Honore de Balzac
Etext prepared by Dagny, firstname.lastname@example.org
and Bonnie Sala
HONORE DE BALZAC
To Monsieur le General Baron de Pommereul, a token of the friendship
between our fathers, which survives in their sons.
There is a special variety of human nature obtained in the Social
Kingdom by a process analogous to that of the gardener's craft in the
Vegetable Kingdom, to wit, by the forcing-house--a species of hybrid
which can be raised neither from seed nor from slips. This product is
known as the Cashier, an anthropomorphous growth, watered by religious
doctrine, trained up in fear of the guillotine, pruned by vice, to
flourish on a third floor with an estimable wife by his side and an
uninteresting family. The number of cashiers in Paris must always be a
problem for the physiologist. Has any one as yet been able to state
correctly the terms of the proportion sum wherein the cashier figures
as the unknown X? Where will you find the man who shall live with
wealth, like a cat with a caged mouse? This man, for further
qualification, shall be capable of sitting boxed in behind an iron
grating for seven or eight hours a day during seven-eighths of the
year, perched upon a cane-seated chair in a space as narrow as a
lieutenant's cabin on board a man-of-war. Such a man must be able to
defy anchylosis of the knee and thigh joints; he must have a soul
above meanness, in order to live meanly; must lose all relish for
money by dint of handling it. Demand this peculiar specimen of any
creed, educational system, school, or institution you please, and
select Paris, that city of fiery ordeals and branch establishment of
hell, as the soil in which to plant the said cashier. So be it.
Creeds, schools, institutions and moral systems, all human rules and
regulations, great and small, will, one after another, present much
the same face that an intimate friend turns upon you when you ask him
to lend you a thousand francs. With a dolorous dropping of the jaw,
they indicate the guillotine, much as your friend aforesaid will
furnish you with the address of the money-lender, pointing you to one
of the hundred gates by which a man comes to the last refuge of the
Yet nature has her freaks in the making of a man's mind; she indulges
herself and makes a few honest folk now and again, and now and then a
Wherefore, that race of corsairs whom we dignify with the title of
bankers, the gentry who take out a license for which they pay a
thousand crowns, as the privateer takes out his letters of marque,
hold these rare products of the incubations of virtue in such esteem
that they confine them in cages in their counting-houses, much as
governments procure and maintain specimens of strange beasts at their
If the cashier is possessed of an imagination or of a fervid
temperament; if, as will sometimes happen to the most complete
cashier, he loves his wife, and that wife grows tired of her lot, has
ambitions, or merely some vanity in her composition, the cashier is
undone. Search the chronicles of the counting-house. You will not find
a single instance of a cashier attaining A POSITION, as it is called.
They are sent to the hulks; they go to foreign parts; they vegetate on
a second floor in the Rue Saint-Louis among the market gardens of the
Marais. Some day, when the cashiers of Paris come to a sense of their
real value, a cashier will be hardly obtainable for money. Still,
certain it is that there are people who are fit for nothing but to be
cashiers, just as the bent of a certain order of mind inevitably makes
for rascality. But, oh marvel of our civilization! Society rewards
virtue with an income of a hundred louis in old age, a dwelling on a
second floor, bread sufficient, occasional new bandana handkerchiefs,
an elderly wife and her offspring.
So much for virtue. But for the opposite course, a little boldness, a
faculty for keeping on the windward side of the law, as Turenne
outflanked Montecuculi, and Society will sanction the theft of
millions, shower ribbons upon the thief, cram him with honors, and
smother him with consideration.
Government, moreover, works harmoniously with this profoundly
illogical reasoner--Society. Government levies a conscription on the
young intelligence of the kingdom at the age of seventeen or eighteen,
a conscription of precocious brain-work before it is sent up to be
submitted to a process of selection. Nurserymen sort and select seeds
in much the same way. To this process the Government brings
professional appraisers of talent, men who can assay brains as experts
assay gold at the Mint. Five hundred such heads, set afire with hope,
are sent up annually by the most progressive portion of the
population; and of these the Government takes one-third, puts them in
sacks called the Ecoles, and shakes them up together for three years.
Though every one of these young plants represents vast productive
power, they are made, as one may say, into cashiers. They receive
appointments; the rank and file of engineers is made up of them; they
are employed as captains of artillery; there is no (subaltern) grade
to which they may not aspire. Finally, when these men, the pick of the
youth of the nation, fattened on mathematics and stuffed with
knowledge, have attained the age of fifty years, they have their
reward, and receive as the price of their services the third-floor
lodging, the wife and family, and all the comforts that sweeten life
for mediocrity. If from among this race of dupes there should escape
some five or six men of genius who climb the highest heights, is it
This is an exact statement of the relations between Talent and Probity
on the one hand and Government and Society on the other, in an age
that considers itself to be progressive. Without this prefatory
explanation a recent occurrence in Paris would seem improbable; but
preceded by this summing up of the situation, it will perhaps receive
some thoughtful attention from minds capable of recognizing the real
plague-spots of our civilization, a civilization which since 1815 as
been moved by the spirit of gain rather than by principles of honor.
About five o'clock, on a dull autumn afternoon, the cashier of one of
the largest banks in Paris was still at his desk, working by the light
of a lamp that had been lit for some time. In accordance with the use
and wont of commerce, the counting-house was in the darkest corner of
the low-ceiled and far from spacious mezzanine floor, and at the very
end of a passage lighted only by borrowed lights. The office doors
along this corridor, each with its label, gave the place the look of a
bath-house. At four o'clock the stolid porter had proclaimed,
according to his orders, "The bank is closed." And by this time the
departments were deserted, wives of the partners in the firm were
expecting their lovers; the two bankers dining with their mistresses.
Everything was in order.
The place where the strong boxes had been bedded in sheet-iron was
just behind the little sanctum, where the cashier was busy. Doubtless
he was balancing his books. The open front gave a glimpse of a safe of
hammered iron, so enormously heavy (thanks to the science of the
modern inventor) that burglars could not carry it away. The door only
opened at the pleasure of those who knew its password. The letter-lock
was a warden who kept its own secret and could not be bribed; the
mysterious word was an ingenious realization of the "Open sesame!" in
the Arabian Nights. But even this was as nothing. A man might discover
the password; but unless he knew the lock's final secret, the ultima
ratio of this gold-guarding dragon of mechanical science, it
discharged a blunderbuss at his head.
The door of the room, the walls of the room, the shutters of the
windows in the room, the whole place, in fact, was lined with sheet-
iron a third of an inch in thickness, concealed behind the thin wooden
paneling. The shutters had been closed, the door had been shut. If
ever man could feel confident that he was absolutely alone, and that
there was no remote possibility of being watched by prying eyes, that
man was the cashier of the house of Nucingen and Company, in the Rue
Accordingly the deepest silence prevailed in that iron cave. The fire
had died out in the stove, but the room was full of that tepid warmth
which produces the dull heavy-headedness and nauseous queasiness of a
morning after an orgy. The stove is a mesmerist that plays no small
part in the reduction of bank clerks and porters to a state of idiocy.
A room with a stove in it is a retort in which the power of strong men
is evaporated, where their vitality is exhausted, and their wills
enfeebled. Government offices are part of a great scheme for the
manufacture of the mediocrity necessary for the maintenance of a
Feudal System on a pecuniary basis--and money is the foundation of the
Social Contract. (See Les Employes.) The mephitic vapors in the
atmosphere of a crowded room contribute in no small degree to bring
about a gradual deterioration of intelligences, the brain that gives
off the largest quantity of nitrogen asphyxiates the others, in the
The cashier was a man of five-and-forty or thereabouts. As he sat at
the table, the light from a moderator lamp shining full on his bald
head and glistening fringe of iron-gray hair that surrounded it--this
baldness and the round outlines of his face made his head look very
like a ball. His complexion was brick-red, a few wrinkles had gathered
about his eyes, but he had the smooth, plump hands of a stout man. His
blue cloth coat, a little rubbed and worn, and the creases and
shininess of his trousers, traces of hard wear that the clothes-brush
fails to remove, would impress a superficial observer with the idea
that here was a thrifty and upright human being, sufficient of the
philosopher or of the aristocrat to wear shabby clothes. But,
unluckily, it is easy to find penny-wise people who will prove weak,
wasteful, or incompetent in the capital things of life.
The cashier wore the ribbon of the Legion of Honor at his button-
hole, for he had been a major of dragoons in the time of the Emperor.
M. de Nucingen, who had been a contractor before he became a banker,
had had reason in those days to know the honorable disposition of his
cashier, who then occupied a high position. Reverses of fortune had
befallen the major, and the banker out of regard for him paid him five
hundred francs a month. The soldier had become a cashier in the year
1813, after his recovery from a wound received at Studzianka during
the Retreat from Moscow, followed by six months of enforced idleness
at Strasbourg, whither several officers had been transported by order
of the Emperor, that they might receive skilled attention. This
particular officer, Castanier by name, retired with the honorary grade
of colonel, and a pension of two thousand four hundred francs.
In ten years' time the cashier had completely effaced the soldier, and
Castanier inspired the banker with such trust in him, that he was
associated in the transactions that went on in the private office
behind his little counting-house. The baron himself had access to it
by means of a secret staircase. There, matters of business were
decided. It was the bolting-room where proposals were sifted; the
privy council chamber where the reports of the money market were
analyzed; circular notes issued thence; and finally, the private
ledger and the journal which summarized the work of all the
departments were kept there.
Castanier had gone himself to shut the door which opened on to a
staircase that led to the parlor occupied by the two bankers on the
first floor of their hotel. This done, he had sat down at his desk
again, and for a moment he gazed at a little collection of letters of
credit drawn on the firm of Watschildine of London. Then he had taken
up the pen and imitated the banker's signature on each. NUCINGEN he
wrote, and eyed the forged signatures critically to see which seemed
the most perfect copy.
Suddenly he looked up as if a needle had pricked him. "You are not
alone!" a boding voice seemed to cry in his heart; and indeed the
forger saw a man standing at the little grated window of the
counting-house, a man whose breathing was so noiseless that he did not
seem to breathe at all. Castanier looked, and saw that the door at the
end of the passage was wide open; the stranger must have entered by
For the first time in his life the old soldier felt a sensation of
dread that made him stare open-mouthed and wide-eyed at the man before
him; and for that matter, the appearance of the apparition was
sufficiently alarming even if unaccompanied by the mysterious
circumstances of so sudden an entry. The rounded forehead, the harsh
coloring of the long oval face, indicated quite as plainly as the cut
of his clothes that the man was an Englishman, reeking of his native
isles. You had only to look at the collar of his overcoat, at the
voluminous cravat which smothered the crushed frills of a shirt front
so white that it brought out the changeless leaden hue of an impassive
face, and the thin red line of the lips that seemed made to suck the
blood of corpses; and you can guess at once at the black gaiters
buttoned up to the knee, and the half-puritanical costume of a wealthy
Englishman dressed for a walking excursion. The intolerable glitter of
the stranger's eyes produced a vivid and unpleasant impression, which
was only deepened by the rigid outlines of his features. The dried-up,
emaciated creature seemed to carry within him some gnawing thought
that consumed him and could not be appeased.
