The Red Inn
Honore de Balzac
Etext prepared by John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
and Dagny, email@example.com
THE RED INN
HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To Monsieur le Marquis de Custine.
THE RED INN
In I know not what year a Parisian banker, who had very extensive
commercial relations with Germany, was entertaining at dinner one of
those friends whom men of business often make in the markets of the
world through correspondence; a man hitherto personally unknown to
him. This friend, the head of a rather important house in Nuremburg,
was a stout worthy German, a man of taste and erudition, above all a
man of pipes, having a fine, broad, Nuremburgian face, with a square
open forehead adorned by a few sparse locks of yellowish hair. He was
the type of the sons of that pure and noble Germany, so fertile in
honorable natures, whose peaceful manners and morals have never been
lost, even after seven invasions.
This stranger laughed with simplicity, listened attentively, and drank
remarkably well, seeming to like champagne as much perhaps as he liked
his straw-colored Johannisburger. His name was Hermann, which is that
of most Germans whom authors bring upon their scene. Like a man who
does nothing frivolously, he was sitting squarely at the banker's
table and eating with that Teutonic appetite so celebrated throughout
Europe, saying, in fact, a conscientious farewell to the cookery of
the great Careme.
To do honor to his guest the master of the house had invited a few
intimate friends, capitalists or merchants, and several agreeable and
pretty women, whose pleasant chatter and frank manners were in harmony
with German cordiality. Really, if you could have seen, as I saw, this
joyous gathering of persons who had drawn in their commercial claws,
and were speculating only on the pleasures of life, you would have
found no cause to hate usurious discounts, or to curse bankruptcies.
Mankind can't always be doing evil. Even in the society of pirates one
might find a few sweet hours during which we could fancy their
sinister craft a pleasure-boat rocking on the deep.
"Before we part, Monsieur Hermann will, I trust, tell one more German
story to terrify us?"
These words were said at dessert by a pale fair girl, who had read, no
doubt, the tales of Hoffmann and the novels of Walter Scott. She was
the only daughter of the banker, a charming young creature whose
education was then being finished at the Gymnase, the plays of which
she adored. At this moment the guests were in that happy state of
laziness and silence which follows a delicious dinner, especially if
we have presumed too far on our digestive powers. Leaning back in
their chairs, their wrists lightly resting on the edge of the table,
they were indolently playing with the gilded blades of their dessert-
knives. When a dinner comes to this declining moment some guests will
be seen to play with a pear seed; others roll crumbs of bread between
their fingers and thumbs; lovers trace indistinct letters with
fragments of fruit; misers count the stones on their plate and arrange
them as a manager marshals his supernumeraries at the back of the
stage. These are little gastronomic felicities which Brillat-Savarin,
otherwise so complete an author, overlooked in his book. The footmen
had disappeared. The dessert was like a squadron after a battle: all
the dishes were disabled, pillaged, damaged; several were wandering
around the table, in spite of the efforts of the mistress of the house
to keep them in their places. Some of the persons present were gazing
at pictures of Swiss scenery, symmetrically hung upon the gray-toned
walls of the dining-room. Not a single guest was bored; in fact, I
never yet knew a man who was sad during his digestion of a good
dinner. We like at such moments to remain in quietude, a species of
middle ground between the reverie of a thinker and the comfort of the
ruminating animals; a condition which we may call the material
melancholy of gastronomy.
So the guests now turned spontaneously to the excellent German,
delighted to have a tale to listen to, even though it might prove of
no interest. During this blessed interregnum the voice of a narrator
is always delightful to our languid senses; it increases their
negative happiness. I, a seeker after impressions, admired the faces
about me, enlivened by smiles, beaming in the light of the wax
candles, and somewhat flushed by our late good cheer; their diverse
expressions producing piquant effects seen among the porcelain
baskets, the fruits, the glasses, and the candelabra.
All of a sudden my imagination was caught by the aspect of a guest who
sat directly in front of me. He was a man of medium height, rather fat
and smiling, having the air and manner of a stock-broker, and
apparently endowed with a very ordinary mind. Hitherto I had scarcely
noticed him, but now his face, possibly darkened by a change in the
lights, seemed to me to have altered its character; it had certainly
grown ghastly; violet tones were spreading over it; you might have
thought it the cadaverous head of a dying man. Motionless as the
personages painted on a diorama, his stupefied eyes were fixed on the
sparkling facets of a cut-glass stopper, but certainly without
observing them; he seemed to be engulfed in some weird contemplation
of the future or the past. When I had long examined that puzzling face
I began to reflect about it. "Is he ill?" I said to myself. "Has he
drunk too much wine? Is he ruined by a drop in the Funds? Is he
thinking how to cheat his creditors?"
"Look!" I said to my neighbor, pointing out to her the face of the
unknown man, "is that an embryo bankrupt?"
"Oh, no!" she answered, "he would be much gayer." Then, nodding her
head gracefully, she added, "If that man ever ruins himself I'll tell
it in Pekin! He possesses a million in real estate. That's a former
purveyor to the imperial armies; a good sort of man, and rather
original. He married a second time by way of speculation; but for all
that he makes his wife extremely happy. He has a pretty daughter, whom
he refused for many years to recognize; but the death of his son,
unfortunately killed in a duel, has compelled him to take her home,
for he could not otherwise have children. The poor girl has suddenly
become one of the richest heiresses in Paris. The death of his son
threw the poor man into an agony of grief, which sometimes reappears
on the surface."
At that instant the purveyor raised his eyes and rested them upon me;
that glance made me quiver, so full was it of gloomy thought. But
suddenly his face grew lively; he picked up the cut-glass stopper and
put it, with a mechanical movement, into a decanter full of water that
was near his plate, and then he turned to Monsieur Hermann and smiled.
After all, that man, now beatified by gastronomical enjoyments, hadn't
probably two ideas in his brain, and was thinking of nothing.
Consequently I felt rather ashamed of wasting my powers of divination
"in anima vili,"--of a doltish financier.
While I was thus making, at a dead loss, these phrenological
observations, the worthy German had lined his nose with a good pinch
of snuff and was now beginning his tale. It would be difficult to
reproduce it in his own language, with his frequent interruptions and
wordy digressions. Therefore, I now write it down in my own way;
leaving out the faults of the Nuremburger, and taking only what his
tale may have had of interest and poesy with the coolness of writers
who forget to put on the title pages of their books: "Translated from
THOUGHT AND ACT
Toward the end of Venemiaire, year VII., a republican period which in
the present day corresponds to October 20, 1799, two young men,
leaving Bonn in the early morning, had reached by nightfall the
environs of Andernach, a small town standing on the left bank of the
Rhine a few leagues from Coblentz. At that time the French army,
commanded by Augereau, was manoeuvring before the Austrians, who then
occupied the right bank of the river. The headquarters of the
Republican division was at Coblentz, and one of the demi-brigades
belonging to Augereau's corps was stationed at Andernach.
The two travellers were Frenchmen. At sight of their uniforms, blue
mixed with white and faced with red velvet, their sabres, and above
all their hats covered with a green varnished-cloth and adorned with a
tricolor plume, even the German peasants had recognized army surgeons,
a body of men of science and merit liked, for the most part, not only
in our own army but also in the countries invaded by our troops. At
this period many sons of good families taken from their medical
studies by the recent conscription law due to General Jourdan, had
naturally preferred to continue their studies on the battle-field
rather than be restricted to mere military duty, little in keeping
with their early education and their peaceful destinies. Men of
science, pacific yet useful, these young men did an actual good in the
midst of so much misery, and formed a bond of sympathy with other men
of science in the various countries through which the cruel
civilization of the Republic passed.
