The Magic Skin by Honoré de Balzac


Towards the end of the month of October 1829 a young man entered the
Palais-Royal just as the gaming-houses opened, agreeably to the law
which protects a passion by its very nature easily excisable. He mounted
the staircase of one of the gambling hells distinguished by the number
36, without too much deliberation.

“Your hat, sir, if you please?” a thin, querulous voice called out. A
little old man, crouching in the darkness behind a railing, suddenly
rose and exhibited his features, carved after a mean design.

As you enter a gaming-house the law despoils you of your hat at the
outset. Is it by way of a parable, a divine revelation? Or by exacting
some pledge or other, is not an infernal compact implied? Is it done to
compel you to preserve a respectful demeanor towards those who are about
to gain money of you? Or must the detective, who squats in our social
sewers, know the name of your hatter, or your own, if you happen to have
written it on the lining inside? Or, after all, is the measurement of
your skull required for the compilation of statistics as to the cerebral
capacity of gamblers? The executive is absolutely silent on this point.
But be sure of this, that though you have scarcely taken a step towards
the tables, your hat no more belongs to you now than you belong to
yourself. Play possesses you, your fortune, your cap, your cane, your

As you go out, it will be made clear to you, by a savage irony, that
Play has yet spared you something, since your property is returned. For
all that, if you bring a new hat with you, you will have to pay for the
knowledge that a special costume is needed for a gambler.

The evident astonishment with which the young man took a numbered tally
in exchange for his hat, which was fortunately somewhat rubbed at the
brim, showed clearly enough that his mind was yet untainted; and the
little old man, who had wallowed from his youth up in the furious
pleasures of a gambler’s life, cast a dull, indifferent glance over
him, in which a philosopher might have seen wretchedness lying in the
hospital, the vagrant lives of ruined folk, inquests on numberless
suicides, life-long penal servitude and transportations to Guazacoalco.

His pallid, lengthy visage appeared like a haggard embodiment of the
passion reduced to its simplest terms. There were traces of past anguish
in its wrinkles. He supported life on the glutinous soups at Darcet’s,
and gambled away his meagre earnings day by day. Like some old hackney
which takes no heed of the strokes of the whip, nothing could move him
now. The stifled groans of ruined players, as they passed out, their
mute imprecations, their stupefied faces, found him impassive. He was
the spirit of Play incarnate. If the young man had noticed this sorry
Cerberus, perhaps he would have said, “There is only a pack of cards in
that heart of his.”

The stranger did not heed this warning writ in flesh and blood, put
here, no doubt, by Providence, who has set loathing on the threshold of
all evil haunts. He walked boldly into the saloon, where the rattle of
coin brought his senses under the dazzling spell of an agony of greed.
Most likely he had been drawn thither by that most convincing of Jean
Jacques’ eloquent periods, which expresses, I think, this melancholy
thought, “Yes, I can imagine that a man may take to gambling when he
sees only his last shilling between him and death.”

There is an illusion about a gambling saloon at night as vulgar as that
of a bloodthirsty drama, and just as effective. The rooms are filled
with players and onlookers, with poverty-stricken age, which drags
itself thither in search of stimulation, with excited faces, and revels
that began in wine, to end shortly in the Seine. The passion is there
in full measure, but the great number of the actors prevents you from
seeing the gambling-demon face to face. The evening is a harmony or
chorus in which all take part, to which each instrument in the orchestra
contributes his share. You would see there plenty of respectable people
who have come in search of diversion, for which they pay as they pay for
the pleasures of the theatre, or of gluttony, or they come hither as
to some garret where they cheapen poignant regrets for three months to

Do you understand all the force and frenzy in a soul which impatiently
waits for the opening of a gambling hell? Between the daylight gambler
and the player at night there is the same difference that lies between
a careless husband and the lover swooning under his lady’s window. Only
with morning comes the real throb of the passion and the craving in
its stark horror. Then you can admire the real gambler, who has neither
eaten, slept, thought, nor lived, he has so smarted under the scourge
of his martingale, so suffered on the rack of his desire for a coup of
_trente-et-quarante_. At that accursed hour you encounter eyes whose
calmness terrifies you, faces that fascinate, glances that seem as if
they had power to turn the cards over and consume them. The grandest
hours of a gambling saloon are not the opening ones. If Spain has
bull-fights, and Rome once had her gladiators, Paris waxes proud of her
Palais-Royal, where the inevitable _roulettes_ cause blood to flow in
streams, and the public can have the pleasure of watching without fear
of their feet slipping in it.

Take a quiet peep at the arena. How bare it looks! The paper on the
walls is greasy to the height of your head, there is nothing to bring
one reviving thought. There is not so much as a nail for the convenience
of suicides. The floor is worn and dirty. An oblong table stands in the
middle of the room, the tablecloth is worn by the friction of gold,
but the straw-bottomed chairs about it indicate an odd indifference to
luxury in the men who will lose their lives here in the quest of the
fortune that is to put luxury within their reach.

This contradiction in humanity is seen wherever the soul reacts
powerfully upon itself. The gallant would clothe his mistress in silks,
would deck her out in soft Eastern fabrics, though he and she must lie
on a truckle-bed. The ambitious dreamer sees himself at the summit of
power, while he slavishly prostrates himself in the mire. The tradesman
stagnates in his damp, unhealthy shop, while he builds a great mansion
for his son to inherit prematurely, only to be ejected from it by law
proceedings at his own brother’s instance.

