Maitre Cornelius

Author: Honore de Balzac

Chapter I a Church Scene of the Fifteenth Century

In 1479, on All Saints’ day, the moment at which this history begins, vespers were ending in the cathedral of Tours. The archbishop Helie de Bourdeilles was rising from his seat to give the benediction himself to the faithful. The sermon had been long; darkness had fallen during the service, and in certain parts of the noble church (the towers of which were not yet finished) the deepest obscurity prevailed. Nevertheless a goodly number of tapers were burning in honor of the saints on the triangular candle-trays destined to receive such pious offerings, the merit and signification of which have never been sufficiently explained. The lights on each altar and all the candelabra in the choir were burning. Irregularly shed among a forest of columns and arcades which supported the three naves of the cathedral, the gleam of these masses of candles barely lighted the immense building, because the strong shadows of the columns, projected among the galleries, produced fantastic forms which increased the darkness that already wrapped in gloom the arches, the vaulted ceilings, and the lateral chapels, always sombre, even at mid-day.

The crowd presented effects that were no less picturesque. Certain figures were so vaguely defined in the "chiaroscuro" that they seemed like phantoms; whereas others, standing in a full gleam of the scattered light, attracted attention like the principal heads in a picture. Some statues seemed animated, some men seemed petrified. Here and there eyes shone in the flutings of the columns, the floor reflected looks, the marbles spoke, the vaults re-echoed sighs, the edifice itself seemed endowed with life.

The existence of Peoples has no more solemn scenes, no moments more majestic. To mankind in the mass, movement is needed to make it poetical; but in these hours of religious thought, when human riches unite themselves with celestial grandeur, incredible sublimities are felt in the silence; there is fear in the bended knee, hope in the clasping hands. The concert of feelings in which all souls are rising heavenward produces an inexplicable phenomenon of spirituality. The mystical exaltation of the faithful reacts upon each of them; the feebler are no doubt borne upward by the waves of this ocean of faith and love. Prayer, a power electrical, draws our nature above itself. This involuntary union of all wills, equally prostrate on the earth, equally risen into heaven, contains, no doubt, the secret of the magic influences wielded by the chants of the priests, the harmonies of the organ, the perfumes and the pomps of the altar, the voices of the crowd and its silent contemplations. Consequently, we need not be surprised to see in the middle-ages so many tender passions begun in churches after long ecstasies,—passions ending often in little sanctity, and for which women, as usual, were the ones to do penance. Religious sentiment certainly had, in those days, an affinity with love; it was either the motive or the end of it. Love was still a religion, with its fine fanaticism, its naive superstitions, its sublime devotions, which sympathized with those of Christianity.

The manners of that period will also serve to explain this alliance between religion and love. In the first place society had no meetingplace except before the altar. Lords and vassals, men and women were equals nowhere else. There alone could lovers see each other and communicate. The festivals of the Church were the theatre of former times; the soul of woman was more keenly stirred in a cathedral than it is at a ball or the opera in our day; and do not strong emotions invariably bring women back to love? By dint of mingling with life and grasping it in all its acts and interests, religion had made itself a sharer of all virtues, the accomplice of all vices. Religion had passed into science, into politics, into eloquence, into crimes, into the flesh of the sick man and the poor man; it mounted thrones; it was everywhere. These semi-learned observations will serve, perhaps, to vindicate the truth of this study, certain details of which may frighten the perfected morals of our age, which are, as everybody knows, a trifle straitlaced.

At the moment when the chanting ceased and the last notes of the organ, mingling with the vibrations of the loud "A-men" as it issued from the strong chests of the intoning clergy, sent a murmuring echo through the distant arches, and the hushed assembly were awaiting the beneficent words of the archbishop, a burgher, impatient to get home, or fearing for his purse in the tumult of the crowd when the worshippers dispersed, slipped quietly away, at the risk of being called a bad Catholic. On which, a nobleman, leaning against one of the enormous columns that surround the choir, hastened to take possession of the seat abandoned by the worthy Tourainean. Having done so, he quickly hid his face among the plumes of his tall gray cap, kneeling upon the chair with an air of contrition that even an inquisitor would have trusted.

