" 'Could I come any sooner, my friend? The seas have
only been open since 1815, and it took me eighteen months
850 BALZAC'S WORKS
to realize my property, close my accounts, and call in my
assets. I have succeeded, my friend! When I received
your letter in 1806, I set out in a Dutch vessel to bring
you home a little fortune; but the union of Holland to the
French Empire led to our being taken by the English, who
transported me to the coast of Jamaica, whence by good
luck I escaped.
" 'On my return to New York I was a victim to bank-
ruptcy; for Charlotte, during my absence, had not known
how to be on her guard against swindlers. So I was com-
pelled to begin again to accumulate a fortune.
" 'However, here we are at last. From the way the
children look at you, you may suppose that they have
often heard of the benefactor of the family.'
" 'Yes, indeed,' said pretty Madame Mongenod, 'we
never passed a day without speaking of you. Your share
has been allowed for in every transaction. We have
longed for the happiness we enjoy at this moment of
offering you your fortune, though we have never for a
moment imagined that this "rector's tithe" can pay our
debt of gratitude.'
"And as she spoke, Madame Mongenod offered me the
beautiful casket you see there, which contained a hundred
and fifty thousand-franc notes.
" 'You have siiffered much, my dear Alain, I know;
but we could imagine all your sufferings, and we racked
our brains to find means of sending you money; but with-
out success,' Mongenod went on. 'You tell me you could
not marry; but here is our eldest daughter. She has been
brought up in the idea that she should be your wife, and
she has five hundred thousand francs — '
" 'God forbid that I should wreck her happiness!' cried
I, as I beheld a girl as lovely as her mother had been at her
age; and I drew her to me, and kissed her forehead.
" 'Do not be afraid, my pretty child,' said I. 'A man
of fifty and a girl of seventeen — and so ugly an old fellow
as I!— Never!'
THE SEAMY SIDE OF HISTORY 351
" 'Monsieur,' said she, 'my father's benefactor can never
seem ugly in my eyes.'
"This speech, made with spontaneous candor, showed
me that all Mongenod had told me was true. I offered him
my hand, and we fell into each other's arms once more.
" 'My friend,' said I, 'I have often abused you, cursed
" 'You had every right, Alain,' replied he, reddening.
'You were in poverty through my fault — '
"I took Mongenod's papers out of a box and restored
them to him, after cancelling his note of hand.
" 'Now you will all breakfast with me,' said I to the
" 'On condition of yoiA dining with my wife as soon as
we are settled,' said Mongenod, 'for we arrived only yester-
day. We are going to buy a house, and I am about to open
a bank in Paris for North American business to leave to
that youngster,' he said, pointing to his eldest son, a lad
"We spent the afternoon together, and in the evening
we all went to the theatre, for Mongenod and his party were
dying to see a play. Next day I invested in the Funds, and
had then an income of about fifteen thousand francs in all.
This released me from bookkeeping in the evening, and
allowed me to give up my appointment, to the great satis-
faction of all my subordinates.
"My friend died in 1827, after founding the banking
house of Mongenod and Co., which made immense profits
on the first loans issued at the time of the Restoration. His
daughter, to whom he subsequently gave about a million of
francs, married the Vicomte de Fontaine. The son whom
you know is not yet married; he lives with his mother and
his younger brother. We find them ready with all the
money we may need.
"Fr^d^ric — for his father, in America, had named him
after me — Fr^d^ric Mongenod, at seven-and-thirty, is one
of the most skilful and respected bankers in Paris.
352 BALZAC'S WORKS
"Not very long since Madame Mongenod confessed to
me that she had sold her hair for two crowns of six livres
to be able to buy some bread. She gives twenty-four loads
of wood every year, which I distribute among the poor, in
return for the half-load I once sent her."
"Then this accounts for your connection with the house
of Mongenod," said Grodefroid. "And your fortune — "
The old man still looked at Godefroid with the same
expression of mild irony.
"Pray go on," said Godefroid, seeing by Monsieur
Alain's manner that he had more to say.
"This conclusion, my dear Godefroid, made the deepest
impression on me. Though the man who had suffered so
much, though my friend had forgiven me my injustice,
I could not forgive myself."
"Oh!" said Godefroid.
