The Project Gutenberg EBook of Sarrasine, by Honore de Balzac
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Author: Honore de Balzac
Translator: Clara Bell and others
Release Date: August 23, 2005 [EBook #1826]
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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK SARRASINE ***
Produced by Dagny; and John Bickers
Honore de Balzac
Clara Bell and others
To Monsieur Charles Bernard du Grail.
I was buried in one of those profound reveries to which everybody,
even a frivolous man, is subject in the midst of the most uproarious
festivities. The clock on the Elysee-Bourbon had just struck midnight.
Seated in a window recess and concealed behind the undulating folds of
a curtain of watered silk, I was able to contemplate at my leisure the
garden of the mansion at which I was passing the evening. The trees,
being partly covered with snow, were outlined indistinctly against the
grayish background formed by a cloudy sky, barely whitened by the
moon. Seen through the medium of that strange atmosphere, they bore a
vague resemblance to spectres carelessly enveloped in their shrouds, a
gigantic image of the famous _Dance of Death_. Then, turning in the
other direction, I could gaze admiringly upon the dance of the living!
a magnificent salon, with walls of silver and gold, with gleaming
chandeliers, and bright with the light of many candles. There the
loveliest, the wealthiest women in Paris, bearers of the proudest
titles, moved hither and thither, fluttered from room to room in
swarms, stately and gorgeous, dazzling with diamonds; flowers on their
heads and breasts, in their hair, scattered over their dresses or
lying in garlands at their feet. Light quiverings of the body,
voluptuous movements, made the laces and gauzes and silks swirl about
their graceful figures. Sparkling glances here and there eclipsed the
lights and the blaze of the diamonds, and fanned the flame of hearts
already burning too brightly. I detected also significant nods of the
head for lovers and repellent attitudes for husbands. The exclamation
of the card-players at every unexpected _coup_, the jingle of gold,
mingled with music and the murmur of conversation; and to put the
finishing touch to the vertigo of that multitude, intoxicated by all
the seductions the world can offer, a perfume-laden atmosphere and
general exaltation acted upon their over-wrought imaginations. Thus,
at my right was the depressing, silent image of death; at my left the
decorous bacchanalia of life; on the one side nature, cold and gloomy,
and in mourning garb; on the other side, man on pleasure bent. And,
standing on the borderland of those two incongruous pictures, which
repeated thousands of times in diverse ways, make Paris the most
entertaining and most philosophical city in the world, I played a
mental _macedoine_[*], half jesting, half funereal. With my left foot
I kept time to the music, and the other felt as if it were in a tomb.
My leg was, in fact, frozen by one of those draughts which congeal one
half of the body while the other suffers from the intense heat of the
salons--a state of things not unusual at balls.
[*] _Macedoine_, in the sense in which it is here used, is a game, or
rather a series of games, of cards, each player, when it is his
turn to deal, selecting the game to be played.
"Monsieur de Lanty has not owned this house very long, has he?"
"Oh, yes! It is nearly ten years since the Marechal de Carigliano sold
it to him."
"These people must have an enormous fortune."
"They surely must."
"What a magnificent party! It is almost insolent in its splendor."
"Do you imagine they are as rich as Monsieur de Nucingen or Monsieur
"Why, don't you know?"
I leaned forward and recognized the two persons who were talking as
members of that inquisitive genus which, in Paris, busies itself
exclusively with the _Whys_ and _Hows_. _Where does he come from? Who
are they? What's the matter with him? What has she done?_ They lowered
their voices and walked away in order to talk more at their ease on
some retired couch. Never was a more promising mine laid open to
seekers after mysteries. No one knew from what country the Lanty
family came, nor to what source--commerce, extortion, piracy, or
inheritance--they owed a fortune estimated at several millions. All
the members of the family spoke Italian, French, Spanish, English, and
German, with sufficient fluency to lead one to suppose that they had
lived long among those different peoples. Were they gypsies? were they
"Suppose they're the devil himself," said divers young politicians,
"they entertain mighty well."
"The Comte de Lanty may have plundered some _Casbah_ for all I care; I
would like to marry his daughter!" cried a philosopher.
Who would not have married Marianina, a girl of sixteen, whose beauty
realized the fabulous conceptions of Oriental poets! Like the Sultan's
daughter in the tale of the _Wonderful Lamp_, she should have remained
always veiled. Her singing obscured the imperfect talents of the
Malibrans, the Sontags, and the Fodors, in whom some one dominant
quality always mars the perfection of the whole; whereas Marianina
combined in equal degree purity of tone, exquisite feeling, accuracy
of time and intonation, science, soul, and delicacy. She was the type
of that hidden poesy, the link which connects all the arts and which
always eludes those who seek it. Modest, sweet, well-informed, and
clever, none could eclipse Marianina unless it was her mother.
Have you ever met one of those women whose startling beauty defies the
assaults of time, and who seem at thirty-six more desirable than they
could have been fifteen years earlier? Their faces are impassioned
souls; they fairly sparkle; each feature gleams with intelligence;
each possesses a brilliancy of its own, especially in the light. Their
captivating eyes attract or repel, speak or are silent; their gait is
artlessly seductive; their voices unfold the melodious treasures of
the most coquettishly sweet and tender tones. Praise of their beauty,
based upon comparisons, flatters the most sensitive self-esteem. A
movement of their eyebrows, the slightest play of the eye, the curling
of the lip, instils a sort of terror in those whose lives and
happiness depend upon their favor. A maiden inexperienced in love and
easily moved by words may allow herself to be seduced; but in dealing
with women of this sort, a man must be able, like M. de Jaucourt, to
refrain from crying out when, in hiding him in a closet, the lady's
maid crushes two of his fingers in the crack of a door. To love one of
these omnipotent sirens is to stake one's life, is it not? And that,
perhaps, is why we love them so passionately! Such was the Comtesse de
Filippo, Marianina's brother, inherited, as did his sister, the
Countess' marvelous beauty. To tell the whole story in a word, that
young man was a living image of Antinous, with somewhat slighter
proportions. But how well such a slender and delicate figure accords
with youth, when an olive complexion, heavy eyebrows, and the gleam of
a velvety eye promise virile passions, noble ideas for the future! If
Filippo remained in the hearts of young women as a type of manly
beauty, he likewise remained in the memory of all mothers as the best
match in France.
The beauty, the great wealth, the intellectual qualities, of these two
children came entirely from their mother. The Comte de Lanty was a
short, thin, ugly little man, as dismal as a Spaniard, as great a bore
as a banker. He was looked upon, however, as a profound politician,
perhaps because he rarely laughed, and was always quoting M. de
Metternich or Wellington.
This mysterious family had all the attractiveness of a poem by Lord
Byron, whose difficult passages were translated differently by each
person in fashionable society; a poem that grew more obscure and more
sublime from strophe to strophe. The reserve which Monsieur and Madame
de Lanty maintained concerning their origin, their past lives, and
their relations with the four quarters of the globe would not, of
itself, have been for long a subject of wonderment in Paris. In no
other country, perhaps, is Vespasian's maxim more thoroughly
understood. Here gold pieces, even when stained with blood or mud,
betray nothing, and represent everything. Provided that good society
knows the amount of your fortune, you are classed among those figures
which equal yours, and no one asks to see your credentials, because
everybody knows how little they cost. In a city where social problems
are solved by algebraic equations, adventurers have many chances in
their favor. Even if this family were of gypsy extraction, it was so
wealthy, so attractive, that fashionable society could well afford to
overlook its little mysteries. But, unfortunately, the enigmatical
history of the Lanty family offered a perpetual subject of curiosity,
not unlike that aroused by the novels of Anne Radcliffe.
People of an observing turn, of the sort who are bent upon finding out
where you buy your candelabra, or who ask you what rent you pay when
they are pleased with your apartments, had noticed, from time to time,
the appearance of an extraordinary personage at the fetes, concerts,
balls, and routs given by the countess. It was a man. The first time
that he was seen in the house was at a concert, when he seemed to have
been drawn to the salon by Marianina's enchanting voice.
"I have been cold for the last minute or two," said a lady near the
door to her neighbor.
The stranger, who was standing near the speaker, moved away.
"This is very strange! now I am warm," she said, after his departure.
"Perhaps you will call me mad, but I cannot help thinking that my
neighbor, the gentleman in black who just walked away, was the cause
of my feeling cold."
