Maître Cornélius by Honoré de Balzac

Maître Cornélius

Chapter 1: A Church Scene of the Fifteenth Century

Our story starts at the end of vespers on All Saints’ Day in 1479. We find ourselves at the cathedral of Tours. After a wonderful description of the setting of our story and the mood being experienced at that location, touching on the ‘alliance between religion and love’, we immediately meet the opening characters. When a burgher quickly leaves his seat, a young lover takes his place so that in whispers, the lover is able to exchange a few words with Comtesse de Saint-Vallier (Marie), wife of Comte Aymar de Poitiers, sire de Saint-Vallier who is later described as a tyrant, but seems now to be lightly sleeping. Much to the fear of the countess who knows her jealous husband is ‘a malignant spirit’ and ‘sagacity coldly cruel’, her lover tells her, “Do not be frightened as you leave the church; let yourself be managed.”

As the count awakes, the lover quickly slips away. A clearly flushed countess tries to explain her condition as being the result of an incense smell turning her sick. The count does not seem easily fooled, but though he resolves to watch her much more carefully, as they leave, the pushing crowd allows for the lover to tear the countess from her husband who is left holding only a torn sleeve.

Once the lover is alone with the very frightened countess, he tries to get her to agree to flee with him on the two waiting English horses. Convinced that she will lose her life because of this, she tells her lover to go to Plessis to see the king, her father, and tell him how her husband bleeds her to exhaust her and pulls her around by her hair. Marie, the countess, sees the page coming, however, her lover explains that the page is on their side and will only warn them of the count’s coming. He also tells her that a friend of his, a priest, is waiting nearby so as to deceive her husband by saying that he, the priest, pulled Marie aside to protect her from the crowd.

The lover then quickly tells Marie that he will see her tonight because he is going to be an apprentice to Maitre Cornelius, who lives next door to her. The terror increases for Marie when she hears this because she knows Maitre Cornelius to be a sorcerer though he is the king’s silversmith. Marie hurls down a drug that her lover gives her to administer to the count that evening so that he will sleep deeper. She tries instead to get her lover to reason with the king, her father, so that her marriage can be annuled. At that moment her husband’s page cries that the count is now coming and there is only time for a quick kiss and the word “To-night!” from the young lover to Marie.

The page quietly points the count towards his wife who he finds with the priest. Marie tells her husband that he should be grateful to the priest. We are told that the count is impatient to get home and “preoccupied in searching for means to discover the truth”, so it does not appear that he has accepted the story of the priest.

A quick description now tells us that both the house of the count and Maitre Corneluis are sinister in appearance and reflect their owners as tyrants. The young lover notices this as he approaches these houses. Balzac ends this chapter by telling us that we will now get the history of Maitre Cornelius Hoogworst so that we can understand “how such commonplace events could be turned into anything supernatural, and to make them share the alarms of that olden time.”

Chapter 2: The Torconnier

Maitre Cornelius Hoogworst has had a relationship with the king, Louis XI. Both have been benefited. Cornelius, having come from Ghent and being considered Flemish, has lived in Tours now for nine years, creating a mystery around himself that has lead people to believe he is extremely wealthy and involved with Magic. Originally he brought with him two Flemish valets. In his first year in Tours, a robbery took place in his house. Cornelius had his two valets and his secretary put in prison despite their protests that they were innocent. One died and the other two were killed. Maitre Cornelius continued to live on in his house with his sister, also Flemish. The king then recommended to him a young orphan to help with his affairs. Another robbery occurs and the orphan is accused and killed.

In the course of telling this, Balzac lets us know the meaning of “torconnier” and “tortionnaire”. Balzac writes, Louis XI. called Maitre Cornelius familiarly by that obsolete term [torconnier], which, under the reign of Saint-Louis, meant a usurer, a collector of imposts, a man who pressed others by violent means. We are further told, the epithet, ‘tortionnaire,’ … explains the old word torconnier, which we often find spelt ‘tortionneur’.