The two young men were each provided with a pass and a commission as
assistant-surgeon signed Coste and Bernadotte; and they were on their
way to join the demi-brigade to which they were attached. Both
belonged to moderately rich families in Beauvais, a town in which the
gentle manners and loyalty of the provinces are transmitted as a
species of birthright. Attracted to the theatre of war before the date
at which they were required to begin their functions, they had
travelled by diligence to Strasburg. Though maternal prudence had only
allowed them a slender sum of money they thought themselves rich in
possessing a few louis, an actual treasure in those days when
assignats were reaching their lowest depreciation and gold was worth
far more than silver. The two young surgeons, about twenty years of
age at the most, yielded themselves up to the poesy of their situation
with all the enthusiasm of youth. Between Strasburg and Bonn they had
visited the Electorate and the banks of the Rhine as artists,
philosophers, and observers. When a man's destiny is scientific he is,
at their age, a being who is truly many-sided. Even in making love or
in travelling, an assistant-surgeon should be gathering up the
rudiments of his fortune or his coming fame.
The two young had therefore given themselves wholly to that deep
admiration which must affect all educated men on seeing the banks of
the Rhine and the scenery of Suabia between Mayenne and Cologne,--a
strong, rich, vigorously varied nature, filled with feudal memories,
ever fresh and verdant, yet retaining at all points the imprints of
fire and sword. Louis XIV. and Turenne have cauterized that beautiful
land. Here and there certain ruins bear witness to the pride or rather
the foresight of the King of Versailles, who caused to be pulled down
the ancient castles that once adorned this part of Germany. Looking at
this marvellous country, covered with forests, where the picturesque
charm of the middle ages abounds, though in ruins, we are able to
conceive the German genius, its reverie, its mysticism.
The stay of the two friends at Bonn had the double purpose of science
and pleasure. The grand hospital of the Gallo-Batavian army and of
Augereau's division was established in the very palace of the Elector.
These assistant-surgeons of recent date went there to see old
comrades, to present their letters of recommendation to their medical
chiefs, and to familiarize themselves with the first aspects of their
profession. There, as elsewhere, they got rid of a few prejudices to
which we cling so fondly in favor of the beauties of our native land.
Surprised by the aspect of the columns of marble which adorn the
Electoral Palace, they went about admiring the grandiose effects of
German architecture, and finding everywhere new treasures both modern
From time to time the highways along which the two friends rode at
leisure on their way to Andernach, led them over the crest of some
granite hill that was higher than the rest. Thence, through a clearing
of the forest or cleft in the rocky barrier, they caught sudden
glimpses of the Rhine framed in stone or festooned with vigorous
vegetation. The valleys, the forest paths, the trees exhaled that
autumnal odor which induced to reverie; the wooded summits were
beginning to gild and to take on the warm brown tones significant of
age; the leaves were falling, but the skies were still azure and the
dry roads lay like yellow lines along the landscape, just then
illuminated by the oblique rays of the setting sun. At a mile and a
half from Andernach the two friends walked their horses in silence, as
if no war were devastating this beautiful land, while they followed a
path made for the goats across the lofty walls of bluish granite
between which foams the Rhine. Presently they descended by one of the
declivities of the gorge, at the foot of which is placed the little
town, seated coquettishly on the banks of the river and offering a
convenient port to mariners.
"Germany is a beautiful country!" cried one of the two young men, who
was named Prosper Magnan, at the moment when he caught sight of the
painted houses of Andernach, pressed together like eggs in a basket,
and separated only by trees, gardens, and flowers. Then he admired for
a moment the pointed roofs with their projecting eaves, the wooden
staircases, the galleries of a thousand peaceful dwellings, and the
vessels swaying to the waves in the port.
[At the moment when Monsieur Hermann uttered the name of Prosper
Magnan, my opposite neighbor seized the decanter, poured out a glass
of water, and emptied it at a draught. This movement having attracted
my attention, I thought I noticed a slight trembling of the hand and a
moisture on the brow of the capitalist.
"What is that man's name?" I asked my neighbor.
"Taillefer," she replied.
"Do you feel ill?" I said to him, observing that this strange
personage was turning pale.
"Not at all," he said with a polite gesture of thanks. "I am
listening," he added, with a nod to the guests, who were all
simultaneously looking at him.
"I have forgotten," said Monsieur Hermann, "the name of the other
young man. But the confidences which Prosper Magnan subsequently made
to me enabled me to know that his companion was dark, rather thin, and
jovial. I will, if you please, call him Wilhelm, to give greater
clearness to the tale I am about to tell you."
The worthy German resumed his narrative after having, without the
smallest regard for romanticism and local color, baptized the young
French surgeon with a Teutonic name.]
By the time the two young men reached Andernach the night was dark.
Presuming that they would lose much time in looking for their chiefs
and obtaining from them a military billet in a town already full of
soldiers, they resolved to spend their last night of freedom at an inn
standing some two or three hundred feet from Andernach, the rich color
of which, embellished by the fires of the setting sun, they had
greatly admired from the summit of the hill above the town. Painted
entirely red, this inn produced a most piquant effect in the
landscape, whether by detaching itself from the general background of
the town, or by contrasting its scarlet sides with the verdure of the
surrounding foliage, and the gray-blue tints of the water. This house
owed its name, the Red Inn, to this external decoration, imposed upon
it, no doubt from time immemorial by the caprice of its founder. A
mercantile superstition, natural enough to the different possessors of
the building, far-famed among the sailors of the Rhine, had made them
scrupulous to preserve the title.
Hearing the sound of horses' hoofs, the master of the Red Inn came out
upon the threshold of his door.
"By heavens! gentlemen," he cried, "a little later and you'd have had
to sleep beneath the stars, like a good many more of your compatriots
who are bivouacking on the other side of Andernach. Here every room is
occupied. If you want to sleep in a good bed I have only my own room
to offer you. As for your horses I can litter them down in a corner of
the courtyard. The stable is full of people. Do these gentlemen come
from France?" he added after a slight pause.
"From Bonn," cried Prosper, "and we have eaten nothing since morning."
"Oh! as to provisions," said the innkeeper, nodding his head, "people
come to the Red Inn for their wedding feast from thirty miles round.
You shall have a princely meal, a Rhine fish! More, I need not say."
After confiding their weary steeds to the care of the landlord, who
vainly called to his hostler, the two young men entered the public
room of the inn. Thick white clouds exhaled by a numerous company of
smokers prevented them from at first recognizing the persons with whom
they were thrown; but after sitting awhile near the table, with the
patience practised by philosophical travellers who know the inutility
of making a fuss, they distinguished through the vapors of tobacco the
inevitable accessories of a German inn: the stove, the clock, the pots
of beer, the long pipes, and here and there the eccentric
physiognomies of Jews, or Germans, and the weather-beaten faces of
mariners. The epaulets of several French officers were glittering
through the mist, and the clank of spurs and sabres echoed incessantly
from the brick floor. Some were playing cards, others argued, or held
their tongues and ate, drank, or walked about. One stout little woman,
wearing a black velvet cap, blue and silver stomacher, pincushion,
bunch of keys, silver buckles, braided hair,--all distinctive signs of
the mistress of a German inn (a costume which has been so often
depicted in colored prints that it is too common to describe here),--
well, this wife of the innkeeper kept the two friends alternately
patient and impatient with remarkable ability.
Little by little the noise decreased, the various travellers retired
to their rooms, the clouds of smoke dispersed. When places were set
for the two young men, and the classic carp of the Rhine appeared upon
the table, eleven o'clock was striking and the room was empty. The
silence of night enabled the young surgeons to hear vaguely the noise
their horses made in eating their provender, and the murmur of the
waters of the Rhine, together with those indefinable sounds which
always enliven an inn when filled with persons preparing to go to bed.
Doors and windows are opened and shut, voices murmur vague words, and
a few interpellations echo along the passages.
