Back to Balzac for another tale–this one Maitre Cornelius is set in the 15th century and is a re-read for me. I hadn’t forgotten the story, but it’s peculiar how we pick new things up on a re-read, or in the case of a film, a repeat viewing. The story (99 pages in my Mondial books edition) opens in the Cathedral of Tours. It’s All Saints Day, 1479, and Marie, Countess Saint-Vallier, a beautiful young, and badly mistreated wife is saying her prayers when she’s approached by a young man who has fallen in love with her and is taking the opportunity to sneak a meeting while her husband is momentarily absent. The husband, we are told, was “a little old man, hunchbacked, nearly bald, savage in expression.” He’s a “stunted orge” who jealously guards his young wife, and bleeds her regularly to keep her weak and compliant. The lovers manage to have a brief moment together in which the young man (we later learn that he is Georges d’Estouteville) tells Marie that he’s going to take a position as an apprentice at the home of Maître Cornelius, “the King’s silversmith.” Lodging there will give him access to Marie whose fortress of a home is right next door. Marie is appalled by the plan as the apprentices of Maître Cornelius have all met a similar, unhappy fate.
The phenomenally wealthy Maître Cornelius Hoogwurst lives the life of recluse with his crone of a sister. Over the years, they have accepted a number of apprentices, but shortly after taking in these young men, Maître Cornelius has discovered that various jewels have gone missing. Naturally suspicion falls on the newcomers who under torture, eventually confessed and were executed. Now no one seeks to be an apprentice under Maître Cornelius, and due to the fates of his various young apprentices, he’s perceived by the locals as an evil man–possibly a sorcerer. Balzac describes the homes of the Comte Saint-Vallier and the much-despised silversmith as “two mute dwellings, separated from the others in the same street and standing at the crooked end of it” as seeming to be “afflicted with leprosy.” Of course, both houses are tainted with disease, but it’s mental disease–the disease of jealousy (in the case of Saint-Vallier) and greed in the case of Maître Cornelius.
The love story had only a mild interest for me. Instead I was much more interested in Maître Cornelius, an elderly miser who despises all mankind but respects King Louis XI. In one marvelous segment, Balzac describes a scene in which Georges d’Estouteville, posing as a-would-be apprentice named Philippe, gains entrance into the silversmith’s home and catches Maître Cornelius and his sister at supper:
On the other side of the chimney-piece was a walnut table with twisted legs, on which was an egg in a plate and ten or a dozen little bread-sops, hard and dry and cut with studied parsimony. Two stools placed beside the table, on one of which the old woman sat down, showed that the miserly pair were eating their suppers. Cornelius went to the door and pushed two iron shutters into their place, closing, no doubt, the loopholes through which they had been gazing into the street; then he returned to his seat. Philippe Goulenoire (so called) next beheld the brother and sister dipping their sops into the egg in turn, and with the utmost gravity and the same precision with which soldiers dip their spoons in regular rotation into the mess-pot. This performance was done in silence. But as he ate, Cornelius examined the false apprentice with as much care and scrutiny as if he were weighing an old coin.
Later, King Louis XI enters the story and solves all the problems. Marie is “the best-loved natural daughter of Louis XI,” so she eventually manages to get his intervention in a marriage that has proved disastrous, but apart from solving Marie’s marriage problems, Louis XI also solves the mystery of Maître Cornelius and his many episodes of missing jewels. Louis XI appears as an interesting figure here, soon-to-die, but certainly a cunning fellow who Balzac clearly admires. Later Balzac tells us that Marie’s grand-daughter was the very famous Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henri II.
Balzac was a fan of Sir Walter Scott, but there’s a dig here directed towards Scott:
In spite of the singular fancy which possessed the author of Quentin Durward to place the royal castle of Plessis-les-Tours upon a height, we must content ourselves by leaving it exactly where it really was, namely on low land.
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley