Josephine Balsamo Born in 1788

Cagliostro! The astonishing man who puzzled all Europe and so thoroughly upset the Court of France in the reign of Louis XVI! The Queen’s necklace⁠ ⁠… Cardinal de Rohan⁠ ⁠… Marie Antoinette⁠ ⁠… some of the most obscure episodes in history!

A strange man, and enigmatic, dowered with a veritable genius for intrigue. A man who exercised a genuine power of domination. A man on whom full light has not yet been thrown. Impostor? Who knows? Have we the right to deny that certain beings of more delicate sensibilities than ourselves can peer into the world of the living and the dead in a fashion which is forbidden to us? Is one to treat as charlatan or fool the man in whose mind rise the memories of past existences, who, recalling what he has seen, reaps the harvest of acquisitions in the past, of lost secrets, and forgotten knowledge, and exploits a power which we call supernatural, but which is merely putting into action, hesitating perhaps and stumbling action, forces of which we are, it may be, on the point of becoming masters?

If Ralph d’Andresy, from the bottom of his post of observation, remained sceptical, if he laughed in his heart, not perhaps without certain reservations, at the fashion in which events were shaping themselves, it seemed that those taking part in them were accepting on the instant and without question, as realities beyond all discussing, the most extravagant assertions.

Had they then proofs and an understanding of this matter peculiar to themselves? Had they found in her who, according to them, laid claim to be the daughter of Cagliostro, gifts of clairvoyance and divination which, in days gone by, the world attributed to that celebrated worker of wonders, and by reason of them treated him as magician and sorcerer?

Godfrey d’Etigues, who was the only one of them standing, bent towards the young woman and said:

“Your name really is Cagliostro, isn’t it?”

She pondered. One would have said that, taking thought how best to defend herself, she was seeking the best counterstroke; that she wished, before definitely plunging into the struggle, to know what weapons the enemy had at his command. Then she answered quietly:

“Nothing compels me to give you an answer, since you have no right whatever to question me. However, why should I deny that on my birth certificate is the name Josephine Pellegrini and that it is my whim to call myself Josephine Balsamo, Countess of Cagliostro? The two names Cagliostro and Pellegrini complete the personality of Joseph Balsamo, a personality in which I have always taken the greatest interest.”

“Then it follows that, contrary to certain declarations you used to make, you are not his direct descendant. Is that what you wish to imply?” said the Baron.

She shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. Was it prudence? Was it disdain? Or was it a protest against such an absurdity?

“I do not care to consider this silence either an avowal or a denial,” said Godfrey d’Etigues, turning towards his friends. “What this woman says is of no importance; and it is a waste of time to refute her statements. We’re here to make our decisions, most important decisions, in a matter which we all know in its entirety, but of which certain details are unknown to the majority of us. It is then necessary to run over the main facts. They are set forth as shortly as possible in the memorandum which I am going to read to you, and to which I beg you to give your most earnest attention.”

And he read quietly a document which⁠—at least Ralph had no doubt about⁠—it must have been drawn up by Beaumagnan. It ran:

At the beginning of March, 1870, that is to say, four months before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, among the crowd of strangers who, as was usual every spring, descended on Paris, none excited greater interest than the Countess Cagliostro. Beautiful, charming, lavish of her money, generally alone, but sometimes accompanied by a young man, whom she introduced to people as her brother, everywhere she went, in every house into which she was welcomed, she was the object of the most lively curiosity.

First of all her mere name excited people’s interest, then the truly impressive fashion in which she emphasized her relationship to the famous Cagliostro by her mysterious bearing, by certain miraculous cures she effected, and by the answers she gave to those who consulted her concerning their past or their future. The novel of Alexander Dumas had made Joseph Balsamo, that is to say the Count of Cagliostro, the fashion. Employing the same methods, even more boldly, she boasted that she was Cagliostro’s daughter, declared that she knew the secret of eternal youth, and with a smile spoke of this and that meeting, of this and that event which had befallen her in the days of Napoleon I.