Ere long the exaggeration to which people in society are naturally
inclined, produced a large and growing crop of the most amusing ideas,
the most curious expressions, the most absurd fables concerning this
mysterious individual. Without being precisely a vampire, a ghoul, a
fictitious man, a sort of Faust or Robin des Bois, he partook of the
nature of all these anthropomorphic conceptions, according to those
persons who were addicted to the fantastic. Occasionally some German
would take for realities these ingenious jests of Parisian
evil-speaking. The stranger was simply _an old man_. Some young men,
who were accustomed to decide the future of Europe every morning in a
few fashionable phrases, chose to see in the stranger some great
criminal, the possessor of enormous wealth. Novelists described the old
man's life and gave some really interesting details of the atrocities
committed by him while he was in the service of the Prince of Mysore.
Bankers, men of a more positive nature, devised a specious fable.
"Bah!" they would say, shrugging their broad shoulders pityingly,
"that little old fellow's a _Genoese head_!"
"If it is not an impertinent question, monsieur, would you have the
kindness to tell me what you mean by a Genoese head?"
"I mean, monsieur, that he is a man upon whose life enormous sums
depend, and whose good health is undoubtedly essential to the
continuance of this family's income. I remember that I once heard a
mesmerist, at Madame d'Espard's, undertake to prove by very specious
historical deductions, that this old man, if put under the magnifying
glass, would turn out to be the famous Balsamo, otherwise called
Cagliostro. According to this modern alchemist, the Sicilian had
escaped death, and amused himself making gold for his grandchildren.
And the Bailli of Ferette declared that he recognized in this
extraordinary personage the Comte de Saint-Germain."
Such nonsense as this, put forth with the assumption of superior
cleverness, with the air of raillery, which in our day characterize a
society devoid of faith, kept alive vague suspicions concerning the
Lanty family. At last, by a strange combination of circumstances, the
members of that family justified the conjectures of society by
adopting a decidedly mysterious course of conduct with this old man,
whose life was, in a certain sense, kept hidden from all
If he crossed the threshold of the apartment he was supposed to occupy
in the Lanty mansion, his appearance always caused a great sensation
in the family. One would have supposed that it was an event of the
greatest importance. Only Filippo, Marianina, Madame de Lanty, and an
old servant enjoyed the privilege of assisting the unknown to walk, to
rise, to sit down. Each one of them kept a close watch on his
slightest movements. It seemed as if he were some enchanted person
upon whom the happiness, the life, or the fortune of all depended. Was
it fear or affection? Society could discover no indication which
enabled them to solve this problem. Concealed for months at a time in
the depths of an unknown sanctuary, this familiar spirit suddenly
emerged, furtively as it were, unexpectedly, and appeared in the
salons like the fairies of old, who alighted from their winged dragons
to disturb festivities to which they had not been invited. Only the
most experienced observers could divine the anxiety, at such times, of
the masters of the house, who were peculiarly skilful in concealing
their feelings. But sometimes, while dancing a quadrille, the too
ingenuous Marianina would cast a terrified glance at the old man, whom
she watched closely from the circle of dancers. Or perhaps Filippo
would leave his place and glide through the crowd to where he stood,
and remain beside him, affectionate and watchful, as if the touch of
man, or the faintest breath, would shatter that extraordinary
creature. The countess would try to draw nearer to him without
apparently intending to join him; then, assuming a manner and an
expression in which servility and affection, submissiveness and
tyranny, were equally noticeable, she would say two or three words, to
which the old man almost always deferred; and he would disappear, led,
or I might better say carried away, by her. If Madame de Lanty were
not present, the Count would employ a thousand ruses to reach his
side; but it always seemed as if he found difficulty in inducing him
to listen, and he treated him like a spoiled child, whose mother
gratifies his whims and at the same time suspects mutiny. Some prying
persons having ventured to question the Comte de Lanty indiscreetly,
that cold and reserved individual seemed not to understand their
questions. And so, after many attempts, which the circumspection of
all the members of the family rendered fruitless, no one sought to
discover a secret so well guarded. Society spies, triflers, and
politicians, weary of the strife, ended by ceasing to concern
themselves about the mystery.
But at that moment, it may be, there were in those gorgeous salons
philosophers who said to themselves, as they discussed an ice or a
sherbet, or placed their empty punch glasses on a tray:
"I should not be surprised to learn that these people are knaves. That
old fellow who keeps out of sight and appears only at the equinoxes or
solstices, looks to me exactly like an assassin."
"Or a bankrupt."
"There's very little difference. To destroy a man's fortune is worse
than to kill the man himself."
"I bet twenty louis, monsieur; there are forty due me."
"Faith, monsieur; there are only thirty left on the cloth."
"Just see what a mixed company there is! One can't play cards in
"Very true. But it's almost six months since we saw the Spirit. Do you
think he's a living being?"
These last remarks were made in my neighborhood by persons whom I did
not know, and who passed out of hearing just as I was summarizing in
one last thought my reflections, in which black and white, life and
death, were inextricably mingled. My wandering imagination, like my
eyes, contemplated alternately the festivities, which had now reached
the climax of their splendor, and the gloomy picture presented by the
gardens. I have no idea how long I meditated upon those two faces of
the human medal; but I was suddenly aroused by the stifled laughter of
a young woman. I was stupefied at the picture presented to my eyes. By
virtue of one of the strangest of nature's freaks, the thought half
draped in black, which was tossing about in my brain, emerged from it
and stood before me personified, living; it had come forth like
Minerva from Jupiter's brain, tall and strong; it was at once a
hundred years old and twenty-two; it was alive and dead. Escaped from
his chamber, like a madman from his cell, the little old man had
evidently crept behind a long line of people who were listening
attentively to Marianina's voice as she finished the cavatina from
_Tancred_. He seemed to have come up through the floor, impelled by
some stage mechanism. He stood for a moment motionless and sombre,
watching the festivities, a murmur of which had perhaps reached his
ears. His almost somnambulistic preoccupation was so concentrated upon
things that, although he was in the midst of many people, he saw
nobody. He had taken his place unceremoniously beside one of the most
fascinating women in Paris, a young and graceful dancer, with slender
figure, a face as fresh as a child's, all pink and white, and so
fragile, so transparent, that it seemed that a man's glance must pass
through her as the sun's rays pass through flawless glass. They stood
there before me, side by side, so close together, that the stranger
rubbed against the gauze dress, and the wreaths of flowers, and the
hair, slightly crimped, and the floating ends of the sash.
I had brought that young woman to Madame de Lanty's ball. As it was
her first visit to that house, I forgave her her stifled laugh; but I
hastily made an imperious sign which abashed her and inspired respect
for her neighbor. She sat down beside me. The old man did not choose
to leave the charming creature, to whom he clung capriciously with the
silent and apparently causeless obstinacy to which very old persons
are subject, and which makes them resemble children. In order to sit
down beside the young lady he needed a folding-chair. His slightest
movements were marked by the inert heaviness, the stupid hesitancy,
which characterize the movements of a paralytic. He sat slowly down
upon his chair with great caution, mumbling some unintelligible words.
His cracked voice resembled the noise made by a stone falling into a
well. The young woman nervously pressed my hand, as if she were trying
to avoid a precipice, and shivered when that man, at whom she happened
to be looking, turned upon her two lifeless, sea-green eyes, which
could be compared to nothing save tarnished mother-of-pearl.
"I am afraid," she said, putting her lips to my ear.
"You can speak," I replied; "he hears with great difficulty."
"You know him, then?"
Thereupon she summoned courage to scrutinize for a moment that
creature for which no human language has a name, form without
substance, a being without life, or life without action. She was under
the spell of that timid curiosity which impels women to seek perilous
excitement, to gaze at chained tigers and boa-constrictors, shuddering
all the while because the barriers between them are so weak. Although
the little old man's back was bent like a day-laborer's, it was easy
to see that he must formerly have been of medium height. His excessive
thinness, the slenderness of his limbs, proved that he had always been
of slight build. He wore black silk breeches which hung about his
fleshless thighs in folds, like a lowered veil. An anatomist would
instinctively have recognized the symptoms of consumption in its
advanced stages, at sight of the tiny legs which served to support
that strange frame. You would have said that they were a pair of
cross-bones on a gravestone. A feeling of profound horror seized the
heart when a close scrutiny revealed the marks made by decrepitude
upon that frail machine.
