Though fertile in incidents, the year of 1845 was, from a literary point of view, more barren than any in Balzac’s past career, exception, of course, made for the time lost during his printing-house adventure. Beyond his short, witty sketch, A Man of Business, relating the tricks employed by the princes of bohemianism to pay their debts and indulge their caprices gratis, no finished work was published. The Peasants, which the author never entirely got through, was taken up repeatedly, and as often put aside from sheer inability to proceed.
The deadlock in which he found himself had been preparing since his visit to Saint Petersburg. Whether the intimacy created there between Madame Hanska and himself was that of two lovers in the chaster sense, or, as Monsieur Gabriel Ferry assets, in his Balzac et ses Amies, that of a closer union, it had haunted him during his subsequent twelvemonth’s loneliness. And when Eve, who had come to spend the winter at Dresden, discouraged, from fear of her society friends’ backbiting, the idea of his going there to see her, he grew incapable of concentrating his mind on his books; and, even in his letters to her, chafed and was irritable, scolding her for not stamping her envelopes, and recommending her to acquire habits of order and economy! confessing the while that, to escape from his melancholy, he had been playing lansquenet, dining out, going to the theatres, and leading a nonchalant life.
The tone was a bold one to assume, but clever. His tyrant, already repenting the pledges given, had been hinting it would be better not to carry them out. Her own relatives were quite as much against the match as Balzac’s, she reminded him, while narrating all the malicious tittle-tattle that mutual acquaintances were constantly telling her. She defended him, she said. “A mistake!” retorted Balzac. “When, in your presence, any one attacks me, your best plan is to mock the slanderers by outdoing them. When some one sneeringly remarked to Dumas that his father was a nigger, he answered: ‘My grandfather was a monkey.’”
His scolding for once did good. Eve did not like his “wounding prose,” but she talked no more of breaking with him. On the contrary, she relented as far as to remove the embargo on his going to Dresden; so in May he went. And, what was more, she came in August to Paris; incognito, since the visit was without the Czar’s permission, she and her daughter Anna travelling from the frontier under the names of Balzac’s sister and niece.
In the novelist’s correspondence, there is a curious letter written on the 2nd of August to Madame Emile de Girardin. In it the writer excuses himself for not calling on her, being obliged to remain at home on account of the disquieting condition of a lady friend of his who had hurt herself and was under medical treatment. The inference is that the lady in question was staying in his house; and a note written to Madame Hanska, on the 4th of September, with its allusion to the Passy garden in which they had walked so much together, makes it sufficiently plain that she was the August guest. Although no proofs have yet come to light which we can accept as irrefutable, there seems to be ground for the supposition put forward that a premature confinement was the illness, carefully concealed from every one.
If the supposition be correct, it explains the convalescent’s being joined by Balzac again in September at Baden-Baden, where the arrangements were made for Eve and himself to meet in October at Chalon-sur-Saone and to travel together to Italy. It was during this second stay in Germany that the play of the Saltimbanques they had seen suggested to the novelist the amusing nicknames which he henceforth adopted when writing to Madame Hanska’s family. Anna was dubbed Zephirine; her betrothed, Gringalet; Eve, Atala; and himself, Bilboquet. Georges, the betrothed, who was a Pole bearing the title of Count Mniszech, was a young man of scientific tastes and considerable learning, for whom Balzac conceived a great liking, and whom he helped in his entomological researches.
The ramble southwards was probably the most pleasurable experience in the novelist’s life, being an anticipated honeymoon. From Chalon they journeyed along the banks of the Rhone, visiting no fewer than twenty-three towns on the way. At Naples they parted, and the prospective bridegroom turned Paris-wards, going via Pisa, Civita Vecchia, and Marseilles; in this last city he comforted himself for the separation by hunting out further adornments for the home he was still busily striving to find in the capital.
At Marseilles lived a poet-friend of his named Mery, whom he had enlisted as a collaborator in his teeming dramatic schemes. Him he commissioned to bargain for certain articles of vertu which Lazard, the famous dealer in antiquities, quoted too dear — eight hundred francs for a mirror, and five hundred for a statuette. “Let Lazard see that you will give a thousand francs for the two things,” he advised Mery; “but don’t offer more than nine. Glance stoically at the articles when passing by, and joke the dealer. Then send acquaintances to offer a little less than you. After a fortnight’s haggling, Lazard will let you have them one fine morning.” For getting the better of these sly shopkeepers, Balzac had a good many devices up his sleeve.