After all, is there a less pleasing thing in the world than a house of
pleasure? Singular question! Man is always at strife with himself. His
present woes give the lie to his hopes; yet he looks to a future which
is not his, to indemnify him for these present sufferings; setting upon
all his actions the seal of inconsequence and of the weakness of his
nature. We have nothing here below in full measure but misfortune.

There were several gamblers in the room already when the young man
entered. Three bald-headed seniors were lounging round the green table.
Imperturbable as diplomatists, those plaster-cast faces of theirs
betokened blunted sensibilities, and hearts which had long forgotten
how to throb, even when a woman’s dowry was the stake. A young Italian,
olive-hued and dark-haired, sat at one end, with his elbows on the
table, seeming to listen to the presentiments of luck that dictate a
gambler’s “Yes” or “No.” The glow of fire and gold was on that southern
face. Some seven or eight onlookers stood by way of an audience,
awaiting a drama composed of the strokes of chance, the faces of the
actors, the circulation of coin, and the motion of the croupier’s rake,
much as a silent, motionless crowd watches the headsman in the Place de
Greve. A tall, thin man, in a threadbare coat, held a card in one hand,
and a pin in the other, to mark the numbers of Red or Black. He seemed
a modern Tantalus, with all the pleasures of his epoch at his lips, a
hoardless miser drawing in imaginary gains, a sane species of lunatic
who consoles himself in his misery by chimerical dreams, a man who
touches peril and vice as a young priest handles the unconsecrated wafer
in the white mass.

One or two experts at the game, shrewd speculators, had placed
themselves opposite the bank, like old convicts who have lost all fear
of the hulks; they meant to try two or three coups, and then to depart
at once with the expected gains, on which they lived. Two elderly
waiters dawdled about with their arms folded, looking from time to time
into the garden from the windows, as if to show their insignificant
faces as a sign to passers-by.

The croupier and banker threw a ghastly and withering glance at the
punters, and cried, in a sharp voice, “Make your game!” as the young man
came in. The silence seemed to grow deeper as all heads turned curiously
towards the new arrival. Who would have thought it? The jaded elders,
the fossilized waiters, the onlookers, the fanatical Italian himself,
felt an indefinable dread at sight of the stranger. Is he not wretched
indeed who can excite pity here? Must he not be very helpless to receive
sympathy, ghastly in appearance to raise a shudder in these places,
where pain utters no cry, where wretchedness looks gay, and despair is
decorous? Such thoughts as these produced a new emotion in these torpid
hearts as the young man entered. Were not executioners known to shed
tears over the fair-haired, girlish heads that had to fall at the
bidding of the Revolution?

The gamblers saw at a glance a dreadful mystery in the novice’s face.
His young features were stamped with a melancholy grace, his looks told
of unsuccess and many blighted hopes. The dull apathy of the suicide
had made his forehead so deadly pale, a bitter smile carved faint lines
about the corners of his mouth, and there was an abandonment about him
that was painful to see. Some sort of demon sparkled in the depths of
his eye, which drooped, wearied perhaps with pleasure. Could it have
been dissipation that had set its foul mark on the proud face, once pure
and bright, and now brought low? Any doctor seeing the yellow circles
about his eyelids, and the color in his cheeks, would have set them
down to some affection of the heart or lungs, while poets would have
attributed them to the havoc brought by the search for knowledge and to
night-vigils by the student’s lamp.

But a complaint more fatal than any disease, a disease more merciless
than genius or study, had drawn this young face, and had wrung a heart
which dissipation, study, and sickness had scarcely disturbed. When
a notorious criminal is taken to the convict’s prison, the prisoners
welcome him respectfully, and these evil spirits in human shape,
experienced in torments, bowed before an unheard-of anguish. By the
depth of the wound which met their eyes, they recognized a prince among
them, by the majesty of his unspoken irony, by the refined wretchedness
of his garb. The frock-coat that he wore was well cut, but his cravat
was on terms so intimate with his waistcoat that no one could suspect
him of underlinen. His hands, shapely as a woman’s were not perfectly
clean; for two days past indeed he had ceased to wear gloves. If the
very croupier and the waiters shuddered, it was because some traces
of the spell of innocence yet hung about his meagre, delicately-shaped
form, and his scanty fair hair in its natural curls.

He looked only about twenty-five years of age, and any trace of vice
in his face seemed to be there by accident. A young constitution still
resisted the inroads of lubricity. Darkness and light, annihilation and
existence, seemed to struggle in him, with effects of mingled beauty
and terror. There he stood like some erring angel that has lost his
radiance; and these emeritus-professors of vice and shame were ready to
bid the novice depart, even as some toothless crone might be seized with
pity for a beautiful girl who offers herself up to infamy.

The young man went straight up to the table, and, as he stood
there, flung down a piece of gold which he held in his hand, without
deliberation. It rolled on to the Black; then, as strong natures can,
he looked calmly, if anxiously, at the croupier, as if he held useless
subterfuges in scorn.

The interest this coup awakened was so great that the old gamesters laid
nothing upon it; only the Italian, inspired by a gambler’s enthusiasm,
smiled suddenly at some thought, and punted his heap of coin against the
stranger’s stake.

The banker forgot to pronounce the phrases that use and wont have
reduced to an inarticulate cry–“Make your game…. The game is made….
Bets are closed.” The croupier spread out the cards, and seemed to wish
luck to the newcomer, indifferent as he was to the losses or gains of
those who took part in these sombre pleasures. Every bystander thought
he saw a drama, the closing scene of a noble life, in the fortunes of
that bit of gold; and eagerly fixed his eyes on the prophetic cards; but
however closely they watched the young man, they could discover not the
least sign of feeling on his cool but restless face.

