The Elixir of Life
Honore de Balzac
Produced by Dagny
THE ELIXIR OF LIFE
HONORE DE BALZAC
Clara Bell & James Waring
TO THE READER
At the very outset of the writer's literary career, a friend,
long since dead, gave him the subject of this Study. Later on he
found the same story in a collection published about the
beginning of the present century. To the best of his belief, it
is some stray fancy of the brain of Hoffmann of Berlin; probably
it appeared in some German almanac, and was omitted in the
published editions of his collected works. The _Comedie Humaine_
is sufficiently rich in original creations for the author to own
to this innocent piece of plagiarism; when, like the worthy La
Fontaine, he has told unwittingly, and after his own fashion, a
tale already related by another. This is not one of the hoaxes in
vogue in the year 1830, when every author wrote his "tale of
horror" for the amusement of young ladies. When you have read the
account of Don Juan's decorous parricide, try to picture to
yourself the part which would be played under very similar
circumstances by honest folk who, in this nineteenth century,
will take a man's money and undertake to pay him a life annuity
on the faith of a chill, or let a house to an ancient lady for
the term of her natural life! Would they be for resuscitating
their clients? I should dearly like a connoisseur in consciences
to consider how far there is a resemblance between a Don Juan and
fathers who marry their children to great expectations. Does
humanity, which, according to certain philosophers, is making
progress, look on the art of waiting for dead men's shoes as a
step in the right direction? To this art we owe several honorable
professions, which open up ways of living on death. There are
people who rely entirely on an expected demise; who brood over
it, crouching each morning upon a corpse, that serves again for
their pillow at night. To this class belong bishops' coadjutors,
cardinals' supernumeraries, _tontiniers_, and the like. Add to the
list many delicately scrupulous persons eager to buy landed
property beyond their means, who calculate with dry logic and in
cold blood the probable duration of the life of a father or of a
step-mother, some old man or woman of eighty or ninety, saying to
themselves, "I shall be sure to come in for it in three years'
time, and then----" A murderer is less loathsome to us than a
spy. The murderer may have acted on a sudden mad impulse; he may
be penitent and amend; but a spy is always a spy, night and day,
in bed, at table, as he walks abroad; his vileness pervades every
moment of his life. Then what must it be to live when every
moment of your life is tainted with murder? And have we not just
admitted that a host of human creatures in our midst are led by
our laws, customs, and usages to dwell without ceasing on a
fellow-creature's death? There are men who put the weight of a
coffin into their deliberations as they bargain for Cashmere
shawls for their wives, as they go up the staircase of a theatre,
or think of going to the Bouffons, or of setting up a carriage;
who are murderers in thought when dear ones, with the
irresistible charm of innocence, hold up childish foreheads to be
kissed with a "Good-night, father!" Hourly they meet the gaze of
eyes that they would fain close for ever, eyes that still open
each morning to the light, like Belvidero's in this Study. God
alone knows the number of those who are parricides in thought.
Picture to yourself the state of mind of a man who must pay a
life annuity to some old woman whom he scarcely knows; both live
in the country with a brook between them, both sides are free to
hate cordially, without offending against the social conventions
that require two brothers to wear a mask if the older will
succeed to the entail, and the other to the fortune of a younger
son. The whole civilization of Europe turns upon the principle of
hereditary succession as upon a pivot; it would be madness to
subvert the principle; but could we not, in an age that prides
itself upon its mechanical inventions, perfect this essential
portion of the social machinery?
If the author has preserved the old-fashioned style of address _To
the Reader_ before a work wherein he endeavors to represent all
literary forms, it is for the purpose of making a remark that
applies to several of the Studies, and very specially to this.
Every one of his compositions has been based upon ideas more or
less novel, which, as it seemed to him, needed literary
expression; he can claim priority for certain forms and for
certain ideas which have since passed into the domain of
literature, and have there, in some instances, become common
property; so that the date of the first publication of each Study
cannot be a matter of indifference to those of his readers who
would fain do him justice.
Reading brings us unknown friends, and what friend is like a
reader? We have friends in our own circle who read nothing of
ours. The author hopes to pay his debt, by dedicating this work
THE ELIXIR OF LIFE
One winter evening, in a princely palace at Ferrara, Don Juan
Belvidero was giving a banquet to a prince of the house of Este.
A banquet in those times was a marvelous spectacle which only
royal wealth or the power of a mightly [sic] lord could furnish
forth. Seated about a table lit up with perfumed tapers, seven
laughter-loving women were interchanging sweet talk. The white
marble of the noble works of art about them stood out against the
red stucco walls, and made strong contrasts with the rich Turkey
carpets. Clad in satin, glittering with gold, and covered with
gems less brilliant than their eyes, each told a tale of
energetic passions as diverse as their styles of beauty. They
differed neither in their ideas nor in their language; but the
expression of their eyes, their glances, occasional gestures, or
the tones of their voices supplied a commentary, dissolute,
wanton, melancholy, or satirical, to their words.
One seemed to be saying--"The frozen heart of age might kindle at
Another--"I love to lounge upon cushions, and think with rapture
of my adorers."
A third, a neophyte at these banquets, was inclined to blush. "I
feel remorse in the depths of my heart! I am a Catholic, and
afraid of hell. But I love you, I love you so that I can
sacrifice my hereafter to you."
The fourth drained a cup of Chian wine. "Give me a joyous life!"
she cried; "I begin life afresh each day with the dawn. Forgetful
of the past, with the intoxication of yesterday's rapture still
upon me, I drink deep of life--a whole lifetime of pleasure and
The woman who sat next to Juan Belvidero looked at him with a
feverish glitter in her eyes. She was silent. Then--"I should
need no hired bravo to kill my lover if he forsook me!" she cried
at last, and laughed, but the marvelously wrought gold comfit box
in her fingers was crushed by her convulsive clutch.