Back in Passy, he was seized again by the same restlessness as in the spring, thwarting his efforts to settle down to his desk. The utmost he could accomplish was to wander about, note-book in hand, collecting material for later use. Happening in December to be near the Assize Courts, he went in to listen to the trial of Madame Colomes, a niece of Marshal Sebastiani, who was accused of forging bills. He was struck by her strong resemblance to the dead Dilecta, and also by her attachment, herself being forty-five years of age, to a young man of twenty. The latter, after wasting in riotous living the money she had procured him by her forgeries, fled and left her to bear the brunt of her shame. The most repugnant detail of this unfortunate woman’s case Balzac utilized not long afterwards in his Cousin Bette.
Perhaps it was less his ennui than the curiosity for new sensations which caused him to accept Gautier’s invitation to pass an evening with Baudelaire and one or two others, at the Hotel Pimodan, for the purpose of eating hashish. He experienced none of the extraordinary phenomena usually attributed to the consumption of this drug, his explanation being that the dose was too weak, or his brain too strong. However, he owned to having heard celestial voices and to having seen divine paintings while he descended Lauzun’s staircase, in a promenade that seemed to have lasted twenty years. He does not appear to have repeated the intoxication. Yet, on receiving another unkind epistle from Eve, shortly afterwards, he mentioned the possibility of arming himself against his sea of troubles through the drug’s lethal properties.
In anything that had to do with the function of the brain, he was as interested as if medicine had been his profession. A book of Dr. Moreau’s on madness, which he read during these months of mental relaxation, drew from him an acknowledgment wherein he foreshadowed his intention of studying anatomy and myology. “I believe,” he said, “we shall do no good until we have determined the action exercised by the physical organs of thought in the production of madness. The organs are the containing sheaths of some fluid or other as yet inappreciable. I hold this for proved. Well! there are a certain number of organs which are vitiated by their lack, by their constitution, others which are vitiated by an excess of afflux. People, who, like Cuvier and Voltaire, have exercised their organs early, have rendered them so powerful that no excess can affect them; whereas those who keep to certain portions of the ideal encephalos, which we represent as the laboratory of thought — the poets, who leave deduction and analysis inactive and exploit the heart and imagination exclusively — may become mad. In short, there would be a fine experiment to make. I have thought of it for twenty years. This would be to reconstitute the brain of an idiot, to demonstrate whether a thinking apparatus can be created by developing its rudiments. Only by building up a brain shall we know how one is demolished.”
The beginning of the new year did not bring back his former zeal for labour. Much of his time he frittered away in adding to his collections. Here he picked up a portrait of Queen Marie Leczinska by a pupil of Coypel, there, a Flemish lustre for which he paid four hundred and fifty francs. Eve reproached him with his idleness, presumably because he was too frequently at the house of Madame de Girardin. To calm her he penned a few remarks anent that lady not exactly complimentary. “Madame de Girardin,” he said, “who is charming among a few friends, is a less agreeable hostess when she holds a large reception. She belies her origin only by her talent; but, when she is outside her talent, she becomes once more her mother’s daughter, that is to say ‘bourgeoise’ and ‘Gay’ thoroughbred.” To the soiree which drew from him this jibe, he had been invited to meet Sheridan’s granddaughter — an English bore, he styled her — who looked him up and down through an eye-glass as if he were an actor. His relations with Emile, Delphine’s husband, continued to be marked by breezes. Before starting for Rome on the 17th of March, he sent him a few sharp lines complaining of the Presse’s delay in printing the Peasants. As a matter of fact, the readers of the Presse were not pleased with the story; and the editor had been obliged to request the author to modify the unpublished part. Balzac complied, but felt sore.