“Even! red wins,” said the croupier officially. A dumb sort of rattle
came from the Italian’s throat when he saw the folded notes that
the banker showered upon him, one after another. The young man only
understood his calamity when the croupiers’s rake was extended to sweep
away his last napoleon. The ivory touched the coin with a little click,
as it swept it with the speed of an arrow into the heap of gold before
the bank. The stranger turned pale at the lips, and softly shut his
eyes, but he unclosed them again at once, and the red color returned
as he affected the airs of an Englishman, to whom life can offer no
new sensation, and disappeared without the glance full of entreaty for
compassion that a desperate gamester will often give the bystanders. How
much can happen in a second’s space; how many things depend on a throw
of the die!

“That was his last cartridge, of course,” said the croupier, smiling
after a moment’s silence, during which he picked up the coin between his
finger and thumb and held it up.

“He is a cracked brain that will go and drown himself,” said a
frequenter of the place. He looked round about at the other players, who
all knew each other.

“Bah!” said a waiter, as he took a pinch of snuff.

“If we had but followed _his_ example,” said an old gamester to the
others, as he pointed out the Italian.

Everybody looked at the lucky player, whose hands shook as he counted
his bank-notes.

“A voice seemed to whisper to me,” he said. “The luck is sure to go
against that young man’s despair.”

“He is a new hand,” said the banker, “or he would have divided his money
into three parts to give himself more chance.”

The young man went out without asking for his hat; but the old
watch-dog, who had noted its shabby condition, returned it to him
without a word. The gambler mechanically gave up the tally, and went
downstairs whistling _Di tanti Palpiti_ so feebly, that he himself
scarcely heard the delicious notes.

He found himself immediately under the arcades of the Palais-Royal,
reached the Rue Saint Honore, took the direction of the Tuileries, and
crossed the gardens with an undecided step. He walked as if he were in
some desert, elbowed by men whom he did not see, hearing through all the
voices of the crowd one voice alone–the voice of Death. He was lost in
the thoughts that benumbed him at last, like the criminals who used
to be taken in carts from the Palais de Justice to the Place de Greve,
where the scaffold awaited them reddened with all the blood spilt here
since 1793.

There is something great and terrible about suicide. Most people’s
downfalls are not dangerous; they are like children who have not far to
fall, and cannot injure themselves; but when a great nature is dashed
down, he is bound to fall from a height. He must have been raised almost
to the skies; he has caught glimpses of some heaven beyond his reach.
Vehement must the storms be which compel a soul to seek for peace from
the trigger of a pistol.

How much young power starves and pines away in a garret for want of a
friend, for lack of a woman’s consolation, in the midst of millions of
fellow-creatures, in the presence of a listless crowd that is burdened
by its wealth! When one remembers all this, suicide looms large. Between
a self-sought death and the abundant hopes whose voices call a young man
to Paris, God only knows what may intervene; what contending ideas have
striven within the soul; what poems have been set aside; what moans and
what despair have been repressed; what abortive masterpieces and vain
endeavors! Every suicide is an awful poem of sorrow. Where will you find
a work of genius floating above the seas of literature that can compare
with this paragraph:

“Yesterday, at four o’clock, a young woman threw herself into the
Seine from the Pont des Arts.”

Dramas and romances pale before this concise Parisian phrase; so must
even that old frontispiece, _The Lamentations of the glorious king of
Kaernavan, put in prison by his children_, the sole remaining fragment
of a lost work that drew tears from Sterne at the bare perusal–the same
Sterne who deserted his own wife and family.

The stranger was beset with such thoughts as these, which passed in
fragments through his mind, like tattered flags fluttering above the
combat. If he set aside for a moment the burdens of consciousness and of
memory, to watch the flower heads gently swayed by the breeze among the
green thickets, a revulsion came over him, life struggled against
the oppressive thought of suicide, and his eyes rose to the sky: gray
clouds, melancholy gusts of the wind, the stormy atmosphere, all decreed
that he should die.

He bent his way toward the Pont Royal, musing over the last fancies of
others who had gone before him. He smiled to himself as he remembered
that Lord Castlereagh had satisfied the humblest of our needs before
he cut his throat, and that the academician Auger had sought for his
snuff-box as he went to his death. He analyzed these extravagances,
and even examined himself; for as he stood aside against the parapet
to allow a porter to pass, his coat had been whitened somewhat by the
contact, and he carefully brushed the dust from his sleeve, to his own
surprise. He reached the middle of the arch, and looked forebodingly at
the water.

“Wretched weather for drowning yourself,” said a ragged old woman, who
grinned at him; “isn’t the Seine cold and dirty?”

His answer was a ready smile, which showed the frenzied nature of his
courage; then he shivered all at once as he saw at a distance, by the
door of the Tuileries, a shed with an inscription above it in letters

A vision of M. Dacheux rose before him, equipped by his philanthropy,
calling out and setting in motion the too efficacious oars which break
the heads of drowning men, if unluckily they should rise to the surface;
he saw a curious crowd collecting, running for a doctor, preparing
fumigations, he read the maundering paragraph in the papers, put between
notes on a festivity and on the smiles of a ballet-dancer; he heard
the francs counted down by the prefect of police to the watermen. As a
corpse, he was worth fifteen francs; but now while he lived he was only
a man of talent without patrons, without friends, without a mattress
to lie on, or any one to speak a word for him–a perfect social cipher,
useless to a State which gave itself no trouble about him.

