Honore de Balzac
Translated by Clara Bell and others
To His Highness Count William of Wurtemberg, as a token of the
Author's respectful gratitude.
I never saw anybody, not even among the most remarkable men of the
day, whose appearance was so striking as this man's; the study of his
countenance at first gave me a feeling of great melancholy, and at last
produced an almost painful impression.
There was a certain harmony between the man and his name. The Z.
preceding Marcas, which was seen on the addresses of his letters, and
which he never omitted from his signature, as the last letter of the alphabet,
suggested some mysterious fatality.
MARCAS! say this two-syllabled name again and again; do you not
feel as if it had some sinister meaning? Does it not seem to you that its
owner must be doomed to martyrdom? Though foreign, savage, the name
has a right to be handed down to posterity; it is well constructed, easily
pronounced, and has the brevity that beseems a famous name. Is it not
pleasant as well as odd? But does it not sound unfinished?
I will not take it upon myself to assert that names have no influence on
the destiny of men. There is a certain secret and inexplicable concord or a
visible discord between the events of a man's life and his name which is
truly surprising; often some remote but very real correlation is revealed.
Our globe is round; everything is linked to everything else. Some day
perhaps we shall revert to the occult sciences.
Do you not discern in that letter Z an adverse influence? Does it not
prefigure the wayward and fantastic progress of a storm-tossed life? What
wind blew on that letter, which, whatever language we find it in, begins
scarcely fifty words? Marcas' name was Zephirin; Saint Zephirin is highly
venerated in Brittany, and Marcas was a Breton.
Study the name once more: Z Marcas! The man's whole life lies in this
fantastic juxtaposition of seven letters; seven! the most significant of all
the cabalistic numbers. And he died at five-and-thirty, so his life extended
over seven lustres.
Marcas! Does it not hint of some precious object that is broken with a
fall, with or without a crash?
I had finished studying the law in Paris in 1836. I lived at that time in
the Rue Corneille in a house where none but students came to lodge, one
of those large houses where there is a winding staircase quite at the back
lighted below from the street, higher up by borrowed lights, and at the top
by a skylight. There were forty furnished rooms-- furnished as students'
rooms are! What does youth demand more than was here supplied? A bed,
a few chairs, a chest of drawers, a looking- glass, and a table. As soon as
the sky is blue the student opens his window.
But in this street there are no fair neighbors to flirt with. In front is the
Odeon, long since closed, presenting a wall that is beginning to go black,
its tiny gallery windows and its vast expanse of slate roof. I was not rich
enough to have a good room; I was not even rich enough to have a room to
myself. Juste and I shared a double-bedded room on the fifth floor.
On our side of the landing there were but two rooms--ours and a
smaller one, occupied by Z. Marcas, our neighbor. For six months Juste
and I remained in perfect ignorance of the fact. The old woman who
managed the house had indeed told us that the room was inhabited, but she
had added that we should not be disturbed, that the occupant was
exceedingly quiet. In fact, for those six months, we never met our fellowlodger, and we never heard a sound in his room, in spite of the thinness of
the partition that divided us--one of those walls of lath and plaster which
are common in Paris houses.
Our room, a little over seven feet high, was hung with a vile cheap
paper sprigged with blue. The floor was painted, and knew nothing of the
polish given by the /frotteur's/ brush. By our beds there was only a scrap
of thin carpet. The chimney opened immediately to the roof, and smoked
so abominably that we were obliged to provide a stove at our own expense.
Our beds were mere painted wooden cribs like those in schools; on the
chimney shelf there were but two brass candlesticks, with or without
tallow candles in them, and our two pipes with some tobacco in a pouch or
strewn abroad, also the little piles of cigar- ash left there by our visitors or
A pair of calico curtains hung from the brass window rods, and on
each side of the window was a small bookcase in cherry-wood, such as
every one knows who has stared into the shop windows of the Quartier
Latin, and in which we kept the few books necessary for our studies.
The ink in the inkstand was always in the state of lava congealed in the
crater of a volcano. May not any inkstand nowadays become a Vesuvius?
The pens, all twisted, served to clean the stems of our pipes; and, in
opposition to all the laws of credit, paper was even scarcer than coin.
How can young men be expected to stay at home in such furnished
lodgings? The students studied in the cafes, the theatre, the Luxembourg
gardens, in /grisettes'/ rooms, even in the law schools-- anywhere rather
than in their horrible rooms--horrible for purposes of study, delightful as
soon as they were used for gossiping and smoking in. Put a cloth on the
table, and the impromptu dinner sent in from the best eating-house in the
neighborhood--places for four--two of them in petticoats--show a
lithograph of this "Interior" to the veriest bigot, and she will be bound to
We thought only of amusing ourselves. The reason for our dissipation
lay in the most serious facts of the politics of the time. Juste and I could
not see any room for us in the two professions our parents wished us to
take up. There are a hundred doctors, a hundred lawyers, for one that is
wanted. The crowd is choking these two paths which are supposed to lead
to fortune, but which are merely two arenas; men kill each other there,
fighting, not indeed with swords or fire-arms, but with intrigue and
calumny, with tremendous toil, campaigns in the sphere of the intellect as
murderous as those in Italy were to the soldiers of the Republic. In these
days, when everything is an intellectual competition, a man must be able
to sit forty-eight hours on end in his chair before a table, as a General
could remain for two days on horseback and in his saddle.