The earlier chapters of this novel appeared in 1844; the last ones did not come out until five years after the novelist’s death. The plot of the book turns on the struggle waged by the peasants and petty bourgeois of Soulanges against a new but estimable landlord, General Montcornet, whose estate they are determined to have by hook or by crook in their own hands, not hesitating, at least some of them, to assassinate the honest agent who strives to protect his employer’s property against their depredations. All these country folk Balzac has portrayed with effects depending on the painter’s and sculptor’s art as much nearly as on the writer’s; and the inmates and visitors of the village-inn and coffee-house are individualized with an anatomical intensity fringing on the brutal. Like the Village Cure and the Country Doctor, the Peasants is a novel with a purpose and a warning. The author preaches against the dividing up of the land; and advocates agriculture on a large scale by a reversion to the old estates with their castles and forests. As adjuvants to these he pleads for the development of Catholicism, a wider influence of the clergy both in education and private life. His picture of peasant avarice has been repeated by later writers, Guy de Maupassant and Zola. True in many particulars, it is traced by a prejudiced mind, and cannot be accepted as thoroughly representative.
At Rome he found Madame Hanska, and stayed with her there till May. Instead of describing the Eternal City to his sister, he referred her to de Lamennais’ accounts, himself being fully occupied with his companion and sight-seeing. He was duly received by the Pope, and obtained a small crown chaplet for his mother, together with His Holiness’ blessing. Saint Peter’s surpassed his expectations, and the choir’s Miserere so delighted him that he went to hear it a second time in lieu of that of the Sixtine Chapel. The journey back through Genoa, the Grisons, and Bale was a pretext for continuing his bric-a-brac purchases, Holbein’s Saint Peter being added to his treasures.
Reaching Paris at last, he now took up his pen with his old ardour. Fresh pledges for the future had been given him by Eve. These served to lure him onward; and behind him were the creditors who had lent him money for his trip, and were wanting some of it restored. At this period Madame Hanska’s funds and his own were partly associated. Some of her capital and some of his own, probably the sum accruing from the sale of Les Jardies, at present definitive, had been invested in North Railway Shares. Besides, not a few of his paintings and antique pieces of furniture had been paid for with advances from her strong-box.
The two works that issued from his new effort of creation were Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons. These, with Pierrette, made up his series of the Poor Relations.
The Old Musician, as he originally called Pons, was meant to give us the case of a man overwhelmed with humiliations and insults, yet preserving his generosity and pardoning everybody and everything, avenging himself only through kindness. Composed, like Cesar Birotteau, very rapidly, it bears evidence of the author’s haste. There is no proper love interest in the book, the lack being supplied by the friendship between Pons and the old German musician, Schmucke. A number of subordinate biographies are interwoven with the principal story — those of the banker Brunner, the Auvergnat Remonencq, the Cibots, who were Pons’ porters and caterers, Doctor Poulain and Lawyer Fraisier. We have plots within plots, wheels within wheels, in this strange, pathetic life of the musician, whose collecting hobby and expert’s skill in finding out rarities Balzac dwells on with all the greater detail as he was indulging at that time his own bent in this direction with peculiar zest and success. But the complexity and crowding are foils one is glad to have against the sordid treachery of the Cibot household, as, too, against the woes of Pons and Schmucke. Perhaps nowhere in his achievement has the novelist got deeper down to the rockbed of genuine humanity than in this work. Cousin Pons was published in 1847. Cousin Bette came a year earlier.
Besides the two novels just mentioned, Balzac finished, during this same period, the long series in which Vautrin is a chief, if not the chief, character; and also a book variously named the Brothers of Consolation and the Reverse Side of Contemporary History. In the Vautrin sequels he took up again the fortunes of Lucien de Rubempre, who, after returning in disgrace to his family, loses courage and is on the point of drowning himself when he meets with an Abbe Carlos Herrera; the latter changes the young man’s suicidal intentions by promising to procure him wealth, rank, and honours. Herrera is no other than Vautrin, who, having escaped from prison, is at the head of a formidable association of convicts. Carefully hiding his identity from Lucien, he persuades him to accept monetary help; and gradually Lucien contrives to enter aristocratic society, becomes the favourite of the Duchess of Serizy, and will be received as the betrothed of the nobly born Clotilde de Grandlieu, provided he can show that he possesses sufficient landed property. It so happens that his mistress Esther, a Jewess of great beauty, who is as fond of him as Coralie was, kills herself on learning that she must give him up. And Esther being in reality an heiress whose father, Gobseck, has just died, Vautrin forges a will by which the fortune is bequeathed to Lucien. Unluckily for the ex-convict’s plans, some police spies have been on the track of his proceedings, and an untimely arrest of him and his protege casts them into prison. These adventures are told in Whither Bad Ways Lead and two other volumes. A concluding book, entitled Vautrin’s Last Incarnation, relates the outlaw’s duel with justice in his confinement, the suicide of his disciple, and his own pardon at the price of entering into the Government’s secret police. The later portions of this drawn-out piece of fiction are written in the melodramatic style, and the characterization is distinctly inferior. The author loses himself in the various imbroglios, and the actors degenerate into creatures of romance, lacking consistency.