A death in broad daylight seemed degrading to him; he made up his mind
to die at night so as to bequeath an unrecognizable corpse to a world
which had disregarded the greatness of life. He began his wanderings
again, turning towards the Quai Voltaire, imitating the lagging gait of
an idler seeking to kill time. As he came down the steps at the end of
the bridge, his notice was attracted by the second-hand books displayed
on the parapet, and he was on the point of bargaining for some. He
smiled, thrust his hands philosophically into his pockets, and fell to
strolling on again with a proud disdain in his manner, when he heard to
his surprise some coin rattling fantastically in his pocket.

A smile of hope lit his face, and slid from his lips over his features,
over his brow, and brought a joyful light to his eyes and his dark
cheeks. It was a spark of happiness like one of the red dots that flit
over the remains of a burnt scrap of paper; but as it is with the black
ashes, so it was with his face, it became dull again when the stranger
quickly drew out his hand and perceived three pennies. “Ah, kind
gentleman! _carita_, _carita_; for the love of St. Catherine! only a
halfpenny to buy some bread!”

A little chimney sweeper, with puffed cheeks, all black with soot, and
clad in tatters, held out his hand to beg for the man’s last pence.

Two paces from the little Savoyard stood an old _pauvre honteux_, sickly
and feeble, in wretched garments of ragged druggeting, who asked in a
thick, muffled voice:

“Anything you like to give, monsieur; I will pray to God for you…”

But the young man turned his eyes on him, and the old beggar stopped
without another word, discerning in that mournful face an abandonment of
wretchedness more bitter than his own.

“_La carita_! _la carita_!”

The stranger threw the coins to the old man and the child, left the
footway, and turned towards the houses; the harrowing sight of the Seine
fretted him beyond endurance.

“May God lengthen your days!” cried the two beggars.

As he reached the shop window of a print-seller, this man on the brink
of death met a young woman alighting from a showy carriage. He looked in
delight at her prettiness, at the pale face appropriately framed by the
satin of her fashionable bonnet. Her slender form and graceful movements
entranced him. Her skirt had been slightly raised as she stepped to the
pavement, disclosing a daintily fitting white stocking over the delicate
outlines beneath. The young lady went into the shop, purchased albums
and sets of lithographs; giving several gold coins for them, which
glittered and rang upon the counter. The young man, seemingly occupied
with the prints in the window, fixed upon the fair stranger a gaze as
eager as man can give, to receive in exchange an indifferent glance,
such as lights by accident on a passer-by. For him it was a leave-taking
of love and of woman; but his final and strenuous questioning glance was
neither understood nor felt by the slight-natured woman there; her color
did not rise, her eyes did not droop. What was it to her? one more piece
of adulation, yet another sigh only prompted the delightful thought at
night, “I looked rather well to-day.”

The young man quickly turned to another picture, and only left it when
she returned to her carriage. The horses started off, the final vision
of luxury and refinement went under an eclipse, just as that life of his
would soon do also. Slowly and sadly he followed the line of the shops,
listlessly examining the specimens on view. When the shops came to an
end, he reviewed the Louvre, the Institute, the towers of Notre Dame, of
the Palais, the Pont des Arts; all these public monuments seemed to have
taken their tone from the heavy gray sky.

Fitful gleams of light gave a foreboding look to Paris; like a pretty
woman, the city has mysterious fits of ugliness or beauty. So the outer
world seemed to be in a plot to steep this man about to die in a painful
trance. A prey to the maleficent power which acts relaxingly upon us
by the fluid circulating through our nerves, his whole frame seemed
gradually to experience a dissolving process. He felt the anguish of
these throes passing through him in waves, and the houses and the crowd
seemed to surge to and fro in a mist before his eyes. He tried to escape
the agitation wrought in his mind by the revulsions of his physical
nature, and went toward the shop of a dealer in antiquities, thinking to
give a treat to his senses, and to spend the interval till nightfall in
bargaining over curiosities.

He sought, one might say, to regain courage and to find a stimulant,
like a criminal who doubts his power to reach the scaffold. The
consciousness of approaching death gave him, for the time being, the
intrepidity of a duchess with a couple of lovers, so that he entered the
place with an abstracted look, while his lips displayed a set smile like
a drunkard’s. Had not life, or rather had not death, intoxicated him?
Dizziness soon overcame him again. Things appeared to him in strange
colors, or as making slight movements; his irregular pulse was no
doubt the cause; the blood that sometimes rushed like a burning torrent
through his veins, and sometimes lay torpid and stagnant as tepid water.
He merely asked leave to see if the shop contained any curiosities which
he required.

A plump-faced young shopman with red hair, in an otter-skin cap, left
an old peasant woman in charge of the shop–a sort of feminine Caliban,
employed in cleaning a stove made marvelous by Bernard Palissy’s work.
This youth remarked carelessly:

“Look round, _monsieur_! We have nothing very remarkable here
downstairs; but if I may trouble you to go up to the first floor, I will
show you some very fine mummies from Cairo, some inlaid pottery, and
some carved ebony–_genuine Renaissance_ work, just come in, and of
perfect beauty.”