At this moment of silence and tumult the two Frenchmen and their
landlord, who was boasting of Andernach, his inn, his cookery, the
Rhine wines, the Republican army, and his wife, were all three
listening with a sort of interest to the hoarse cries of sailors in a
boat which appeared to be coming to the wharf. The innkeeper, familiar
no doubt with the guttural shouts of the boatmen, went out hastily,
but presently returned conducting a short stout man, behind whom
walked two sailors carrying a heavy valise and several packages. When
these were deposited in the room, the short man took the valise and
placed it beside him as he seated himself without ceremony at the same
table as the surgeons.
"Go and sleep in your boat," he said to the boatmen, "as the inn is
full. Considering all things, that is best."
"Monsieur," said the landlord to the new-comer, "these are all the
provisions I have left," pointing to the supper served to the two
Frenchmen; "I haven't so much as another crust of bread nor a bone."
"Not enough to put in my wife's thimble! As I had the honor to tell
you just now, you can have no bed but the chair on which you are
sitting, and no other chamber than this public room."
At these words the little man cast upon the landlord, the room, and
the two Frenchmen a look in which caution and alarm were equally
["Here," said Monsieur Hermann, interrupting himself, "I ought to tell
you that we have never known the real name nor the history of this
man; his papers showed that he came from Aix-la-Chapelle; he called
himself Wahlenfer and said that he owned a rather extensive pin
manufactory in the suburbs of Neuwied. Like all the manufacturers of
that region, he wore a surtout coat of common cloth, waistcoat and
breeches of dark green velveteen, stout boots, and a broad leather
belt. His face was round, his manners frank and cordial; but during
the evening he seemed unable to disguise altogether some secret
apprehension or, possibly, some anxious care. The innkeeper's opinion
has always been that this German merchant was fleeing his country.
Later I heard that his manufactory had been burned by one of those
unfortunate chances so frequent in times of war. In spite of its
anxious expression the man's face showed great kindliness. His
features were handsome; and the whiteness of his stout throat was well
set off by a black cravat, a fact which Wilhelm showed jestingly to
Here Monsieur Taillefer drank another glass of water.]
Prosper courteously proposed that the merchant should share their
supper, and Wahlenfer accepted the offer without ceremony, like a man
who feels himself able to return a civility. He placed his valise on
the floor and put his feet on it, took off his hat and gloves and
removed a pair of pistols from his belt; the landlord having by this
time set a knife and fork for him, the three guests began to satisfy
their appetites in silence. The atmosphere of this room was hot and
the flies were so numerous that Prosper requested the landlord to open
the window looking toward the outer gate, so as to change the air.
This window was barricaded by an iron bar, the two ends of which were
inserted into holes made in the window casings. For greater security,
two bolts were screwed to each shutter. Prosper accidentally noticed
the manner in which the landlord managed these obstacles and opened
As I am now speaking of localities, this is the place to describe to
you the interior arrangements of the inn; for, on an accurate
knowledge of the premises depends an understanding of my tale. The
public room in which the three persons I have named to you were
sitting, had two outer doors. One opened on the main road to
Andernach, which skirts the Rhine. In front of the inn was a little
wharf, to which the boat hired by the merchant for his journey was
moored. The other door opened upon the courtyard of the inn. This
courtyard was surrounded by very high walls and was full, for the time
being, of cattle and horses, the stables being occupied by human
beings. The great gate leading into this courtyard had been so
carefully barricaded that to save time the landlord had brought the
merchant and sailors into the public room through the door opening on
the roadway. After having opened the window, as requested by Prosper
Magnan, he closed this door, slipped the iron bars into their places
and ran the bolts. The landlord's room, where the two young surgeons
were to sleep, adjoined the public room, and was separated by a
somewhat thin partition from the kitchen, where the landlord and his
wife intended, probably, to pass the night. The servant-woman had left
the premises to find a lodging in some crib or hayloft. It is
therefore easy to see that the kitchen, the landlord's chamber, and
the public room were, to some extent, isolated from the rest of the
house. In the courtyard were two large dogs, whose deep-toned barking
showed vigilant and easily roused guardians.
"What silence! and what a beautiful night!" said Wilhelm, looking at
the sky through the window, as the landlord was fastening the door.
The lapping of the river against the wharf was the only sound to be
"Messieurs," said the merchant, "permit me to offer you a few bottles
of wine to wash down the carp. We'll ease the fatigues of the day by
drinking. From your manner and the state of your clothes, I judge that
you have made, like me, a good bit of a journey to-day."
The two friends accepted, and the landlord went out by a door through
the kitchen to his cellar, situated, no doubt, under this portion of
the building. When five venerable bottles which he presently brought
back with him appeared on the table, the wife brought in the rest of
the supper. She gave to the dishes and to the room generally the
glance of a mistress, and then, sure of having attended to all the
wants of the travellers, she returned to the kitchen.
The four men, for the landlord was invited to drink, did not hear her
go to bed, but later, during the intervals of silence which came into
their talk, certain strongly accentuated snores, made the more
sonorous by the thin planks of the loft in which she had ensconced
herself, made the guests laugh and also the husband. Towards midnight,
when nothing remained on the table but biscuits, cheese, dried fruit,
and good wine, the guests, chiefly the young Frenchmen, became
communicative. The latter talked of their homes, their studies, and of
the war. The conversation grew lively. Prosper Magnan brought a few
tears to the merchant's eyes, when with the frankness and naivete of a
good and tender nature, he talked of what his mother must be doing at
that hour, while he was sitting drinking on the banks of the Rhine.
"I can see her," he said, "reading her prayers before she goes to bed.
She won't forget me; she is certain to say to herself, 'My poor
Prosper; I wonder where he is now!' If she has won a few sous from her
neighbors--your mother, perhaps," he added, nudging Wilhelm's elbow--
"she'll go and put them in the great red earthenware pot, where she is
accumulating a sum sufficient to buy the thirty acres adjoining her
little estate at Lescheville. Those thirty acres are worth at least
sixty thousand francs. Such fine fields! Ah! if I had them I'd live
all my days at Lescheville, without other ambition! How my father used
to long for those thirty acres and the pretty brook which winds
through the meadows! But he died without ever being able to buy them.
Many's the time I've played there!"
"Monsieur Wahlenfer, haven't you also your 'hoc erat in votis'?" asked
"Yes, monsieur, but it came to pass, and now--"
The good man was silent, and did not finish his sentence.
"As for me," said the landlord, whose face was rather flushed, "I
bought a field last spring, which I had been wanting for ten years."
They talked thus like men whose tongues are loosened by wine, and they
each took that friendly liking to the others of which we are never
stingy on a journey; so that when the time came to separate for the
night, Wilhelm offered his bed to the merchant.
"You can accept it without hesitation," he said, "for I can sleep with
Prosper. It won't be the first, nor the last time either. You are our
elder, and we ought to honor age!"
"Bah!" said the landlord, "my wife's bed has several mattresses; take
one off and put it on the floor."
So saying, he went and shut the window, making all the noise that
prudent operation demanded.
"I accept," said the merchant; "in fact I will admit," he added,
lowering his voice and looking at the two Frenchmen, "that I desired
it. My boatmen seem to me suspicious. I am not sorry to spend the
night with two brave young men, two French soldiers, for, between
ourselves, I have a hundred thousand francs in gold and diamonds in my
The friendly caution with which this imprudent confidence was received
by the two young men, seemed to reassure the German. The landlord
assisted in taking off one of the mattresses, and when all was
arranged for the best he bade them good-night and went off to bed.
The merchant and the surgeons laughed over the nature of their
pillows. Prosper put his case of surgical instruments and that of
Wilhelm under the end of his mattress to raise it and supply the place
of a bolster, which was lacking. Wahlenfer, as a measure of
precaution, put his valise under his pillow.
