Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: The End of Evil Ways, by Honoré de Balzac

The End of Evil Ways, by Honoré de Balzac

Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes
Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life – Complete
Also translated as Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans and A Harlot High and Low

The End of Evil Ways is third in the series Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life, which Includes four parts:

  • Esther Happy/How Girls Love
  • What Love Costs an Old Man
  • The End of Evil Ways, and
  • Vautrin’s Last Avatar/The Last Incarnation of Vautrin

NOTE: The story of Lucien de Rubempre begins in the Lost Illusions trilogy which consists of

  • Two Poets,
  • A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, and
  • Eve and David.

The action in Scenes From A Courtesan’s Life commences directly after the end of Eve and David, with Esther Happy/How Girls Love.

This translation by James Waring (who is really Ellen Marriage, but she published risqué stories like this one under a male pseudonym).

At the end of What Love Costs an Old Man, Lucien de Rubempre is locked up in solitary confinement on charges of theft and attempted murder.  The End of Evil Ways begins with Lucien de Rubempre and Jacques Collin (a.k.a. Vautrin a.k.a. Abbe Carlos Herrera) being taken to Palais de Justice. in two separate ‘salad-baskets’ (paniers a salade), (so-called because the prisoners were shaken around inside. In English we know this conveyance as a paddy-wagon.)  Paris is agog!

It is worth noting how the justice system works:

Observe the word inculpe, incriminated, or suspected of crime. The French Code has created three essential degrees of criminality— inculpe, first degree of suspicion; prevenu, under examination; accuse, fully committed for trial. So long as the warrant for committal remains unsigned, the supposed criminal is regarded as merely under suspicion, inculpe of the crime or felony; when the warrant has been issued, he becomes “the accused” (prevenu), and is regarded as such so long as the inquiry is proceeding; when the inquiry is closed, and as soon as the Court has decided that the accused is to be committed for trial, he becomes “the prisoner at the bar” (accuse) as soon as the superior court, at the instance of the public prosecutor, has pronounced that the charge is so far proved as to be carried to the Assizes.

Thus, persons suspected of crime go through three different stages, three siftings, before coming up for trial before the judges of the upper Court— the High Justice of the realm.

At the first stage, innocent persons have abundant means of exculpating themselves— the public, the town watch, the police. At the second state they appear before a magistrate face to face with the witnesses, and are judged by a tribunal in Paris, or by the Collective Court of the departments. At the third stage they are brought before a bench of twelve councillors, and in case of any error or informality the prisoner committed for trial at the Assizes may appeal for protection to the Supreme court. The jury do not know what a slap in the face they give to popular authority, to administrative and judicial functionaries, when they acquit a prisoner. And so, in my opinion, it is hardly possible that an innocent man should ever find himself at the bar of an Assize Court in Paris— I say nothing of other seats of justice.

This is worth noting too, since it’s probably just as true today as it was in Balzac’s day:

It is impossible to conceive of the sudden isolation in which a suspected criminal is placed. The gendarmes who apprehend him, the commissioner who questions him, those who take him to prison, the warders who lead him to his cell— which is actually called a cachot, a dungeon or hiding-place, those again who take him by the arms to put him into a prison-van— every being that comes near him from the moment of his arrest is either speechless, or takes note of all he says, to be repeated to the police or to the judge. This total severance, so simply effected between the prisoner and the world, gives rise to a complete overthrow of his faculties and a terrible prostration of mind, especially when the man has not been familiarized by his antecedents with the processes of justice.

But this isolation does not apply to the invincible Jacques Collin – en route the passage of the paddy-wagon is blocked by a cost-monger’s cart: lo! it’s loyal Asie, back from her escape with Paccard and the 750,000 francs and she passes on the crushing news that the gendarmes have got Lucien too.

Balzac allows himself a lament for the vulgar intrusion of the Conciergerie prison building into  the  Palace of Saint-Louis, former realm of kings and now entirely buried under the Palais de Justice, and then goes on to describe in detail the layout of the prison that will impinge on the case of Collins and Lucien.   Once inside, the paddy-wagon conveying prisoners to be ‘examined’ turns to the left; those committed for trial like Collins turn to the right.  Nobody has ever escaped from here except for Lavalette, (a French politician under Napoleon who was arrested under the Bourbons, and whose wife visited him the night before his execution and switched clothes with him).

