Written in 1836, this is another of Balzac’s very short stories, but it’s one that reveals Balzac’s life as a writer. By day the narrator studied at the Biblioteque d’Oreans, but by night he watched the manners and customs of the people around him, gathering the stories that he would one day use to create his masterwork, La Comedie Humaine.
He was poor, but not quite as poor as his charwoman, who supplemented the family income by tending to his basic needs. Despite her poverty she and her husband were honest and hardworking, and he valued the relationship. When one day they invited him to her sister’s wedding, he decided to honour their friendship by attending, and while he was there, he met a most interesting man…
There was a three-piece band, not very good, but the musicians were all blind so the audience was tolerant. One of them, the clarinettist, interested him because his face bore the traces of a life of bitterness and regret.
It turns out that he was from Venice, and was once a Senator. His name was Marco Facino Cane, and he begged the narrator to take him back to Venice, promising him great wealth if he did so. He had had the misfortune to fall in love with a woman called Bianca, the wife of a powerful man and when their love was discovered he had killed his rival. He expected the woman to flee with him, but she did not, and he was condemned to death and his property confiscated.
In Milan, he gambled, and lost it all. He felt an overwhelming urge to see his Bianca again, and returned to Venice. For six months he enjoyed her love until discovered by the Provveditore. She was wounded in the ensuing fight, and he was thrown into the dungeon.
However, he discovered some directions carved into the stone walls by a previous prisoner, which explained that part of the stone wall had been excavated. The man had died before he could achieve his freedom, but Facino broke through and discovered he was in a great vault full of gold and precious gems, the Secret Treasury of the Republic. Together with the gaoler, he escaped with Bianca to France (where they ditched the gaoler) and then to Spain, where they lived the high life together . In 1770 he came back to Paris undetected, but his sight failed, which he attributed to his time in the dungeon.
After Bianca’s death he took up with a woman who was a friend of Mme du Barry, until she deserted him in London after they had gone to Hyde Park to see an oculist. She took all his money and he could not complain without revealing who he was. When the Revolution came, she had him committed to the lunatic asylum, and then to the Blind Asylum.
Still besotted by gold (which he attributed to his mother’s fondness for it when he was in the womb) he begged to be taken back to Venice so that he could raid the Treasury again. The narrator out of pity agreed, but the old man died of a chill before he had to make good his promise.
Read it here.
Lisa Hill, November 12th 2011. Cross-posted at GoodReads.