It is time something was said now about Balzac’s last dramatic compositions. Since the Gaite fiasco, in 1843, no other theatre had been brought up to the point of producing a further piece from his pen, although several negotiations were opened respecting plays supposed to be well in hand. In 1844, there was his comedy Prudhomme en Bonne Fortune, which the Gymnase had some thoughts of staging. Poirson, the manager, whom the author met one day in an omnibus, was enchanted with the idea, and proposed help even on most advantageous terms. The rehearsals were fixed for March, and the first performance for May; but, for some reason that we do not learn, the execution of the project was abandoned. Probably it was the burden of unfinished novels and a lurking desire to go on with Mercadet, which was lying still in its unachieved state.
Twelve months later, Mercadet appears to have received the last touches, and to be awaiting only an opportunity for its representation. But Frederick Lemaitre, who was to assume the chief role, had previous engagements that monopolized him; so Balzac, meanwhile, turned again to a subject he had often toyed with, Richard the Sponge-Heart, the name recalling that of Richard the Lion-Heart, without there being the least analogy between the Norman king and the hero of the play. In each preceding attempt, the author had stopped short at the end of the first act, and, on recommencing, had produced a different version. The hero was a joiner, living in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, whose habitual drunkenness had procured him his nickname. Had it been developed, the piece would no doubt have been a popular drama, on the lines subsequently followed by Zola’s Assommoir. There was talk of performing it at the Varietes in 1845; the year, however, slipped away, and it was not forthcoming. Dining with Gautier in December, at the house of Madame de Girardin, Balzac agreed with Theophile to go on with the drama in collaboration as soon as the theatres should have worked off some of their stock. Evidently, this was not done. However, Monsieur Henri Lecomte, in his Life of Frederick Lemaitre, affirms that Balzac did terminate Richard the Sponge-Heart, and that it was handed to Frederick to study. Then, some months afterwards, being in want of money, he asked the actor to take it to the publisher, Paulin, and obtain an advance of a thousand francs on it. If Paulin had it, he must either have mislaid or destroyed it, for, from this date, all traces of it were lost; and, to-day, a few fragments alone remain in Monsieur de Lovenjoul’s collection.
In 1846, vague mention was made in the correspondence with Madame Hanska of a military farce called the Trainards or Laggards. However, nothing came of it. But in August 1847, after the publication of Cousin Pons, the novelist paid a visit to Monsieur Hostein, manager of the Theatre Historique, which had been inaugurated in the preceding February. On this stage, which was subsequently transformed into the Theatre Lyrique, and later demolished to make room for the Boulevard of the Prince Eugene, several pieces of Alexandre Dumas had just been played in succession; and Balzac said to himself that he would have a better chance of meeting with appreciative audiences in these new premises. Monsieur Hostein relates in his Reminiscences that the novelist, calling on him one day at his Bougival country-residence, went out and sat with him by the river-side, and there explained that he wished to write a great historic drama entitled Peter and Catherine (of Russia). Asked for an outline of it, Balzac tapped his forehead and said: “It is all there. I have only to write. The first tableau can be rehearsed the day after to-morrow.”
“We are,” he continued, “in a Russian inn, with many people running in and out, since troops are passing through the place.
“One of the servants is a lively girl. Pay attention to her. She is not beautiful, but attractive! And the visitors notice her, and joke with her. She smiles at every one; but those who go too far in gesture or language soon discover they have made a mistake.
“All at once, a soldier enters, bolder than the rest. He gets the girl to sit down with him, and wants to clink glasses with her. On the innkeeper’s objecting, he rises in a rage, thumps the table with his fist, and cries: ‘Let no one oppose my will, or I will set fire to the inn.’
“The innkeeper orders the girl to obey, for the troops are everywhere, and the peasant is alarmed. Sitting down again, the soldier drinks with the girl, tells her she shall be happy with him, and promises her a finer home than she has.
“But while they are talking, a door opens at the back, and an officer appears. Those present rise with respect, except the girl and her companion. Approaching them, the officer lays his hand heavily on the soldier’s arm, and says: ‘Stand up, fellow. Go to the counter, and write your name and that of your regiment, and hold yourself at my orders.’
“The soldier stands up automatically, obeys, and, having presented the paper, retires.
“Then the officer sits down and flirts with the girl, who accepts his compliments.
“But now a stranger shows himself at the door. He is clad in a big cloak. At the sight of him, men and women fall on their knees, except the officer, who is too agreeably occupied to notice the new arrival. In a moment of enthusiasm, he says to the girl: ‘You are divine. I will take you with me. You shall have a fine house, where it is warm.’
“Just then, the man in the cloak draws near. The officer recognizes him, turns pale, and bows down, uttering: ‘Oh, pardon, sire!’