Collin has to be assisted out of the paddy-wagon because at the moment of his arrest Asia had given him a poison to fake illness.  This not only enabled him to give only a garbled and unintelligible response to the first round of questioning, rendering it useless, it also enables him to fake being at death’s door now.  He begs for his case to heard urgently before he dies, because (of course, like every other criminal says Balzac) he is the victim of a mistake.

There are no such histrionics with Lucien.

Lucien’s expression was that of a dejected criminal. He submitted to everything, and obeyed like a machine. All the way from Fontainebleau the poet had been facing his ruin, and telling himself that the hour of expiation had tolled. Pale and exhausted, knowing nothing of what had happened at Esther’s house during his absence, he only knew that he was the intimate ally of an escaped convict, a situation which enabled him to guess at disaster worse than death. When his mind could command a thought, it was that of suicide. He must, at any cost, escape the ignominy that loomed before him like the phantasm of a dreadful dream.

The similarity between his prison cell and his first cheap abode in Paris reduces him to tears

This resemblance between his starting-point, in the days of his innocence, and his goal, the lowest depths of degradation and sham, was so direct an appeal to his last chord of poetic feeling, that the unhappy fellow melted into tears. For four hours he wept, as rigid in appearance as a figure of stone, but enduring the subversion of all his hopes, the crushing of all his social vanity, and the utter overthrow of his pride, smarting in each separate I that exists in an ambitious man— a lover, a success, a dandy, a Parisian, a poet, a libertine, and a favourite. Everything in him was broken by this fall as of Icarus.

Ah yes, we are meant to feel sorry for Lucien because he is a man of the better classes, and not a common rogue like Collin!

Collins has come prepared and he is confident that Monsieur Camusot, the police commissioner and examining judge to the Inferior Court of the Seine,  is no match for him:

He sat down in a corner where the eye of a prying warder at the grating of the peephole could not see him. Then he took off his wig, and hastily ungummed a piece of paper that did duty as lining. The side of the paper next his head was so greasy that it looked like the very texture of the wig. If it had occurred to Bibi-Lupin* to snatch off the wig to establish the identity of the Spaniard with Jacques Collin, he would never have thought twice about the paper, it looked so exactly like part of the wigmaker’s work. The other side was still fairly white, and clean enough to have a few lines written on it. The delicate and tiresome task of unsticking it had been begun in La Force; two hours would not have been long enough; it had taken him half of the day before. The prisoner began by tearing this precious scrap of paper so as to have a strip four or five lines wide, which he divided into several bits; he then replaced his store of paper in the same strange hiding-place, after damping the gummed side so as to make it stick again. He felt in a lock of his hair for one of those pencil leads as thin as a stout pin, then recently invented by Susse, and which he had put in with some gum; he broke off a scrap long enough to write with and small enough to hide in his ear. Having made these preparations with the rapidity and certainty of hand peculiar to old convicts, who are as light-fingered as monkeys, Jacques Collin sat down on the edge of his bed to meditate on his instructions to Asie, in perfect confidence that he should come across her, so entirely did he rely on the woman’s genius.

[* Bibi-Lupin is the head of the “safety” force” i.e. “Head of the brigade of the guardians of public safety”,  and it was he who arrested Jacques Collin long ago at Madame Vauquer’s boarding-house.  He was himself a former a convict, and a comrade of Jacques Collin on the hulks, but they are now enemies.  Bibi-Lupin is jealous of Jacques Collin’s supremacy as a criminal and as chief, adviser, and banker to former prisoners in Paris.  if Balzac explains how he came to be head of the Safety Force, I missed it.]

Collins (correctly assuming that Lucien is beside himself) is also determined to make Lucien pull himself together lest he incriminate them both.

