Читать онлайн «Ferragus, Chief of the Dévorants», Оноре де Бальзак – Литрес (2023)

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Thirteen men were banded together in Paris under the Empire, all imbued with one and the same sentiment, all gifted with sufficient energy to be faithful to the same thought, with sufficient honor among themselves never to betray one another even if their interests clashed; and sufficiently wily and politic to conceal the sacred ties that united them, sufficiently strong to maintain themselves above the law, bold enough to undertake all things, and fortunate enough to succeed, nearly always, in their undertakings; having run the greatest dangers, but keeping silence if defeated; inaccessible to fear; trembling neither before princes, nor executioners, not even before innocence; accepting each other for such as they were, without social prejudices,– criminals, no doubt, but certainly remarkable through certain of the qualities that make great men, and recruiting their number only among men of mark. That nothing might be lacking to the sombre and mysterious poesy of their history, these Thirteen men have remained to this day unknown; though all have realized the most chimerical ideas that the fantastic power falsely attributed to the Manfreds, the Fausts, and the Melmoths can suggest to the imagination. To-day, they are broken up, or, at least, dispersed; they have peaceably put their necks once more under the yoke of civil law, just as Morgan, that Achilles among pirates, transformed himself from a buccaneering scourge to a quiet colonist, and spent, without remorse, around his domestic hearth the millions gathered in blood by the lurid light of flames and slaughter.

Since the death of Napoleon, circumstances, about which the author must keep silence, have still farther dissolved the original bond of this secret society, always extraordinary, sometimes sinister, as though it lived in the blackest pages of Mrs. Radcliffe. A somewhat strange permission to relate in his own way a few of the adventures of these men (while respecting certain susceptibilities) has only recently been given to him by one of those anonymous heroes to whom all society was once occultly subjected. In this permission the writer fancied he detected a vague desire for personal celebrity.

This man, apparently still young, with fair hair and blue eyes, whose sweet, clear voice seemed to denote a feminine soul, was pale of face and mysterious in manner; he conversed affably, declared himself not more than forty years of age, and apparently belonged to the very highest social classes. The name which he assumed must have been fictitious; his person was unknown in society. Who was he? That, no one has ever known.

Perhaps, in confiding to the author the extraordinary matters which he related to him, this mysterious person may have wished to see them in a manner reproduced, and thus enjoy the emotions they were certain to bring to the hearts of the masses,– a feeling analogous to that of Macpherson when the name of his creation Ossian was transcribed into all languages. That was certainly, for the Scotch lawyer, one of the keenest, or at any rate the rarest, sensations a man could give himself. Is it not the incognito of genius? To write the “Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem” is to take a share in the human glory of a single epoch; but to endow his native land with another Homer, was not that usurping the work of God?

The author knows too well the laws of narration to be ignorant of the pledges this short preface is contracting for him; but he also knows enough of the history of the Thirteen to be certain that his present tale will never be thought below the interest inspired by this programme. Dramas steeped in blood, comedies filled with terror, romantic tales through which rolled heads mysteriously decapitated, have been confided to him. If readers were not surfeited with horrors served up to them of late in cold blood, he might reveal the calm atrocities, the surpassing tragedies concealed under family life. But he chooses in preference gentler events,– those where scenes of purity succeed the tempests of passion; where woman is radiant with virtue and beauty. To the honor of the Thirteen be it said that there are such scenes in their history, which may have the honor of being some day published as a foil of tales to listeners,– that race apart from others, so curiously energetic, and so interesting in spite of its crimes.

An author ought to be above converting his tale, when the tale is true, into a species of surprise-game, and of taking his readers, as certain novellists do, through many volumes and from cellar to cellar, to show them the dry bones of a dead body, and tell them, by way of conclusion, that that is what has frightened them behind doors, hidden in the arras, or in cellars where the dead man was buried and forgotten. In spite of his aversion for prefaces, the author feels bound to place the following statement at the head of this narrative. Ferragus is a first episode which clings by invisible links to the “History of the Thirteen,” whose power, naturally acquired, can alone explain certain acts and agencies which would otherwise seem supernatural. Although it is permissible in tellers of tales to have a sort of literary coquetry in becoming historians, they ought to renounce the benefit that may accrue from an odd or fantastic title – on which certain slight successes have been won in the present day. Consequently, the author will now explain, succinctly, the reasons that obliged him to select a title to his book which seems at first sight unnatural.

