Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter VI

A Treatise on Mesmerism

Towards the end of the eighteenth century science was sundered as widely by the apparition of Mesmer as art had been by that of Gluck. After re-discovering magnetism Mesmer came to France, where, from time immemorial, inventors have flocked to obtain recognition for their discoveries. France, thanks to her lucid language, is in some sense the clarion of the world.

“If homoeopathy gets to Paris it is saved,” said Hahnemann, recently.

“Go to France,” said Monsieur de Metternich to Gall, “and if they laugh at your bumps you will be famous.”

Mesmer had disciples and antagonists as ardent for and against his theories as the Piccinists and the Gluckists for theirs. Scientific France was stirred to its center; a solemn conclave was opened. Before judgment was rendered, the medical faculty proscribed, in a body, Mesmer’s so-called charlatanism, his tub, his conducting wires, and his theory. But let us at once admit that the German, unfortunately, compromised his splendid discovery by enormous pecuniary claims. Mesmer was defeated by the doubtfulness of facts, by universal ignorance of the part played in nature by imponderable fluids then unobserved, and by his own inability to study on all sides a science possessing a triple front. Magnetism has many applications; in Mesmer’s hands it was, in its relation to the future, merely what cause is to effect. But, if the discoverer lacked genius, it is a sad thing both for France and for human reason to have to say that a science contemporaneous with civilization, cultivated by Egypt and Chaldea, by Greece and India, met in Paris in the eighteenth century the fate that Truth in the person of Galileo found in the sixteenth; and that magnetism was rejected and cast out by the combined attacks of science and religion, alarmed for their own positions. Magnetism, the favorite science of Jesus Christ and one of the divine powers which he gave to his disciples, was no better apprehended by the Church than by the disciples of Jean–Jacques, Voltaire, Locke, and Condillac. The Encyclopedists and the clergy were equally averse to the old human power which they took to be new. The miracles of the convulsionaries, suppressed by the Church and smothered by the indifference of scientific men (in spite of the precious writings of the Councilor, Carre de Montgeron) were the first summons to make experiments with those human fluids which give power to employ certain inward forces to neutralize the sufferings caused by outward agents. But to do this it was necessary to admit the existence of fluids intangible, invisible, imponderable, three negative terms in which the science of that day chose to see a definition of the void. In modern philosophy there is no void. Ten feet of void and the world crumbles away! To materialists especially the world is full, all things hang together, are linked, related, organized. “The world as the result of chance,” said Diderot, “is more explicable than God. The multiplicity of causes, the incalculable number of issues presupposed by chance, explain creation. Take the Eneid and all the letters composing it; if you allow me time and space, I can, by continuing to cast the letters, arrive at last at the Eneid combination.”

Those foolish persons who deify all rather than admit a God recoil before the infinite divisibility of matter which is in the nature of imponderable forces. Locke and Condillac retarded by fifty years the immense progress which natural science is now making under the great principle of unity due to Geoffroy de Saint–Hilaire. Some intelligent persons, without any system, convinced by facts conscientiously studied, still hold to Mesmer’s doctrine, which recognizes the existence of a penetrative influence acting from man to man, put in motion by the will, curative by the abundance of the fluid, the working of which is in fact a duel between two forces, between an ill to be cured and the will to cure it.

The phenomena of somnambulism, hardly perceived by Mesmer, were revealed by du Puysegur and Deleuze; but the Revolution put a stop to their discoveries and played into the hands of the scientists and scoffers. Among the small number of believers were a few physicians. They were persecuted by their brethren as long as they lived. The respectable body of Parisian doctors displayed all the bitterness of religious warfare against the Mesmerists, and were as cruel in their hatred as it was possible to be in those days of Voltairean tolerance. The orthodox physician refused to consult with those who adopted the Mesmerian heresy. In 1820 these heretics were still proscribed. The miseries and sorrows of the Revolution had not quenched the scientific hatred. It is only priests, magistrates, and physicians who can hate in that way. The official robe is terrible! But ideas are even more implacable than things.