The throng of aspirants has necessitated a division of the Faculty of
Medicine into categories. There is the physician who writes and the
physician who practises, the political physician, and the physician
militant--four different ways of being a physician, four classes already
filled up. As to the fifth class, that of physicians who sell remedies, there
is such a competition that they fight each other with disgusting
advertisements on the walls of Paris.
In all the law courts there are almost as many lawyers as there are
cases. The pleader is thrown back on journalism, on politics, on literature.
In fact, the State, besieged for the smallest appointments under the law,
has ended by requiring that the applicants should have some little fortune.
The pear-shaped head of the grocer's son is selected in preference to the
square skull of a man of talent who has not a sou. Work as he will, with all
his energy, a young man, starting from zero, may at the end of ten years
find himself below the point he set out from. In these days, talent must
have the good luck which secures success to the most incapable; nay, more,
if it scorns the base compromises which insure advancement to crawling
mediocrity, it will never get on.
If we thoroughly knew our time, we also knew ourselves, and we
preferred the indolence of dreamers to aimless stir, easy-going pleasure to
the useless toil which would have exhausted our courage and worn out the
edge of our intelligence. We had analyzed social life while smoking,
laughing, and loafing. But, though elaborated by such means as these, our
reflections were none the less judicious and profound.
While we were fully conscious of the slavery to which youth is
condemned, we were amazed at the brutal indifference of the authorities to
everything connected with intellect, thought, and poetry. How often have
Juste and I exchanged glances when reading the papers as we studied
political events, or the debates in the Chamber, and discussed the
proceedings of a Court whose wilful ignorance could find no parallel but
in the platitude of the courtiers, the mediocrity of the men forming the
hedge round the newly-restored throne, all alike devoid of talent or
breadth of view, of distinction or learning, of influence or dignity!
Could there be a higher tribute to the Court of Charles X. than the
present Court, if Court it may be called? What a hatred of the country may
be seen in the naturalization of vulgar foreigners, devoid of talent, who are
enthroned in the Chamber of Peers! What a perversion of justice! What an
insult to the distinguished youth, the ambitions native to the soil of France!
We looked upon these things as upon a spectacle, and groaned over them,
without taking upon ourselves to act.
Juste, whom no one ever sought, and who never sought any one, was,
at five-and-twenty, a great politician, a man with a wonderful aptitude for
apprehending the correlation between remote history and the facts of the
present and of the future. In 1831, he told me exactly what would and did
happen--the murders, the conspiracies, the ascendency of the Jews, the
difficulty of doing anything in France, the scarcity of talent in the higher
circles, and the abundance of intellect in the lowest ranks, where the finest
courage is smothered under cigar ashes.
What was to become of him? His parents wished him to be a doctor.
But if he were a doctor, must he not wait twenty years for a practice? You
know what he did? No? Well, he is a doctor; but he left France, he is in
Asia. At this moment he is perhaps sinking under fatigue in a desert, or
dying of the lashes of a barbarous horde--or perhaps he is some Indian
prince's prime minister.
Action is my vocation. Leaving a civil college at the age of twenty, the
only way for me to enter the army was by enlisting as a common soldier;
so, weary of the dismal outlook that lay before a lawyer, I acquired the
knowledge needed for a sailor. I imitate Juste, and keep out of France,
where men waste, in the struggle to make way, the energy needed for the
noblest works. Follow my example, friends; I am going where a man
steers his destiny as he pleases.
These great resolutions were formed in the little room in the lodginghouse in the Rue Corneille, in spite of our haunting the Bal Musard,
flirting with girls of the town, and leading a careless and apparently
reckless life. Our plans and arguments long floated in the air.
Marcas, our neighbor, was in some degree the guide who led us to the
margin of the precipice or the torrent, who made us sound it, and showed
us beforehand what our fate would be if we let ourselves fall into it. It was
he who put us on our guard against the time-bargains a man makes with
poverty under the sanction of hope, by accepting precarious situations
whence he fights the battle, carried along by the devious tide of Paris--that
great harlot who takes you up or leaves you stranded, smiles or turns her
back on you with equal readiness, wears out the strongest will in vexatious
waiting, and makes misfortune wait on chance.
At our first meeting, Marcas, as it were, dazzled us. On our return
from the schools, a little before the dinner-hour, we were accustomed to go
up to our room and remain there a while, either waiting for the other, to
learn whether there were any change in our plans for the evening. One day,
at four o'clock, Juste met Marcas on the stairs, and I saw him in the street.
It was in the month of November, and Marcas had no cloak; he wore shoes
with heavy soles, corduroy trousers, and a blue double-breasted coat
buttoned to the throat, which gave a military air to his broad chest, all the
more so because he wore a black stock. The costume was not in itself
extraordinary, but it agreed well with the man's mien and countenance.
My first impression on seeing him was neither surprise, nor distress,
nor interest, nor pity, but curiosity mingled with all these feelings. He
walked slowly, with a step that betrayed deep melancholy, his head
forward with a stoop, but not bent like that of a conscience-stricken man.
