Honore de Balzac (transl. Clara Bell and others)
Etext prepared by Dagny, email@example.com
and John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
by Honore de Balzac (transl. Clara Bell and others)
HONORE DE BALZAC
Clara Bell and others
I once used to live in a little street which probably is not known to
you--the Rue de Lesdiguieres. It is a turning out of the Rue Saint-
Antoine, beginning just opposite a fountain near the Place de la
Bastille, and ending in the Rue de la Cerisaie. Love of knowledge
stranded me in a garret; my nights I spent in work, my days in reading
at the Bibliotheque d'Orleans, close by. I lived frugally; I had
accepted the conditions of the monastic life, necessary conditions for
every worker, scarcely permitting myself a walk along the Boulevard
Bourdon when the weather was fine. One passion only had power to draw
me from my studies; and yet, what was that passion but a study of
another kind? I used to watch the manners and customs of the Faubourg,
its inhabitants, and their characteristics. As I dressed no better
than a working man, and cared nothing for appearances, I did not put
them on their guard; I could join a group and look on while they drove
bargains or wrangled among themselves on their way home from work.
Even then observation had come to be an instinct with me; a faculty of
penetrating to the soul without neglecting the body; or rather, a
power of grasping external details so thoroughly that they never
detained me for a moment, and at once I passed beyond and through
them. I could enter into the life of the human creatures whom I
watched, just as the dervish in the /Arabian Nights/ could pass into
any soul or body after pronouncing a certain formula.
If I met a working man and his wife in the streets between eleven
o'clock and midnight on their way home from the Ambigu Comique, I used
to amuse myself by following them from the Boulevard du Pont aux Choux
to the Boulevard Beaumarchais. The good folk would begin by talking
about the play; then from one thing to another they would come to
their own affairs, and the mother would walk on and on, heedless of
complaints or question from the little one that dragged at her hand,
while she and her husband reckoned up the wages to be paid on the
morrow, and spent the money in a score of different ways. Then came
domestic details, lamentations over the excessive dearness of
potatoes, or the length of the winter and the high price of block
fuel, together with forcible representations of amounts owing to the
baker, ending in an acrimonious dispute, in the course of which such
couples reveal their characters in picturesque language. As I
listened, I could make their lives mine, I felt their rags on my back,
I walked with their gaping shoes on my feet; their cravings, their
needs, had all passed into my soul, or my soul had passed into theirs.
It was the dream of a waking man. I waxed hot with them over the
foreman's tyranny, or the bad customers that made them call again and
again for payment.
To come out of my own ways of life, to be another than myself through
a kind of intoxication of the intellectual faculties, and to play this
game at will, such was my recreation. Whence comes the gift? Is it a
kind of second sight? Is it one of those powers which when abused end
in madness? I have never tried to discover its source; I possess it, I
use it, that is all. But this it behooves you to know, that in those
days I began to resolve the heterogeneous mass known as the People
into its elements, and to evaluate its good and bad qualities. Even
then I realized the possibilities of my suburb, that hotbed of
revolution in which heroes, inventors, and practical men of science,
rogues and scoundrels, virtues and vices, were all packed together by
poverty, stifled by necessity, drowned in drink, and consumed by
You would not imagine how many adventures, how many tragedies, lie
buried away out of sight in that Dolorous City; how much horror and
beauty lurks there. No imagination can reach the Truth, no one can go
down into that city to make discoveries; for one must needs descend
too low into its depths to see the wonderful scenes of tragedy or
comedy enacted there, the masterpieces brought forth by chance.
I do not know how it is that I have kept the following story so long
untold. It is one of the curious things that stop in the bag from
which Memory draws out stories at haphazard, like numbers in a
lottery. There are plenty of tales just as strange and just as well
hidden still left; but some day, you may be sure, their turn will
One day my charwoman, a working man's wife, came to beg me to honor
her sister's wedding with my presence. If you are to realize what this
wedding was like you must know that I paid my charwoman, poor
creature, four francs a month; for which sum she came every morning to
make my bed, clean my shoes, brush my clothes, sweep the room, and
make ready my breakfast, before going to her day's work of turning the
handle of a machine, at which hard drudgery she earned five-pence. Her
husband, a cabinetmaker, made four francs a day at his trade; but as
they had three children, it was all that they could do to gain an
honest living. Yet I have never met with more sterling honesty than in
this man and wife. For five years after I left the quarter, Mere
Vaillant used to come on my birthday with a bunch of flowers and some
oranges for me--she that had never a sixpence to put by! Want had
drawn us together. I never could give her more than a ten-franc piece,
and often I had to borrow the money for the occasion. This will
perhaps explain my promise to go to the wedding; I hoped to efface
myself in these poor people's merry-making.