Observing the new-comer attentively, his immediate neighbors seemed to recognize him; after which they returned to their prayers with a certain gesture by which they all expressed the same thought,—a caustic, jeering thought, a silent slander. Two old women shook their heads, and gave each other a glance that seemed to dive into futurity.

The chair into which the young man had slipped was close to a chapel placed between two columns and closed by an iron railing. It was customary for the chapter to lease at a handsome price to seignorial families, and even to rich burghers, the right to be present at the services, themselves and their servants exclusively, in the various lateral chapels of the long side-aisles of the cathedral. This simony is in practice to the present day. A woman had her chapel as she now has her opera-box. The families who hired these privileged places were required to decorate the altar of the chapel thus conceded to them, and each made it their pride to adorn their own sumptuously,—a vanity which the Church did not rebuke. In this particular chapel a lady was kneeling close to the railing on a handsome rug of red velvet with gold tassels, precisely opposite to the seat vacated of the burgher. A silver-gilt lamp, hanging from the vaulted ceiling of the chapel before an altar magnificently decorated, cast its pale light upon a prayer-book held by the lady. The book trembled violently in her hand when the young man approached her.


To that response, sung in a sweet low voice which was painfully agitated, though happily lost in the general clamor, she added rapidly in a whisper:—

"You will ruin me."

The words were said in a tone of innocence which a man of any delicacy ought to have obeyed; they went to the heart and pierced it. But the stranger, carried away, no doubt, by one of those paroxysms of passion which stifle conscience, remained in his chair and raised his head slightly that he might look into the chapel.

"He sleeps!" he replied, in so low a voice that the words could be heard by the young woman only, as sound is heard in its echo.

The lady turned pale; her furtive glance left for a moment the vellum page of the prayer-book and turned to the old man whom the young man had designated. What terrible complicity was in that glance? When the young woman had cautiously examined the old seigneur, she drew a long breath and raised her forehead, adorned with a precious jewel, toward a picture of the Virgin; that simple movement, that attitude, the moistened glance, revealed her life with imprudent naivete; had she been wicked, she would certainly have dissimulated. The personage who thus alarmed the lovers was a little old man, hunchbacked, nearly bald, savage in expression, and wearing a long and discolored white beard cut in a fan-tail. The cross of Saint-Michel glittered on his breast; his coarse, strong hands, covered with gray hairs, which had been clasped, had now dropped slightly apart in the slumber to which he had imprudently yielded. The right hand seemed about to fall upon his dagger, the hilt of which was in the form of an iron shell. By the manner in which he had placed the weapon, this hilt was directly under his hand; if, unfortunately, the hand touched the iron, he would wake, no doubt, instantly, and glance at his wife. His sardonic lips, his pointed chin aggressively pushed forward, presented the characteristic signs of a malignant spirit, a sagacity coldly cruel, that would surely enable him to divine all because he suspected everything. His yellow forehead was wrinkled like those of men whose habit it is to believe nothing, to weigh all things, and who, like misers chinking their gold, search out the meaning and the value of human actions. His bodily frame, though deformed, was bony and solid, and seemed both vigorous and excitable; in short, you might have thought him a stunted ogre. Consequently, an inevitable danger awaited the young lady whenever this terrible seigneur woke. That jealous husband would surely not fail to see the difference between a worthy old burgher who gave him no umbrage, and the new-comer, young, slender, and elegant.

"Libera nos a malo," she said, endeavoring to make the young man comprehend her fears.

