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Honore De Balzac - The Magic Skin (1831)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



(La Peau de Chagrin)

This is one of the best known of Balzac's novels. He worked very hard over it, and his hopes of its success were realized. It was asserted that Ernst T. W. Hoffman, the German novelist, was his model, but Balzac denied it. Before it appeared in two volumes, in 1831, a few fragments were published in periodicals. It was also included in the three volumes entitled Romans et Contes Philosophiques. In 1835 it was classed with the Etudes Philosophiques. Some critics have compared it to Faust and Hamlet. Perhaps Balzac speaks for him-self through the old merchant, who says to Raphael: "I will tell you in a few words the secret of human life. By two instinctive processes, man exhausts the springs of life within him. Two verbs cover all the forms which these two causes of death may take—To Will and To have your Will. Between these two limits of human activity the wise have discovered an intermediate formula, to which I owe my good fortune and long life. To Will consumes us, and To have our Will destroys us, but To Know steeps our feeble organisms in perpetual calm." He tells us that The Magic Skin to some extent forms a link between the Philosophical Studies and Studies of Manners, by a work of almost Oriental fancy, in which life itself is shown in a mortal struggle with the very element of all passion. Rastignac and Bianchon are frequently met with in other novels; they appear first after this story in Pere Goriot.

IN October, 1829, a young man entered the Palais Royal, just as the gaming-houses opened. He ascended the stairs of gambling-hell number thirty-six, and walked into the salon where the rattle of coin brought his senses under the spell of greed. Several gamblers were there, hovering over the green table; the croupier and the banker were crying, " Make your play!" The young man, who appeared to be about twenty- five, threw a piece of gold upon the table. It rolled upon the black. A young Italian, with sudden enthusiasm, punted his heap against the stranger's gold. "Even! Red wins!" cried the croupier. As the banker showered the notes upon the Italian, the stranger turned pale and left the room. He went down the steps, feebly whistling Di tanti Palpiti, walked into the Rue Saint Honore, crossed the gardens of the Tuileries, and thought of suicide. He bent his way toward the Pont Royal, reached the middle of the arch, leaned over the parapet and looked forebodingly at the cold and dirty Seine. Death in broad daylight seemed degrading; he would wait until night. Strolling along, he came across the shop of a dealer in antiques, and thought to wile away the time in looking at the curiosities. The young shopkeeper gave him permission to wander about. It was indeed a marvelous collection: four galleries full of works of art and curios of all periods and countries. A mahogany coffer, hanging from a nail by a silver chain, attracted his attention.

"What is in it?" he asked the shopman, who replied that he would have to fetch his master.

In the meantime, the young man sank into a reverie, from which he was aroused by a startling apparition. A little, old man, thin, with long white hair and gray, pointed beard, clad in a black velvet robe, girded with a silk cord, and a black velvet skull-cap, stood before him holding aloft a lamp.

"You wish to see Raphael's picture of Jesus Christ, Monsieur?" the old man asked, and as he pushed aside a spring the painting was revealed. After the young man had admired the picture, he exclaimed:

"And now for death!"

The merchant thought he intended to murder him, and the stranger had to explain his intention of committing suicide. The old man offered to make him rich and powerful.

"Look," he said, holding the lamp so as to cast light on the wall, "look at that leather skin!"

The young man rose abruptly, and showed some surprise at the sight of a piece of shagreen which hung on the wall behind his chair. It was only about the size of a fox's skin, but it seemed to fill the deep shadows of the place with such brilliant rays that it looked like a small comet, an appearance at first sight inexplicable. The young skeptic went up to this so-called talisman, which was to rescue him from his woes, with a scoffing phrase in his thoughts. Still, a harmless curiosity led him to bend over it and look at it from all points of view, and he soon learned the cause of its singular brilliance. The dark grain of the leather had been so carefully burnished and polished, the striped markings of the graining were so sharp and clear, that every particle of the surface of the bit of Oriental leather concentrated the light and reflected it vividly.

"Ah!" he cried, "here is the mark of the seal which in the East they call Solomon's Signet!"

The old man held the lamp close to the talisman and pointed out some inlaid characters. The mysterious words were Sanskrit, and read as follows:

Possessing me, thou shalt possess all things.
But thy life is mine, for God has so willed it.
Wish, and thy wishes shall be fulfilled;
But measure thy desires, according
To the life that is in thee.
This is thy life,
With each wish I must shrink
Even as thy own days.
Wilt thou have me? Take me.
God will hearken unto thee.
So be it !

"I have offered this talisman with its terrible powers to many men," the merchant continued, "but no one was willing to conclude the fateful contract proposed by an unknown force."

The stranger clutched the talisman.