The banquet and the ball were given on a first floor above a wineshop
in the Rue de Charenton. It was a large room, lighted by oil lamps
with tin reflectors. A row of wooden benches ran round the walls,
which were black with grime to the height of the tables. Here some
eighty persons, all in their Sunday best, tricked out with ribbons and
bunches of flowers, all of them on pleasure bent, were dancing away
with heated visages as if the world were about to come to an end.
Bride and bridegroom exchanged salutes to the general satisfaction,
amid a chorus of facetious "Oh, ohs!" and "Ah, ahs!" less really
indecent than the furtive glances of young girls that have been well
brought up. There was something indescribably infectious about the
rough, homely enjoyment in all countenances.
But neither the faces, nor the wedding, nor the wedding-guests have
anything to do with my story. Simply bear them in mind as the odd
setting to it. Try to realize the scene, the shabby red-painted
wineshop, the smell of wine, the yells of merriment; try to feel that
you are really in the faubourg, among old people, working men and poor
women giving themselves up to a night's enjoyment.
The band consisted of a fiddle, a clarionet, and a flageolet from the
Blind Asylum. The three were paid seven francs in a lump sum for the
night. For the money, they gave us, not Beethoven certainly, nor yet
Rossini; they played as they had the will and the skill; and every one
in the room (with charming delicacy of feeling) refrained from finding
fault. The music made such a brutal assault on the drum of my ear,
that after a first glance round the room my eyes fell at once upon the
blind trio, and the sight of their uniform inclined me from the first
to indulgence. As the artists stood in a window recess, it was
difficult to distinguish their faces except at close quarters, and I
kept away at first; but when I came nearer (I hardly know why) I
thought of nothing else; the wedding party and the music ceased to
exist, my curiosity was roused to the highest pitch, for my soul
passed into the body of the clarionet player.
The fiddle and the flageolet were neither of them interesting; their
faces were of the ordinary type among the blind--earnest, attentive,
and grave. Not so the clarionet player; any artist or philosopher must
have come to a stop at the sight of him.
Picture to yourself a plaster mask of Dante in the red lamplight, with
a forest of silver-white hair above the brows. Blindness intensified
the expression of bitterness and sorrow in that grand face of his; the
dead eyes were lighted up, as it were, by a thought within that broke
forth like a burning flame, lit by one sole insatiable desire, written
large in vigorous characters upon an arching brow scored across with
as many lines as an old stone wall.
The old man was playing at random, without the slightest regard for
time or tune. His fingers traveled mechanically over the worn keys of
his instrument; he did not trouble himself over a false note now and
again (a /canard/, in the language of the orchestra), neither did the
dancers, nor, for that matter, did my old Italian's acolytes; for I
had made up my mind that he must be Italian, and an Italian he was.
There was something great, something too of the despot about this old
Homer bearing within him an /Odyssey/ doomed to oblivion. The
greatness was so real that it triumphed over his abject position; the
despotism so much a part of him, that it rose above his poverty.
There are violent passions which drive a man to good or evil, making
of him a hero or a convict; of these there was not one that had failed
to leave its traces on the grandly-hewn, lividly Italian face. You
trembled lest a flash of thought should suddenly light up the deep
sightless hollows under the grizzled brows, as you might fear to see
brigands with torches and poniards in the mouth of a cavern. You felt
that there was a lion in that cage of flesh, a lion spent with useless
raging against iron bars. The fires of despair had burned themselves
out into ashes, the lava had cooled; but the tracks of the flames, the
wreckage, and a little smoke remained to bear witness to the violence
of the eruption, the ravages of the fire. These images crowded up at
the sight of the clarionet player, till the thoughts now grown cold in
his face burned hot within my soul.
The fiddle and the flageolet took a deep interest in bottles and
glasses; at the end of a country-dance, they hung their instruments
from a button on their reddish-colored coats, and stretched out their
hands to a little table set in the window recess to hold their liquor
supply. Each time they did so they held out a full glass to the
Italian, who could not reach it for himself because he sat in front of
the table, and each time the Italian thanked them with a friendly nod.
All their movements were made with the precision which always amazes
you so much at the Blind Asylum. You could almost think that they can
see. I came nearer to listen; but when I stood beside them, they
evidently guessed I was not a working man, and kept themselves to
"What part of the world do you come from, you that are playing the
"From Venice," he said, with a trace of Italian accent.
"Have you always been blind, or did it come on afterwards--"
"Afterwards," he answered quickly. "A cursed gutta serena."
"Venice is a fine city; I have always had a fancy to go there."
The old man's face lighted up, the wrinkles began to work, he was
"If I went with you, you would not lose your time," he said.
"Don't talk about Venice to our Doge," put in the fiddle, "or you will
start him off, and he has stowed away a couple of bottles as it is--
has the prince!"
"Come, strike up, Daddy Canard!" added the flageolet, and the three
began to play. But while they executed the four figures of a square
dance, the Venetian was scenting my thoughts; he guessed the great
interest I felt in him. The dreary, dispirited look died out of his
face, some mysterious hope brightened his features and slid like a
blue flame over his wrinkles. He smiled and wiped his brow, that
fearless, terrible brow of his, and at length grew gay like a man
mounted on his hobby.
"How old are you?" I asked.
"How long have you been blind?"
"For very nearly fifty years," he said, and there was that in his tone
which told me that his regret was for something more than his lost
sight, for great power of which he had been robbed.
"Then why do they call you 'the Doge'?" I asked.
"Oh, it is a joke. I am a Venetian noble, and I might have been a doge
like any one else."
"What is your name?"
"Here, in Paris, I am Pere Canet," he said. "It was the only way of
spelling my name on the register. But in Italy I am Marco Facino Cane,
Prince of Varese."
"What, are you descended from the great /condottiere/ Facino Cane,
whose lands won by the sword were taken by the Dukes of Milan?"
"/E vero/," returned he. "His son's life was not safe under the
Visconti; he fled to Venice, and his name was inscribed on the Golden
Book. And now neither Cane or Golden Book are in existence." His
gesture startled me; it told of patriotism extinguished and weariness
"But if you were once a Venetian senator, you must have been a wealthy
man. How did you lose your fortune?"
"In evil days."
He waved away the glass of wine handed to him by the flageolet, and
bowed his head. He had no heart to drink. These details were not
calculated to extinguish my curiosity.
As the three ground out the music of the square dance, I gazed at the
old Venetian noble, thinking thoughts that set a young man's mind
afire at the age of twenty. I saw Venice and the Adriatic; I saw her
ruin in the ruin of the face before me. I walked to and fro in that
city, so beloved of her citizens; I went from the Rialto Bridge, along
the Grand Canal, and from the Riva degli Schiavoni to the Lido,
returning to St. Mark's, that cathedral so unlike all others in its
sublimity. I looked up at the windows of the Casa Doro, each with its
different sculptured ornaments; I saw old palaces rich in marbles, saw
all the wonders which a student beholds with the more sympathetic eyes
because visible things take their color of his fancy, and the sight of
realities cannot rob him of the glory of his dreams. Then I traced
back a course of life for this latest scion of a race of condottieri,
tracking down his misfortunes, looking for the reasons of the deep
moral and physical degradation out of which the lately revived sparks
of greatness and nobility shone so much the more brightly. My ideas,
no doubt, were passing through his mind, for all processes of thought-
communications are far more swift, I think, in blind people, because
their blindness compels them to concentrate their attention. I had not
long to wait for proof that we were in sympathy in this way. Facino
Cane left off playing, and came up to me. "Let us go out!" he said;
his tones thrilled through me like an electric shock. I gave him my
arm, and we went.