"I determined to devote all my surplus income, about
ten thousand francs a year, to acts of rational beneficence,"
Monsieur Alain calmly went on. "At about that time I
met an Examining Judge of the department of the Seine
named Popinot, whose death we mourned three years ago,
and who for fifteen years practiced the most enlightened
charity in the Saint-Marcel quarter. He, in concert with
the venerable vicar of Notre-Dame and with Madame,
planned the work in which we are all engaged, and
which, since 1823, has secretly effected some good re-
"This work has found a soul in Madame de la Chanterie;
she is really the very spirit of the undertaking. The vicar
has succeeded in making us more religious than we were
at first, demonstrating the necessity for being virtuous our-
selves if we desire to inspire virtue — for preaching, in fact,
by example. And the further we progress in that path, the
happier we are among ourselves. Thus it was my repent-
ance for having misprized the heart of my boyhood's friend
which led me to the idea of devoting to the poor, through
myself, the fortune he brought home to me, which I accepted
THE SEAMY SIDE OF HISTORY 353
without demurring to the vast sum repaid to me for so small
a loan: the application of it made it right."
This narrative, devoid of all emphasis, and told with
touching simplicity of tone, gesture, and expression, would
have been enough to make Godefroid resolve on joining in
this noble and saintly work, if he had not already in-
*You know little of the world," said Godefroid, *'if you
had such scruples over a thing which would never have
weighed on any other conscience."
"I know only the wretched," replied the good man. "I
have no wish to know a world where men misjudge each
other with so little compunction. — Xow, it is nearly mid-
night, and I have to meditate on my chapter of the 'Imita-
tion. ' — Good-night. ' ''
Godefroid took the kind old man's hand and pressed
it with an impulse of genuine admiration.
''Can you tell me Madame de la Chanterie's history?"
"It would be impossible without her permission, for it is
connected with one of the most terrible incidents of Imperial
politics. I first knew Madame through my friend Bordin;
he knew all the secrets of that beautiful life; and it was he
who led me, so to speak, to this house."
"At any rate, then," said Godefroid, "I thank you for
having told me your life; it contains a lesson for me."
"Do you discern its moral ?"
"Nay, tell it me," said Godefroid; "for I might see it
diflEerently to you — ' *
"Well, then." said the good man, "pleasure is but an
accident in the life of the Christian; it is not his aim and
end — and we learn this too late. ' '
"What then happens when we are converted?" asked
"Look there!" said Alain, and he pointed to an inscrip-
tion in letters of gold on a black ground, which the new-
comer had not seen before, as this was the first time he had
364 BALZAC'S WORKS
ever been into his companion's rooms. He turned round
and read the words, "Transire Benefaciendo,"
"That, my son, is the meaning we then find in life. That
is our motto. If you become one of us, that constitutes your
brevet. We read that text and take it as our counsel at
every hour of the day, when we rise, when we go to bed,
while we dress. Oh! if you could but know what infinite
happiness is to be found in carrying out that device!"
"In what way?" said Godefroid, hoping for some expla-
"In the first place, we are as rich as Baron de Nucingen.
— But the 'Imitation' prohibits our calling anything our
own; we are but stewards; and if we feel a single impulse
of pride, we are not worthy to be stewards. That would
not be transire benefaciendo ; it would be enjoyment in
thought. If you say to yourself, with a certain dilation
of the nostrils, 'I am playing the part of Providence' — as
you might have thought this morning, if you had been in
my place, giving new life to a whole family, you are a Sar-
danapalus at once — and wicked! Not one of our members
ever thinks of himself when doing good. You must cast off
all vanity, all pride, all self -consciousness ; and it is difficult,
I can tell you."
Godefroid bid Monsieur Alain good-night, and went to
his own rooms, much moved by this story; but his curiosity
was excited rather than satisfied, for the chief figure in the
picture of this domestic scene was Madame de la Chanterie.
This woman's history was to him so supremely interesting
that he made the knowledge of it the first aim of his stay in
the house. He understood that the purpose for which these five
persons were associated was some great charitable endeavor;
but he thought much less of that than of his heroine.