He must have digested his food so rapidly that he could doubtless eat
continually without bringing any trace of color into his face or
features. A tun of Tokay vin de succession would not have caused any
faltering in that piercing glance that read men's inmost thoughts, nor
dethroned the merciless reasoning faculty that always seemed to go to
the bottom of things. There was something of the fell and tranquil
majesty of a tiger about him.
"I have come to cash this bill of exchange, sir," he said. Castanier
felt the tones of his voice thrill through every nerve with a violent
shock similar to that given by a discharge of electricity.
"The safe is closed," said Castanier.
"It is open," said the Englishman, looking round the counting-house.
"To-morrow is Sunday, and I cannot wait. The amount is for five
hundred thousand francs. You have the money there, and I must have
"But how did you come in, sir?"
The Englishman smiled. That smile frightened Castanier. No words could
have replied more fully nor more peremptorily than that scornful and
imperial curl of the stranger's lips. Castanier turned away, took up
fifty packets each containing ten thousand francs in bank-notes, and
held them out to the stranger, receiving in exchange for them a bill
accepted by the Baron de Nucingen. A sort of convulsive tremor ran
through him as he saw a red gleam in the stranger's eyes when they
fell on the forged signature on the letter of credit.
"It . . . it wants your signature . . ." stammered Castanier, handing
back the bill.
"Hand me your pen," answered the Englishman.
Castanier handed him the pen with which he had just committed forgery.
The stranger wrote JOHN MELMOTH, then he returned the slip of paper
and the pen to the cashier. Castanier looked at the handwriting,
noticing that it sloped from right to left in the Eastern fashion, and
Melmoth disappeared so noiselessly that when Castanier looked up again
an exclamation broke from him, partly because the man was no longer
there, partly because he felt a strange painful sensation such as our
imagination might take for an effect of poison.
The pen that Melmoth had handled sent the same sickening heat through
him that an emetic produces. But it seemed impossible to Castanier
that the Englishman should have guessed his crime. His inward qualms
he attributed to the palpitation of the heart that, according to
received ideas, was sure to follow at once on such a "turn" as the
stranger had given him.
"The devil take it; I am very stupid. Providence is watching over me;
for if that brute had come round to see my gentleman to-morrow, my
goose would have been cooked!" said Castanier, and he burned the
unsuccessful attempts at forgery in the stove.
He put the bill that he meant to take with him in an envelope, and
helped himself to five hundred thousand francs in French and English
bank-notes from the safe, which he locked. Then he put everything in
order, lit a candle, blew out the lamp, took up his hat and umbrella,
and went out sedately, as usual, to leave one of the two keys of the
strong room with Madame de Nucingen, in the absence of her husband the
"You are in luck, M. Castanier," said the banker's wife as he entered
the room; "we have a holiday on Monday; you can go into the country,
or to Soizy."
"Madame, will you be so good as to tell your husband that the bill of
exchange on Watschildine, which was behind time, has just been
presented? The five hundred thousand francs have been paid; so I shall
not come back till noon on Tuesday."
"Good-bye, monsieur; I hope you will have a pleasant time."
"The same to you, madame," replied the old dragoon as he went out. He
glanced as he spoke at a young man well known in fashionable society
at that time, a M. de Rastignac, who was regarded as Madame de
"Madame," remarked this latter, "the old boy looks to me as if he
meant to play you some ill turn."
"Pshaw! impossible; he is too stupid."
"Piquoizeau," said the cashier, walking into the porter's room, "what
made you let anybody come up after four o'clock?"
"I have been smoking a pipe here in the doorway ever since four
o'clock," said the man, "and nobody has gone into the bank. Nobody has
come out either except the gentlemen----"
"Are you quite sure?"
"Yes, upon my word and honor. Stay, though, at four o'clock M.
Werbrust's friend came, a young fellow from Messrs. du Tillet & Co.,
in the Rue Joubert."
"All right," said Castanier, and he hurried away.
The sickening sensation of heat that he had felt when he took back the
pen returned in greater intensity. "Mille diables!" thought he, as he
threaded his way along the Boulevard de Gand, "haven't I taken proper
precautions? Let me think! Two clear days, Sunday and Monday, then a
day of uncertainty before they begin to look for me; altogether, three
days and four nights' respite. I have a couple of passports and two
different disguises; is not that enough to throw the cleverest
detective off the scent? On Tuesday morning I shall draw a million
francs in London before the slightest suspicion has been aroused. My
debts I am leaving behind for the benefit of my creditors, who will
put a 'P'* on the bills, and I shall live comfortably in Italy for the
rest of my days as the Conte Ferraro. [*Protested.] I was alone with
him when he died, poor fellow, in the marsh of Zembin, and I shall
slip into his skin. . . . Mille diables! the woman who is to follow
after me might give them a clue! Think of an old campaigner like me
infatuated enough to tie myself to a petticoat tail! . . . Why take
her? I must leave her behind. Yes, I could make up my mind to it;
but--I know myself--I should be ass enough to go back to her. Still,
nobody knows Aquilina. Shall I take her or leave her?"
"You will not take her!" cried a voice that filled Castanier with
sickening dread. He turned sharply, and saw the Englishman.
"The devil is in it!" cried the cashier aloud.
Melmoth had passed his victim by this time; and if Castanier's first
impulse had been to fasten a quarrel on a man who read his own
thoughts, he was so much torn up by opposing feelings that the
immediate result was a temporary paralysis. When he resumed his walk
he fell once more into that fever of irresolution which besets those
who are so carried away by passion that they are ready to commit a
crime, but have not sufficient strength of character to keep it to
themselves without suffering terribly in the process. So, although
Castanier had made up his mind to reap the fruits of a crime which was
already half executed, he hesitated to carry out his designs. For him,
as for many men of mixed character in whom weakness and strength are
equally blended, the least trifling consideration determines whether
they shall continue to lead blameless lives or become actively
criminal. In the vast masses of men enrolled in Napoleon's armies
there are many who, like Castanier, possessed the purely physical
courage demanded on the battlefield, yet lacked the moral courage
which makes a man as great in crime as he could have been in virtue.
The letter of credit was drafted in such terms that immediately on his
arrival he might draw twenty-five thousand pounds on the firm of
Watschildine, the London correspondents of the house of Nucingen. The
London house had already been advised of the draft about to be made
upon them, he had written to them himself. He had instructed an agent
(chosen at random) to take his passage in a vessel which was to leave
Portsmouth with a wealthy English family on board, who were going to
Italy, and the passage-money had been paid in the name of the Conte
Ferraro. The smallest details of the scheme had been thought out. He
had arranged matters so as to divert the search that would be made for
him into Belgium and Switzerland, while he himself was at sea in the
English vessel. Then, by the time that Nucingen might flatter himself
that he was on the track of his late cashier, the said cashier, as the
Conte Ferraro, hoped to be safe in Naples. He had determined to
disfigure his face in order to disguise himself the more completely,
and by means of an acid to imitate the scars of smallpox. Yet, in
spite of all these precautions, which surely seemed as if they must
secure him complete immunity, his conscience tormented him; he was
afraid. The even and peaceful life that he had led for so long had
modified the morality of the camp. His life was stainless as yet; he
could not sully it without a pang. So for the last time he abandoned
himself to all the influences of the better self that strenuously
"Pshaw!" he said at last, at the corner of the Boulevard and the Rue
Montmartre, "I will take a cab after the play this evening and go out
to Versailles. A post-chaise will be ready for me at my old
quartermaster's place. He would keep my secret even if a dozen men
were standing ready to shoot him down. The chances are all in my
favor, so far as I see; so I shall take my little Naqui with me, and I
"You will not go!" exclaimed the Englishman, and the strange tones of
his voice drove all the cashier's blood back to his heart.
Melmoth stepped into a tilbury which was waiting for him, and was
whirled away so quickly, that when Castanier looked up he saw his foe
some hundred paces away from him, and before it even crossed his mind
to cut off the man's retreat the tilbury was far on its way up the
"Well, upon my word, there is something supernatural about this!" said
he to himself. "If I were fool enough to believe in God, I should
think that He had set Saint Michael on my tracks. Suppose that the
devil and the police should let me go on as I please, so as to nab me
in the nick of time? Did any one ever see the like! But there, this is
folly . . ."
Castanier went along the Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, slackening his
pace as he neared the Rue Richer. There on the second floor of a block
of buildings which looked out upon some gardens lived the unconscious
cause of Castanier's crime--a young woman known in the quarter as Mme.
de la Garde. A concise history of certain events in the cashier's past
life must be given in order to explain these facts, and to give a
complete presentment of the crisis when he yielded to temptation.
Mme. de la Garde said that she was a Piedmontese. No one, not even
Castanier, knew her real name. She was one of those young girls, who
are driven by dire misery, by inability to earn a living, or by fear
of starvation, to have recourse to a trade which most of them loathe,
many regard with indifference, and some few follow in obedience to the
laws of their constitution. But on the brink of the gulf of
prostitution in Paris, the young girl of sixteen, beautiful and pure
as the Madonna, had met with Castanier. The old dragoon was too rough
and homely to make his way in society, and he was tired of tramping
the boulevard at night and of the kind of conquests made there by
gold. For some time past he had desired to bring a certain regularity
into an irregular life. He was struck by the beauty of the poor child
who had drifted by chance into his arms, and his determination to
rescue her from the life of the streets was half benevolent, half
selfish, as some of the thoughts of the best of men are apt to be.
Social conditions mingle elements of evil with the promptings of
natural goodness of heart, and the mixture of motives underlying a
man's intentions should be leniently judged. Castanier had just
cleverness enough to be very shrewd where his own interests were
concerned. So he concluded to be a philanthropist on either count, and
at first made her his mistress.
"Hey! hey!" he said to himself, in his soldierly fashion. "I am an old
wolf, and a sheep shall not make a fool of me. Castanier, old man,
before you set up housekeeping, reconnoitre the girl's character for a
bit, and see if she is a steady sort."