Outside in the street he said, "Will you take me back to Venice? Will
you be my guide? Will you put faith in me? You shall be richer than
ten of the richest houses in Amsterdam or London, richer than
Rothschild; in short, you shall have the fabulous wealth of the
The man was mad, I thought; but in his voice there was a potent
something which I obeyed. I allowed him to lead, and he went in the
direction of the Fosses de la Bastille, as if he could see; walking
till he reached a lonely spot down by the river, just where the bridge
has since been built at the junction of the Canal Saint-Martin and the
Seine. Here he sat down on a stone, and I, sitting opposite to him,
saw the old man's hair gleaming like threads of silver in the
moonlight. The stillness was scarcely troubled by the sound of the
far-off thunder of traffic along the boulevards; the clear night air
and everything about us combined to make a strangely unreal scene.
"You talk of millions to a young man," I began, "and do you think that
he will shrink from enduring any number of hardships to gain them? Are
you not laughing at me?"
"May I die unshriven," he cried vehemently, "if all that I am about to
tell you is not true. I was one-and-twenty years old, like you at this
moment. I was rich, I was handsome, and a noble by birth. I began with
the first madness of all--with Love. I loved as no one can love
nowadays. I have hidden myself in a chest, at the risk of a dagger
thrust, for nothing more than the promise of a kiss. To die for Her--
it seemed to me to be a whole life in itself. In 1760 I fell in love
with a lady of the Vendramin family; she was eighteen years old, and
married to a Sagredo, one of the richest senators, a man of thirty,
madly in love with his wife. My mistress and I were guiltless as
cherubs when the /sposo/ caught us together talking of love. He was
armed, I was not, but he missed me; I sprang upon him and killed him
with my two hands, wringing his neck as if he had been a chicken. I
wanted Bianca to fly with me; but she would not. That is the way with
women! So I went alone. I was condemned to death, and my property was
confiscated and made over to my next-of-kin; but I had carried off my
diamonds, five of Titian's pictures taken down from their frames and
rolled up, and all my gold.
"I went to Milan, no one molested me, my affair in nowise interested
the State.--One small observation before I go further," he continued,
after a pause, "whether it is true or no that the mother's fancies at
the time of conception or in the months before birth can influence her
child, this much is certain, my mother during her pregnancy had a
passion for gold, and I am the victim of a monomania, of a craving for
gold which must be gratified. Gold is so much of a necessity of life
for me, that I have never been without it; I must have gold to toy
with and finger. As a young man I always wore jewelry, and I carried
two or three hundred ducats about me wherever I went."
He drew a couple of gold coins from his pocket and showed them to me
as he spoke.
"I can tell by instinct when gold is near. Blind as I am, I stop
before a jeweler's shop windows. That passion was the ruin of me; I
took to gambling to play with gold. I was not a cheat, I was cheated,
I ruined myself. I lost all my fortune. Then the longing to see Bianca
once more possessed me like a frenzy. I stole back to Venice and found
her again. For six months I was happy; she hid me in her house and fed
me. I thought thus deliciously to finish my days. But the Provveditore
courted her, and guessed that he had a rival; we in Italy can feel
that. He played the spy upon us, and surprised us together in bed,
base wretch. You may judge what a fight for life it was; I did not
kill him outright, but I wounded him dangerously.
"That adventure broke my luck. I have never found another Bianca; I
have known great pleasures; but among the most celebrated women at the
court of Louis XV. I never found my beloved Venetian's charm, her
love, her great qualities.
"The Provveditore called his servants, the palace was surrounded and
entered; I fought for my life that I might die beneath Bianca's eyes;
Bianca helped me to kill the Provveditore. Once before she had refused
flight with me; but after six months of happiness she wished only to
die with me, and received several thrusts. I was entangled in a great
cloak that they flung over me, carried down to a gondola, and hurried
to the Pozzi dungeons. I was twenty-two years old. I gripped the hilt
of my broken sword so hard, that they could only have taken it from me
by cutting off my hand at the wrist. A curious chance, or rather the
instinct of self-preservation, led me to hide the fragment of the
blade in a corner of my cell, as if it might still be of use. They
tended me; none of my wounds were serious. At two-and-twenty one can
recover from anything. I was to lose my head on the scaffold. I
shammed illness to gain time. It seemed to me that the canal lay just
outside my cell. I thought to make my escape by boring a hole through
the wall and swimming for my life. I based my hopes on the following
"Every time that the jailer came with my food, there was light enough
to read directions written on the walls--'Side of the Palace,' 'Side
of the Canal,' 'Side of the Vaults.' At last I saw a design in this,
but I did not trouble myself much about the meaning of it; the actual
incomplete condition of the Ducal Palace accounted for it. The longing
to regain my freedom gave me something like genius. Groping about with
my fingers, I spelled out an Arabic inscription on the wall. The
author of the work informed those to come after him that he had loosed
two stones in the lowest course of masonry and hollowed out eleven
feet beyond underground. As he went on with his excavations, it became
necessary to spread the fragments of stone and mortar over the floor
of his cell. But even if jailers and inquisitors had not felt sure
that the structure of the building was such that no watch was needed
below, the level of the Pozzi dungeons being several steps below the
threshold, it was possible gradually to raise the earthen floor
without exciting the warder's suspicions.