"When are you to be Grand Duke?" asked the sixth. There was the
frenzy of a Bacchante in her eyes, and her teeth gleamed between
the lips parted with a smile of cruel glee.
"Yes, when is that father of yours going to die?" asked the
seventh, throwing her bouquet at Don Juan with bewitching
playfulness. It was a childish girl who spoke, and the speaker
was wont to make sport of sacred things.
"Oh! don't talk about it," cried Don Juan, the young and handsome
giver of the banquet. "There is but one eternal father, and, as
ill luck will have it, he is mine."
The seven Ferrarese, Don Juan's friends, the Prince himself, gave
a cry of horror. Two hundred years later, in the days of Louis
XV., people of taste would have laughed at this witticism. Or was
it, perhaps, that at the outset of an orgy there is a certain
unwonted lucidity of mind? Despite the taper light, the clamor of
the senses, the gleam of gold and silver, the fumes of wine, and
the exquisite beauty of the women, there may perhaps have been in
the depths of the revelers' hearts some struggling glimmer of
reverence for things divine and human, until it was drowned in
glowing floods of wine! Yet even then the flowers had been
crushed, eyes were growing dull, and drunkenness, in Rabelais'
phrase, had "taken possession of them down to their sandals."
During that brief pause a door opened; and as once the Divine
presence was revealed at Belshazzar's feast, so now it seemed to
be manifest in the apparition of an old white-haired servant, who
tottered in, and looked sadly from under knitted brows at the
revelers. He gave a withering glance at the garlands, the golden
cups, the pyramids of fruit, the dazzling lights of the banquet,
the flushed scared faces, the hues of the cushions pressed by the
white arms of the women.
"My lord, your father is dying!" he said; and at those solemn
words, uttered in hollow tones, a veil of crape seemed to be
drawn over the wild mirth.
Don Juan rose to his feet with a gesture to his guests that might
be rendered by, "Excuse me; this kind of thing does not happen
Does it so seldom happen that a father's death surprises youth in
the full-blown splendor of life, in the midst of the mad riot of
an orgy? Death is as unexpected in his caprice as a courtesan in
her disdain; but death is truer--Death has never forsaken any
Don Juan closed the door of the banqueting-hall; and as he went
down the long gallery, through the cold and darkness, he strove
to assume an expression in keeping with the part he had to play;
he had thrown off his mirthful mood, as he had thrown down his
table napkin, at the first thought of this role. The night was
dark. The mute servitor, his guide to the chamber where the dying
man lay, lighted the way so dimly that Death, aided by cold,
silence, and darkness, and it may be by a reaction of drunkenness,
could send some sober thoughts through the spendthrift's soul. He
examined his life, and became thoughtful, like a man involved in
a lawsuit on his way to the Court.
Bartolommeo Belvidero, Don Juan's father, was an old man of
ninety, who had devoted the greatest part of his life to business
pursuits. He had acquired vast wealth in many a journey to
magical Eastern lands, and knowledge, so it was said, more
valuable than the gold and diamonds, which had almost ceased to
have any value for him.
"I would give more to have a tooth in my head than for a ruby,"
he would say at times with a smile. The indulgent father loved to
hear Don Juan's story of this and that wild freak of youth. "So
long as these follies amuse you, dear boy----" he would say
laughingly, as he lavished money on his son. Age never took such
pleasure in the sight of youth; the fond father did not remember
his own decaying powers while he looked on that brilliant young
Bartolommeo Belvidero, at the age of sixty, had fallen in love
with an angel of peace and beauty. Don Juan had been the sole
fruit of this late and short-lived love. For fifteen years the
widower had mourned the loss of his beloved Juana; and to this
sorrow of age, his son and his numerous household had attributed
the strange habits that he had contracted. He had shut himself up
in the least comfortable wing of his palace, and very seldom left
his apartments; even Don Juan himself must first ask permission
before seeing his father. If this hermit, unbound by vows, came
or went in his palace or in the streets of Ferrara, he walked as
if he were in a dream, wholly engrossed, like a man at strife
with a memory, or a wrestler with some thought.
The young Don Juan might give princely banquets, the palace might
echo with clamorous mirth, horses pawed the ground in the
courtyards, pages quarreled and flung dice upon the stairs, but
Bartolommeo ate his seven ounces of bread daily and drank water.
A fowl was occasionally dressed for him, simply that the black
poodle, his faithful companion, might have the bones. Bartolommeo
never complained of the noise. If the huntsmen's horns and baying
dogs disturbed his sleep during his illness, he only said, "Ah!