Doctor Bouvard, one of Minoret’s friends, believed in the new faith, and persevered to the day of his death in studying a science to which he sacrificed the peace of his life, for he was one of the chief “betes noires” of the Parisian faculty. Minoret, a valiant supporter of the Encyclopedists, and a formidable adversary of Desion, Mesmer’s assistant, whose pen had great weight in the controversy, quarreled with his old friend, and not only that, but he persecuted him. His conduct to Bouvard must have caused him the only remorse which troubled the serenity of his declining years. Since his retirement to Nemours the science of imponderable fluids (the only name suitable for magnetism, which, by the nature of its phenomena, is closely allied to light and electricity) had made immense progress, in spite of the ridicule of Parisian scientists. Phrenology and physiognomy, the departments of Gall and Lavater (which are in fact twins, for one is to the other as cause is to effect), proved to the minds of more than one physiologist the existence of an intangible fluid which is the basis of the phenomena of the human will, and from which result passions, habits, the shape of faces and of skulls. Magnetic facts, the miracles of somnambulism, those of divination and ecstasy, which open a way to the spiritual world, were fast accumulating. The strange tale of the apparitions of the farmer Martin, so clearly proved, and his interview with Louis XVIII.; a knowledge of the intercourse of Swedenborg with the departed, carefully investigated in Germany; the tales of Walter Scott on the effects of “second sight”; the extraordinary faculties of some fortune-tellers, who practice as a single science chiromancy, cartomancy, and the horoscope; the facts of catalepsy, and those of the action of certain morbid affections on the properties of the diaphragm — all such phenomena, curious, to say the least, each emanating from the same source, were now undermining many scepticisms and leading even the most indifferent minds to the plane of experiments. Minoret, buried in Nemours, was ignorant of this movement of minds, strong in the north of Europe but still weak in France where, however, many facts called marvelous by superficial observers, were happening, but falling, alas! like stones to the bottom of the sea, in the vortex of Parisian excitements.

At the bottom of the present year the doctor’s tranquillity was shaken by the following letter:—

My old comrade — All friendship, even if lost, as rights which it is difficult to set aside. I know that you are still living, and I remember far less our enmity than our happy days in that old hovel of Saint–Julien-le-Pauvre.

At a time when I expect to soon leave the world I have it on my heart to prove to you that magnetism is about to become one of the most important of the sciences — if indeed all science is not one. I can overcome your incredulity by proof. Perhaps I shall owe to your curiosity the happiness of taking you once more by the hand — as in the days before Mesmer. Always yours,

Bouvard.

Stung like a lion by a gadfly the old scientist rushed to Paris and left his card on Bouvard, who lived in the Rue Ferou near Saint–Sulpice. Bouvard sent a card to his hotel on which was written “To-morrow; nine o’clock, Rue Saint–Honore, opposite the Assumption.”

Minoret, who seemed to have renewed his youth, could not sleep. He went to see some of his friends among the faculty to inquire if the world were turned upside down, if the science of medicine still had a school, if the four faculties any longer existed. The doctors reassured him, declaring that the old spirit of opposition was as strong as ever, only, instead of persecuting as heretofore, the Academies of Medicine and of Sciences rang with laughter as they classed magnetic facts with the tricks of Comus and Comte and Bosco, with jugglery and prestidigitation and all that now went by the name of “amusing physics.”

This assurance did not prevent old Minoret from keeping the appointment made for him by Bouvard. After an enmity of forty-four years the two antagonists met beneath a porte-cochere in the Rue Saint–Honore. Frenchmen have too many distractions of mind to hate each other long. In Paris especially, politics, literature, and science render life so vast that every man can find new worlds to conquer where all pretensions may live at ease. Hatred requires too many forces fully armed. None but public bodies can keep alive the sentiment. Robespierre and Danton would have fallen into each other’s arms at the end of forty-four years. However, the two doctors each withheld his hand and did not offer it. Bouvard spoke first:—

“You seem wonderfully well.”

“Yes, I am — and you?” said Minoret, feeling that the ice was now broken.

“As you see.”

“Does magnetism prevent people from dying?” asked Minoret in a joking tone, but without sharpness.

“No, but it almost prevented me from living.”

“Then you are not rich?” exclaimed Minoret.

“Pooh!” said Bouvard.

“But I am!” cried the other.

“It is not your money but your convictions that I want. Come,” replied Bouvard.

“Oh! you obstinate fellow!” said Minoret.

The Mesmerist led his sceptic, with some precaution, up a dingy staircase to the fourth floor.

At this particular time an extraordinary man had appeared in Paris, endowed by faith with incalculable power, and controlling magnetic forces in all their applications. Not only did this great unknown (who still lives) heal from a distance the worst and most inveterate diseases, suddenly and radically, as the Savior of men did formerly, but he was also able to call forth instantaneously the most remarkable phenomena of somnambulism and conquer the most rebellious will. The countenance of this mysterious being, who claims to be responsible to God alone and to communicate, like Swedenborg, with angels, resembles that of a lion; concentrated, irresistible energy shines in it. His features, singularly contorted, have a terrible and even blasting aspect. His voice, which comes from the depths of his being, seems charged with some magnetic fluid; it penetrates the hearer at every pore. Disgusted by the ingratitude of the public after his many cures, he has now returned to an impenetrable solitude, a voluntary nothingness. His all-powerful hand, which has restored a dying daughter to her mother, fathers to their grief-stricken children, adored mistresses to lovers frenzied with love, cured the sick given over by physicians, soothed the sufferings of the dying when life became impossible, wrung psalms of thanksgiving in synagogues, temples, and churches from the lips of priests recalled to the one God by the same miracle — that sovereign hand, a sun of life dazzling the closed eyes of the somnambulist, has never been raised again even to save the heir-apparent of a kingdom. Wrapped in the memory of his past mercies as in a luminous shroud, he denies himself to the world and lives for heaven.