Ferragus is, according to ancient custom, a name taken by the chief or Grand Master of the Devorants. On the day of their election these chiefs continue whichever of the dynasties of their Order they are most in sympathy with, precisely as the Popes do, on their accession, in connection with pontifical dynasties. Thus the Devorants have “Trempe-la Soupe IX.,” “Ferragus XXII.,” “Tutanus XIII.,” “Masche-Fer IV.,” just as the Church has Clement XIV., Gregory VII., Julius II., Alexander VI., etc.

Now, then, who are the Devorants? “Devorant” is the name of one of those tribes of “Companions” that issued in ancient times from the great mystical association formed among the workers of Christianity to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Companionism (to coin a word) still exists in France among the people. Its traditions, powerful over minds that are not enlightened, and over men not educated enough to cast aside an oath, might serve the ends of formidable enterprises if some rough-hewn genius were to seize hold of these diverse associations. All the instruments of this Companionism are well-nigh blind. From town to town there has existed from time immemorial, for the use of Companions, an “Obade,” – a sort of halting-place, kept by a “Mother,” an old woman, half-gypsy, with nothing to lose, knowing everything that happens in her neighborhood, and devoted, either from fear or habit, to the tribe, whose straggling members she feeds and lodges. This people, ever moving and changing, though controlled by immutable customs, has its eyes everywhere, executes, without judging it, a WILL, – for the oldest Companion still belongs to an era when men had faith. Moreover, the whole body professes doctrines that are sufficiently true and sufficiently mysterious to electrify into a sort of tribal loyalty all adepts whenever they obtain even a slight development. The attachment of the Companions to their laws is so passionate that the diverse tribes will fight sanguinary battles with each other in defence of some question of principle.

Happily for our present public safety, when a Devorant is ambitious, he builds houses, lays by his money, and leaves the Order. There is many a curious thing to tell about the “Compagnons du Devoir” [Companions of the Duty], the rivals of the Devorants, and about the different sects of working-men, their usages, their fraternity, and the bond existing between them and the free-masons. But such details would be out of place here. The author must, however, add that under the old monarchy it was not an unknown thing to find a “Trempe-la-Soupe” enslaved to the king sentenced for a hundred and one years to the galleys, but ruling his tribe from there, religiously consulted by it, and when he escaped from his galley, certain of help, succor, and respect, wherever he might be. To see its grand master at the galleys is, to the faithful tribe, only one of those misfortunes for which providence is responsible, and which does not release the Devorants from obeying a power created by them to be above them. It is but the passing exile of their legitimate king, always a king for them. Thus we see the romantic prestige attaching to the name of Ferragus and to that of the Devorants completely dissipated.

As for the Thirteen, they were all men of the stamp of Trelawney, Lord Byron’s friend, who was, they say, the original of his “Corsair.” They were all fatalists, men of nerve and poesy, weary of leading flat and empty lives, driven toward Asiatic enjoyments by forces all the more excessive because, long dormant, they awoke furious. One of them, after re-reading “Venice Preserved,” and admiring the sublime union of Pierre and Jaffier, began to reflect on the virtues shown by men who are outlawed by society, on the honesty of galley-slaves, the faithfulness of thieves among each other, the privileges of exorbitant power which such men know how to win by concentrating all ideas into a single will. He saw that Man is greater than men. He concluded that society ought to belong wholly to those distinguished beings who, to natural intelligence, acquired wisdom, and fortune, add a fanaticism hot enough to fuse into one casting these different forces. That done, their occult power, vast in action and in intensity, against which the social order would be helpless, would cast down all obstacles, blast all other wills, and give to each the devilish power of all. This world apart within the world, hostile to the world, admitting none of the world’s ideas, not recognizing any law, not submitting to any conscience but that of necessity, obedient to a devotion only, acting with every faculty for a single associate when one of their number asked for the assistance of all,– this life of filibusters in lemon kid gloves and cabriolets; this intimate union of superior beings, cold and sarcastic, smiling and cursing in the midst of a false and puerile society; this certainty of forcing all things to serve an end, of plotting a vengeance that could not fail of living in thirteen hearts; this happiness of nurturing a secret hatred in the face of men, and of being always in arms against this; this ability to withdraw to the sanctuary of self with one idea more than even the most remarkable of men could have,– this religion of pleasure and egotism cast so strong a spell over Thirteen men that they revived the society of Jesuits to the profit of the devil.

