Vautrin’s Last Avatar, 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
Vautrin’s Last Avatar is fourth and last in the series Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life:
- 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).
This story begins with Amelia, the wife of Monsieur Camusot, consoling him for the blunders he has made in the case of Lucien and Jacques Collin. As things stand, Lucien is dead, and he retracted his statement that the Abbé Carlos Herrera is really Jacques Collin just before he killed himself. Camusot feels guilt-stricken that his questioning may have led to the suicide, and he is very worried about the ‘very great people involved in this deplorable business.‘ Undaunted, Amelia reminds him that events are to his advantage:
“Why despair?” she went on, with a shrug that sufficiently expressed her indifference as to the prisoner’s end. “This suicide will delight Lucien’s two enemies, Madame d’Espard and her cousin, the Comtesse du Chatelet. Madame d’Espard is on the best terms with the Keeper of the Seals; through her you can get an audience of His Excellency and tell him all the secrets of this business. Then, if the head of the law is on your side, what have you to fear from the president of your Court or the public prosecutor?”
“If the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and Madame de Serizy are compromised, you will find them both ready to patronize you,” said Amelie. “Madame de Serizy will get you admission to the Keeper of the Seals, and you will tell him the secret history of the affair; then he will amuse the King with the story, for sovereigns always wish to see the wrong side of the tapestry and to know the real meaning of the events the public stare at open-mouthed. Henceforth there will be no cause to fear either the public prosecutor or Monsieur de Serizy.”
“What a treasure such a wife is!” cried the lawyer, plucking up courage.
He almost blunders again with his plans to use all these persons in high places to convict Collin, but Amelia sets him straight: he must use the other prisoners to expose Collin. They will be only too willing to do this because Collin embezzled their winnings from gambling.
[Even Balzac must have wondered why women like Amelie were restricted to manoeuvres like this instead of having an equal role in public affairs. But I digress.]
Meanwhile back at the Conciergerie arrangements are being made to whisk Lucien’s handsome body back to his lodgings so that his death will be certified from there instead of at the prison, thus protecting the honour of the high and mighty persons involved in this mess. The doctor who is to certify the death is summoned, however, to Cell No 2, because the incumbent (Collin, of course) is ‘dying’. There is scepticism about this but there are orders to mitigate his imprisonment (because Lucien’s evidence is now lost) and so they reluctantly head for the cells.
Balzac now shows us another side of Collin. In Lucien’s last letter to Collin he invokes Cain and Abel, brothers embodying the duality of man’s nature. Collin had
sacrificed his own life for seven years past. His vast powers, absorbed in Lucien, acted solely for Lucien; he lived for his progress, his loves, his ambitions. To him, Lucien was his own soul made visible.
For the first time in this sequence of stories, we see Collin as human, and his claim to have been Lucien’s father takes on a different meaning. Alone in his cell, he knows Lucien’s weakness and that he might betray them both, but he doesn’t blame him for it. Rather, he dreams of a different life that he might have:
Indeed, a life with Lucien, a youth innocent of all crime, who had only minor sins on his conscience, dawned on him as bright and glorious as a summer sun;
He fakes illness again so that he can plead to see Lucien, but is told instead the truth. He is given Lucien’s letter of regret and apology, and repeating that Lucien is his son, he is taken to see his body. He reads the letter, learning that Lucien blames himself for incriminating them both, but that he at last understands how he has been Collin’s patsy
“As you have sometimes said, there is the posterity of Cain and the posterity of Abel. In the great human drama Cain is in opposition. You are descended from Adam through that line, in which the devil still fans the fire of which the first spark was flung on Eve. Among the demons of that pedigree, from time to time we see one of stupendous power, summing up every form of human energy, and resembling the fevered beasts of the desert, whose vitality demands the vast spaces they find there. Such men are as dangerous as lions would be in the heart of Normandy; they must have their prey, and they devour common men and crop the money of fools. Their sport is so dangerous that at last they kill the humble dog whom they have taken for a companion and made an idol of”.
In the early hours of the morning when the authorities come to collect the body, they find Collin collapsed in grief. [Is it genuine now?] In the morning he goes meekly to the exercise yard, never guessing that Bibi-Lupin has sent him there so that the other prisoners can murder him. But (wouldn’t you know it?) three of them are old allies from the Hulks: there is la Pouraille from La Force, another named Selerier, alias l’Avuergnat, Pere Ralleau, and le Rouleur, and a man called Riganson a.k.a. Biffon. Broken by grief, Collin is recognisable as Trompe-la-Mort (Dodge-Death) but the trio of crooks suspect his disguise as a priest has something to do with a plan of some sort. So they go along with the impersonation and they look out for him when he feels faint, calling for a chair for him. They hope that his skill and inventiveness will be to their advantage, and they are hopeful of laying their hands on the embezzled money (which he had used to benefit Lucien’s quest to marry the Grandlieu heiress).