This irregular union gave the Piedmontese a status the most nearly
approaching respectability among those which the world declines to
recognize. During the first year she took the nom de guerre of
Aquilina, one of the characters in Venice Preserved which she had
chanced to read. She fancied that she resembled the courtesan in face
and general appearance, and in a certain precocity of heart and brain
of which she was conscious. When Castanier found that her life was as
well regulated and virtuous as was possible for a social outlaw, he
manifested a desire that they should live as husband and wife. So she
took the name of Mme. de la Garde, in order to approach, as closely as
Parisian usages permit, the conditions of a real marriage. As a matter
of fact, many of these unfortunate girls have one fixed idea, to be
looked upon as respectable middle-class women, who lead humdrum lives
of faithfulness to their husbands; women who would make excellent
mothers, keepers of household accounts, and menders of household
linen. This longing springs from a sentiment so laudable, that society
should take it into consideration. But society, incorrigible as ever,
will assuredly persist in regarding the married woman as a corvette
duly authorized by her flag and papers to go on her own course, while
the woman who is a wife in all but name is a pirate and an outlaw for
lack of a document. A day came when Mme. de la Garde would fain have
signed herself "Mme. Castanier." The cashier was put out by this.
"So you do not love me well enough to marry me?" she said.
Castanier did not answer; he was absorbed by his thoughts. The poor
girl resigned herself to her fate. The ex-dragoon was in despair.
Naqui's heart softened towards him at the sight of his trouble; she
tried to soothe him, but what could she do when she did not know what
ailed him? When Naqui made up her mind to know the secret, although
she never asked him a question, the cashier dolefully confessed to the
existence of a Mme. Castanier. This lawful wife, a thousand times
accursed, was living in a humble way in Strasbourg on a small property
there; he wrote to her twice a year, and kept the secret of her
existence so well, that no one suspected that he was married. The
reason of this reticence? If it is familiar to many military men who
may chance to be in a like predicament, it is perhaps worth while to
give the story.
Your genuine trooper (if it is allowable here to employ the word which
in the army signifies a man who is destined to die as a captain) is a
sort of serf, a part and parcel of his regiment, an essentially simple
creature, and Castanier was marked out by nature as a victim to the
wiles of mothers with grown-up daughters left too long on their hands.
It was at Nancy, during one of those brief intervals of repose when
the Imperial armies were not on active service abroad, that Castanier
was so unlucky as to pay some attention to a young lady with whom he
danced at a ridotto, the provincial name for the entertainments often
given by the military to the townsfolk, or vice versa, in garrison
towns. A scheme for inveigling the gallant captain into matrimony was
immediately set on foot, one of those schemes by which mothers secure
accomplices in a human heart by touching all its motive springs, while
they convert all their friends into fellow-conspirators. Like all
people possessed by one idea, these ladies press everything into the
service of their great project, slowly elaborating their toils, much
as the ant-lion excavates its funnel in the sand and lies in wait at
the bottom for its victim. Suppose that no one strays, after all, into
that carefully constructed labyrinth? Suppose that the ant-lion dies
of hunger and thirst in her pit? Such things may be, but if any
heedless creature once enters in, it never comes out. All the wires
which could be pulled to induce action on the captain's part were
tried; appeals were made to the secret interested motives that always
come into play in such cases; they worked on Castanier's hopes and on
the weaknesses and vanity of human nature. Unluckily, he had praised
the daughter to her mother when he brought her back after a waltz, a
little chat followed, and then an invitation in the most natural way
in the world. Once introduced into the house, the dragoon was dazzled
by the hospitality of a family who appeared to conceal their real
wealth beneath a show of careful economy. He was skilfully flattered
on all sides, and every one extolled for his benefit the various
treasures there displayed. A neatly timed dinner, served on plate lent
by an uncle, the attention shown to him by the only daughter of the
house, the gossip of the town, a well-to-do sub-lieutenant who seemed
likely to cut the ground from under his feet--all the innumerable
snares, in short, of the provincial ant-lion were set for him, and to
such good purpose, that Castanier said five years later, "To this day
I do not know how it came about!"
The dragoon received fifteen thousand francs with the lady, who after
two years of marriage, became the ugliest and consequently the most
peevish woman on earth. Luckily they had no children. The fair
complexion (maintained by a Spartan regimen), the fresh, bright color
in her face, which spoke of an engaging modesty, became overspread
with blotches and pimples; her figure, which had seemed so straight,
grew crooked, the angel became a suspicious and shrewish creature who
drove Castanier frantic. Then the fortune took to itself wings. At
length the dragoon, no longer recognizing the woman whom he had
wedded, left her to live on a little property at Strasbourg, until the
time when it should please God to remove her to adorn Paradise. She
was one of those virtuous women who, for want of other occupation,
would weary the life out of an angel with complainings, who pray till
(if their prayers are heard in heaven) they must exhaust the patience
of the Almighty, and say everything that is bad of their husbands in
dovelike murmurs over a game of boston with their neighbors. When
Aquilina learned all these troubles she clung still more
affectionately to Castanier, and made him so happy, varying with
woman's ingenuity the pleasures with which she filled his life, that
all unwittingly she was the cause of the cashier's downfall.
Like many women who seem by nature destined to sound all the depths of
love, Mme. de la Garde was disinterested. She asked neither for gold
nor for jewelry, gave no thought to the future, lived entirely for the
present and for the pleasures of the present. She accepted expensive
ornaments and dresses, the carriage so eagerly coveted by women of her
class, as one harmony the more in the picture of life. There was
absolutely no vanity in her desire not to appear at a better advantage
but to look the fairer, and moreover, no woman could live without
luxuries more cheerfully. When a man of generous nature (and military
men are mostly of this stamp) meets with such a woman, he feels a sort
of exasperation at finding himself her debtor in generosity. He feels
that he could stop a mail coach to obtain money for her if he has not
sufficient for her whims. He will commit a crime if so he may be great
and noble in the eyes of some woman or of his special public; such is
the nature of the man. Such a lover is like a gambler who would be
dishonored in his own eyes if he did not repay the sum he borrowed
from a waiter in a gaming-house; but will shrink from no crime, will
leave his wife and children without a penny, and rob and murder, if so
he may come to the gaming-table with a full purse, and his honor
remain untarnished among the frequenters of that fatal abode. So it
was with Castanier.
He had begun by installing Aquiline is a modest fourth-floor dwelling,
the furniture being of the simplest kind. But when he saw the girl's
beauty and great qualities, when he had known inexpressible and
unlooked-for happiness with her, he began to dote upon her; and longed
to adorn his idol. Then Aquilina's toilette was so comically out of
keeping with her poor abode, that for both their sakes it was clearly
incumbent on him to move. The change swallowed up almost all
Castanier's savings, for he furnished his domestic paradise with all
the prodigality that is lavished on a kept mistress. A pretty woman
must have everything pretty about her; the unity of charm in the woman
and her surroundings singles her out from among her sex. This
sentiment of homogeneity indeed, though it has frequently escaped the
attention of observers, is instinctive in human nature; and the same
prompting leads elderly spinsters to surround themselves with dreary
relics of the past. But the lovely Piedmontese must have the newest
and latest fashions, and all that was daintiest and prettiest in
stuffs for hangings, in silks or jewelry, in fine china and other
brittle and fragile wares. She asked for nothing; but when she was
called upon to make a choice, when Castanier asked her, "Which do you
like?" she would answer, "Why, this is the nicest!" Love never counts
the cost, and Castanier therefore always took the "nicest."
When once the standard had been set up, there was nothing for it but
everything in the household must be in conformity, from the linen,
plate, and crystal through a thousand and one items of expenditure
down to the pots and pans in the kitchen. Castanier had meant to "do
things simply," as the saying goes, but he gradually found himself
more and more in debt. One expense entailed another. The clock called
for candle sconces. Fires must be lighted in the ornamental grates,
but the curtains and hangings were too fresh and delicate to be soiled
by smuts, so they must be replaced by patent and elaborate fireplaces,
warranted to give out no smoke, recent inventions of the people who
are so clever at drawing up a prospectus. Then Aquilina found it so
nice to run about barefooted on the carpet in her room, that Castanier
must have soft carpets laid everywhere for the pleasure of playing
with Naqui. A bathroom, too, was built for her, everything to the end
that she might be more comfortable.
Shopkeepers, workmen, and manufacturers in Paris have a mysterious
knack of enlarging a hole in a man's purse. They cannot give the price
of anything upon inquiry; and as the paroxysm of longing cannot abide
delay, orders are given by the feeble light of an approximate estimate
of cost. The same people never send in the bills at once, but ply the
purchaser with furniture till his head spins. Everything is so pretty,
so charming; and every one is satisfied.
A few months later the obliging furniture dealers are metamorphosed,
and reappear in the shape of alarming totals on invoices that fill the
soul with their horrid clamor; they are in urgent want of the money;
they are, as you may say on the brink of bankruptcy, their tears flow,
it is heartrending to hear them! And then----the gulf yawns, and gives
up serried columns of figures marching four deep, when as a matter of
fact they should have issued innocently three by three.
Before Castanier had any idea of how much he had spent, he had
arranged for Aquilina to have a carriage from a livery stable when she
went out, instead of a cab. Castanier was a gourmand; he engaged an
excellent cook; and Aquilina, to please him, had herself made the
purchases of early fruit and vegetables, rare delicacies, and
exquisite wines. But, as Aquilina had nothing of her own, these gifts
of hers, so precious by reason of the thought and tact and
graciousness that prompted them, were no less a drain upon Castanier's
purse; he did not like his Naqui to be without money, and Naqui could
not keep money in her pocket. So the table was a heavy item of
expenditure for a man with Castanier's income. The ex-dragoon was
compelled to resort to various shifts for obtaining money, for he
could not bring himself to renounce this delightful life. He loved the
woman too well to cross the freaks of the mistress. He was one of
those men who, through self-love or through weakness of character, can
refuse nothing to a woman; false shame overpowers them, and they
rather face ruin than make the admissions: "I cannot----" "My means
will not permit----" "I cannot afford----"
When, therefore, Castanier saw that if he meant to emerge from the
abyss of debt into which he had plunged, he must part with Aquilina
and live upon bread and water, he was so unable to do without her or
to change his habits of life, that daily he put off his plans of
reform until the morrow. The debts were pressing, and he began by
borrowing money. His position and previous character inspired
confidence, and of this he took advantage to devise a system of
borrowing money as he required it. Then, as the total amount of debt
rapidly increased, he had recourse to those commercial inventions
known as accommodation bills. This form of bill does not represent
goods or other value received, and the first endorser pays the amount
named for the obliging person who accepts it. This species of fraud is
tolerated because it is impossible to detect it, and, moreover, it is
an imaginary fraud which only becomes real if payment is ultimately
When at length it was evidently impossible to borrow any longer,
whether because the amount of the debt was now so greatly increased,
or because Castanier was unable to pay the large amount of interest on
the aforesaid sums of money, the cashier saw bankruptcy before him. On
making this discovery, he decided for a fraudulent bankruptcy rather
than an ordinary failure, and preferred a crime to a misdemeanor. He
determined, after the fashion of the celebrated cashier of the Royal
Treasury, to abuse the trust deservedly won, and to increase the
number of his creditors by making a final loan of the sum sufficient
to keep him in comfort in a foreign country for the rest of his days.
