By Honore De Balzac
Translated by Clara Bell and Others
To His Highness Count William of Wurtemberg, as a
token of the
Author's respectful gratitude.
I never saw anybody, not even among the most remarkable men of the day,
whose appearance was so striking as this man's; the study of his
countenance at first gave me a feeling of great melancholy, and at last
produced an almost painful impression.
There was a certain harmony between the man and his name. The Z. preceding
Marcas, which was seen on the addresses of his letters, and which he never
omitted from his signature, as the last letter of the alphabet, suggested
some mysterious fatality.
MARCAS! say this two-syllabled name again and again; do you not feel as if
it had some sinister meaning? Does it not seem to you that its owner must
be doomed to martyrdom? Though foreign, savage, the name has a right to be
handed down to posterity; it is well constructed, easily pronounced, and
has the brevity that beseems a famous name. Is it not pleasant as well as
odd? But does it not sound unfinished?
I will not take it upon myself to assert that names have no influence on
the destiny of men. There is a certain secret and inexplicable concord or
a visible discord between the events of a man's life and his name which is
truly surprising; often some remote but very real correlation is revealed.
Our globe is round; everything is linked to everything else. Some day
perhaps we shall revert to the occult sciences.
Do you not discern in that letter Z an adverse influence? Does it not
prefigure the wayward and fantastic progress of a storm-tossed life? What
wind blew on that letter, which, whatever language we find it in, begins
scarcely fifty words? Marcas' name was Zephirin; Saint Zephirin is highly
venerated in Brittany, and Marcas was a Breton.
Study the name once more: Z Marcas! The man's whole life lies in this
fantastic juxtaposition of seven letters; seven! the most significant of
all the cabalistic numbers. And he died at five-and-thirty, so his life
extended over seven lustres.
Marcas! Does it not hint of some precious object that is broken with a
fall, with or without a crash?
I had finished studying the law in Paris in 1836. I lived at that time in
the Rue Corneille in a house where none but students came to lodge, one of
those large houses where there is a winding staircase quite at the back
lighted below from the street, higher up by borrowed lights, and at the
top by a skylight. There were forty furnished rooms—furnished as
students' rooms are! What does youth demand more than was here supplied? A
bed, a few chairs, a chest of drawers, a looking-glass, and a table. As
soon as the sky is blue the student opens his window.
But in this street there are no fair neighbors to flirt with. In front is
the Odeon, long since closed, presenting a wall that is beginning to go
black, its tiny gallery windows and its vast expanse of slate roof. I was
not rich enough to have a good room; I was not even rich enough to have a
room to myself. Juste and I shared a double-bedded room on the fifth
On our side of the landing there were but two rooms—ours and a
smaller one, occupied by Z. Marcas, our neighbor. For six months Juste and
I remained in perfect ignorance of the fact. The old woman who managed the
house had indeed told us that the room was inhabited, but she had added
that we should not be disturbed, that the occupant was exceedingly quiet.
In fact, for those six months, we never met our fellow-lodger, and we
never heard a sound in his room, in spite of the thinness of the partition
that divided us—one of those walls of lath and plaster which are
common in Paris houses.
Our room, a little over seven feet high, was hung with a vile cheap paper
sprigged with blue. The floor was painted, and knew nothing of the polish
given by the frotteur's brush. By our beds there was only a scrap
of thin carpet. The chimney opened immediately to the roof, and smoked so
abominably that we were obliged to provide a stove at our own expense. Our
beds were mere painted wooden cribs like those in schools; on the chimney
shelf there were but two brass candlesticks, with or without tallow
candles in them, and our two pipes with some tobacco in a pouch or strewn
abroad, also the little piles of cigar-ash left there by our visitors or
A pair of calico curtains hung from the brass window rods, and on each
side of the window was a small bookcase in cherry-wood, such as every one
knows who has stared into the shop windows of the Quartier Latin, and in
which we kept the few books necessary for our studies.
The ink in the inkstand was always in the state of lava congealed in the
crater of a volcano. May not any inkstand nowadays become a Vesuvius? The
pens, all twisted, served to clean the stems of our pipes; and, in
opposition to all the laws of credit, paper was even scarcer than coin.
How can young men be expected to stay at home in such furnished lodgings?
The students studied in the cafes, the theatre, the Luxembourg gardens, in
grisettes' rooms, even in the law schools—anywhere rather
than in their horrible rooms—horrible for purposes of study,
delightful as soon as they were used for gossiping and smoking in. Put a
cloth on the table, and the impromptu dinner sent in from the best
eating-house in the neighborhood—places for four—two of them
in petticoats—show a lithograph of this "Interior" to the veriest
bigot, and she will be bound to smile.
We thought only of amusing ourselves. The reason for our dissipation lay
in the most serious facts of the politics of the time. Juste and I could
not see any room for us in the two professions our parents wished us to
take up. There are a hundred doctors, a hundred lawyers, for one that is
wanted. The crowd is choking these two paths which are supposed to lead to
fortune, but which are merely two arenas; men kill each other there,
fighting, not indeed with swords or fire-arms, but with intrigue and
calumny, with tremendous toil, campaigns in the sphere of the intellect as
murderous as those in Italy were to the soldiers of the Republic. In these
days, when everything is an intellectual competition, a man must be able
to sit forty-eight hours on end in his chair before a table, as a General
could remain for two days on horseback and in his saddle.
The throng of aspirants has necessitated a division of the Faculty of
Medicine into categories. There is the physician who writes and the
physician who practises, the political physician, and the physician
militant—four different ways of being a physician, four classes
already filled up. As to the fifth class, that of physicians who sell
remedies, there is such a competition that they fight each other with
disgusting advertisements on the walls of Paris.
In all the law courts there are almost as many lawyers as there are cases.
