull. You see, however, that the provinces
are still sending us worthy men who take a serious view of political
theories and the history of France. It is a leaven which will rise."
"Is your carriage here?" asked Madame de Saint-James, addressing me.
"No," I replied, "I did not think that I should need it to-night."
Madame de Saint-James then rang the bell, ordered her own carriage to
be brought round, and said to the little lawyer in a low voice:--
"Monsieur de Robespierre, will you do me the kindness to drop Monsieur
Marat at his own door?--for he is not in a state to go alone."
"With pleasure, madame," replied Monsieur de Robespierre, with his
finical gallantry. "I only wish you had requested me to do something
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