“‘Stand up,’ orders the master, meantime examining the servant, who, on her side, looks without trembling at the all-powerful Czar.
“‘You may withdraw,’ the latter tells the officer. ‘I will keep this woman, and give her a palace.’
“Thus met for the first time Peter I and she who became Catherine of Russia.”
Having given this prologue, Balzac went on to speak of the staging of his play, which he promised to arrange in accordance with what he knew of the country’s scenery and customs, Russia being, from an artistic point of view, admirable to exhibit theatrically. Monsieur Hostein was quite gained over by the prospect of something so novel; and Balzac, paying him a second call, some few days later, pledged himself to start for Kiew and Moscow very shortly, and, from there, to go to Wierzchownia and finish his drama. The journey to Russia was made; and Balzac, in due course, returned, but he did not bring with him the denouement of Peter and Catherine.
Not that his mind was less preoccupied with the drama. On the contrary, Champfleury, who went to see him in the Rue Fortunee, soon after his arrival in Paris, found him more bent on writing for the stage than ever. One idea of his now was to create a feerie, or sort of pantomime, sparkling throughout with wit. Another was to form an association for dramatic authors of standing (himself naturally included), not to defend their interests, but to get them to work in common, and to keep thus the various Paris theatres provided with their work. It was a trust scheme before the era of trusts. If the thing were managed, they might renew the miracles of those indefatigable and marvellous Spanish playwrights — Calderon, who composed between twelve and fifteen hundred pieces, Lope de Vega, who composed more than two thousand. However, he feared that many of his colleagues might not care to fall in with his suggestions. “They are idlers, donkeys,” he added. “There is only one worker among them, and that is Scribe. But what a piece of literature his Memoirs of a Hussar Colonel is!”
Another visitor to the Rue Fortunee in February 1848 was Monsieur Hostein, to whom the novelist had offered for the spring a piece that should replace Peter and Catherine. This time the manuscript was ready. It lay on the table, bearing on its first page the title, Gertrude, a Bourgeois Tragedy. The piece was a five-act one, in prose. A couple of days later, actors and actresses were assembled in Balzac’s drawing-room. Madame Dorval pursed her lips at the words, Gertrude, tragedy. “Don’t interrupt,” cried the author, laughing. However, after the reading of the second act they had to interrupt. The play was overloaded with detail. A good deal of pruning was effected, together with a change in title, before the first performance on the 25th of May; and more excisions might have been made with advantage. Alterations less beneficial were those introduced into the cast, Madame Dorval being eliminated in favour of Madame Lacressonniere. This lady was a much poorer actress, but was a persona grata with Monsieur Hostein. Both public and critics accorded Balzac’s new effort a very fair reception, notwithstanding the mediocrity of the acting and the peculiar circumstances under which it was produced, just as the Revolution storm was breaking out.
The Maratre, or Stepmother, as the piece was called when staged, presents the home of a Count de Grandchamp, who, after being a general under the First Empire, has turned manufacturer under the restoration. He has a grown-up daughter, Pauline, and a second wife named Gertrude, the latter still a young, handsome woman, with a ten-year-old son, the little Napoleon. Though they are outwardly on good terms, the stepmother and stepdaughter nevertheless hate each other. They are in love with the same man, Ferdinand, the manager of the general’s works. On this hatred the entire interest of the play turns. Ferdinand really loves Pauline; but he has formerly been engaged to Gertrude, who jilted him to marry the general, and this fact somewhat embarrasses him in his wooing. Moreover, his father was an officer under the Revolution Government, and, if the general should learn that, it would ruin his chances of obtaining the old gentleman’s consent. The plot arising out of these relations is, at first, cleverly dealt with by the author, who involves matters further by a second suitor for Pauline, to whom Gertrude tries to marry her, in order that she herself may regain Ferdinand’s affection. In the second act, a word-duel is fought between the two women, during a whist-party, each seeking to surprise the opponent’s true sentiments towards Ferdinand. This scene is exceedingly original; and, subsequently, a bold employment is made by the author of the enfant terrible — the young Napoleon — for the purpose of helping on the unravelling of the plot. The concluding portion of the piece and its sombre tragedy — the deaths of Pauline and Ferdinand — is heavier in dialogue and cumbrous in construction, with its officers of justice who supply a useless episode. One might sum up the Stepmother as a weak ending to a strong beginning. None the less it shows progress on Vautrin and Pamela Giraud.