The neophyte spent some days in studying these choice
spirits, amid whom he found himself, with greater attention
than he had hitherto devoted to them; and he became the
subject of a moral phenomenon which modern philanthro-
THE SEAMY SIDE OF HISTORY 355
pists have overlooked, from ignorance perhaps. The sphere
in which he lived had a direct influence on Godefroid. The
law which governs physical nature in respect to the influence
of atmospheric conditions on the lives of the beings subject
to them, also governs moral nature; whence it is to be in-
ferred that the collecting in masses of the criminal class is
one of the greatest social crimes, while absolute isolation
is an experiment of which the success is very doubtful.
Condemned felons ought, therefore, to be placed in relig-
ious institutions and surrounded with prodigies of goodness
instead of being left among marvels of evil. The Church
may be looked to for perfect devotion to this cause; for if
She is ready to send missionaries to barbarous or savage
nations, how gladly would She charge her religious Orders
with the mission of rescuing and instructing the savages of
civilized life! Every criminal is an atheist — often without
Godefroid found his five companions endowed with the
qualities they demanded of him; they were all free from
pride or vanity, all truly humble and pious, devoid of the
pretentiousness which constitutes devouiness in the invidious
sense of the word. These virtues were contagious; he was
filled with the desire to imitate these obscure heroes, and he
ended by studying with ardor the book he had at first
scorned. Within a fortnight he had reduced life to its
simplest expression, to what it really is when regarded from
the lofty point of view to which the religious spirit leads us.
Finally, his curiosity, at first purely worldly and roused by
many vulgar motives, became rarefied. He did not cease
to be curious; it would have been difficult to lose all interest
in the life of Madame de la Chanterie; but, without intend-
ing it, he showed a reserve which was fully appreciated by
these men, in whom the Holy Spirit had developed wonder-
ful depths of mind, as happens, indeed, with all who devote
themselves to a religious life. The concentration of the
moral powers, by whatever means or system, increases their
356 BALZAC'S WORKS
"Our young friend is not yet a convert," said the good
Abbe de V^ze; "but he wishes to be."
An unforeseen circumstance led to the revelation of
Madame de la Chanterie's history, so that his intense in-
terest in it was soon satisfied.
Paris was just then engrossed by the investigation of the
case of the Barridre Saint-Jacques, one of those hideous
trials which mark the history of our assizes. The trial
derived its interest from the criminals themselves, whose
daring and general superiority to ordinary culprits, with
their cynical contempt for justice, really appalled the
public. It was a noteworthy fact that no newspaper ever
entered the Hotel de la Chanterie, and Godefroid only heard
of the rejection of the appeal to the Supreme Court from his
master in bookkeeping; the trial had taken place long be-
fore he came to Madame de la Chanterie.
"Do you ever meet with such men as these atrocious
scoundrels?" he asked his new friends. "Or, when you
do, how do you deal with them?"
"In the first place," said Monsieur Nicolas, "there is no
such thing as an atrocious scoundrel; there are mad crea-
tures fit only for tlie asylum at Chareuton; but with the
exception of those rare pathological exceptions, what we
find are simply men without religion, or who argue falsely,
and the task of the charitable is to set souls upright and
bring the erring into the right way. ' '
"And to the apostle all things are possible," said the
Abb^ de V^ze; "he has God on his side."
"If you were sent to these two condemned men," said
Godefroid, "you could do nothing with them."
"There would not be time," observed Monsieur Alain.
"As a rule," said Monsieur Nicolas, "the souls handed
over to be dealt with by the Church are in utter impeni-
tence, and the time is too short for miracles to be wrought.
The men of whom you are speaking, if they had fallen into
our hands, would have been men of mark; their energy is
immense; but when once they have committed murder, it
THE SEAMY SIDE OF HISTORY 357
is impossible to do anything for them; human justice has
taken possession of them,"
"Then you are averse to capital punishment?" said
Monsieur Nicolas hastily rose and left the room.
"Never speak of capital punishment in the presence of
Monsieur Nicolas. He once recognized in a criminal, whose
execution it was his duty to superintend, a natural child of
"And who was innocent!" added Monsieur Joseph.
At this moment Madame de la Chanterie, who had not
been in the room, came in.
"Still, you must allow," Godefroid went on, addressing^
Monsieur Joseph, "that society cannot exist without capital
punishment, and that these men, whose heads — "
Godefroid felt his mouth suddenly closed by a strong
hand, and the Abb6 de V^ze led away Madame de la Chan-
terie, pale and half dead.