"The tremendous labor had profited nothing--nothing at least to him
that began it. The very fact that it was left unfinished told of the
unknown worker's death. Unless his devoted toil was to be wasted for
ever, his successor must have some knowledge of Arabic, but I had
studied Oriental languages at the Armenian Convent. A few words
written on the back of the stone recorded the unhappy man's fate; he
had fallen a victim to his great possessions; Venice had coveted his
wealth and seized upon it. A whole month went by before I obtained any
result; but whenever I felt my strength failing as I worked, I heard
the chink of gold, I saw gold spread before me, I was dazzled by
"One night my blunted steel struck on wood. I whetted the fragment of
my blade and cut a hole; I crept on my belly like a serpent; I worked
naked and mole-fashion, my hands in front of me, using the stone
itself to gain a purchase. I was to appear before my judges in two
days' time, I made a final effort, and that night I bored through the
wood and felt that there was space beyond.
"Judge of my surprise when I applied my eye to the hole. I was in the
ceiling of a vault, heaps of gold were dimly visible in the faint
light. The Doge himself and one of the Ten stood below; I could hear
their voices and sufficient of their talk to know that this was the
Secret Treasury of the Republic, full of the gifts of Doges and
reserves of booty called the Tithe of Venice from the spoils of
military expeditions. I was saved!
"When the jailer came I proposed that he should help me to escape and
fly with me, and that we should take with us as much as we could
carry. There was no reason for hesitation; he agreed. Vessels were
about to sail for the Levant. All possible precautions were taken.
Bianca furthered the schemes which I suggested to my accomplice. It
was arranged that Bianca should only rejoin us in Smyrna for fear of
exciting suspicion. In a single night the hole was enlarged, and we
dropped down into the Secret Treasury of Venice.
"What a night that was! Four great casks full of gold stood there. In
the outer room silver pieces were piled in heaps, leaving a gangway
between by which to cross the chamber. Banks of silver coins
surrounded the walls to the height of five feet.
"I thought the jailer would go mad. He sang and laughed and danced and
capered among the gold, till I threatened to strangle him if he made a
sound or wasted time. In his joy he did not notice at first the table
where the diamonds lay. I flung myself upon these, and deftly filled
the pockets of my sailor jacket and trousers with the stones. Ah!
Heaven, I did not take the third of them. Gold ingots lay underneath
the table. I persuaded my companion to fill as many bags as we could
carry with the gold, and made him understand that this was our only
chance of escaping detection abroad.
" 'Pearls, rubies, and diamonds might be recognized,' I told him.
"Covetous though we were, we could not possibly take more than two
thousand livres weight of gold, which meant six journeys across the
prison to the gondola. The sentinel at the water gate was bribed with
a bag containing ten livres weight of gold; and as far as the two
gondoliers, they believed they were serving the Republic. At daybreak
we set out.
"Once upon the open sea, when I thought of that night, when I
recollected all that I had felt, when the vision of that great hoard
rose before my eyes, and I computed that I had left behind thirty
millions in silver, twenty in gold, and many more in diamonds, pearls,
and rubies--then a sort of madness began to work in me. I had the gold
"We landed at Smyrna and took ship at once for France. As we went on
board the French vessel, Heaven favored me by ridding me of my
accomplice. I did not think at the time of all the possible
consequences of this mishap, and rejoiced not a little. We were so
completely unnerved by all that had happened, that we were stupid, we
said not a word to each other, we waited till it should be safe to
enjoy ourselves at our ease. It was not wonderful that the rogue's
head was dizzy. You shall see how heavily God has punished me.