Such was her prestige that she forced open for herself the doors of the Tuileries and appeared at the Court of Napoleon III. People even talked of private séances at which the Empress Eugenie gathered round the beautiful Countess her most faithful intimates. A secret number of that satirical journal, the Charivari, which was instantly suppressed, tells the story of one of the séances in which an occasional collaborator took part. I quote this passage from it:

She is truly a wonderful woman, with something of La Joconde about her. Her expression changes very little but it is very difficult to describe. It is quite as caressing and ingenuous as perverse and cruel. There is a wealth of experience in her gaze and a bitterness in her unchanging smile⁠—such a wealth of experience, indeed, that one is willing to allow her the eighty years she allots to herself. Now and again she draws from her pocket a small golden mirror, lets fall on it two drops from a tiny flask, dries it, and look at herself in it. And once more she is Youth in its most adorable perfection.

When we questioned her about it, she replied:

“This mirror belonged to Cagliostro. For those who look at themselves in it with assured confidence, time stands still. Look: the date is engraved on the back, 1783, and it is followed by four lines which are the list of the four great enigmas. These enigmas which he had set himself the task of solving, he had from the lips of Queen Marie Antoinette herself; and he was wont to say, so at least they told me, that the man who found the key to them would be a King of Kings.”1

“May one hear them?” somebody asked.

“Why not? To know them is not to solve them; and Cagliostro himself hadn’t the time to do so. I can only give you their titles. They are:

In Robore Fortuna.

“The Flagstone of the Bohemian Kings.

“The Fortunes of the Kings of France.

“The Candlestick with Seven Branches.”

Afterwards she talked to all of us in turn; and to each she made astonishing revelations.

But that was only the prelude; and the Empress, though she refused to put the most trivial question about matters which concerned her personally, asked her to throw some light on the future.

“Would your Majesty be so good as to breathe lightly on this,” said the Countess, holding out the mirror.

And forthwith, after examining the mist that the Queen’s breath had spread over its surface she murmured:

“I see many excellent things.⁠ ⁠… In the summer great war.⁠ ⁠… Victory.⁠ ⁠… The return of the troops under the Arc de Triomphe.⁠ ⁠… They are cheering the Emperor.⁠ ⁠… The Prince Imperial.⁠ ⁠…”

Godfrey d’Etigues folded the paper and went on:

“Such is the document which has been communicated to us. It is a disconcerting document since it was published several weeks before the war it foretold. What was this woman? Who was this adventuress whose dangerous predictions, acting on the somewhat feeble mind of our unfortunate sovereign, played their part in bringing about the catastrophe of 1870? Someone⁠—you will find it in the same number of the Charivari, said to her one day:

“ ‘Granted that you are the daughter of Cagliostro, who was your mother?’

“ ‘For my mother,’ she replied, ‘you must look high among the contemporaries of Cagliostro⁠ ⁠… higher still⁠ ⁠… Yes: that’s right⁠ ⁠… Josephine de Beauharnais, the future wife of Bonaparte, Empress that was to be.’

“The police of Napoleon III could not remain inactive. At the end of June they sent in a report the facts of which were established after a difficult inquiry by one of their best agents. I’ll read it. It runs:

The Signorina’s Italian passport, while making reservations about the date of her birth, describes her as Josephine Pellegrini-Balsamo, Countess of Cagliostro, born at Palermo on the 29th of July, 1788. Having gone to Palermo, I succeeded in discovering the old registers of the Parish of Mortarana; and in one of them, under the date of the 29th of July, 1788, I found the entry of the birth of Josephine Balsamo, daughter of Joseph Balsamo and Josephine de la P., subject of the King of France.

Was it Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, the maiden name of the young wife who was separated from the Vicomte de Beauharnais, and of the future wife of General Bonaparte? I made investigations from this point of view. They required considerable patience; but at the end of them I learnt from the manuscript letters of a Lieutenant de la prévôté, of Paris, that in 1788 they had been on the point of arresting the Count of Cagliostro, who, though he had been expelled from France after the affair of the Queen’s Necklace, was living in a little house at Fontainebleau under the name of Pellegrini; and at that house he was visited every day by a tall and slender lady. Now Josephine de Beauharnais was at this time living at Fontainebleau. She was tall and slender. On the eve of the day fixed for his arrest Cagliostro disappeared. His departure was the very next day followed by the departure of Josephine de Beauharnais.2 A month later the child was born at Palermo.

