The Thirteen: Ferragus by Honoré de Balzac

Historie des Treize: Ferragus
The Thirteen: Ferragus

Ferragus is dedicated to the composer Hector Berlioz. According to a Berlioz website, “Balzac was a friend of Berlioz and admired his music. One of his stories, Ferragus, is dedicated to Berlioz. Before going to Saint-Petersburg in 1847 Berlioz wrote to Balzac accepting his offer of lending him his coat. Berlioz wrote his second symphony, Harold en Italie, at his request.”

Ferragus begins with a vivid depiction of the liveliness of Paris streets. “…Paris is the most fascinating of monsters; here she is a pretty woman, there a decrepit pauper; some quarters are spic and span as the coins of a new reign, and a nook here and there is elegant as a woman of fashion. A monster, indeed, is the great city, in every sense of the word. In the garrets you find, as it were, its brain full of knowledge and genius; the first floor is a digestive apparatus, and the shops below are unmistakable feet, when all the busy foot-traffic issues.” Lovely prose. Balzac personifies the city, which “gives itself a gradual shake,” “The gates begin to yawn,” it is a living, breathing organism.

Thirteen years ago – are we to presume this would be in the late 1840s? – a young cavalry officer in the Guards spots a beautiful and wealthy woman stealing along a street of ill repute at 8:30 pm. (Later in the story I’m thinking this is earlier as the story line refers to the restoration, which started in 1814, and implies we are talking about a few years later.) She happens to be married, and he happens to be what he thought was hopelessly in love with her. What is this woman who he thought so virtuous doing here? He follows her to a narrow, dingy house and watches her impatiently climb the staircase to the second floor. He watches her enter the house and alight again 20 minutes later. Two tears roll down his cheeks, and he is so unaware he’s brushed against by a workman carrying a plank. He watches his lady love take her carriage to a flower shop. She has some feathers sent to her house and then walks just around the corner to the Rue de Menars and her own house.

The young cavalry man is stunned, for he has drawn the obvious conclusion that his platonic love is not worthy. “..the young lover, his hopes lost, and double misfortune, his cherished beliefs lost too, went through Paris like a drunken man,…” We learn the man is Auguste de Maulincourt, age 23, of a noble family. His grandmother, Mme. la Baronne de Maulincourt, stuck it out through the Republic, recovered her property, and brought up Auguste, the sole surviving member of the family. It was owing to his grandmother who was well-connected at Court that he received his commission in the Guards. Mme Maulincourt also has a friend, the elderly Vidame de Pamiers, a sometimes Commander of the Order of Malta. Auguste therefore is connected with the elite Faubourg Saint-Germain society through his grandmother and Vidame. Auguste is fair, young, handsome, brave, and idealistic – much the contrast to Vidame, who is worldly and cynical about love.

And yet he has just seen his love at a house of ill repute! He thinks “if” she is false to her husband, he and the husband will both avenge themselves. Auguste remembers just then that there is a dance that surely his love, whose name we finally learn is Mme. Jules Desmarets, will attend. (We meet our old friends the de Nucingens as we learn that M. Jules is the Baron de Nucingen’s stockbroker.) Her name is Clemence, and she has no recognized status before her marriage to Jules, who worked his way up to success and wealth in just four years by hard work as a stockbroker, a career suggestion by Clemence’s mother. Jules and Clemence have a loving marriage. Three years later Clemence’s mother died. Once there was a duel won by Jules over a slander claiming that Jules owed his success to his wife and that influence in high places had been bought. Jules kept the slander and the duel secret from his beloved wife.

Auguste goes to the dance and sees Clemence, but he actually doesn’t know her well enough to confront her. And his is such a hopeless love anyway! “To take a queen’s heart by storm were perhaps a more hopeful enterprise than a madly-conceived passion for a woman happily married.” Auguste chats with Clemence, who tells him she doesn’t dance because she does not want to be close to anyone but her husband. And Jules somehow blurts out his accusation about seeing her in the Rue Soly. Clemence seems unperturbed and says she has not left her house all evening. But she has a dread in her eyes, and as she passes out of the room Jules says loudly something about a woman who will not sleep quietly tonight. Auguste is now intrigued by the idea that if she is false to her husband she might be capable of being possessed. “In short, if he had lost an angel, he had found the most tantalizing of devils.” He decided to get to the bottom of the intrigue and even holds out the idea that some act of charity could have sent her to the Rue Soly.