Don Juan has come back again." Never on earth has there been a
father so little exacting and so indulgent; and, in consequence,
young Belvidero, accustomed to treat his father unceremoniously,
had all the faults of a spoiled child. He treated old Bartolommeo
as a wilful courtesan treats an elderly adorer; buying indemnity
for insolence with a smile, selling good-humor, submitting to be
Don Juan, beholding scene after scene of his younger years, saw
that it would be a difficult task to find his father's indulgence
at fault. Some new-born remorse stirred the depths of his heart;
he felt almost ready to forgive this father now about to die for
having lived so long. He had an accession of filial piety, like a
thief's return in thought to honesty at the prospect of a million
Before long Don Juan had crossed the lofty, chilly suite of rooms
in which his father lived; the penetrating influences of the damp
close air, the mustiness diffused by old tapestries and presses
thickly covered with dust had passed into him, and now he stood
in the old man's antiquated room, in the repulsive presence of
the deathbed, beside a dying fire. A flickering lamp on a Gothic
table sent broad uncertain shafts of light, fainter or brighter,
across the bed, so that the dying man's face seemed to wear a
different look at every moment. The bitter wind whistled through
the crannies of the ill-fitting casements; there was a smothered
sound of snow lashing the windows. The harsh contrast of these
sights and sounds with the scenes which Don Juan had just quitted
was so sudden that he could not help shuddering. He turned cold
as he came towards the bed; the lamp flared in a sudden vehement
gust of wind and lighted up his father's face; the features were
wasted and distorted; the skin that cleaved to their bony
outlines had taken wan livid hues, all the more ghastly by force
of contrast with the white pillows on which he lay. The muscles
about the toothless mouth had contracted with pain and drawn
apart the lips; the moans that issued between them with appalling
energy found an accompaniment in the howling of the storm
In spite of every sign of coming dissolution, the most striking
thing about the dying face was its incredible power. It was no
ordinary spirit that wrestled there with Death. The eyes glared
with strange fixity of gaze from the cavernous sockets hollowed
by disease. It seemed as if Bartolommeo sought to kill some enemy
sitting at the foot of his bed by the intent gaze of dying eyes.
That steady remorseless look was the more appalling because the
head that lay upon the pillow was passive and motionless as a
skull upon a doctor's table. The outlines of the body, revealed
by the coverlet, were no less rigid and stiff; he lay there as
one dead, save for those eyes. There was something automatic
about the moaning sounds that came from the mouth. Don Juan felt
something like shame that he must be brought thus to his father's
bedside, wearing a courtesan's bouquet, redolent of the fragrance
of the banqueting-chamber and the fumes of wine.
"You were enjoying yourself!" the old man cried as he saw his
Even as he spoke the pure high notes of a woman's voice,
sustained by the sound of the viol on which she accompanied her
song, rose above the rattle of the storm against the casements,
and floated up to the chamber of death. Don Juan stopped his ears
against the barbarous answer to his father's speech.
"I bear you no grudge, my child," Bartolommeo went on.
The words were full of kindness, but they hurt Don Juan; he could
not pardon this heart-searching goodness on his father's part.
"What a remorseful memory for me!" he cried, hypocritically.
"Poor Juanino," the dying man went on, in a smothered voice, "I
have always been so kind to you, that you could not surely desire
"Oh, if it were only possible to keep you here by giving up a
part of my own life!" cried Don Juan.
("We can always _say_ this sort of thing," the spendthrift thought;
"it is as if I laid the whole world at my mistress' feet.")
The thought had scarcely crossed his mind when the old poodle
barked. Don Juan shivered; the response was so intelligent that
he fancied the dog must have understood him.
"I was sure that I could count upon you, my son!" cried the dying
man. "I shall live. So be it; you shall be satisfied. I shall
live, but without depriving you of a single day of your life."
"He is raving," thought Don Juan. Aloud he added, "Yes, dearest
father, yes; you shall live, of course, as long as I live, for
your image will be for ever in my heart."
"It is not that kind of life that I mean," said the old noble,
summoning all his strength to sit up in bed; for a thrill of
doubt ran through him, one of those suspicions that come into
being under a dying man's pillow. "Listen, my son," he went on,
in a voice grown weak with that last effort, "I have no more wish
to give up life than you to give up wine and mistresses, horses
and hounds, and hawks and gold----"
"I can well believe it," thought the son; and he knelt down by
the bed and kissed Bartolommeo's cold hands. "But, father, my
dear father," he added aloud, "we must submit to the will of
"I am God!" muttered the dying man.
"Do not blaspheme!" cried the other, as he saw the menacing
expression on his father's face. "Beware what you say; you have
received extreme unction, and I should be inconsolable if you
were to die before my eyes in mortal sin."
"Will you listen to me?" cried Bartolommeo, and his mouth
Don Juan held his peace; an ugly silence prevailed. Yet above the
muffled sound of the beating of the snow against the windows rose
the sounds of the beautiful voice and the viol in unison, far off
and faint as the dawn. The dying man smiled.
"Thank you," he said, "for bringing those singing voices and the
music, a banquet, young and lovely women with fair faces and dark
tresses, all the pleasure of life! Bid them wait for me; for I am
about to begin life anew."
"The delirium is at its height," said Don Juan to himself.
"I have found out a way of coming to life again," the speaker
went on. "There, just look in that table drawer, press the spring
hidden by the griffin, and it will fly open."
"I have found it, father."
"Well, then, now take out a little phial of rock crystal."
"I have it."
"I have spent twenty years in----" but even as he spoke the old
man felt how very near the end had come, and summoned all his
dying strength to say, "As soon as the breath is out of me, rub
me all over with that liquid, and I shall come to life again."
"There is very little of it," his son remarked.
Though Bartolommeo could no longer speak, he could still hear and
see. When those words dropped from Don Juan, his head turned with
appalling quickness, his neck was twisted like the throat of some
marble statue which the sculptor had condemned to remain
stretched out for ever, the wide eyes had come to have a ghastly
He was dead, and in death he lost his last and sole illusion.
He had sought a shelter in his son's heart, and it had proved to
be a sepulchre, a pit deeper than men dig for their dead. The
hair on his head had risen and stiffened with horror, his
agonized glance still spoke. He was a father rising in just anger
from his tomb, to demand vengeance at the throne of God.
"There! it is all over with the old man!" cried Don Juan.
He had been so interested in holding the mysterious phial to the
lamp, as a drinker holds up the wine-bottle at the end of a meal,
that he had not seen his father's eyes fade. The cowering poodle
looked from his master to the elixir, just as Don Juan himself
glanced again and again from his father to the flask. The
lamplight flickered. There was a deep silence; the viol was mute.