All this, as has been seen, he had prepared to do.
Aquilina knew nothing of the irksome cares of this life; she enjoyed
her existence, as many a woman does, making no inquiry as to where the
money came from, even as sundry other folk will eat their buttered
rolls untroubled by any restless spirit of curiosity as to the culture
and growth of wheat; but as the labor and miscalculations of
agriculture lie on the other side of the baker's oven, so beneath the
unappreciated luxury of many a Parisian household lie intolerable
anxieties and exorbitant toil.
While Castanier was enduring the torture of the strain, and his
thoughts were full of the deed that should change his whole life,
Aquilina was lying luxuriously back in a great armchair by the
fireside, beguiling the time by chatting with her waiting-maid. As
frequently happens in such cases the maid had become the mistress'
confidant, Jenny having first assured herself that her mistress'
ascendency over Castanier was complete.
"What are we to do this evening? Leon seems determined to come," Mme.
de la Garde was saying, as she read a passionate epistle indited upon
a faint gray notepaper.
"Here is the master!" said Jenny.
Castanier came in. Aquilina, nowise disconcerted, crumpled up the
letter, took it with the tongs, and held it in the flames.
"So that is what you do with your love-letters, is it?" asked
"Oh goodness, yes," said Aquilina; "is it not the best way of keeping
them safe? Besides, fire should go to fire, as water makes for the
"You are talking as if it were a real love-letter, Naqui----"
"Well, am I not handsome enough to receive them?" she said, holding up
her forehead for a kiss. There was a carelessness in her manner that
would have told any man less blind than Castanier that it was only a
piece of conjugal duty, as it were, to give this joy to the cashier,
but use and wont had brought Castanier to the point where clear-
sightedness is no longer possible for love.
"I have taken a box at the Gymnase this evening," he said; "let us
have dinner early, and then we need not dine in a hurry."
"Go and take Jenny. I am tired of plays. I do not know what is the
matter with me this evening; I would rather stay here by the fire."
"Come, all the same though, Naqui; I shall not be here to bore you
much longer. Yes, Quiqui, I am going to start to-night, and it will be
some time before I come back again. I am leaving everything in your
charge. Will you keep your heart for me too?"
"Neither my heart nor anything else," she said; "but when you come
back again, Naqui will still be Naqui for you."
"Well, this is frankness. So you would not follow me?"
"Eh! why, how can I leave the lover who writes me such sweet little
notes?" she asked, pointing to the blackened scrap of paper with a
"Is there any truth in it?" asked Castanier. "Have you really a
"Really!" cried Aquilina; "and have you never given it a serious
thought, dear? To begin with, you are fifty years old. Then you have
just the sort of face to put on a fruit stall; if the woman tried to
see you for a pumpkin, no one would contradict her. You puff and blow
like a seal when you come upstairs; your paunch rises and falls like a
diamond on a woman's forehead! It is pretty plain that you served in
the dragoons; you are a very ugly-looking old man. Fiddle-de-dee. If
you have any mind to keep my respect, I recommend you not to add
imbecility to these qualities by imagining that such a girl as I am
will be content with your asthmatic love, and not look for youth and
good looks and pleasure by way of a variety----"
"Aquilina! you are laughing, of course?"
"Oh, very well; and are you not laughing too? Do you take me for a
fool, telling me that you are going away? 'I am going to start
to-night!' " she said, mimicking his tones. "Stuff and nonsense! Would
you talk like that if you were really going from your Naqui? You would
cry, like the booby that you are!"
"After all, if I go, will you follow?" he asked.
"Tell me first whether this journey of yours is a bad joke or not."
"Yes, seriously, I am going."
"Well, then, seriously, I shall stay. A pleasant journey to you, my
boy! I will wait till you come back. I would sooner take leave of life
than take leave of my dear, cozy Paris----"
"Will you not come to Italy, to Naples, and lead a pleasant life
there--a delicious, luxurious life, with this stout old fogy of yours,
who puffs and blows like a seal?"
"Ungrateful?" she cried, rising to her feet. "I might leave this house
this moment and take nothing out of it but myself. I shall have given
you all the treasures a young girl can give, and something that not
every drop in your veins and mine can ever give me back. If, by any
means whatever, by selling my hopes of eternity, for instance, I could
recover my past self, body and soul (for I have, perhaps, redeemed my
soul), and be pure as a lily for my lover, I would not hesitate a
moment! What sort of devotion has rewarded mine? You have housed and
fed me, just as you give a dog food and a kennel because he is a
protection to the house, and he may take kicks when we are out of
humor, and lick our hands as soon as we are pleased to call him. And
which of us two will have been the more generous?"
"Oh! dear child, do you not see that I am joking?" returned Castanier.
"I am going on a short journey; I shall not be away for very long. But
come with me to the Gymnase; I shall start just before midnight, after
I have had time to say good-bye to you."
"Poor pet! so you are really going, are you?" she said. She put her
arms round his neck, and drew down his head against her bodice.
"You are smothering me!" cried Castanier, with his face buried in
Aquilina's breast. That damsel turned to say in Jenny's ear, "Go to
Leon, and tell him not to come till one o'clock. If you do not find
him, and he comes here during the leave-taking, keep him in your
room.--Well," she went on, setting free Castanier, and giving a tweak
to the tip of his nose, "never mind, handsomest of seals that you are.
I will go to the theatre with you this evening? But all in good time;
let us have dinner! There is a nice little dinner for you--just what
"It is very hard to part from such a woman as you!" exclaimed
"Very well then, why do you go?" asked she.
"Ah! why? why? If I were to begin to begin to explain the reasons why,
I must tell you things that would prove to you that I love you almost
to madness. Ah! if you have sacrificed your honor for me, I have sold
mine for you; we are quits. Is that love?"
"What is all this about?" said she. "Come, now, promise me that if I
had a lover you would still love me as a father; that would be love!
Come, now, promise it at once, and give us your fist upon it."
"I should kill you," and Castanier smiled as he spoke.
They sat down to the dinner table, and went thence to the Gymnase.
When the first part of the performance was over, it occurred to
Castanier to show himself to some of his acquaintances in the house,
so as to turn away any suspicion of his departure. He left Mme. de la
Garde in the corner box where she was seated, according to her modest
wont, and went to walk up and down in the lobby. He had not gone many
paces before he saw the Englishman, and with a sudden return of the
sickening sensation of heat that once before had vibrated through him,
and of the terror that he had felt already, he stood face to face with
At the word, Castanier glanced round at the people who were moving
about them. He fancied that he could see astonishment and curiosity in
their eyes, and wishing to be rid of this Englishman at once, he
raised his hand to strike him--and felt his arm paralyzed by some
invisible power that sapped his strength and nailed him to the spot.
He allowed the stranger to take him by the arm, and they walked
together to the green-room like two friends.
"Who is strong enough to resist me?" said the Englishman, addressing
him. "Do you not know that everything here on earth must obey me, that
it is in my power to do everything? I read men's thoughts, I see the
future, and I know the past. I am here, and I can be elsewhere also.
Time and space and distance are nothing to me. The whole world is at
my beck and call. I have the power of continual enjoyment and of
giving joy. I can see through walls, discover hidden treasures, and
fill my hands with them. Palaces arise at my nod, and my architect
makes no mistakes. I can make all lands break forth into blossom, heap
up their gold and precious stones, and surround myself with fair women
and ever new faces; everything is yielded up to my will. I could
gamble on the Stock Exchange, and my speculations would be infallible;
but a man who can find the hoards that misers have hidden in the earth
need not trouble himself about stocks. Feel the strength of the hand
that grasps you; poor wretch, doomed to shame! Try to bend the arm of
iron! try to soften the adamantine heart! Fly from me if you dare! You
would hear my voice in the depths of the caves that lie under the
Seine; you might hide in the Catacombs, but would you not see me
there? My voice could be heard through the sound of thunder, my eyes
shine as brightly as the sun, for I am the peer of Lucifer!"
Castanier heard the terrible words, and felt no protest nor
contradiction within himself. He walked side by side with the
Englishman, and had no power to leave him.
"You are mine; you have just committed a crime. I have found at last
the mate whom I have sought. Have you a mind to learn your destiny?
Aha! you came here to see a play, and you shall see a play--nay, two.
Come. Present me to Mme. de la Garde as one of your best friends. Am I
not your last hope of escape?"
Castanier, followed by the stranger, returned to his box; and in
accordance with the order he had just received, he hastened to
introduce Melmoth to Mme. de la Garde. Aquilina seemed to be not in
the least surprised. The Englishman declined to take a seat in front,
and Castanier was once more beside his mistress; the man's slightest
wish must be obeyed. The last piece was about to begin, for, at that
time, small theatres gave only three pieces. One of the actors had
made the Gymnase the fashion, and that evening Perlet (the actor in
question) was to play in a vaudeville called Le Comedien d'Etampes, in
which he filled four different parts.
When the curtain rose, the stranger stretched out his hand over the
crowded house. Castanier's cry of terror died away, for the walls of
his throat seemed glued together as Melmoth pointed to the stage, and
the cashier knew that the play had been changed at the Englishman's
He saw the strong-room at the bank; he saw the Baron de Nucingen in
conference with a police-officer from the Prefecture, who was
informing him of Castanier's conduct, explaining that the cashier had
absconded with money taken from the safe, giving the history of the
forged signature. The information was put in writing; the document
signed and duly despatched to the Public Prosecutor.
"Are we in time, do you think?" asked Nucingen.
"Yes," said the agent of police; "he is at the Gymnase, and has no
suspicion of anything."
Castanier fidgeted on his chair, and made as if he would leave the
theatre, but Melmoth's hand lay on his shoulder, and he was obliged to
sit and watch; the hideous power of the man produced an effect like
that of nightmare, and he could not move a limb. Nay, the man himself
was the nightmare; his presence weighed heavily on his victim like a
poisoned atmosphere. When the wretched cashier turned to implore the
Englishman's mercy, he met those blazing eyes that discharged electric
currents, which pierced through him and transfixed him like darts of
"What have I done to you?" he said, in his prostrate helplessness, and
he breathed hard like a stag at the water's edge. "What do you want of
"Look!" cried Melmoth.
Castanier looked at the stage. The scene had been changed. The play
seemed to be over, and Castanier beheld himself stepping from the
carriage with Aquilina; but as he entered the courtyard of the house
on the Rue Richer, the scene again was suddenly changed, and he saw
his own house. Jenny was chatting by the fire in her mistress' room
with a subaltern officer of a line regiment then stationed at Paris.