"Let me see now," he exclaimed: "I wish for a royal banquet, a carouse worthy of this century, which, it is said, has brought everything to perfection. Let me have young boon companions, witty, unwarped by prejudice, merry to the verge of madness! Let one wine succeed another, each more biting and perfumed than the last and strong enough to bring about three days of delirium! Passionate women's forms should grace that night! I would be borne away to unknown regions beyond the confines of this world by the car and four-winged steed of a frantic and uproarious orgy. Next, I bid this enigmatical power to concentrate all delights for me in one single joy. Yes, I must comprehend every pleasure of earth and heaven in the final embrace that is to kill me!"

The merchant, laughing ironically, said:

"Your wishes will be accurately fulfilled., but at the expense of your life. The compass of your days visible in that skin will contract according to the strength and number of your desires, from the least to the most extravagant. The Brahman from whom I had this skin explained to me that it would bring about a mysterious connection between the fortunes and wishes of its possessor. After all, you were wishing to die; very well, your suicide is only postponed!"

The young man, not noticing how flexible the skin had become, thrust it into his coat-pocket and abruptly left. As he rushed into the street, he ran into three young men.

"Why, it is Raphael!" they exclaimed.

They had been hunting for him several days; a new newspaper had just been established and large salaries and a merry life for the young journalists and critics were to be had. Arm in arm, with Raphael in their midst, they crossed the Pont des Arts and reached a mansion in the Rue Joubert. A great banquet was to take place. In a gorgeously furnished room, splendid with color and sweet with scent of blooming flowers, a long table was set with gleaming silver and brilliant crystal. Wonderful viands and rare wines succeeded one another, and the conversation of the wits was "merry to the verge of madness." Raphael's wish had been realized.

When he repaired to the drawing-room, another request was obeyed : beautiful women were there to charm the revelers. The scene became a saturnalia; the rooms were like a fore-taste of Milton's Pandemonium; "the frantic and uproarious orgy" that Raphael had desired was enacted.

Raphael then told his friend Emile the history of his life: his father's strict discipline; his early pleasures; his loss of for-tune; his social experiences; his lodging at Madame Gaudin's, where her daughter Pauline so tenderly cared for him; and his acquaintance with Rastignac, who introduced him to the beautiful Countess Foedora. It was particularly of her that he talked, of "this woman without a heart," who scorned his love. He also told Emile how he left the Gaudins, and plunged into a vortex of pleasures, in which gaming played an important part, but only in private houses. He never had been in a gambling-house until he reached his last twenty-franc piece. Then, remembering Rastignac's luck, this reminded him of the talisman. He pulled it out of his pocket.

"The devil take death!" he cried wildly, brandishing the skin. "I mean to live ! I am rich ! Nothing can withstand me!"

Half mad, he explained the virtues of the talisman to Emile, and they retired to the dining-room and measured it on a nap-kin, tracing its outline carefully. "I wish for an income of two thousand livres," said Raphael. "When that comes, you will observe a mighty shrinkage in my shagreen."

At noon, a notary called to inquire for Raphael. He had inherited a large fortune from his mother's brother. Raphael spread the talisman upon the napkin, and saw that it did not quite reach the outline he had traced. His face took on a ghastly hue; he was terrified; he was facing Death! Did not his mother die of consumption? "Like a traveler in the middle of a desert, with but a little water to quench his thirst, he must measure his life by the draughts he took of it."

In December, an old man peered at every door in the Rue de Varenne, searching for the house of the Marquis Raphael de Valentin. He had difficulty in effecting an entrance. Jonathan, an old servant, described to the old gentleman, when he told him he was Monsieur Porriquet, Raphael's old tutor, how strangely his master lived. The house was luxuriously furnished; but there was no life within. Raphael lived in solitude, vegetating, and Jonathan had to treat him as if he "were a baby in long clothes," thinking of all his needs, anticipating his every desire. Raphael did not desire to wish.

M. Porriquet was admitted, and found Raphael in his dressing-gown, reading the paper. He was pale, languid, and melancholy. In this room hung the Magic Skin, "fastened upon a background of white surrounded by a red line. Since that carouse, Raphael had stifled the least wish, and had lived so as not to cause the slightest shrinkage in the terrible talisman. The Magic Skin was like a tiger with which he must live without exciting its ferocity."

The old tutor had come to entreat Raphael's influence in securing employment. The latter said thoughtlessly, "I wish you may succeed"; and then suddenly gave a terrible cry, as he noticed a tiny space come between the skin and the red line.

At the opera, that night, Raphael saw the old merchant in the guise of an antiquated coxcomb. He laughed at Raphael in derision. The unhappy man also-saw the Countess Foedora and others; but he had vowed to pay no special heed to any woman, and he used an opera-glass that distorted everything on which it was turned. Close beside him sat a lovely woman in a charming costume, who insisted on attracting his attention.

"Pauline!" he said to her at last.

"Monsieur Raphael!"