He wore a white waistcoat embroidered with gold, in the old style, and
his linen was of dazzling whiteness. A shirt-frill of English lace,
yellow with age, the magnificence of which a queen might have envied,
formed a series of yellow ruffles on his breast; but upon him the lace
seemed rather a worthless rag than an ornament. In the centre of the
frill a diamond of inestimable value gleamed like a sun. That
superannuated splendor, that display of treasure, of great intrinsic
worth, but utterly without taste, served to bring out in still bolder
relief the strange creature's face. The frame was worthy of the
portrait. That dark face was full of angles and furrowed deep in every
direction; the chin was furrowed; there were great hollows at the
temples; the eyes were sunken in yellow orbits. The maxillary bones,
which his indescribable gauntness caused to protrude, formed deep
cavities in the centre of both cheeks. These protuberances, as the
light fell upon them, caused curious effects of light and shadow which
deprived that face of its last vestige of resemblance to the human
countenance. And then, too, the lapse of years had drawn the fine,
yellow skin so close to the bones that it described a multitude of
wrinkles everywhere, either circular like the ripples in the water
caused by a stone which a child throws in, or star-shaped like a pane
of glass cracked by a blow; but everywhere very deep, and as close
together as the leaves of a closed book. We often see more hideous old
men; but what contributed more than aught else to give to the spectre
that rose before us the aspect of an artificial creation was the red
and white paint with which he glistened. The eyebrows shone in the
light with a lustre which disclosed a very well executed bit of
painting. Luckily for the eye, saddened by such a mass of ruins, his
corpse-like skull was concealed beneath a light wig, with innumerable
curls which indicated extraordinary pretensions to elegance. Indeed,
the feminine coquettishness of this fantastic apparition was
emphatically asserted by the gold ear-rings which hung at his ears, by
the rings containing stones of marvelous beauty which sparkled on his
fingers, like the brilliants in a river of gems around a woman's neck.
Lastly, this species of Japanese idol had constantly upon his blue
lips, a fixed, unchanging smile, the shadow of an implacable and
sneering laugh, like that of a death's head. As silent and motionless
as a statue, he exhaled the musk-like odor of the old dresses which a
duchess' heirs exhume from her wardrobe during the inventory. If the
old man turned his eyes toward the company, it seemed that the
movements of those globes, no longer capable of reflecting a gleam,
were accomplished by an almost imperceptible effort; and, when the
eyes stopped, he who was watching them was not certain finally that
they had moved at all. As I saw, beside that human ruin, a young woman
whose bare neck and arms and breast were white as snow; whose figure
was well-rounded and beautiful in its youthful grace; whose hair,
charmingly arranged above an alabaster forehead, inspired love; whose
eyes did not receive but gave forth light, who was sweet and fresh,
and whose fluffy curls, whose fragrant breath, seemed too heavy, too
harsh, too overpowering for that shadow, for that man of dust--ah! the
thought that came into my mind was of death and life, an imaginary
arabesque, a half-hideous chimera, divinely feminine from the waist
"And yet such marriages are often made in society!" I said to myself.
"He smells of the cemetery!" cried the terrified young woman, grasping
my arm as if to make sure of my protection, and moving about in a
restless, excited way, which convinced me that she was very much
frightened. "It's a horrible vision," she continued; "I cannot stay
here any longer. If I look at him again I shall believe that Death
himself has come in search of me. But is he alive?"
She placed her hand on the phenomenon, with the boldness which women
derive from the violence of their wishes, but a cold sweat burst from
her pores, for, the instant she touched the old man, she heard a cry
like the noise made by a rattle. That shrill voice, if indeed it were
a voice, escaped from a throat almost entirely dry. It was at once
succeeded by a convulsive little cough like a child's, of a peculiar
resonance. At that sound, Marianina, Filippo, and Madame de Lanty
looked toward us, and their glances were like lightning flashes. The
young woman wished that she were at the bottom of the Seine. She took
my arm and pulled me away toward a boudoir. Everybody, men and women,
made room for us to pass. Having reached the further end of the suite
of reception-rooms, we entered a small semi-circular cabinet. My
companion threw herself on a divan, breathing fast with terror, not
knowing where she was.
"You are mad, madame," I said to her.
"But," she rejoined, after a moment's silence, during which I gazed at
her in admiration, "is it my fault? Why does Madame de Lanty allow
ghosts to wander round her house?"
"Nonsense," I replied; "you are doing just what fools do. You mistake
a little old man for a spectre."
"Hush," she retorted, with the imposing, yet mocking, air which all
women are so well able to assume when they are determined to put
themselves in the right. "Oh! what a sweet boudoir!" she cried,
looking about her. "Blue satin hangings always produce an admirable
effect. How cool it is! Ah! the lovely picture!" she added, rising and
standing in front of a magnificently framed painting.
We stood for a moment gazing at that marvel of art, which seemed the
work of some supernatural brush. The picture represented Adonis
stretched out on a lion's skin. The lamp, in an alabaster vase,
hanging in the centre of the boudoir, cast upon the canvas a soft
light which enabled us to grasp all the beauties of the picture.
"Does such a perfect creature exist?" she asked me, after examining
attentively, and not without a sweet smile of satisfaction, the
exquisite grace of the outlines, the attitude, the color, the hair, in
"He is too beautiful for a man," she added, after such a scrutiny as
she would have bestowed upon a rival.
Ah! how sharply I felt at that moment those pangs of jealousy in which
a poet had tried in vain to make me believe! the jealousy of
engravings, of pictures, of statues, wherein artists exaggerate human
beauty, as a result of the doctrine which leads them to idealize
"It is a portrait," I replied. "It is a product of Vien's genius. But
that great painter never saw the original, and your admiration will be
modified somewhat perhaps, when I tell you that this study was made
from a statue of a woman."
"But who is it?"
"I insist upon knowing," she added earnestly.
"I believe," I said, "that this _Adonis_ represents a--a relative of
Madame de Lanty."
I had the chagrin of seeing that she was lost in contemplation of that
figure. She sat down in silence, and I seated myself beside her and
took her hand without her noticing it. Forgotten for a portrait! At
that moment we heard in the silence a woman's footstep and the faint
rustling of a dress. We saw the youthful Marianina enter the boudoir,
even more resplendent by reason of her grace and her fresh costume;
she was walking slowly and leading with motherly care, with a
daughter's solicitude, the spectre in human attire, who had driven us
from the music-room; as she led him, she watched with some anxiety the
slow movement of his feeble feet. They walked painfully across the
boudoir to a door hidden in the hangings. Marianina knocked softly.
Instantly a tall, thin man, a sort of familiar spirit, appeared as if
by magic. Before entrusting the old man to this mysterious guardian,
the lovely child, with deep veneration, kissed the ambulatory corpse,
and her chaste caress was not without a touch of that graceful
playfulness, the secret of which only a few privileged women possess.
"_Addio, addio!_" she said, with the sweetest inflection of her young
She added to the last syllable a wonderfully executed trill, in a very
low tone, as if to depict the overflowing affection of her heart by a
poetic expression. The old man, suddenly arrested by some memory,
remained on the threshold of that secret retreat. In the profound
silence we heard the sigh that came forth form his breast; he removed
the most beautiful of the rings with which his skeleton fingers were
laden, and placed it in Marianina's bosom. The young madcap laughed,
plucked out the ring, slipped it on one of her fingers over her glove,
and ran hastily back toward the salon, where the orchestra were, at
that moment, beginning the prelude of a contra-dance.
She spied us.
"Ah! were you here?" she said, blushing.
After a searching glance at us as if to question us, she ran away to
her partner with the careless petulance of her years.
"What does this mean?" queried my young partner. "Is he her husband? I
believe I am dreaming. Where am I?"
"You!" I retorted, "you, madame, who are easily excited, and who,
understanding so well the most imperceptible emotions, are able to
cultivate in a man's heart the most delicate of sentiments, without
crushing it, without shattering it at the very outset, you who have
compassion for the tortures of the heart, and who, with the wit of the
Parisian, combine a passionate temperament worthy of Spain or
She realized that my words were heavily charged with bitter irony;
and, thereupon, without seeming to notice it, she interrupted me to
"Oh! you describe me to suit your own taste. A strange kind of
tyranny! You wish me not to be _myself_!"
"Oh! I wish nothing," I cried, alarmed by the severity of her manner.
"At all events, it is true, is it not, that you like to hear stories
of the fierce passions, kindled in our heart by the enchanting women
of the South?"
"Yes. And then?"
"Why, I will come to your house about nine o'clock to-morrow evening,
and elucidate this mystery for you."
"No," she replied, with a pout; "I wish it done now."
"You have not yet given me the right to obey you when you say, 'I wish
"At this moment," she said, with an exhibition of coquetry of the sort
that drives men to despair, "I have a most violent desire to know this
secret. To-morrow it may be that I will not listen to you."
She smiled and we parted, she still as proud and as cruel, I as
ridiculous, as ever. She had the audacity to waltz with a young
aide-de-camp, and I was by turns angry, sulky, admiring, loving,
"Until to-morrow," she said to me, as she left the ball about two
o'clock in the morning.
"I won't go," I thought. "I give up. You are a thousand times more
capricious, more fanciful, than--my imagination."
The next evening we were seated in front of a bright fire in a dainty
little salon, she on a couch, I on cushions almost at her feet,
looking up into her face. The street was silent. The lamp shed a soft
light. It was one of those evenings which delight the soul, one of
those moments which are never forgotten, one of those hours passed in
peace and longing, whose charm is always in later years a source of
regret, even when we are happier. What can efface the deep imprint of
the first solicitations of love?
"Go on," she said. "I am listening."
"But I dare not begin. There are passages in the story which are
dangerous to the narrator. If I become excited, you will make me hold
"Ernest-Jean Sarrasine was the only son of a prosecuting attorney of
Franche-Comte," I began after a pause. "His father had, by faithful
work, amassed a fortune which yielded an income of six to eight
thousand francs, then considered a colossal fortune for an attorney in
the provinces. Old Maitre Sarrasine, having but one child, determined
to give him a thorough education; he hoped to make a magistrate of
him, and to live long enough to see, in his old age, the grandson of
Mathieu Sarrasine, a ploughman in the Saint-Die country, seated on the
lilies, and dozing through the sessions for the greater glory of the
Parliament; but Heaven had not that joy in store for the attorney.
Young Sarrasine, entrusted to the care of the Jesuits at an early age,
gave indications of an extraordinarily unruly disposition. His was the
childhood of a man of talent. He would not study except as his
inclination led him, often rebelled, and sometimes remained for whole
hours at a time buried in tangled meditations, engaged now in watching
his comrades at play, now in forming mental pictures of Homer's
heroes. And, when he did choose to amuse himself, he displayed
extraordinary ardor in his games. Whenever there was a contest of any
sort between a comrade and himself, it rarely ended without bloodshed.
If he were the weaker, he would use his teeth. Active and passive by
turns, either lacking in aptitude, or too intelligent, his abnormal
temperament caused him to distrust his masters as much as his
schoolmates. Instead of learning the elements of the Greek language,
he drew a picture of the reverend father who was interpreting a
passage of Thucydides, sketched the teacher of mathematics, the
prefect, the assistants, the man who administered punishment, and
smeared all the walls with shapeless figures. Instead of singing the
praises of the Lord in the chapel, he amused himself, during the
services, by notching a bench; or, when he had stolen a piece of wood,
he would carve the figure of some saint. If he had no wood or stone or
pencil, he worked out his ideas with bread. Whether he copied the
figures in the pictures which adorned the choir, or improvised, he
always left at this seat rough sketches, whose obscene character drove
the young fathers to despair; and the evil-tongued alleged that the
Jesuits smiled at them. At last, if we are to believe college
traditions, he was expelled because, while awaiting his turn to go to
the confessional one Good Friday, he carved a figure of the Christ
from a stick of wood. The impiety evidenced by that figure was too
flagrant not to draw down chastisement on the artist. He had actually
had the hardihood to place that decidedly cynical image on the top of
"Sarrasine came to Paris to seek a refuge against the threats of a
father's malediction. Having one of those strong wills which know no
obstacles, he obeyed the behests of his genius and entered
Bouchardon's studio. He worked all day and went about at night begging
for subsistence. Bouchardon, marveling at the young artist's
intelligence and rapid progress, soon divined his pupil's destitute
condition; he assisted him, became attached to him, and treated him
like his own child. Then, when Sarrasine's genius stood revealed in
one of those works wherein future talent contends with the
effervescence of youth, the generous Bouchardon tried to restore him
to the old attorney's good graces. The paternal wrath subsided in face
of the famous sculptor's authority. All Besancon congratulated itself
on having brought forth a future great man. In the first outburst of
delight due to his flattered vanity, the miserly attorney supplied his
son with the means to appear to advantage in society. The long and
laborious study demanded by the sculptor's profession subdued for a
long time Sarrasine's impetuous temperament and unruly genius.
Bouchardon, foreseeing how violently the passions would some day rage
in that youthful heart, as highly tempered perhaps as Michelangelo's,
smothered its vehemence with constant toil. He succeeded in
restraining within reasonable bounds Sarrasine's extraordinary
impetuosity, by forbidding him to work, by proposing diversions when
he saw that he was on the point of plunging into dissipation. But with
that passionate nature, gentleness was always the most powerful of all
weapons, and the master did not acquire great influence over his pupil
until he had aroused his gratitude by fatherly kindness.
"At the age of twenty-two Sarrasine was forcibly removed from the
salutary influence which Bouchardon exercised over his morals and his
habits. He paid the penalty of his genius by winning the prize for
sculpture founded by the Marquis de Marigny, Madame de Pompadour's
brother, who did so much for art. Diderot praised Bouchardon's pupil's
statue as a masterpiece. Not without profound sorrow did the king's
sculptor witness the departure for Italy of a young man whose profound
ignorance of the things of life he had, as a matter of principle,
refrained from enlightening. Sarrasine was Bouchardon's guest for six
years. Fanatically devoted to his art, as Canova was at a later day,
he rose at dawn and went to the studio, there to remain until night,
and lived with his muse alone. If he went to the Comedie-Francaise, he
was dragged thither by his master. He was so bored at Madame
Geoffrin's, and in the fashionable society to which Bouchardon tried
to introduce him, that he preferred to remain alone, and held aloof
from the pleasures of that licentious age. He had no other mistresses
than sculpture and Clotilde, one of the celebrities of the Opera. Even
that intrigue was of brief duration. Sarrasine was decidedly ugly,
always badly dressed, and naturally so independent, so irregular in
his private life, that the illustrious nymph, dreading some
catastrophe, soon remitted the sculptor to love of the arts. Sophie
Arnould made some witty remark on the subject. She was surprised, I
think, that her colleague was able to triumph over statues.
"Sarrasine started for Italy in 1758. On the journey his ardent
imagination took fire beneath a sky of copper and at the sight of the
marvelous monuments with which the fatherland of the arts is strewn.