The pleader is thrown back on journalism, on politics, on literature. In
fact, the State, besieged for the smallest appointments under the law, has
ended by requiring that the applicants should have some little fortune.
The pear-shaped head of the grocer's son is selected in preference to the
square skull of a man of talent who has not a sou. Work as he will, with
all his energy, a young man, starting from zero, may at the end of ten
years find himself below the point he set out from. In these days, talent
must have the good luck which secures success to the most incapable; nay,
more, if it scorns the base compromises which insure advancement to
crawling mediocrity, it will never get on.
If we thoroughly knew our time, we also knew ourselves, and we preferred
the indolence of dreamers to aimless stir, easy-going pleasure to the
useless toil which would have exhausted our courage and worn out the edge
of our intelligence. We had analyzed social life while smoking, laughing,
and loafing. But, though elaborated by such means as these, our
reflections were none the less judicious and profound.
While we were fully conscious of the slavery to which youth is condemned,
we were amazed at the brutal indifference of the authorities to everything
connected with intellect, thought, and poetry. How often have Juste and I
exchanged glances when reading the papers as we studied political events,
or the debates in the Chamber, and discussed the proceedings of a Court
whose wilful ignorance could find no parallel but in the platitude of the
courtiers, the mediocrity of the men forming the hedge round the
newly-restored throne, all alike devoid of talent or breadth of view, of
distinction or learning, of influence or dignity!
Could there be a higher tribute to the Court of Charles X. than the
present Court, if Court it may be called? What a hatred of the country may
be seen in the naturalization of vulgar foreigners, devoid of talent, who
are enthroned in the Chamber of Peers! What a perversion of justice! What
an insult to the distinguished youth, the ambitions native to the soil of
France! We looked upon these things as upon a spectacle, and groaned over
them, without taking upon ourselves to act.
Juste, whom no one ever sought, and who never sought any one, was, at
five-and-twenty, a great politician, a man with a wonderful aptitude for
apprehending the correlation between remote history and the facts of the
present and of the future. In 1831, he told me exactly what would and did
happen—the murders, the conspiracies, the ascendency of the Jews,
the difficulty of doing anything in France, the scarcity of talent in the
higher circles, and the abundance of intellect in the lowest ranks, where
the finest courage is smothered under cigar ashes.
What was to become of him? His parents wished him to be a doctor. But if
he were a doctor, must he not wait twenty years for a practice? You know
what he did? No? Well, he is a doctor; but he left France, he is in Asia.
At this moment he is perhaps sinking under fatigue in a desert, or dying
of the lashes of a barbarous horde—or perhaps he is some Indian
prince's prime minister.
Action is my vocation. Leaving a civil college at the age of twenty, the
only way for me to enter the army was by enlisting as a common soldier;
so, weary of the dismal outlook that lay before a lawyer, I acquired the
knowledge needed for a sailor. I imitate Juste, and keep out of France,
where men waste, in the struggle to make way, the energy needed for the
noblest works. Follow my example, friends; I am going where a man steers
his destiny as he pleases.
These great resolutions were formed in the little room in the
lodging-house in the Rue Corneille, in spite of our haunting the Bal
Musard, flirting with girls of the town, and leading a careless and
apparently reckless life. Our plans and arguments long floated in the air.
Marcas, our neighbor, was in some degree the guide who led us to the
margin of the precipice or the torrent, who made us sound it, and showed
us beforehand what our fate would be if we let ourselves fall into it. It
was he who put us on our guard against the time-bargains a man makes with
poverty under the sanction of hope, by accepting precarious situations
whence he fights the battle, carried along by the devious tide of Paris—that
great harlot who takes you up or leaves you stranded, smiles or turns her
back on you with equal readiness, wears out the strongest will in
vexatious waiting, and makes misfortune wait on chance.
At our first meeting, Marcas, as it were, dazzled us. On our return from
the schools, a little before the dinner-hour, we were accustomed to go up
to our room and remain there a while, either waiting for the other, to
learn whether there were any change in our plans for the evening. One day,
at four o'clock, Juste met Marcas on the stairs, and I saw him in the
street. It was in the month of November, and Marcas had no cloak; he wore
shoes with heavy soles, corduroy trousers, and a blue double-breasted coat
buttoned to the throat, which gave a military air to his broad chest, all
the more so because he wore a black stock. The costume was not in itself
extraordinary, but it agreed well with the man's mien and countenance.
My first impression on seeing him was neither surprise, nor distress, nor
interest, nor pity, but curiosity mingled with all these feelings. He
walked slowly, with a step that betrayed deep melancholy, his head forward
with a stoop, but not bent like that of a conscience-stricken man. That
head, large and powerful, which might contain the treasures necessary for
a man of the highest ambition, looked as if it were loaded with thought;
it was weighted with grief of mind, but there was no touch of remorse in
his expression. As to his face, it may be summed up in a word. A common
superstition has it that every human countenance resembles some animal.
The animal for Marcas was the lion. His hair was like a mane, his nose was
sort and flat; broad and dented at the tip like a lion's; his brow, like a
lion's, was strongly marked with a deep median furrow, dividing two
powerful bosses. His high, hairy cheek-bones, all the more prominent
because his cheeks were so thin, his enormous mouth and hollow jaws, were
accentuated by lines of tawny shadows. This almost terrible countenance
seemed illuminated by two lamps—two eyes, black indeed, but
infinitely sweet, calm and deep, full of thought. If I may say so, those
eyes had a humiliated expression.
Marcas was afraid of looking directly at others, not for himself, but for
those on whom his fascinating gaze might rest; he had a power, and he
shunned using it; he would spare those he met, and he feared notice. This
was not from modesty, but from resignation founded on reason, which had
demonstrated the immediate inutility of his gifts, the impossibility of
entering and living in the sphere for which he was fitted. Those eyes
could at times flash lightnings. From those lips a voice of thunder must
surely proceed; it was a mouth like Mirabeau's.