It was horrible and stupendous; but the compact was made, and it lasted precisely because it appeared to be so impossible.

There was, therefore, in Paris a brotherhood of Thirteen, who belonged to each other absolutely, but ignored themselves as absolutely before the world. At night they met, like conspirators, hiding no thought, disposing each and all of a common fortune, like that of the Old Man of the Mountain; having their feet in all salons, their hands in all money-boxes, and making all things serve their purpose or their fancy without scruple. No chief commanded them; no one member could arrogate to himself that power. The most eager passion, the most exacting circumstance, alone had the right to pass first. They were Thirteen unknown kings,– but true kings, more than ordinary kings and judges and executioners,– men who, having made themselves wings to roam through society from depth to height, disdained to be anything in the social sphere because they could be all. If the present writer ever learns the reasons of their abdication of this power, he will take occasion to tell them.1

Now, with this brief explanation, he may be allowed to begin the tale of certain episodes in the history of the Thirteen, which have more particularly attracted him by the Parisian flavor of their details and the whimsicality of their contrasts.


Certain streets in Paris are as degraded as a man covered with infamy; also, there are noble streets, streets simply respectable, young streets on the morality of which the public has not yet formed an opinion; also cut-throat streets, streets older than the age of the oldest dowagers, estimable streets, streets always clean, streets always dirty, working, laboring, and mercantile streets. In short, the streets of Paris have every human quality, and impress us, by what we must call their physiognomy, with certain ideas against which we are defenceless. There are, for instance, streets of a bad neighborhood in which you could not be induced to live, and streets where you would willingly take up your abode. Some streets, like the rue Montmartre, have a charming head, and end in a fish’s tail. The rue de la Paix is a wide street, a fine street, yet it wakens none of those gracefully noble thoughts which come to an impressible mind in the middle of the rue Royale, and it certainly lacks the majesty which reigns in the Place Vendome.

If you walk the streets of the Ile Saint-Louis, do not seek the reason of the nervous sadness that lays hold upon you save in the solitude of the spot, the gloomy look of the houses, and the great deserted mansions. This island, the ghost of fermiers-generaux, is the Venice of Paris. The Place de la Bourse is voluble, busy, degraded; it is never fine except by moonlight at two in the morning. By day it is Paris epitomized; by night it is a dream of Greece. The rue Traversiere-Saint-Honore – is not that a villainous street? Look at the wretched little houses with two windows on a floor, where vice, crime, and misery abound. The narrow streets exposed to the north, where the sun never comes more than three or four times a year, are the cut-throat streets which murder with impunity; the authorities of the present day do not meddle with them; but in former times the Parliament might perhaps have summoned the lieutenant of police and reprimanded him for the state of things; and it would, at least, have issued some decree against such streets, as it once did against the wigs of the Chapter of Beauvais. And yet Monsieur Benoiston de Chateauneuf has proved that the mortality of these streets is double that of others! To sum up such theories by a single example: is not the rue Fromentin both murderous and profligate!