The Reverse Side of Contemporary History has similar defects. It was commenced in the Musee des Familles in 1842, was continued in 1844, and was completed only in 1848 in the Spectateur Republicain. We meet at first with a certain Godefroi who reaches middle age without obtaining any permanent satisfaction out of his life, and who thinks of burying himself in some quiet quarter of Paris where he can dwell unknowing and unknown. An accident introduces him to a kind of lay community whose presiding spirit is a Madame de la Chanterie, and whose members are a priest and three old gentlemen. These people are devoting what remains to them of their existence to alleviating pain and distress. Godefroi is admitted into the association, and, during his novice expedition, has a curious experience which leads to the disclosure of Madame de la Chanterie’s past. This is narrated in the second half of the book. We get the whole of that lady’s tragic history, an unjust trial of which she was the victim, the Nemesis which punished the bad judge in his daughter’s frightful malady and his poverty, and the heaping of coals of fire on his head by the woman who had suffered so direly through him. On arriving at the end of the story we cannot recognize it as the one we were made acquainted with at the outset. The tangle of episode and explanation — the latter confusing more than it explains — which intervenes in the middle, issues in a coarser thread that persists till the close. And yet the start was a fair one.
With Cousin Bette, we are back among the monstrosities. Bette is the poor relation who, unlike Pons, revenges herself for her humiliations and the insults bestowed on her. She aids in the pecuniary and moral ruin of the Hulot family, acts in cold blood, and attains her object before she dies. She is not the only perverted nature delineated. There is the Baron Hulot, whose odious licentiousness brings him to a veritable cretinism. There is Crevel, a grotesque, contemptible dupe; there are the Marneffes, sinks of corruption; and, with these, other minor characters — the vindictive Brazilian who wreaks his wrath on Madame Marneffe and on Crevel by his mysterious death-causing gift. The ideally virtuous Adeline Hulot also the novelist belittles, making her offer herself to Crevel to save her husband from the consequences of his degrading passions. Nearly all the book is harrowing, and even the atmosphere of the bohemian circles, where conversation is one sparkle of satire, is heavily tainted with vice.
George Sand protested against Madame Hulot’s portrait as unnatural; and, herself being the contrary of prudish in sexual relations, the opinion cannot be called prejudiced. Balzac defended his treatment, while admitting there was force in what she said. Arguing with her on their respective methods, he replied: “You seek to paint man as he ought to be. I take him as he is. Believe me, we are both right. Both ways lead to the same goal. I am fond of exceptional beings. I am one myself. Moreover, I need them to give relief to my common characters; and I never sacrifice them without necessity. But these common characters interest me more than they interest you. I aggrandize them; I idealize them in an inverse direction, in their ugliness or their stupidity. I give to their deformity terrifying or grotesque proportions. You could not do this. You are wise not to look at people and things that would cause you nightmare. Idealize in that which is pretty and beautiful. This is woman’s task.”