Next, two men of honor choose to take service under Maitre Cornelius. Another robbery occurs and they, too, are killed, leaving the townspeople to believe that all those killed for robberies commited against Maitre Cornelius have been innocent. They isolate Maitre Cornelius and call him the “tortionnaire”, avoiding him and his house which they call La Malemaison, “that ‘evil house’ in the rue du Murier”. The Duke of Burgundy dies, Cornelius travels and while gone, the king has Cornelius’ house guarded by the Scottish guard.

On the side, we are told that those that meet Maitre Cornelius in his travels find him to be friendly. We’re let in on a private conversation the king has with his barber where the king, Louis XI, says, “The devil is amusing himself at the expense of our crony, the torconnier.” The king also says that misers are only afraid of one thing and that is being plundered which the king says he will not do without good reason.

As the lover now approaches the house of Maitre Cornelius, we are told that Maitre Cornelius, seen as a chimerical being, has lived there alone now for two years with his sister who is seen as a witch and even more miserly. The young lover notices this house of Cornelius and the neighboring house of his mistress, the hotel de Poitiers. The two houses seem sinister. The lover has changed his dress so that he does not appear as a nobleman.

When the bells announce curfew, the lover resolves to knock at the door of Cornelius. The door seems to be framed by the faces of Cornelius and his sister, both of which further alarm the lover. A voice calls out and the lover announces himself as Philippe Goulenoire [so called], sent by Oosterlinck, of Brussels. Philippe is invited in and locked in. Cornelius examines Philippe with a crafty eye and then tells him to come back tomorrow after he, Cornelius, has had time to consider Philippe. Philippe urges Cornelius to let him stay for the night as he is a stranger in this town and, left out, would be put in prison. Despite the protests of Cornelius’ sister who is alarmed that Philippe could steal the Bavarian jewels, Cornelius allows Philippe to stay, putting him in the apprentice’s room where he locks him in. Cornelius leaves Philippe with these words, “Good night! Do not leave this room as ‘the others’ did.”

Philippe listens to Cornelius and his sister talk outside his room until he is sure that they have gone. Using a special blade he has brought with him, Philippe frees himself from his room and begins his way down the corridor. Much to his horror, Cornelius comes down the hallway. As Cornelius reaches Philippe, Cornelius loses his light due to an exhale of Philippe and giving a curse, Cornelius turns and leaves. Philippe takes this opportunity to complete his mission and quickly makes his jump through the nearby window, landing on the roof of Madame de Vallier, his mistress. Checking the chimneys, he picks the one he believes to be hers, lowers a ladder down it, and in no time at all he is in the presence of Madame de Vallier who shows him her sleeping husband, Saint-Vallier.

Chapter 3: The Robbery of the Jewels of the Duke of Bavaria

It looks as if our young hero is headed down the same road (i.e., a speedy execution) as the others accused of robbing the treasures of Maitre Cornelius. The miser hurries the next morning to his friend Louis XI. Here we find ourselves in the world of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris with its engagingly cranky monarch and his two deadly cronies, Provost Tristan l’Hermite and the demon barber Olivier de Daim–except here we are in Tours rather than Paris.

Maitre Cornelius discounts “Philippe’s” cover story and immediately accuses him of stealing the jewels of the Duke of Bavaria.

Returning from his tryst with the Comtesse de Saint-Vallier, Georges had become a little careless about covering his tracks. As Maitre C and the King rush back to the Malemaison to put him to the question, Georges lies fast asleep while being watched by the Fleming’s sister. Tristan makes the arrest and immediately recognizes “Philippe” as the young nobleman Georges d’Estouteville. As Georges is dragged away by Tristan and his men to be “put to the question,” an angry crowd, who fear and hate the notorious miser, gathers and murmurs outside.