But, at the dawn of his reign, surprised by his own gift, this man, whose generosity equaled his power, allowed a few interested persons to witness his miracles. The fame of his work, which was mighty, and could easily be revived tomorrow, reached Dr. Bouvard, who was then on the verge of the grave. The persecuted mesmerist was at last enabled to witness the startling phenomena of a science he had long treasured in his heart. The sacrifices of the old man touched the heart of the mysterious stranger, who accorded him certain privileges. As Bouvard now went up the staircase he listened to the twittings of his old antagonist with malicious delight, answering only, “You shall see, you shall see!” with the emphatic little nods of a man who is sure of his facts.

The two physicians entered a suite of rooms that were more than modest. Bouvard went alone into a bedroom which adjoined the salon where he left Minoret, whose distrust was instantly awakened; but Bouvard returned at once and took him into the bedroom, where he saw the mysterious Swedenborgian, and also a woman sitting in an armchair. The woman did not rise, and seemed not to notice the entrance of the two old men.

“What! no tub?” cried Minoret, smiling.

“Nothing but the power of God,” answered the Swedenborgian gravely. He seemed to Minoret to be about fifty years of age.

The three men sat down and the mysterious stranger talked of the rain and the coming fine weather, to the great astonishment of Minoret, who thought he was being hoaxed. The Swedenborgian soon began, however, to question his visitor on his scientific opinions, and seemed evidently to be taking time to examine him.

“You have come here solely from curiosity, monsieur,” he said at last. “It is not my habit to prostitute a power which, according to my conviction, emanates from God; if I made a frivolous or unworthy use of it, it would be taken from me. Nevertheless, there is some hope, Monsieur Bouvard tells me, of changing the opinions of one who has opposed us, of enlightening a scientific man whose mind is candid; I have therefore determined to satisfy you. That woman whom you see there,” he continued, pointing to her, “is now in a somnambulic sleep. The statements and manifestations of somnambulists declare that this state is a delightful other life, during which the inner being, freed from the trammels laid upon the exercise of our faculties by the visible world, moves in a world which we mistakenly term invisible. Sight and hearing are then exercised in a manner far more perfect than any we know of here, possibly without the help of the organs we now employ, which are the scabbard of the luminous blades called sight and hearing. To a person in that state, distance and material obstacles do not exist, or they can be traversed by a life within us for which our body is a mere receptacle, a necessary shelter, a casing. Terms fail to describe effects that have lately been rediscovered, for today the words imponderable, intangible, invisible have no meaning to the fluid whose action is demonstrated by magnetism. Light is ponderable by its heat, which, by penetrating bodies, increases their volume; and certainly electricity is only too tangible. We have condemned things themselves instead of blaming the imperfection of our instruments.”

“She sleeps,” said Minoret, examining the woman, who seemed to him to belong to an inferior class.

“Her body is for the time being in abeyance,” said the Swedenborgian. “Ignorant persons suppose that condition to be sleep. But she will prove to you that there is a spiritual universe, and that the mind when there does not obey the laws of this material universe. I will send her wherever you wish to go — a hundred miles from here or to China, as you will. She will tell you what is happening there.”

“Send her to my house in Nemours, Rue des Bourgeois; that will do,” said Minoret.

He took Minoret’s hand, which the doctor let him take, and held it for a moment seeming to collect himself; then with his other hand he took that of the woman sitting in the arm-chair and placed the hand of the doctor in it, making a sign to the old sceptic to seat himself beside this oracle without a tripod. Minoret observed a slight tremor on the absolutely calm features of the woman when their hands were thus united by the Swedenborgian, but the action, though marvelous in its effects, was very simply done.

“Obey him,” said the unknown personage, extending his hand above the head of the sleeping woman, who seemed to imbibe both light and life from him, “and remember that what you do for him will please me. — You can now speak to her,” he added, addressing Minoret.

“Go to Nemours, to my house, Rue des Bourgeois,” said the doctor.