"I never knew a quiet moment until I had sold two-thirds of my
diamonds in London or Amsterdam, and held the value of my gold dust in
a negotiable shape. For five years I hid myself in Madrid, then in
1770 I came to Paris with a Spanish name, and led as brilliant a life
as may be. Then in the midst of my pleasures, as I enjoyed a fortune
of six millions, I was smitten with blindness. I do not doubt but that
my infirmity was brought on by my sojourn in the cell and my work in
the stone, if, indeed, my peculiar faculty for 'seeing' gold was not
an abuse of the power of sight which predestined me to lose it. Bianca
"At this time I had fallen in love with a woman to whom I thought to
link my fate. I had told her the secret of my name; she belonged to a
powerful family; she was a friend of Mme. du Barry; I hoped everything
from the favor shown me by Louis XV.; I trusted in her. Acting on her
advice, I went to London to consult a famous oculist, and after a stay
of several months in London she deserted me in Hyde Park. She had
stripped me of all that I had, and left me without resource. Nor could
I make complaint, for to disclose my name was to lay myself open to
the vengeance of my native city; I could appeal to no one for aid, I
feared Venice. The woman put spies about me to exploit my infirmity. I
spare you a tale of adventures worthy of Gil Blas.--Your Revolution
followed. For two whole years that creature kept me at the Bicetre as
a lunatic, then she gained admittance for me at the Blind Asylum;
there was no help for it, I went. I could not kill her; I could not
see; and I was so poor that I could not pay another arm.
"If only I had taken counsel with my jailer, Benedetto Carpi, before I
lost him, I might have known the exact position of my cell, I might
have found my way back to the Treasury and returned to Venice when
Napoleon crushed the Republic--
"Still, blind as I am, let us go back to Venice! I shall find the door
of my prison, I shall see the gold through the prison walls, I shall
hear it where it lies under the water; for the events which brought
about the fall of Venice befell in such a way that the secret of the
hoard must have perished with Bianca's brother, Vendramin, a doge to
whom I looked to make my peace with the Ten. I sent memorials to the
First Consul; I proposed an agreement with the Emperor of Austria;
every one sent me about my business for a lunatic. Come! we will go to
Venice; let us set out as beggars, we shall come back millionaires. We
will buy back some of my estates, and you shall be my heir! You shall
be Prince of Varese!"
My head was swimming. For me his confidences reached the proportions
of tragedy; at the sight of that white head of his and beyond it the
black water in the trenches of the Bastille lying still as a canal in
Venice, I had no words to answer him. Facino Cane thought, no doubt,
that I judged him, as the rest had done, with a disdainful pity; his
gesture expressed the whole philosophy of despair.
Perhaps his story had taken him back to happy days and to Venice. He
caught up his clarionet and made plaintive music, playing a Venetian
boat-song with something of his lost skill, the skill of the young
patrician lover. It was a sort of /Super flumina Babylonis/. Tears
filled my eyes. Any belated persons walking along the Boulevard
Bourdon must have stood still to listen to an exile's last prayer, a
last cry of regret for a lost name, mingled with memories of Bianca.
But gold soon gained the upper hand, the fatal passion quenched the
light of youth.
"I see it always," he said; "dreaming or waking, I see it; and as I
pace to and fro, I pace in the Treasury, and the diamonds sparkle. I
am not as blind as you think; gold and diamonds light up my night, the
night of the last Facino Cane, for my title passes to the Memmi. My
God! the murderer's punishment was not long delayed! /Ave Maria/," and
he repeated several prayers that I did not heed.
"We will go to Venice!" I said, when he rose.
"Then I have found a man!" he cried, with his face on fire.
I gave him my arm and went home with him. We reached the gates of the
Blind Asylum just as some of the wedding guests were returning along
the street, shouting at the top of their voices. He squeezed my hand.
"Shall we start to-morrow?" he asked.
"As soon as we can get some money."
"But we can go on foot. I will beg. I am strong, and you feel young
when you see gold before you."
Facino Cane died before the winter was out after a two months'
illness. The poor man had taken a chill.
PARIS, March 1836.
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
Back to Full Books