"I have seen such a grand fellow in the street," said I to Juste on coming
"It must be our neighbor," replied Juste, who described, in fact, the man
I had just met. "A man who lives like a wood-louse would be sure to look
like that," he added.
"What dejection and what dignity!"
"One is the consequence of the other."
"What ruined hopes! What schemes and failures!"
"Seven leagues of ruins! Obelisks—palaces—towers!—The
ruins of Palmyra in the desert!" said Juste, laughing.
So we called him the Ruins of Palmyra.
As we went out to dine at the wretched eating-house in the Rue de la Harpe
to which we subscribed, we asked the name of Number 37, and then heard the
weird name Z. Marcas. Like boys, as we were, we repeated it more than a
hundred times with all sorts of comments, absurd or melancholy, and the
name lent itself to a jest. Juste would fire off the Z like a rocket
rising, z-z-z-z-zed; and after pronouncing the first syllable of
the name with great importance, depicted a fall by the dull brevity of the
"Now, how and where does the man live?"
From this query, to the innocent espionage of curiosity there was no pause
but that required for carrying out our plan. Instead of loitering about
the streets, we both came in, each armed with a novel. We read with our
ears open. And in the perfect silence of our attic rooms, we heard the
even, dull sound of a sleeping man breathing.
"He is asleep," said I to Juste, noticing this fact.
"At seven o'clock!" replied the Doctor.
This was the name by which I called Juste, and he called me the Keeper of
"A man must be wretched indeed to sleep as much as our neighbor!" cried I,
jumping on to the chest of drawers with a knife in my hand, to which a
corkscrew was attached.
I made a round hole at the top of the partition, about as big as a
five-sou piece. I had forgotten that there would be no light in the room,
and on putting my eye to the hole, I saw only darkness. At about one in
the morning, when we had finished our books and were about to undress, we
heard a noise in our neighbor's room. He got up, struck a match, and
lighted his dip. I got on to the drawers again, and I then saw Marcas
seated at his table and copying law-papers.
His room was about half the size of ours; the bed stood in a recess by the
door, for the passage ended there, and its breadth was added to his
garret; but the ground on which the house was built was evidently
irregular, for the party-wall formed an obtuse angle, and the room was not
square. There was no fireplace, only a small earthenware stove, white
blotched with green, of which the pipe went up through the roof. The
window, in the skew side of the room, had shabby red curtains. The
furniture consisted of an armchair, a table, a chair, and a wretched
bed-table. A cupboard in the wall held his clothes. The wall-paper was
horrible; evidently only a servant had ever been lodged there before
"What is to be seen?" asked the Doctor as I got down.
"Look for yourself," said I.
At nine next morning, Marcas was in bed. He had breakfasted off a saveloy;
we saw on a plate, with some crumbs of bread, the remains of that too
familiar delicacy. He was asleep; he did not wake till eleven. He then set
to work again on the copy he had begun the night before, which was lying
on the table.
On going downstairs we asked the price of that room, and were told fifteen
francs a month.
In the course of a few days, we were fully informed as to the mode of life
of Z. Marcas. He did copying, at so much a sheet no doubt, for a
law-writer who lived in the courtyard of the Sainte-Chapelle. He worked
half the night; after sleeping from six till ten, he began again and wrote
till three. Then he went out to take the copy home before dinner, which he
ate at Mizerai's in the Rue Michel-le-Comte, at a cost of nine sous, and
came in to bed at six o'clock. It became known to us that Marcas did not
utter fifteen sentences in a month; he never talked to anybody, nor said a
word to himself in his dreadful garret.
"The Ruins of Palmyra are terribly silent!" said Juste.
This taciturnity in a man whose appearance was so imposing was strangely
significant. Sometimes when we met him, we exchanged glances full of
meaning on both sides, but they never led to any advances. Insensibly this
man became the object of our secret admiration, though we knew no reason
for it. Did it lie in his secretly simple habits, his monastic regularity,
his hermit-like frugality, his idiotically mechanical labor, allowing his
mind to remain neuter or to work on his own lines, seeming to us to hint
at an expectation of some stroke of good luck, or at some foregone
conclusion as to his life?
After wandering for a long time among the Ruins of Palmyra, we forgot them—we
were young! Then came the Carnival, the Paris Carnival, which, henceforth,
will eclipse the old Carnival of Venice, unless some ill-advised Prefect
of Police is antagonistic.
Gambling ought to be allowed during the Carnival; but the stupid moralists
who have had gambling suppressed are inert financiers, and this
indispensable evil will be re-established among us when it is proved that
France leaves millions at the German tables.
This splendid Carnival brought us to utter penury, as it does every
student. We got rid of every object of luxury; we sold our second coats,
our second boots, our second waistcoats—everything of which we had a
duplicate, except our friend. We ate bread and cold sausages; we looked
where we walked; we had set to work in earnest. We owed two months' rent,
and were sure of having a bill from the porter for sixty or eighty items
each, and amounting to forty or fifty francs. We made no noise, and did
not laugh as we crossed the little hall at the bottom of the stairs; we
commonly took it at a flying leap from the lowest step into the street. On
the day when we first found ourselves bereft of tobacco for our pipes, it
struck us that for some days we had been eating bread without any kind of
Great was our distress.
"No tobacco!" said the Doctor.
"No cloak!" said the Keeper of the Seals.
"Ah, you rascals, you would dress as the postillion de Longjumeau, you
would appear as Debardeurs, sup in the morning, and breakfast at night at
Very's—sometimes even at the Rocher de Cancale.—Dry
bread for you, my boys! Why," said I, in a big bass voice, "you deserve to
sleep under the bed, you are not worthy to lie in it—"
"Yes, yes; but, Keeper of the Seals, there is no more tobacco!" said
"It is high time to write home, to our aunts, our mothers, and our
sisters, to tell them we have no underlinen left, that the wear and tear
of Paris would ruin garments of wire. Then we will solve an elegant
chemical problem by transmuting linen into silver."
