Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: Vautrin’s Last Avatar, by Honoré de Balzac, translated by ‘James Waring’

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?”

and

“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——”

Read it here

Summary by Lisa Hill, January 2nd, 2014

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