A few days after the Revolution, Theodore Cogniard, manager of the Porte-Saint-Martin Theater, wrote to Balzac and proposed to reproduce Vautrin. Balzac, in replying, referred to Lemaitre’s toupet, and explained that, when disguising Vautrin as a Mexican general, he had in his mind General Murat. He told Cogniard he was willing to allow the revival, if care were taken against there being any caricature of the now disposed monarch. The manager agreed, but the performances did not come off, apparently on account of the disturbed state of the city. In 1850, an unauthorized revival was put on the stage of the Gaite, while Balzac was at Dresden. Being informed of it, the novelist protested in a letter to the Journal des Debats, and the piece was at once withdrawn.
The Stepmother was Balzac’s last dramatic composition played during his lifetime. This was partly his own fault. In the short epoch of the Second Republic, when neither the Comedie Francaise nor the Odeon, the two national homes of the drama, were thriving, it was to the directors’ interest to seek out men of talent; and he had overtures from both theatres. Mauzin of the Odeon even promised him, as he had promised Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, a premium of six thousand francs and a percentage of receipts on any sum over a thousand francs. Balzac consented to write a tragedy entitled Richard Sauvage, and got as far as — a monologue. With Lockroy of the Theatre Francais also he made an arrangement for a comedy. There had been talk at first, both inside and outside the Francais, of a satirical piece called the Petty Bourgeois, but having nothing except the name in common with his unfinished novel similarly yclept. His motive for not proceeding with it he set forth to the journalist Hippolyte Rolle, in a letter published in his correspondence. “Is it on the morrow of a battle,” he wrote, “when the bourgeoisie have so generously shed their blood on behalf of threatened civilization, and when they are in mourning, that one can drag them before the footlights?”
The manager, he said, had been pleased to accept in exchange another comedy which would be soon performed. This comedy was the resuscitated Mercadet, the title of which had been altered to the Speculator in 1847, and the Jobber in 1848. Under the last appellation, it was read by the Comedie Committee in August, and unanimously approved. However, between this date and December, Balzac had taken his departure to Wierzchownia, where he seemed likely to remain for a while; and, in his absence, the members of the Committee repented of their bargain. Another solemn sitting was held in December, and an amended resolution was passed, accepting the Jobber on condition that certain corrections were made in it. On being apprized of the proviso, Balzac immediately cancelled his treaty with Lockroy, and entered into negotiations with Hostein, who professed himself only too happy to place the Theatre Historique at the author’s disposal. Alas! the same difficulties and worse cropped up here. Hostein wrote that his public was a boulevard one, much fonder of melodrama than comedy, and that, if the Jobber were to succeed, it must be completely modified. Naturally, Balzac refused. He had not withdrawn it from the first theatre in Paris, which demanded only trifling alterations, to permit it to be cut up by a theatre of less importance.
Content to wait till a more complaisant director should make overtures to him, he filled in his leisure at Wierzchownia by inventing the King of Beggars, which he announced to his friend Laurent Jan as an up-to-date play flattering the all-powerful plebs; and he likewise sketched a tragedy in which Madame Dorval was to have the chief role. This was in April, 1849, and, a few weeks later, Madame Dorval was dead. Only on the 23rd of August 1851, a year after his own death, did his executors meet with a director, Monsieur Montigny of the Gymnase, who undertook to stage Mercadet the Jobber. Less intransigent than Balzac, the executors allowed its five acts to be reduced to three, and a considerable amount of suppression and remodelling to be operated by a professional playwright, Adolphe Dennery. Performed with these concessions to theatrical requirements and popular taste, and with Geoffroy in the chief role, failing Lemaitre and Regnier, Mercadet pleased the public greatly, too greatly for some bull and bear habitues of the Bourse, who feared that their pockets might suffer. Owing to their complaints, the Minister for the Interior temporarily suspended the representations, basing his interdiction on the ground that expressions struck out by the Censor had been inserted again by the actors. Prudently, Monsieur Montigny ordered a few more excisions, and the prohibition was raised. Seventeen years elapsed before the Comedie Francaise at last placed Mercadet on its repertory and inaugurated the event by a special performance with Got as the Jobber.
The hero of the piece is a financier who has very little cash, but innumerable projects for gaining money. These involve methods which are not always straight-forward; yet, since he believes in the success of what he advocates, he is not absolutely unprincipled, though he does not mind to some extent gulling the gullible. His chief aim is to trick his creditors — themselves, as it happens, not worthy of much pity; and, himself kind-hearted, loving his wife and daughter, and not a libertine, he appeals to the sympathies of the reader or the audience. Most of the amusement of the play — and it is very amusing — is derived from the metamorphoses adopted by the Jobber in dealing with each sort of creditor. Moreover, the love-passages between Julie, the daughter, and a poor clerk who thinks her an heiress, are so managed as to strengthen the comic side of certain situations. The unexpected arrival of a rich uncle from America releases the Jobber ultimately from the tangle into which he has twisted himself. It is the least original part of the comedy; but was suggested, like the rest of the play, by Balzac’s own circumstances. Was he not always expecting a windfall; and was not Eve a kind of rich — relative? To add one more detail concerning Mercadet, it was revived at the Comedie Francaise in 1879, and again in 1890, there being as many as 107 performances. Its indisputable qualities have caused some writers to conclude that, if Balzac had lived longer, he would have become as great a dramatist as he was a novelist. This is very doubtful. Notwithstanding its long incubation of nearly a decade, and the advantage it possessed in embodying so much personal experience, Mercadet was still weak in construction and was largely wanting in dramatic compression. And, at fifty years of age, with failing powers, Balzac would have found the task increasingly hard to acquire an art for which, by his own confession, he had no born aptitude.