"What have you done?" cried Monsieur Joseph.
"Take him away, Alain," he said, removmg the hand
with which he had gagged Godefroid; and he followed the
Abb^ de Y^ze into Madame's room.
"Come with me," said Alain to Godefroid. "You
have compelled us to tell you the secrets of Madame's
In a few minutes the two friends were together in Mon-
sieur Alain's room, as they had been when the old man had
told Godefroid his own history.
"Well," said Godefroid, whose face sufficiently showed
his despair at having been the cause of what might be called
a catastrophe in this pious household.
"I am waiting till Manon shall have come to say how
she is going on," replied the good man, as he heard the
woman's step on the stairs.
"Monsieur, Madame is better. Monsieur I'Abbe man-
aged to deceive her as to what had been said," and Manon
shot a wrathful glance at Godefroid.
358 BALZAC'S WORKS
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed the unhappy young man,
his eyes filling with tears.
"Come, sit down," said Monsieur Alain, seating him-
self. Then he paused to collect his thoughts.
"I do not know," said the kind old man, "that I have
the talent necessary to give a worthy narrative of a life so
cruelly tried. You must forgive me if you find the words
of so poor a speaker inadequate to the magnitude of the
events and catastrophes. You must remember that it is a
very long time since I was at school, and that I date from a
time when thoughts were held of more importance than
effect — from a prosaic age, when we knew not iiow to speak
of things except by their names."
Godefroid bowed with an expression of assent, in which
his worthy old friend could discern his sincere admiration,
and which plainly said, "lam listening."
"As you have just perceived, my young friend, it would
be impossible for you to remain one of us without learning
some of the particulars of that saintly woman's life. There
are certain ideas, allusions, words, which are absolutely pro-
hibited in this house, since they inevitably reopen wounds,
of which the anguish might kill Madame if it were once or
twice revived — "
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Godefroid, "what have I
"But for Monsieur Joseph, who happily interrupted you
just as you were about to speak of the awful instrument of
death, you would have annihilated the poor lady. — It is
time that you should be told all; for you will be one of us,
of that we are all convinced,
"Madame de la Chanterie, " he went on after a short
pause, "is descended from one of the first families of Lower
Normandy. Her maiden name was Mademoiselle Barbe-
Philiberte de Champignelles — of a younger branch of that
house; and she was intended to take the veil unless a mar-
riage could be arranged for her with the usual renunciations
of property that were commonly required in poor families of
THE SEAMY SIDE OF HISTORY 359
high rank. A certain Sieur de la Cliantehe, whose family
had sunk into utter obscurity, though dating from the time
of Philippe- Auguste's crusade, was anxious to recover the
rank to which so ancient a name gave him a claim in the
province of Normandy. But he had fallen quite from his
high estate, for he had made money — some three hundred
thousand francs — by supplying the commissariat for the
army at the time of the war with Hanover. His son, trust-
ing too much to this wealth, which provincial rumor mag-
nified, was living in Paris in a way calculated to cause the
father of a family some uneasiness.
"Mademoiselle de Champignelles' great merits became
famous throughout the district of le Bessin; and the old
man, whose little fief of la Chanterie lay between Caen and
Saint-L6, heard some expressions of regret that so accom-
plished a young lady, and one so capable of making a hus-
band happy, should end her days in a convent. On his
uttering a wish to seek her out, some hope was given him
that he might obtain the hand of Mademoiselle Philiberte
for his son if he were content to renounce any marriage por-
tion. He went to Bayeux, contrived to have two or three
meetings with the Champignelles family, and was fascinated
by the young lady's noble qualities.