These coincidences cannot fail to be impressive. But how much greater is the weight of them, when one considers them in the light of these two additional facts⁠—ten years later the Empress Josephine brought to La Malmaison a young girl whom she declared to be her god daughter. This child won the heart of the Emperor to such a degree that he took the greatest pleasure in playing with her. What was her name? Josephine, or rather Josine. Secondly, on the fall of the Empire, the Czar Alexander II received this Josine at his Court. What title does she take? That of the Countess de Cagliostro.”

The Baron d’Etigues laid great stress on these last words. They had listened to him with the deepest attention. Ralph, taken aback by this incredible story, tried to catch a shade of emotion or of some feeling on the face of the Countess. But she remained impassive, her beautiful eyes always faintly smiling.

The Baron continued: “This report and probably the dangerous influence which the Countess was beginning to acquire at the Tuileries, were to cut short her brilliant career. A decree for her expulsion was signed and for the expulsion of her brother. Her brother went away to Germany, she to Italy. One morning she arrived at Modena, whither she had been conducted by a young officer. He bowed, saluted her, and left her. This officer was the Prince of Arcola. He it was who was able to procure these two documents, the suppressed number of the Charivari and the secret report, the original of which is actually in his possession, with the official seals and signatures. Lastly it is he who a little while ago assured you of the indubitable identity of the woman he left that morning at Modena with the woman he sees here today.”

The Prince of Arcola rose and said gravely:

“I am no believer in miracles; nevertheless what I say is the affirmation of a miracle. But the truth compels me to declare on my honor as a soldier that this is the woman whom I saluted and left at the railway station at Modena two and twenty years ago.”

“Whom you saluted and left without anything in the nature of a polite farewell?” said Josephine Balsamo. She had turned towards the Prince and asked the question in a tone of mocking irony.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that a young French officer is too courteous to take his leave of a pretty woman with just a formal salute.”

“Which implies?”

“Which implies that you must have uttered some words.”

“Perhaps. I no longer remember,” said the Prince of Arcola with a touch of embarrassment.

“You bent down towards the exile, Monsieur. You kissed her hand rather longer than was necessary; and you said to her: ‘I hope, Madam, that the hours I have had the pleasure of passing near you will not be without a tomorrow. For my part, I can never forget them.’ And you repeated, emphasizing by your accent your gallant meaning: ‘You understand, Madam? Never.’ ”

The Prince of Arcola appeared to be a man of admirable manners. However, at this exact revival of a moment that had passed a quarter of a century earlier, he was so upset that he muttered:

“Well, I’ll be damned!”

But, recovering himself on the instant, he took the offensive, and in a bitter voice he said: “Madam, I have forgotten. If the memory of that meeting was pleasant, the memory of the second occasion on which I saw you has blotted it out.”

“And this second occasion, Monsieur?”

“It was at the beginning of the following year, at Versailles, whither I accompanied the French plenipotentiaries entrusted with the task of negotiating the peace of the defeat. I saw you in a café, sitting at a table, drinking and laughing with some German officers, one of whom was an officer of Bismarck’s staff. That day I understood the part you played at the Tuileries and on whose errand you came.”

All these revelations of the vicissitudes of a life which seemed fabulous, were set forth in less than ten minutes. There was no structure of reasoning. No attempt, either logical or rhetorical, to impose this in credible thesis on those who were listening. Nothing but the facts, nothing but the bare proofs, violent, driven home like the blows of a fist, and all the more terrifying that they evoked against a quite young woman memories some of which went back more than a century!

Ralph d’Andresy was almost amazed. The scene appeared to him to savor of romance, or rather to be long to some fantastic and gloomy melodrama. These conspirators, who accepted these fables as if they had been indisputable facts, seemed to him the creatures of a dream. Truly he was quite alive to the poorness of the intelligence of these country bumpkins, relics of an epoch that had passed away. But all the same how on earth could they bring themselves to ignore the very data of the problem presented by the age they attributed to this woman? However credulous they might be, had they not eyes to see?

Again the attitude of the Countess to them appeared even more strange. Why this silence which, when all was said and done, was an acceptance of their theory, practically, at times, a confession? Was she refusing to demolish a legend of eternal youth which was pleasing to her and helpful to the execution of her plans? Or was it that, ignorant of the terrible danger hanging over her head, she looked upon all this theatrical display as merely a practical joke?