"But we must live till we get the answer."
"Well, I will go and bring out a loan among such of our friends as may
still have some capital to invest."
"And how much will you find?"
"Say ten francs!" replied I with pride.
It was midnight. Marcas had heard everything. He knocked at our door.
"Messieurs," said he, "here is some tobacco; you can repay me on the first
We were struck, not by the offer, which we accepted, but by the rich,
deep, full voice in which it was made; a tone only comparable to the
lowest string of Paganini's violin. Marcas vanished without waiting for
Juste and I looked at each other without a word. To be rescued by a man
evidently poorer than ourselves! Juste sat down to write to every member
of his family, and I went off to effect a loan. I brought in twenty francs
lent me by a fellow-provincial. In that evil but happy day gambling was
still tolerated, and in its lodes, as hard as the rocky ore of Brazil,
young men, by risking a small sum, had a chance of winning a few gold
pieces. My friend, too, had some Turkish tobacco brought home from
Constantinople by a sailor, and he gave me quite as much as we had taken
from Z. Marcas. I conveyed the splendid cargo into port, and we went in
triumph to repay our neighbor with a tawny wig of Turkish tobacco for his
"You are determined not to be my debtors," said he. "You are giving me
gold for copper.—You are boys—good boys——"
The sentences, spoken in varying tones, were variously emphasized. The
words were nothing, but the expression!—That made us friends of ten
years' standing at once.
Marcas, on hearing us coming, had covered up his papers; we understood
that it would be taking a liberty to allude to his means of subsistence,
and felt ashamed of having watched him. His cupboard stood open; in it
there were two shirts, a white necktie and a razor. The razor made me
shudder. A looking-glass, worth five francs perhaps, hung near the window.
The man's few and simple movements had a sort of savage grandeur. The
Doctor and I looked at each other, wondering what we could say in reply.
Juste, seeing that I was speechless, asked Marcas jestingly:
"You cultivate literature, monsieur?"
"Far from it!" replied Marcas. "I should not be so wealthy."
"I fancied," said I, "that poetry alone, in these days, was amply
sufficient to provide a man with lodgings as bad as ours."
My remark made Marcas smile, and the smile gave a charm to his yellow
"Ambition is not a less severe taskmaster to those who fail," said he.
"You, who are beginning life, walk in the beaten paths. Never dream of
rising superior, you will be ruined!"
"You advise us to stay just as we are?" said the Doctor, smiling.
There is something so infectious and childlike in the pleasantries of
youth, that Marcas smiled again in reply.
"What incidents can have given you this detestable philosophy?" asked I.
"I forgot once more that chance is the result of an immense equation of
which we know not all the factors. When we start from zero to work up to
the unit, the chances are incalculable. To ambitious men Paris is an
immense roulette table, and every young man fancies he can hit on a
successful progression of numbers."
He offered us the tobacco I had brought that we might smoke with him; the
Doctor went to fetch our pipes; Marcas filled his, and then he came to sit
in our room, bringing the tobacco with him, since there were but two
chairs in his. Juste, as brisk as a squirrel, ran out, and returned with a
boy carrying three bottles of Bordeaux, some Brie cheese, and a loaf.
"Hah!" said I to myself, "fifteen francs," and I was right to a sou.
Juste gravely laid five francs on the chimney-shelf.
There are immeasurable differences between the gregarious man and the man
who lives closest to nature. Toussaint Louverture, after he was caught,
died without speaking a word. Napoleon, transplanted to a rock, talked
like a magpie—he wanted to account for himself. Z. Marcas erred in
the same way, but for our benefit only. Silence in all its majesty is to
be found only in the savage. There is never a criminal who, though he
might let his secrets fall with his head into the basket of sawdust does
not feel the purely social impulse to tell them to somebody.
Nay, I am wrong. We have seen one Iroquois of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau
who raised the Parisian to the level of the natural savage—a
republican, a conspirator, a Frenchman, an old man, who outdid all we have
heard of Negro determination, and all that Cooper tells us of the tenacity
and coolness of the Redskins under defeat. Morey, the Guatimozin of the
"Mountain," preserved an attitude unparalleled in the annals of European
This is what Marcas told us during the small hours, sandwiching his
discourse with slices of bread spread with cheese and washed down with
wine. All the tobacco was burned out. Now and then the hackney coaches
clattering across the Place de l'Odeon, or the omnibuses toiling past,
sent up their dull rumbling, as if to remind us that Paris was still close
His family lived at Vitre; his father and mother had fifteen hundred
francs a year in the funds. He had received an education gratis in a
Seminary, but had refused to enter the priesthood. He felt in himself the
fires of immense ambition, and had come to Paris on foot at the age of
twenty, the possessor of two hundred francs. He had studied the law,
working in an attorney's office, where he had risen to be superior clerk.
He had taken his doctor's degree in law, had mastered the old and modern
codes, and could hold his own with the most famous pleaders. He had
studied the law of nations, and was familiar with European treaties and
international practice. He had studied men and things in five capitals—London,
Berlin, Vienna, Petersburg, and Constantinople.