"At the age of sixteen, Mademoiselle de Champignelles
gave promise of what she would become. She evinced well-
founded piety, sound good se'nse, inflexible rectitude — one
of those natures which will never veer in its affections even
if they are the outcome of duty. The old nobleman, en-
riched by his somewhat illicit gains, discerned in this
charming girl a wife who might keep his son in order by
the authority of virtue and the ascendency of a character
that was firm but not rigid; for, as you have seen, no one
can be gentler than Madame de la Chanterie. Then, no one
could be more confiding; even in the declme of life she has
the candor of innocence; in her youth she would not believe
in evil; such distrust as you may have seen in her she owes
to her misfortunes. The old man pledged himself to the
860 BALZAC'S WORKS
Champignelles to give them a discharge in full for the por- •
tion legitimately clue to Mademoiselle Philiberte on the
signing of the marriage contract; in return, the Champi-
gnelles, who were connected with the greatest families,
promised to have the lief of la Chanterie created a barony,
and they kept their word. The bridegroom's aunt, Madame
de Boisfrelon, the wife of the councillor to the Parlement
who died in your rooms, promised to leave her fortune to
"When all these arrangements were completed between
the two families, the father sent for his son. This young
man, at the time of his marriage, was five-and-twenty, and
already a Master of Appeals; he had indulged in numerous
follies with the young gentlemen of the time, living in their
style; and the old army contractor had several times paid
his debts to a considerable amount. The poor father, fore-
seeing further dissipation on his son's part, was only too
glad to settle a part of his fortune on his daughter-in-law;
but he was so cautious as to entail the estate of la Chanterie
on the heirs male of the marriage —
"A precaution," added Monsieur Alain in a parenthesis,
"which the Revolution made useless."
"As handsome as an angel, and wonderfully skilled in
all athletic exercises, the young Master of Appeals had im-
mense powers of charming," he went on. "So Mademoi-
selle de Champignelles, as yoii may easily imagine, fell very
much in love with her husband. The old man, made very
happy by this promising beginning, and hoping that his son
was a reformed character, sent the young couple to Paris.
This was early in 1788. For nearly a year they were per-
fectly happy. Madame de la Chanterie was the object of all
the little cares, the most delicate attentions that a devoted
lover can lavish on the one and only woman he loves.
Brief as it was, the honeymoon beamed brightly on the
heart of the noble and unfortunate lady.
"As you know, in those days mothers all nursed their
infants themselves. Madame de la Chanterie had a daugh-
THE SEAMY SIDE OF HISTORY 361
ter. This time, when a wife ought to be the object of
double devotion on her husband's part, was, on the con-
trary, the beginning of dreadful woes. The Master of Ap-
peals was obliged to sell everything he could part with to
pay old debts which he had not confessed, and more recent
gambling debts. Then, suddenly the National Assembly
dissolved the Supreme Council and the Parlement, and
abolished all the great law appointments that had been so
dearly purchased. Thus the young couple, with the addi-
tion of their child, had no income to rely on but the revenues
from the entailed estate, and from the portion settled on
Madame de la Chanterie. Twenty months after her mar-
riage this charming woman, at the age of seventeen and a
half, found herself reduced to maintaining herself and the
child at her breast by the work of her hands, in an obscure
street where she hid herself. She then found herself abso-
lutely deserted by her husband, who fell, step by step, into
the society of the very lowest kind. Never did she blame
her husband, never did she put him in the least in the
wrong. She has told us that all through the worst time
she prayed to God for her dear Henri.
"The rascal's name was Henri," remarked Monsieur
Alain. "It is a name that must never be spoken here, any
more than that of Henriette. — To proceed —
"Madame de la Chanterie, who never quitted her little
room in the Rue de la Corderie-du-Temple unless to buy
food or fetch her work, kept her head above water; thanks
partly to an allowance of a hundred francs a month from
her father-in-law, who was touched by so much virtue.
However, the poor young wife, foreseeing that this support
might fail -her, had taken up the laborious work of a stay-
maker, and worked for a famous dressmaker. In fact, ere-
long the old contractor died, and his estate was consumed
by his son under favor of thQ overthrow of the Monarchy.
"The erstwhile Master of Appeals, now one of the most
savage of all the presidents of the revolutionary tribunal,
had become a terror in Normandy, and could indulge all
362 BALZAC'S WORKS
his passions. Then, imprisoned in his turn on the fall of
Robespierre, the hatred of the department condemned him
to inevitable death. Madame de la Chanterie received a
farewell letter announcing her husband's fate. She im-
mediately placed her little girl in the care of a neighbor,
and went off to the town where the wretch was in confine-
ment, taking with her a few louis, which constituted her
whole fortune. This money enabled her to get into the
prison. She succeeded in helping her husband to escape,
dressing him in clothes of her own, under circumstances
very similar to those which not long after favored Madame
de la Valette. She was condemned to death, but the au-
thorities were ashamed to carr}' out this act of revenge, and