Auguste decides to play detective. He walks about Paris in disguise, watches the corners, surveys the area. Then he’s distracted by his soldierly duties for a while. Sometime later waiting for a rainstorm to pass, Auguste notices a stoic beggar, a man of mean but somehow great presence, waiting on the rain. As the beggar leaves, he drops a letter, and Auguste picks it up – noticing it is addressed to Monsieur Ferragusse in the Rue Soly. It is the address of the very house Clemence entered. It is from a woman named Ida, pouring out her heart to “Henry”, who has apparently ruined her and does not want her. Possibly Ida is about to enter into prostitution or some other lowly endeavor because she is at her wit’s end. Auguste goes to the house to deliver the letter and snoop around. The portress denies M. Ferragusse lives there until Auguste shows her the letter – then she tells him to go on up. Auguste knocks on the door – and finds the beggar now dressed very nicely with Clemence!! Clemence drops into a chair, Auguste moves towards her, and the beggar Ferragus (who still denies he is Ferragus) stops the approach of Auguste with a short blow. Ferragus demands to know what Auguste has been doing prowling around lately. The room seems to be well furnished, there is a sumptuous table set, and a heap of gold coins can be seen. He hears a woman crying in the next room. He doesn’t notice that Ferragus is scrutinizing him too. Ferragus takes the letter and escorts Auguste out the door.

Auguste as he leaves plans an immediate visit to Clemence’s home to confront her, but due to a freak accident in which he is almost killed he is out of commission for 10 days and doesn’t make the visit. His first day out on the streets, the axle snaps in his auto, and he is injured again. Now he is suspicious and looks at the axle. The axle was exchanged for the axle that was in his car – it is sabotage. He feels it is war, and he wonders whose hand Clemence has fallen in and what power Ferragus wields. He worries he might be poisoned and arranges for a trusted woman to prepare all his food. He broods while he recovers, and Clemence and the intrigue become his whole life.

Auguste decides to confide in Vidame, who discourages him from going to the police because he thinks they will bungle the case. Vidame advises Auguste to go on an extended trip so that his enemies will see he no longer has an interest in the situation. While Auguste is mulling this over, Vidame says he will investigate further. He sends his trusted and wily servant Justin Figaro to reconnoiter. He reports: Ferragus is really a man called Gratien Henri Victor Jean Joseph Bourignard, a former builder and contractor. He is now the head of the order of Devorants (the Thirteen). He has moved and indeed moves often and has several residences. Clemence visits him often, often leaving her husband in a (nearby?) street. Ferragus is a gambler and a lover of women, can disguise himself in any manner. Justin says he could be killed easily because he has the weakness for women. Vidame advises Auguste to abandon the pursuit of Ferragus, but he refuses: “I will not give her up to Gratien Bourignard; I mean to have him bound hand and foot and Mme. Jules as well.” Soon after somehow Auguste is in another duel, ostensibly over an insult to a woman, but the duel was orchestrated by Ferragus. He is shot but not killed. A letter arrives to his grandmother accusing Auguste of persecuting Ferragus, a “harmless man”, and the implication is that Auguste will pay with his life. Vidame and Auguste decide to go to the police.

Soon afterwards, the police superintendent comes to inform Vidame that Ferragus is an escaped convict, and that the police have been trying to catch him for the last 15 years. The superintendent seems confident they will be able to capture him the next morning in the Rue Sainte-Foi and even invites Vidame to come along. Vidame declines the invitation but is awed at the efficiency of the police. Hmm, they’ve been trying to get him for 15 years, and they are confident they will get him in the next 24 hours? I doubt it.

Three days later Vidame gets a note from the superintendent saying that Ferragus (alias Gratien Bourignard) has died and that his identify was confirmed by many reliable sources including the cure of the Bonne-Nouvelle, to whom Ferragus made a last confession. Auguste and family breathe a sigh of relief. Auguste is now eager to go to the ball that he knows Clemence is going to attend. He walks in, doesn’t see Clemence, flops down on a sofa – and suddenly is jerked up by none other than Ferragus, the very man who died the day before! Ferragus is very well- dressed and wears the Legion of Honor. He tells Auguste he shall die and demands to know why Auguste is interested in Clemence. He asks him what “right have you to trouble her peace and smirch her reputation?” Ferragus is interrupted by someone approaching and slips away after threatening Auguste with a dose of lead. Another ball visitor identifies Ferragus as M. de Funcal, a very rich Portuguese who lives at the Portuguese embassy.

