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10.10.17

À mon chevet: Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
This is what was taking place at the Palais while Lucien's protectresses were obeying the orders issued by Jacques Collin. The gendarmes placed the moribund prisoner on a chair facing the window in Monsieur Camusot's room; he was sitting in his place in front of his table. Coquart, pen in hand, had a little table to himself a few yards off.

The aspect of a magistrate's chambers is not a matter of indifference; and if this room had not been chosen intentionally, it must be owned that chance had favored justice. An examining judge, like a painter, requires the clear equable light of a north window, for the criminal's face is a picture which he must constantly study. Hence most magistrates place their table, as this of Camusot's was arranged, so as to sit with their back to the window and leave the face of the examinee in broad daylight. Not one of them all but, by the end of six months, has assumed an absent-minded and indifferent expression, if he does not wear spectacles, and maintains it throughout the examination.

It was a sudden change of expression in the prisoner's face, detected by these means, and caused by a sudden point-blank question, that led to the discovery of the crime committed by Castaing at the very moment when, after a long consultation with the public prosecutor, the magistrate was about to let the criminal loose on society for lack of evidence. This detail will show the least intelligent person how living, interesting, curious, and dramatically terrible is the conflict of an examination--a conflict without witnesses, but always recorded. God knows what remains on the paper of the scenes at white heat in which a look, a tone, a quiver of the features, the faintest touch of color lent by some emotion, has been fraught with danger, as though the adversaries were savages watching each other to plant a fatal stroke. A report is no more than the ashes of the fire.

"What is your real name?" Camusot asked Jacques Collin.

"Don Carlos Herrera, canon of the Royal Chapter of Toledo, and secret envoy of His Majesty Ferdinand VII."

It must here be observed that Jacques Collin spoke French like a Spanish trollop, blundering over it in such a way as to make his answers almost unintelligible, and to require them to be repeated. But Monsieur de Nucingen's German barbarisms have already weighted this Scene too much to allow of the introduction of other sentences no less difficult to read, and hindering the rapid progress of the tale.

"Then you have papers to prove your right to the dignities of which you speak?" asked Camusot.

"Yes, monsieur--my passport, a letter from his Catholic Majesty authorizing my mission.--In short, if you will but send at once to the Spanish Embassy two lines, which I will write in your presence, I shall be identified. Then, if you wish for further evidence, I will write to His Eminence the High Almoner of France, and he will immediately send his private secretary."

"And do you still pretend that you are dying?" asked the magistrate. "If you have really gone through all the sufferings you have complained of since your arrest, you ought to be dead by this time," said Camusot ironically.

"You are simply trying the courage of an innocent man and the strength of his constitution," said the prisoner mildly.

"Coquart, ring. Send for the prison doctor and an infirmary attendant.--We shall be obliged to remove your coat and proceed to verify the marks on your shoulder," Camusot went on.

"I am in your hands, monsieur."

The prisoner then inquired whether the magistrate would be kind enough to explain to him what he meant by "the marks," and why they should be sought on his shoulder. The judge was prepared for this question.

"You are suspected of being Jacques Collin, an escaped convict, whose daring shrinks at nothing, not even at sacrilege!" said Camusot promptly, his eyes fixed on those of the prisoner.

Jacques Collin gave no sign, and did not color; he remained quite calm, and assumed an air of guileless curiosity as he gazed at Camusot.

"I, monsieur? A convict? May the Order I belong to and God above forgive you for such an error. Tell me what I can do to prevent your continuing to offer such an insult to the rights of free men, to the Church, and to the King my master."

-- Honoré de Balzac, Scenes from a Courtesan's Life (trans. by James Waring)
This long book, originally published in four sections, is first in the Scènes de la vie Parisienne section of La Comédie Humaine. It follows the end of the tragic life of Lucien de Rubempré, and it has been one of the high points of my Balzac reading project so far. Lucien, at the brink of suicide, comes across one of Balzac's celebrated characters, the villainous Vautrin, who convinces him not to commit suicide. He becomes the creature of this criminal, whose identity is hidden under many names.

At the opening of the book Vautrin has assumed the name of the Abbé Carlos Herrera, serving an important embassy to Paris on behalf of the King of Spain. In this scene, an examining judge is engaged in a chess match to get him to reveal his true identity, Jacques Collin. This book has also been translated under the English title A Harlot High and Low, apt because Balzac pairs the lowest and highest elements of Parisian society as alternate sides of the same coin. Lies, deceit, sexual depravity, crimes of all kinds are committed at both ends of the social spectrum, with vastly different treatment by the authorities.

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