No man was better informed than he as to the rules of the Chamber. For
five years he had been reporter of the debates for a daily paper. He spoke
extempore and admirably, and could go on for a long time in that deep,
appealing voice which had struck us to the soul. Indeed, he proved by the
narrative of his life that he was a great orator, a concise orator,
serious and yet full of piercing eloquence; he resembled Berryer in his
fervor and in the impetus which commands the sympathy of the masses, and
was like Thiers in refinement and skill; but he would have been less
diffuse, less in difficulties for a conclusion. He had intended to rise
rapidly to power without burdening himself first with the doctrines
necessary to begin with, for a man in opposition, but an incubus later to
Marcas had learned everything that a real statesman should know; indeed,
his amazement was considerable when he had occasion to discern the utter
ignorance of men who have risen to the administration of public affairs in
France. Though in him it was vocation that had led to study, nature had
been generous and bestowed all that cannot be acquired—keen
perceptions, self-command, a nimble wit, rapid judgment, decisiveness,
and, what is the genius of these men, fertility in resource.
By the time when Marcas thought himself duly equipped, France was torn by
intestine divisions arising from the triumph of the House of Orleans over
the elder branch of the Bourbons.
The field of political warfare is evidently changed. Civil war henceforth
cannot last for long, and will not be fought out in the provinces. In
France such struggles will be of brief duration and at the seat of
government; and the battle will be the close of the moral contest which
will have been brought to an issue by superior minds. This state of things
will continue so long as France has her present singular form of
government, which has no analogy with that of any other country; for there
is no more resemblance between the English and the French constitutions
than between the two lands.
Thus Marcas' place was in the political press. Being poor and unable to
secure his election, he hoped to make a sudden appearance. He resolved on
making the greatest possible sacrifice for a man of superior intellect, to
work as a subordinate to some rich and ambitious deputy. Like a second
Bonaparte, he sought his Barras; the new Colbert hoped to find a Mazarin.
He did immense services, and he did them then and there; he assumed no
importance, he made no boast, he did not complain of ingratitude. He did
them in the hope that his patron would put him in a position to be elected
deputy; Marcas wished for nothing but a loan that might enable him to
purchase a house in Paris, the qualification required by law. Richard III.
asked for nothing but his horse.
In three years Marcas had made his man—one of the fifty supposed
great statesmen who are the battledores with which two cunning players
toss the ministerial portfolios exactly as the man behind the puppet-show
hits Punch against the constable in his street theatre, and counts on
always getting paid. This man existed only by Marcas, but he had just
brains enough to appreciate the value of his "ghost" and to know that
Marcas, if he ever came to the front, would remain there, would be
indispensable, while he himself would be translated to the polar zone of
Luxembourg. So he determined to put insurmountable obstacles in the way of
his Mentor's advancement, and hid his purpose under the semblance of the
utmost sincerity. Like all mean men, he could dissimulate to perfection,
and he soon made progress in the ways of ingratitude, for he felt that he
must kill Marcas, not to be killed by him. These two men, apparently so
united, hated each other as soon as one had deceived the other.
The politician was made one of a ministry; Marcas remained in the
opposition to hinder his man from being attacked; nay, by skilful tactics
he won him the applause of the opposition. To excuse himself for not
rewarding his subaltern, the chief pointed out the impossibility of
finding a place suddenly for a man on the other side, without a great deal
of manoeuvring. Marcas had hoped confidently for a place to enable him to
marry, and thus acquire the qualification he so ardently desired. He was
two-and-thirty, and the Chamber ere long must be dissolved. Having
detected his man in this flagrant act of bad faith, he overthrew him, or
at any rate contributed largely to his overthrow, and covered him with
A fallen minister, if he is to rise again to power, must show that he is
to be feared; this man, intoxicated by Royal glibness, had fancied that
his position would be permanent; he acknowledged his delinquencies;
besides confessing them, he did Marcas a small money service, for Marcas
had got into debt. He subsidized the newspaper on which Marcas worked, and
made him the manager of it.
Though he despised the man, Marcas, who, practically, was being subsidized
too, consented to take the part of the fallen minister. Without unmasking
at once all the batteries of his superior intellect, Marcas came a little
further than before; he showed half his shrewdness. The Ministry lasted
only a hundred and eighty days; it was swallowed up. Marcas had put
himself into communication with certain deputies, had moulded them like
dough, leaving each impressed with a high opinion of his talent; his
puppet again became a member of the Ministry, and then the paper was
ministerial. The Ministry united the paper with another, solely to squeeze
out Marcas, who in this fusion had to make way for a rich and insolent
rival, whose name was well known, and who already had his foot in the
Marcas relapsed into utter destitution; his haughty patron well knew the
depths into which he had cast him.
Where was he to go? The ministerial papers, privily warned, would have
nothing to say to him. The opposition papers did not care to admit him to
their offices. Marcas could side neither with the Republicans nor with the
Legitimists, two parties whose triumph would mean the overthrow of
everything that now is.
"Ambitious men like a fast hold on things," said he with a smile.
He lived by writing a few articles on commercial affairs, and contributed
to one of those encyclopedias brought out by speculation and not by
learning. Finally a paper was founded, which was destined to live but two
years, but which secured his services. From that moment he renewed his
connection with the minister's enemies; he joined the party who were
working for the fall of the Government; and as soon as his pickaxe had
free play, it fell.
This paper had now for six months ceased to exist; he had failed to find
employment of any kind; he was spoken of as a dangerous man, calumny
attacked him; he had unmasked a huge financial and mercantile job by a few
articles and a pamphlet. He was known to be a mouthpiece of a banker who
was said to have paid him largely, and from whom he was supposed to expect
some patronage in return for his championship. Marcas, disgusted by men
and things, worn out by five years of fighting, regarded as a free lance
rather than as a great leader, crushed by the necessity of earning his
daily bread, which hindered him from gaining ground, in despair at the
influence exerted by money over mind, and given over to dire poverty,
buried himself in a garret, to make thirty sous a day, the sum strictly
answering to his needs. Meditation had leveled a desert all round him. He
read the papers to be informed of what was going on. Pozzo di Borgo had
once lived like this for some time.
Marcas, no doubt, was planning a serious attack, accustoming himself to
dissimulation, and punishing himself for his blunders by Pythagorean
muteness. But he did not tell us the reasons for his conduct.