Auguste sees Clemence just then, and with murderous hate goes to her and tells her she is responsible through Ferragus for three attempts on his life. Clemence denies all, and her husband suddenly appears and wants to know what Auguste and Clemence were discussing. Auguste says if M. Jules wants to know, call on him at his house. Balzac then gets positively lyrical on the deceit and cleverness of women. M. Jules and Clemence ride home in their carriage in silence, Clemence merely saying there is nothing Auguste might have to say to Jules that she couldn’t tell him now. Jules and Clemence do love each other, and each thinks how things might change if they have the discussion about Auguste they need to have. Finally Clemence tells him what Auguste said, how it frightened her, how Auguste has been a platonic admirer over a year, and that she thinks Auguste quite mad. She begs Jules to take no action (realizing he’d already killed one man in a duel and thus capable of great violence).

Balzac then devotes considerable words to the description of Clemence’s bedroom, designed with exquisite taste for love complete with soft furs spread for bare feet, wax tapers under glass shades, white gauze draperies, (so you can see to read at any hour), etc. “Love holds toil and want in abhorrence, and would rather die at once than live a miserable life of hand to mouth.” This makes me chuckle because this is how Balzac lived his life, the best of everything (including furs on the floor), and most of the time having to run from his creditors. Clemence, unlike most women (according to Balzac), does not disassemble her toilet and become disheveled after a night out. Rather, she disappears into her dressing room and changes into something more comfortable but looks even more ravishing, which is the idea. She takes special care tonight and succeeds in distracting Jules with love-making. But she reflects after Jules is asleep that Jules has not forgotten the incident and that Auguste will make further trouble. Indeed, at 3 AM Clemence finds Jules up with tears running down his cheeks. He doubts what Clemence has told him but loves her so much he cannot bear the doubt. Clemence swears eternal love and fidelity to her husband and begs him to forget Auguste. They reconcile.

But the next workday Auguste meets Jules and tells all he knows including a suspicion that Clemence is trying to kill him. He’s been sick since the ball and thinks a touch on the head by Ferragus/Funcal at the ball has poisoned him. Jules listens and says he must have more proof. He returns home to discover that Clemence has been out during the day even though she said she had not. He confronts her, and she says his happiness depends on not pressing her on where she went. A letter arrives supposedly from Auguste’s mother stating that Auguste is mentally ill and to please ignore anything he says. Jules suspects Clemence might have had the letter sent. All is not well!!

Suddenly bursts in a grisette, which a consultation on the internet tells me is a French shop girl. She’s pretty and nicely dressed, but a shop girl nevertheless. She’s full of anger, reveals that she is Ida Gruget, corset-maker, the very Ida no doubt in Ferragus’ letter. Clemence pales and leaves the room, and Ida tells her story to Jules. Her story confirms that every day at 3pm Clemence goes to see Ferragus. Jules asks her for Ferragus’ address and even offers her money, but Ida will not provide it because Ferragus has told her to never reveal his address. (Ferragus no longer lives at the address Auguste followed Clemence to earlier.) She leaves, still convinced that Clemence is trying to take Ferragus away from her. Jules and Clemence talk and cry. She almost reveals her secret but then says she cannot, it is a matter of life and death. Jules wonders if Ferragus is her lover, then thinks maybe he is her brother, figures she’s taking money to him regularly. Clemence becomes ill, the doctor comes, and in the middle of the night she gets up and finds Jules asleep over his will. She asks him to trust her for two more days, and he says he will.

The next morning Clemence promises not to go out, and Jules goes to the home of Auguste. He finds that his mother did not write the letter he received even though the handwriting looked exactly like her writing. Jules meets with Auguste, who is still very ill, and Vidame. We find that Auguste’s servant Justin has been murdered, but Auguste tells Jules that Ferragus might possibly be found at either the Portuguese or Brazilian embassy. Jules returns home and finds from his servant Fouquereau that Clemence went out and mailed a letter. Jules decides to stay home from work and intercept the expected reply. Sure enough, an old woman delivers a letter, but when Jules opens it he finds it is in code. Jules takes the letter to his friend Jacquet to decipher. It appears to be a love letter from Ferragus, though we of course as readers have doubts. Ferragus gives his address, says he has had to have an operation and that Clemence must come to him at 9PM the next evening. He closes the letter with “A kiss on thy forehead, my darling.” Jules and Jacquet make plans to be there, but then Jules tells Jacquet it is too risky since he may kill a man. Jacquet agrees to seal the letter back professionally and have it sent to Clemence.