He admired the statues, the frescoes, the pictures; and, fired with a
spirit of emulation, he went on to Rome, burning to inscribe his name
between the names of Michelangelo and Bouchardon. At first, therefore,
he divided his time between his studio work and examination of the
works of art which abound in Rome. He had already passed a fortnight
in the ecstatic state into which all youthful imaginations fall at the
sight of the queen of ruins, when he happened one evening to enter the
Argentina theatre, in front of which there was an enormous crowd. He
inquired the reasons for the presence of so great a throng, and every
one answered by two names:
"He entered and took a seat in the pit, crowded between two
unconscionably stout _abbati_; but luckily he was quite near the
stage. The curtain rose. For the first time in his life he heard the
music whose charms Monsieur Jean-Jacques Rousseau had extolled so
eloquently at one of Baron d'Holbach's evening parties. The young
sculptor's senses were lubricated, so to speak, by Jomelli's
harmonious strains. The languorous peculiarities of those skilfully
blended Italian voices plunged him in an ecstasy of delight. He sat
there, mute and motionless, not even conscious of the crowding of the
two priests. His soul poured out through his ears and his eyes. He
seemed to be listening with every one of his pores. Suddenly a
whirlwind of applause greeted the appearance of the prima donna. She
came forward coquettishly to the footlights and curtsied to the
audience with infinite grace. The brilliant light, the enthusiasm of a
vast multitude, the illusion of the stage, the glamour of a costume
which was most attractive for the time, all conspired in that woman's
favor. Sarrasine cried aloud with pleasure. He saw before him at that
moment the ideal beauty whose perfections he had hitherto sought here
and there in nature, taking from one model, often of humble rank, the
rounded outline of a shapely leg, from another the contour of the
breast; from another her white shoulders; stealing the neck of that
young girl, the hands of this woman, and the polished knees of yonder
child, but never able to find beneath the cold skies of Paris the rich
and satisfying creations of ancient Greece. La Zambinella displayed in
her single person, intensely alive and delicate beyond words, all
those exquisite proportions of the female form which he had so
ardently longed to behold, and of which a sculptor is the most severe
and at the same time the most passionate judge. She had an expressive
mouth, eyes instinct with love, flesh of dazzling whiteness. And add
to these details, which would have filled a painter's soul with
rapture, all the marvelous charms of the Venuses worshiped and copied
by the chisel of the Greeks. The artist did not tire of admiring the
inimitable grace with which the arms were attached to the body, the
wonderful roundness of the throat, the graceful curves described by
the eyebrows and the nose, and the perfect oval of the face, the
purity of its clean-cut lines, and the effect of the thick, drooping
lashes which bordered the large and voluptuous eyelids. She was more
than a woman; she was a masterpiece! In that unhoped-for creation
there was love enough to enrapture all mankind, and beauties
calculated to satisfy the most exacting critic.
"Sarrasine devoured with his eyes what seemed to him Pygmalion's
statue descended from its pedestal. When La Zambinella sang, he was
beside himself. He was cold; then suddenly he felt a fire burning in
the secret depths of his being, in what, for lack of a better word, we
call the heart. He did not applaud, he said nothing; he felt a mad
impulse, a sort of frenzy of the sort that seizes us only at the age
when there is a something indefinably terrible and infernal in our
desires. Sarrasine longed to rush upon the stage and seize that woman.
His strength, increased a hundredfold by a moral depression impossible
to describe,--for such phenomena take place in a sphere inaccessible
to human observation,--insisted upon manifesting itself with
deplorable violence. Looking at him, you would have said that he was a
cold, dull man. Renown, science, future, life, prizes, all vanished.
"'To win her love or die!' Such was the sentence Sarrasine pronounced
"He was so completely intoxicated that he no longer saw theatre,
audience, or actors, no longer heard the music. Nay, more, there was
no space between him and La Zambinella; he possessed her; his eyes,
fixed steadfastly upon her, took possession of her. An almost
diabolical power enabled him to feel the breath of that voice, to
inhale the fragrant powder with which her hair was covered, to see the
slightest inequalities of her face, to count the blue veins which
threaded their way beneath the satiny skin. And that fresh, brisk
voice of silvery _timbre_, flexible as a thread to which the faintest
breath of air gives form, which it rolls and unrolls, tangles and
blows away, that voice attacked his heart so fiercely that he more
than once uttered an involuntary exclamation, extorted by the
convulsive ecstasy too rarely evoked by human passions. He was soon
obliged to leave the theatre. His trembling legs almost refused to
bear him. He was prostrated, weak, like a nervous man who has given
way to a terrible burst of anger. He had had such exquisite pleasure,
or perhaps had suffered so, that his life had flowed away like water
from an overturned vessel. He felt a void within him, a sense of
goneness like the utter lack of strength which discourages a
convalescent just recovering from a serious sickness. Overwhelmed by
inexplicable melancholy, he sat down on the steps of a church. There,
with his back resting against a pillar, he lost himself in a fit of
meditation as confused as a dream. Passion had dealt him a crushing
blow. On his return to his apartments he was seized by one of those
paroxysms of activity which reveal to us the presence of new
principles in our existence. A prey to that first fever of love which
resembles pain as much as pleasure, he sought to defeat his impatience
and his frenzy by sketching La Zambinella from memory. It was a sort
of material meditation. Upon one leaf La Zambinella appeared in that
pose, apparently calm and cold, affected by Raphael, Georgione, and
all the great painters. On another, she was coyly turning her head as
she finished a roulade, and seemed to be listening to herself.
Sarrasine drew his mistress in all poses: he drew her unveiled,
seated, standing, reclining, chaste, and amorous--interpreting, thanks
to the delirious activity of his pencil, all the fanciful ideas which
beset our imagination when our thoughts are completely engrossed by a
mistress. But his frantic thoughts outran his pencil. He met La
Zambinella, spoke to her, entreated her, exhausted a thousand years of
life and happiness with her, placing her in all imaginable situations,
trying the future with her, so to speak. The next day he sent his
servant to hire a box near the stage for the whole season. Then, like
all young men of powerful feelings, he exaggerated the difficulties of
his undertaking, and gave his passion, for its first pasturage, the
joy of being able to admire his mistress without obstacle. The golden
age of love, during which we enjoy our own sentiments, and in which we
are almost as happy by ourselves, was not likely to last long with
Sarrasine. However, events surprised him when he was still under the
spell of that springtime hallucination, as naive as it was voluptuous.
In a week he lived a whole lifetime, occupied through the day in
molding the clay with which he succeeded in copying La Zambinella,
notwithstanding the veils, the skirts, the waists, and the bows of
ribbon which concealed her from him. In the evening, installed at an
early hour in his box, alone, reclining on a sofa, he made for
himself, like a Turk drunk with opium, a happiness as fruitful, as
lavish, as he wished. First of all, he familiarized himself gradually
with the too intense emotions which his mistress' singing caused him;
then he taught his eyes to look at her, and was finally able to
contemplate her at his leisure without fearing an explosion of
concealed frenzy, like that which had seized him the first day. His
passion became more profound as it became more tranquil. But the
unsociable sculptor would not allow his solitude, peopled as it was
with images, adorned with the fanciful creations of hope, and full of
happiness, to be disturbed by his comrades. His love was so intense
and so ingenuous, that he had to undergo the innocent scruples with
which we are assailed when we love for the first time. As he began to
realize that he would soon be required to bestir himself, to intrigue,
to ask where La Zambinella lived, to ascertain whether she had a
mother, an uncle, a guardian, a family,--in a word, as he reflected
upon the methods of seeing her, of speaking to her, he felt that his
heart was so swollen with such ambitious ideas, that he postponed
those cares until the following day, as happy in his physical
sufferings as in his intellectual pleasures."
"But," said Madame de Rochefide, interrupting me, "I see nothing of
Marianina or her little old man in all this."
"You see nothing but him!" I cried, as vexed as an author for whom
some one has spoiled the effect of a _coup de theatre_.
"For some days," I resumed after a pause, "Sarrasine had been so
faithful in attendance in his box, and his glances expressed such
passionate love, that his passion for La Zambinella's voice would have
been the town-talk of Paris, if the episode had happened here; but in
Italy, madame, every one goes to the theatre for his own enjoyment,
with all his own passions, with a heartfelt interest which precludes
all thought of espionage with opera-glasses. However, the sculptor's
frantic admiration could not long escape the notice of the performers,
male and female. One evening the Frenchman noticed that they were
laughing at him in the wings. It is hard to say what violent measures
he might have resorted to, had not La Zambinella come on the stage.
She cast at Sarrasine one of those eloquent glances which often say
more than women intend. That glance was a complete revelation in
itself. Sarrasine was beloved!
"'If it is a mere caprice,' he thought, already accusing his mistress
of too great ardor, 'she does not know the sort of domination to which
she is about to become subject. Her caprice will last, I trust, as
long as my life.'
"At that moment, three light taps on the door of his box attracted the
artist's attention. He opened the door. An old woman entered with an
air of mystery.
"'Young man,' she said, 'if you wish to be happy, be prudent. Wrap
yourself in a cloak, pull a broad-brimmed hat over your eyes, and be
on the Rue du Corso, in front of the Hotel d'Espagne, about ten
"'I will be there,' he replied, putting two louis in the duenna's
"He rushed from his box, after a sign of intelligence to La
Zambinella, who lowered her voluptuous eyelids modestly, like a woman
overjoyed to be understood at last. Then he hurried home, in order to
borrow from his wardrobe all the charms it could loan him. As he left
the theatre, a stranger grasped his arm.