The latter raised his head and looked at her. Tears were in his eyes; tears of love and of despair. At sight of them the lady trembled and betrayed herself. Both had, no doubt, long resisted and could resist no longer a love increasing day by day through invincible obstacles, nurtured by terror, strengthened by youth. The lady was moderately handsome; but her pallid skin told of secret sufferings that made her interesting. She had, moreover, an elegant figure, and the finest hair in the world. Guarded by a tiger, she risked her life in whispering a word, accepting a look, and permitting a mere pressure of the hand. Love may never have been more deeply felt than in those hearts, never more delightfully enjoyed, but certainly no passion was ever more perilous. It was easy to divine that to these two beings air, sound, foot-falls, etc., things indifferent to other men, presented hidden qualities, peculiar properties which they distinguished. Perhaps their love made them find faithful interpreters in the icy hands of the old priest to whom they confessed their sins, and from whom they received the Host at the holy table. Love profound! love gashed into the soul like a scar upon the body which we carry through life! When these two young people looked at each other, the woman seemed to say to her lover, "Let us love each other and die!" To which the young knight answered, "Let us love each other and not die." In reply, she showed him a sign her old duenna and two pages. The duenna slept; the pages were young and seemingly careless of what might happen, either of good or evil, to their masters.

"Do not be frightened as you leave the church; let yourself be managed."

The young nobleman had scarcely said these words in a low voice, when the hand of the old seigneur dropped upon the hilt of his dagger. Feeling the cold iron he woke, and his yellow eyes fixed themselves instantly on his wife. By a privilege seldom granted even to men of genius, he awoke with his mind as clear, his ideas as lucid as though he had not slept at all. The man had the mania of jealousy. The lover, with one eye on his mistress, had watched the husband with the other, and he now rose quickly, effacing himself behind a column at the moment when the hand of the old man fell; after which he disappeared, swiftly as a bird. The lady lowered her eyes to her book and tried to seem calm; but she could not prevent her face from blushing and her heart from beating with unnatural violence. The old lord saw the unusual crimson on the cheeks, forehead, even the eyelids of his wife. He looked about him cautiously, but seeing no one to distrust, he said to his wife:—

"What are you thinking of, my dear?"

"The smell of the incense turns me sick," she replied.

"It is particularly bad to-day?" he asked.

In spite of this sarcastic query, the wily old man pretended to believe in this excuse; but he suspected some treachery and he resolved to watch his treasure more carefully than before.

The benediction was given. Without waiting for the end of the "Soecula soeculorum," the crowd rushed like a torrent to the doors of the church. Following his usual custom, the old seigneur waited till the general hurry was over; after which he left his chapel, placing the duenna and the youngest page, carrying a lantern, before him; then he gave his arm to his wife and told the other page to follow them.

As he made his way to the lateral door which opened on the west side of the cloister, through which it was his custom to pass, a stream of persons detached itself from the flood which obstructed the great portals, and poured through the side aisle around the old lord and his party. The mass was too compact to allow him to retrace his steps, and he and his wife were therefore pushed onward to the door by the pressure of the multitude behind them. The husband tried to pass out first, dragging the lady by the arm, but at that instant he was pulled vigorously into the street, and his wife was torn from him by a stranger. The terrible hunchback saw at once that he had fallen into a trap that was cleverly prepared. Repenting himself for having slept, he collected his whole strength, seized his wife once more by the sleeve of her gown, and strove with his other hand to cling to the gate of the church; but the ardor of love carried the day against jealous fury. The young man took his mistress round the waist, and carried her off so rapidly, with the strength of despair, that the brocaded stuff of silk and gold tore noisily apart, and the sleeve alone remained in the hand of the old man. A roar like that of a lion rose louder than the shouts of the multitude, and a terrible voice howled out the words:—

"To me, Poitiers! Servants of the Comte de Saint-Vallier, here! Help! help!"

And the Comte Aymar de Poitiers, sire de Saint-Vallier, attempted to draw his sword and clear a space around him. But he found himself surrounded and pressed upon by forty or fifty gentlemen whom it would be dangerous to wound. Several among them, especially those of the highest rank, answered him with jests as they dragged him along the cloisters.