"He is going, is he?" said the sergeant, who seemed to belong to a
family in easy circumstances; "I can be happy at my ease! I love
Aquilina too well to allow her to belong to that old toad! I, myself,
am going to marry Mme. de la Garde!" cried the sergeant.
"Old toad!" Castanier murmured piteously.
"Here come the master and mistress; hide yourself! Stay, get in here
Monsieur Leon," said Jenny. "The master won't stay here for very
Castanier watched the sergeant hide himself among Aquilina's gowns in
her dressing-room. Almost immediately he himself appeared upon the
scene, and took leave of his mistress, who made fun of him in "asides"
to Jenny, while she uttered the sweetest and tenderest words in his
ears. She wept with one side of her face, and laughed with the other.
The audience called for an encore.
"Accursed creature!" cried Castanier from his box.
Aquilina was laughing till the tears came into her eyes.
"Goodness!" she cried, "how funny Perlet is as the Englishwoman! . . .
Why don't you laugh? Every one else in the house is laughing. Laugh,
dear!" she said to Castanier.
Melmoth burst out laughing, and the unhappy cashier shuddered. The
Englishman's laughter wrung his heart and tortured his brain; it was
as if a surgeon had bored his skull with a red-hot iron.
"Laughing! are they laughing!" stammered Castanier.
He did not see the prim English lady whom Perlet was acting with such
ludicrous effect, nor hear the English-French that had filled the
house with roars of laughter; instead of all this, he beheld himself
hurrying from the Rue Richer, hailing a cab on the Boulevard,
bargaining with the man to take him to Versailles. Then once more the
scene changed. He recognized the sorry inn at the corner of the Rue de
l'Orangerie and the Rue des Recollets, which was kept by his old
quartermaster. It was two o'clock in the morning, the most perfect
stillness prevailed, no one was there to watch his movements. The
post-horses were put into the carriage (it came from a house in the
Avenue de Paris in which an Englishman lived, and had been ordered in
the foreigner's name to avoid raising suspicion). Castanier saw that
he had his bills and his passports, stepped into the carriage, and set
out. But at the barrier he saw two gendarmes lying in wait for the
carriage. A cry of horror burst from him but Melmoth gave him a
glance, and again the sound died in his throat.
"Keep your eyes on the stage, and be quiet!" said the Englishman.
In another moment Castanier saw himself flung into prison at the
Conciergerie; and in the fifth act of the drama, entitled The Cashier,
he saw himself, in three months' time, condemned to twenty years of
penal servitude. Again a cry broke from him. He was exposed upon the
Place du Palais-de-Justice, and the executioner branded him with a
red-hot iron. Then came the last scene of all; among some sixty
convicts in the prison yard of the Bicetre, he was awaiting his turn
to have the irons riveted on his limbs.
"Dear me! I cannot laugh any more! . . ." said Aquilina. "You are very
solemn, dear boy; what can be the matter? The gentleman has gone."
"A word with you, Castanier," said Melmoth when the piece was at an
end, and the attendant was fastening Mme. de la Garde's cloak.
The corridor was crowded, and escape impossible.
"Very well, what is it?"
"No human power can hinder you from taking Aquilina home, and going
next to Versailles, there to be arrested."
"Because you are in a hand that will never relax its grasp," returned
Castanier longed for the power to utter some word that should blot him
out from among living men and hide him in the lowest depths of hell.
"Suppose that the Devil were to make a bid for your soul, would you
not give it to him now in exchange for the power of God? One single
word, and those five hundred thousand francs shall be back in the
Baron de Nucingen's safe; then you can tear up the letter of credit,
and all traces of your crime will be obliterated. Moreover, you would
have gold in torrents. You hardly believe in anything perhaps? Well,
if all this comes to pass, you will believe at least in the Devil."
"If it were only possible!" said Castanier joyfully.
"The man who can do it all gives you his word that it is possible,"
answered the Englishman.
Melmoth, Castanier, and Mme. de la Garde were standing out in the
Boulevard when Melmoth raised his arm. A drizzling rain was falling,
the streets were muddy, the air was close, there was thick darkness
overhead; but in a moment, as the arm was outstretched, Paris was
filled with sunlight; it was high noon on a bright July day. The
trees were covered with leaves; a double stream of joyous holiday
makers strolled beneath them. Sellers of liquorice water shouted their
cool drinks. Splendid carriages rolled past along the streets. A cry
of terror broke from the cashier, and at that cry rain and darkness
once more settled down upon the Boulevard.
Mme. de la Garde had stepped into the carriage. "Do be quick, dear!"
she cried; "either come in or stay out. Really you are as dull as
ditch-water this evening----"
"What must I do?" Castanier asked of Melmoth.
"Would you like to take my place?" inquired the Englishman.
"Very well, then; I will be at your house in a few moments."
"By the by, Castanier, you are rather off your balance," Aquilina
remarked. "There is some mischief brewing: you were quite melancholy
and thoughtful all through the play. Do you want anything that I can
give you, dear? Tell me."
"I am waiting till we are at home to know whether you love me."
"You need not wait till then," she said, throwing her arms round his
neck. "There!" she said, as she embraced him, passionately to all
appearance, and plied him with the coaxing caresses that are part of
the business of such a life as hers, like stage action for an actress.
"Where is the music?" asked Castanier.
"What next? Only think of your hearing music now!"
"Heavenly music!" he went on. "The sounds seem to come from above."
"What? You have always refused to give me a box at the Italiens
because you could not abide music, and are you turning music-mad at
this time of day? Mad--that you are! The music is inside your own
noddle, old addle-pate!" she went on, as she took his head in her
hands and rocked it to and fro on her shoulder. "Tell me now, old man;
isn't it the creaking of the wheels that sings in your ears?"
"Just listen, Naqui! If the angels make music for God Almighty, it
must be such music as this that I am drinking in at every pore, rather
than hearing. I do no know how to tell you about it; it is as sweet as
"Why, of course, they have music in heaven, for the angels in all the
pictures have harps in their hands. He is mad, upon my word!" she said
to herself, as she saw Castanier's attitude; he looked like an
opium-eater in a blissful trance.
They reached the house. Castanier, absorbed by the thought of all that
he had just heard and seen, knew not whether to believe it or not; he
was like a drunken man, and utterly unable to think connectedly. He
came to himself in Aquilina's room, whither he had been supported by
the united efforts of his mistress, the porter, and Jenny; for he had
fainted as he stepped from the carriage.
"HE will be here directly! Oh, my friends, my friends," he cried, and
he flung himself despairingly into the depths of a low chair beside
Jenny heard the bell as he spoke, and admitted the Englishman. She
announced that "a gentleman had come who had made an appointment with
the master," when Melmoth suddenly appeared, and deep silence
followed. He looked at the porter--the porter went; he looked at
Jenny--and Jenny went likewise.
"Madame," said Melmoth, turning to Aquilina, "with your permission, we
will conclude a piece of urgent business."
He took Castanier's hand, and Castanier rose, and the two men went
into the drawing-room. There was no light in the room, but Melmoth's
eyes lit up the thickest darkness. The gaze of those strange eyes had
left Aquilina like one spellbound; she was helpless, unable to take
any thought for her lover; moreover, she believed him to be safe in
Jenny's room, whereas their early return had taken the waiting-woman
by surprise, and she had hidden the officer in the dressing-room. It
had all happened exactly as in the drama that Melmoth had displayed
for his victim. Presently the house-door was slammed violently, and
"What ails you?" cried the horror-struck Aquilina.
There was a change in the cashier's appearance. A strange pallor
overspread his once rubicund countenance; it wore the peculiarly
sinister and stony look of the mysterious visitor. The sullen glare of
his eyes was intolerable, the fierce light in them seemed to scorch.
The man who had looked so good-humored and good-natured had suddenly
grown tyrannical and proud. The courtesan thought that Castanier had
grown thinner; there was a terrible majesty in his brow; it was as if
a dragon breathed forth a malignant influence that weighed upon the
others like a close, heavy atmosphere. For a moment Aquilina knew not
what to do.
"What has passed between you and that diabolical-looking man in those
few minutes?" she asked at length.
"I have sold my soul to him. I feel it; I am no longer the same. He
has taken my SELF, and given me his soul in exchange."
"You would not understand it at all. . . . Ah! he was right,"
Castanier went on, "the fiend was right! I see everything and know all
things.--You have been deceiving me!"
Aquilina turned cold with terror. Castanier lighted a candle and went
into the dressing-room. The unhappy girl followed him with dazed
bewilderment, and great was her astonishment when Castanier drew the
dresses that hung there aside and disclosed the sergeant.
"Come out, my boy," said the cashier; and, taking Leon by a button of
his overcoat, he drew the officer into his room.
The Piedmontese, haggard and desperate, had flung herself into her
easy-chair. Castanier seated himself on a sofa by the fire, and left
Aquilina's lover in a standing position.
"You have been in the army," said Leon; "I am ready to give you
"You are a fool," said Castanier drily. "I have no occasion to fight.
I could kill you by a look if I had any mind to do it. I will tell you
what it is, youngster; why should I kill you? I can see a red line
round your neck--the guillotine is waiting for you. Yes, you will end
in the Place de Greve. You are the headsman's property! there is no
escape for you. You belong to a vendita, of the Carbonari. You are
plotting against the Government."
"You did not tell me that," cried the Piedmontese, turning to Leon.
"So you do not know that the Minister decided this morning to put down
your Society?" the cashier continued. "The Procureur-General has a
list of your names. You have been betrayed. They are busy drawing up
the indictment at this moment."
"Then was it you who betrayed him?" cried Aquilina, and with a hoarse
sound in her throat like the growl of a tigress she rose to her feet;
she seemed as if she would tear Castanier in pieces.
"You know me too well to believe it," Castanier retorted. Aquilina was
benumbed by his coolness.
"Then how do you know it?" she murmured.
"I did not know it until I went into the drawing-room; now I know it--
now I see and know all things, and can do all things."
The sergeant was overcome with amazement.
"Very well then, save him, save him, dear!" cried the girl, flinging
herself at Castanier's feet. "If nothing is impossible to you, save
him! I will love you, I will adore you, I will be your slave and not
your mistress. I will obey your wildest whims; you shall do as you
will with me. Yes, yes, I will give you more than love; you shall have
a daughter's devotion as well as . . . Rodolphe! why will you not
understand! After all, however violent my passions may be, I shall be
yours for ever! What should I say to persuade you? I will invent
pleasures . . . I . . . Great heavens! one moment! whatever you shall
ask of me--to fling myself from the window for instance--you will need
to say but one word, 'Leon!' and I will plunge down into hell. I would
bear any torture, any pain of body or soul, anything you might inflict
Castanier heard her with indifference. For an answer, he indicated
Leon to her with a fiendish laugh.