She asked him to come to his old lodging. He agreed; and when he got there he learned that Madame Gaudin had become a wealthy baroness. Pauline met him here for the sake of old associations and sentiment. Raphael now discovered that he loved Pauline, and that she had always loved him and made many sacrifices for him in her days of poverty.

"You shall be my wife," said Raphael. "A new life seems to begin for me. The cruel past and my wretched follies are hardly more to me than evil dreams. At your side, I breathe an atmosphere of happiness and I am pure. Be with me always," he added, pressing her solemnly to his beating heart.

"Death may come when it will," said Pauline in ecstasy; "I have lived!"

Pauline's carriage first took them to Raphael's house, where she agreed to marry him within a fortnight, and then to her father's home in the Rue Saint-Lazare. When Valentin re-turned home, "with as much happiness in his heart as mortal man can know," he looked at the Magic Skin; it had shrunk a little !

"Good God!" he cried, "every wish! Every desire of mine! Poor Pauline!"

He measured the shrinkage.

"I have hardly enough for two months!" A. cold perspiration broke out. He seized the talisman in a burst of rage, ran down-stairs, and threw it into a well.

"The devil take this nonsense!"

So Raphael gave himself up to the happiness of loving and being beloved by Pauline.

The marriage was postponed till March. One morning in February, while Pauline was breakfasting with Raphael, the gardener begged permission to enter and handed his master a curiosity that he had found—a piece of leather, six inches square! It was the inexorable talisman! Raphael's alarm terrified Pauline. She left him in tears, and he went to consult the learned. The various men of science that he called upon examined the piece of leather and had various theories; they could not stretch it, however. Raphael returned home and replaced the Magic Skin in its old frame, drawing a new line in red ink around it. To his surprise, Pauline returned. She remained all night, and was terrified by his ominous cough and more ominous words. A few days later, four physicians stood around Raphael, feeling his pulse and plying him with questions. His last hope lay in this consultation. This court of appeal was about to pronounce its decision—life or death. Valentin had summoned the oracles of modern medicine, so that he might have the last word of science. Valentin's observation could discover no trace of a feeling for his troubles in any of the three doctors—Brisset, Maugredie, and Cameristus; but Bianchon's face showed grave compassion. He had been a doctor for too short a time to be untouched by suffering and unmoved by a death-bed.

The four doctors went into Raphael's study to discuss the case and reach the verdict.

A trip to Savoy was advised, and a month later Raphael was at Aix. Here he met the usual collection of invalids and pleasure-seekers drinking the waters, selfish and callous to one another's comfort. The resident physician gave him great encouragement. Several young men, taking a dislike to him, picked a quarrel; and as Raphael would not heed an old gentle-woman's warning, he fell into the trap and had to fight a duel. He was accompanied to the field by the faithful Jonathan. Raphael begged his antagonist to apologize, telling him that he possessed a terrible power, but did not wish to use it, for the use of it cost too dear. The man refused, and Raphael's ball went straight to his heart. Raphael did not heed the fallen man; he hurriedly pulled out the Magic Skin to see what the man's life had cost him. The talisman was the size of a small oak-leaf !

Raphael now went to Auvergne. Power leaves us just as it finds us; only great natures grow greater by its means. Raphael had had everything in his power, and he had done nothing. After a brief stay in a peasant's cottage, trying to regain health, Raphael returned to Paris.

"Go and find Bianchon," he said to Jonathan.

Dr. Bianchon told Jonathan that Raphael's mind should be diverted; and at Raphael's request gave him an opiate. Jonathan diverted him. The servant one day conducted his master into the great gallery. Here was a banquet; here were beautiful women; here were voices and perfume and music. Raphael uttered a cry, and struck his old servant in the face. It was midnight. Raphael rushed to his room and took his opiate. In his deep sleep, youth seemed to return. He dreamed of Pauline; and, waking, found her beside him.

"Go! go!" he muttered; "if you stay I shall die!"

From his pillow, he drew a small bit of leather, tiny as a periwinkle petal.

"Pauline," he said, showing it to her, "let us say farewell! This talisman grants all my wishes and represents my span of life. If you look at me any longer, I shall die!" She took it in her hand. No longer able to control his thoughts, he called to her in love and longing, and the leather contracted in her hand. Pauline fled from him into the next room, locked the door and tried to strangle herself. The dying man rushed after her, and attempted to embrace her. Jonathan appeared, terrified, and ran to tear away the dead body from Pauline's grasp.

"He is mine. I have killed him," she said; "did I not foresee what would happen?"

" And what became of Pauline?"

"Pauline. Ah ! Pauline is the queen of illusions, radiant as an angel, flower of the flame, sparkle of the diamond—sylph, naiad, siren, the child of sun and river, air and cloud."

"How about Foedora?"

" Oh, Foedora ! You are sure to meet her. She will go to the opera this evening, and if you like to take it so, she is Society!"



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