**The Project Gutenberg Etext of Ferragus, by Honore de Balzac** #54 in our series by Balzac
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by Honore de Balzac
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
February, 1999 [Etext #1649]
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CHIEF OF THE DEVORANTS
by HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To Hector Berlioz.
Thirteen men were banded together in Paris under the Empire, all imbued with one and the same sentiment, all gifted with sufficient energy to be faithful to the same thought, with sufficient honor among themselves never to betray one another even if their interests clashed; and sufficiently wily and politic to conceal the sacred ties that united them, sufficiently strong to maintain themselves above the law, bold enough to undertake all things, and fortunate enough to succeed, nearly always, in their undertakings; having run the greatest dangers, but keeping silence if defeated; inaccessible to fear; trembling neither before princes, nor executioners, not even before innocence; accepting each other for such as they were, without social prejudices,--criminals, no doubt, but certainly remarkable through certain of the qualities that make great men, and recruiting their number only among men of mark. That nothing might be lacking to the sombre and mysterious poesy of their history, these Thirteen men have remained to this day unknown; though all have realized the most chimerical ideas that the fantastic power falsely attributed to the
Manfreds, the Fausts, and the Melmoths can suggest to the imagination. To-day, they are broken up, or, at least, dispersed; they have peaceably put their necks once more under the yoke of civil law, just as Morgan, that Achilles among pirates, transformed himself from a buccaneering scourge to a quiet colonist, and spent, without remorse, around his domestic hearth the millions gathered in blood by the lurid light of flames and slaughter.
Since the death of Napoleon, circumstances, about which the author must keep silence, have still farther dissolved the original bond of this secret society, always extraordinary, sometimes sinister, as though it lived in the blackest pages of Mrs. Radcliffe. A somewhat strange permission to relate in his own way a few of the adventures of these men (while respecting certain susceptibilities) has only recently been given to him by one of those anonymous heroes to whom all society was once occultly subjected. In this permission the writer fancied he detected a vague desire for personal celebrity.
This man, apparently still young, with fair hair and blue eyes, whose sweet, clear voice seemed to denote a feminine soul, was pale of face and mysterious in manner; he conversed affably, declared himself not more than forty years of age, and apparently belonged to the very highest social classes. The name which he assumed must have been fictitious; his person was unknown in society. Who was he? That, no one has ever known.
Perhaps, in confiding to the author the extraordinary matters which he related to him, this mysterious person may have wished to see them in a manner reproduced, and thus enjoy the emotions they were certain to bring to the hearts of the masses,--a feeling analogous to that of Macpherson when the name of his creation Ossian was transcribed into all languages. That was certainly, for the Scotch lawyer, one of the keenest, or at any rate the rarest, sensations a man could give himself. Is it not the incognito of genius? To write the "Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem" is to take a share in the human glory of a single epoch; but to endow his native land with another Homer, was not that usurping the work of God?
The author knows too well the laws of narration to be ignorant of the pledges this short preface is contracting for him; but he also knows enough of the history of the THIRTEEN to be certain that his present tale will never be thought below the interest inspired by this programme. Dramas steeped in blood, comedies filled with terror, romantic tales through which rolled heads mysteriously decapitated,
have been confided to him. If readers were not surfeited with horrors served up to them of late in cold blood, he might reveal the calm atrocities, the surpassing tragedies concealed under family life. But he chooses in preference gentler events,--those where scenes of purity succeed the tempests of passion; where woman is radiant with virtue and beauty. To the honor of the THIRTEEN be it said that there are such scenes in their history, which may have the honor of being some day published as a foil of tales to listeners,--that race apart from others, so curiously energetic, and so interesting in spite of its crimes.
An author ought to be above converting his tale, when the tale is true, into a species of surprise-game, and of taking his readers, as certain novellists do, through many volumes and from cellar to cellar, to show them the dry bones of a dead body, and tell them, by way of conclusion, that THAT is what has frightened them behind doors, hidden in the arras, or in cellars where the dead man was buried and forgotten. In spite of his aversion for prefaces, the author feels bound to place the following statement at the head of this narrative. Ferragus is a first episode which clings by invisible links to the "History of the THIRTEEN," whose power, naturally acquired, can alone explain certain acts and agencies which would otherwise seem supernatural. Although it is permissible in tellers of tales to have a sort of literary coquetry in becoming historians, they ought to renounce the benefit that may accrue from an odd or fantastic title-- on which certain slight successes have been won in the present day. Consequently, the author will now explain, succinctly, the reasons that obliged him to select a title to his book which seems at first sight unnatural.
FERRAGUS is, according to ancient custom, a name taken by the chief or Grand Master of the Devorants. On the day of their election these chiefs continue whichever of the dynasties of their Order they are most in sympathy with, precisely as the Popes do, on their accession, in connection with pontifical dynasties. Thus the Devorants have "Trempe-la Soupe IX.," "Ferragus XXII.," "Tutanus XIII.," "Masche-Fer IV.," just as the Church has Clement XIV., Gregory VII., Julius II., Alexander VI., etc.
Now, then, who are the Devorants? "Devorant" is the name of one of those tribes of "Companions" that issued in ancient times from the great mystical association formed among the workers of Christianity to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Companionism (to coin a word) still exists in France among the people. Its traditions, powerful over minds
that are not enlightened, and over men not educated enough to cast aside an oath, might serve the ends of formidable enterprises if some rough-hewn genius were to seize hold of these diverse associations. All the instruments of this Companionism are well-nigh blind. From town to town there has existed from time immemorial, for the use of Companions, an "Obade,"--a sort of halting-place, kept by a "Mother," an old woman, half-gypsy, with nothing to lose, knowing everything that happens in her neighborhood, and devoted, either from fear or habit, to the tribe, whose straggling members she feeds and lodges. This people, ever moving and changing, though controlled by immutable customs, has its eyes everywhere, executes, without judging it, a WILL,--for the oldest Companion still belongs to an era when men had faith. Moreover, the whole body professes doctrines that are sufficiently true and sufficiently mysterious to electrify into a sort of tribal loyalty all adepts whenever they obtain even a slight development. The attachment of the Companions to their laws is so passionate that the diverse tribes will fight sanguinary battles with each other in defence of some question of principle.
Happily for our present public safety, when a Devorant is ambitious, he builds houses, lays by his money, and leaves the Order. There is many a curious thing to tell about the "Compagnons du Devoir" [Companions of the Duty], the rivals of the Devorants, and about the different sects of working-men, their usages, their fraternity, and the bond existing between them and the free-masons. But such details would be out of place here. The author must, however, add that under the old monarchy it was not an unknown thing to find a "Trempe-la- Soupe" enslaved to the king sentenced for a hundred and one years to the galleys, but ruling his tribe from there, religiously consulted by it, and when he escaped from his galley, certain of help, succor, and respect, wherever he might be. To see its grand master at the galleys is, to the faithful tribe, only one of those misfortunes for which providence is responsible, and which does not release the Devorants from obeying a power created by them to be above them. It is but the passing exile of their legitimate king, always a king for them. Thus we see the romantic prestige attaching to the name of Ferragus and to that of the Devorants completely dissipated.
As for the THIRTEEN, they were all men of the stamp of Trelawney, Lord Byron's friend, who was, they say, the original of his "Corsair." They were all fatalists, men of nerve and poesy, weary of leading flat and empty lives, driven toward Asiatic enjoyments by forces all the more excessive because, long dormant, they awoke furious. One of them, after re-reading "Venice Preserved," and admiring the sublime union of