"The guillotine is waiting for him," he repeated.
"No, no, no! He shall not leave this house. I will save him!" she
cried. "Yes; I will kill any one who lays a finger upon him! Why will
you not save him?" she shrieked aloud; her eyes were blazing, her hair
unbound. "Can you save him?"
"I can do everything."
"Why do you not save him?"
"Why?" shouted Castanier, and his voice made the ceiling ring.--"Eh!
it is my revenge! Doing evil is my trade!"
"Die?" said Aquilina; "must he die, my lover? Is it possible?"
She sprang up and snatched a stiletto from a basket that stood on the
chest of drawers and went to Castanier, who now began to laugh.
"You know very well that steel cannot hurt me now----"
Aquilina's arm suddenly dropped like a snapped harp string.
"Out with you, my good friend," said the cashier, turning to the
sergeant, "and go about your business."
He held out his hand; the other felt Castanier's superior power, and
could not choose but to obey.
"This house is mine; I could send for the commissary of police if I
chose, and give you up as a man who has hidden himself on my premises,
but I would rather let you go; I am a fiend, I am not a spy."
"I shall follow him!" said Aquilina.
"Then follow him," returned Castanier.--"Here, Jenny----"
"Tell the porter to hail a cab for them.--Here Naqui," said Castanier,
drawing a bundle of bank-notes from his pocket; "you shall not go away
like a pauper from a man who loves you still."
He held out three hundred thousand francs. Aquilina took the notes,
flung them on the floor, spat on them, and trampled upon them in a
frenzy of despair.
"We will leave this house on foot," she cried, "without a farthing of
your money.--Jenny, stay where you are."
"Good-evening!" answered the cashier, as he gathered up the notes
again. "I have come back from my journey.--Jenny," he added, looking
at the bewildered waiting-maid, "you seem to me to be a good sort of
girl. You have no mistress now. Come here. This evening you shall have
Aquilina, who felt safe nowhere, went at once with the sergeant to the
house of one of her friends. But all Leon's movements were
suspiciously watched by the police, and after a time he and three of
his friends were arrested. The whole story may be found in the
newspapers of that day.
Castanier felt that he had undergone a mental as well as a physical
transformation. The Castanier of old no longer existed--the boy, the
young Lothario, the soldier who had proved his courage, who had been
tricked into a marriage and disillusioned, the cashier, the passionate
lover who had committed a crime for Aquilina's sake. His inmost nature
had suddenly asserted itself. His brain had expanded, his senses had
developed. His thoughts comprehended the whole world; he saw all the
things of earth as if he had been raised to some high pinnacle above
Until that evening at the play he had loved Aquilina to distraction.
Rather than give her up he would have shut his eyes to her
infidelities; and now all that blind passion had passed away as a
cloud vanishes in the sunlight.
Jenny was delighted to succeed to her mistress' position and fortune,
and did the cashier's will in all things; but Castanier, who could
read the inmost thoughts of the soul, discovered the real motive
underlying this purely physical devotion. He amused himself with her,
however, like a mischievous child who greedily sucks the juice of the
cherry and flings away the stone. The next morning at breakfast time,
when she was fully convinced that she was a lady and the mistress of
the house, Castanier uttered one by one the thoughts that filled her
mind as she drank her coffee.
"Do you know what you are thinking, child?" he said, smiling. "I will
tell you: 'So all that lovely rosewood furniture that I coveted so
much, and the pretty dresses that I used to try on, are mine now! All
on easy terms that Madame refused, I do no know why. My word! if I
might drive about in a carriage, have jewels and pretty things, a box
at the theatre, and put something by! with me he should lead a life of
pleasure fit to kill him if he were not as strong as a Turk! I never
saw such a man!'--Was not that just what you were thinking," he went
on, and something in his voice made Jenny turn pale. "Well, yes,
child; you could not stand it, and I am sending you away for your own
good; you would perish in the attempt. Come, let us part good
friends," and he coolly dismissed her with a very small sum of money.
The first use that Castanier had promised himself that he would make
of the terrible power brought at the price of his eternal happiness,
was the full and complete indulgence of all his tastes.
He first put his affairs in order, readily settled his accounts with
M. de Nucingen, who found a worthy German to succeed him, and then
determined on a carouse worthy of the palmiest days of the Roman
Empire. He plunged into dissipation as recklessly as Belshazzar of old
went to that last feast in Babylon. Like Belshazzar, he saw clearly
through his revels a gleaming hand that traced his doom in letters of
flame, not on the narrow walls of the banqueting-chamber, but over the
vast spaces of heaven that the rainbow spans. His feast was not,
indeed, an orgy confined within the limits of a banquet, for he
squandered all the powers of soul and body in exhausting all the
pleasures of earth. The table was in some sort earth itself, the earth
that trembled beneath his feet. His was the last festival of the
reckless spendthrift who has thrown all prudence to the winds. The
devil had given him the key of the storehouse of human pleasures; he
had filled and refilled his hands, and he was fast nearing the bottom.
In a moment he had felt all that that enormous power could accomplish;
in a moment he had exercised it, proved it, wearied of it. What had
hitherto been the sum of human desires became as nothing. So often it
happens that with possession the vast poetry of desire must end, and
the thing possessed is seldom the thing that we dreamed of.
Beneath Melmoth's omnipotence lurked this tragical anticlimax of so
many a passion, and now the inanity of human nature was revealed to
his successor, to whom infinite power brought Nothingness as a dowry.
To come to a clear understanding of Castanier's strange position, it
must be borne in mind how suddenly these revolutions of thought and
feeling had been wrought; how quickly they had succeeded each other;
and of these things it is hard to give any idea to those who have
never broken the prison bonds of time, and space, and distance. His
relation to the world without had been entirely changed with the
expansion of his faculties.
Like Melmoth himself, Castanier could travel in a few moments over the
fertile plains of India, could soar on the wings of demons above
African desert spaces, or skim the surface of the seas. The same
insight that could read the inmost thoughts of others, could apprehend
at a glance the nature of any material object, just as he caught as it
were all flavors at once upon his tongue. He took his pleasure like a
despot; a blow of the axe felled the tree that he might eat its
fruits. The transitions, the alternations that measure joy and pain,
and diversify human happiness, no longer existed for him. He had so
completely glutted his appetites that pleasure must overpass the
limits of pleasure to tickle a palate cloyed with satiety, and
suddenly grown fastidious beyond all measure, so that ordinary
pleasures became distasteful. Conscious that at will he was the master
of all the women that he could desire, knowing that his power was
irresistible, he did not care to exercise it; they were pliant to his
unexpressed wishes, to his most extravagant caprices, until he felt a
horrible thirst for love, and would have love beyond their power to
The world refused him nothing save faith and prayer, the soothing and
consoling love that is not of this world. He was obeyed--it was a
The torrents of pain, and pleasure, and thought that shook his soul
and his bodily frame would have overwhelmed the strongest human being;
but in him there was a power of vitality proportioned to the power of
the sensations that assailed him. He felt within him a vague immensity
of longing that earth could not satisfy. He spent his days on
outspread wings, longing to traverse the luminous fields of space to
other spheres that he knew afar by intuitive perception, a clear and
hopeless knowledge. His soul dried up within him, for he hungered and
thirsted after things that can neither be drunk nor eaten, but for
which he could not choose but crave. His lips, like Melmoth's, burned
with desire; he panted for the unknown, for he knew all things.
The mechanism and the scheme of the world was apparent to him, and its
working interested him no longer; he did not long disguise the
profound scorn that makes of a man of extraordinary powers a sphinx
who knows everything and says nothing, and sees all things with an
unmoved countenance. He felt not the slightest wish to communicate his
knowledge to other men. He was rich with all the wealth of the world,
with one effort he could make the circle of the globe, and riches and
power were meaningless for him. He felt the awful melancholy of
omnipotence, a melancholy which Satan and God relieve by the exercise
of infinite power in mysterious ways known to them alone. Castanier
had not, like his Master, the inextinguishable energy of hate and
malice; he felt that he was a devil, but a devil whose time was not
yet come, while Satan is a devil through all eternity, and being
damned beyond redemption, delights to stir up the world, like a dung
heap, with his triple fork and to thwart therein the designs of God.
But Castanier, for his misfortune, had one hope left.
If in a moment he could move from one pole to the other as a bird
springs restlessly from side to side in its cage, when, like the bird,
he has crossed his prison, he saw the vast immensity of space beyond
it. That vision of the Infinite left him for ever unable to see
humanity and its affairs as other men saw them. The insensate fools
who long for the power of the Devil gauge its desirability from a
human standpoint; they do not see that with the Devil's power they
will likewise assume his thoughts, and that they will be doomed to
remain as men among creatures who will no longer understand them. The
Nero unknown to history who dreams of setting Paris on fire for his
private entertainment, like an exhibition of a burning house on the
boards of a theatre, does not suspect that if he had the power, Paris
would become for him as little interesting as an ant-heap by the
roadside to a hurrying passer-by. The circle of the sciences was for
Castanier something like a logogriph for a man who does not know the
key to it. Kings and Governments were despicable in his eyes. His
great debauch had been in some sort a deplorable farewell to his life
as a man. The earth had grown too narrow for him, for the infernal
gifts laid bare for him the secrets of creation--he saw the cause and
foresaw its end. He was shut out from all that men call "heaven" in
all languages under the sun; he could no longer think of heaven.
Then he came to understand the look on his predecessor's face and the
drying up of the life within; then he knew all that was meant by the
baffled hope that gleamed in Melmoth's eyes; he, too, knew the thirst
that burned those red lips, and the agony of a continual struggle
between two natures grown to giant size. Even yet he might be an
angel, and he knew himself to be a fiend. His was the fate of a sweet
and gentle creature that a wizard's malice has imprisoned in a
mis-shapen form, entrapping it by a pact, so that another's will must
set it free from its detested envelope.
As a deception only increases the ardor with which a man of really
great nature explores the infinite of sentiment in a woman's heart, so
Castanier awoke to find that one idea lay like a weight upon his soul,
an idea which was perhaps the key to loftier spheres. The very fact
that he had bartered away his eternal happiness led him to dwell in
thought upon the future of those who pray and believe. On the morrow
of his debauch, when he entered into the sober possession of his
power, this idea made him feel himself a prisoner; he knew the burden
of the woe that poets, and prophets, and great oracles of faith have
set forth for us in such mighty words; he felt the point of the
Flaming Sword plunged into his side, and hurried in search of Melmoth.
What had become of his predecessor?