That head, large and powerful, which might contain the treasures
necessary for a man of the highest ambition, looked as if it were loaded
with thought; it was weighted with grief of mind, but there was no touch
of remorse in his expression. As to his face, it may be summed up in a
word. A common superstition has it that every human countenance
resembles some animal. The animal for Marcas was the lion. His hair was
like a mane, his nose was sort and flat; broad and dented at the tip like a
lion's; his brow, like a lion's, was strongly marked with a deep median
furrow, dividing two powerful bosses. His high, hairy cheek-bones, all the
more prominent because his cheeks were so thin, his enormous mouth and
hollow jaws, were accentuated by lines of tawny shadows. This almost
terrible countenance seemed illuminated by two lamps--two eyes, black
indeed, but infinitely sweet, calm and deep, full of thought. If I may say so,
those eyes had a humiliated expression.
Marcas was afraid of looking directly at others, not for himself, but for
those on whom his fascinating gaze might rest; he had a power, and he
shunned using it; he would spare those he met, and he feared notice. This
was not from modesty, but from resignation founded on reason, which had
demonstrated the immediate inutility of his gifts, the impossibility of
entering and living in the sphere for which he was fitted. Those eyes could
at times flash lightnings. From those lips a voice of thunder must surely
proceed; it was a mouth like Mirabeau's.
"I have seen such a grand fellow in the street," said I to Juste on
"It must be our neighbor," replied Juste, who described, in fact, the
man I had just met. "A man who lives like a wood-louse would be sure to
look like that," he added.
"What dejection and what dignity!"
"One is the consequence of the other."
"What ruined hopes! What schemes and failures!"
"Seven leagues of ruins! Obelisks--palaces--towers!--The ruins of
Palmyra in the desert!" said Juste, laughing.
So we called him the Ruins of Palmyra.
As we went out to dine at the wretched eating-house in the Rue de la
Harpe to which we subscribed, we asked the name of Number 37, and then
heard the weird name Z. Marcas. Like boys, as we were, we repeated it
more than a hundred times with all sorts of comments, absurd or
melancholy, and the name lent itself to a jest. Juste would fire off the Z
like a rocket rising, /z-z-z-z-zed/; and after pronouncing the first syllable
of the name with great importance, depicted a fall by the dull brevity of
"Now, how and where does the man live?"
From this query, to the innocent espionage of curiosity there was no
pause but that required for carrying out our plan. Instead of loitering about
the streets, we both came in, each armed with a novel. We read with our
ears open. And in the perfect silence of our attic rooms, we heard the even,
dull sound of a sleeping man breathing.
"He is asleep," said I to Juste, noticing this fact.
"At seven o'clock!" replied the Doctor.
This was the name by which I called Juste, and he called me the
Keeper of the Seals.
"A man must be wretched indeed to sleep as much as our neighbor!"
cried I, jumping on to the chest of drawers with a knife in my hand, to
which a corkscrew was attached.
I made a round hole at the top of the partition, about as big as a fivesou piece. I had forgotten that there would be no light in the room, and on
putting my eye to the hole, I saw only darkness. At about one in the
morning, when we had finished our books and were about to undress, we
heard a noise in our neighbor's room. He got up, struck a match, and
lighted his dip. I got on to the drawers again, and I then saw Marcas seated
at his table and copying law-papers.
His room was about half the size of ours; the bed stood in a recess by
the door, for the passage ended there, and its breadth was added to his
garret; but the ground on which the house was built was evidently
irregular, for the party-wall formed an obtuse angle, and the room was not
square. There was no fireplace, only a small earthenware stove, white
blotched with green, of which the pipe went up through the roof. The
window, in the skew side of the room, had shabby red curtains. The
furniture consisted of an armchair, a table, a chair, and a wretched bedtable. A cupboard in the wall held his clothes. The wall-paper was horrible;
evidently only a servant had ever been lodged there before Marcas.
"What is to be seen?" asked the Doctor as I got down.
"Look for yourself," said I.
At nine next morning, Marcas was in bed. He had breakfasted off a
saveloy; we saw on a plate, with some crumbs of bread, the remains of
that too familiar delicacy. He was asleep; he did not wake till eleven. He
then set to work again on the copy he had begun the night before, which
was lying on the table.
On going downstairs we asked the price of that room, and were told
fifteen francs a month.
In the course of a few days, we were fully informed as to the mode of
life of Z. Marcas. He did copying, at so much a sheet no doubt, for a lawwriter who lived in the courtyard of the Sainte-Chapelle. He worked half
the night; after sleeping from six till ten, he began again and wrote till
three. Then he went out to take the copy home before dinner, which he ate
at Mizerai's in the Rue Michel-le-Comte, at a cost of nine sous, and came
in to bed at six o'clock. It became known to us that Marcas did not utter
fifteen sentences in a month; he never talked to anybody, nor said a word
to himself in his dreadful garret.
"The Ruins of Palmyra are terribly silent!" said Juste.
This taciturnity in a man whose appearance was so imposing was
strangely significant. Sometimes when we met him, we exchanged glances
full of meaning on both sides, but they never led to any advances.
Insensibly this man became the object of our secret admiration, though we
knew no reason for it. Did it lie in his secretly simple habits, his monastic
regularity, his hermit-like frugality, his idiotically mechanical labor,
allowing his mind to remain neuter or to work on his own lines, seeming
to us to hint at an expectation of some stroke of good luck, or at some
foregone conclusion as to his life?