In the stranger’s fearful position this cicerone’s prattle and shopman’s
empty talk seemed like the petty vexations by which narrow minds destroy
a man of genius. But as he must even go through with it, he appeared
to listen to his guide, answering him by gestures or monosyllables; but
imperceptibly he arrogated the privilege of saying nothing, and gave
himself up without hindrance to his closing meditations, which were
appalling. He had a poet’s temperament, his mind had entered by chance
on a vast field; and he must see perforce the dry bones of twenty future

At a first glance the place presented a confused picture in which every
achievement, human and divine, was mingled. Crocodiles, monkeys, and
serpents stuffed with straw grinned at glass from church windows,
seemed to wish to bite sculptured heads, to chase lacquered work, or to
scramble up chandeliers. A Sevres vase, bearing Napoleon’s portrait
by Mme. Jacotot, stood beside a sphinx dedicated to Sesostris. The
beginnings of the world and the events of yesterday were mingled
with grotesque cheerfulness. A kitchen jack leaned against a pyx, a
republican sabre on a mediaeval hackbut. Mme. du Barry, with a star
above her head, naked, and surrounded by a cloud, seemed to look
longingly out of Latour’s pastel at an Indian chibook, while she tried
to guess the purpose of the spiral curves that wound towards her.
Instruments of death, poniards, curious pistols, and disguised weapons
had been flung down pell-mell among the paraphernalia of daily life;
porcelain tureens, Dresden plates, translucent cups from china, old
salt-cellars, comfit-boxes belonging to feudal times. A carved ivory
ship sped full sail on the back of a motionless tortoise.

The Emperor Augustus remained unmoved and imperial with an air-pump
thrust into one eye. Portraits of French sheriffs and Dutch
burgomasters, phlegmatic now as when in life, looked down pallid and
unconcerned on the chaos of past ages below them.

Every land of earth seemed to have contributed some stray fragment of
its learning, some example of its art. Nothing seemed lacking to this
philosophical kitchen-midden, from a redskin’s calumet, a green and
golden slipper from the seraglio, a Moorish yataghan, a Tartar idol, to
the soldier’s tobacco pouch, to the priest’s ciborium, and the plumes
that once adorned a throne. This extraordinary combination was rendered
yet more bizarre by the accidents of lighting, by a multitude of
confused reflections of various hues, by the sharp contrast of blacks
and whites. Broken cries seemed to reach the ear, unfinished dramas
seized upon the imagination, smothered lights caught the eye. A thin
coating of inevitable dust covered all the multitudinous corners and
convolutions of these objects of various shapes which gave highly
picturesque effects.

First of all, the stranger compared the three galleries which
civilization, cults, divinities, masterpieces, dominions, carousals,
sanity, and madness had filled to repletion, to a mirror with numerous
facets, each depicting a world. After this first hazy idea he would fain
have selected his pleasures; but by dint of using his eyes, thinking and
musing, a fever began to possess him, caused perhaps by the gnawing pain
of hunger. The spectacle of so much existence, individual or national,
to which these pledges bore witness, ended by numbing his senses–the
purpose with which he entered the shop was fulfilled. He had left the
real behind, and had climbed gradually up to an ideal world; he had
attained to the enchanted palace of ecstasy, whence the universe
appeared to him by fragments and in shapes of flame, as once the future
blazed out before the eyes of St. John in Patmos.

A crowd of sorrowing faces, beneficent and appalling, dark and luminous,
far and near, gathered in numbers, in myriads, in whole generations.
Egypt, rigid and mysterious, arose from her sands in the form of a mummy
swathed in black bandages; then the Pharaohs swallowed up nations, that
they might build themselves a tomb; and he beheld Moses and the Hebrews
and the desert, and a solemn antique world. Fresh and joyous, a marble
statue spoke to him from a twisted column of the pleasure-loving myths
of Greece and Ionia. Ah! who would not have smiled with him to see,
against the earthen red background, the brown-faced maiden dancing with
gleeful reverence before the god Priapus, wrought in the fine clay of an
Etruscan vase? The Latin queen caressed her chimera.

The whims of Imperial Rome were there in life, the bath was disclosed,
the toilette of a languid Julia, dreaming, waiting for her Tibullus.
Strong with the might of Arabic spells, the head of Cicero evoked
memories of a free Rome, and unrolled before him the scrolls of Titus
Livius. The young man beheld _Senatus Populusque Romanus_; consuls,
lictors, togas with purple fringes; the fighting in the Forum, the angry
people, passed in review before him like the cloudy faces of a dream.

Then Christian Rome predominated in his vision. A painter had laid
heaven open; he beheld the Virgin Mary wrapped in a golden cloud among
the angels, shining more brightly than the sun, receiving the prayers of
sufferers, on whom this second Eve Regenerate smiles pityingly. At the
touch of a mosaic, made of various lavas from Vesuvius and Etna, his
fancy fled to the hot tawny south of Italy. He was present at Borgia’s
orgies, he roved among the Abruzzi, sought for Italian love intrigues,
grew ardent over pale faces and dark, almond-shaped eyes. He shivered
over midnight adventures, cut short by the cool thrust of a jealous
blade, as he saw a mediaeval dagger with a hilt wrought like lace, and
spots of rust like splashes of blood upon it.

India and its religions took the shape of the idol with his peaked cap
of fantastic form, with little bells, clad in silk and gold. Close by,
a mat, as pretty as the bayadere who once lay upon it, still gave out
a faint scent of sandal wood. His fancy was stirred by a goggle-eyed
Chinese monster, with mouth awry and twisted limbs, the invention of
a people who, grown weary of the monotony of beauty, found an
indescribable pleasure in an infinite variety of ugliness. A salt-cellar
from Benvenuto Cellini’s workshop carried him back to the Renaissance
at its height, to the time when there was no restraint on art or morals,
when torture was the sport of sovereigns; and from their councils,
churchmen with courtesans’ arms about them issued decrees of chastity
for simple priests.