"We shall both sleep on our fortune," said Prosper, "you, on your
gold; I, on my instruments. It remains to be seen whether my
instruments will ever bring me the gold you have now acquired."
"You may hope so," said the merchant. "Work and honesty can do
everything; have patience, however."
Wahlenfer and Wilhelm were soon asleep. Whether it was that his bed on
the floor was hard, or that his great fatigue was a cause of
sleeplessness, or that some fatal influence affected his soul, it is
certain that Prosper Magnan continued awake. His thoughts
unconsciously took an evil turn. His mind dwelt exclusively on the
hundred thousand francs which lay beneath the merchant's pillow. To
Prosper Magnan one hundred thousand francs was a vast and ready-made
fortune. He began to employ it in a hundred different ways; he made
castles in the air, such as we all make with eager delight during the
moments preceding sleep, an hour when images rise in our minds
confusedly, and often, in the silence of the night, thought acquires
some magical power. He gratified his mother's wishes; he bought the
thirty acres of meadow land; he married a young lady of Beauvais to
whom his present want of fortune forbade him to aspire. With a hundred
thousand francs he planned a lifetime of happiness; he saw himself
prosperous, the father of a family, rich, respected in his province,
and, possibly, mayor of Beauvais. His brain heated; he searched for
means to turn his fictions to realities. He began with extraordinary
ardor to plan a crime theoretically. While fancying the death of the
merchant he saw distinctly the gold and the diamonds. His eyes were
dazzled by them. His heart throbbed. Deliberation was, undoubtedly,
already crime. Fascinated by that mass of gold he intoxicated himself
morally by murderous arguments. He asked himself if that poor German
had any need to live; he supposed the case of his never having
existed. In short, he planned the crime in a manner to secure himself
impunity. The other bank of the river was occupied by the Austrian
army; below the windows lay a boat and boatman; he would cut the
throat of that man, throw the body into the Rhine, and escape with the
valise; gold would buy the boatman and he could reach the Austrians.
He went so far as to calculate the professional ability he had reached
in the use of instruments, so as to cut through his victim's throat
without leaving him the chance for a single cry.
[Here Monsieur Taillefer wiped his forehead and drank a little water.]
Prosper rose slowly, making no noise. Certain of having waked no one,
he dressed himself and went into the public room. There, with that
fatal intelligence a man suddenly finds on some occasions within him,
with that power of tact and will which is never lacking to prisoners
or to criminals in whatever they undertake, he unscrewed the iron
bars, slipped them from their places without the slightest noise,
placed them against the wall, and opened the shutters, leaning heavily
upon their hinges to keep them from creaking. The moon was shedding
its pale pure light upon the scene, and he was thus enabled to faintly
see into the room where Wilhelm and Wahlenfer were sleeping. There, he
told me, he stood still for a moment. The throbbing of his heart was
so strong, so deep, so sonorous, that he was terrified; he feared he
could not act with coolness; his hands trembled; the soles of his feet
seem planted on red-hot coal; but the execution of his plan was
accompanied by such apparent good luck that he fancied he saw a
species of predestination in this favor bestowed upon him by fate. He
opened the window, returned to the bedroom, took his case of
instruments, and selected the one most suitable to accomplish the
"When I stood by the bed," he said to me, "I commended myself
mechanically to God."
At the moment when he raised his arm collecting all his strength, he
heard a voice as it were within him; he thought he saw a light. He
flung the instrument on his own bed and fled into the next room, and
stood before the window. There, he conceived the utmost horror of
himself. Feeling his virtue weak, fearing still to succumb to the
spell that was upon him he sprang out upon the road and walked along
the bank of the Rhine, pacing up and down like a sentinel before the
inn. Sometimes he went as far as Andernach in his hurried tramp; often
his feet led him up the slope he had descended on his way to the inn;
and sometimes he lost sight of the inn and the window he had left open
behind him. His object, he said, was to weary himself and so find
But, as he walked beneath the cloudless skies, beholding the stars,
affected perhaps by the purer air of night and the melancholy lapping
of the water, he fell into a reverie which brought him back by degrees
to sane moral thoughts. Reason at last dispersed completely his
momentary frenzy. The teachings of his education, its religious
precepts, but above all, so he told me, the remembrance of his simple
life beneath the parental roof drove out his wicked thoughts. When he
returned to the inn after a long meditation to which he abandoned
himself on the bank of the Rhine, resting his elbow on a rock, he
could, he said to me, not have slept, but have watched untempted
beside millions of gold. At the moment when his virtue rose proudly
and vigorously from the struggle, he knelt down, with a feeling of
ecstasy and happiness, and thanked God. He felt happy, light-hearted,
content, as on the day of his first communion, when he thought himself
worthy of the angels because he had passed one day without sinning in
thought, or word, or deed.
He returned to the inn and closed the window without fearing to make a
noise, and went to bed at once. His moral and physical lassitude was
certain to bring him sleep. In a very short time after laying his head
on his mattress, he fell into that first fantastic somnolence which
precedes the deepest sleep. The senses then grew numb, and life is
abolished by degrees; thoughts are incomplete, and the last quivering
of our consciousness seems like a sort of reverie. "How heavy the air
is!" he thought; "I seem to be breathing a moist vapor." He explained
this vaguely to himself by the difference which must exist between the
atmosphere of the close room and the purer air by the river. But
presently he heard a periodical noise, something like that made by
drops of water falling from a robinet into a fountain. Obeying a
feeling of panic terror he was about to rise and call the innkeeper
and waken Wahlenfer and Wilhelm, but he suddenly remembered, alas! to
his great misfortune, the tall wooden clock; he fancied the sound was
that of the pendulum, and he fell asleep with that confused and
["Do you want some water, Monsieur Taillefer?" said the master of the
house, observing that the banker was mechanically pouring from an
Monsieur Hermann continued his narrative after the slight pause
occasioned by this interruption.]
The next morning Prosper Magnan was awakened by a great noise. He
seemed to hear piercing cries, and he felt that violent shuddering of
the nerves which we suffer when on awaking we continue to feel a
painful impression begun in sleep. A physiological fact then takes
place within us, a start, to use the common expression, which has
never been sufficiently observed, though it contains very curious
phenomena for science. This terrible agony, produced, possibly, by the
too sudden reunion of our two natures separated during sleep, is
usually transient; but in the poor young surgeon's case it lasted, and
even increased, causing him suddenly the most awful horror as he
beheld a pool of blood between Wahlenfer's bed and his own mattress.
The head of the unfortunate German lay on the ground; his body was
still on the bed; all its blood had flowed out by the neck.
Seeing the eyes still open but fixed, seeing the blood which had
stained his sheets and even his hands, recognizing his own surgical
instrument beside him, Prosper Magnan fainted and fell into the pool
of Wahlenfer's blood. "It was," he said to me, "the punishment of my
thoughts." When he recovered consciousness he was in the public room,
seated on a chair, surrounded by French soldiers, and in presence of a
curious and observing crowd. He gazed stupidly at a Republican officer
engaged in taking the testimony of several witnesses, and in writing
down, no doubt, the "proces-verbal." He recognized the landlord, his
wife, the two boatmen, and the servant of the Red Inn. The surgical
instrument which the murderer had used--
[Here Monsieur Taillefer coughed, drew out his handkerchief to blow
his nose, and wiped his forehead. These perfectly natural motions were
noticed by me only; the other guests sat with their eyes fixed on
Monsieur Hermann, to whom they were listening with a sort of avidity.