In spite of sheriff’s summonses and stormy discussions with those to whom he still had indebtedness, and in spite, too, of a tropical summer, the would-be bride-groom toiled cheerfully on through 1846. His Passy cottage was becoming, with the continually augmented collection, quite a museum, and Bertall, the artist-caricaturist, was in ecstasies over a china service estimated by its owner at some thousands of francs. His good humour rendered him his former conversational brilliancy, which had been somewhat damped during the past twelvemonth, and, at one of Delphine Gay’s dinners, where he met Hugo and Lamartine, he replied to Jove’s heavy artillery with a raking fire from his own quick-firing guns. Lamartine was enchanted. Balzac must go to the Chamber was his verdict. But Balzac, at present, was content to correspond with his Eve and to occupy himself with the restoration of the pictures she was helping him to buy. One of these, the Chevalier of Malta, he had acquired on Gringalet’s recommendation when in Rome. It had been bistered over by the dealer with a view to hiding a scratch, and there was also the dirt of age upon it. Requisitioning a clever craftsman in picture-restoring, he submitted the treasure to him. “It’s a masterpiece,” pronounced the expert: “but what will it be worth when the dirt is off?” Three days later the restorer came back with his drugs and implements. And, first, he rubbed a corner with some cotton dipped in one of his mixtures, which frothed the painting white. Then for an hour he scrubbed the surface progressively until he had a lot of little cotton balls all black. Afterwards, he began again, for the dirt was in layers, and, at the conclusion of the scrubbing and brushing, the chevalier emerged as life-like and fresh as when painted by the pupil of Raphael — Albert Durer or another — three hundred years before. The scratch was easily repaired, and Balzac was beside himself with joy. Relating to Georges Mniszech this happy result, which enriched his gallery containing already more than half-a-dozen old masters of great value, he said: “When connoisseurs and dilletanti come to visit my collection I shall say to them, ‘I owe this head to a young professor of entomology; he is a charming young man, full of wit and feeling, who, for the moment, is buried in bliss, science, and the steppes of the Ukraine. He is so versed in paintings that he is a boon to his friends. Oh! I assure you he out-experts all the experts of Paris put together. What is his name? — Gringalet! — No, really! — As truly as I am called Bilboquet.’”
The bliss referred to was Georges’ approaching marriage with Eve’s daughter Anna, which was celebrated very unostentatiously at Wiesbaden in October, owing to the recent death of the Count’s father. Balzac went to the wedding, and stayed with the family for four days. He had already spent a short time with them in August, on the occasion of the old Count Mniszech’s death, and, on his return journey, had been accompanied by Madame Hanska as far as Strasburg, where she made him such a definite statement regarding their marriage as amounted to an official engagement. It was between the two visits that he commissioned Georges to buy Atala a Voltaire-armchair for her greater ease and comfort.
While at the wedding, he was able to tell Eve that he had at last come upon a house which was everything that could be desired for them two selves. It was the smaller remaining portion of the splendid mansion and grounds built for the famous financier, Beaujon, by the architect Girardin in the eighteenth century. The original property, situated near the Arc de Triomphe, was nicknamed by contemporaries Beaujon’s Folly. At the owner’s death, the mansion and grounds were sold, and subsequently the Rues Chateaubriand, Lord Byron, and Fortunee were cut through the place. The abode chosen by the novelist bordered on the Rue Fortunee. From its staircase there was an entrance into a private chapel, which the financier had had constructed in his old age for his soul’s edification, and in which he was finally buried. The outside of the house in Balzac’s time was modest in appearance. Alone, a cupola, seen above the containing walls, suggested memories of bygone glory. Inside, there were still very substantial pieces of luxury and artistic decoration that needed only touching up to be practically what they had been of yore. Balzac detailed all this to his betrothed, and his selection was approved. No sooner was he in Paris again than the bargain was settled, and orders were given for the necessary repairs and renovation to be executed.
The end of 1846 seemed to smile on these projects of a speedy installation in conformity with his desires. Though the North Railway Shares had declined considerably, he was earning a good deal of money. Cousin Bette yielded him thirteen thousand francs, and Cousin Pons was sold for nine — modest prices indeed; but the total, with other sources of revenue, gave him for the twelvemonth an income of about fifty thousand francs. In the Beaujon mansion the workmen soon accomplished prodigies, transforming its dilapidated rooms into ship-shape and elegance. Bilboquet issued special instructions for apartments to be fitted up for Gringalet and Zephirine — a bedchamber and small salon, both circular and sculptured, with paintings on the arches, worthy of the destined aristocratic occupants.