Juan Belvidero thought that he saw his father stir, and trembled.
The changeless gaze of those accusing eyes frightened him; he
closed them hastily, as he would have closed a loose shutter
swayed by the wind of an autumn night. He stood there motionless,
lost in a world of thought.
Suddenly the silence was broken by a shrill sound like the
creaking of a rusty spring. It startled Don Juan; he all but
dropped the phial. A sweat, colder than the blade of a dagger,
issued through every pore. It was only a piece of clockwork, a
wooden cock that sprang out and crowed three times, an ingenious
contrivance by which the learned of that epoch were wont to be
awakened at the appointed hour to begin the labors of the day.
Through the windows there came already a flush of dawn. The
thing, composed of wood, and cords, and wheels, and pulleys, was
more faithful in its service than he in his duty to Bartolommeo
--he, a man with that peculiar piece of human mechanism within
him that we call a heart.
Don Juan the sceptic shut the flask again in the secret drawer in
the Gothic table--he meant to run no more risks of losing the
Even at that solemn moment he heard the murmur of a crowd in the
gallery, a confused sound of voices, of stifled laughter and
light footfalls, and the rustling of silks--the sounds of a band
of revelers struggling for gravity. The door opened, and in came
the Prince and Don Juan's friends, the seven courtesans, and the
singers, disheveled and wild like dancers surprised by the dawn,
when the tapers that have burned through the night struggle with
They had come to offer the customary condolence to the young
"Oho! is poor Don Juan really taking this seriously?" said the
Prince in Brambilla's ear.
"Well, his father was very good," she returned.
But Don Juan's night-thoughts had left such unmistakable traces
on his features, that the crew was awed into silence. The men
stood motionless. The women, with wine-parched lips and cheeks
marbled with kisses, knelt down and began a prayer. Don Juan
could scarce help trembling when he saw splendor and mirth and
laughter and song and youth and beauty and power bowed in
reverence before Death. But in those times, in that adorable
Italy of the sixteenth century, religion and revelry went hand in
hand; and religious excess became a sort of debauch, and a
debauch a religious rite!
The Prince grasped Don Juan's hand affectionately, then when all
faces had simultaneously put on the same grimace--half-gloomy,
half-indifferent--the whole masque disappeared, and left the
chamber of death empty. It was like an allegory of life.
As they went down the staircase, the Prince spoke to Rivabarella:
"Now, who would have taken Don Juan's impiety for a boast? He
loves his father."
"Did you see that black dog?" asked La Brambilla.
"He is enormously rich now," sighed Bianca Cavatolino.
"What is that to me?" cried the proud Veronese (she who had
crushed the comfit-box).
"What does it matter to you, forsooth?" cried the Duke. "With his
money he is as much a prince as I am."
At first Don Juan was swayed hither and thither by countless
thoughts, and wavered between two decisions. He took counsel with
the gold heaped up by his father, and returned in the evening to
the chamber of death, his whole soul brimming over with hideous
selfishness. He found all his household busy there. "His
lordship" was to lie in state to-morrow; all Ferrara would flock
to behold the wonderful spectacle; and the servants were busy
decking the room and the couch on which the dead man lay. At a
sign from Don Juan all his people stopped, dumfounded and
"Leave me alone here," he said, and his voice was changed, "and
do not return until I leave the room."
When the footsteps of the old servitor, who was the last to go,
echoed but faintly along the paved gallery, Don Juan hastily
locked the door, and sure that he was quite alone, "Let us try,"
he said to himself.
Bartolommeo's body was stretched on a long table. The embalmers
had laid a sheet over it, to hide from all eyes the dreadful
spectacle of a corpse so wasted and shrunken that it seemed like
a skeleton, and only the face was uncovered. This mummy-like
figure lay in the middle of the room. The limp clinging linen
lent itself to the outlines it shrouded--so sharp, bony, and
thin. Large violet patches had already begun to spread over the
face; the embalmers' work had not been finished too soon.
Don Juan, strong as he was in his scepticism, felt a tremor as he
opened the magic crystal flask. When he stood over that face, he
was trembling so violently, that he was actually obliged to wait
for a moment. But Don Juan had acquired an early familiarity with
evil; his morals had been corrupted by a licentious court, a
reflection worthy of the Duke of Urbino crossed his mind, and it
was a keen sense of curiosity that goaded him into boldness. The
devil himself might have whispered the words that were echoing
through his brain, _Moisten one of the eyes with the liquid_! He
took up a linen cloth, moistened it sparingly with the precious
fluid, and passed it lightly over the right eyelid of the corpse.
The eye unclosed. . . .
"Aha!" said Don Juan. He gripped the flask tightly, as we clutch
in dreams the branch from which we hang suspended over a
For the eye was full of life. It was a young child's eye set in a
death's head; the light quivered in the depths of its youthful
liquid brightness. Shaded by the long dark lashes, it sparkled
like the strange lights that travelers see in lonely places in
winter nights. The eye seemed as if it would fain dart fire at
Don Juan; he saw it thinking, upbraiding, condemning, uttering
accusations, threatening doom; it cried aloud, and gnashed upon
him. All anguish that shakes human souls was gathered there;
supplications the most tender, the wrath of kings, the love in a
girl's heart pleading with the headsman; then, and after all
these, the deeply searching glance a man turns on his fellows as
he mounts the last step of the scaffold. Life so dilated in this
fragment of life that Don Juan shrank back; he walked up and down
the room, he dared not meet that gaze, but he saw nothing else.
The ceiling and the hangings, the whole room was sown with living
points of fire and intelligence. Everywhere those gleaming eyes
"He might very likely have lived another hundred years!" he cried
involuntarily. Some diabolical influence had drawn him to his
father, and again he gazed at that luminous spark. The eyelid
closed and opened again abruptly; it was like a woman's sign of
assent. It was an intelligent movement. If a voice had cried
"Yes!" Don Juan could not have been more startled.