These observations, incomprehensible out of Paris, will doubtless be understood by musing men of thought and poesy and pleasure, who know, while rambling about Paris, how to harvest the mass of floating interests which may be gathered at all hours within her walls; to them Paris is the most delightful and varied of monsters: here, a pretty woman; farther on, a haggard pauper; here, new as the coinage of a new reign; there, in this corner, elegant as a fashionable woman. A monster, moreover, complete! Its garrets, as it were, a head full of knowledge and genius; its first storeys stomachs repleted; its shops, actual feet, where the busy ambulating crowds are moving. Ah! what an ever-active life the monster leads! Hardly has the last vibration of the last carriage coming from a ball ceased at its heart before its arms are moving at the barriers and it shakes itself slowly into motion. Doors open; turning on their hinges like the membrane of some huge lobster, invisibly manipulated by thirty thousand men or women, of whom each individual occupies a space of six square feet, but has a kitchen, a workshop, a bed, children, a garden, little light to see by, but must see all. Imperceptibly, the articulations begin to crack; motion communicates itself; the street speaks. By mid-day, all is alive; the chimneys smoke, the monster eats; then he roars, and his thousand paws begin to ramp. Splendid spectacle! But, O Paris! he who has not admired your gloomy passages, your gleams and flashes of light, your deep and silent cul-de-sacs, who has not listened to your murmurings between midnight and two in the morning, knows nothing as yet of your true poesy, nor of your broad and fantastic contrasts.

There are a few amateurs who never go their way heedlessly; who savor their Paris, so to speak; who know its physiognomy so well that they see every wart, and pimple, and redness. To others, Paris is always that monstrous marvel, that amazing assemblage of activities, of schemes, of thoughts; the city of a hundred thousand tales, the head of the universe. But to those few, Paris is sad or gay, ugly or beautiful, living or dead; to them Paris is a creature; every man, every fraction of a house is a lobe of the cellular tissue of that great courtesan whose head and heart and fantastic customs they know so well. These men are lovers of Paris; they lift their noses at such or such a corner of a street, certain that they can see the face of a clock; they tell a friend whose tobacco-pouch is empty, “Go down that passage and turn to the left; there’s a tobacconist next door to a confectioner, where there’s a pretty girl.” Rambling about Paris is, to these poets, a costly luxury. How can they help spending precious minutes before the dramas, disasters, faces, and picturesque events which meet us everywhere amid this heaving queen of cities, clothed in posters,– who has, nevertheless, not a single clean corner, so complying is she to the vices of the French nation! Who has not chanced to leave his home early in the morning, intending to go to some extremity of Paris, and found himself unable to get away from the centre of it by the dinner-hour? Such a man will know how to excuse this vagabondizing start upon our tale; which, however, we here sum up in an observation both useful and novel, as far as any observation can be novel in Paris, where there is nothing new,– not even the statue erected yesterday, on which some young gamin has already scribbled his name.

Well, then! there are streets, or ends of streets, there are houses, unknown for the most part to persons of social distinction, to which a woman of that class cannot go without causing cruel and very wounding things to be thought of her. Whether the woman be rich and has a carriage, whether she is on foot, or is disguised, if she enters one of these Parisian defiles at any hour of the day, she compromises her reputation as a virtuous woman. If, by chance, she is there at nine in the evening the conjectures that an observer permits himself to make upon her may prove fearful in their consequences. But if the woman is young and pretty, if she enters a house in one of those streets, if the house has a long, dark, damp, and evil-smelling passage-way, at the end of which flickers the pallid gleam of an oil lamp, and if beneath that gleam appears the horrid face of a withered old woman with fleshless fingers, ah, then! and we say it in the interests of young and pretty women, that woman is lost. She is at the mercy of the first man of her acquaintance who sees her in that Parisian slough. There is more than one street in Paris where such a meeting may lead to a frightful drama, a bloody drama of death and love, a drama of the modern school.

Unhappily, this scene, this modern drama itself, will be comprehended by only a small number of persons; and it is a pity to tell the tale to a public which cannot enter into its local merit. But who can flatter himself that he will ever be understood? We all die unknown – ‘tis the saying of women and of authors.