The temporary government which was set up, in consequence of the February Revolution of 1848, conceived the curious idea of summoning the members of the Men of Letters Society to a meeting in the Palais Mazarin, for the purpose of eliciting from them an expression of opinion on the situation of literature and the best way to protect it. Balzac, who had newly arrived from Wierzchownia, went to the meeting and was chosen chairman. But no sooner was the discussion opened than it degenerated into dispute and tumult; the place became a bear-garden, and, after vainly endeavouring to restore order, he took up his hat and left the room.
When the general elections were held, for the forming of a Constituent Assembly, he stood as a candidate, and published a long declaration of his opinions in the Constitutionnel, in which had appeared his Poor Relations. The candidature had no success; it could scarcely be expected to have any. His political style was not one to catch the popular vote; and his sympathies were too visibly autocratic to commend themselves at such a moment. What deceived him was that, at first, there appeared to be a chance for the establishment of a strong central power well disposed towards sage reforms of a social, administrative, and financial character, with men like Lamartine to elaborate them; and to a government of this kind he could have given his support. When he realized that the trend of events was towards a Republic of Utopian experiment which he regarded as doomed to failure and disaster, he quietly dropped out of the struggle, and, leaving Paris once more in September, retraced his steps to Wierzchownia.
The political disturbances of the previous six months had been prejudicial both to his invested capital and to his income accruing from work. It was difficult to sell fiction advantageously when people were more interested in facts; nor did he care much to continue his efforts under a regime that he looked upon as a usurpation. Until the speedy overthrow which he confidently reckoned upon, he said to himself that he would do better to occupy himself with the question of his marriage. The hope was at present a forlorn one, but it was worth risking. He started with the intention of coming back, like the Spartan, either on his shield or under it.
Short of available cash, as always, he borrowed five thousand francs from his publisher, Souverain, for the expenses of his journey and pocket-money, and placed his mother in charge of his Beaujon mansion, with procuration to buy the complement of his domestic articles.
The warm welcome he received on reaching Madame Hanska’s residence made him so sanguine that he wrote to Froment-Meurice, his jeweller in Paris, asking that the cornaline cup might be sent him which had been on order for the past two years. The jeweller was evidently not anxious to oblige such a bad payer. This cup, the novelist said, was to be flanked by two figures, Faith and Hope, the former holding a scroll, with Neuchatel and the date 1833 on it, the latter, another scroll, with a kneeling Cupid — the whole resting on a ground covered with cacti and various thorny plants besides, in silver gilt.
The blasts of winter in a rigorous climate laid him by with bronchitis in November. He suffered at the same time great difficulty in breathing; and the doctors diagnosed certain symptoms of heart trouble that caused them to consider his case a grave one. This malady relegated all matrimonial projects for the moment into the background. Madame Hanska did not hide that she regretted having put so much of her money into the purchase and furnishing of a house that they hardly seemed likely to inhabit together. Adding up what it had cost them both, they estimated the total at three hundred and fifty thousand francs. Into these figures the price of pictures entered for a large amount. The most recent were Greuze’s Jeune Fille Effrayee, from the last King of Poland’s Gallery; two Canalettis, once the property of Pope Clement XIII; James II of England’s Wife, by Netscher; the same king’s portrait, by Lely, in addition to a Van Dyck, two Van Huysums, and three canvases by Rotari, a Venetian painter of the eighteenth century.