The purveyor leaned his elbow on the table, put his head into his
right hand and gazed fixedly at Hermann. From that moment he showed no
other sign of emotion or interest, but his face remained passive and
ghastly, as it was when I first saw him playing with the stopper of
The surgical instrument which the murderer had used was on the table
with the case containing the rest of the instruments, together with
Prosper's purse and papers. The gaze of the assembled crowd turned
alternately from these convicting articles to the young man, who
seemed to be dying and whose half-extinguished eyes apparently saw
nothing. A confused murmur which was heard without proved the presence
of a crowd, drawn to the neighborhood of the inn by the news of the
crime, and also perhaps by a desire to see the murderer. The step of
the sentries placed beneath the windows of the public room and the
rattle of their accoutrements could be heard above the talk of the
populace; but the inn was closed and the courtyard was empty and
Incapable of sustaining the glance of the officer who was gathering
his testimony, Prosper Magnan suddenly felt his hand pressed by a man,
and he raised his eyes to see who his protector could be in that crowd
of enemies. He recognized by his uniform the surgeon-major of the
demi-brigade then stationed at Andernach. The glance of that man was
so piercing, so stern, that the poor young fellow shuddered, and
suffered his head to fall on the back of his chair. A soldier put
vinegar to his nostrils and he recovered consciousness. Nevertheless
his haggard eyes were so devoid of life and intelligence that the
surgeon said to the officer after feeling Prosper's pulse,--
"Captain, it is impossible to question the man at this moment."
"Very well! Take him away," replied the captain, interrupting the
surgeon, and addressing a corporal who stood behind the prisoner. "You
cursed coward!" he went on, speaking to Prosper in a low voice, "try
at least to walk firmly before these German curs, and save the honor
of the Republic."
This address seemed to wake up Prosper Magnan, who rose and made a few
steps forward; but when the door was opened and he felt the fresh air
and saw the crowd before him, he staggered and his knees gave way
"This coward of a sawbones deserves a dozen deaths! Get on!" cried the
two soldiers who had him in charge, lending him their arms to support
"There he is!--oh, the villain! the coward! Here he is! There he is!"
These cries seemed to be uttered by a single voice, the tumultuous
voice of the crowd which followed him with insults and swelled at
every step. During the passage from the inn to the prison, the noise
made by the tramping of the crowd and the soldiers, the murmur of the
various colloquies, the sight of the sky, the coolness of the air, the
aspect of Andernach and the shimmering of the waters of the Rhine,--
these impressions came to the soul of the young man vaguely,
confusedly, torpidly, like all the sensations he had felt since his
waking. There were moments, he said, when he thought he was no longer
I was then in prison. Enthusiastic, as we all are at twenty years of
age, I wished to defend my country, and I commanded a company of free
lances, which I had organized in the vicinity of Andernach. A few days
before these events I had fallen plump, during the night, into a
French detachment of eight hundred men. We were two hundred at the
most. My scouts had sold me. I was thrown into the prison of
Andernach, and they talked of shooting me, as a warning to intimidate
others. The French talked also of reprisals. My father, however,
obtained a reprieve for three days to give him time to see General
Augereau, whom he knew, and ask for my pardon, which was granted. Thus
it happened that I saw Prosper Magnan when he was brought to the
prison. He inspired me with the profoundest pity. Though pale,
distracted, and covered with blood, his whole countenance had a
character of truth and innocence which struck me forcibly. To me his
long fair hair and clear blue eyes seemed German. A true image of my
hapless country. I felt he was a victim and not a murderer. At the
moment when he passed beneath my window he chanced to cast about him
the painful, melancholy smile of an insane man who suddenly recovers
for a time a fleeting gleam of reason. That smile was assuredly not
the smile of a murderer. When I saw the jailer I questioned him about
his new prisoner.
"He has not spoken since I put him in his cell," answered the man. "He
is sitting down with his head in his hands and is either sleeping or
reflecting about his crime. The French say he'll get his reckoning to-
morrow morning and be shot in twenty-four hours."
That evening I stopped short under the window of the prison during the
short time I was allowed to take exercise in the prison yard. We
talked together, and he frankly related to me his strange affair,
replying with evident truthfulness to my various questions. After that
first conversation I no longer doubted his innocence; I asked, and
obtained the favor of staying several hours with him. I saw him again
at intervals, and the poor lad let me in without concealment to all
his thoughts. He believed himself both innocent and guilty.
Remembering the horrible temptation which he had had the strength to
resist, he feared he might have done in sleep, in a fit of
somnambulism, the crime he had dreamed of awake.
"But your companion?" I said to him.
"Oh!" he cried eagerly. "Wilhelm is incapable of--"
He did not even finish his sentence. At that warm defence, so full of
youth and manly virtue, I pressed his hand.
"When he woke," continued Prosper, "he must have been terrified and
lost his head; no doubt he fled."
"Without awaking you?" I said. "Then surely your defence is easy;
Wahlenfer's valise cannot have been stolen."
Suddenly he burst into tears.
"Oh, yes!" he cried, "I am innocent! I have not killed a man! I
remember my dreams. I was playing at base with my schoolmates. I
couldn't have cut off the head of a man while I dreamed I was
Then, in spite of these gleams of hope, which gave him at times some
calmness, he felt a remorse which crushed him. He had, beyond all
question, raised his arm to kill that man. He judged himself; and he
felt that his heart was not innocent after committing that crime in
"And yet, I AM good!" he cried. "Oh, my poor mother! Perhaps at this
moment she is cheerfully playing boston with the neighbors in her
little tapestry salon. If she knew that I had raised my hand to murder
a man--oh! she would die of it! And I AM in prison, accused of
committing that crime! If I have not killed a man, I have certainly
killed my mother!"
Saying these words he wept no longer; he was seized by that short and
rapid madness known to the men of Picardy; he sprang to the wall, and
if I had not caught him, he would have dashed out his brains against
"Wait for your trial," I said. "You are innocent, you will certainly
be acquitted; think of your mother."
"My mother!" he cried frantically, "she will hear of the accusation
before she hears anything else,--it is always so in little towns; and
the shock will kill her. Besides, I am not innocent. Must I tell you
the whole truth? I feel that I have lost the virginity of my
After that terrible avowal he sat down, crossed his arms on his
breast, bowed his head upon it, gazing gloomily on the ground. At this
instant the turnkey came to ask me to return to my room. Grieved to
leave my companion at a moment when his discouragement was so deep, I
pressed him in my arms with friendship, saying:--
"Have patience; all may yet go well. If the voice of an honest man can
still your doubts, believe that I esteem you and trust you. Accept my
friendship, and rest upon my heart, if you cannot find peace in your
The next morning a corporal's guard came to fetch the young surgeon at
nine o'clock. Hearing the noise made by the soldiers, I stationed
myself at my window. As the prisoner crossed the courtyard, he cast
his eyes up to me. Never shall I forget that look, full of thoughts,
presentiments, resignation, and I know not what sad, melancholy grace.
It was, as it were, a silent but intelligible last will by which a man
bequeathed his lost existence to his only friend. The night must have
been very hard, very solitary for him; and yet, perhaps, the pallor of
his face expressed a stoicism gathered from some new sense of self-
respect. Perhaps he felt that his remorse had purified him, and
believed that he had blotted out his fault by his anguish and his
shame. He now walked with a firm step, and since the previous evening
he had washed away the blood with which he was, involuntarily,
"My hands must have dabbled in it while I slept, for I am always a
restless sleeper," he had said to me in tones of horrible despair.
I learned that he was on his way to appear before the council of war.
The division was to march on the following morning, and the
commanding-officer did not wish to leave Andernach without inquiry
into the crime on the spot where it had been committed. I remained in
the utmost anxiety during the time the council lasted. At last, about
mid-day, Prosper Magnan was brought back. I was then taking my usual
walk; he saw me, and came and threw himself into my arms.
