by 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
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
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
fellow-lodger, 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 ourselves.
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 smile.
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
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
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 lodging-
house 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
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
"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 the second.
"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
five-sou 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
bed-table. A cupboard in the wall held his clothes. The wall-paper was
horrible; evidently only a servant had ever been lodged there before
"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
law-writer 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
"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 ill-advised 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 butter.
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 door.
"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 thanks.
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 dark /Caporal/.
"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 window.
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 yellow
"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 Saint-
Marceau 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
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 stirrup.
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
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 sunshine.
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
"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
"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 and Intellect.
"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 ministerial constitution.
"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
"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
"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
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 ministers."
In a twinkling, we had given Marcas a hundred reasons. The minister's
voice was sincere; without seeing him, we had felt sure that he was
"I have no clothes," replied Marcas.
"Rely on us," said Juste, with a glance at me.
Marcas had the courage to trust us; a light flashed in his eye, he
pushed his fingers through his hair, lifting it from his forehead with
a gesture that showed some confidence in his luck and when he had thus
unveiled his face, so to speak, we saw in him a man absolutely unknown
to us--Marcas sublime, Marcas in his power! His mind was in its
element--the bird restored to the free air, the fish to the water, the
horse galloping across the plain.
It was transient. His brow clouded again, he had, it would seem, a
vision of his fate. Halting doubt had followed close on the heels of
We left him to himself.
"Now, then," said I to the Doctor, "we have given our word; how are we
to keep it?"
"We will sleep upon it," said Juste, "and to-morrow morning we will
talk it over."
Next morning we went for a walk in the Luxembourg.
We had had time to think over the incident of the past night, and were
both equally surprised at the lack of address shown by Marcas in the
minor difficulties of life--he, a man who never saw any difficulties
in the solution of the hardest problems of abstract or practical
politics. But these elevated characters can all be tripped up on a
grain of sand, and will, like the grandest enterprise, miss fire for
want of a thousand francs. It is the old story of Napoleon, who, for
lack of a pair of boots, did not set out for India.
"Well, what have you hit upon?" asked Juste.
"I have thought of a way to get him a complete outfit."
"Humann, my boy, never goes to his customers--his customers go to him;
so that he does not know whether I am rich or poor. He only knows that
I dress well and look decent in the clothes he makes for me. I shall
tell him that an uncle of mine has dropped in from the country, and
that his indifference in matters of dress is quite a discredit to me
in the upper circles where I am trying to find a wife.--It will not be
Humann if he sends in his bill before three months."
The Doctor thought this a capital idea for a vaudeville, but poor
enough in real life, and doubted my success. But I give you my word of
honor, Humann dressed Marcas, and, being an artist, turned him out as
a political personage ought to be dressed.
Juste lent Marcas two hundred francs in gold, the product of two
watches bought on credit, and pawned at the Mont-de-Piete. For my
part, I had said nothing of the six shirts and all necessary linen,
which cost me no more than the pleasure of asking for them from a
forewoman in a shop whom I had treated to Musard's during the
Marcas accepted everything, thanking us no more than he ought. He only
inquired as to the means by which we had got possession of such
riches, and we made him laugh for the last time. We looked on our
Marcas as shipowners, when they have exhausted their credit and every
resource at their command it fit out a vessel, must look on it as it
puts out to sea.
Here Charles was silent; he seemed crushed by his memories.
"Well," cried the audience, "and what happened?"
"I will tell you in a few words--for this is not romance--it is
We saw no more of Marcas. The administration lasted for three months;
it fell at the end of the session. Then Marcas came back to us, worked
to death. He had sounded the crater of power; he came away from it
with the beginnings of brain fever. The disease made rapid progress;
we nursed him. Juste at once called in the chief physician of the
hospital where he was working as house-surgeon. I was then living
alone in our room, and I was the most attentive attendant; but care
and science alike were in vain. By the month of January, 1838, Marcas
himself felt that he had but a few days to live.
The man whose soul and brain he had been for six months never even
sent to inquire after him. Marcas expressed the greatest contempt for
the Government; he seemed to doubt what the fate of France might be,
and it was this doubt that had made him ill. He had, he thought,
detected treason in the heart of power, not tangible, seizable
treason, the result of facts, but the treason of a system, the
subordination of national interests to selfish ends. His belief in the
degradation of the country was enough to aggravate his complaint.
I myself was witness to the proposals made to him by one of the
leaders of the antagonistic party which he had fought against. His
hatred of the men he had tried to serve was so virulent, that he would
gladly have joined the coalition that was about to be formed among
certain ambitious spirits who, at least, had one idea in common--that
of shaking off the yoke of the Court. But Marcas could only reply to
the envoy in the words of the Hotel de Ville:
"It is too late!"
Marcas did not leave money enough to pay for his funeral. Juste and I
had great difficulty in saving him from the ignominy of a pauper's
bier, and we alone followed the coffin of Z. Marcas, which was dropped
into the common grave of the cemetery of Mont-Parnasse.
We looked sadly at each other as we listened to this tale, the last we
heard from the lips of Charles Rabourdin the day before he embarked at
le Havre on a brig that was to convey him to the islands of Malay. We
all knew more than one Marcas, more than one victim of his devotion to
a party, repaid by betrayal or neglect.
LES JARDIES, May 1840.
The following personage appears in other stories of the Human Comedy.
A Prince of Bohemia
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