“Give her time; put your hand in hers until she proves to you by what she tells you that she is where you wish her to be,” said Bouvard to his old friend.

“I see a river,” said the woman in a feeble voice, seeming to look within herself with deep attention, notwithstanding her closed eyelids. “I see a pretty garden —”

“Why do you enter by the river and the garden?” said Minoret.

“Because they are there.”

“Who?”

“The young girl and her nurse, whom you are thinking of.”

“What is the garden like?” said Minoret.

“Entering by the steps which go down to the river, there is the right, a long brick gallery, in which I see books; it ends in a singular building — there are wooden bells, and a pattern of red eggs. To the left, the wall is covered with climbing plants, wild grapes, Virginia jessamine. In the middle is a sun-dial. There are many plants in pots. Your child is looking at the flowers. She shows them to her nurse — she is making holes in the earth with her trowel, and planting seeds. The nurse is raking the path. The young girl is pure as an angel, but the beginning of love is there, faint as the dawn —”

“Love for whom?” asked the doctor, who, until now, would have listened to no word said to him by somnambulists. He considered it all jugglery.

“You know nothing — though you have lately been uneasy about her health,” answered the woman. “Her heart has followed the dictates of nature.”

“A woman of the people to talk like this!” cried the doctor.

“In the state she is in all persons speak with extraordinary perception,” said Bouvard.

“But who is it that Ursula loves?”

“Ursula does not know that she loves,” said the woman with a shake of the head; “she is too angelic to know what love is; but her mind is occupied by him; she thinks of him; she tries to escape the thought; but she returns to it in spite of her will to abstain. — She is at the piano —”

“But who is he?”

“The son of a lady who lives opposite.”

“Madame de Portenduere?”

“Portenduere, did you say?” replied the sleeper. “Perhaps so. But there’s no danger; he is not in the neighbourhood.”

“Have they spoken to each other?” asked the doctor.

“Never. They have looked at one another. She thinks him charming. He is, in fact, a fine man; he has a good heart. She sees him from her window; they see each other in church. But the young man no longer thinks of her.”

“His name?”

“Ah! to tell you that I must read it, or hear it. He is named Savinien; she has just spoken his name; she thinks it sweet to say; she has looked in the almanac for his fete-day and marked a red dot against it — child’s play, that. Ah! she will love well, with as much strength as purity; she is not a girl to love twice; love will so dye her soul and fill it that she will reject all other sentiments.”

“Where do you see that?”

“In her. She will know how to suffer; she inherits that; her father and her mother suffered much.”

The last words overcame the doctor, who felt less shaken than surprised. It is proper to state that between her sentences the woman paused for several minutes, during which time her attention became more and more concentrated. She was seen to see; her forehead had a singular aspect; an inward effort appeared there; it seemed to clear or cloud by some mysterious power, the effects of which Minoret had seen in dying persons at moments when they appeared to have the gift of prophecy. Several times she made gestures which resembled those of Ursula.

“Question her,” said the mysterious stranger, to Minoret, “she will tell you secrets you alone can know.”

“Does Ursula love me?” asked Minoret.

“Almost as much as she loves God,” was the answer. “But she is very unhappy at your unbelief. You do not believe in God; as if you could prevent his existence! His word fills the universe. You are the cause of her only sorrow. — Hear! she is playing scales; she longs to be a better musician than she is; she is provoked with herself. She is thinking, ‘If I could sing, if my voice were fine, it would reach his ear when he is with his mother.’”

Doctor Minoret took out his pocket-book and noted the hour.

“Tell me what seeds she planted?”

“Mignonette, sweet-peas, balsams —”

“And what else?”

“Larkspur.”

“Where is my money?”

“With your notary; but you invest it so as not to lose the interest of a single day.”

“Yes, but where is the money that I keep for my monthly expenses?”

“You put it in a large book bound in red, entitled ‘Pandects of Justinian, Vol. II.’ between the last two leaves; the book is on the shelf of folios above the glass buffet. You have a whole row of them. Your money is in the last volume next to the salon — See! Vol. III. is before Vol. II. — but you have no money, it is all in-”

“— thousand-franc notes,” said the doctor.

“I cannot see, they are folded. No, there are two notes of five hundred francs.”

“You see them?”

“Yes.”

“How do they look?”

“One is old and yellow, the other white and new.”

This last phase of the inquiry petrified the doctor. He looked at Bouvard with a bewildered air; but Bouvard and the Swedenborgian, who were accustomed to the amazement of sceptics, were speaking together in a low voice and appeared not to notice him. Minoret begged them to allow him to return after dinner. The old philosopher wished to compose his mind and shake off this terror, so as to put this vast power to some new test, to subject it to more decisive experiments and obtain answers to certain questions, the truth of which should do away with every sort of doubt.