It is impossible to give you an idea of the scenes of the highest comedy
that lay behind this algebraic statement of his career; his useless
patience dogging the footsteps of fortune, which presently took wings, his
long tramps over the thorny brakes of Paris, his breathless chases as a
petitioner, his attempts to win over fools; the schemes laid only to fail
through the influence of some frivolous woman; the meetings with men of
business who expected their capital to bring them places and a peerage, as
well as large interest. Then the hopes rising in a towering wave only to
break in foam on the shoal; the wonders wrought in reconciling adverse
interests which, after working together for a week, fell asunder; the
annoyance, a thousand times repeated, of seeing a dunce decorated with the
Legion of Honor, and preferred, though as ignorant as a shop-boy, to a man
of talent. Then, what Marcas called the stratagems of stupidity—you
strike a man, and he seems convinced, he nods his head—everything is
settled; next day, this india-rubber ball, flattened for a moment, has
recovered itself in the course of the night; it is as full of wind as
ever; you must begin all over again; and you go on till you understand
that you are not dealing with a man, but with a lump of gum that loses
shape in the sunshine.
These thousand annoyances, this vast waste of human energy on barren
spots, the difficulty of achieving any good, the incredible facility of
doing mischief; two strong games played out, twice won, and then twice
lost; the hatred of a statesman—a blockhead with a painted face and
a wig, but in whom the world believed—all these things, great and
small, had not crushed, but for the moment had dashed Marcas. In the days
when money had come into his hands, his fingers had not clutched it; he
had allowed himself the exquisite pleasure of sending it all to his family—to
his sisters, his brothers, his old father. Like Napoleon in his fall, he
asked for no more than thirty sous a day, and any man of energy can earn
thirty sous for a day's work in Paris.
When Marcas had finished the story of his life, intermingled with
reflections, maxims, and observations, revealing him as a great
politician, a few questions and answers on both sides as to the progress
of affairs in France and in Europe were enough to prove to us that he was
a real statesman; for a man may be quickly and easily judged when he can
be brought on to the ground of immediate difficulties: there is a certain
Shibboleth for men of superior talents, and we were of the tribe of modern
Levites without belonging as yet to the Temple. As I have said, our
frivolity covered certain purposes which Juste has carried out, and which
I am about to execute.
When we had done talking, we all three went out, cold as it was, to walk
in the Luxembourg gardens till the dinner hour. In the course of that walk
our conversation, grave throughout, turned on the painful aspects of the
political situation. Each of us contributed his remarks, his comment, or
his jest, a pleasantry or a proverb. This was no longer exclusively a
discussion of life on the colossal scale just described by Marcas, the
soldier of political warfare. Nor was it the distressful monologue of the
wrecked navigator, stranded in a garret in the Hotel Corneille; it was a
dialogue in which two well-informed young men, having gauged the times
they lived in, were endeavoring, under the guidance of a man of talent, to
gain some light on their own future prospects.
"Why," asked Juste, "did you not wait patiently for an opportunity, and
imitate the only man who has been able to keep the lead since the
Revolution of July by holding his head above water?"
"Have I not said that we never know where the roots of chance lie? Carrell
was in identically the same position as the orator you speak of. That
gloomy young man, of a bitter spirit, had a whole government in his head;
the man of whom you speak had no idea beyond mounting on the crupper of
every event. Of the two, Carrel was the better man. Well, one becomes a
minister, Carrel remained a journalist; the incomplete but craftier man is
living; Carrel is dead.
"I may point out that your man has for fifteen years been making his way,
and is but making it still. He may yet be caught and crushed between two
cars full of intrigues on the highroad to power. He has no house; he has
not the favor of the palace like Metternich; nor, like Villele, the
protection of a compact majority.
"I do not believe that the present state of things will last ten years
longer. Hence, supposing I should have such poor good luck, I am already
too late to avoid being swept away by the commotion I foresee. I should
need to be established in a superior position."
"What commotion?" asked Juste.
"AUGUST, 1830," said Marcas in solemn tones, holding out his hand towards
Paris; "AUGUST, the offspring of Youth which bound the sheaves, and of
Intellect which had ripened the harvest, forgot to provide for Youth and
"Youth will explode like the boiler of a steam-engine. Youth has no outlet
in France; it is gathering an avalanche of underrated capabilities, of
legitimate and restless ambitions; young men are not marrying now;
families cannot tell what to do with their children. What will the
thunderclap be that will shake down these masses? I know not, but they
will crash down into the midst of things, and overthrow everything. These
are laws of hydrostatics which act on the human race; the Roman Empire had
failed to understand them, and the Barbaric hordes came down.
"The Barbaric hordes now are the intelligent class. The laws of
overpressure are at this moment acting slowly and silently in our midst.
The Government is the great criminal; it does not appreciate the two
powers to which it owes everything; it has allowed its hands to be tied by
the absurdities of the Contract; it is bound, ready to be the victim.
"Louis XIV., Napoleon, England, all were or are eager for intelligent
youth. In France the young are condemned by the new legislation, by the
blundering principles of elective rights, by the unsoundness of the
"Look at the elective Chamber; you will find no deputies of thirty; the
youth of Richelieu and of Mazarin, of Turenne and of Colbert, of Pitt and
of Saint-Just, of Napoleon and of Prince Metternich, would find no
admission there; Burke, Sheridan, or Fox could not win seats. Even if
political majority had been fixed at one-and-twenty, and eligibility had
been relieved of every disabling qualification, the Departments would have
returned the very same members, men devoid of political talent, unable to
speak without murdering French grammar, and among whom, in ten years,
scarcely one statesman has been found.