“Such is this woman’s past,” continued the Baron d’Etigues solemnly. “I shall not dwell on the intermediate episodes which link that past with today. Always keeping behind the scenes, Josephine Balsamo, the Countess of Cagliostro, played a part in the tragicomedy of Boulangism, in the sordid drama of Panama. One finds her hand in every event which is disastrous to our country. But in these matters we have only indications of the secret part she played. We have no direct proof. Let us leave them and come to this actual epoch. One word before we do so, however. Have you no observations to make about any of these matters, Madam?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Let us have them.”

“Well,” said the young woman, with the same note of mocking irony in her delightful voice, “I should like to know, since I appear to be on my trial and you to have formed yourselves into a really medieval tribunal⁠—of the German brand, of course⁠—whether you attach any real importance to the charges you have heaped up against me. If you do you may as well condemn me to be burnt alive on the spot, as a witch, a spy, and a renegade⁠—all crimes which the Inquisition never pardoned.”

“No,” replied Godfrey d’Etigues. “I have only narrated these different adventures of yours in order to paint, in a few strokes, as vivid a picture of you as possible.”

“You think you have painted as vivid a picture of me as possible?”

“Yes; from the point of view that concerns us.”

“You are certainly easily satisfied,” she said in a faintly contemptuous tone. “And what are the links you think you see between these different adventures?”

“I see three kinds of links,” said the Baron with some heat. “First there is the evidence of all the people who have recognized you, thanks to whom we can go back, step by step, to the end of the eighteenth century. Next your own avowal of your claims.”

“What avowal?”

“You have repeated to the Prince of Arcola the very terms of a conversation which took place between the two of you in the station at Modena.”

“So I did!” she said. “And then?”

“And then I have here three portraits, all three of which are portraits of you. Are they not?”

She looked at them and said: “Yes. They are portraits of me.”

“Well,” said Godfrey d’Etigues in a tone of triumph, “the first is a miniature, painted at Moscow in 1816, of Josine, Countess of Cagliostro. The second is this photograph taken in the year 1870. This is the last, taken recently in Paris. The miniature has your signature on the back, after the words presenting it to Prince Serge Dolgorouki; the two photographs have your signature across the face. All the three signatures are letter for letter the same with the same flourish.”

“What does that prove?” she asked in the same mocking, ironical accents.

“That proves that the same woman retains in 1892 her face of 1816 and of 1870.”

“Then to the stake with her!” she cried and laughed a silvery, rippling laugh.

“Do not laugh, Madam. You know that between you and us a laugh is an abominable blasphemy!” cried the Baron sternly.

She struck the arm of the bench with an impatient hand.

“Look here, Monsieur: we’ve had enough of this nonsense!” she exclaimed, frowning at the Baron. “What is it exactly that you have against me? What am I here for?”

“You’re here, Madam, to pay the penalty of the crimes you have committed.”

“What crimes?”

“My friends and I were twelve, twelve men who were seeking the same end. Now we are only nine. The three others are dead. You murdered them!”

A shadow, perhaps⁠—at least Ralph d’Andresy thought that he saw one⁠—veiled for a moment, like a cloud, the smile of the Giaconda. Then on the instant her beautiful face resumed its usual expression as if nothing could ruffle its serenity, not even this frightful accusation launched at her with so violent a virulence. You might very well have said that the ordinary feelings of humanity were unknown to her, or that at any rate they did not betray themselves by those symptoms of indignation, revolt, and horror with which all human beings are overwhelmed. What an anomaly she was! Guilty or not, any other woman would have risen in revolt. She said never a word. It might have been cynicism; it might have been innocence. There was no saying.

The friends of the Baron remained motionless, their brows knitted, their faces stern. Behind those who hid him almost entirely from the eyes of Josephine Balsamo, Ralph perceived Beaumagnan. His arms still resting on the back of the chair in front of him, he kept his face buried in his hands. But his eyes, gleaming between his parted fingers, never left the face of his enemy.

In a complete silence Godfrey d’Etigues proceeded to develop his indictment, or rather his three terrible indictments. He did so coldly, without raising his voice. It was as if a clerk were reading an indictment in which he had no personal interest.

“Eighteen months ago,” he began, “Denis Saint-Hébert, the youngest of us, was out shooting on his estate in the neighborhood of Le Havre. At the end of the afternoon, he left his bailiff and his keeper and went off, with his gun over his shoulder, to look at the sunset over the sea, from the top of the cliff. He did not turn up that night. Next day they found his body among the rocks uncovered by the ebbing tide.