Urged on by the sight of these preparations, he threw himself with almost frenzy into fresh literary labour. Dr. Nacquart warned him against the consequences of such brain debauch, as he termed it, prophesying that harm would ensue. And the doctor was right. Balzac was soon to pay for his excesses. Just now there was much in the political firmament that caused the novelist anxiously to wish that his own fortunes and those of Eve were indissolubly united. “Make haste!” was his constant cry to her.
“I see,” he said, “Italy and Germany ready to move. Peace hangs only by a thread — the life of Louis-Philippe, who is growing old; and, if war comes, Heaven knows what would happen to us. . . . For a young and ambitious sovereign who would not want, like Louis-Philippe, above all to die quietly in his bed, how favourable the moment would be to regain the left bank of the Rhine. The populations are harassed by petty, imbecile royalties. England is at loggerheads with Ireland, who seeks to ruin her or separate from her. All Italy is preparing to shake off the yoke of Austria. Germany desires her unity, or perhaps more liberty merely. Anyway, we are on the eve of great catastrophes. In France, it is our interest to wait, our cavalry and navy not being strong enough to enable us to triumph on land and sea; but, when these two are improved and our defence-works completed, France will be redoubtable. One must admit, that, by the manner Louis-Philippe is administering and governing, he is making her the first Power in the world. Just think! Nothing is factitious with us. Our army is a fine one; we have money; everything is strong and real at present. When the port of Algiers is terminated, we shall have a second Toulon in front of Gibraltar; we are advancing in the domination of the Mediterranean. Spain and Belgium are with us. This man has made progress. If he were ambitious and wished to chant the Marseillaise, he would demolish three empires to his advantage.”
The foregoing outlook on the future neglected certain signs of the times equally necessary to be taken into account with others that were perceived. In politics especially, the humourist’s detachment is essential to correct perspective, and of humour Balzac had but small share. As compensation, pleasantry was not wanting in this Duc de Bilboquet, peer of France and other places — as he subscribed himself to his dear Gringalet.
In February 1847, for the second time, Madame Hanska came to Paris incognito. The Beaujon house was nearly ready, and as mistress of it that was to be, her instructions were required for the garnishing. The happy Bilboquet conducted her to the Opera, the Italiens, the Conservatoire, and also to the Varietes where they saw Bouffe and Hyacinthe play in the laughable Filleul de tout le Monde. It was intended that she should stay till April, and that then he should take her back to Germany, leaving her there to pursue her journey to Wierzchownia, whither he was to proceed later. The novelist’s so far published correspondence has large gaps in the year 1847, with an entire lack of letters to Eve — yet such exist — so that we do not learn whether the intermediate programme was executed. Until the third volume of the Letters to the Stranger is published, it will be impossible to fill in accurately the history of the months between February and October, in which, however, events of importance occurred. One of these was Balzac’s burning all Madame Hanska’s epistles to him. Why? Apparently on account of a quarrel. And the quarrel? Was it caused by her finding out that, in 1846, he had a liaison with a lady resulting in the birth of a six months’ child, which did not survive? Monsieur de Lovenjoul, who is the authority for this last information, mentions that the harassment Balzac suffered from the affair was largely responsible for the rapid progress of the heart-disease that finally killed him.
During the month of April23 he was occupied in removing his furniture from the Passy cottage to his new residence. Theophile Gautier, who paid him a visit there not long after the installation, gave a sketch of what he saw in an article that appeared in the Artiste. He says:
23 On the house in Passy; the dates indicating the period of the novelist’s residence there are incorrect. It is to be hoped that the error, which has been pointed out to the Curator, will be rectified.
“When one entered this dwelling, which, indeed, was not easy, since the occupant kept himself close there, a thousand tokens of luxury and comfort were noticeable which were but little in agreement with the poverty that he pleaded. One day, however, he received us, and we saw a dining-room wainscoted in old oak, with table, chimney-piece, sideboards, dressers, and chairs, all in wood so carved as to have caused envy to Cornejo Duque and Verbruggen, if they had been present; a drawing-room upholstered in buttercup damask, and with doors, cornices, skirting-board, and embrasures in ebony; a library arranged in bookcases inlaid with tortoise-shell and brass in Boule style; a bathroom in yellow and black marble, with stucco bass-reliefs; a dome boudoir, whose ancient paintings had been restored by Edmond Hedouin; a gallery lighted from above, which we recognized later in the collection of Cousin Pons. There were what-nots laden with all sorts of curiosities, Dresden and Sevres china, cornet-shaped vases of frosted celadon, and, on the carpeted staircase, large porcelain bowls, and a magnificent lantern suspended by a red silk cord. ‘Why! you have emptied one of Aboulcasem’s siloes,’ we laughingly remarked to Balzac, as we gazed at all these splendours. ‘We were quite right in asserting that you were a millionaire.’ ‘I am poorer than ever I was,’ he replied, with a humble, sly air. ‘Nothing of this is mine. I have furnished the house for a friend that I am expecting. I am only the keeper and porter.’”