With the rapidity of lightning the abductor carried the countess into an open chapel and seated her behind the confessional on a wooden bench. By the light of the tapers burning before the saint to whom the chapel was dedicated, they looked at each other for a moment in silence, clasping hands, and amazed at their own audacity. The countess had not the cruel courage to reproach the young man for the boldness to which they owed this perilous and only instant of happiness.

"Will you fly with me into the adjoining States?" said the young man, eagerly. "Two English horses are awaiting us close by, able to do thirty leagues at a stretch."

"Ah!" she cried, softly, "in what corner of the world could you hide a daughter of King Louis XI.?"

"True," replied the young man, silenced by a difficulty he had not foreseen.

"Why did you tear me from my husband?" she asked in a sort of terror.

"Alas!" said her lover, "I did not reckon on the trouble I should feel in being near you, in hearing you speak to me. I have made plans,—two or three plans,—and now that I see you all seems accomplished."

"But I am lost!" said the countess.

"We are saved!" the young man cried in the blind enthusiasm of his love. "Listen to me carefully!"

"This will cost me my life!" she said, letting the tears that rolled in her eyes flow down her cheeks. "The count will kill me,—to-night, perhaps! But go to the king; tell him the tortures that his daughter has endured these five years. He loved me well when I was little; he called me ’Marie-full-of-grace,’ because I was ugly. Ah! if he knew the man to whom he gave me, his anger would be terrible. I have not dared complain, out of pity for the count. Besides, how could I reach the king? My confessor himself is a spy of Saint-Vallier. That is why I have consented to this guilty meeting, to obtain a defender,—some one to tell the truth to the king. Can I rely on— Oh!" she cried, turning pale and interrupting herself, "here comes the page!"

The poor countess put her hands before her face as if to veil it.

"Fear nothing," said the young seigneur, "he is won! You can safely trust him; he belongs to me. When the count contrives to return for you he will warn us of his coming. In the confessional," he added, in a low voice, "is a priest, a friend of mine, who will tell him that he drew you for safety out of the crowd, and placed you under his own protection in this chapel. Therefore, everything is arranged to deceive him."

At these words the tears of the poor woman stopped, but an expression of sadness settled down on her face.

"No one can deceive him," she said. "To-night he will know all. Save me from his blows! Go to Plessis, see the king, tell him—" she hesitated; then, some dreadful recollection giving her courage to confess the secrets of her marriage, she added: "Yes, tell him that to master me the count bleeds me in both arms—to exhaust me. Tell him that my husband drags me about by the hair of my head. Say that I am a prisoner; that—"

Her heart swelled, sobs choked her throat, tears fell from her eyes. In her agitation she allowed the young man, who was muttering broken words, to kiss her hands.

"Poor darling! no one can speak to the king. Though my uncle is grandmaster of his archers, I could not gain admission to Plessis. My dear lady! my beautiful sovereign! oh, how she has suffered! Marie, let yourself say but two words, or we are lost!"

"What will become of us?" she murmured. Then, seeing on the dark wall a picture of the Virgin, on which the light from the lamp was falling, she cried out:—

"Holy Mother of God, give us counsel!"

"To-night," said the young man, "I shall be with you in your room."

"How?" she asked naively.

They were in such great peril that their tenderest words were devoid of love.

"This evening," he replied, "I shall offer myself as apprentice to Maitre Cornelius, the king’s silversmith. I have obtained a letter of recommendation to him which will make him receive me. His house is next to yours. Once under the roof of that old thief, I can soon find my way to your apartment by the help of a silken ladder."

"Oh!" she said, petrified with horror, "if you love me don’t go to Maitre Cornelius."

"Ah!" he cried, pressing her to his heart with all the force of his youth, "you do indeed love me!"