The winter was not propitious to Madame Hanska either. Two fires on her estate did enormous damage, and her money losses were important. Balzac, though tenacious of his plan, talked constantly of going back to his loneliness, yet stayed on still; and Eve, who either would not or could not screw up her courage, invented fresh reasons for procrastinating. One of these was the Emperor’s refusal to sanction the marriage unless Madame Hanska’s landed property were transferred to her daughter’s husband. A scolding letter from the novelist’s mother, accusing Honore of remissness towards his nieces and family, was by chance read to the Wierzchownia hostess, and this further complicated a situation already sufficiently involved. Balzac’s bile was stirred. He relived his feelings in a long reply to Laure. It seemed after all he would return to Paris under his shield. “I had a marriage which made my fortune,” he told her. “Everything is now upset for a bagatelle. Know that it is with marriages as with cream; a changed atmosphere, a bad odour, spoils them both. Bad marriages are easily arranged; good ones only with infinite precaution. . . . I can tell you, Laure,” he continued, “it is something, when one wishes, to be able in Paris to open one’s drawing-room and gather in it an elite of society who will find there a woman as polished and imposing as a queen, illustrious by her birth, allied to the greatest families, witty, educated, and beautiful. One has thus a fine means of domination. With a household thus established, people are compelled to reckon; and many persons of high position will envy it, especially since your dear brother will bring to it only glory and a clever conduct.”
Here we have the secret of Balzac’s persistence, and ample proof also of what has already been asserted, to wit, that his affection for the Stranger was a fancy born and bred rather in the head than in the heart.
It was perhaps to take the edge off this quip quarrelsome that the following amusing lines were addressed in the next month to his nieces, giving them particulars about animal and vegetables foods in Russia. “The country,” he said, “has no veal — I mean eatable veal, for cows produce calves here as well as elsewhere; but these calves are of Republican leanness. Beef, such as one gets in Paris, is a myth; one remembers it only in dreams. In reality, one has meat twenty years old, which is stringy and which serves to bulk out the packets of hemp intended for exportation. One consoles one’s self with excellent tea and exquisite milk. As for the vegetables, they are execrable. Carrots are like turnips, and turnips are like nothing. On the other hand, there are gruels galore. You make them with millet, buckwheat, oats, barley; you can make them even with tree-bark. So, my nieces, take pity on this country, so rich in corn, but so poor in vegetables. Oh! how Valentine would laugh to see the apples, pears, and plums! She wouldn’t give over at the end of a year. Good-bye, my dear girls, and accept the Republic patiently; for you have real beef, veal, and vegetables, and a kind uncle happy and fed on gruel.”
Ill again with his heart in the April of 1849, Balzac had the good luck to be attended by a pupil of the famous Doctor Franck, the latter being the original of his Country Doctor. This disciple, and his son to a less extent, were men of a newer and more enlightened school; and the elder man, by bold experiments, reduced his patient’s arterio-sclerosis to the point of what seemed to be convalescence. But the treatment was tedious and lasted on into the summer, so that the novelist was left weak and delicate at the end. In such a condition he was less than ever fit to carry on his wooing.
To give himself a countenance, he spoke again of departure, fixing the date for the month of October. Madame Hanska was apparently willing to let him go. She had played the hostess generously during nearly a twelvemonth to this invalid, and it seemed to her enough. Not that she intended to sever the engagement. She wished merely to wait and see how matters turned out. Meantime, he could watch over their common property, now augmented by the acquisition of an extra plot of land at the side, which could be resold later at a large profit. But a resumption of the old burden was more than Balzac could face. In September he was prostrated by what Dr. Knothe called an intermittent brain fever, which continued for more than a month. His constitution pulled him through, with the aid of good nursing; and then, realizing that her tergiversations had been partly responsible for the attack, Eve, at last, in conversations between them that followed his recovery, let him understand that she relented and was willing to accompany him back to Paris as his wife, if the Emperor would permit of such a transfer of the estate to Count Mniszech as might enable her to receive a share of its revenues.
The victory was won, yet at a heavy cost. For a man so worn down by illness Russia was not the place to recruit in. Its biting winds throughout the winter of 1849 and 1850 withered what little vitality Balzac had still remaining, and at Kiew, where he had gone with Madame Hanska on business, he was again laid up with fever.
All the different formalities required by Russian law having been finally complied with, the wedding was celebrated on the 14th of March, in the Church of Saint Barbara at Beriditchef, some few hours distant from Wierzchownia. At once the bridegroom despatched the news to his family and friends. His joy was such that he fancied he had never known happiness before. “I have had no flowery spring,” said his letter to Madame Carraud. “But I shall have the most brilliant of summers, the mildest of autumns. . . . I am almost crazy with delight.”
More than a month elapsed ere the newly married couple were able to set out on their journey to the French capital, and, even then, they had to travel along roads studded with quagmires into which their carriage frequently sank up to the axle. Sometimes fifteen or sixteen men and a crick were necessary to extricate them. Though on their honeymoon, they found the repetition of these incidents monotonous, and were so tired when they reached Dresden that they stayed there to recover themselves. From this town Balzac sent a few lines to his mother and sister mentioning the approximate date of their reaching home; and instructions were given that everything should be in order, flowers on the table, and a meal prepared. He did not want his mother to be at the house to receive them, deeming it more proper that his wife should call on her first, either at Laure’s, or at Suresnes where she was living. They got into Paris on the 22nd or 23rd of May.