"The causes of an impending event may be seen, but the event itself cannot
be foretold. At this moment the youth of France is being driven into
Republicanism, because it believes that the Republic would bring it
emancipation. It will always remember the young representatives of the
people and the young army leaders! The imprudence of the Government is
only comparable to its avarice."
That day left its echoes in our lives. Marcas confirmed us in our
resolution to leave France, where young men of talent and energy are
crushed under the weight of successful commonplace, envious, and
insatiable middle age.
We dined together in the Rue de la Harpe. We thenceforth felt for Marcas
the most respectful affection; he gave us the most practical aid in the
sphere of the mind. That man knew everything; he had studied everything.
For us he cast his eye over the whole civilized world, seeking the country
where openings would be at once the most abundant and the most favorable
to the success of our plans. He indicated what should be the goal of our
studies; he bid us make haste, explaining to us that time was precious,
that emigration would presently begin, and that its effect would be to
deprive France of the cream of its powers and of its youthful talent; that
their intelligence, necessarily sharpened, would select the best places,
and that the great thing was to be first in the field.
Thenceforward, we often sat late at work under the lamp. Our generous
instructor wrote some notes for our guidance—two pages for Juste and
three for me—full of invaluable advice—the sort of information
which experience alone can supply, such landmarks as only genius can
place. In those papers, smelling of tobacco, and covered with writing so
vile as to be almost hieroglyphic, there are suggestions for a fortune,
and forecasts of unerring acumen. There are hints as to certain parts of
America and Asia which have been fully justified, both before and since
Juste and I could set out.
Marcas, like us, was in the most abject poverty. He earned, indeed, his
daily bread, but he had neither linen, clothes, nor shoes. He did not make
himself out any better than he was; his dreams had been of luxury as well
as of power. He did not admit that this was the real Marcas; he abandoned
this person, indeed, to the caprices of life. What he lived by was the
breath of ambition; he dreamed of revenge while blaming himself for
yielding to so shallow a feeling. The true statesman ought, above all
things, to be superior to vulgar passions; like the man of science. It was
in these days of dire necessity that Marcas seemed to us so great—nay,
so terrible; there was something awful in the gaze which saw another world
than that which strikes the eye of ordinary men. To us he was a subject of
contemplation and astonishment; for the young—which of us has not
known it?—the young have a keen craving to admire; they love to
attach themselves, and are naturally inclined to submit to the men they
feel to be superior, as they are to devote themselves to a great cause.
Our surprise was chiefly roused by his indifference in matters of
sentiment; women had no place in his life. When we spoke of this matter, a
perennial theme of conversation among Frenchmen, he simply remarked:
"Gowns cost too much."
He saw the look that passed between Juste and me, and went on:
"Yes, far too much. The woman you buy—and she is the least expensive—takes
a great deal of money. The woman who gives herself takes all your time!
Woman extinguishes every energy, every ambition. Napoleon reduced her to
what she should be. From that point of view, he really was great. He did
not indulge such ruinous fancies of Louis XIV. and Louis XV.; at the same
time he could love in secret."
We discovered that, like Pitt, who made England is wife, Marcas bore
France in his heart; he idolized his country; he had not a thought that
was not for his native land. His fury at feeling that he had in his hands
the remedy for the evils which so deeply saddened him, and could not apply
it, ate into his soul, and this rage was increased by the inferiority of
France at that time, as compared with Russia and England. France a
third-rate power! This cry came up again and again in his conversation.
The intestinal disorders of his country had entered into his soul. All the
contests between the Court and the Chamber, showing, as they did,
incessant change and constant vacillation, which must injure the
prosperity of the country, he scoffed at as backstairs squabbles.
"This is peace at the cost of the future," said he.
One evening Juste and I were at work, sitting in perfect silence. Marcas
had just risen to toil at his copying, for he had refused our assistance
in spite of our most earnest entreaties. We had offered to take it in
turns to copy a batch of manuscript, so that he should do but a third of
his distasteful task; he had been quite angry, and we had ceased to
We heard the sound of gentlemanly boots in the passage, and raised our
heads, looking at each other. There was a tap at Marcas' door—he
never took the key out of the lock—and we heard the hero answer:
"Come in." Then—"What, you here, monsieur?"
"I, myself," replied the retired minister.
It was the Diocletian of this unknown martyr.
For some time he and our neighbor conversed in an undertone. Suddenly
Marcas, whose voice had been heard but rarely, as is natural in a dialogue
in which the applicant begins by setting forth the situation, broke out
loudly in reply to some offer we had not overheard.
"You would laugh at me for a fool," cried he, "if I took you at your word.
Jesuits are a thing of the past, but Jesuitism is eternal. Your
Machiavelism and your generosity are equally hollow and untrustworthy. You
can make your own calculations, but who can calculate on you? Your Court
is made up of owls who fear the light, of old men who quake in the
presence of the young, or who simply disregard them. The Government is
formed on the same pattern as the Court. You have hunted up the remains of
the Empire, as the Restoration enlisted the Voltigeurs of Louis XIV.
"Hitherto the evasions of cowardice have been taken for the manoeuvring of
ability; but dangers will come, and the younger generation will rise as
they did in 1790. They did grand things then.—Just now you change
ministries as a sick man turns in his bed; these oscillations betray the
weakness of the Government. You work on an underhand system of policy
which will be turned against you, for France will be tired of your
shuffling. France will not tell you that she is tired of you; a man never
knows whence his ruin comes; it is the historian's task to find out; but
you will undoubtedly perish as the reward of not having the youth of
France to lend you its strength and energy; for having hated really
capable men; for not having lovingly chosen them from this noble
generation; for having in all cases preferred mediocrity.
"You have come to ask my support, but you are an atom in that decrepit
heap which is made hideous by self-interest, which trembles and squirms,
and, because it is so mean, tries to make France mean too. My strong
nature, my ideas, would work like poison in you; twice you have tricked
me, twice have I overthrown you. If we unite a third time, it must be a
very serious matter. I should kill myself if I allowed myself to be duped;
for I should be to blame, not you."