On a cameo he saw the conquests of Alexander, the massacres of Pizarro
in a matchbox, and religious wars disorderly, fanatical, and cruel, in
the shadows of a helmet. Joyous pictures of chivalry were called up by
a suit of Milanese armor, brightly polished and richly wrought; a
paladin’s eyes seemed to sparkle yet under the visor.

This sea of inventions, fashions, furniture, works of art and fiascos,
made for him a poem without end. Shapes and colors and projects
all lived again for him, but his mind received no clear and perfect
conception. It was the poet’s task to complete the sketches of the
great master, who had scornfully mingled on his palette the hues of the
numberless vicissitudes of human life. When the world at large at last
released him, when he had pondered over many lands, many epochs, and
various empires, the young man came back to the life of the individual.
He impersonated fresh characters, and turned his mind to details,
rejecting the life of nations as a burden too overwhelming for a single

Yonder was a sleeping child modeled in wax, a relic of Ruysch’s
collection, an enchanting creation which brought back the happiness of
his own childhood. The cotton garment of a Tahitian maid next fascinated
him; he beheld the primitive life of nature, the real modesty of naked
chastity, the joys of an idleness natural to mankind, a peaceful fate
by a slow river of sweet water under a plantain tree that bears its
pleasant manna without the toil of man. Then all at once he became a
corsair, investing himself with the terrible poetry that Lara has given
to the part: the thought came at the sight of the mother-of-pearl tints
of a myriad sea-shells, and grew as he saw madrepores redolent of the
sea-weeds and the storms of the Atlantic.

The sea was forgotten again at a distant view of exquisite miniatures;
he admired a precious missal in manuscript, adorned with arabesques in
gold and blue. Thoughts of peaceful life swayed him; he devoted himself
afresh to study and research, longing for the easy life of the monk,
devoid alike of cares and pleasures; and from the depths of his cell
he looked out upon the meadows, woods, and vineyards of his convent.
Pausing before some work of Teniers, he took for his own the helmet
of the soldier or the poverty of the artisan; he wished to wear a
smoke-begrimed cap with these Flemings, to drink their beer and join
their game at cards, and smiled upon the comely plumpness of a peasant
woman. He shivered at a snowstorm by Mieris; he seemed to take part in
Salvator Rosa’s battle-piece; he ran his fingers over a tomahawk
form Illinois, and felt his own hair rise as he touched a Cherokee
scalping-knife. He marveled over the rebec that he set in the hands of
some lady of the land, drank in the musical notes of her ballad, and in
the twilight by the gothic arch above the hearth he told his love in a
gloom so deep that he could not read his answer in her eyes.

He caught at all delights, at all sorrows; grasped at existence in every
form; and endowed the phantoms conjured up from that inert and plastic
material so liberally with his own life and feelings, that the sound of
his own footsteps reached him as if from another world, or as the hum of
Paris reaches the towers of Notre Dame.

He ascended the inner staircase which led to the first floor, with its
votive shields, panoplies, carved shrines, and figures on the wall at
every step. Haunted by the strangest shapes, by marvelous creations
belonging to the borderland betwixt life and death, he walked as if
under the spell of a dream. His own existence became a matter of doubt
to him; he was neither wholly alive nor dead, like the curious objects
about him. The light began to fade as he reached the show-rooms, but
the treasures of gold and silver heaped up there scarcely seemed to need
illumination from without. The most extravagant whims of prodigals, who
have run through millions to perish in garrets, had left their traces
here in this vast bazar of human follies. Here, beside a writing desk,
made at the cost of 100,000 francs, and sold for a hundred pence, lay a
lock with a secret worth a king’s ransom. The human race was revealed
in all the grandeur of its wretchedness; in all the splendor of its
infinite littleness. An ebony table that an artist might worship,
carved after Jean Goujon’s designs, in years of toil, had been purchased
perhaps at the price of firewood. Precious caskets, and things that
fairy hands might have fashioned, lay there in heaps like rubbish.

“You must have the worth of millions here!” cried the young man as he
entered the last of an immense suite of rooms, all decorated and gilt by
eighteenth century artists.

“Thousands of millions, you might say,” said the florid shopman; “but
you have seen nothing as yet. Go up to the third floor, and you shall

The stranger followed his guide to a fourth gallery, where one by one
there passed before his wearied eyes several pictures by Poussin, a
magnificent statue by Michael Angelo, enchanting landscapes by Claude
Lorraine, a Gerard Dow (like a stray page from Sterne), Rembrandts,
Murillos, and pictures by Velasquez, as dark and full of color as a poem
of Byron’s; then came classic bas-reliefs, finely-cut agates, wonderful
cameos! Works of art upon works of art, till the craftsman’s skill
palled on the mind, masterpiece after masterpiece till art itself became
hateful at last and enthusiasm died. He came upon a Madonna by Raphael,
but he was tired of Raphael; a figure by Correggio never received the
glance it demanded of him. A priceless vase of antique porphyry carved
round about with pictures of the most grotesquely wanton of Roman
divinities, the pride of some Corinna, scarcely drew a smile from him.

The ruins of fifteen hundred vanished years oppressed him; he sickened
under all this human thought; felt bored by all this luxury and art. He
struggled in vain against the constantly renewed fantastic shapes that
sprang up from under his feet, like children of some sportive demon.