As he is led away, Georges sees his beloved Comtesse at the window, laughing with the count. When the old count isn’t looking, however, she gives him a laserlike look of passion not easy to miss at a hundred yards.

Balzac now intervenes with a picturesque description of the castle at Plessis-lez-Tours, followed by some of the accomplishments of its monarch.

That night, the Saint-Valliers are invited to dine with the King. Marie asks to speak to the King, her father, alone. She pleads for Georges’ life and tells him of the previous night’s tryst. Suddenly, Louis XI jumped up and, walking over to the door suddenly, yanks it open. The Comte de Saint-Vallier was caught in an embarrassing position, obviously eavesdropping at the door.

“‘Pasques-Dieu!’ he [the King] cried; ‘here’s an audacity that deserves the axe.'”

Later, at dinner, Tristan walks in and states that Georges had confessed to the burglary under torture. Louis XI orders an end to the torture. The Comte de Saint-Vallier is sent on a mission to Venice, with a hint that he will meet foul play there.

Meanwhile, Louis decides he will solve the case of the missing jewels himself.

Chapter 4: The Hidden Treasure

You can say goodbye to Georges d’Estouteville and his lady love, as well as her insanely jealous husband. All three abruptly disappear from the story at the start of this chapter. What remains is a medieval detective story in which the King of France solves an early locked room mystery.

The King begins by checking out Maitre Cornelius’s theory that Georges came down the chimney to rob his jewels. Not only was there no telltale soot on the hearth, but the chimney was not accessible to the roof. Also, there were no signs of violence to the lock or to the coffers that contained the treaure.

Louis asks his old friend to have his sister bring him a bag of flour. In spite of her protests at the waste of such a valuable commodity, the maitre himself spreads it evenly around the room and backs out of the room with the King. Louis orders guards to be placed around the Malemaison, and then asks Maitre Cornelius to seal all the windows so that no light should leave the house. Then he made a great show of returning with the remainder of his men to the palace, though actually he snuck back into his friend’s house to spend the night there.

No sooner did he wake up than he spotted a trail of floured footprints leading from the treasure room and gradually disappearing as the flour wore off.

As Louis had hoped, Maitre Cornelius was robbed again that night.

* * * * * WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED * * * * *

Louis quizzed the guards he had posted. They stated that it was the silversmith himself who had been sneaking down the side of the wall “like a cat.” Apparently, the miser had been sleepwalking.

It becomes clear that the burglar was none other than … Maitre Cornelius. The “crimes” were all committed while he was sleepwalking. The interesting point is that Maitre Cornelius has no idea where he has secreted the fortune in gold and jewels that he had stolen from himself.

There is also the implication that he must in some way answer for the death of several innocent apprentices whom he had falsely accused of the thefts.


Read it here

Summary by Merrie and Jim, September 2007


One comment on “Maître Cornélius by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This Balzac story is two stories in one: a romance and a mystery. Taking place in the 14th century in the time of Louis XI, we have the dilemma of Marie de Saint Vallier, the king’s daughter married to a brutal and jealous husband. The opening scene where Marie meets her would-be lover George d’Estouteville in the church at Tours is electric – George sits beside her while her husband doses, then manages to get her pulled away in the crowd for a few minutes as she exits the cathedral. Later he gains entry to her room by talking his way into the neighboring house of the usurer Maître Cornélius. But Cornélius is robbed during the night, and George is accused – Cornélius has already killed several servants he accused of former robbiers. Marie confesses all to her father to save George, and George banishes Cornélius to Venice, and then the story of Marie and George abruptly stops while the king figures out by having flour spread on Cornélius’ floors at night that Cornélius is sleepwalking.

    The story has great description and a good plot, but it seems like Balzac got tired of wrapping it up and just tackled on the mystery investigation. Often in reading Balzac I get the sense he has all these story ideas in his head and tries to see how many he can fit – well-fitted or not – into a work. And that once he’s described the scenery and the characters he’s not too concerned about transition.


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