Then we heard the humblest entreaties, the most fervent adjuration, not to
deprive the country of such superior talents. The man spoke of patriotism,
and Marcas uttered a significant "Ouh! ouh!" He laughed at his
would-be patron. Then the statesman was more explicit; he bowed to the
superiority of his erewhile counselor; he pledged himself to enable Marcas
to remain in office, to be elected deputy; then he offered him a high
appointment, promising him that he, the speaker, would thenceforth be the
subordinate of a man whose subaltern he was only worthy to be. He was in
the newly-formed ministry, and he would not return to power unless Marcas
had a post in proportion to his merit; he had already made it a condition,
Marcas had been regarded as indispensable.
"I have never before been in a position to keep my promises; here is an
opportunity of proving myself faithful to my word, and you fail me."
To this Marcas made no reply. The boots were again audible in the passage
on the way to the stairs.
"Marcas! Marcas!" we both cried, rushing into his room. "Why refuse? He
really meant it. His offers are very handsome; at any rate, go to see the
In a twinkling, we had given Marcas a hundred reasons. The minister's
voice was sincere; without seeing him, we had felt sure that he was
"I have no clothes," replied Marcas.
"Rely on us," said Juste, with a glance at me.
Marcas had the courage to trust us; a light flashed in his eye, he pushed
his fingers through his hair, lifting it from his forehead with a gesture
that showed some confidence in his luck and when he had thus unveiled his
face, so to speak, we saw in him a man absolutely unknown to us—Marcas
sublime, Marcas in his power! His mind was in its element—the bird
restored to the free air, the fish to the water, the horse galloping
across the plain.
It was transient. His brow clouded again, he had, it would seem, a vision
of his fate. Halting doubt had followed close on the heels of white-winged
We left him to himself.
"Now, then," said I to the Doctor, "we have given our word; how are we to
"We will sleep upon it," said Juste, "and to-morrow morning we will talk
Next morning we went for a walk in the Luxembourg.
We had had time to think over the incident of the past night, and were
both equally surprised at the lack of address shown by Marcas in the minor
difficulties of life—he, a man who never saw any difficulties in the
solution of the hardest problems of abstract or practical politics. But
these elevated characters can all be tripped up on a grain of sand, and
will, like the grandest enterprise, miss fire for want of a thousand
francs. It is the old story of Napoleon, who, for lack of a pair of boots,
did not set out for India.
"Well, what have you hit upon?" asked Juste.
"I have thought of a way to get him a complete outfit."
"Humann, my boy, never goes to his customers—his customers go to
him; so that he does not know whether I am rich or poor. He only knows
that I dress well and look decent in the clothes he makes for me. I shall
tell him that an uncle of mine has dropped in from the country, and that
his indifference in matters of dress is quite a discredit to me in the
upper circles where I am trying to find a wife.—It will not be
Humann if he sends in his bill before three months."
The Doctor thought this a capital idea for a vaudeville, but poor enough
in real life, and doubted my success. But I give you my word of honor,
Humann dressed Marcas, and, being an artist, turned him out as a political
personage ought to be dressed.
Juste lent Marcas two hundred francs in gold, the product of two watches
bought on credit, and pawned at the Mont-de-Piete. For my part, I had said
nothing of the six shirts and all necessary linen, which cost me no more
than the pleasure of asking for them from a forewoman in a shop whom I had
treated to Musard's during the carnival.
Marcas accepted everything, thanking us no more than he ought. He only
inquired as to the means by which we had got possession of such riches,
and we made him laugh for the last time. We looked on our Marcas as
shipowners, when they have exhausted their credit and every resource at
their command it fit out a vessel, must look on it as it puts out to sea.
Here Charles was silent; he seemed crushed by his memories.
"Well," cried the audience, "and what happened?"
"I will tell you in a few words—for this is not romance—it is
We saw no more of Marcas. The administration lasted for three months; it
fell at the end of the session. Then Marcas came back to us, worked to
death. He had sounded the crater of power; he came away from it with the
beginnings of brain fever. The disease made rapid progress; we nursed him.
Juste at once called in the chief physician of the hospital where he was
working as house-surgeon. I was then living alone in our room, and I was
the most attentive attendant; but care and science alike were in vain. By
the month of January, 1838, Marcas himself felt that he had but a few days
The man whose soul and brain he had been for six months never even sent to
inquire after him. Marcas expressed the greatest contempt for the
Government; he seemed to doubt what the fate of France might be, and it
was this doubt that had made him ill. He had, he thought, detected treason
in the heart of power, not tangible, seizable treason, the result of
facts, but the treason of a system, the subordination of national
interests to selfish ends. His belief in the degradation of the country
was enough to aggravate his complaint.
I myself was witness to the proposals made to him by one of the leaders of
the antagonistic party which he had fought against. His hatred of the men
he had tried to serve was so virulent, that he would gladly have joined
the coalition that was about to be formed among certain ambitious spirits
who, at least, had one idea in common—that of shaking off the yoke
of the Court. But Marcas could only reply to the envoy in the words of the
Hotel de Ville:
"It is too late!"
Marcas did not leave money enough to pay for his funeral. Juste and I had
great difficulty in saving him from the ignominy of a pauper's bier, and
we alone followed the coffin of Z. Marcas, which was dropped into the
common grave of the cemetery of Mont-Parnasse.
We looked sadly at each other as we listened to this tale, the last we
heard from the lips of Charles Rabourdin the day before he embarked at le
Havre on a brig that was to convey him to the islands of Malay. We all
knew more than one Marcas, more than one victim of his devotion to a
party, repaid by betrayal or neglect.
LES JARDIES, May 1840.