Monsieur de Lovenjoul relates that the two travellers drove up to the Beaujon mansion a little before midnight. Weary with the journey, they stepped out of the cab and rang the bell, rang more than once, for no one came to open the door. Through the windows they could see the lamps lighted and signs of their being expected. But where was the valet, Francois Munck, who had been left in charge by the novelist’s mother? Apparently, he had deserted his post. Balzac kept on ringing, shouting at intervals, and thumping the gate. Still there was silence inside. The one or two people passing at this late hour stopped out of curiosity, and began in their turn to call and knock; while the cabman, tired of waiting, put down the luggage on the footpath.
Madame de Balzac grew impatient. It was cold standing in the night-air. Her husband, nonplussed and exceedingly annoyed, did not know what to say to the bystanders. One of the latter offered to fetch a locksmith, named Grimault, who lived in a street close by. The suggestion was gladly agreed to, since there seemed nothing else to be done. However, until such time as the locksmith should come, they continued battering at the gate and throwing tiny pebbles at the windows; and the master, thus shut out from his own dwelling, hallooed to the invisible valet: “I am Monsieur de Balzac.” It was useless. The door refused to open. Around Madame de Balzac, now seated on one of the trunks, other passers-by had gathered and listened to the novelist’s excited comments on his predicament. The occurrence was certainly extraordinary.
At length, the locksmith was brought and the gate was forced. The whole party, hosts and impromptu guests, hurried through the narrow courtyard, entered the house without further hindrance, and were met by a strange spectacle. The valet had been seized with a sudden fit of madness and had smashed the crockery, scattered the food about, spilt a bottle of wine on the carpet, upset the furniture, and ruined the flowers. Having performed these exploits, he was wandering aimlessly to and fro with demented gestures, and in this state they discovered him. After securing and fastening him up in a small room, the visitors helped to place the luggage in the yard and then retired, with profuse thanks from the novelist, who being thoroughly unnerved by this untoward incident, was obliged to go straight to bed. The next day, Francois was taken to an asylum at his master’s expense, as is proved by a receipt still existing in which Balzac is dubbed a Count. Perhaps the title was a piece of flattery on the doctor’s part, or the novelist may have imagined that his marrying a Countess conferred on him letters of nobility.
Anyway, this assumed lordship was poor compensation for the immense disappointment of his marriage in every other respect. From the moment he and his wife took possession of their fine Beaujon residence, whatever bonds of friendship and tenderness had previously existed between them were irremediably snapped asunder. Peculiarities of character and temperament in each, which, as long as they were lovers, had been but slightly felt, now came into close contact, clashed, and were proved to be incompatible. Moreover, there were disagreeable revelations on either side. The husband learnt that his wife’s available income was very much inferior to what he had supposed or been led to believe, and the wife learnt that her husband’s debts, far from being paid, as he had asserted, subsisted and were more numerous and larger than he had ever in sober truth admitted. So, instead of coming to Paris to be the queen of a literary circle, the Stranger saw herself involved in liabilities that threatened to swallow up her own fortune, if she lent her succour.
Reproaches and disputes began in the week following their instalment. The disillusioned Eve withdrew to her own apartments in anger; and Balzac, whose bronchitis and congestion of the liver had grown worse, remained an invalid in his. They had intended spending only a fortnight or so in Paris, and then travelling south to the Pyrenees and Biarritz; but this programme was perforce abandoned. All through the month of June the patient was under medical treatment, able to go out only in a carriage, and, even so, in disobedience to the doctor’s orders. One of these visits was to the door of the Comedie Francaise, where Arsene Houssaye, the Director, came to speak to him about Mercadet, and indulgently promised him, it should be staged soon, the Resources of Quinola also.
On the 20th of June, he wrote, through his wife, to Theophile Gautier, telling him that his bronchitis was better and that the doctor was proceeding to treat him for his heart-hypertrophy, which was now the chief obstacle to his recovery. At the end of the letter he signed his name, adding: “I can neither read nor write.” They were the last words of his correspondence. From that date his heart-disease undermined him rapidly; and the few friends whom he received augured ill from what they remarked. Not that he lost hope himself. Although suffering acutely at intervals from difficulty in breathing, and from the oedema of his lower limbs, which slowly crept upwards, he spoke with the same confidence as always of his future creations that he meditated. His brain was the one organ unattacked. From Dr. Nacquart he inquired every day how soon he might get to work again.