And so we wait to find out the mystery! I can’t imagine a single reader who thinks there is a love affair going on between Clemence and Ferragus. But will the story end in tragedy?

Jules makes his way to Mme. Etienne Gruget’s house, where Ferragus is supposed to be. Mme Gruget is the mother of Ida. She lives in an impoverished neighborhood. He proposes to her that when Clemence comes to visit Ferragus the following day that Mme. Gruget allow him to hide and hear all – and for this he will give her a small fortune, 2000 francs and a 600 a year annuity. Mme. Gruget tells Jules that Ida doesn’t give her much – she pays the rent on the miserable hovel and gives her firewood and 36 francs a month while Ida is living in luxury, at least comparatively speaking. While talking a lottery ticket fell out of Etienne’s sleeve – perhaps she has a bit of a gambling problem? He changes the terms, offers her 5000 francs and a 300 a year annuity.

Etienne and Jules discuss strategy. It seems Etienne has the key to the room next door to Ferragus’ bedroom; the owner of the room has gone on holiday. She suggests Jules have a hole made in the wall so he can hear at ease. Jules gives her money for her locksmith friend to come and make the hole. They agree to meet at his notary’s office at 9PM to sign the agreement for the money he plans to pay her. This whole scene seems strange – Etienne was in poverty and would undoubtedly hae cooperated with Jules for a few 100 francs – is there some reason he is endowing her?

Jules returns home and observes Clemence’s deep flush when he hands her the letter that was earlier delivered to Fouquereau, the letter from Ferragus. He leaves her to read it, and later she affectionately thanks him for his trust. Clemence tells Jules that by noon tomorrow she will tell him everything and he will be grateful. She also tells him she will be going out at 9:30 in the morning. Jules promises her he will leave her free to go.

The next morning Jules rushes to Mme Gruget’s door to get in place for the observation of Clemence and Ferragus. He observes Ferragus having some blisters on his shoulders dressed, apparently fairly serious wounds or surgery which will require 7 or 8 more dressings. Then Ferragus says to his companion, “At last M. de Funcal’s papers are to be handed over tomorrow, and Henri Bourignard is really dead.” Is he taking over Funcal’s identity? Ferragus asks his companion to look after Ida after he leaves – apparently he is planning to leave Paris. The companion leaves, and in walks Clemence, who greets her FATHER. Mystery solved. Clemence begs her father to talk to Jules and set his mind at ease. Ferragus resists. We find out Clemence only learned her father was alive after she had married. And we learn that Ferragus is about to shed his “Thirteen” identity and become de Funcal in order to openly acknowledge Clemence (whose mother is dead). He’s had to learn Portuguese and English to do it, and I’m presuming have some surgery too. Clemence asks what she is to tell Jules this day, and he tells her to tell Jules to go to the Portuguese Embassy to see Comte de Funcal (him). Clemence asks about the complication of Auguste Maulincour, and Ferragus says not to worry about him – he’s in no condition to remember anything.

But about this time Jules can no longer contain himself. He cries out and is discovered by Clemence, who immediately flees. Mme Gruget then cries out, “Who will save my daughter?…You have murdered her.” I’m not sure if she means Jules or Ferragus, it would seem Jules has nothing to do with the situation. Mme Gruget shows Jules a suicide note from her daughter, who despairs because Henri (Ferragus) does not want her. She is going to throw herself in the river. She asks Jules to show the letter to Ferragus. He does. Jules spends the rest of the day in turmoil – he knows he’s in trouble with Clemence for spying on her. “He had been disloyal to the one whom he loved best in the world; he could not compound with his conscience, its voice grew in proportion to the extent of the wrong that he had done, till the clamor filled him, as passion had filled his inmost being during the bitterest hours of the suspense which had shaken him but a short while ago.”