Now, to Lucien’s disadvantage, he happens to be an enemy of the Madame d’Espard, who would like to see the back of him because he had previously successfully intervened in her action against her husband.   Madame d’Espard has influence over Camusot who has previously tried and failed to do her a favour in court (See The Commission in Lunacy) but  when she persuades his wife, Amelie to make sure Lucien gets committed, Camusot tells Amelie to keep out of it.  And just as well, because the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse – whose influence led to Camusot’s much-coveted appointment – sends for Amelie to tell her husband to look after Lucien’s interests because she can vouch for his innocence.  She wants him allowed to have a private visitor in his cell and to be released within 24 hours.  Yes, you guessed it, Madame de Maufrigneuse owed Camusot for a favour, see La Cabinet des Antiques; Scenes de la vie de Province), and she’s in a position to make promises for future preferment from the King.  She also alludes to obliging the Attorney General and Madame Leontine de Serizy (who was a former lover of Lucien (see here and scroll down).  She’s very upset about his arrest.

So now Amelie is in a pickle:

“Now, which of them has the most power?” she said in conclusion. “The Marquise was very near getting you into trouble in the silly business of the commission on her husband, and we owe everything to the Duchess.

The couple sit down to decide what to do.  They go over the evidence which concludes that Abbé Carlos Herrera is assuredly Jacques Collin/Vautrin a.k.a. Trompe-la-Mort (‘Dodge-Death’) and that Lucien – guilty of shabby behaviour with Coralie and Esther i.e. pimping – has probably fleeced Nucingen of the missing money.  Camusot reminds his wife that they are not supposed to know any of this (but in fact, Balzac says, the police have dossiers like this on everyone in Paris).  Amelie comes to the conclusion that they must support Lucien:

“Lucien is guilty,” he went on; “but of what?”

“A man who is the favourite of the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, of the Comtesse de Serizy, and loved by Clotilde de Grandlieu, is not guilty,” said Amelie. “The other must be answerable for everything.”

“But Lucien is his accomplice,” cried Camusot.

“Take my advice,” said Amelie. “Restore this priest to the diplomatic career he so greatly adorns, exculpate this little wretch, and find some other criminal——”

“How you run on!” said the magistrate with a smile. “Women go to the point, plunging through the law as birds fly through the air, and find nothing to stop them.”

“But,” said Amelie, “whether he is a diplomat or a convict, the Abbe Carlos will find some one to get him out of the scrape.”

“I am only a considering cap; you are the brain,” said Camusot. “Well, the sitting is closed; give your Melie a kiss; it is one o’clock.”

And Madame Camusot went to bed, leaving her husband to arrange his papers and his ideas in preparation for the task of examining the two prisoners next morning.

But in the cold light of morning Camusot decides that he would rather take vengeance on Lucien, who, it turns out, had ‘stolen’ Coralie from his father.

[This is why it is a good idea to read the stories of La Comedie Humaine in order, and to have The Repertory of La Comedie Humaine handy, so that you can keep track of who did what to whom.  Characters in  La Comedie have better memories of this than most readers do].

But lo! Quite by chance (or so he thinks) Camusot bumps into Count Granville who is Attorney General, and guess what? Granville just happens to mention the case and mounts a convincing set of reasons why Lucien can’t possibly be guilty.  He finishes up by casting doubt on the identity of Abbé Carlos Herrera and mentions his diplomatic status.  [Is this a lie?  Or does Granville believe this?]  Anyway, by the time Camusot gets to the prison there is plenty else to give him pause:

  • The doctors tell him that Collin was shamming illness
  • Bibi-Lupin tells him that Collin’s fellow-convicts will happily turn him in because he embezzled their gambling winnings (to give to Lucien)

Meanwhile Collin is busy writing notes using his bits of paper and lead. He writes to Asie to have the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse or Madame de Serizy get a message to Lucien, and to get Rastignac and Bianchon to testify that he’s not Jacques Collin.  He writes to Lucien telling him to confirm his identity as Abbé Carlos Herrera and to  keep mum.   Asie for her part has rigged herself up as a Baroness of the Faubourg Saint-Germain using swanky second-hand clothes (cast-offs sold by ‘ladies in difficulties’).  So when she turns up at the magistrates’ office, she impresses an obliging young lawyer and soon has him wrapped around her little finger. Pretending that she may need his help with a profitable lawsuit, and is only there at Camusot’s bidding as a witness in Lucien’s case, she drops influential names to further impress Massol and cons him into showing her around the Conciergerie (so that she can see Marie-Antoinette’s dungeon!)  And so it that she creates a disturbance when Collin passes by, Collin swoons and unobtrusively drops his little note rolled up into a little ball, and she gracefully retrieves it with the time-honoured stratagem of dropping her handbag in the same place before departing, ostensibly in pursuit of her lost dog.