The month of July and the first half of August passed thus, the dropsy gaining still on him in spite of all that Nacquart and other medical men could do to combat it. To every one but the patient himself, it was evident that he was dying. Houssaye, who came to see him on the 16th of August, found Dr. Nacquart in the room. He relates that Balzac, addressing the latter, said: “Doctor, I want you to tell me the truth. . . . I see I am worse than I believed. . . . I am growing weaker. In vain I force myself to eat. Everything disgusts me. How long do you think I can live?”— The doctor did not reply. —“Come, doctor,” continued the sick man, “do you take me for a child? I can’t die as if I were nobody. . . . A man like me owes a will and testament to the public.”—“My dear patient, how much time do you require for what you have to do?” asked Nacquart. —“Six months,” replied Balzac; and he gazed anxiously at his interlocutor. —“Six months, six months,” repeated the doctor, shaking his head. —“Ah!” cried Balzac dolorously; “I see you don’t allow me six months. . . . You will give me six weeks at least. . . . Six weeks with the fever, is an eternity. Hours are days; and then the nights are not lost.”— The doctor shook his head again. Balzac raised himself, almost indignant. —“What, doctor! Am I, then, a dead man? Thank God! I still feel strength to fight. But I feel also courage to submit. I am ready for the sacrifice. If your science does not deceive you, don’t deceive me. What can I hope for yet? . . . Six days? . . . I can in that time indicate in broad outlines what remains to be done. My friends will see to details. I shall be able to cast a glance at my fifty volumes, tearing out the bad pages, accentuating the best ones. Human will can do miracles. I can give immortal life to the world I have created. I will rest on the seventh day.”— Since beginning to speak, Balzac had aged ten years, and finally his voice failed him. —“My dear patient,” said the doctor, trying to smile, “who can answer for an hour in this life? There are persons now in good health who will die before you. But you have asked me for the truth; you spoke of your will and testament to the public.”—“Well?”—“Well! this testament must be made to-day. Indeed, you have another testament to make. You mustn’t wait till to-morrow.” — Balzac looked up. —“I have, then, no more than six hours,” he exclaimed with dread.
The details of this narration given to the Figaro many years after the event24 do not read much like history. A more probable account tells that Balzac, after one of his fits of gasping, asked Nacquart to say whether he would get better or not. The doctor hesitated, then answered: “You are courageous. I will not hide the truth from you. There is no hope.” The sick man’s face contracted and his fingers clutched the sheet. “How long have I to live?” he questioned after a pause. “You will hardly last the night,” replied Nacquart. There was a fresh silence, broken only by the novelist’s murmuring as if to himself: “If only I had Bianchon, he would save me.” Bianchon, one of his fictitious personages, had become for the nonce a living reality. It was Balzac who had taken the place of his medical hero in the kingdom of shadows. Anxious to soften the effect of his sentence, Nacquart inquired if his patient had a message or recommendation to give. “No, I have none,” was the answer. However, just before the doctor’s departure, he asked for a pencil, and tried to trace a few lines, but was too week; and, letting the pencil drop from his fingers, he fell into a slumber.
24 20th of August 1883.
In his Choses Vues, Victor Hugo informs us that, on the afternoon of the 18th, his wife had been to the Hotel Beaujon and heard from the servants that the master of the house was dying. After dinner he went himself, and reached the Hotel about nine. Received at first in the drawing-room, lighted dimly by a candle placed on a richly carved oval table that stood in the centre of the room, he saw there an old woman, but not, as he asserts, the brother-in-law, Monsieur Surville. No member of Balzac’s own family was present in the house that evening. Even the wife remained in her apartments. The old woman told Hugo that gangrene had set in, and that tapping now produced no effect on the dropsy. As the visitor ascended the splendid, red-carpeted staircase, cumbered with statues, vases, and paintings, he was incommoded by a pestilential odour that assailed his nostrils. Death had begun the decomposition of the sick man’s body even before it was a corpse. At the door of the chamber Hugo caught the sound of hoarse, stertorous breathing. He entered, and saw on the mahogany bed an almost unrecognizable form bolstered up on a mass of cushions. Balzac’s unshaven face was of blackish-violet hue; his grey hair had been cut short; his open eyes were glazed; the profile resembled that of the first Napoleon. It was useless to speak to him unconscious of any one’s presence.
Hugo turned and hastened from the spot thinking sadly of his previous visit a month before, when, in the same room, the invalid had joked with him on his opinions, reproaching him for his demagogy. “How could you renounce, with such serenity, your title as a peer of France?” he had asked. He had spoken also of the Beaujon residence, the gallery over the little chapel in the corner of the street, the key that permitted access to the chapel from the staircase; and, when the poet left him, he had accompanied him to the head of the stairs, calling out to Madame de Balzac to show Hugo his pictures.