The Englishman was living in a mansion in the Rue Ferou, near Saint-
Sulpice--a gloomy, dark, damp, and cold abode. The Rue Ferou itself is
one of the most dismal streets in Paris; it has a north aspect like
all the streets that lie at right angles to the left bank of the
Seine, and the houses are in keeping with the site. As Castanier stood
on the threshold he found that the door itself, like the vaulted roof,
was hung with black; rows of lighted tapers shone brilliantly as
though some king were lying in state; and a priest stood on either
side of a catafalque that had been raised there.
"There is no need to ask why you have come, sir," the old hall porter
said to Castanier; "you are so like our poor dear master that is gone.
But if you are his brother, you have come too late to bid him
good-bye. The good gentleman died the night before last."
"How did he die?" Castanier asked of one of the priests.
"Set your mind at rest," said the old priest; he partly raised as he
spoke the black pall that covered the catafalque.
Castanier, looking at him, saw one of those faces that faith has made
sublime; the soul seemed to shine forth from every line of it,
bringing light and warmth for other men, kindled by the unfailing
charity within. This was Sir John Melmoth's confessor.
"Your brother made an end that men may envy, and that must rejoice the
angels. Do you know what joy there is in heaven over a sinner that
repents? His tears of penitence, excited by grace, flowed without
ceasing; death alone checked them. The Holy Spirit dwelt in him. His
burning words, full of lively faith, were worthy of the Prophet-King.
If, in the course of my life, I have never heard a more dreadful
confession than from the lips of this Irish gentleman, I have likewise
never heard such fervent and passionate prayers. However great the
measures of his sins may have been, his repentance has filled the
abyss to overflowing. The hand of God was visibly stretched out above
him, for he was completely changed, there was such heavenly beauty in
his face. The hard eyes were softened by tears; the resonant voice
that struck terror into those who heard it took the tender and
compassionate tones of those who themselves have passed through deep
humiliation. He so edified those who heard his words, that some who
had felt drawn to see the spectacle of a Christian's death fell on
their knees as he spoke of heavenly things, and of the infinite glory
of God, and gave thanks and praise to Him. If he is leaving no worldly
wealth to his family, no family can possess a greater blessing than
this that he surely gained for them, a soul among the blessed, who
will watch over you all and direct you in the path to heaven."
These words made such a vivid impression upon Castanier that he
instantly hurried from the house to the Church of Saint-Sulpice,
obeying what might be called a decree of fate. Melmoth's repentance
had stupefied him.
At that time, on certain mornings in the week, a preacher, famed for
his eloquence, was wont to hold conferences, in the course of which he
demonstrated the truths of the Catholic faith for the youth of a
generation proclaimed to be indifferent in matters of belief by
another voice no less eloquent than his own. The conference had been
put off to a later hour on account of Melmoth's funeral, so Castanier
arrived just as the great preacher was epitomizing the proofs of a
future existence of happiness with all the charm of eloquence and
force of expression which have made him famous. The seeds of divine
doctrine fell into a soil prepared for them in the old dragoon, into
whom the Devil had glided. Indeed, if there is a phenomenon well
attested by experience, is it not the spiritual phenomenon commonly
called "the faith of the peasant"? The strength of belief varies
inversely with the amount of use that a man has made of his reasoning
faculties. Simple people and soldiers belong to the unreasoning class.
Those who have marched through life beneath the banner of instinct are
far more ready to receive the light than minds and hearts overwearied
with the world's sophistries.
Castanier had the southern temperament; he had joined the army as a
lad of sixteen, and had followed the French flag till he was nearly
forty years old. As a common trooper, he had fought day and night, and
day after day, and, as in duty bound, had thought of his horse first,
and of himself afterwards. While he served his military
apprenticeship, therefore, he had but little leisure in which to
reflect on the destiny of man, and when he became an officer he had
his men to think of. He had been swept from battlefield to
battlefield, but he had never thought of what comes after death. A
soldier's life does not demand much thinking. Those who cannot
understand the lofty political ends involved and the interests of
nation and nation; who cannot grasp political schemes as well as plans
of campaign, and combine the science of the tactician with that of the
administrator, are bound to live in a state of ignorance; the most
boorish peasant in the most backward district in France is scarcely in
a worse case. Such men as these bear the brunt of war, yield passive
obedience to the brain that directs them, and strike down the men
opposed to them as the woodcutter fells timber in the forest. Violent
physical exertion is succeeded by times of inertia, when they repair
the waste. They fight and drink, fight and eat, fight and sleep, that
they may the better deal hard blows; the powers of the mind are not
greatly exercised in this turbulent round of existence, and the
character is as simple as heretofore.
When the men who have shown such energy on the battlefield return to
ordinary civilization, most of those who have not risen to high rank
seem to have acquired no ideas, and to have no aptitude, no capacity,
for grasping new ideas. To the utter amazement of a younger
generation, those who made our armies so glorious and so terrible are
as simple as children, and as slow-witted as a clerk at his worst,
and the captain of a thundering squadron is scarcely fit to keep a
merchant's day-book. Old soldiers of this stamp, therefore being
innocent of any attempt to use their reasoning faculties, act upon
their strongest impulses. Castanier's crime was one of those matters
that raise so many questions, that, in order to debate about it, a
moralist might call for its "discussion by clauses," to make use of a
Passion had counseled the crime; the cruelly irresistible power of
feminine witchery had driven him to commit it; no man can say of
himself, "I will never do that," when a siren joins in the combat and
throws her spells over him.
So the word of life fell upon a conscience newly awakened to the
truths of religion which the French Revolution and a soldier's career
had forced Castanier to neglect. The solemn words, "You will be happy
or miserable for all eternity!" made but the more terrible impression
upon him, because he had exhausted earth and shaken it like a barren
tree; because his desires could effect all things, so that it was
enough that any spot in earth or heaven should be forbidden him, and
he forthwith thought of nothing else. If it were allowable to compare
such great things with social follies, Castanier's position was not
unlike that of a banker who, finding that his all-powerful millions
cannot obtain for him an entrance into the society of the noblesse,
must set his heart upon entering that circle, and all the social
privileges that he has already acquired are as nothing in his eyes
from the moment when he discovers that a single one is lacking.
Here is a man more powerful than all the kings on earth put together;
a man who, like Satan, could wrestle with God Himself; leaning against
one of the pillars in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, weighed down by
the feelings and thoughts that oppressed him, and absorbed in the
thought of a Future, the same thought that had engulfed Melmoth.
"He was very happy, was Melmoth!" cried Castanier. "He died in the
certain knowledge that he would go to heaven."
In a moment the greatest possible change had been wrought in the
cashier's ideas. For several days he had been a devil, now he was
nothing but a man; an image of the fallen Adam, of the sacred
tradition embodied in all cosmogonies. But while he had thus shrunk he
retained a germ of greatness, he had been steeped in the Infinite. The
power of hell had revealed the divine power. He thirsted for heaven as
he had never thirsted after the pleasures of earth, that are so soon
exhausted. The enjoyments which the fiend promises are but the
enjoyments of earth on a larger scale, but to the joys of heaven there
is no limit. He believed in God, and the spell that gave him the
treasures of the world was as nothing to him now; the treasures
themselves seemed to him as contemptible as pebbles to an admirer of
diamonds; they were but gewgaws compared with the eternal glories of
the other life. A curse lay, he thought, on all things that came to
him from this source. He sounded dark depths of painful thought as he
listened to the service performed for Melmoth. The Dies irae filled
him with awe; he felt all the grandeur of that cry of a repentant soul
trembling before the Throne of God. The Holy Spirit, like a devouring
flame, passed through him as fire consumes straw.
The tears were falling from his eyes when--"Are you a relation of the
dead?" the beadle asked him.
"I am his heir," Castanier answered.
"Give something for the expenses of the services!" cried the man.
"No," said the cashier. (The Devil's money should not go to the
"For the poor!"
"For repairing the Church!"
"The Lady Chapel!"
"For the schools!"
Castanier went, not caring to expose himself to the sour looks that
the irritated functionaries gave him.
Outside, in the street, he looked up at the Church of Saint-Sulpice.
"What made people build the giant cathedrals I have seen in every
country?" he asked himself. "The feeling shared so widely throughout
all time must surely be based upon something."
"Something! Do you call God SOMETHING?" cried his conscience. "God!
God! God! . . ."
The word was echoed and re-echoed by an inner voice, til it
overwhelmed him; but his feeling of terror subsided as he heard sweet
distant sounds of music that he had caught faintly before. They were
singing in the church, he thought, and his eyes scanned the great
doorway. But as he listened more closely, the sounds poured upon him
from all sides; he looked round the square, but there was no sign of
any musicians. The melody brought visions of a distant heaven and
far-off gleams of hope; but it also quickened the remorse that had set
the lost soul in a ferment. He went on his way through Paris, walking
as men walk who are crushed beneath the burden of their sorrow, seeing
everything with unseeing eyes, loitering like an idler, stopping
without cause, muttering to himself, careless of the traffic, making
no effort to avoid a blow from a plank of timber.
Imperceptibly repentance brought him under the influence of the divine
grace that soothes while it bruises the heart so terribly. His face
came to wear a look of Melmoth, something great, with a trace of
madness in the greatness--a look of dull and hopeless distress,
mingled with the excited eagerness of hope, and, beneath it all, a
gnawing sense of loathing for all that the world can give. The
humblest of prayers lurked in the eyes that saw with such dreadful
clearness. His power was the measure of his anguish. His body was
bowed down by the fearful storm that shook his soul, as the tall pines
bend before the blast. Like his predecessor, he could not refuse to
bear the burden of life; he was afraid to die while he bore the yoke
of hell. The torment grew intolerable.
At last, one morning, he bethought himself how that Melmoth (now among
the blessed) had made the proposal of an exchange, and how that he had
accepted it; others, doubtless, would follow his example; for in an
age proclaimed, by the inheritors of the eloquence of the Fathers of
the Church, to be fatally indifferent to religion, it should be easy
to find a man who would accept the conditions of the contract in order
to prove its advantages.
"There is one place where you can learn what kings will fetch in the
market; where nations are weighed in the balance and systems
appraised; where the value of a government is stated in terms of the
five-franc piece; where ideas and beliefs have their price, and
everything is discounted; where God Himself, in a manner, borrows on
the security of His revenue of souls, for the Pope has a running
account there. Is it not there that I should go to traffic in souls?"
Castanier went quite joyously on 'Change, thinking that it would be as
easy to buy a soul as to invest money in the Funds. Any ordinary
person would have feared ridicule, but Castanier knew by experience
that a desperate man takes everything seriously. A prisoner lying
under sentence of death would listen to the madman who should tell him
that by pronouncing some gibberish he could escape through the
keyhole; for suffering is credulous, and clings to an idea until it
fails, as the swimmer borne along by the current clings to the branch
that snaps in his hand.
