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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 13)


The phenomena of somnambulism, hardly perceived by Mesmer, were revealed by du Puysegur and Deleuze; but the Revolution put a stop to their discoveries and played into the hands of the scientists and scoffers. Among the small number of believers were a few physicians. They were persecuted by their brethren as long as they lived. The respectable body of Parisian doctors displayed all the bitterness of religious warfare against the Mesmerists, and were as cruel in their hatred as it was possible to be in those days of Voltairean tolerance. The orthodox physician refused to consult with those who adopted the Mesmerian heresy. In 1820 these heretics were still proscribed. The miseries and sorrows of the Revolution had not quenched the scientific hatred. It is only priests, magistrates, and physicians who can hate in that way. The official robe is terrible! But ideas are even more implacable than things.

Doctor Bouvard, one of Minoret's friends, believed in the new faith, and persevered to the day of his death in studying a science to which he sacrificed the peace of his life, for he was one of the chief "betes noires" of the Parisian faculty. Minoret, a valiant supporter of the Encyclopedists, and a formidable adversary of Desion, Mesmer's assistant, whose pen had great weight in the controversy, quarreled with his old friend, and not only that, but he persecuted him. His conduct to Bouvard must have caused him the only remorse which troubled the serenity of his declining years. Since his retirement to Nemours the science of imponderable fluids (the only name suitable for magnetism, which, by the nature of its phenomena, is closely allied to light and electricity) had made immense progress, in spite of the ridicule of Parisian scientists. Phrenology and physiognomy, the departments of Gall and Lavater (which are in fact twins, for one is to the other as cause is to effect), proved to the minds of more than one physiologist the existence of an intangible fluid which is the basis of the phenomena of the human will, and from which result passions, habits, the shape of faces and of skulls. Magnetic facts, the miracles of somnambulism, those of divination and ecstasy, which open a way to the spiritual world, were fast accumulating. The strange tale of the apparitions of the farmer Martin, so clearly proved, and his interview with Louis XVIII.; a knowledge of the intercourse of Swedenborg with the departed, carefully investigated in Germany; the tales of Walter Scott on the effects of "second sight"; the extraordinary faculties of some fortune-tellers, who practice as a single science chiromancy, cartomancy, and the horoscope; the facts of catalepsy, and those of the action of certain morbid affections on the properties of the diaphragm,--all such phenomena, curious, to say the least, each emanating from the same source, were now undermining many scepticisms and leading even the most indifferent minds to the plane of experiments. Minoret, buried in Nemours, was ignorant of this movement of minds, strong in the north of Europe but still weak in France where, however, many facts called marvelous by superficial observers, were happening, but falling, alas! like stones to the bottom of the sea, in the vortex of Parisian excitements.

At the bottom of the present year the doctor's tranquillity was shaken by the following letter:--

My old comrade,--All friendship, even if lost, as rights which it is difficult to set aside. I know that you are still living, and I remember far less our enmity than our happy days in that old hovel of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre.

At a time when I expect to soon leave the world I have it on my heart to prove to you that magnetism is about to become one of the most important of the sciences--if indeed all science is not ONE. I can overcome your incredulity by proof. Perhaps I shall owe to your curiosity the happiness of taking you once more by the hand-- as in the days before Mesmer. Always yours,

Bouvard.

Stung like a lion by a gadfly the old scientist rushed to Paris and left his card on Bouvard, who lived in the Rue Ferou near Saint- Sulpice. Bouvard sent a card to his hotel on which was written "To- morrow; nine o'clock, Rue Saint-Honore, opposite the Assumption."

Minoret, who seemed to have renewed his youth, could not sleep. He went to see some of his friends among the faculty to inquire if the world were turned upside down, if the science of medicine still had a school, if the four faculties any longer existed. The doctors reassured him, declaring that the old spirit of opposition was as strong as ever, only, instead of persecuting as heretofore, the Academies of Medicine and of Sciences rang with laughter as they classed magnetic facts with the tricks of Comus and Comte and Bosco, with jugglery and prestidigitation and all that now went by the name of "amusing physics."