After wandering for a long time among the Ruins of Palmyra, we
forgot them--we were young! Then came the Carnival, the Paris Carnival,
which, henceforth, will eclipse the old Carnival of Venice, unless some illadvised Prefect of Police is antagonistic.
Gambling ought to be allowed during the Carnival; but the stupid
moralists who have had gambling suppressed are inert financiers, and this
indispensable evil will be re-established among us when it is proved that
France leaves millions at the German tables.
This splendid Carnival brought us to utter penury, as it does every
student. We got rid of every object of luxury; we sold our second coats,
our second boots, our second waistcoats--everything of which we had a
duplicate, except our friend. We ate bread and cold sausages; we looked
where we walked; we had set to work in earnest. We owed two months'
rent, and were sure of having a bill from the porter for sixty or eighty
items each, and amounting to forty or fifty francs. We made no noise, and
did not laugh as we crossed the little hall at the bottom of the stairs; we
commonly took it at a flying leap from the lowest step into the street. On
the day when we first found ourselves bereft of tobacco for our pipes, it
struck us that for some days we had been eating bread without any kind of
Great was our distress.
"No tobacco!" said the Doctor.
"No cloak!" said the Keeper of the Seals.
"Ah, you rascals, you would dress as the postillion de Longjumeau,
you would appear as Debardeurs, sup in the morning, and breakfast at
night at Very's--sometimes even at the /Rocher de Cancale/.--Dry bread for
you, my boys! Why," said I, in a big bass voice, "you deserve to sleep
under the bed, you are not worthy to lie in it--"
"Yes, yes; but, Keeper of the Seals, there is no more tobacco!" said
"It is high time to write home, to our aunts, our mothers, and our
sisters, to tell them we have no underlinen left, that the wear and tear of
Paris would ruin garments of wire. Then we will solve an elegant chemical
problem by transmuting linen into silver."
"But we must live till we get the answer."
"Well, I will go and bring out a loan among such of our friends as may
still have some capital to invest."
"And how much will you find?"
"Say ten francs!" replied I with pride.
It was midnight. Marcas had heard everything. He knocked at our
"Messieurs," said he, "here is some tobacco; you can repay me on the
We were struck, not by the offer, which we accepted, but by the rich,
deep, full voice in which it was made; a tone only comparable to the
lowest string of Paganini's violin. Marcas vanished without waiting for our
Juste and I looked at each other without a word. To be rescued by a
man evidently poorer than ourselves! Juste sat down to write to every
member of his family, and I went off to effect a loan. I brought in twenty
francs lent me by a fellow-provincial. In that evil but happy day gambling
was still tolerated, and in its lodes, as hard as the rocky ore of Brazil,
young men, by risking a small sum, had a chance of winning a few gold
pieces. My friend, too, had some Turkish tobacco brought home from
Constantinople by a sailor, and he gave me quite as much as we had taken
from Z. Marcas. I conveyed the splendid cargo into port, and we went in
triumph to repay our neighbor with a tawny wig of Turkish tobacco for his
"You are determined not to be my debtors," said he. "You are giving
me gold for copper.--You are boys--good boys----"
The sentences, spoken in varying tones, were variously emphasized.
The words were nothing, but the expression!--That made us friends of ten
years' standing at once.
Marcas, on hearing us coming, had covered up his papers; we
understood that it would be taking a liberty to allude to his means of
subsistence, and felt ashamed of having watched him. His cupboard stood
open; in it there were two shirts, a white necktie and a razor. The razor
made me shudder. A looking-glass, worth five francs perhaps, hung near
The man's few and simple movements had a sort of savage grandeur.
The Doctor and I looked at each other, wondering what we could say in
reply. Juste, seeing that I was speechless, asked Marcas jestingly:
"You cultivate literature, monsieur?"
"Far from it!" replied Marcas. "I should not be so wealthy."
"I fancied," said I, "that poetry alone, in these days, was amply
sufficient to provide a man with lodgings as bad as ours."
My remark made Marcas smile, and the smile gave a charm to his
"Ambition is not a less severe taskmaster to those who fail," said he.
"You, who are beginning life, walk in the beaten paths. Never dream of
rising superior, you will be ruined!"
"You advise us to stay just as we are?" said the Doctor, smiling.
There is something so infectious and childlike in the pleasantries of
youth, that Marcas smiled again in reply.
"What incidents can have given you this detestable philosophy?" asked
"I forgot once more that chance is the result of an immense equation of
which we know not all the factors. When we start from zero to work up to
the unit, the chances are incalculable. To ambitious men Paris is an
immense roulette table, and every young man fancies he can hit on a
successful progression of numbers."
He offered us the tobacco I had brought that we might smoke with him;
the Doctor went to fetch our pipes; Marcas filled his, and then he came to
sit in our room, bringing the tobacco with him, since there were but two
chairs in his. Juste, as brisk as a squirrel, ran out, and returned with a boy
carrying three bottles of Bordeaux, some Brie cheese, and a loaf.
"Hah!" said I to myself, "fifteen francs," and I was right to a sou.
Juste gravely laid five francs on the chimney-shelf.