"'Beware, Signor Frenchman,' he said in his ear. 'This is a matter of
life and death. Cardinal Cicognara is her protector, and he is no
"If a demon had placed the deep pit of hell between Sarrasine and La
Zambinella, he would have crossed it with one stride at that moment.
Like the horses of the immortal gods described by Homer, the
sculptor's love had traversed vast spaces in a twinkling.
"'If death awaited me on leaving the house, I would go the more
quickly,' he replied.
"'_Poverino!_' cried the stranger, as he disappeared.
"To talk of danger to a man in love is to sell him pleasure.
Sarrasine's valet had never seen his master so painstaking in the
matter of dress. His finest sword, a gift from Bouchardon, the
bow-knot Clotilde gave him, his coat with gold braid, his waistcoat
of cloth of silver, his gold snuff-box, his valuable watch,
everything was taken from its place, and he arrayed himself like a
maiden about to appear before her first lover. At the appointed hour,
drunk with love and boiling over with hope, Sarrasine, his nose
buried in his cloak, hurried to the rendezvous appointed by the old
woman. She was waiting.
"'You are very late,' she said. 'Come.'
"She led the Frenchman through several narrow streets and stopped in
front of a palace of attractive appearance. She knocked; the door
opened. She led Sarrasine through a labyrinth of stairways, galleries,
and apartments which were lighted only by uncertain gleams of
moonlight, and soon reached a door through the cracks of which stole a
bright light, and from which came the joyous sound of several voices.
Sarrasine was suddenly blinded when, at a word from the old woman, he
was admitted to that mysterious apartment and found himself in a salon
as brilliantly lighted as it was sumptuously furnished; in the centre
stood a bountifully supplied table, laden with inviolable bottles,
with laughing decanters whose red facets sparkled merrily. He
recognized the singers from the theatre, male and female, mingled with
charming women, all ready to begin an artists' spree and waiting only
for him. Sarrasine restrained a feeling of displeasure and put a good
face on the matter. He had hoped for a dimly lighted chamber, his
mistress leaning over a brazier, a jealous rival within two steps,
death and love, confidences exchanged in low tones, heart to heart,
hazardous kisses, and faces so near together that La Zambinella's hair
would have touched caressingly his desire-laden brow, burning with
"'_Vive la folie!_' he cried. '_Signori e belle donne_, you will
allow me to postpone my revenge and bear witness to my gratitude for
the welcome you offer a poor sculptor.'
"After receiving congratulations not lacking in warmth from most of
those present, whom he knew by sight, he tried to approach the couch
on which La Zambinella was nonchalantly reclining. Ah! how his heart
beat when he spied a tiny foot in one of those slippers which--if you
will allow me to say so, madame--formerly imparted to a woman's feet
such a coquettish, voluptuous look that I cannot conceive how men
could resist them. Tightly fitting white stockings with green clocks,
short skirts, and the pointed, high-heeled slippers of Louis XV.'s
time contributed somewhat, I fancy, to the demoralization of Europe
and the clergy."
"Somewhat!" exclaimed the marchioness. "Have you read nothing, pray?"
"La Zambinella," I continued, smiling, "had boldly crossed her legs,
and as she prattled swung the upper one, a duchess' attitude very well
suited to her capricious type of beauty, overflowing with a certain
attractive suppleness. She had laid aside her stage costume, and wore
a waist which outlined a slender figure, displayed to the best
advantage by a _panier_ and a satin dress embroidered with blue
flowers. Her breast, whose treasures were concealed by a coquettish
arrangement of lace, was of a gleaming white. Her hair was dressed
almost like Madame du Barry's; her face, although overshadowed by a
large cap, seemed only the daintier therefor, and the powder was very
becoming to her. She smiled graciously at the sculptor. Sarrasine,
disgusted beyond measure at finding himself unable to speak to her
without witnesses, courteously seated himself beside her, and
discoursed of music, extolling her prodigious talent; but his voice
trembled with love and fear and hope.
"'What do you fear?' queried Vitagliani, the most celebrated singer
in the troupe. 'Go on, you have no rival here to fear.'
"After he had said this the tenor smiled silently. The lips of all the
guests repeated that smile, in which there was a lurking expression of
malice likely to escape a lover. The publicity of his love was like a
sudden dagger-thrust in Sarrasine's heart. Although possessed of a
certain strength of character, and although nothing that might happen
could subdue the violence of his passion, it had not before occurred
to him that La Zambinella was almost a courtesan, and that he could
not hope to enjoy at one and the same time the pure delights which
would make a maiden's love so sweet, and the passionate transports
with which one must purchase the perilous favors of an actress. He
reflected and resigned himself to his fate. The supper was served.
Sarrasine and La Zambinella seated themselves side by side without
ceremony. During the first half of the feast the artists exercised
some restraint, and the sculptor was able to converse with the singer.
He found that she was very bright and quick-witted; but she was
amazingly ignorant and seemed weak and superstitious. The delicacy of
her organs was reproduced in her understanding. When Vitagliani opened
the first bottle of champagne, Sarrasine read in his neighbor's eyes a
shrinking dread of the report caused by the release of the gas. The
involuntary shudder of that thoroughly feminine temperament was
interpreted by the amorous artist as indicating extreme delicacy of
feeling. This weakness delighted the Frenchman. There is so much of
the element of protection in a man's love!
"'You may make use of my power as a shield!'
"Is not that sentence written at the root of all declarations of love?
Sarrasine, who was too passionately in love to make fine speeches to
the fair Italian, was, like all lovers, grave, jovial, meditative, by
turns. Although he seemed to listen to the guests, he did not hear a
word that they said, he was so wrapped up in the pleasure of sitting
by her side, of touching her hand, of waiting on her. He was swimming
in a sea of concealed joy. Despite the eloquence of divers glances
they exchanged, he was amazed at La Zambinella's continued reserve
toward him. She had begun, it is true, by touching his foot with hers
and stimulating his passion with the mischievous pleasure of a woman
who is free and in love; but she had suddenly enveloped herself in
maidenly modesty, after she had heard Sarrasine relate an incident
which illustrated the extreme violence of his temper. When the supper
became a debauch, the guests began to sing, inspired by the Peralta
and the Pedro-Ximenes. There were fascinating duets, Calabrian
ballads, Spanish _sequidillas_, and Neapolitan _canzonettes_.
Drunkenness was in all eyes, in the music, in the hearts and voices of
the guests. There was a sudden overflow of bewitching vivacity, of
cordial unconstraint, of Italian good nature, of which no words can
convey an idea to those who know only the evening parties of Paris,
the routs of London, or the clubs of Vienna. Jests and words of love
flew from side to side like bullets in a battle, amid laughter,
impieties, invocations to the Blessed Virgin or the _Bambino_. One man
lay on a sofa and fell asleep. A young woman listened to a
declaration, unconscious that she was spilling Xeres wine on the
tablecloth. Amid all this confusion La Zambinella, as if
terror-stricken, seemed lost in thought. She refused to drink, but ate
perhaps a little too much; but gluttony is attractive in women, it is
said. Sarrasine, admiring his mistress' modesty, indulged in serious
reflections concerning the future.
"'She desires to be married, I presume,' he said to himself.
"Thereupon he abandoned himself to blissful anticipations of marriage
with her. It seemed to him that his whole life would be too short to
exhaust the living spring of happiness which he found in the depths of
his heart. Vitagliani, who sat on his other side, filled his glass so
often that, about three in the morning, Sarrasine, while not
absolutely drunk, was powerless to resist his delirious passion. In a
moment of frenzy he seized the woman and carried her to a sort of
boudoir which opened from the salon, and toward which he had more than
once turned his eyes. The Italian was armed with a dagger.
"'If you come hear me,' she said, 'I shall be compelled to plunge
this blade into your heart. Go! you would despise me. I have conceived
too great a respect for your character to abandon myself to you thus.
I do not choose to destroy the sentiment with which you honor me.'
"'Ah!' said Sarrasine, 'to stimulate a passion is a poor way to
extinguish it! Are you already so corrupt that, being old in heart,
you act like a young prostitute who inflames the emotions in which she
"'Why, this is Friday,' she replied, alarmed by the Frenchman's
"Sarrasine, who was not piously inclined, began to laugh. La
Zambinella gave a bound like a young deer, and darted into the salon.