"What is to be done?" he thought.
He nerved himself to try to close the white eyelid. In vain.
"Kill it? That would perhaps be parricide," he debated with
"Yes," the eye said, with a strange sardonic quiver of the lid.
"Aha!" said Don Juan to himself, "here is witchcraft at work!"
And he went closer to crush the thing. A great tear trickled over
the hollow cheeks, and fell on Don Juan's hand.
"It is scalding!" he cried. He sat down. The struggle exhausted
him; it was as if, like Jacob of old, he was wrestling with an
At last he rose. "So long as there is no blood----" he muttered.
Then, summoning all the courage needed for a coward's crime, he
extinguished the eye, pressing it with the linen cloth, turning
his head away. A terrible groan startled him. It was the poor
poodle, who died with a long-drawn howl.
"Could the brute have been in the secret?" thought Don Juan,
looking down at the faithful creature.
Don Juan Belvidero was looked upon as a dutiful son. He reared a
white marble monument on his father's tomb, and employed the
greatest sculptors of the time upon it. He did not recover
perfect ease of mind till the day when his father knelt in marble
before Religion, and the heavy weight of the stone had sealed the
mouth of the grave in which he had laid the one feeling of
remorse that sometimes flitted through his soul in moments of
He had drawn up a list of the wealth heaped up by the old
merchant in the East, and he became a miser: had he not to
provide for a second lifetime? His views of life were the more
profound and penetrating; he grasped its significance, as a
whole, the better, because he saw it across a grave. All men, all
things, he analyzed once and for all; he summed up the Past,
represented by its records; the Present in the law, its
crystallized form; the Future, revealed by religion. He took
spirit and matter, and flung them into his crucible, and found
--Nothing. Thenceforward he became DON JUAN.
At the outset of his life, in the prime of youth and the beauty
of youth, he knew the illusions of life for what they were; he
despised the world, and made the utmost of the world. His
felicity could not have been of the bourgeois kind, rejoicing in
periodically recurrent _bouilli_, in the comforts of a warming-pan,
a lamp of a night, and a new pair of slippers once a quarter.
Nay, rather he seized upon existence as a monkey snatches a nut,
and after no long toying with it, proceeds deftly to strip off
the mere husks to reach the savory kernel within.
Poetry and the sublime transports of passion scarcely reached
ankle-depth with him now. He in nowise fell into the error of
strong natures who flatter themselves now and again that little
souls will believe in a great soul, and are willing to barter
their own lofty thoughts of the future for the small change of
our life-annuity ideas. He, even as they, had he chosen, might
well have walked with his feet on the earth and his head in the
skies; but he liked better to sit on earth, to wither the soft,
fresh, fragrant lips of a woman with kisses, for like Death, he
devoured everything without scruple as he passed; he would have
full fruition; he was an Oriental lover, seeking prolonged
pleasures easily obtained. He sought nothing but a woman in
women, and cultivated cynicism, until it became with him a habit
of mind. When his mistress, from the couch on which she lay,
soared and was lost in regions of ecstatic bliss, Don Juan
followed suit, earnest, expansive, serious as any German student.
But he said I, while she, in the transports of intoxication, said
We. He understood to admiration the art of abandoning himself to
the influence of a woman; he was always clever enough to make her
believe that he trembled like some boy fresh from college before
his first partner at a dance, when he asks her, "Do you like
dancing?" But, no less, he could be terrible at need, could
unsheathe a formidable sword and make short work of Commandants.
Banter lurked beneath his simplicity, mocking laughter behind his
tears--for he had tears at need, like any woman nowadays who says
to her husband, "Give me a carriage, or I shall go into a
For the merchant the world is a bale of goods or a mass of
circulating bills; for most young men it is a woman, and for a
woman here and there it is a man; for a certain order of mind it
is a salon, a coterie, a quarter of the town, or some single
city; but Don Juan found his world in himself.
This model of grace and dignity, this captivating wit, moored his
bark by every shore; but wherever he was led he was never carried
away, and was only steered in a course of his own choosing. The
more he saw, the more he doubted. He watched men narrowly, and
saw how, beneath the surface, courage was often rashness; and
prudence, cowardice; generosity, a clever piece of calculation;
justice, a wrong; delicacy, pusillanimity; honesty, a _modus
vivendi_; and by some strange dispensation of fate, he must see
that those who at heart were really honest, scrupulous, just,
generous, prudent, or brave were held cheaply by their
"What a cold-blooded jest!" said he to himself. "It was not
devised by a God."
From that time forth he renounced a better world, and never
uncovered himself when a Name was pronounced, and for him the
carven saints in the churches became works of art. He understood
the mechanism of society too well to clash wantonly with its
prejudices; for, after all, he was not as powerful as the
executioner, but he evaded social laws with the wit and grace so
well rendered in the scene with M. Dimanche. He was, in fact,
Moliere's Don Juan, Goethe's Faust, Byron's Manfred, Mathurin's
Melmoth--great allegorical figures drawn by the greatest men of
genius in Europe, to which Mozart's harmonies, perhaps, do no
more justice than Rossini's lyre. Terrible allegorical figures
that shall endure as long as the principle of evil existing in
the heart of man shall produce a few copies from century to
century. Sometimes the type becomes half-human when incarnate as
a Mirabeau, sometimes it is an inarticulate force in a Bonaparte,
sometimes it overwhelms the universe with irony as a Rabelais;
or, yet again, it appears when a Marechal de Richelieu elects to
laugh at human beings instead of scoffing at things, or when one
of the most famous of our ambassadors goes a step further and
scoffs at both men and things. But the profound genius of Juan
Belvidero anticipated and resumed all these. All things were a
jest to him. His was the life of a mocking spirit. All men, all
institutions, all realities, all ideas were within its scope. As
for eternity, after half an hour of familiar conversation with
Pope Julius II. he said, laughing:
"If it is absolutely necessary to make a choice, I would rather
believe in God than in the Devil; power combined with goodness
always offers more resources than the spirit of Evil can boast."