There are immeasurable differences between the gregarious man and
the man who lives closest to nature. Toussaint Louverture, after he was
caught, died without speaking a word. Napoleon, transplanted to a rock,
talked like a magpie--he wanted to account for himself. Z. Marcas erred in
the same way, but for our benefit only. Silence in all its majesty is to be
found only in the savage. There is never a criminal who, though he might
let his secrets fall with his head into the basket of sawdust does not feel
the purely social impulse to tell them to somebody.
Nay, I am wrong. We have seen one Iroquois of the Faubourg SaintMarceau who raised the Parisian to the level of the natural savage--a
republican, a conspirator, a Frenchman, an old man, who outdid all we
have heard of Negro determination, and all that Cooper tells us of the
tenacity and coolness of the Redskins under defeat. Morey, the
Guatimozin of the "Mountain," preserved an attitude unparalleled in the
annals of European justice.
This is what Marcas told us during the small hours, sandwiching his
discourse with slices of bread spread with cheese and washed down with
wine. All the tobacco was burned out. Now and then the hackney coaches
clattering across the Place de l'Odeon, or the omnibuses toiling past, sent
up their dull rumbling, as if to remind us that Paris was still close to us.
His family lived at Vitre; his father and mother had fifteen hundred
francs a year in the funds. He had received an education gratis in a
Seminary, but had refused to enter the priesthood. He felt in himself the
fires of immense ambition, and had come to Paris on foot at the age of
twenty, the possessor of two hundred francs. He had studied the law,
working in an attorney's office, where he had risen to be superior clerk. He
had taken his doctor's degree in law, had mastered the old and modern
codes, and could hold his own with the most famous pleaders. He had
studied the law of nations, and was familiar with European treaties and
international practice. He had studied men and things in five capitals--
London, Berlin, Vienna, Petersburg, and Constantinople.
No man was better informed than he as to the rules of the Chamber.
For five years he had been reporter of the debates for a daily paper. He
spoke extempore and admirably, and could go on for a long time in that
deep, appealing voice which had struck us to the soul. Indeed, he proved
by the narrative of his life that he was a great orator, a concise orator,
serious and yet full of piercing eloquence; he resembled Berryer in his
fervor and in the impetus which commands the sympathy of the masses,
and was like Thiers in refinement and skill; but he would have been less
diffuse, less in difficulties for a conclusion. He had intended to rise rapidly
to power without burdening himself first with the doctrines necessary to
begin with, for a man in opposition, but an incubus later to the statesman.
Marcas had learned everything that a real statesman should know;
indeed, his amazement was considerable when he had occasion to discern
the utter ignorance of men who have risen to the administration of public
affairs in France. Though in him it was vocation that had led to study,
nature had been generous and bestowed all that cannot be acquired--keen
perceptions, self-command, a nimble wit, rapid judgment, decisiveness,
and, what is the genius of these men, fertility in resource.
By the time when Marcas thought himself duly equipped, France was
torn by intestine divisions arising from the triumph of the House of
Orleans over the elder branch of the Bourbons.
The field of political warfare is evidently changed. Civil war
henceforth cannot last for long, and will not be fought out in the provinces.
In France such struggles will be of brief duration and at the seat of
government; and the battle will be the close of the moral contest which
will have been brought to an issue by superior minds. This state of things
will continue so long as France has her present singular form of
government, which has no analogy with that of any other country; for
there is no more resemblance between the English and the French
constitutions than between the two lands.
Thus Marcas' place was in the political press. Being poor and unable to
secure his election, he hoped to make a sudden appearance. He resolved
on making the greatest possible sacrifice for a man of superior intellect, to
work as a subordinate to some rich and ambitious deputy. Like a second
Bonaparte, he sought his Barras; the new Colbert hoped to find a Mazarin.
He did immense services, and he did them then and there; he assumed no
importance, he made no boast, he did not complain of ingratitude. He did
them in the hope that his patron would put him in a position to be elected
deputy; Marcas wished for nothing but a loan that might enable him to
purchase a house in Paris, the qualification required by law. Richard III.
asked for nothing but his horse.
In three years Marcas had made his man--one of the fifty supposed
great statesmen who are the battledores with which two cunning players
toss the ministerial portfolios exactly as the man behind the puppet- show
hits Punch against the constable in his street theatre, and counts on always
getting paid. This man existed only by Marcas, but he had just brains
enough to appreciate the value of his "ghost" and to know that Marcas, if
he ever came to the front, would remain there, would be indispensable,
while he himself would be translated to the polar zone of Luxembourg. So
he determined to put insurmountable obstacles in the way of his Mentor's
advancement, and hid his purpose under the semblance of the utmost
sincerity. Like all mean men, he could dissimulate to perfection, and he
soon made progress in the ways of ingratitude, for he felt that he must kill
Marcas, not to be killed by him. These two men, apparently so united,
hated each other as soon as one had deceived the other.
The politician was made one of a ministry; Marcas remained in the
opposition to hinder his man from being attacked; nay, by skilful tactics he
won him the applause of the opposition. To excuse himself for not
rewarding his subaltern, the chief pointed out the impossibility of finding a
place suddenly for a man on the other side, without a great deal of
manoeuvring. Marcas had hoped confidently for a place to enable him to
marry, and thus acquire the qualification he so ardently desired. He was
two-and-thirty, and the Chamber ere long must be dissolved. Having
detected his man in this flagrant act of bad faith, he overthrew him, or at
any rate contributed largely to his overthrow, and covered him with mud.