Asie is soon wangling admittance to Madame de Maufrigneuse’s where she pretends to be the second-hand clothes-seller, Madame de Saint-Esteve a.k.a. Madame Nourrisson in the trade.  Lucien’s name is enough to persuade the Duchess, and away they go together to Madame Leontine de Serizy.  She’s still prostrate at the fate of her lover Lucien. Asie ticks off Madame Serizy – it’s all her fault, says Asie, for failing to provide Lucien with the money he needed which was why Esther had prostituted herself for him.  Asie hints that since the Grandlieu wedding is off, there is a chance for her with Lucien, but she must act, to save him, pronto.

[Meanwhile, back at the Conciergerie, Balzac has mercifully refrained from further attempts to render bad French, as he did in What Love Costs an Old Man:

It must here be observed that Jacques Collin spoke French like a Spanish trollop, blundering over it in such a way as to make his answers almost unintelligible, and to require them to be repeated. But Monsieur de Nucingen’s German barbarisms have already weighted this Scene too much to allow of the introduction of other sentences no less difficult to read, and hindering the rapid progress of the tale.

Thank goodness for that!]

Anyway, under examination Collin persists in claiming to be “Don Carlos Herrera, canon of the Royal Chapter of Toledo, and secret envoy of His Majesty Ferdinand VII” and comes up with a string of semi-plausible explanations for his behaviour, culminating in the claim that he serves Lucien’s interest because Lucien is his son.  And then he faints away.  (Which is probably what Lucien would do too, if he heard this).

They bring him round to inspect his back for a convict’s brand, but his back has so many marks on it that they are confounded.  (Collin claims that these are wounds from warfare in the Spanish monarch’s service).  Then Camusot reveals that they know about Asie, who is his sister Jacqueline Collin but still Collin doesn’t flinch. Two witnesses turn up to identify him: Bibi-Lupin, Madame Poiret (a.k.a. Mlle Michonneau from Madame Vauquer’s boarding house) but it’s inconclusive because he has disguised himself so well.  Camusot was on the verge of sending Collin back to the cells when a woman turns up with Esther’s suicide letter to Lucien, and Camusot wavers.   Triumphant, Collin makes a mistake, he offers the protection of his Order if Lucien is spared examination – and that’s when Camusot realises that Lucien is the weak link.

Lucien talks: he tells everything and he identifies Abbé Carlos Herrera as Jacques Collin.  He is appalled by Collin’s claim to be his father, and Camusot is delighted because he has snared both of them, holding Lucien overnight so that he can testify against Collin in the morning.  So he is a bit taken aback when he receives a terse note from  Madame de Maufrigneuse telling him not to examine Lucien.  This blunder will affect his career.  With Granville (the public prosecutor who’d advised him to go easy on Lucien) on the way Camusot burns the Duchess’s note, seals other incriminating correspondence, and awaits his fate.

And why is Granville keen to help out Lucien?  He’s a pal of de Serizy, who despite the gossip surrounding his wife’s passion for Lucien, still loves and cares about her reputation. And Comte de Serizy is Minister of State, member of the Privy Council, Vice-President of the State Council, and prospective Chancellor of the Realm, if the incumbent dies.  And Camusot himself knows the joys and perils of illicit romance, (see A Double Marriage.) Enough said?

So he’s not very pleased when he finds out what Camusot has done.  There goes the promotion!

Madame de Serizy arrives next, appalled to discover that she is too late, and that while Lucien is not guilty of murder and theft, he has admitted to being an accessory of the arch-villain Collin instead. When Camusot tactfully gives back her love-letters to Lucien, she burns them – and when he lets his guard down she grabs the evidence documents and burns them too, burning her hands when a struggle ensues.  This gives Granville a chance to put a stop to proceedings but of course Lucien doesn’t know that.  In the cell he had been placed in for his overnight stay he has written not only a Will bequeathing his money to charity but also an apology (of sorts) to Collin and a recantation of his evidence against him.  And he hangs himself.

Everything is nicely hushed up for the papers – but what of Collin’s fate?  More of him in later stories!!

Read it here
Summarised by Lisa Hill, January 1, 2014


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