At half-past eight o’clock one evening, in the rue Pagevin, in the days when that street had no wall which did not echo some infamous word, and was, in the direction of the rue Soly, the narrowest and most impassable street in Paris (not excepting the least frequented corner of the most deserted street),– at the beginning of the month of February about thirteen years ago, a young man, by one of those chances which come but once in life, turned the corner of the rue Pagevin to enter the rue des Vieux-Augustins, close to the rue Soly. There, this young man, who lived himself in the rue de Bourbon, saw in a woman near whom he had been unconsciously walking, a vague resemblance to the prettiest woman in Paris; a chaste and delightful person, with whom he was secretly and passionately in love,– a love without hope; she was married. In a moment his heart leaped, an intolerable heat surged from his centre and flowed through all his veins; his back turned cold, the skin of his head crept. He loved, he was young, he knew Paris; and his knowledge did not permit him to be ignorant of all there was of possible infamy in an elegant, rich, young, and beautiful woman walking there, alone, with a furtively criminal step. She in that mud! at that hour!

The love that this young man felt for that woman may seem romantic, and all the more so because he was an officer in the Royal Guard. If he had been in the infantry, the affair might have seemed more likely; but, as an officer of rank in the cavalry, he belonged to that French arm which demands rapidity in its conquests and derives as much vanity from its amorous exploits as from its dashing uniform. But the passion of this officer was a true love, and many young hearts will think it noble. He loved this woman because she was virtuous; he loved her virtue, her modest grace, her imposing saintliness, as the dearest treasures of his hidden passion. This woman was indeed worthy to inspire one of those platonic loves which are found, like flowers amid bloody ruins, in the history of the middle-ages; worthy to be the hidden principle of all the actions of a young man’s life; a love as high, as pure as the skies when blue; a love without hope and to which men bind themselves because it can never deceive; a love that is prodigal of unchecked enjoyment, especially at an age when the heart is ardent, the imagination keen, and the eyes of a man see very clearly.

Strange, weird, inconceivable effects may be met with at night in Paris. Only those who have amused themselves by watching those effects have any idea how fantastic a woman may appear there at dusk. At times the creature whom you are following, by accident or design, seems to you light and slender; the stockings, if they are white, make you fancy that the legs must be slim and elegant; the figure though wrapped in a shawl, or concealed by a pelisse, defines itself gracefully and seductively among the shadows; anon, the uncertain gleam thrown from a shop-window or a street lamp bestows a fleeting lustre, nearly always deceptive, on the unknown woman, and fires the imagination, carrying it far beyond the truth. The senses then bestir themselves; everything takes color and animation; the woman appears in an altogether novel aspect; her person becomes beautiful. Behold! she is not a woman, she is a demon, a siren, who is drawing you by magnetic attraction to some respectable house, where the worthy bourgeoise, frightened by your threatening step and the clack of your boots, shuts the door in your face without looking at you.

A vacillating gleam, thrown from the shop-window of a shoemaker, suddenly illuminated from the waist down the figure of the woman who was before the young man. Ah! surely, she alone had that swaying figure; she alone knew the secret of that chaste gait which innocently set into relief the many beauties of that attractive form. Yes, that was the shawl, and that the velvet bonnet which she wore in the mornings. On her gray silk stockings not a spot, on her shoes not a splash. The shawl held tightly round the bust disclosed, vaguely, its charming lines; and the young man, who had often seen those shoulders at a ball, knew well the treasures that the shawl concealed. By the way a Parisian woman wraps a shawl around her, and the way she lifts her feet in the street, a man of intelligence in such studies can divine the secret of her mysterious errand. There is something, I know not what, of quivering buoyancy in the person, in the gait; the woman seems to weigh less; she steps, or rather, she glides like a star, and floats onward led by a thought which exhales from the folds and motion of her dress. The young man hastened his step, passed the woman, and then turned back to look at her. Pst! she had disappeared into a passage-way, the grated door of which and its bell still rattled and sounded. The young man walked back to the alley and saw the woman reach the farther end, where she began to mount – not without receiving the obsequious bow of an old portress – a winding staircase, the lower steps of which were strongly lighted; she went up buoyantly, eagerly, as though impatient.

“Impatient for what?” said the young man to himself, drawing back to lean against a wooden railing on the other side of the street. He gazed, unhappy man, at the different storeys of the house, with the keen attention of a detective searching for a conspirator.