Death took him the same evening.25 During the last hours of his life Giraud had sketched his portrait for a pastel;26 and, on the morning of the 19th, a man named Marminia was sent to secure a mould of his features. This latter design had to be abandoned. An impression of the hands alone was obtainable. Decomposition had set in so rapidly that the face was distorted beyond recognition. A lead coffin was hastily brought to cover up the ghastly spectacle of nature in a hurry.
25 De Lovenjoul says that Balzac died on the 17th, not the 18th. This discrepancy is most curious, the latter date figuring as the official one, as well as being given by Hugo and others.
26 De Lovenjoul says that the sketch was made after death. But, if the mask was not possible, it is difficult to understand how a pencil likeness could have been drawn.
Two days later, on the 21st of August, the interment took place at Pere Lachaise cemetery. The procession started from the Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, to which the coffin had been transported beforehand. There was no pomp in either service or ceremony. A two-horse hearse and four bearers — Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Francis Wey, and Baroche, the Minister for the Interior made up the funeral accessories. But an immense concourse of people followed the body to the grave. The Institute, the University, the various learned societies were all represented by eminent men, and a certain number of foreigners, English, German, and Russian, were present also. Baroche attended rather from duty than appreciation. On the way to the cemetery, he hummed and hawed, and remarked to Hugo: “Monsieur Balzac was a somewhat distinguished man, I believe?” Scandalized, Hugo looked at the politician and answered shortly: “He was a genius, sir.” It is said that Baroche revenged himself for the rebuff by whispering to an acquaintance near him: “This Monsieur Hugo is madder still than is supposed.”
Over the coffin, as it was laid under the ground near the ashes of Charles Nodier and Casimir Delavigne, the author of Les Miserables and Les Feuilles d’Automne pronounced an oration which was a generous tribute to the talent of his great rival. On such an occasion there was no room for the reservations of criticism. It was the moment to apply the maxim, De mortuis nil nisi bonum. “The name of Balzac,” he said, “will mingle with the luminous track projected by our epoch into the future. . . . Monsieur de Balzac was the first among the great, one of the highest among the best. All his volumes form but a single book, wherein our contemporary civilization is seen to move with a certain terrible weirdness and reality — a marvellous book which the maker of it entitled a comedy and which he might have entitled a history. It assumes all forms and all styles; it goes beyond Tacitus and reaches Suetonius; it traverses Beaumarchais and attains even Rabelais; it is both observation and imagination, it lavishes the true, the intimate, the bourgeois, the trivial, the material, and, through every reality suddenly rent asunder, it allows the most sombre, tragic ideal to be seen. Unconsciously, and willy nilly, the author of this strange work belongs to the race of revolutionary writers. Balzac goes straight to the point. He grapples with modern society; and from everywhere he wrests something — here, illusion; there, hopes; a cry; a mask. He investigates vice, he dissects passion, he fathoms man — the soul, the heart, the entrails, the brain, the abyss each has within him. And by right of his free, vigorous nature — a privilege of the intellects of our time, who see the end of humanity better and understand Providence — Balzac smilingly and serenely issues from such studies, which produced melancholy in Moliere and misanthropy in Rousseau. The work he has bequeathed us is built with granite strength. Great men forge their own pedestal; the future charges itself with the statue. . . . His life was short but full, fuller of works than of days. Alas! this puissant, untired labourer, this philosopher, this thinker, this poet, this genius lived among us the life of all great men. To-day, he is at rest. He has entered simultaneously into glory and the tomb. Henceforth, he will shine above the clouds that surround us, among the stars of the fatherland.”
To the credit of Balzac’s widow it should be said that, although not legally obliged, she accepted her late husband’s succession, heavy as it was with liabilities, the full extent of which was communicated to her only after the funeral. The novelist’s mother, having renounced her claim on the capital lent by her at various times to her son, received an annuity of three thousand francs, which was punctually paid until the old lady’s demise in 1854. Buisson the tailor, Dablin, Madame Delannoy, and the rest of the creditors, one after the other, were reimbursed the sums they had also advanced, the profits on unexhausted copyright aiding largely in the liberation of the estate. Before Eve’s own death, every centime of debt was cleared off.
In the romance of Balzac’s life it will be always arduous, if not infeasible, to estimate exactly Madame Hanska’s role, unless, by some miracle, her own letters to the novelist could arise phoenix-like from their ashes. The liaison that she is said to have formed soon after her husband’s death with Jean Gigoux, the artist, who painted her portrait in 1852, may be regarded either as a retaliation for Honore’s infidelities, which she was undoubtedly cognizant of, or else as the rebound of a sensual nature after the years spent in the too idealistic realm of sentiment. And, whichever of these explanations is correct, the irony of the conclusion is the same.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05