“Be here at nine o’clock this evening,” said the stranger. “I will return to meet you.”

Doctor Minoret was in so convulsed a state that he left the room without bowing, followed by Bouvard, who called to him from behind. “Well, what do you say? what do you say?”

“I think I am mad, Bouvard,” answered Minoret from the steps of the porte-cochere. “If that woman tells the truth about Ursula — and none but Ursula can know the things that sorceress has told me — I shall say that you are right. I wish I had wings to fly to Nemours this minute and verify her words. But I shall hire a carriage and start at ten o’clock to-night. Ah! am I losing my senses?”

“What would you say if you knew of a life-long incurable disease healed in a moment; if you saw that great magnetizer bring sweat in torrents from an herpetic patient, or make a paralyzed woman walk?”

“Come and dine, Bouvard; stay with me till nine o’clock. I must find some decisive, undeniable test!”

“So be it, old comrade,” answered the other.

The reconciled enemies dined in the Palais–Royal. After a lively conversation, which helped Minoret to evade the fever of the ideas which were ravaging his brain, Bouvard said to him:—

“If you admit in that woman the faculty of annihilating or of traversing space, if you obtain a certainty that here, in Paris, she sees and hears what is said and done in Nemours, you must admit all other magnetic facts; they are not more incredible than these. Ask her for some one proof which you know will satisfy you — for you might suppose that we obtained information to deceive you; but we cannot know, for instance, what will happen at nine o’clock in your goddaughter’s bedroom. Remember, or write down, what the sleeper will see and hear, and then go home. Your little Ursula, whom I do not know, is not our accomplice, and if she tells you that she has said and done what you have written down — lower thy head, proud Hun!”

The two friends returned to the house opposite to the Assumption and found the somnambulist, who in her waking state did not recognize Doctor Minoret. The eyes of this woman closed gently before the hand of the Swedenborgian, which was stretched towards her at a little distance, and she took the attitude in which Minoret had first seen her. When her hand and that of the doctor were again joined, he asked her to tell him what was happening in his house at Nemours at that instant. “What is Ursula doing?” he said.

“She is undressed; she has just curled her hair; she is kneeling on her prie-Dieu, before an ivory crucifix fastened to a red velvet background.”

“What is she saying?”

“Her evening prayers; she is commending herself to God; she implores him to save her soul from evil thoughts; she examines her conscience and recalls what she has done during the day; that she may know if she has failed to obey his commands and those of the church — poor dear little soul, she lays bare her breast!” Tears were in the sleeper’s eyes. “She has done no sin, but she blames herself for thinking too much of Savinien. She stops to wonder what he is doing in Paris; she prays to God to make him happy. She speaks of you; she is praying aloud.”

“Tell me her words.” Minoret took his pencil and wrote, as the sleeper uttered it, the following prayer, evidently composed by the Abbe Chaperon.

“My God, if thou art content with thine handmaid, who worships thee and prays to thee with a love that is equal to her devotion, who strives not to wander from thy sacred paths, who would gladly die as thy Son died to glorify thy name, who desires to live in the shadow of thy will — O God, who knoweth the heart, open the eyes of my godfather, lead him in the way of salvation, grant him thy Divine grace, that he may live for thee in his last days; save him from evil, and let me suffer in his stead. Kind Saint Ursula, dear protectress, and you, Mother of God, queen of heaven, archangels, and saints in Paradise, hear me! join your intercessions to mine and have mercy upon us.”

The sleeper imitated so perfectly the artless gestures and the inspired manner of his child that Doctor Minoret’s eyes were filled with tears.

“Does she say more?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Repeat it.”

“‘My dear godfather; I wonder who plays backgammon with him in Paris.’ She has blown out the light — her head is on the pillow — she turns to sleep! Ah! she is off! How pretty she looks in her little night-cap.”

Minoret bowed to the great Unknown, wrung Bouvard by the hand, ran downstairs and hastened to a cab-stand which at that time was near the gates of a house since pulled down to make room for the Rue d’Alger. There he found a coachman who was willing to start immediately for Fontainebleau. The moment the price was agreed on, the old man, who seemed to have renewed his youth, jumped into the carriage and started. According to agreement, he stopped to rest the horse at Essonne, but arrived at Fontainebleau in time for the diligence to Nemours, on which he secured a seat, and dismissed his coachman. He reached home at five in the morning, and went to bed, with his life-long ideas of physiology, nature, and metaphysics in ruins about him, and slept till nine o’clock, so wearied was he with the events of his journey.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31