Jules returns home after walking the streets for hours and asks his wife’s forgiveness. She asks him what there is to repent of. But she’s obviously ill, mortally so says the doctor, who says her illness is made worse by something on her mind. Jules stays up nursing his wife night and day for 11 days. She revives a little, that revival so often before death, and Jules goes to see Auguste to demand a duel. But he finds Auguste dying also, an Auguste without memory, a shrunken man. There will be no duel. Jules returns home, Clemence gives him a letter from under her pillow. She kisses Jules and dies. Jules collapses and learns later that she received the last rites and explicitly requested Jules not be there because she didn’t think he could bear it. Jules reads her letter, which is her will. She tells Jules she was dying because she had a secret that could not be told. Then she proceeds to discuss the secret – so the whole thing doesn’t quite make sense to me. She was raised by her beloved mother, who told her on her death bed that her father was alive. We presume they had an illicit love, and there are implications of shady behavior by the father. But behind the scenes the father is working to help make Jules successful and transform his identify so he can openly associate with Clemence. Apparently Clemence promised her on her mother’s deathbed that she would keep the secret of her father. And now Clemence is dying because she fears that knowing what he knows about Clemence’s family Jules will begin to doubt her. Her last wish is that Jules destroy all that belonged to the two of them – their room, and everything that would recall their love.

In anguish Jules returns home to sit up with Clemence’s body. His friend Jacquet and Ferragus are there. Ferragus and Jules glare at each other but somehow tolerate the situation. Ferragus has apparently arranged and paid for a very elaborate funeral, and Jules feels he is taking Clemence away from him. The funeral is mysteriously attended by 12 strange men – may be presume it is the 12 other men of “The Thirteen”? Jules has requested Jacquet to arrange a cremation of Clemence, for he wants to keep her ashes by him. Jacquet applies to the government for permission, but he is thrown into red tape and can’t seem to get permission. Jules declared he wanted to die holding Clemence’s ashes in his arms, but now he will die and lie next to her in the cemetery. They go to find her and after a lot of spectacle and confusion at the cemetery are taken to her grave. While at the cemetery the bodies of Auguste and his grandmother are brought for burial.

Eight or nine miles outside of Paris a girl’s body is found on the bank of the Seine. It is of course Ida. She is buried without a service – since she committed suicide – in a simple grave. After the burial a man appears and asks if there was any service for Ida and then disappears.

A few days later a man in black delivers Clemence’s ashes to Jules. We presume Jacquet has found a way, but I’m thinking it could have been her father that achieved the cremation. Jules carried out his wife’s wishes, sold his business and left Paris. Ferragus turns into an old man aimlessly wandering the streets, apparently too grieved to function in any other way. One day Jules is riding in his traveling carriage and spots Ferragus, now called Ferragus XXIII, Chef des Devorants by Balzac, and exclaims, “How he loved her!”

Read it here

Summary by Pamela, April 2008

7 comments on “The Thirteen: Ferragus by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Terrific summaries, Pamela, thanks:)
    Lisa

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  2. scamperpb says:

    What a melodrama! A story of improbable occurrences, unnecessarily complicated, and just about everyone dies because it’s the only way Balzac can get out of the convoluted plot he has developed. The part Auguste plays could have easily been written out, and Ida too. And there just seems absolutely no reason why Clemence needed to die. I wrote the summary for the story (I think Lisa’s is better) but barely recognized it 3 years later because it was too unrealistic and intricate to be remembered. Saintsbury says, “To tell the truth, there is more power than taste throughout the ‘Histoire des Treize’, and perhaps not very much less unreality than power.” Yep, I’d say so.

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  3. Giulia says:

    Thank you for this summary! I just read it, in French as it’s my native language, but it was all Greek to me! Although I love Balzac’s writing, things really got mixed up in my head. It’s hard to enjoy a good read when you don’t understand, now I’ll have the opportunity to read it again and enjoy.
    Giulia x

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    • I am so happy you found this helpful. Some of Balzac’s stories are a total mystery to me, so I know just what you mean. Thank you very much for taking the time to mention it. We appreciate it.

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  4. Gill Price says:

    Agreed, Balzac is sometimes a bit of a mystery. Of the three stories in the Thirteen, La Duchesse de Langeais is easily the best, then Ferragus, and then the Girl With The Golden Eyes. I enjoyed Ferragus more on the re-read because Balzac really brings Paris to life, though it is rather melodramatic. The Girl With The Golden Eyes is a strange story and I never really understood it. It is interesting that we only learn of three members of the Thirteen – what happened to the other ten? Does anyone know?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dagny says:

      I don’t recall ever reading anything about the others. In at least one other book it is mentioned in passing that Marsay was a member, but we already knew that. At his death, Balzac had other stories planned. I think I once read that he had only completed 2/3 of the planned tales.

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      • Gill Price says:

        Thanks Dagny, that makes sense. Balzac had a great many stories planned but which remained unwritten at his death. It would have been interesting to have learned more of them, especially Ferragus’ earlier life.

        Liked by 1 person

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