Within three short years from this date, the charge fell on her — the friend. She became the porteress of the abode which the other had prepared with such lavish attention and expenditure, to serve him only as a pall.
In 1875, the widow and her son-in-law, Count Mniszech, resolved to modify the Hotel Beaujon and the adjoining buildings, with the intention of perpetuating the novelist’s memory. The rotunda of the private chapel they planned to convert into a kind of circular atrium, with a fountain in the middle and a trellised gallery running round it, decorated with busts, statues, and other works of art. Changes likewise were to be effected in the courtyard, to which the pillars of the chapel nave had been removed; and a statue of the late owner was to be erected there, close to a tree, the seed of which had been planted on the occasion of his marriage. The facade of the house on the Rue Fortunee, now the Rue Balzac, was also to be embellished, and the central pavilion made to represent the novelist’s apotheosis, with a monumental bass-relief and a niche. Only a small portion of these alterations was completed. On Madame de Balzac’s death, in 1882, the property was bought by the Baroness Salomon de Rothschild; and, before the end of the century, it was demolished and the ground it covered was incorporated into the Baroness’s own gardens. All that now marks the site is the small dome forming the corner of the Rue Balzac and the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honore.
Whatever menaces of rupture between the lovers may have darkened their horizon in the spring and summer of 1847 had vanished before the autumn. At the end of September, Balzac went by invitation to Wierzchownia, and remained its guest for over four months. The sight of Russia’s huge oak forests, of which the Mniszech family possessed some twenty thousand acres, suggested to him another of the grandiose schemes for gaining a large fortune that he was for ever elaborating in his brain. His project was to establish an exportation to France of oak timber, either by sea or rail; which, with every expense figured out, might yield, so he calculated, a profit of a million two hundred thousand francs for a part area, and would still leave the estate well wooded after thinning out the trees. The thing was a gold-mine for him and his family if a banker could be induced to take it up. Alas! his brother-in-law was obliged to pour cold water on the project, proving to him that the expenses, contrary to what he had estimated, would far exceed the receipts. The weak point in the affair, however, was one that cheaper transport following on increased railway communication could remedy. Balzac’s only mistake was in imagining that this could be provided immediately. The visitor to Wierzchownia was not wrong in thinking that Russia’s natural productions must sooner or later be one of the chief supplies of the European market. A better knowledge of the country, acquired during his stay, enabled him to perceive that internal reorganization was needed before the country’s immense wealth could be exploited to the same degree as was possible in a country like France. In the Forties, Russia presented curious contrasts — great magnificence, and yet entire want of the commonest conveniences. Madame Hanska’s estate was the only one boasting of a Carcel lamp and a hospital. There were ten-foot mirrors, and no paper on the walls. Still, he had not to complain of his apartments in pink stucco, with fine carpets on the floor, and furniture that was comfortable. It astonished him to find that the whole of the Wierzchownia castle — as big as the Louvre — was heated by means of straw, which was burnt in stoves, the weekly consumption being as much as could be seen in the Saint-Laurent market at Paris. But, then, everything was huge. One of the Mniszech estates extended over a surface as large as the Seine and Marne Department, and was watered by no fewer than three rivers, the Dnieper being one of them. And the cholera was colossal also — a conscientious cholera, carrying off its forty to fifty victims a day in Kiew alone, and a total of nine thousand at Savataf. To reassure his relatives, Balzac added that this plague paid most of its calls at the houses of rich uncles, to which category he did not belong, and passed by people who had debts. Ergo, he was inoculated against its attacks.
Last updated Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 16:28