The Red Inn (L’Auberge Rouge), a short story from Balzac, is a seemingly simple tale that asks the question: how does one accept a fortune that is gained on blood–a fortune that is not morally yours?
This tale begins at the home of a Parisian banker who is entertaining friends and business acquaintances with dinner. Included in the guests is a German named Hermann who is asked to tell the guests a story over dessert:
At this moment the guests were in that happy state of laziness and silence which follows a delicious dinner, especially if we have presumed too far on our digestive powers. leaning back in their chairs, their wrists lightly resting on the edge of the table, they were indolently playing with the gilded blades of their dessert-knives. When a dinner comes to this declining moment some guests will be seen to play with a pear seed; others roll crumbs of bread between their fingers and thumbs; lovers trace indistinct letters with fragments of fruit; misers count the stones on their plate and arrange them as a manager marshals his supernumeraries at the back of the stage. These are the little gastronomic felicities which Brillat-Savarin, otherwise so complete an author, overlooked in his book. The footmen had disappeared. The dessert was like a squadron after a battle: all the dishes were disabled, pillaged, damaged
It’s so easy to imagine this scene with the satisfied guests around the table, laden with overly-full, heavy stomachs and loathe to move. Taking a pinch of snuff, the German begins his tale which rather appropriately involves two young Frenchmen in Germany. The year is 1799. The two men, Prosper Magnan and the other named “Wilhelm” (the story teller claims to have forgotten the name of the second man) have been removed from medical school and conscripted into the army as assistant-surgeons. They reach the town of Anderbach at nightfall and decide to spend the night at an inn that is painted red, aptly named The Red Inn. The inn is full, but the innkeeper gives up his own bed to the two men. Shortly afterwards a German merchant arrives also seeking shelter. A meal and a few drinks later, the merchant spills the information that he travels with one hundred thousand francs….
That’s as much of the story as I will reveal, but let’s just say that there’s an ironic twist of fate, and since this is Balzac, expect human greed to play a large part in acts that unfold. Conscience, however, plays an even bigger role with more than one character, and we see how conscience can direct a person’s actions–or even lead in one case to inaction and indecision. I liked the way this story was after-dinner entertainment while the guests digested their meal. Apart from the coincidences, it was quite believable and wasn’t marred with over-the-top dramatics.
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and FREE for the kindle.