"Lost!" he said, "lost, without hope! Here, to all the world, I am a
murderer." He raised his head proudly. "This injustice restores to me
my innocence. My life would always have been wretched; my death leaves
me without reproach. But is there a future?"
The whole eighteenth century was in that sudden question. He remained
"Tell me," I said to him, "how you answered. What did they ask you?
Did you not relate the simple facts as you told them to me?"
He looked at me fixedly for a moment; then, after that awful pause, he
answered with feverish excitement:--
"First they asked me, 'Did you leave the inn during the night?' I
said, 'Yes.' 'How?' I answered, 'By the window.' 'Then you must have
taken great precautions; the innkeeper heard no noise.' I was
stupefied. The sailors said they saw me walking, first to Andernach,
then to the forest. I made many trips, they said, no doubt to bury the
gold and diamonds. The valise had not been found. My remorse still
held me dumb. When I wanted to speak, a pitiless voice cried out to
me, 'YOU MEANT TO COMMIT THAT CRIME!' All was against me, even myself.
They asked me about my comrade, and I completely exonerated him. Then
they said to me: 'The crime must lie between you, your comrade, the
innkeeper, and his wife. This morning all the windows and doors were
found securely fastened.' At those words," continued the poor fellow,
"I had neither voice, nor strength, nor soul to answer. More sure of
my comrade than I could be of myself, I could not accuse him. I saw
that we were both thought equally guilty of the murder, and that I was
considered the most clumsy. I tried to explain the crime by
somnambulism, and so protect my friend; but there I rambled and
contradicted myself. No, I am lost. I read my condemnation in the eyes
of my judges. They smiled incredulously. All is over. No more
uncertainty. To-morrow I shall be shot. I am not thinking of myself,"
he went on after a pause, "but of my poor mother." Then he stopped,
looked up to heaven, and shed no tears; his eyes were dry and strongly
["Ah! true," cried Monsieur Hermann, with an air of triumph. "Yes, the
other's name was Frederic, Frederic! I remember now!"
My neighbor touched my foot, and made me a sign to look at Monsieur
Taillefer. The former purveyor had negligently dropped his hand over
his eyes, but between the interstices of his fingers we thought we
caught a darkling flame proceeding from them.
"Hein?" she said in my ear, "what if his name were Frederic?"
I answered with a glance, which said to her: "Silence!"
"Frederic!" cried the young surgeon, "Frederic basely deserted me. He
must have been afraid. Perhaps he is still hidden in the inn, for our
horses were both in the courtyard this morning. What an
incomprehensible mystery!" he went on, after a moment's silence.
"Somnambulism! somnambulism? I never had but one attack in my life,
and that was when I was six years old. Must I go from this earth," he
cried, striking the ground with his foot, "carrying with me all there
is of friendship in the world? Shall I die a double death, doubting a
fraternal love begun when we were only five years old, and continued
through school and college? Where is Frederic?"
He wept. Can it be that we cling more to a sentiment than to life?
"Let us go in," he said; "I prefer to be in my cell. I do not wish to
be seen weeping. I shall go courageously to death, but I cannot play
the heroic at all moments; I own I regret my beautiful young life. All
last night I could not sleep; I remembered the scenes of my childhood;
I fancied I was running in the fields. Ah! I had a future," he said,
suddenly interrupting himself; "and now, twelve men, a sub-lieutenant
shouting 'Carry-arms, aim, fire!' a roll of drums, and infamy! that's
my future now. Oh! there must be a God, or it would all be too
Then he took me in his arms and pressed me to him with all his
"You are the last man, the last friend to whom I can show my soul. You
will be set at liberty, you will see your mother! I don't know whether
you are rich or poor, but no matter! you are all the world to me. They
won't fight always, 'ceux-ci.' Well, when there's peace, will you go
to Beauvais? If my mother has survived the fatal news of my death, you
will find her there. Say to her the comforting words, 'He was
innocent!' She will believe you. I am going to write to her; but you
must take her my last look; you must tell her that you were the last
man whose hand I pressed. Oh, she'll love you, the poor woman! you, my
last friend. Here," he said, after a moment's silence, during which he
was overcome by the weight of his recollections, "all, officers and
soldiers, are unknown to me; I am an object of horror to them. If it
were not for you my innocence would be a secret between God and
I swore to sacredly fulfil his last wishes. My words, the emotion I
showed touched him. Soon after that the soldiers came to take him
again before the council of war. He was condemned to death. I am
ignorant of the formalities that followed or accompanied this
judgment, nor do I know whether the young surgeon defended his life or
not; but he expected to be executed on the following day, and he spent
the night in writing to his mother.
"We shall both be free to-day," he said, smiling, when I went to see
him the next morning. "I am told that the general has signed your
I was silent, and looked at him closely so as to carve his features,
as it were, on my memory. Presently an expression of disgust crossed
"I have been very cowardly," he said. "During all last night I begged
for mercy of these walls," and he pointed to the sides of his dungeon.
"Yes, yes, I howled with despair, I rebelled, I suffered the most
awful moral agony--I was alone! Now I think of what others will say of
me. Courage is a garment to put on. I desire to go decently to death,
A DOUBLE RETRIBUTION
"Oh, stop! stop!" cried the young lady who had asked for this history,
interrupting the narrator suddenly. "Say no more; let me remain in
uncertainty and believe that he was saved. If I hear now that he was
shot I shall not sleep all night. To-morrow you shall tell me the
We rose from table. My neighbor in accepting Monsieur Hermann's arm,
said to him--
"I suppose he was shot, was he not?"
"Yes. I was present at the execution."
"Oh! monsieur," she said, "how could you--"
"He desired it, madame. There was something really dreadful in
following the funeral of a living man, a man my heart cared for, an
innocent man! The poor young fellow never ceased to look at me. He
seemed to live only in me. He wanted, he said, that I should carry to
his mother his last sigh."
"And did you?"
"At the peace of Amiens I went to France, for the purpose of taking to
the mother those blessed words, 'He was innocent.' I religiously
undertook that pilgrimage. But Madame Magnan had died of consumption.
It was not without deep emotion that I burned the letter of which I
was the bearer. You will perhaps smile at my German imagination, but I
see a drama of sad sublimity in the eternal secrecy which engulfed
those parting words cast between two graves, unknown to all creation,
like the cry uttered in a desert by some lonely traveller whom a lion
"And if," I said, interrupting him, "you were brought face to face
with a man now in this room, and were told, 'This is the murderer!'
would not that be another drama? And what would you do?"
Monsieur Hermann looked for his hat and went away.
"You are behaving like a young man, and very heedlessly," said my
neighbor. "Look at Taillefer!--there, seated on that sofa at the
corner of the fireplace. Mademoiselle Fanny is offering him a cup of
coffee. He smiles. Would a murderer to whom that tale must have been
torture, present so calm a face? Isn't his whole air patriarchal?"
"Yes; but go and ask him if he went to the war in Germany," I said.
And with that audacity which is seldom lacking to women when some
action attracts them, or their minds are impelled by curiosity, my
neighbor went up to the purveyor.
"Were you ever in Germany?" she asked.
Taillefer came near dropping his cup and saucer.
"I, madame? No, never."
"What are you talking about, Taillefer"; said our host, interrupting
him. "Were you not in the commissariat during the campaign of Wagram?"
"Ah, true!" replied Taillefer, "I was there at that time."
"You are mistaken," said my neighbor, returning to my side; "that's a
"Well," I cried, "before the end of this evening, I will hunt that
murderer out of the slough in which he is hiding."
Every day, before our eyes, a moral phenomenon of amazing profundity
takes place which is, nevertheless, so simple as never to be noticed.
