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Title: Sarrasine
Author: Balzac, Honoré de
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Sarrasine" ***

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By Honore de Balzac

Translated by 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

“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 de

“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 buccaneers?

“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 Lanty.

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

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 investigations.

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 peace.”

“Very true. But it’s almost six months since we saw the Spirit. Do you
think he’s a living being?”

“Well, barely.”

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 up.

“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
fact everything.

“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 everything.

“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 hesitated.

“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 Italy----”

She realized that my words were heavily charged with bitter irony; and,
thereupon, without seeming to notice it, she interrupted me to say:

“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

“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, and

“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 my


“I obey.

“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 the

“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

“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:

“‘Zambinella! Jomelli!’

“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
upon himself.

“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

“‘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 o’clock

“‘I will be there,’ he replied, putting two louis in the duenna’s
wrinkled hand.

“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 happiness.

“‘_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

“‘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 love

“‘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 more.’

“‘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
passionate caress.

“‘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:

“‘Fatal beauty!’

“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
Sarrasine shuddered.

“‘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 down.

“‘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

“‘Oh, hush!’ said the excited artist. ‘Obstacles inflame the love in my

“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.’

“‘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

“‘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 man’s

“‘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 you, but--’

“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 which

“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
       Father Goriot

     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

     Sarrasine, Ernest-Jean
       The Member for Arcis

     Vien, Joseph-Marie
       The Member for Arcis

       The Member for Arcis

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