It was one of those houses of which there are thousands in Paris, ignoble, vulgar, narrow, yellowish in tone, with four storeys and three windows on each floor. The outer blinds of the first floor were closed. Where was she going? The young man fancied he heard the tinkle of a bell on the second floor. As if in answer to it, a light began to move in a room with two windows strongly illuminated, which presently lit up the third window, evidently that of a first room, either the salon or the dining-room of the apartment. Instantly the outline of a woman’s bonnet showed vaguely on the window, and a door between the two rooms must have closed, for the first was dark again, while the two other windows resumed their ruddy glow. At this moment a voice said, “Hi, there!” and the young man was conscious of a blow on his shoulder.

“Why don’t you pay attention?” said the rough voice of a workman, carrying a plank on his shoulder. The man passed on. He was the voice of Providence saying to the watcher: “What are you meddling with? Think of your own duty; and leave these Parisians to their own affairs.”

The young man crossed his arms; then, as no one beheld him, he suffered tears of rage to flow down his cheeks unchecked. At last the sight of the shadows moving behind the lighted windows gave him such pain that he looked elsewhere and noticed a hackney-coach, standing against a wall in the upper part of the rue des Vieux-Augustins, at a place where there was neither the door of a house, nor the light of a shop-window.

Was it she? Was it not she? Life or death to a lover! This lover waited. He stood there during a century of twenty minutes. After that the woman came down, and he then recognized her as the one whom he secretly loved. Nevertheless, he wanted still to doubt. She went to the hackney-coach, and got into it.

“The house will always be there and I can search it later,” thought the young man, following the carriage at a run, to solve his last doubts; and soon he did so.

The carriage stopped in the rue de Richelieu before a shop for artificial flowers, close to the rue de Menars. The lady got out, entered the shop, sent out the money to pay the coachman, and presently left the shop herself, on foot, after buying a bunch of marabouts. Marabouts for her black hair! The officer beheld her, through the window-panes, placing the feathers to her head to see the effect, and he fancied he could hear the conversation between herself and the shop-woman.

“Oh! madame, nothing is more suitable for brunettes: brunettes have something a little too strongly marked in their lines, and marabouts give them just that flow which they lack. Madame la Duchesse de Langeais says they give a woman something vague, Ossianic, and very high-bred.”

“Very good; send them to me at once.”

Then the lady turned quickly toward the rue de Menars, and entered her own house. When the door closed on her, the young lover, having lost his hopes, and worse, far worse, his dearest beliefs, walked through the streets like a drunken man, and presently found himself in his own room without knowing how he came there. He flung himself into an arm-chair, put his head in his hands and his feet on the andirons, drying his boots until he burned them. It was an awful moment,– one of those moments in human life when the character is moulded, and the future conduct of the best of men depends on the good or evil fortune of his first action. Providence or fatality?– choose which you will.

This young man belonged to a good family, whose nobility was not very ancient; but there are so few really old families in these days, that all men of rank are ancient without dispute. His grandfather had bought the office of counsellor to the Parliament of Paris, where he afterwards became president. His sons, each provided with a handsome fortune, entered the army, and through their marriages became attached to the court. The Revolution swept the family away; but one old dowager, too obstinate to emigrate, was left; she was put in prison, threatened with death, but was saved by the 9th Thermidor and recovered her property. When the proper time came, about the year 1804, she recalled her grandson to France. Auguste de Maulincour, the only scion of the Carbonnon de Maulincour, was brought up by the good dowager with the triple care of a mother, a woman of rank, and an obstinate dowager. When the Restoration came, the young man, then eighteen years of age, entered the Maison-Rouge, followed the princes to Ghent, was made an officer in the body-guard, left it to serve in the line, but was recalled later to the Royal Guard, where, at twenty-three years of age, he found himself major of a cavalry regiment,– a splendid position, due to his grandmother, who had played her cards well to obtain it, in spite of his youth. This double biography is a compendium of the general and special history, barring variations, of all the noble families who emigrated having debts and property, dowagers and tact.

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