"Yes; still God requires repentance in this present world----"
"So you always think of your indulgences," returned Don Juan
Belvidero. "Well, well, I have another life in reserve in which
to repent of the sins of my previous existence."
"Oh, if you regard old age in that light," cried the Pope, "you
are in danger on canonization----"
"After your elevation to the Papacy nothing is incredible." And
they went to watch the workmen who were building the huge
basilica dedicated to Saint Peter.
"Saint Peter, as the man of genius who laid the foundation of our
double power," the Pope said to Don Juan, "deserves this
monument. Sometimes, though, at night, I think that a deluge will
wipe all this out as with a sponge, and it will be all to begin
Don Juan and the Pope began to laugh; they understood each other.
A fool would have gone on the morrow to amuse himself with Julius
II. in Raphael's studio or at the delicious Villa Madama; not so
Belvidero. He went to see the Pope as pontiff, to be convinced of
any doubts that he (Don Juan) entertained. Over his cups the
Rovere would have been capable of denying his own infallibility
and of commenting on the Apocalypse.
Nevertheless, this legend has not been undertaken to furnish
materials for future biographies of Don Juan; it is intended to
prove to honest folk that Belvidero did not die in a duel with
stone, as some lithographers would have us believe.
When Don Juan Belvidero reached the age of sixty he settled in
Spain, and there in his old age he married a young and charming
Andalusian wife. But of set purpose he was neither a good husband
nor a good father. He had observed that we are never so tenderly
loved as by women to whom we scarcely give a thought. Dona Elvira
had been devoutly brought up by an old aunt in a castle a few
leagues from San-Lucar in a remote part of Andalusia. She was a
model of devotion and grace. Don Juan foresaw that this would be
a woman who would struggle long against a passion before
yielding, and therefore hoped to keep her virtuous until his
death. It was a jest undertaken in earnest, a game of chess which
he meant to reserve till his old age. Don Juan had learned wisdom
from the mistakes made by his father Bartolommeo; he determined
that the least details of his life in old age should be
subordinated to one object--the success of the drama which was to
be played out upon his death-bed.
For the same reason the largest part of his wealth was buried in
the cellars of his palace at Ferrara, whither he seldom went. As
for the rest of his fortune, it was invested in a life annuity,
with a view to give his wife and children an interest in keeping
him alive; but this Machiavellian piece of foresight was scarcely
necessary. His son, young Felipe Belvidero, grew up as a Spaniard
as religiously conscientious as his father was irreligious, in
virtue, perhaps, of the old rule, "A miser has a spendthrift
son." The Abbot of San-Lucar was chosen by Don Juan to be the
director of the consciences of the Duchess of Belvidero and her
son Felipe. The ecclesiastic was a holy man, well shaped, and
admirably well proportioned. He had fine dark eyes, a head like
that of Tiberius, worn with fasting, bleached by an ascetic life,
and, like all dwellers in the wilderness, was daily tempted. The
noble lord had hopes, it may be, of despatching yet another monk
before his term of life was out.
But whether because the Abbot was every whit as clever as Don
Juan himself, or Dona Elvira possessed more discretion or more
virtue than Spanish wives are usually credited with, Don Juan was
compelled to spend his declining years beneath his own roof, with
no more scandal under it than if he had been an ancient country
parson. Occasionally he would take wife and son to task for
negligence in the duties of religion, peremptorily insisting that
they should carry out to the letter the obligations imposed upon
the flock by the Court of Rome. Indeed, he was never so well
pleased as when he had set the courtly Abbot discussing some case
of conscience with Dona Elvira and Felipe.
At length, however, despite the prodigious care that the great
magnifico, Don Juan Belvidero, took of himself, the days of
decrepitude came upon him, and with those days the constant
importunity of physical feebleness, an importunity all the more
distressing by contrast with the wealth of memories of his
impetuous youth and the sensual pleasures of middle age. The
unbeliever who in the height of his cynical humor had been wont
to persuade others to believe in laws and principles at which he
scoffed, must repose nightly upon a _perhaps_. The great Duke,
the pattern of good breeding, the champion of many a carouse, the
proud ornament of Courts, the man of genius, the graceful winner
of hearts that he had wrung as carelessly as a peasant twists an
osier withe, was now the victim of a cough, of a ruthless
sciatica, of an unmannerly gout. His teeth gradually deserted
him, as at the end of an evening the fairest and best-dressed
women take their leave one by one till the room is left empty and
desolate. The active hands became palsy-stricken, the shapely
legs tottered as he walked. At last, one night, a stroke of
apoplexy caught him by the throat in its icy clutch. After that
fatal day he grew morose and stern.
He would reproach his wife and son with their devotion, casting
it in their teeth that the affecting and thoughtful care that
they lavished so tenderly upon him was bestowed because they knew
that his money was invested in a life annuity. Then Elvira and
Felipe would shed bitter tears and redouble their caresses, and
the wicked old man's insinuating voice would take an affectionate
tone--"Ah, you will forgive me, will you not, dear friends, dear
wife? I am rather a nuisance. Alas, Lord in heaven, how canst
Thou use me as the instrument by which Thou provest these two
angelic creatures? I who should be the joy of their lives am
become their scourge . . ."