A fallen minister, if he is to rise again to power, must show that he is to
be feared; this man, intoxicated by Royal glibness, had fancied that his
position would be permanent; he acknowledged his delinquencies; besides
confessing them, he did Marcas a small money service, for Marcas had got
into debt. He subsidized the newspaper on which Marcas worked, and
made him the manager of it.
Though he despised the man, Marcas, who, practically, was being
subsidized too, consented to take the part of the fallen minister. Without
unmasking at once all the batteries of his superior intellect, Marcas came a
little further than before; he showed half his shrewdness. The Ministry
lasted only a hundred and eighty days; it was swallowed up. Marcas had
put himself into communication with certain deputies, had moulded them
like dough, leaving each impressed with a high opinion of his talent; his
puppet again became a member of the Ministry, and then the paper was
ministerial. The Ministry united the paper with another, solely to squeeze
out Marcas, who in this fusion had to make way for a rich and insolent
rival, whose name was well known, and who already had his foot in the
Marcas relapsed into utter destitution; his haughty patron well knew
the depths into which he had cast him.
Where was he to go? The ministerial papers, privily warned, would
have nothing to say to him. The opposition papers did not care to admit
him to their offices. Marcas could side neither with the Republicans nor
with the Legitimists, two parties whose triumph would mean the
overthrow of everything that now is.
"Ambitious men like a fast hold on things," said he with a smile.
He lived by writing a few articles on commercial affairs, and
contributed to one of those encyclopedias brought out by speculation and
not by learning. Finally a paper was founded, which was destined to live
but two years, but which secured his services. From that moment he
renewed his connection with the minister's enemies; he joined the party
who were working for the fall of the Government; and as soon as his
pickaxe had free play, it fell.
This paper had now for six months ceased to exist; he had failed to
find employment of any kind; he was spoken of as a dangerous man,
calumny attacked him; he had unmasked a huge financial and mercantile
job by a few articles and a pamphlet. He was known to be a mouthpiece of
a banker who was said to have paid him largely, and from whom he was
supposed to expect some patronage in return for his championship. Marcas,
disgusted by men and things, worn out by five years of fighting, regarded
as a free lance rather than as a great leader, crushed by the necessity of
earning his daily bread, which hindered him from gaining ground, in
despair at the influence exerted by money over mind, and given over to
dire poverty, buried himself in a garret, to make thirty sous a day, the sum
strictly answering to his needs. Meditation had leveled a desert all round
him. He read the papers to be informed of what was going on. Pozzo di
Borgo had once lived like this for some time.
Marcas, no doubt, was planning a serious attack, accustoming himself
to dissimulation, and punishing himself for his blunders by Pythagorean
muteness. But he did not tell us the reasons for his conduct.
It is impossible to give you an idea of the scenes of the highest
comedy that lay behind this algebraic statement of his career; his useless
patience dogging the footsteps of fortune, which presently took wings, his
long tramps over the thorny brakes of Paris, his breathless chases as a
petitioner, his attempts to win over fools; the schemes laid only to fail
through the influence of some frivolous woman; the meetings with men of
business who expected their capital to bring them places and a peerage, as
well as large interest. Then the hopes rising in a towering wave only to
break in foam on the shoal; the wonders wrought in reconciling adverse
interests which, after working together for a week, fell asunder; the
annoyance, a thousand times repeated, of seeing a dunce decorated with
the Legion of Honor, and preferred, though as ignorant as a shop-boy, to a
man of talent. Then, what Marcas called the stratagems of stupidity--you
strike a man, and he seems convinced, he nods his head--everything is
settled; next day, this india-rubber ball, flattened for a moment, has
recovered itself in the course of the night; it is as full of wind as ever; you
must begin all over again; and you go on till you understand that you are
not dealing with a man, but with a lump of gum that loses shape in the
These thousand annoyances, this vast waste of human energy on
barren spots, the difficulty of achieving any good, the incredible facility of
doing mischief; two strong games played out, twice won, and then twice
lost; the hatred of a statesman--a blockhead with a painted face and a wig,
but in whom the world believed--all these things, great and small, had not
crushed, but for the moment had dashed Marcas. In the days when money
had come into his hands, his fingers had not clutched it; he had allowed
himself the exquisite pleasure of sending it all to his family--to his sisters,
his brothers, his old father. Like Napoleon in his fall, he asked for no more
than thirty sous a day, and any man of energy can earn thirty sous for a
day's work in Paris.
When Marcas had finished the story of his life, intermingled with
reflections, maxims, and observations, revealing him as a great politician,
a few questions and answers on both sides as to the progress of affairs in
France and in Europe were enough to prove to us that he was a real
statesman; for a man may be quickly and easily judged when he can be
brought on to the ground of immediate difficulties: there is a certain
Shibboleth for men of superior talents, and we were of the tribe of modern
Levites without belonging as yet to the Temple. As I have said, our
frivolity covered certain purposes which Juste has carried out, and which I
am about to execute.