If two men meet in a salon, one of whom has the right to hate or
despise the other, whether from a knowledge of some private and latent
fact which degrades him, or of a secret condition, or even of a coming
revenge, those two men divine each other's souls, and are able to
measure the gulf which separates or ought to separate them. They
observe each other unconsciously; their minds are preoccupied by
themselves; through their looks, their gestures, an indefinable
emanation of their thought transpires; there's a magnet between them.
I don't know which has the strongest power of attraction, vengeance or
crime, hatred or insult. Like a priest who cannot consecrate the host
in presence of an evil spirit, each is ill at ease and distrustful;
one is polite, the other surly, but I know not which; one colors or
turns pale, the other trembles. Often the avenger is as cowardly as
the victim. Few men have the courage to invoke an evil, even when just
or necessary, and men are silent or forgive a wrong from hatred of
uproar or fear of some tragic ending.
This introsusception of our souls and our sentiments created a
mysterious struggle between Taillefer and myself. Since the first
inquiry I had put to him during Monsieur Hermann's narrative, he had
steadily avoided my eye. Possibly he avoided those of all the other
guests. He talked with the youthful, inexperienced daughter of the
banker, feeling, no doubt, like many other criminals, a need of
drawing near to innocence, hoping to find rest there. But, though I
was a long distance from him, I heard him, and my piercing eye
fascinated his. When he thought he could watch me unobserved our eyes
met, and his eyelids dropped immediately.
Weary of this torture, Taillefer seemed determined to put an end to it
by sitting down at a card-table. I at once went to bet on his
adversary; hoping to lose my money. The wish was granted; the player
left the table and I took his place, face to face with the murderer.
"Monsieur," I said, while he dealt the cards, "may I ask if you are
Monsieur Frederic Taillefer, whose family I know very well at
"Yes, monsieur," he answered.
He dropped the cards, turned pale, put his hands to his head and rose,
asking one of the bettors to take his hand.
"It is too hot here," he cried; "I fear--"
He did not end the sentence. His face expressed intolerable suffering,
and he went out hastily. The master of the house followed him and
seemed to take an anxious interest in his condition. My neighbor and I
looked at each other, but I saw a tinge of bitter sadness or reproach
upon her countenance.
"Do you think your conduct is merciful?" she asked, drawing me to the
embrasure of a window just as I was leaving the card-table, having
lost all my money. "Would you accept the power of reading hearts? Why
not leave things to human justice or divine justice? We may escape one
but we cannot escape the other. Do you think the privilege of a judge
of the court of assizes so much to be envied? You have almost done the
work of an executioner."
"After sharing and stimulating my curiosity, why are you now lecturing
me on morality?"
"You have made me reflect," she answered.
"So, then, peace to villains, war to the sorrowful, and let's deify
gold! However, we will drop the subject," I added, laughing. "Do you
see that young girl who is just entering the salon?"
"Yes, what of her?"
"I met her, three days ago, at the ball of the Neapolitan ambassador,
and I am passionately in love with her. For pity's sake tell me her
name. No one was able--"
"That is Mademoiselle Victorine Taillefer."
I grew dizzy.
"Her step-mother," continued my neighbor, "has lately taken her from a
convent, where she was finishing, rather late in the day, her
education. For a long time her father refused to recognize her. She
comes here for the first time. She is very beautiful and very rich."
These words were accompanied by a sardonic smile.
At this moment we heard violent, but smothered outcries; they seemed
to come from a neighboring apartment and to be echoed faintly back
through the garden.
"Isn't that the voice of Monsieur Taillefer?" I said.
We gave our full attention to the noise; a frightful moaning reached
our ears. The wife of the banker came hurriedly towards us and closed
"Let us avoid a scene," she said. "If Mademoiselle Taillefer hears her
father, she might be thrown into hysterics."
The banker now re-entered the salon, looked round for Victorine, and
said a few words in her ear. Instantly the young girl uttered a cry,
ran to the door, and disappeared. This event produced a great
sensation. The card-players paused. Every one questioned his neighbor.
The murmur of voices swelled, and groups gathered.
"Can Monsieur Taillefer be--" I began.
"--dead?" said my sarcastic neighbor. "You would wear the gayest
mourning, I fancy!"
"But what has happened to him?"
"The poor dear man," said the mistress of the house, "is subject to
attacks of a disease the name of which I never can remember, though
Monsieur Brousson has often told it to me; and he has just been seized
"What is the nature of the disease?" asked an examining-judge.
"Oh, it is something terrible, monsieur," she replied. "The doctors
know no remedy. It causes the most dreadful suffering. One day, while
the unfortunate man was staying at my country-house, he had an attack,
and I was obliged to go away and stay with a neighbor to avoid hearing
him; his cries were terrible; he tried to kill himself; his daughter
was obliged to have him put into a strait-jacket and fastened to his
bed. The poor man declares there are live animals in his head gnawing
his brain; every nerve quivers with horrible shooting pains, and he
writhes in torture. He suffers so much in his head that he did not
even feel the moxas they used formerly to apply to relieve it; but
Monsieur Brousson, who is now his physician, has forbidden that
remedy, declaring that the trouble is a nervous affection, an
inflammation of the nerves, for which leeches should be applied to the
neck, and opium to the head. As a result, the attacks are not so
frequent; they appear now only about once a year, and always late in
the autumn. When he recovers, Taillefer says repeatedly that he would
far rather die than endure such torture."
"Then he must suffer terribly!" said a broker, considered a wit, who
"Oh," continued the mistress of the house, "last year he nearly died
in one of these attacks. He had gone alone to his country-house on
pressing business. For want, perhaps, of immediate help, he lay
twenty-two hours stiff and stark as though he were dead. A very hot
bath was all that saved him."
"It must be a species of lockjaw," said one of the guests.
"I don't know," she answered. "He got the disease in the army nearly
thirty years ago. He says it was caused by a splinter of wood entering
his head from a shot on board a boat. Brousson hopes to cure him. They
say the English have discovered a mode of treating the disease with
At that instant a still more piercing cry echoed through the house,
and froze us with horror.
"There! that is what I listened to all day long last year," said the
banker's wife. "It made me jump in my chair and rasped my nerves
dreadfully. But, strange to say, poor Taillefer, though he suffers
untold agony, is in no danger of dying. He eats and drinks as well as
ever during even short cessations of the pain--nature is so queer! A
German doctor told him it was a form of gout in the head, and that
agrees with Brousson's opinion."
I left the group around the mistress of the house and went away. On
the staircase I met Mademoiselle Taillefer, whom a footman had come to
"Oh!" she said to me, weeping, "what has my poor father ever done to
deserve such suffering?--so kind as he is!"
I accompanied her downstairs and assisted her in getting into the
carriage, and there I saw her father bent almost double.
Mademoiselle Taillefer tried to stifle his moans by putting her
handkerchief to his mouth; unhappily he saw me; his face became even
more distorted, a convulsive cry rent the air, and he gave me a
dreadful look as the carriage rolled away.
That dinner, that evening exercised a cruel influence on my life and
on my feelings. I loved Mademoiselle Taillefer, precisely, perhaps,
because honor and decency forbade me to marry the daughter of a
murderer, however good a husband and father he might be. A curious
fatality impelled me to visit those houses where I knew I could meet
Victorine; often, after giving myself my word of honor to renounce the
happiness of seeing her, I found myself that same evening beside her.
My struggles were great. Legitimate love, full of chimerical remorse,
assumed the color of a criminal passion. I despised myself for bowing
to Taillefer when, by chance, he accompanied his daughter, but I bowed
to him all the same.
Alas! for my misfortune Victorine is not only a pretty girl, she is
also educated, intelligent, full of talent and of charm, without the
slightest pedantry or the faintest tinge of assumption. She converses
with reserve, and her nature has a melancholy grace which no one can
resist. She loves me, or at least she lets me think so; she has a
certain smile which she keeps for me alone; for me, her voice grows
softer still. Oh, yes! she loves me! But she adores her father; she
tells me of his kindness, his gentleness, his excellent qualities.
Those praises are so many dagger-thrusts with which she stabs me to
One day I came near making myself the accomplice, as it were, of the
crime which led to the opulence of the Taillefer family. I was on the
point of asking the father for Victorine's hand. But I fled; I
travelled; I went to Germany, to Andernach; and then--I returned! I
found Victorine pale, and thinner; if I had seen her well in health
and gay, I should certainly have been saved. Instead of which my love
burst out again with untold violence. Fearing that my scruples might
degenerate into monomania, I resolved to convoke a sanhedrim of sound
consciences, and obtain from them some light on this problem of high
morality and philosophy,--a problem which had been, as we shall see,
still further complicated since my return.
Two days ago, therefore, I collected those of my friends to whom I
attribute most delicacy, probity, and honor. I invited two Englishmen,
the secretary of an embassy, and a puritan; a former minister, now a
mature statesman; a priest, an old man; also my former guardian, a
simple-hearted being who rendered so loyal a guardianship account that
the memory of it is still green at the Palais; besides these, there
were present a judge, a lawyer, and a notary,--in short, all social
opinions, and all practical virtues.
We began by dining well, talking well, and making some noise; then, at
dessert, I related my history candidly, and asked for advice,
concealing, of course, the Taillefer name.
A profound silence suddenly fell upon the company. Then the notary
took leave. He had, he said, a deed to draw.
The wine and the good dinner had reduced my former guardian to
silence; in fact I was obliged later in the evening to put him under
guardianship, to make sure of no mishap to him on his way home.
"I understand!" I cried. "By not giving an opinion you tell me
energetically enough what I ought to do."
On this there came a stir throughout the assembly.
A capitalist who had subscribed for the children and tomb of General
"Like Virtue's self, a crime has its degrees."
"Rash tongue!" said the former minister, in a low voice, nudging me
with his elbow.
"Where's your difficulty?" asked a duke whose fortune is derived from
the estates of stubborn Protestants, confiscated on the revocation of
the Edict of Nantes.
The lawyer rose, and said:--
"In law, the case submitted to us presents no difficulty. Monsieur le
duc is right!" cried the legal organ. "There are time limitations.
Where should we all be if we had to search into the origin of
fortunes? This is simply an affair of conscience. If you must
absolutely carry the case before some tribunal, go to that of the
The Code incarnate ceased speaking, sat down, and drank a glass of
champagne. The man charged with the duty of explaining the gospel, the
good priest, rose.
"God has made us all frail beings," he said firmly. "If you love the
heiress of that crime, marry her; but content yourself with the
property she derives from her mother; give that of the father to the
"But," cried one of those pitiless hair-splitters who are often to be
met with in the world, "perhaps the father could make a rich marriage
only because he was rich himself; consequently, the marriage was the
fruit of the crime."
"This discussion is, in itself, a verdict. There are some things on
which a man does not deliberate," said my former guardian, who thought
to enlighten the assembly with a flash of inebriety.
"Yes!" said the secretary of an embassy.
"Yes!" said the priest.
But the two men did not mean the same thing.
A "doctrinaire," who had missed his election to the Chamber by one
hundred and fifty votes out of one hundred and fifty-five, here rose.
"Messieurs," he said, "this phenomenal incident of intellectual nature
is one of those which stand out vividly from the normal condition to
which sobriety is subjected. Consequently the decision to be made
ought to be the spontaneous act of our consciences, a sudden
conception, a prompt inward verdict, a fugitive shadow of our mental
apprehension, much like the flashes of sentiment which constitute
taste. Let us vote."
"Let us vote!" cried all my guests.
I have each two balls, one white, one red. The white, symbol of
virginity, was to forbid the marriage; the red ball sanctioned it. I
myself abstained from voting, out of delicacy.
My friends were seventeen in number; nine was therefore the majority.
Each man put his ball into the wicker basket with a narrow throat,
used to hold the numbered balls when card-players draw for their
places at pool. We were all roused to a more or less keen curiosity;
for this balloting to clarify morality was certainly original.
Inspection of the ballot-box showed the presence of nine white balls!
The result did not surprise me; but it came into my heard to count the
young men of my own age whom I had brought to sit in judgment. These
casuists were precisely nine in number; they all had the same thought.
"Oh, oh!" I said to myself, "here is secret unanimity to forbid the
marriage, and secret unanimity to sanction it! How shall I solve that
"Where does the father-in-law live?" asked one my school-friends,
heedlessly, being less sophisticated than the others.
"There's no longer a father-in-law," I replied. "Hitherto, my
conscience has spoken plainly enough to make your verdict superfluous.
If to-day its voice is weakened, here is the cause of my cowardice. I
received, about two months ago, this all-seducing letter."
And I showed them the following invitation, which I took from my
"You are invited to be present at the funeral procession, burial
services, and interment of Monsieur Jean-Frederic Taillefer, of
the house of Taillefer and Company, formerly Purveyor of
Commissary-meats, in his lifetime chevalier of the Legion of
honor, and of the Golden Spur, captain of the first company of the
Grenadiers of the National Guard of Paris, deceased, May 1st, at
his residence, rue Joubert; which will take place at, etc., etc.
"On the part of, etc."
"Now, what am I do to?" I continued; "I will put the question before
you in a broad way. There is undoubtedly a sea of blood in
Mademoiselle Taillefer's estates; her inheritance from her father is a
vast Aceldama. I know that. BUT Prosper Magnan left no heirs; BUT,
again, I have been unable to discover the family of the merchant who
was murdered at Andernach. To whom therefore can I restore that
fortune? And ought it to be wholly restored? Have I the right to
betray a secret surprised by me,--to add a murdered head to the dowry
of an innocent girl, to give her for the rest of her life bad dreams,
to deprive her of all her illusions, and say, 'Your gold is stained
with blood'? I have borrowed the 'Dictionary of Cases of Conscience'
from an old ecclesiastic, but I can find nothing there to solve my
doubts. Shall I found pious masses for the repose of the souls of
Prosper Magnan, Wahlenfer, and Taillefer? Here we are in the middle of
the nineteenth century! Shall I build a hospital, or institute a prize
for virtue? A prize for virtue would be given to scoundrels; and as
for hospitals, they seem to me to have become in these days the
protectors of vice. Besides, such charitable actions, more or less
profitable to vanity, do they constitute reparation?--and to whom do I
owe reparation? But I love; I love passionately. My love is my life.
If I, without apparent motive, suggest to a young girl accustomed to
luxury, to elegance, to a life fruitful of all enjoyments of art, a
young girl who loves to idly listen at the opera to Rossini's music,--
if to her I should propose that she deprive herself of fifteen hundred
thousand francs in favor of broken-down old men, or scrofulous
paupers, she would turn her back on me and laugh, or her confidential
friend would tell her that I'm a crazy jester. If in an ecstasy of
love, I should paint to her the charms of a modest life, and a little
home on the banks of the Loire; if I were to ask her to sacrifice her
Parisian life on the altar of our love, it would be, in the first
place, a virtuous lie; in the next, I might only be opening the way to
some painful experience; I might lose the heart of a girl who loves
society, and balls, and personal adornment, and ME for the time being.
Some slim and jaunty officer, with a well-frizzed moustache, who can
play the piano, quote Lord Byron, and ride a horse elegantly, may get
her away from me. What shall I do? For Heaven's sake, give me some
The honest man, that species of puritan not unlike the father of
Jeannie Deans, of whom I have already told you, and who, up to the
present moment hadn't uttered a word, shrugged his shoulders, as he
looked at me and said:--
"Idiot! why did you ask him if he came from Beauvais?"
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
The Firm of Nucingen
The Magic Skin
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