Are not fearful poisons set up in the soul by a swift concentration of
all her energies, her enjoyments, or ideas; as modern chemistry, in its
caprice, repeats the action of creation by some gas or other? Do not
many men perish under the shock of the sudden expansion of some moral
acid within them?

“What is there in that box?” he inquired, as he reached a large
closet–final triumph of human skill, originality, wealth, and splendor,
in which there hung a large, square mahogany coffer, suspended from a
nail by a silver chain.

“Ah, _monsieur_ keeps the key of it,” said the stout assistant
mysteriously. “If you wish to see the portrait, I will gladly venture to
tell him.”

“Venture!” said the young man; “then is your master a prince?”

“I don’t know what he is,” the other answered. Equally astonished, each
looked for a moment at the other. Then construing the stranger’s silence
as an order, the apprentice left him alone in the closet.

Have you never launched into the immensity of time and space as you read
the geological writings of Cuvier? Carried by his fancy, have you hung
as if suspended by a magician’s wand over the illimitable abyss of the
past? When the fossil bones of animals belonging to civilizations before
the Flood are turned up in bed after bed and layer upon layer of the
quarries of Montmartre or among the schists of the Ural range, the
soul receives with dismay a glimpse of millions of peoples forgotten
by feeble human memory and unrecognized by permanent divine tradition,
peoples whose ashes cover our globe with two feet of earth that yields
bread to us and flowers.

Is not Cuvier the great poet of our era? Byron has given admirable
expression to certain moral conflicts, but our immortal naturalist has
reconstructed past worlds from a few bleached bones; has rebuilt cities,
like Cadmus, with monsters’ teeth; has animated forests with all the
secrets of zoology gleaned from a piece of coal; has discovered a giant
population from the footprints of a mammoth. These forms stand erect,
grow large, and fill regions commensurate with their giant size. He
treats figures like a poet; a naught set beside a seven by him produces

He can call up nothingness before you without the phrases of a
charlatan. He searches a lump of gypsum, finds an impression in it, says
to you, “Behold!” All at once marble takes an animal shape, the dead
come to life, the history of the world is laid open before you. After
countless dynasties of giant creatures, races of fish and clans of
mollusks, the race of man appears at last as the degenerate copy of a
splendid model, which the Creator has perchance destroyed. Emboldened
by his gaze into the past, this petty race, children of yesterday,
can overstep chaos, can raise a psalm without end, and outline for
themselves the story of the Universe in an Apocalypse that reveals the
past. After the tremendous resurrection that took place at the voice
of this man, the little drop in the nameless Infinite, common to all
spheres, that is ours to use, and that we call Time, seems to us a
pitiable moment of life. We ask ourselves the purpose of our triumphs,
our hatreds, our loves, overwhelmed as we are by the destruction of so
many past universes, and whether it is worth while to accept the pain of
life in order that hereafter we may become an intangible speck. Then we
remain as if dead, completely torn away from the present till the _valet
de chambre_ comes in and says, “_Madame la comtesse_ answers that she is
expecting _monsieur_.”

All the wonders which had brought the known world before the young man’s
mind wrought in his soul much the same feeling of dejection that besets
the philosopher investigating unknown creatures. He longed more than
ever for death as he flung himself back in a curule chair and let his
eyes wander across the illusions composing a panorama of the past.
The pictures seemed to light up, the Virgin’s heads smiled on him, the
statues seemed alive. Everything danced and swayed around him, with a
motion due to the gloom and the tormenting fever that racked his brain;
each monstrosity grimaced at him, while the portraits on the canvas
closed their eyes for a little relief. Every shape seemed to tremble
and start, and to leave its place gravely or flippantly, gracefully or
awkwardly, according to its fashion, character, and surroundings.

A mysterious Sabbath began, rivaling the fantastic scenes witnessed
by Faust upon the Brocken. But these optical illusions, produced by
weariness, overstrained eyesight, or the accidents of twilight, could
not alarm the stranger. The terrors of life had no power over a soul
grown familiar with the terrors of death. He even gave himself up, half
amused by its bizarre eccentricities, to the influence of this moral
galvanism; its phenomena, closely connected with his last thoughts,
assured him that he was still alive. The silence about him was so deep
that he embarked once more in dreams that grew gradually darker and
darker as if by magic, as the light slowly faded. A last struggling ray
from the sun lit up rosy answering lights. He raised his head and saw a
skeleton dimly visible, with its skull bent doubtfully to one side, as
if to say, “The dead will none of thee as yet.”

He passed his hand over his forehead to shake off the drowsiness, and
felt a cold breath of air as an unknown furry something swept past his
cheeks. He shivered. A muffled clatter of the windows followed; it was
a bat, he fancied, that had given him this chilly sepulchral caress. He
could yet dimly see for a moment the shapes that surrounded him, by the
vague light in the west; then all these inanimate objects were blotted
out in uniform darkness. Night and the hour of death had suddenly come.
Thenceforward, for a while, he lost consciousness of the things about
him; he was either buried in deep meditation or sleep overcame him,
brought on by weariness or by the stress of those many thoughts that
lacerated his heart.

Suddenly he thought that an awful voice called him by name; it was like
some feverish nightmare, when at a step the dreamer falls headlong over
into an abyss, and he trembled. He closed his eyes, dazzled by bright
rays from a red circle of light that shone out from the shadows. In the
midst of the circle stood a little old man who turned the light of the
lamp upon him, yet he had not heard him enter, nor move, nor speak.
There was something magical about the apparition. The boldest man,
awakened in such a sort, would have felt alarmed at the sight of this
figure, which might have issued from some sarcophagus hard by.

