An Episode Under the Terror by Honoré de Balzac

Un Episode sous la Terreur
An Episode Under the Terror

Part I.

It is the winter of 1793 and an old woman struggles through the snow. She suspects that she is followed by a spy, but still persists with her intended mission. She reaches a haven in a pastry-cook’s shop, which seems to have been her goal. There is an unmentioned item to retrieve in this shop. The shopkeeper and his wife are very secretive about the item and hand it to the old lady. At this time it is also quite clear that the old lady belongs to the now banned tier of aristocrats as determined by her worn dress as well as her manners (a ci-devant). The merchants seem to be part of the revolutionaries but with sympathies for the past. The lady proceeds to pay for the item in the box with what seems to be her last gold piece. The shopkeeper politely refuses and the lady proceeds to share her fear of being followed. The shop keeper tries to calm the lady, puts on his national guard uniform and steps outside to take care of the “spy”. He quickly returns filled with fear asking the lady to leave and to never return. The lady moves back into the cold and dark streets. The steps of her shadow echoes behind her.

Part II.
An hour or so later the lady has reached an old house in one of the less respected neighborhoods of Paris. The stranger arrives as well and spends some time pondering the poor state of the house. The lady works her way to the attic of the house. The room is occupied by another old man and woman. She brings out the box that reveals a number of wafers. The arrival expresses a worry about being followed. The stranger clearly has been about previously. The anxiety of the group is obvious and one senses a concern about that their lives are at stake. The conversation that follows identifies the women as nuns from the Abbaye de Chelles and the man as a priest. They appear to have been living in secrecy in this attic in an attempt to avoid the wrath of the revolutionaries. The priest calms the women as he is expecting a man that would allow them to get the proper documents for the ladies to escape the country. The priest is planning to stay. He shares the secret passwords that will help them to connect with the man they are expecting. Is the stranger this man?

One of the nuns hears footsteps on the stairs which are quickly followed by knock on the door. They turn silent and as the silence continues the stranger enters. In the interim the priest had hidden himself and only the women remain. The silence increases the tension in the room. Who is this man? The man engages in conversation and proceeds to tell the women that he wishes for a favor. One of the sisters utters the secret password, but the man fails to respond with the proper words. This is not the man they were waiting for. The man seems sincere as he shares that he knows who they are and what they are going through. The priest comes out of his hiding place.

The man now proceeds to tell them that he wishes to celebrate a mass “for the repose of a soul of an august personage whose body never will rest in consecrated earth”. The priest tell the man to return at midnight.

The man returns at midnight. Meanwhile the sisters and the priest have prepared for mass in a second room. They proceed to hold mass. As they do so the stranger seems overwhelmed and quite taken. A sense of union is present between the four people in the room. This was a service for the body of a man whose corpse was elsewhere. The mass seems a strange union between the monarchy of the past (represented by the priest and the nuns) and the revolution (represented by the man). At this point the spiritual atmosphere, the presence of God and the union between four people is clearly put forward. The stranger seems riddled by guilt. The sisters are praying for the child king they think is in captivity. After the mass the priest asks the stranger if he wishes to confess. The conversation turns to that men who stood by when the monarchy fell will be punished by God. The stranger wonders if an indirect participation will be punished? The priest seems to put forward that in exchange for the mass an invaluable item is needed. The stranger offers a relic and gives the priest a light box.

As they return to the sisters, the stranger tells them that they are safe in the house. He wishes to return to them the following year to celebrate another mass. The man leaves.

The box turns out to hold a fine handkerchief soiled with sweat and blood. It is also marked with the royal crown. It was a mystery.

As time went on it turned out that somebody was protecting them. They receive firewood, food and linen as well as other things to help them. They even receive civic cards giving them an additional degree of safety as they move through the city. From this point on they turned the stranger into a mysterious benefactor. They built their hope and prayers around him.

A year is now passed (January 1794) and the stranger returned. They were joyfully looking forward to greeting him with their hopes. However, the man was stern. It was clear that he wished to remain a stranger. They performed mass and the man left.

[the dates seem to be off here as Balzac states that there is only three days between the mass above and the events that followed three days later. However, they seem to be linked to Thermidor which is in July? What is your impression of these dates?]

In July 1794 it was fine to walk around the streets due to the coup that had occurred. The priest found himself at a perfume shop at the same time that a huge crowd was gathering. As he inquired about the events the shopkeeper told him that the executioner and the tumbrel cart was on its way. It was time to execute the accomplices of Robespierre. In the tumbrel cart he spots the man he had mass with three days earlier. He proceeds to ask who it is and is told that it is the headsman! The priest faints. As he wakes up he realizes that the handkerchief he was given by the stranger must have belonged to the king. It must have been used in the very last moments of the king’s life. The shopkeepers in the perfume shop think the priest is raving.


Read it:
Translation credited to Clara Bell and others
George Burnham Ives translation

Summary by Peter, November 2006


2 comments on “An Episode Under the Terror by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This seems to me an almost perfect little story. I walked into it blind and was carried along by the mystery. Who was the old woman, what was she buying, why was someone following her? Eventually it becomes obvious that the stranger who requests a yearly mass be said is King Louis’ executioner, who wants the mass said for the dead King. The executioner questions his own guilt, one of man’s great questions, and is subsequently executed at the end of the story. The story raises issues of guilt, responsibility, government, etc.

    Gabriel Moyal in his article “Making the Revolution Private: Balzac’s Les Chousans and Un Episode sous la Terreur” notes that there would have been no suspense to the story in Balzac’s day as everyone knew the date of the King’s execution and the name of the executioner. He feels the present-day mysterious element degrades the story because we don’t understand the symbolism of every object and character. “The enigma of the stranger’s identity contaminates the entire text and defers our appreciation as well as our comprehension.” I don’t agree – I was riveted to the story and went back and read it a second time after learning the mystery of the stranger.

    Saintsbuy calls this piece “one of the brilliant things in a small way”. I quite agree. Balzac told his story without digression, raised important social issues, and kept us on the edge of our seats.



  2. I agree with you, Pamela. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the story nearly as much if I’d known what was happening and the identity of the various people.


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