"Yes," she said; "are you not my hope? You are a gentleman, and I confide to you my honor. Besides," she added, looking at him with dignity, "I am so unhappy that you would never betray my trust. But what is the good of all this? Go, let me die, sooner than that you should enter that house of Maitre Cornelius. Do you not know that all his apprentices—"

"Have been hanged," said the young man, laughing.

"Oh, don’t go; you will be made the victim of some sorcery."

"I cannot pay too dearly for the joy of serving you," he said, with a look that made her drop her eyes.

"But my husband?" she said.

"Here is something to put him to sleep," replied her lover, drawing from his belt a little vial.

"Not for always?" said the countess, trembling.

For all answer the young seigneur made a gesture of horror.

"I would long ago have defied him to mortal combat if he were not so old," he said. "God preserve me from ridding you of him in any other way."

"Forgive me," said the countess, blushing. "I am cruelly punished for my sins. In a moment of despair I thought of killing him, and I feared you might have the same desire. My sorrow is great that I have never yet been able to confess that wicked thought; but I fear it would be repeated to him and he would avenge it. I have shamed you," she continued, distressed by his silence, "I deserve your blame."

And she broke the vial by flinging it on the floor violently.

"Do not come," she said, "my husband sleeps lightly; my duty is to wait for the help of Heaven—that will I do!"

She tried to leave the chapel.

"Ah!" cried the young man, "order me to do so and I will kill him. You will see me to-night."

"I was wise to destroy that drug," she said in a voice that was faint with the pleasure of finding herself so loved. "The fear of awakening my husband will save us from ourselves."

"I pledge you my life," said the young man, pressing her hand.

"If the king is willing, the pope can annul my marriage. We will then be united," she said, giving him a look that was full of delightful hopes.

"Monseigneur comes!" cried the page, rushing in.

Instantly the young nobleman, surprised at the short time he had gained with his mistress and wondering at the celerity of the count, snatched a kiss, which was not refused.

"To-night!" he said, slipping hastily from the chapel.

Thanks to the darkness, he reached the great portal safely, gliding from column to column in the long shadows which they cast athwart the nave. An old canon suddenly issued from the confessional, came to the side of the countess and closed the iron railing before which the page was marching gravely up and down with the air of a watchman.

A strong light now announced the coming of the count. Accompanied by several friends and by servants bearing torches, he hurried forward, a naked sword in hand. His gloomy eyes seemed to pierce the shadows and to rake even the darkest corners of the cathedral.

"Monseigneur, madame is there," said the page, going forward to meet him.

The Comte de Saint-Vallier found his wife kneeling on the steps of the alter, the old priest standing beside her and reading his breviary. At that sight the count shook the iron railing violently as if to give vent to his rage.

"What do you want here, with a drawn sword in a church?" asked the priest.

"Father, that is my husband," said the countess.

The priest took a key from his sleeve, and unlocked the railed door of the chapel. The count, almost in spite of himself, cast a look into the confessional, then he entered the chapel, and seemed to be listening attentively to the sounds in the cathedral.

"Monsieur," said his wife, "you owe many thanks to this venerable canon, who gave me a refuge here."

The count turned pale with anger; he dared not look at his friends, who had come there more to laugh at him than to help him. Then he answered curtly:

"Thank God, father, I shall find some way to repay you."

He took his wife by the arm and, without allowing her to finish her curtsey to the canon, he signed to his servants and left the church without a word to the others who had accompanied him. His silence had something savage and sullen about it. Impatient to reach his home and preoccupied in searching for means to discover the truth, he took his way through the tortuous streets which at that time separated the cathedral from the Chancellerie, a fine building recently erected by the Chancellor Juvenal des Ursins, on the site of an old fortification given by Charles VII. to that faithful servant as a reward for his glorious labors.