When we had done talking, we all three went out, cold as it was, to
walk in the Luxembourg gardens till the dinner hour. In the course of that
walk our conversation, grave throughout, turned on the painful aspects of
the political situation. Each of us contributed his remarks, his comment, or
his jest, a pleasantry or a proverb. This was no longer exclusively a
discussion of life on the colossal scale just described by Marcas, the
soldier of political warfare. Nor was it the distressful monologue of the
wrecked navigator, stranded in a garret in the Hotel Corneille; it was a
dialogue in which two well-informed young men, having gauged the times
they lived in, were endeavoring, under the guidance of a man of talent, to
gain some light on their own future prospects.
"Why," asked Juste, "did you not wait patiently for an opportunity, and
imitate the only man who has been able to keep the lead since the
Revolution of July by holding his head above water?"
"Have I not said that we never know where the roots of chance lie?
Carrell was in identically the same position as the orator you speak of.
That gloomy young man, of a bitter spirit, had a whole government in his
head; the man of whom you speak had no idea beyond mounting on the
crupper of every event. Of the two, Carrel was the better man. Well, one
becomes a minister, Carrel remained a journalist; the incomplete but
craftier man is living; Carrel is dead.
"I may point out that your man has for fifteen years been making his
way, and is but making it still. He may yet be caught and crushed between
two cars full of intrigues on the highroad to power. He has no house; he
has not the favor of the palace like Metternich; nor, like Villele, the
protection of a compact majority.
"I do not believe that the present state of things will last ten years
longer. Hence, supposing I should have such poor good luck, I am already
too late to avoid being swept away by the commotion I foresee. I should
need to be established in a superior position."
"What commotion?" asked Juste.
"AUGUST, 1830," said Marcas in solemn tones, holding out his hand
towards Paris; "AUGUST, the offspring of Youth which bound the sheaves,
and of Intellect which had ripened the harvest, forgot to provide for Youth
"Youth will explode like the boiler of a steam-engine. Youth has no
outlet in France; it is gathering an avalanche of underrated capabilities, of
legitimate and restless ambitions; young men are not marrying now;
families cannot tell what to do with their children. What will the
thunderclap be that will shake down these masses? I know not, but they
will crash down into the midst of things, and overthrow everything. These
are laws of hydrostatics which act on the human race; the Roman Empire
had failed to understand them, and the Barbaric hordes came down.
"The Barbaric hordes now are the intelligent class. The laws of
overpressure are at this moment acting slowly and silently in our midst.
The Government is the great criminal; it does not appreciate the two
powers to which it owes everything; it has allowed its hands to be tied by
the absurdities of the Contract; it is bound, ready to be the victim.
"Louis XIV., Napoleon, England, all were or are eager for intelligent
youth. In France the young are condemned by the new legislation, by the
blundering principles of elective rights, by the unsoundness of the
"Look at the elective Chamber; you will find no deputies of thirty; the
youth of Richelieu and of Mazarin, of Turenne and of Colbert, of Pitt and
of Saint-Just, of Napoleon and of Prince Metternich, would find no
admission there; Burke, Sheridan, or Fox could not win seats. Even if
political majority had been fixed at one-and-twenty, and eligibility had
been relieved of every disabling qualification, the Departments would
have returned the very same members, men devoid of political talent,
unable to speak without murdering French grammar, and among whom, in
ten years, scarcely one statesman has been found.
"The causes of an impending event may be seen, but the event itself
cannot be foretold. At this moment the youth of France is being driven into
Republicanism, because it believes that the Republic would bring it
emancipation. It will always remember the young representatives of the
people and the young army leaders! The imprudence of the Government is
only comparable to its avarice."
That day left its echoes in our lives. Marcas confirmed us in our
resolution to leave France, where young men of talent and energy are
crushed under the weight of successful commonplace, envious, and
insatiable middle age.
We dined together in the Rue de la Harpe. We thenceforth felt for
Marcas the most respectful affection; he gave us the most practical aid in
the sphere of the mind. That man knew everything; he had studied
everything. For us he cast his eye over the whole civilized world, seeking
the country where openings would be at once the most abundant and the
most favorable to the success of our plans. He indicated what should be
the goal of our studies; he bid us make haste, explaining to us that time
was precious, that emigration would presently begin, and that its effect
would be to deprive France of the cream of its powers and of its youthful
talent; that their intelligence, necessarily sharpened, would select the best
places, and that the great thing was to be first in the field.
Thenceforward, we often sat late at work under the lamp. Our
generous instructor wrote some notes for our guidance--two pages for
Juste and three for me--full of invaluable advice--the sort of information
which experience alone can supply, such landmarks as only genius can
place. In those papers, smelling of tobacco, and covered with writing so
vile as to be almost hieroglyphic, there are suggestions for a fortune, and
forecasts of unerring acumen. There are hints as to certain parts of
America and Asia which have been fully justified, both before and since
Juste and I could set out.
