HONORE DE BALZAC
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/!"