The count reached at last the rue du Murier, in which his dwelling, called the hotel de Poitiers, was situated. When his escort of servants had entered the courtyard and the heavy gates were closed, a deep silence fell on the narrow street, where other great seigneurs had their houses, for this new quarter of the town was near to Plessis, the usual residence of the king, to whom the courtiers, if sent for, could go in a moment. The last house in this street was also the last in the town. It belonged to Maitre Cornelius Hoogworst, an old Brabantian merchant, to whom King Louis XI. gave his utmost confidence in those financial transactions which his crafty policy induced him to undertake outside of his own kingdom.

Observing the outline of the houses occupied respectively by Maitre Cornelius and by the Comte de Poitiers, it was easy to believe that the same architect had built them both and destined them for the use of tyrants. Each was sinister in aspect, resembling a small fortress, and both could be well defended against an angry populace. Their corners were upheld by towers like those which lovers of antiquities remark in towns where the hammer of the iconoclast has not yet prevailed. The bays, which had little depth, gave a great power of resistance to the iron shutters of the windows and doors. The riots and the civil wars so frequent in those tumultuous times were ample justification for these precautions.

As six o’clock was striking from the great tower of the Abbey Saint- Martin, the lover of the hapless countess passed in front of the hotel de Poitiers and paused for a moment to listen to the sounds made in the lower hall by the servants of the count, who were supping. Casting a glance at the window of the room where he supposed his love to be, he continued his way to the adjoining house. All along his way, the young man had heard the joyous uproar of many feasts given throughout the town in honor of the day. The ill-joined shutters sent out streaks of light, the chimneys smoked, and the comforting odor of roasted meats pervaded the town. After the conclusion of the church services, the inhabitants were regaling themselves, with murmurs of satisfaction which fancy can picture better than words can paint. But at this particular spot a deep silence reigned, because in these two houses lived two passions which never rejoiced. Beyond them stretched the silent country. Beneath the shadow of the steeples of Saint-Martin, these two mute dwellings, separated from the others in the same street and standing at the crooked end of it, seemed afflicted with leprosy. The building opposite to them, the home of the criminals of the State, was also under a ban. A young man would be readily impressed by this sudden contrast. About to fling himself into an enterprise that was horribly hazardous, it is no wonder that the daring young seigneur stopped short before the house of the silversmith, and called to mind the many tales furnished by the life of Maitre Cornelius,—tales which caused such singular horror to the countess. At this period a man of war, and even a lover, trembled at the mere word "magic." Few indeed were the minds and the imaginations which disbelieved in occult facts and tales of the marvellous. The lover of the Comtesse de Saint- Vallier, one of the daughters whom Louis XI. had in Dauphine by Madame de Sassenage, however bold he might be in other respects, was likely to think twice before he finally entered the house of a so-called sorcerer.

The history of Maitre Cornelius Hoogworst will fully explain the security which the silversmith inspired in the Comte de Saint-Vallier, the terror of the countess, and the hesitation that now took possession of the lover. But, in order to make the readers of this nineteenth century understand how such commonplace events could be turned into anything supernatural, and to make them share the alarms of that olden time, it is necessary to interrupt the course of this narrative and cast a rapid glance on the preceding life and adventures of Maitre Cornelius.


Related Resources

Honoré de Balzac

Download Options

Title: Maitre Cornelius

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Maitre Cornelius

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Honore de Balzac, "Chapter I a Church Scene of the Fifteenth Century," Maitre Cornelius, trans. Wormeley, Katharine Prescott, 1830-1908 in Maitre Cornelius Original Sources, accessed June 17, 2024,

MLA: de Balzac, Honore. "Chapter I a Church Scene of the Fifteenth Century." Maitre Cornelius, translted by Wormeley, Katharine Prescott, 1830-1908, in Maitre Cornelius, Original Sources. 17 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: de Balzac, H, 'Chapter I a Church Scene of the Fifteenth Century' in Maitre Cornelius, trans. . cited in , Maitre Cornelius. Original Sources, retrieved 17 June 2024, from