When Sarrasine appeared, running after her, he was welcomed by a roar
of infernal laughter. He saw La Zambinella swooning on a sofa. She was
very pale, as if exhausted by the extraordinary effort she had made.
Although Sarrasine knew but little Italian, he understood his mistress
when she said to Vitagliani in a low voice:
"'But he will kill me!'
"This strange scene abashed the sculptor. His reason returned. He
stood still for a moment; then he recovered his speech, sat down
beside his mistress, and assured her of his profound respect. He found
strength to hold his passion in check while talking to her in the most
exalted strain; and, to describe his love, he displayed all the
treasures of eloquence--that sorcerer, that friendly interpreter, whom
women rarely refuse to believe. When the first rays of dawn surprised
the boon companions, some woman suggested that they go to Frascati.
One and all welcomed with loud applause the idea of passing the day at
Villa Ludovisi. Vitagliani went down to hire carriages. Sarrasine had
the good fortune to drive La Zambinella in a phaeton. When they had
left Rome behind, the merriment of the party, repressed for a moment
by the battle they had all been fighting against drowsiness, suddenly
awoke. All, men and women alike, seemed accustomed to that strange
life, that constant round of pleasures, that artistic energy, which
makes of life one never ending _fete_, where laughter reigns,
unchecked by fear of the future. The sculptor's companion was the only
one who seemed out of spirits.
"'Are you ill?' Sarrasine asked her. 'Would you prefer to go home?'
"'I am not strong enough to stand all this dissipation,' she replied.
'I have to be very careful; but I feel so happy with you! Except for
you, I should not have remained to this supper; a night like this
takes away all my freshness.'
"'You are so delicate!' rejoined Sarrasine, gazing in rapture at the
charming creature's dainty features.
"'Dissipation ruins my voice.'
"'Now that we are alone,' cried the artist, 'and that you no longer
have reason to fear the effervescence of my passion, tell me that you
"'Why?' said she; 'for what good purpose? You think me pretty. But
you are a Frenchman, and your fancy will pass away. Ah! you would not
love me as I should like to be loved.'
"'Purely, with no mingling of vulgar passion. I abhor men even more,
perhaps than I hate women. I need to take refuge in friendship. The
world is a desert to me. I am an accursed creature, doomed to
understand happiness, to feel it, to desire it, and like many, many
others, compelled to see it always fly from me. Remember, signor, that
I have not deceived you. I forbid you to love me. I can be a devoted
friend to you, for I admire your strength of will and your character.
I need a brother, a protector. Be both of these to me, but nothing
"'And not love you!' cried Sarrasine; 'but you are my life, my
happiness, dear angel!'
"'If I should say a word, you would spurn me with horror.'
"'Coquette! nothing can frighten me. Tell me that you will cost me my
whole future, that I shall die two months hence, that I shall be
damned for having kissed you but once----'
"And he kissed her, despite La Zambinella's efforts to avoid that
"'Tell me that you are a demon, that I must give you my fortune, my
name, all my renown! Would you have me cease to be a sculptor? Speak.'
"'Suppose I were not a woman?' queried La Zambinella, timidly, in a
sweet, silvery voice.
"'A merry jest!' cried Sarrasine. 'Think you that you can deceive an
artist's eye? Have I not, for ten days past, admired, examined,
devoured, thy perfections? None but a woman can have this soft and
beautifully rounded arm, these graceful outlines. Ah! you seek
"She smiled sadly, and murmured:
"She raised her eyes to the sky. At that moment, there was in her eyes
an indefinable expression of horror, so startling, so intense, that
"'Signor Frenchman,' she continued, 'forget forever a moment's
madness. I esteem you, but as for love, do not ask me for that; that
sentiment is suffocated in my heart. I have no heart!' she cried,
weeping bitterly. 'The stage on which you saw me, the applause, the
music, the renown to which I am condemned--those are my life; I have
no other. A few hours hence you will no longer look upon me with the
same eyes, the woman you love will be dead.'
"The sculptor did not reply. He was seized with a dull rage which
contracted his heart. He could do nothing but gaze at that
extraordinary woman, with inflamed, burning eyes. That feeble voice,
La Zambinella's attitude, manners, and gestures, instinct with
dejection, melancholy, and discouragement, reawakened in his soul all
the treasures of passion. Each word was a spur. At that moment, they
arrived at Frascati. When the artist held out his arms to help his
mistress to alight, he felt that she trembled from head to foot.
"'What is the matter? You would kill me,' he cried, seeing that she
turned pale, 'if you should suffer the slightest pain of which I am,
even innocently, the cause.'
"'A snake!' she said, pointing to a reptile which was gliding along
the edge of a ditch. 'I am afraid of the disgusting creatures.'
"Sarrasine crushed the snake's head with a blow of his foot.
"'How could you dare to do it?' said La Zambinella, gazing at the
dead reptile with visible terror.
"'Aha!' said the artist, with a smile, 'would you venture to say now
that you are not a woman?'
"They joined their companions and walked through the woods of Villa
Ludovisi, which at that time belonged to Cardinal Cicognara. The
morning passed all too swiftly for the amorous sculptor, but it was
crowded with incidents which laid bare to him the coquetry, the
weakness, the daintiness, of that pliant, inert soul. She was a true
woman with her sudden terrors, her unreasoning caprices, her
instinctive worries, her causeless audacity, her bravado, and her
fascinating delicacy of feeling. At one time, as the merry little
party of singers ventured out into the open country, they saw at some
distance a number of men armed to the teeth, whose costume was by no
means reassuring. At the words, 'Those are brigands!' they all
quickened their pace in order to reach the shelter of the wall
enclosing the cardinal's villa. At that critical moment Sarrasine saw
from La Zambinella's manner that she no longer had strength to walk;
he took her in his arms and carried her for some distance, running.
When he was within call of a vineyard near by, he set his mistress
"'Tell me,' he said, 'why it is that this extreme weakness which in
another woman would be hideous, would disgust me, so that the
slightest indication of it would be enough to destroy my love,--why is
it that in you it pleases me, fascinates me? Oh, how I love you!' he
continued. 'All your faults, your frights, your petty foibles, add an
indescribable charm to your character. I feel that I should detest a
Sappho, a strong, courageous woman, overflowing with energy and
passion. O sweet and fragile creature! how couldst thou be otherwise?
That angel's voice, that refined voice, would have been an anachronism
coming from any other breast than thine.'
"'I can give you no hope,' she said. 'Cease to speak thus to me, for
people would make sport of you. It is impossible for me to shut the
door of the theatre to you; but if you love me, or if you are wise,
you will come there no more. Listen to me, monsieur,' she continued in
a grave voice.
"'Oh, hush!' said the excited artist. 'Obstacles inflame the love in
"La Zambinella maintained a graceful and modest attitude; but she held
her peace, as if a terrible thought had suddenly revealed some
catastrophe. When it was time to return to Rome she entered a berlin
with four seats, bidding the sculptor, with a cruelly imperious air,
to return alone in the phaeton. On the road, Sarrasine determined to
carry off La Zambinella. He passed the whole day forming plans, each
more extravagant than the last. At nightfall, as he was going out to
inquire of somebody where his mistress lived, he met one of his
fellow-artists at the door.
"'My dear fellow,' he said, I am sent by our ambassador to invite you
to come to the embassy this evening. He gives a magnificent concert,
and when I tell you that La Zambinella will be there--'
"'Zambinella!' cried Sarrasine, thrown into delirium by that name; 'I
am mad with love of her.'
"'You are like everybody else,' replied his comrade.
"'But if you are friends of mine, you and Vien and Lauterbourg and
Allegrain, you will lend me your assistance for a _coup de main_,
after the entertainment, will you not?' asked Sarrasine.
"'There's no cardinal to be killed? no--?'
"'No, no!' said Sarrasine, 'I ask nothing of you that men of honor
may not do.'
"In a few moments the sculptor laid all his plans to assure the
success of his enterprise. He was one of the last to arrive at the
ambassador's, but he went thither in a traveling carriage drawn by
four stout horses and driven by one of the most skilful _vetturini_
in Rome. The ambassador's palace was full of people; not without
difficulty did the sculptor, whom nobody knew, make his way to the
salon where La Zambinella was singing at that moment.
"'It must be in deference to all the cardinals, bishops, and _abbes_
who are here,' said Sarrasine, 'that _she_ is dressed as a man, that
_she_ has curly hair which _she_ wears in a bag, and that _she_ has a
sword at her side?'