“Suicide? Denis Saint-Hébert was rich, in the best of health, and of a happy disposition. Why should he have killed himself? A crime. No one dreamt of such a thing. An accident, then.

“In the following June we were again plunged into mourning under analogous conditions. George d’Isneauval, while shooting gulls in the early morning, slipped on the seaweed in such a disastrous fashion that he struck his head against a rock and fractured his skull. Some hours later two fishermen found him. He was dead. He left a widow and two little children.

“Again an accident, I suppose. Yes: an accident for his widow, his children and his family. But for us? Was it possible that Chance should for the second time have attacked the little group we had formed? Twelve friends form a league to discover a great secret, to attain an end of considerable importance. Two of them are struck down. Are we not compelled to presume the existence of a criminal conspiracy which, in attacking them, at the same time attacks their enterprise?

“It was the Prince of Arcola who opened our eyes and set us on the right path. He knew that we were not the only persons to know of the existence of this great secret. He knew that, in the course of a séance in the suite of rooms of the Empress Eugenie at the Tuileries, someone had revived the list of the four enigmas handed down to his descendants by Cagliostro, and that one of them was called by the very name of the enigma in which we are interested⁠—the enigma of the Candlestick with Seven Branches. Must we not therefore seek among those to whom the legend could have been handed down?

“Thanks to the excellent means of investigation which we had at our disposal, our inquiry bore fruit in barely a fortnight. In a private hotel in a quiet street in Paris was living a lady of the name of Pellegrini. Apparently she was leading an almost secluded life and often disappeared for months at a time. Of uncommon beauty, her behavior was discreetness itself. Indeed it appeared to be her main effort not to attract attention. Under the name of the Countess of Cagliostro she frequented certain circles which busied themselves with magic, the occult, and the black mass.

“We managed to get a photograph of her⁠—this one. We sent it to the Prince of Arcola, who was traveling in Spain. He was amazed to recognize the woman he had formerly known.

“We made inquiries about her movements. On the day of Saint-Hébert’s death, in the neighborhood of Le Havre, she was staying at Le Havre. She was staying at Dieppe when George d’Isneauval met his death at the foot of the Dieppe cliffs!

“I questioned the dead men’s families. The widow of George d’Isneauval confided to me that her husband, towards the end of his life, had had an affair with a woman who caused him, according to her, an infinite amount of suffering. In the other quarter a written confession of Saint-Hébert, and up to then kept secret by his mother, informed us that he had been so foolish as to jot down our twelve names and some facts about the Candlestick with the Seven Branches on one of the leaves of his pocketbook and that pocketbook had been stolen from him by a woman.

“After that everything was clear. Mistress of a part of our secrets, and desirous of knowing more, the woman who had been loved by Saint-Hébert had thrown herself across the path of George d’Isneauval and been loved by him. Then, having wormed their secrets out of them, in her fear of their denouncing her to their friends, she murdered them. That woman is here before us.”

Godfrey d’Etigues paused again. The silence once more became oppressive, so heavy that the judges seemed to be paralyzed in that burdensome atmosphere so loaded with anguish. Only the Countess of Cagliostro maintained her air of aloofness, as if no single word had concerned her.

Always stretched at full length in his post of observation, Ralph admired the young woman’s delightful and voluptuous beauty; at the same time he could not help feeling some distress at perceiving such a mass of evidence being piled up against her. The indictment gripped her tighter and tighter. From every quarter facts thronged to the assault; and Ralph suspected that she was threatened by a yet more direct attack.

“Am I to tell you about the third crime?” said the Baron.

She replied in weary accents:

“If you like. Everything you have been saying is quite unintelligible. You have been talking about people whose very names I never heard before. So a crime more or less⁠—”

“You didn’t know Saint-Hébert and George d’Isneauval?”

She shrugged her shoulders and did not answer.

Godfrey d’Etigues bent closer to her and in a lower voice he said:

“And Beaumagnan?”

She raised limpid eyes to his face:


“Yes⁠—the third of our friends you murdered. And only a little while ago⁠ ⁠… A few weeks.⁠ ⁠… He died poisoned.⁠ ⁠… You did not know him?”