[This scene is notable for the mostly incomprehensible convict slang that Balzac uses in quest of authenticity.]
Collin sees an opportunity for redemption. One of his escapes had taken place when he was chained to another convict, a young boy called Theodore Calvi a.k.a. Madeleine. Theodore, now aged 27, had been recaptured, and now he is awaiting execution. In his guise as priest Collin feigns innocence of prison proceedings, and begs to be allowed to minister to Theodore. Bibi-Lupin sees an opportunity to get something new on Collin, and although it is unheard for anyone to visit a condemned man the night before the execution, he acquiesces, going along to the cell with Collin but disguised as an ordinary gendarme. (There are a lot of disguises in this series of stories).
Theodore’s conviction is based solely on circumstantial evidence, and Grandville has been delaying the execution in the hope that Theodore will confess to the mysterious murder of the widow Pigeau and incriminate his accomplice, his girlfriend Manon la Blonde.
Collin begins to convince the sceptical warders when he ‘mistakes’ Sanson the Executioner for a chaplain, but Collin makes no mistake when he sees Bibi-Lupin disguised as a gendarme. He cautions Theodore to speak only Italian, and Theodore explains how the crime was committed, pretending all the while to be making his confession to the sham priest. Collin tells him that he will get his sentence commuted to imprisonment, and that he will then arrange his escape to Paris where he can have a fine life.
Collin then demands that there be a stay of execution because Theodore is innocent, and since he doesn’t speak Italian Bibi-Lupin is none the wiser.
Then Asie (Collin’s Aunt Jacqueline) turns up, dressed to the nines and purporting to be a ‘Madame de San-Esteban’ and demanding to see the priest. It’s all very irregular but with a permit from the Comte de Serizy , she gets her way. Using their common slang Collin orders her to hide the incriminating love-letters from Lucien to Madame de Serizy and the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse. He also tells her to find Europe and Paccard (who had absconded with the 750,000 francs that Lucien was accused of defrauding the banker Nucingen) but she tells him that Paccard is in her carriage.
Meanwhile, back in the prison-yard Collin is buttering up La Pouraille and succeeds in persuading him to confess to Theodore’s crime. He claims to be able then to get him off the murder and theft charges if the money is paid back. Between the two of them, they then persuade Riganson (Biffon) to confess and to implicate his girlfriend Biffe so that she’ll be in prison for a year and therefore not able to cheat on him. Biffon is not very bright…
Now all this time, Madame Camusot has been busy too. She calls on Madame d’Espard to fill her in on the gossip and to ask for help in protecting Camusot’s ambitions. Mme d’Espard pretends to be worried about Madame de Serizy’s mental state, but is actually delighted because she hates her. She’s not really very fond of Monsieur de Granville either, since
she owed to them her defeat in the disgraceful proceedings by which she had tried to have her husband treated as a lunatic, “I will protect you; I never forget either my foes or my friends.”
Amelie then calls on Duchesse de Maufrigneuse who is also worried about her incriminating letters to Lucien and (to Amelie’s delight, since she’s never been admitted to such an august address before) together they go to see the Duchesse de Grandlieu (yes, the potential mother-in-law of Lucien until the marriage to her daughter Clotilde fell through so spectacularly). Clotilde wrote letters to Lucien too, and of course he wrote back to her – quel embarrass, n’est-ce pas? No wonder the duchess says ‘’”We are three daughters of Eve in the coils of the serpent of letter-writing!” Daddy Grandlieu acts promptly to hush things up and is about to dismiss Madame Camusot, (who is only middle-class and therefore not really welcome) when the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse intervenes and he grudgingly makes vague promises about remembering a service done for them.
Duke de Grandlieu sets Corentin the task to retrieve the letters, but here’s a surprise: Corentin realises that any attempt to prosecute him will be too risky because that would reveal his true identity. Instead he suggests recruiting Collin to the side of law and order. (This is based on a somewhat spurious argument that since Collin was responsible for the murder of both Peyrade and Contenson, this makes him an ideal successor for his own job. This is a daft resolution, but it clears the way for Collin to make an entrance in more episodes of La Comedie Humaine.