In this manner he kept them tethered to his pillow, blotting out
the memory of whole months of fretfulness and unkindness in one
short hour when he chose to display for them the ever-new
treasures of his pinchbeck tenderness and charm of manner--a
system of paternity that yielded him an infinitely better return
than his own father's indulgence had formerly gained. At length
his bodily infirmities reached a point when the task of laying
him in bed became as difficult as the navigation of a felucca in
the perils of an intricate channel. Then came the day of his
death; and this brilliant sceptic, whose mental faculties alone
had survived the most dreadful of all destructions, found himself
between his two special antipathies--the doctor and the
confessor. But he was jovial with them. Did he not see a light
gleaming in the future beyond the veil? The pall that is like
lead for other men was thin and translucent for him; the
light-footed, irresistible delights of youth danced beyond it
It was on a beautiful summer evening that Don Juan felt the near
approach of death. The sky of Spain was serene and cloudless; the
air was full of the scent of orange-blossom; the stars shed
clear, pure gleams of light; nature without seemed to give the
dying man assurance of resurrection; a dutiful and obedient son
sat there watching him with loving and respectful eyes. Towards
eleven o'clock he desired to be left alone with this
"Felipe," said the father, in tones so soft and affectionate that
the young man trembled, and tears of gladness came to his eyes;
never had that stern father spoken his name in such a tone.
"Listen, my son," the dying man went on. "I am a great sinner.
All my life long, however, I have thought of my death. I was once
the friend of the great Pope Julius II.; and that illustrious
Pontiff, fearing lest the excessive excitability of my senses
should entangle me in mortal sin between the moment of my death
and the time of my anointing with the holy oil, gave me a flask
that contains a little of the holy water that once issued from
the rock in the wilderness. I have kept the secret of this
squandering of a treasure belonging to Holy Church, but I am
permitted to reveal the mystery _in articulo mortis_ to my son.
You will find the flask in a drawer in that Gothic table that
always stands by the head of the bed. . . . The precious little
crystal flask may be of use yet again for you, dearest Felipe.
Will you swear to me, by your salvation, to carry out my
Felipe looked at his father, and Don Juan was too deeply learned
in the lore of the human countenance not to die in peace with
that look as his warrant, as his own father had died in despair
at meeting the expression in his son's eyes.
"You deserved to have a better father," Don Juan went on. "I dare
to confess, my child, that while the reverend Abbot of San-Lucar
was administering the Viaticum I was thinking of the
incompatibility of the co-existence of two powers so infinite as
God and the Devil----"
"And I said to myself, when Satan makes his peace he ought surely
to stipulate for the pardon of his followers, or he will be the
veriest scoundrel. The thought haunted me; so I shall go to hell,
my son, unless you carry out my wishes."
"Oh, quick; tell me quickly, father."
"As soon as I have closed my eyes," Don Juan went on, "and that
may be in a few minutes, you must take my body before it grows
cold and lay it on a table in this room. Then put out the lamp;
the light of the stars should be sufficient. Take off my clothes,
reciting Aves and Paters the while, raising your soul to God in
prayer, and carefully anoint my lips and eyes with this holy
water; begin with the face, and proceed successively to my limbs
and the rest of my body; my dear son, the power of God is so
great that you must be astonished at nothing."
Don Juan felt death so near, that he added in a terrible voice,
"Be careful not to drop the flask."
Then he breathed his last gently in the arms of his son, and his
son's tears fell fast over his sardonic, haggard features.
It was almost midnight when Don Felipe Belvidero laid his
father's body upon the table. He kissed the sinister brow and the
gray hair; then he put out the lamp.
By the soft moonlight that lit strange gleams across the country
without, Felipe could dimly see his father's body, a vague white
thing among the shadows. The dutiful son moistened a linen cloth
with the liquid, and, absorbed in prayer, he anointed the revered
face. A deep silence reigned. Felipe heard faint, indescribable
rustlings; it was the breeze in the tree-tops, he thought. But
when he had moistened the right arm, he felt himself caught by
the throat, a young strong hand held him in a tight grip--it was
his father's hand! He shrieked aloud; the flask dropped from his
hand and broke in pieces. The liquid evaporated; the whole
household hurried into the room, holding torches aloft. That
shriek had startled them, and filled them with as much terror as
if the Trumpet of the Angel sounding on the Last Day had rung
through earth and sky. The room was full of people, and a
horror-stricken crowd beheld the fainting Felipe upheld by the
strong arm of his father, who clutched him by the throat. They
saw another thing, an unearthly spectacle--Don Juan's face grown
young and beautiful as Antinous, with its dark hair and brilliant
eyes and red lips, a head that made horrible efforts, but could
not move the dead, wasted body.
An old servitor cried, "A miracle! a miracle!" and all the
Spaniards echoed, "A miracle! a miracle!"
Dona Elvira, too pious to attribute this to magic, sent for the
Abbot of San-Lucar; and the Prior beholding the miracle with his
own eyes, being a clever man, and withal an Abbot desirous of
augmenting his revenues, determined to turn the occasion to
profit. He immediately gave out that Don Juan would certainly be
canonized; he appointed a day for the celebration of the
apotheosis in his convent, which thenceforward, he said, should
be called the convent of San Juan of Lucar. At these words a
sufficiently facetious grimace passed over the features of the
The taste of the Spanish people for ecclesiastical solemnities is
so well known, that it should not be difficult to imagine the
religious pantomime by which the Convent of San-Lucar celebrated
the translation of the _blessed Don Juan Belvidero_ to the
abbey-church. The tale of the partial resurrection had spread so
quickly from village to village, that a day or two after the
death of the illustrious nobleman the report had reached every
place within fifty miles of San-Lucar, and it was as good as a
play to see the roads covered already with crowds flocking in on
all sides, their curiosity whetted still further by the prospect
of a _Te Deum_ sung by torchlight. The old abbey church of
San-Lucar, a marvelous building erected by the Moors, a mosque of
Allah, which for three centuries had heard the name of Christ,
could not hold the throng that poured in to see the ceremony.