Marcas, like us, was in the most abject poverty. He earned, indeed, his
daily bread, but he had neither linen, clothes, nor shoes. He did not make
himself out any better than he was; his dreams had been of luxury as well
as of power. He did not admit that this was the real Marcas; he abandoned
this person, indeed, to the caprices of life. What he lived by was the breath
of ambition; he dreamed of revenge while blaming himself for yielding to
so shallow a feeling. The true statesman ought, above all things, to be
superior to vulgar passions; like the man of science. It was in these days of
dire necessity that Marcas seemed to us so great--nay, so terrible; there
was something awful in the gaze which saw another world than that which
strikes the eye of ordinary men. To us he was a subject of contemplation
and astonishment; for the young--which of us has not known it?--the
young have a keen craving to admire; they love to attach themselves, and
are naturally inclined to submit to the men they feel to be superior, as they
are to devote themselves to a great cause.
Our surprise was chiefly roused by his indifference in matters of
sentiment; women had no place in his life. When we spoke of this matter,
a perennial theme of conversation among Frenchmen, he simply remarked:
"Gowns cost too much."
He saw the look that passed between Juste and me, and went on:
"Yes, far too much. The woman you buy--and she is the least
expensive --takes a great deal of money. The woman who gives herself
takes all your time! Woman extinguishes every energy, every ambition.
Napoleon reduced her to what she should be. From that point of view, he
really was great. He did not indulge such ruinous fancies of Louis XIV.
and Louis XV.; at the same time he could love in secret."
We discovered that, like Pitt, who made England is wife, Marcas bore
France in his heart; he idolized his country; he had not a thought that was
not for his native land. His fury at feeling that he had in his hands the
remedy for the evils which so deeply saddened him, and could not apply it,
ate into his soul, and this rage was increased by the inferiority of France at
that time, as compared with Russia and England. France a third-rate power!
This cry came up again and again in his conversation. The intestinal
disorders of his country had entered into his soul. All the contests between
the Court and the Chamber, showing, as they did, incessant change and
constant vacillation, which must injure the prosperity of the country, he
scoffed at as backstairs squabbles.
"This is peace at the cost of the future," said he.
One evening Juste and I were at work, sitting in perfect silence.
Marcas had just risen to toil at his copying, for he had refused our
assistance in spite of our most earnest entreaties. We had offered to take it
in turns to copy a batch of manuscript, so that he should do but a third of
his distasteful task; he had been quite angry, and we had ceased to insist.
We heard the sound of gentlemanly boots in the passage, and raised
our heads, looking at each other. There was a tap at Marcas' door--he never
took the key out of the lock--and we heard the hero answer:
"Come in." Then--"What, you here, monsieur?"
"I, myself," replied the retired minister.
It was the Diocletian of this unknown martyr.
For some time he and our neighbor conversed in an undertone.
Suddenly Marcas, whose voice had been heard but rarely, as is natural in a
dialogue in which the applicant begins by setting forth the situation, broke
out loudly in reply to some offer we had not overheard.
"You would laugh at me for a fool," cried he, "if I took you at your
word. Jesuits are a thing of the past, but Jesuitism is eternal. Your
Machiavelism and your generosity are equally hollow and untrustworthy.
You can make your own calculations, but who can calculate on you? Your
Court is made up of owls who fear the light, of old men who quake in the
presence of the young, or who simply disregard them. The Government is
formed on the same pattern as the Court. You have hunted up the remains
of the Empire, as the Restoration enlisted the Voltigeurs of Louis XIV.
"Hitherto the evasions of cowardice have been taken for the
manoeuvring of ability; but dangers will come, and the younger generation
will rise as they did in 1790. They did grand things then. --Just now you
change ministries as a sick man turns in his bed; these oscillations betray
the weakness of the Government. You work on an underhand system of
policy which will be turned against you, for France will be tired of your
shuffling. France will not tell you that she is tired of you; a man never
knows whence his ruin comes; it is the historian's task to find out; but you
will undoubtedly perish as the reward of not having the youth of France to
lend you its strength and energy; for having hated really capable men; for
not having lovingly chosen them from this noble generation; for having in
all cases preferred mediocrity.
"You have come to ask my support, but you are an atom in that
decrepit heap which is made hideous by self-interest, which trembles and
squirms, and, because it is so mean, tries to make France mean too. My
strong nature, my ideas, would work like poison in you; twice you have
tricked me, twice have I overthrown you. If we unite a third time, it must
be a very serious matter. I should kill myself if I allowed myself to be
duped; for I should be to blame, not you."
Then we heard the humblest entreaties, the most fervent adjuration,
not to deprive the country of such superior talents. The man spoke of
patriotism, and Marcas uttered a significant "/Ouh! ouh!/" He laughed at
his would-be patron. Then the statesman was more explicit; he bowed to
the superiority of his erewhile counselor; he pledged himself to enable
Marcas to remain in office, to be elected deputy; then he offered him a
high appointment, promising him that he, the speaker, would thenceforth
be the subordinate of a man whose subaltern he was only worthy to be. He
was in the newly-formed ministry, and he would not return to power
unless Marcas had a post in proportion to his merit; he had already made it
a condition, Marcas had been regarded as indispensable.
"I have never before been in a position to keep my promises; here is an
opportunity of proving myself faithful to my word, and you fail me."
To this Marcas made no reply. The boots were again audible in the
passage on the way to the stairs.
"Marcas! Marcas!" we both cried, rushing into his room. "Why refuse?
He really meant it. His offers are very handsome; at any rate, go to see the
In a t
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