Meanwhile, Camusot visits Granville, the Prosecutor, and explains about Collin and the disastrous letters that he knows Collin has secreted somewhere. They are trying to decide what to do when Collin arrives – and surrenders! He tells them that his mysterious visitor was his Aunt Jacqueline and puts on a convincing show of remorse until he insists that Camusot be sent out of the room because he’s responsible for Lucien’s death, and he starts the negotiations for Theodore’s release, knowing that the authorities care more about the possible scandal than the guilt or innocence of the three convicts. He bargains hard, and is allowed to go with his aunt to get samples of the letters to prove that he has them. In his absence Corentin disguised as an old man, arrives accompanied by the Comte des Lupeaulx, Secretary-in-Chief of the President of the Council, and a deputy. Lupeaulx lets Granville know that the king is taking a personal interest in this matter, and that he will be made Keeper of the Seals when the incumbent becomes Chancellor, if all goes well.
When Lupeaulx leaves, Corentin comes to the point:
“Yes, Monsieur le Comte, it is Jacques Collin, the head of the ‘Ten Thousand Francs Association,’ the banker for three penal settlements, a convict who, for the last five years, has succeeded in concealing himself under the robe of the Abbe Carlos Herrera. How he ever came to be intrusted with a mission to the late King from the King of Spain is a question which we have all puzzled ourselves with trying to answer. I am now expecting information from Madrid, whither I have sent notes and a man. That convict holds the secrets of two kings.”
“He is a man of mettle and temper. We have only two courses open to us,” said the public prosecutor. “We must secure his fidelity, or get him out of the way.”
Indeed, Collin is still outsmarting them. At the house of his Aunt Jacqueline a.k.a. Asie he summons Europe and Paccard who fortunately for them have already handed over the 750,000 francs or they would be in deep trouble (and although they are not very bright, they know it). He doesn’t extract revenge for their perfidy but instead sets them up in a shop – where some of his ill-gotten gains lie hidden below the cellar, and it is Paccard’s job to dig it up and also to hide the other packet of money in the mattress of Madame Lucien’s house i.e. Esther’s place. All this money going round and round is very confusing because next we find Asie/Aunt Jacqueline telling Collin that they have no money at all. She’s not happy about his change of heart but he says
“What was to become of me? Lucien has taken my soul with him, and all my joy in life. I have thirty years before me to be sick of life in, and I have no heart left. Instead of being the boss of the hulks, I shall be a Figaro of the law, and avenge Lucien. I can never be sure of demolishing Corentin excepting in the skin of a police agent. And so long as I have a man to devour, I shall still feel alive.— The profession a man follows in the eyes of the world is a mere sham; the reality is in the idea!”
Anyway, Collin heads back with the three sample letters that Aunt Jacqueline has been hiding in her bosom, and is promptly arrested by Bibi-Lupin. He escorts Collin into the office of Granville, and is promptly sent packing by his superiors. Collin recognises Corentin who, after some iron banter, makes his offer of a position with the police:
“You really offer me a situation?” said Jacques Collin. “A nice situation indeed!— out of the fire into the frying-pan!” “You will be in a sphere where your talents will be highly appreciated and well paid for, and you will act at your ease. The Government police are not free from perils. I, as you see me, have already been imprisoned twice, but I am none the worse for that. And we travel, we are what we choose to appear. We pull the wires of political dramas, and are treated with politeness by very great people.— Come, my dear Jacques Collin, do you say yes?”
Collin talks passionately about the villain of the piece – the banker Nucingen and he barters: the letters for Theodore’s life, and revenge on Bibi-Lupin. The deal is done, Collin attends Lucien’s funeral (where he exchanges philosophical ideas with Rastignac, who doesn’t want to know him any more) and in a paroxysm of grief he swoons into the grave. He is taken back to de Granville’s office where he is reminded that he also promised to do something to restore the sanity of Madame de Serizy. No problem: he resurrects a letter that Lucien has written but never sent to her, leaving her to believe that he died while they were estranged. This letter is a love-letter, which cheers her up and restores her well-being. In return, de Granville releases Theodore (who as we know is actually guilty of the Pigeau murder) and (in an unholy alliance indeed) Theodore is to serve under Collin. In a nice irony, Collin has to serve six months probation under Bibi-Lupin before taking on his job. Which he does, retiring in 1845 after 15 years service!
And the moral of this story is, as the Duchesse de Grandlieu says:
“This is what comes of opening one’s house to people one is not absolutely sure of. Before admitting an acquaintance, one ought to know all about his fortune, his relations, all his previous history——”
Summary by Lisa Hill, January 2nd, 2014