"'She! what she?' rejoined the old nobleman whom Sarrasine addressed.
"'La Zambinella!' echoed the Roman prince. 'Are you jesting? Whence
have you come? Did a woman ever appear in a Roman theatre? And do you
not know what sort of creatures play female parts within the domains
of the Pope? It was I, monsieur, who endowed Zambinella with his
voice. I paid all the knave's expenses, even his teacher in singing.
And he has so little gratitude for the service I have done him that he
has never been willing to step inside my house. And yet, if he makes
his fortune, he will owe it all to me.'
"Prince Chigi might have talked on forever, Sarrasine did not listen
to him. A ghastly truth had found its way into his mind. He was
stricken as if by a thunderbolt. He stood like a statue, his eyes
fastened on the singer. His flaming glance exerted a sort of magnetic
influence on Zambinella, for he turned his eyes at last in Sarrasine's
direction, and his divine voice faltered. He trembled! An involuntary
murmur escaped the audience, which he held fast as if fastened to his
lips; and that completely disconcerted him; he stopped in the middle
of the aria he was singing and sat down. Cardinal Cicognara, who had
watched from the corner of his eye the direction of his _protege's_
glance, saw the Frenchman; he leaned toward one of his ecclesiastical
aides-de-camp, and apparently asked the sculptor's name. When he had
obtained the reply he desired he scrutinized the artist with great
attention and gave orders to an _abbe_, who instantly disappeared.
Meanwhile Zambinella, having recovered his self-possession, resumed
the aria he had so capriciously broken off; but he sang badly, and
refused, despite all the persistent appeals showered upon him, to sing
anything else. It was the first time he had exhibited that humorsome
tyranny, which, at a later date, contributed no less to his celebrity
than his talent and his vast fortune, which was said to be due to his
beauty as much as to his voice.
"'It's a woman,' said Sarrasine, thinking that no one could overhear
him. 'There's some secret intrigue beneath all this. Cardinal
Cicognara is hoodwinking the Pope and the whole city of Rome!'
"The sculptor at once left the salon, assembled his friends, and lay
in wait in the courtyard of the palace. When Zambinella was assured of
Sarrasine's departure he seemed to recover his tranquillity in some
measure. About midnight after wandering through the salons like a man
looking for an enemy, the _musico_ left the party. As he passed
through the palace gate he was seized by men who deftly gagged him
with a handkerchief and placed him in the carriage hired by Sarrasine.
Frozen with terror, Zambinella lay back in a corner, not daring to
move a muscle. He saw before him the terrible face of the artist, who
maintained a deathlike silence. The journey was a short one.
Zambinella, kidnaped by Sarrasine, soon found himself in a dark, bare
studio. He sat, half dead, upon a chair, hardly daring to glance at a
statue of a woman, in which he recognized his own features. He did not
utter a word, but his teeth were chattering; he was paralyzed with
fear. Sarrasine was striding up and down the studio. Suddenly he
halted in front of Zambinella.
"'Tell me the truth,' he said, in a changed and hollow voice. 'Are
you not a woman? Cardinal Cicognara----'
"Zambinella fell on his knees, and replied only by hanging his head.
"'Ah! you are a woman!' cried the artist in a frenzy; 'for even a--'
"He did not finish the sentence.
"'No,' he continued, 'even _he_ could not be so utterly base.'
"'Oh, do not kill me!' cried Zambinella, bursting into tears. 'I
consented to deceive you only to gratify my comrades, who wanted an
opportunity to laugh.'
"'Laugh!' echoed the sculptor, in a voice in which there was a ring
of infernal ferocity. 'Laugh! laugh! You dared to make sport of a
"'Oh, mercy!' cried Zambinella.
"'I ought to kill you!' shouted Sarrasine, drawing his sword in an
outburst of rage. 'But,' he continued, with cold disdain, 'if I
searched your whole being with this blade, should I find there any
sentiment to blot out, anything with which to satisfy my thirst for
vengeance? You are nothing! If you were a man or a woman, I would kill
"Sarrasine made a gesture of disgust, and turned his face away;
thereupon he noticed the statue.
"'And that is a delusion!' he cried.
"Then, turning to Zambinella once more, he continued:
"'A woman's heart was to me a place of refuge, a fatherland. Have you
sisters who resemble you? No. Then die! But no, you shall live. To
leave you your life is to doom you to a fate worse than death. I
regret neither my blood nor my life, but my future and the fortune of
my heart. Your weak hand has overturned my happiness. What hope can I
extort from you in place of all those you have destroyed? You have
brought me down to your level. _To love, to be loved!_ are henceforth
meaningless words to me, as to you. I shall never cease to think of
that imaginary woman when I see a real woman.'
"He pointed to the statue with a gesture of despair.
"'I shall always have in my memory a divine harpy who will bury her
talons in all my manly sentiments, and who will stamp all other women
with a seal of imperfection. Monster! you, who can give life to
nothing, have swept all women off the face of the earth.'
"Sarrasine seated himself in front of the terrified singer. Two great
tears came from his dry eyes, rolled down his swarthy cheeks, and fell
to the floor--two tears of rage, two scalding, burning tears.
"'An end of love! I am dead to all pleasure, to all human emotions!'
"As he spoke, he seized a hammer and hurled it at the statue with such
excessive force that he missed it. He thought that he had destroyed
that monument of his madness, and thereupon he drew his sword again,
and raised it to kill the singer. Zambinella uttered shriek after
shriek. Three men burst into the studio at that moment, and the
sculptor fell, pieced by three daggers.
"'From Cardinal Cicognara,' said one of the men.
"'A benefaction worthy of a Christian,' retorted the Frenchman, as he
breathed his last.
"These ominous emissaries told Zambinella of the anxiety of his
patron, who was waiting at the door in a closed carriage in order to
take him away as soon as he was set at liberty."
"But," said Madame de Rochefide, "what connection is there between
this story and the little old man we saw at the Lantys'?"
"Madame, Cardinal Cicognara took possession of Zambinella's statue and
had it reproduced in marble; it is in the Albani Museum to-day. In
1794 the Lanty family discovered it there, and asked Vien to copy it.
The portrait which showed you Zambinella at twenty, a moment after you
had seen him as a centenarian, afterward figured in Girodet's
_Endymion_; you yourself recognized the type in _Adonis_."
"But this Zambinella, male or female--"
"Must be, madame, Marianina's maternal great uncle. You can conceive
now Madame de Lanty's interest in concealing the source of a fortune
"Enough!" said she, with an imperious gesture.
We remained for a moment in the most profound silence.
"Well?" I said at last.
"Ah!" she cried, rising and pacing the floor.
She came and looked me in the face, and said in an altered voice:
"You have disgusted me with life and passion for a long time to come.
Leaving monstrosities aside, are not all human sentiments dissolved
thus, by ghastly disillusionment? Children torture mothers by their
bad conduct, or their lack of affection. Wives are betrayed.
Mistresses are cast aside, abandoned. Talk of friendship! Is there
such a thing! I would turn pious to-morrow if I did not know that I
can remain like the inaccessible summit of a cliff amid the tempests
of life. If the future of the Christian is an illusion too, at all
events it is not destroyed until after death. Leave me to myself."
"Ah!" said I, "you know how to punish."
"Am I in the wrong?"
"Yes," I replied, with a sort of desperate courage. "By finishing this
story, which is well known in Italy, I can give you an excellent idea
of the progress made by the civilization of the present day. There are
none of those wretched creatures now."
"Paris," said she, "is an exceedingly hospitable place; it welcomes
one and all, fortunes stained with shame, and fortunes stained with
blood. Crime and infamy have a right of asylum here; virtue alone is
without altars. But pure hearts have a fatherland in heaven! No one
will have known me! I am proud of it."
And the marchioness was lost in thought.
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
Carigliano, Marechal, Duc de
At the Sign of the Cat and Racket
Lanty, Comte de
The Member for Arcis
Lanty, Comtesse de
The Member for Arcis
Lanty, Marianina de
The Member for Arcis
Lanty, Filippo de
The Member for Arcis
Rochefide, Marquise de
The Secrets of a Princess
A Daughter of Eve
A Prince of Bohemia
The Member for Arcis
The Member for Arcis
The Member for Arcis
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