Part 1: The Accident
I was enchanted at once by this story that is so shrouded by shyness and moral ambiguity that Kafka might have been proud of writing it. Also it is the second of the stories about artists we have read (the other was The Hidden Masterpiece ) which showed Balzac to be particularly adept in writing about the whole artists’ milieu.
The story begins with a rather odd description of the light at twilight:
Illusion then spreads its wings, carries the soul away to the world of fantasies, a world rich in capricious desires, in which the artist forgets the real world, yesterday, tomorrow, and the future, even his troubles both good and bad.
I take it from this that we have been warned.
Like many of Balzac’s shorter works, this begins with a dramatic incident: The up and coming young painter Hippolyte Schinner takes a fall from a ladder in his studio loft and bumps his head, knocking himself out. When he comes to, he is being assisted by two (it appears to him) angels who claim to have heard his fall from their apartment downstairs and coming up to find the key still in his door, let themselves in.
Hippolyte is immediately taken with the younger of the two women. He comes out of his accident quickly and heads to his nearby flat, where he lives with this unmarried mother. He makes inquiries and learns a few strange facts about the two. First, they do not appear to have the same last name. The young woman is Adelaide Leseigneur, and the other woman is her mother. Before he can find out more, his carriage comes for him and he returns home.
The Purse, Part 2: The Card Players
Having recovered from his fall, Hippolyte Schinner paid a visit to the ministering angels whom he met the previous night. He notices that their apartment shows signs of gentility and poverty at the same time. As she admits the young painter, Adelaide shuts the glazed glass partition to the shabby-looking kitchen, which Balzac calls a capharnaum, after the town on the shores of Lake Galilee where Christ lived for a while.
The parlor to which he is admitted has signs of having belonged to a naval officer, who is pictured in a slapdash painting obviously done in the Orient. Adelaide’s mother joins them. Hippolyte offers in exchange for their kindness to make a better copy of the portrait that will last longer than the original, which is starting to fade. In the ensuing discussion, Hippolyte learns that the old woman is the Baroness Leseigneur de Rouville, widow of Captain Rouville of the portrait.
The bell rings, and two individuals are admitted, one about sixty and wearing an old naval uniform and his companion Du Halga, a “thin, dried-up” person who acts as the other’s shadow. Where the first man is evidently wealthy, his shadow merely tries to keep up appearances. The two women then sat down and began playing cards with the new visitors. Hippolyte notices that the older man loses steadily.
Next day, Hippolyte pays another visit to the Leseigneurs, ostensibly to pick up the painting he is to copy. The two old men came again, played cards, and lost, leaving several gold louis for the Baroness.
A week goes by. Hippolyte makes a copy of the captain’s portrait and brings it down to the apartment below when he knows that Madame de Rouville is out. Adelaide answers the door and presents the painting. He also takes the opportunity to shower the young woman’s hand with kisses. It appears that Adelaide is as much in love with the painter as he is with her.
The baroness is delighted with the painting, as are the two naval visitors. The wealthy one (still unnamed at this point) exclaims, “Faith! Although my old carcass isn’t worth the trouble of preserving, I would gladly give five hundred pistoles to see as good a likeness of myself as my old friend Rouville’s.” Hippolyte turns down the commission because he is not a portrait painter, and did the Rouville portrait only as a favor to the two women.
Then the card game begins …
Part 3: Did She Or Didn’t She?
This time Hippolyte joins in the game of picquet. This time it is the painter who loses, not the old man. Hippolyte begins to get suspicious at the looks of mutual understanding between the Baroness and the old man. He takes out his purse to pay Adelaide, turns briefly to talk to the Baroness, and suddenly returns to find his purse missing.
“I left my purse with you,” he tells Adelaide, but she blushingly denies it. Hippolyte leaves the Leseigneurs sure that his purse was purloined, along with the fifteen louis that it contained. The young man’s mind begins to race in a hundred different directions, each one leading to the unsatisfactory conclusion that he has been taken. He feels that he has lost Adelaide, and that perhaps, as heartbreaking as it may be, she really didn’t care for him.
Running into his friend Suchet the next day, Hippolyte tells the young sculptor about what happened. He happens to know of her:
“But, my dear fellow, we all know her. Her mother is a baroness. Do you believe in baronesses who live on the fourth floor? Brrr. Ah, well, you are a man of the Golden Age. We see the old mother here, on this path, every day. But she’s got a face, an appearance which tells the whole story. What, you haven’t guessed what she is from the way she holds her bag?”
Oh no! The baroness is a … procuress?
Hippolyte’s thoughts are tending in a dark vein. One evening, leaving his studio, Hippolyte found the Leseigneurs’ door ajar. He greets her and bows coldly to her. He returned later that evening and finds Adelaide there with her mother, who wonders why they have not seen him lately. He must have been busy. She says that Adelaide herself has been busy nights doing some needlework. They invite him to join them in a game of cards, and by now old Kergarouet is now there (for this is the old man’s name). Everything seems so innocent that Hippolyte blushes for having blamed them.
During the game, the baroness and her daughter exchange significant looks–which puts the painter on his guard. As he reached for some coins in his pocket, he saw in front of him … the purse, still containing fifteen louis, but now richly embroidered with gold beads. Tears came to his eyes.
At this point, who should enter but the painter’s mother, Madame Schinner. Apparently Hippolyte had also told her about the missing purse, and on her own she contacted the Comte de Kergarouet (our old man) and told him. The Count took the occasion to tell Mme Schinner about his losses at cards, which were his way of helping the baroness without her losing face.
Naturally, everyone lived happily ever after … for now.
Summary by Jim, June 2009