A curiously youthful look in the unmoving eyes of the spectre forbade
the idea of anything supernatural; but for all that, in the brief space
between his dreaming and waking life, the young man’s judgment remained
philosophically suspended, as Descartes advises. He was, in spite
of himself, under the influence of an unaccountable hallucination, a
mystery that our pride rejects, and that our imperfect science vainly
tries to resolve.

Imagine a short old man, thin and spare, in a long black velvet gown
girded round him by a thick silk cord. His long white hair escaped on
either side of his face from under a black velvet cap which closely
fitted his head and made a formal setting for his countenance. His
gown enveloped his body like a winding sheet, so that all that was left
visible was a narrow bleached human face. But for the wasted arm, thin
as a draper’s wand, which held aloft the lamp that cast all its light
upon him, the face would have seemed to hang in mid air. A gray pointed
beard concealed the chin of this fantastical appearance, and gave him
the look of one of those Jewish types which serve artists as models
for Moses. His lips were so thin and colorless that it needed a close
inspection to find the lines of his mouth at all in the pallid face. His
great wrinkled brow and hollow bloodless cheeks, the inexorably stern
expression of his small green eyes that no longer possessed eyebrows
or lashes, might have convinced the stranger that Gerard Dow’s “Money
Changer” had come down from his frame. The craftiness of an inquisitor,
revealed in those curving wrinkles and creases that wound about his
temples, indicated a profound knowledge of life. There was no deceiving
this man, who seemed to possess a power of detecting the secrets of the
wariest heart.

The wisdom and the moral codes of every people seemed gathered up in his
passive face, just as all the productions of the globe had been heaped
up in his dusty showrooms. He seemed to possess the tranquil luminous
vision of some god before whom all things are open, or the haughty power
of a man who knows all things.

With two strokes of the brush a painter could have so altered the
expression of this face, that what had been a serene representation
of the Eternal Father should change to the sneering mask of a
Mephistopheles; for though sovereign power was revealed by the forehead,
mocking folds lurked about the mouth. He must have sacrificed all the
joys of earth, as he had crushed all human sorrows beneath his potent
will. The man at the brink of death shivered at the thought of the life
led by this spirit, so solitary and remote from our world; joyless,
since he had no one illusion left; painless, because pleasure had ceased
to exist for him. There he stood, motionless and serene as a star in a
bright mist. His lamp lit up the obscure closet, just as his green eyes,
with their quiet malevolence, seemed to shed a light on the moral world.

This was the strange spectacle that startled the young man’s returning
sight, as he shook off the dreamy fancies and thoughts of death that
had lulled him. An instant of dismay, a momentary return to belief
in nursery tales, may be forgiven him, seeing that his senses were
obscured. Much thought had wearied his mind, and his nerves were
exhausted with the strain of the tremendous drama within him, and by the
scenes that had heaped on him all the horrid pleasures that a piece of
opium can produce.

But this apparition had appeared in Paris, on the Quai Voltaire, and in
the nineteenth century; the time and place made sorcery impossible.
The idol of French scepticism had died in the house just opposite,
the disciple of Gay-Lussac and Arago, who had held the charlatanism of
intellect in contempt. And yet the stranger submitted himself to the
influence of an imaginative spell, as all of us do at times, when we
wish to escape from an inevitable certainty, or to tempt the power of
Providence. So some mysterious apprehension of a strange force made him
tremble before the old man with the lamp. All of us have been stirred in
the same way by the sight of Napoleon, or of some other great man, made
illustrious by his genius or by fame.

“You wish to see Raphael’s portrait of Jesus Christ, monsieur?” the old
man asked politely. There was something metallic in the clear, sharp
ring of his voice.

He set the lamp upon a broken column, so that all its light might fall
on the brown case.

At the sacred names of Christ and Raphael the young man showed some
curiosity. The merchant, who no doubt looked for this, pressed a spring,
and suddenly the mahogany panel slid noiselessly back in its groove, and
discovered the canvas to the stranger’s admiring gaze. At sight of this
deathless creation, he forgot his fancies in the show-rooms and the
freaks of his dreams, and became himself again. The old man became a
being of flesh and blood, very much alive, with nothing chimerical about
him, and took up his existence at once upon solid earth.

The sympathy and love, and the gentle serenity in the divine face,
exerted an instant sway over the younger spectator. Some influence
falling from heaven bade cease the burning torment that consumed the
marrow of his bones. The head of the Saviour of mankind seemed to issue
from among the shadows represented by a dark background; an aureole of
light shone out brightly from his hair; an impassioned belief seemed to
glow through him, and to thrill every feature. The word of life had just
been uttered by those red lips, the sacred sounds seemed to linger still
in the air; the spectator besought the silence for those captivating
parables, hearkened for them in the future, and had to turn to the
teachings of the past. The untroubled peace of the divine eyes, the
comfort of sorrowing souls, seemed an interpretation of the Evangel.
The sweet triumphant smile revealed the secret of the Catholic religion,
which sums up all things in the precept, “Love one another.” This
picture breathed the spirit of prayer, enjoined forgiveness, overcame
self, caused sleeping powers of good to waken. For this work of
Raphael’s had the imperious charm of music; you were brought under the
spell of memories of the past; his triumph was so absolute that the
artist was forgotten. The witchery of the lamplight heightened the
wonder; the head seemed at times to flicker in the distance, enveloped
in cloud.