Hidalgos in their velvet mantles, with their good swords at their
sides, swarmed like ants, and were so tightly packed in among the
pillars that they had not room to bend the knees, which never
bent save to God. Charming peasant girls, in the basquina that
defines the luxuriant outlines of their figures, lent an arm to
white-haired old men. Young men, with eyes of fire, walked beside
aged crones in holiday array. Then came couples tremulous with
joy, young lovers led thither by curiosity, newly-wedded folk;
children timidly clasping each other by the hand. This throng, so
rich in coloring, in vivid contrasts, laden with flowers,
enameled like a meadow, sent up a soft murmur through the quiet
night. Then the great doors of the church opened.
Late comers who remained without saw afar, through the three
great open doorways, a scene of which the theatrical illusions of
modern opera can give but a faint idea. The vast church was
lighted up by thousands of candles, offered by saints and sinners
alike eager to win the favor of this new candidate for
canonization, and these self-commending illuminations turned the
great building into an enchanted fairyland. The black archways,
the shafts and capitals, the recessed chapels with gold and
silver gleaming in their depths, the galleries, the Arab
traceries, all the most delicate outlines of that delicate
sculpture, burned in the excess of light like the fantastic
figures in the red heart of a brazier. At the further end of the
church, above that blazing sea, rose the high altar like a
splendid dawn. All the glories of the golden lamps and silver
candlesticks, of banners and tassels, of the shrines of the
saints and votive offerings, paled before the gorgeous brightness
of the reliquary in which Don Juan lay. The blasphemer's body
sparkled with gems, and flowers, and crystal, with diamonds and
gold, and plumes white as the wings of seraphim; they had set it
up on the altar, where the pictures of Christ had stood. All
about him blazed a host of tall candles; the air quivered in the
radiant light. The worthy Abbot of San-Lucar, in pontifical
robes, with his mitre set with precious stones, his rochet and
golden crosier, sat enthroned in imperial state among his clergy
in the choir. Rows of impassive aged faces, silver-haired old men
clad in fine linen albs, were grouped about him, as the saints
who confessed Christ on earth are set by painters, each in his
place, about the throne of God in heaven. The precentor and the
dignitaries of the chapter, adorned with the gorgeous insignia of
ecclesiastical vanity, came and went through the clouds of
incense, like stars upon their courses in the firmament.
When the hour of triumph arrived, the bells awoke the echoes far
and wide, and the whole vast crowd raised to God the first cry of
praise that begins the _Te Deum_. A sublime cry! High, pure notes,
the voices of women in ecstasy, mingled in it with the sterner
and deeper voices of men; thousands of voices sent up a volume of
sound so mighty, that the straining, groaning organ-pipes could
not dominate that harmony. But the shrill sound of children's
singing among the choristers, the reverberation of deep bass
notes, awakened gracious associations, visions of childhood, and
of man in his strength, and rose above that entrancing harmony of
human voices blended in one sentiment of love.
_Te Deum laudamus_!
The chant went up from the black masses of men and women kneeling
in the cathedral, like a sudden breaking out of light in
darkness, and the silence was shattered as by a peal of thunder.
The voices floated up with the clouds of incense that had begun
to cast thin bluish veils over the fanciful marvels of the
architecture, and the aisles were filled with splendor and
perfume and light and melody. Even at the moment when that music
of love and thanksgiving soared up to the altar, Don Juan, too
well bred not to express his acknowledgments, too witty not to
understand how to take a jest, bridled up in his reliquary, and
responded with an appalling burst of laughter. Then the Devil
having put him in mind of the risk he was running of being taken
for an ordinary man, a saint, a Boniface, a Pantaleone, he
interrupted the melody of love by a yell, the thousand voices of
hell joined in it. Earth blessed, Heaven banned. The church was
shaken to its ancient foundations.
_Te Deum laudamus_! cried the many voices.
"Go to the devil, brute beasts that you are! _Dios! Dios! Garajos
demonios!_ Idiots! What fools you are with your dotard God!" and a
torrent of imprecations poured forth like a stream of red-hot
lava from the mouth of Vesuvius.
"_Deus Sabaoth! . . . Sabaoth_!" cried the believers.
"You are insulting the majesty of Hell," shouted Don Juan,
gnashing his teeth. In another moment the living arm struggled
out of the reliquary, and was brandished over the assembly in
mockery and despair.
"The saint is blessing us," cried the old women, children,
lovers, and the credulous among the crowd.
And note how often we are deceived in the homage we pay; the
great man scoffs at those who praise him, and pays compliments
now and again to those whom he laughs at in the depths of his
Just as the Abbot, prostrate before the altar, was chanting
"_Sancte Johannes, ora pro noblis_!" he heard a voice exclaim
sufficiently distinctly: "_O coglione_!"
"What can be going on up there?" cried the Sub-prior, as he saw
the reliquary move.
"The saint is playing the devil," replied the Abbot.
Even as he spoke the living head tore itself away from the
lifeless body, and dropped upon the sallow cranium of the
"Remember Dona Elvira!" cried the thing, with its teeth set fast
in the Abbot's head.
The Abbot's horror-stricken shriek disturbed the ceremony; all
the ecclesiastics hurried up and crowded about their chief.
"Idiot, tell us now if there is a God!" the voice cried, as the
Abbot, bitten through the brain, drew his last breath.
PARIS, October 1830.
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