This assurance did not prevent old Minoret from keeping the appointment made for him by Bouvard. After an enmity of forty-four years the two antagonists met beneath a porte-cochere in the Rue Saint-Honore. Frenchmen have too many distractions of mind to hate each other long. In Paris especially, politics, literature, and science render life so vast that every man can find new worlds to conquer where all pretensions may live at ease. Hatred requires too many forces fully armed. None but public bodies can keep alive the sentiment. Robespierre and Danton would have fallen into each other's arms at the end of forty-four years. However, the two doctors each withheld his hand and did not offer it. Bouvard spoke first:--

"You seem wonderfully well."

"Yes, I am--and you?" said Minoret, feeling that the ice was now broken.

"As you see."

"Does magnetism prevent people from dying?" asked Minoret in a joking tone, but without sharpness.

"No, but it almost prevented me from living."

"Then you are not rich?" exclaimed Minoret.

"Pooh!" said Bouvard.

"But I am!" cried the other.

"It is not your money but your convictions that I want. Come," replied Bouvard.

"Oh! you obstinate fellow!" said Minoret.

The Mesmerist led his sceptic, with some precaution, up a dingy staircase to the fourth floor.

At this particular time an extraordinary man had appeared in Paris, endowed by faith with incalculable power, and controlling magnetic forces in all their applications. Not only did this great unknown (who still lives) heal from a distance the worst and most inveterate diseases, suddenly and radically, as the Savior of men did formerly, but he was also able to call forth instantaneously the most remarkable phenomena of somnambulism and conquer the most rebellious will. The countenance of this mysterious being, who claims to be responsible to God alone and to communicate, like Swedenborg, with angels, resembles that of a lion; concentrated, irresistible energy shines in it. His features, singularly contorted, have a terrible and even blasting aspect. His voice, which comes from the depths of his being, seems charged with some magnetic fluid; it penetrates the hearer at every pore. Disgusted by the ingratitude of the public after his many cures, he has now returned to an impenetrable solitude, a voluntary nothingness. His all-powerful hand, which has restored a dying daughter to her mother, fathers to their grief-stricken children, adored mistresses to lovers frenzied with love, cured the sick given over by physicians, soothed the sufferings of the dying when life became impossible, wrung psalms of thanksgiving in synagogues, temples, and churches from the lips of priests recalled to the one God by the same miracle,--that sovereign hand, a sun of life dazzling the closed eyes of the somnambulist, has never been raised again even to save the heir-apparent of a kingdom. Wrapped in the memory of his past mercies as in a luminous shroud, he denies himself to the world and lives for heaven.

But, at the dawn of his reign, surprised by his own gift, this man, whose generosity equaled his power, allowed a few interested persons to witness his miracles. The fame of his work, which was mighty, and could easily be revived to-morrow, reached Dr. Bouvard, who was then on the verge of the grave. The persecuted mesmerist was at last enabled to witness the startling phenomena of a science he had long treasured in his heart. The sacrifices of the old man touched the heart of the mysterious stranger, who accorded him certain privileges. As Bouvard now went up the staircase he listened to the twittings of his old antagonist with malicious delight, answering only, "You shall see, you shall see!" with the emphatic little nods of a man who is sure of his facts.

The two physicians entered a suite of rooms that were more than modest. Bouvard went alone into a bedroom which adjoined the salon where he left Minoret, whose distrust was instantly awakened; but Bouvard returned at once and took him into the bedroom, where he saw the mysterious Swedenborgian, and also a woman sitting in an armchair. The woman did not rise, and seemed not to notice the entrance of the two old men.

"What! no tub?" cried Minoret, smiling.

"Nothing but the power of God," answered the Swedenborgian gravely. He seemed to Minoret to be about fifty years of age.

The three men sat down and the mysterious stranger talked of the rain and the coming fine weather, to the great astonishment of Minoret, who thought he was being hoaxed. The Swedenborgian soon began, however, to question his visitor on his scientific opinions, and seemed evidently to be taking time to examine him.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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