Towards four o'clock that afternoon Castanier appeared among the
little knots of men who were transacting private business after
'Change. He was personally known to some of the brokers; and while
affecting to be in search of an acquaintance, he managed to pick up
the current gossip and rumors of failure.
"Catch me negotiating bills for Claparon & Co., my boy. The bank
collector went round to return their acceptances to them this
morning," said a fat banker in his outspoken way. "If you have any of
their paper, look out."
Claparon was in the building, in deep consultation with a man well
known for the ruinous rate at which he lent money. Castanier went
forthwith in search of the said Claparon, a merchant who had a
reputation for taking heavy risks that meant wealth or utter ruin. The
money-lender walked away as Castanier came up. A gesture betrayed the
"Well, Claparon, the Bank wants a hundred thousand francs of you, and
it is four o'clock; the thing is known, and it is too late to arrange
your little failure comfortably," said Castanier.
"Speak lower," the cashier went on. "How if I were to propose a piece
of business that would bring you in as much money as you require?"
"It would not discharge my liabilities; every business that I ever
heard of wants a little time to simmer in."
"I know of something that will set you straight in a moment," answered
Castanier; "but first you would have to----"
"Sell your share of paradise. It is a matter of business like anything
else, isn't it? We all hold shares in the great Speculation of
"I tell you this," said Claparon angrily, "that I am just the man to
lend you a slap in the face. When a man is in trouble, it is no time
to pay silly jokes on him."
"I am talking seriously," said Castanier, and he drew a bundle of
notes from his pocket.
"In the first place," said Claparon, "I am not going to sell my soul
to the Devil for a trifle. I want five hundred thousand francs before
"Who talks of stinting you?" asked Castanier, cutting him short. "You
shall have more gold than you could stow in the cellars of the Bank of
He held out a handful of notes. That decided Claparon.
"Done," he cried; "but how is the bargain to be make?"
"Let us go over yonder, no one is standing there," said Castanier,
pointing to a corner of the court.
Claparon and his tempter exchanged a few words, with their faces
turned to the wall. None of the onlookers guessed the nature of this
by-play, though their curiosity was keenly excited by the strange
gestures of the two contracting parties. When Castanier returned,
there was a sudden outburst of amazed exclamation. As in the Assembly
where the least event immediately attracts attention, all faces were
turned to the two men who had caused the sensation, and a shiver
passed through all beholders at the change that had taken place in
The men who form the moving crowd that fills the Stock Exchange are
soon known to each other by sight. They watch each other like players
round a card-table. Some shrewd observers can tell how a man will play
and the condition of his exchequer from a survey of his face; and the
Stock Exchange is simply a vast card-table. Every one, therefore, had
noticed Claparon and Castanier. The latter (like the Irishman before
him) had been muscular and powerful, his eyes were full of light, his
color high. The dignity and power in his face had struck awe into them
all; they wondered how old Castanier had come by it; and now they
beheld Castanier divested of his power, shrunken, wrinkled, aged, and
feeble. He had drawn Claparon out of the crowd with the energy of a
sick man in a fever fit; he had looked like an opium-eater during the
brief period of excitement that the drug can give; now, on his return,
he seemed to be in the condition of utter exhaustion in which the
patient dies after the fever departs, or to be suffering from the
horrible prostration that follows on excessive indulgence in the
delights of narcotics. The infernal power that had upheld him through
his debauches had left him, and the body was left unaided and alone to
endure the agony of remorse and the heavy burden of sincere
repentance. Claparon's troubles every one could guess; but Claparon
reappeared, on the other hand, with sparkling eyes, holding his head
high with the pride of Lucifer. The crisis had passed from the one man
to the other.
"Now you can drop off with an easy mind, old man," said Claparon to
"For pity's sake, send for a cab and for a priest; send for the curate
of Saint-Sulpice!" answered the old dragoon, sinking down upon the
The words "a priest" reached the ears of several people, and produced
uproarious jeering among the stockbrokers, for faith with these
gentlemen means a belief that a scrap of paper called a mortgage
represents an estate, and the List of Fundholders is their Bible.
"Shall I have time to repent?" said Castanier to himself, in a piteous
voice, that impressed Claparon.
A cab carried away the dying man; the speculator went to the bank at
once to meet his bills; and the momentary sensation produced upon the
throng of business men by the sudden change on the two faces, vanished
like the furrow cut by a ship's keel in the sea. News of the greatest
importance kept the attention of the world of commerce on the alert;
and when commercial interests are at stake, Moses might appear with
his two luminous horns, and his coming would scarcely receive the
honors of a pun, the gentlemen whose business it is to write the
Market Reports would ignore his existence.
When Claparon had made his payments, fear seized upon him. There was
no mistake about his power. He went on 'Change again, and offered his
bargain to other men in embarrassed circumstances. The Devil's bond,
"together with the rights, easements, and privileges appertaining
thereunto,"--to use the expression of the notary who succeeded
Claparon, changed hands for the sum of seven hundred thousand francs.
The notary in his turn parted with the agreement with the Devil for
five hundred thousand francs to a building contractor in difficulties,
who likewise was rid of it to an iron merchant in consideration of a
hundred thousand crowns. In fact, by five o'clock people had ceased to
believe in the strange contract, and purchasers were lacking for want
At half-past five the holder of the bond was a house-painter, who was
lounging by the door of the building in the Rue Feydeau, where at that
time stockbrokers temporarily congregated. The house-painter, simple
fellow, could not think what was the matter with him. He "felt all
anyhow"; so he told his wife when he went home.
The Rue Feydeau, as idlers about town are aware, is a place of
pilgrimage for youths who for lack of a mistress bestow their ardent
affection upon the whole sex. On the first floor of the most rigidly
respectable domicile therein dwelt one of those exquisite creatures
whom it has pleased heaven to endow with the rarest and most
surpassing beauty. As it is impossible that they should all be
duchesses or queens (since there are many more pretty women in the
world than titles and thrones for them to adorn), they are content to
make a stockbroker or a banker happy at a fixed price. To this
good-natured beauty, Euphrasia by name, an unbounded ambition had led
a notary's clerk to aspire. In short, the second clerk in the office
of Maitre Crottat, notary, had fallen in love with her, as youth at
two-and-twenty can fall in love. The scrivener would have murdered the
Pope and run amuck through the whole sacred college to procure the
miserable sum of a hundred louis to pay for a shawl which had turned
Euphrasia's head, at which price her waiting-woman had promised that
Euphrasia should be his. The infatuated youth walked to and fro under
Madame Euphrasia's windows, like the polar bears in their cage at the
Jardin des Plantes, with his right hand thrust beneath his waistcoat
in the region of the heart, which he was fit to tear from his bosom,
but as yet he had only wrenched at the elastic of his braces.
"What can one do to raise ten thousand francs?" he asked himself.
"Shall I make off with the money that I must pay on the registration
of that conveyance? Good heavens! my loan would not ruin the
purchaser, a man with seven millions! And then next day I would fling
myself at his feet and say, 'I have taken ten thousand francs
belonging to you, sir; I am twenty-two years of age, and I am in love
with Euphrasia--that is my story. My father is rich, he will pay you
back; do not ruin me! Have not you yourself been twenty-two years old
and madly in love?' But these beggarly landowners have no souls! He
would be quite likely to give me up to the public prosecutor, instead
of taking pity upon me. Good God! if it were only possible to sell
your soul to the Devil! But there is neither a God nor a Devil; it is
all nonsense out of nursery tales and old wives' talk. What shall I
"If you have a mind to sell your soul to the Devil, sir," said the
house-painter, who had overheard something that the clerk let fall,
"you can have the ten thousand francs."
"And Euphrasia!" cried the clerk, as he struck a bargain with the
devil that inhabited the house-painter.
The pact concluded, the frantic clerk went to find the shawl, and
mounted Madame Euphrasia's staircase; and as (literally) the devil was
in him, he did not come down for twelve days, drowning the thought of
hell and of his privileges in twelve days of love and riot and
forgetfulness, for which he had bartered away all his hopes of a
paradise to come.
And in this way the secret of the vast power discovered and acquired
by the Irishman, the offspring of Maturin's brain, was lost to
mankind; and the various Orientalists, Mystics, and Archaeologists who
take an interest in these matters were unable to hand down to
posterity the proper method of invoking the Devil, for the following
On the thirteenth day after these frenzied nuptials the wretched clerk
lay on a pallet bed in a garret in his master's house in the Rue
Saint-Honore. Shame, the stupid goddess who dares not behold herself,
had taken possession of the young man. He had fallen ill; he would
nurse himself; misjudged the quantity of a remedy devised by the skill
of a practitioner well known on the walls of Paris, and succumbed to
the effects of an overdose of mercury. His corpse was as black as a
mole's back. A devil had left unmistakable traces of its passage
there; could it have been Ashtaroth?
"The estimable youth to whom you refer has been carried away to the
planet Mercury," said the head clerk to a German demonologist who came
to investigate the matter at first hand.
"I am quite prepared to believe it," answered the Teuton.
"Yes, sir," returned the other. "The opinion you advance coincides
with the very words of Jacob Boehme. In the forty-eighth proposition
of the Threefold Life of Man he says that 'if God hath brought all
things to pass with a LET THERE BE, the FIAT is the secret matrix
which comprehends and apprehends the nature which is formed by the
spirit born of Mercury and of God.' "
"What do you say, sir?"
The German delivered his quotation afresh.
"We do not know it," said the clerks.
"Fiat? . . ." said a clerk. "Fiat lux!"
"You can verify the citation for yourselves," said the German. "You
will find the passage in the Treatise of the Threefold Life of Man,
page 75; the edition was published by M. Migneret in 1809. It was
translated into French by a philosopher who had a great admiration for
the famous shoemaker."
"Oh! he was a shoemaker, was he?" said the head clerk.
"In Prussia," said the German.
"Did he work for the King of Prussia?" inquired a Boeotian of a second
"He must have vamped up his prose," said a third.
"That man is colossal!" cried the fourth, pointing to the Teuton.
That gentleman, though a demonologist of the first rank, did not know
the amount of devilry to be found in a notary's clerk. He went away
without the least idea that they were making game of him, and fully
under the impression that the young fellows regarded Boehme as a
"Education is making strides in France," said he to himself.
PARIS, May 6, 1835.
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
The Magic Skin
A Bachelor's Establishment
The Firm of Nucingen
A Man of Business
The Middle Classes
The Magic Skin
Nucingen, Baronne Delphine de
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
The Commission in Lunacy
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
The Firm of Nucingen
Another Study of Woman
A Daughter of Eve
The Member for Arcis
Tillet, Ferdinand du
The Firm of Nucingen
The Middle Classes
A Bachelor's Establishment
A Distinguished Provencial at Paris
The Secrets of a Princess
A Daughter of Eve
The Member for Arcis
The Unconscious Humorists
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