Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1701
At the court of Louis XV of France, Armand de Richelieu plots with Madame Jeanne du Barry, the king’s favorite, to replace Monsieur de Choiseul as the king’s minister. They consult Count de Fenix, who turns out to be the reputed sorcerer Joseph Balsamo; ten years earlier the necromancer had predicted that Madame du Barry would one day be queen of France.
Balsamo uses his wife, Lorenza Feliciani, as an unwilling medium for his sorcery. Through her he gives Richelieu and Madame du Barry compromising information contained in a letter sent by the duchess of Grammont to her brother, de Choiseul, showing that the minister is encouraging the revolt of parliament against the king and attempting to bring about war with England. Fortified with this information, Richelieu forces the king to dismiss his minister.
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, standing in the crowd gathered outside the palace after the king at a “bed of justice” had defied parliament, is urged to attend a secret meeting at which he will be initiated into the mystic order of Freemasonry. Rousseau declares he could do more for the world by not joining the order. The chief of the council, who is Balsamo, reads a communication from Swedenborg that warns them of a traitor among them.
To demonstrate to the surgeon Marat, a member of the secret fraternity, that body and soul can be separated and then reunited and that the soul has a greater knowledge than the body, Balsamo hypnotizes one of Marat’s patients. As the patient’s crushed leg is amputated, Balsamo makes the patient sing. He also hypnotizes Marat’s maid, draws from her an admission of the theft of her master’s watch, and, still in the condition of sleep, makes her repeat the contents of a letter she could not read while awake.
Andrée, daughter of the impoverished Baron de Taverney, has recently been saved from the violence of a mob by Gilbert, a son of the people, but she is ignorant of this circumstance because Balsamo brings her home in his carriage. After the woman has been settled at the Trianon through the request of the dauphiness, her beauty charms the king completely, and he commissions Richelieu to present her with a necklace worth several million livres, but she declines the gift. Richelieu, escorting de Taverney through the gardens after they had supped with the king, is heard by Gilbert, hidden in a dense thicket, advising the baron to send his daughter to a convent. Philippe, Andrée’s brother, who holds a commission in the royal army, pays a farewell visit to his sister; she confides to him her fears and forebodings. After his departure, Andrée weeps. Gilbert approaches and declares his love for her, but Andrée rebuffs him.
In his mansion, Balsamo is summoned to Lorenza’s room, where she begs him to release her so that she can retire to a convent. When he refuses, she plunges a dagger into her breast. After commanding Lorenza to sleep, Balsamo ascends to the chamber of the alchemist Althotas, who reminds him that in a week the aged man will be one hundred years old, by which time he must have the last three drops of blood of a child or a young female to complete the elixir that will preserve him for another half century. Balsamo, having promised his help, is returning to the sleeping Lorenza when he is interrupted by the arrival of Richelieu, who has come for a special sleeping draught for Andrée. Richelieu has already left instructions that a love potion be given to the king that will cause him to fall in love with the first woman he sees upon waking.
Gilbert overhears Nicole, Andrée’s maid, tell her lover that Richelieu arranged for them to escape together after first drugging Andrée and leaving her door unlocked; later he sees them ride off. Andrée, plunged into a hypnotic sleep by the drink, descends the stairs of her apartment in a trance and passes the astounded Gilbert. A flash of lightning discloses the concealed figure of Balsamo, who orders Andrée to tell what has happened at his house in Paris after Lorenza had tried to kill herself and he put her to sleep. Andrée, describing Lorenza’s flight, tells how she has taken with her a box of papers and, on reaching the street, has inquired the address of the police lieutenant, Monsieur de Sartines. At this news, Balsamo leaps to his horse and without releasing Andrée from her trance, dashes off for Paris.
Andrée, left alone, sinks to the ground. Gilbert, a witness of this scene at a distance, rushes toward her, lifts her up, and carries her back to her chamber. As he places her on the couch, he hears a step. He hastily blows out the candle. Realizing that the visitor is the king, Gilbert flees. King Louis, seeing Andrée lying pale and immobile and thinking her dead, also flees in panic.
Balsamo, riding toward Paris, knows that his only hope of preventing Lorenza from revealing his secrets to the police lies in his magic power over her. Abruptly he reins in his horse and with all the force at his command wills Lorenza to fall asleep wherever she is. From Sevres, he sends a hasty note to Madame du Barry in Paris. Meanwhile, Lorenza arrives at the office of the police, but before she can give them Balsamo’s address, she falls to the floor, overcome by a strange dizziness. A valet carries her into an adjoining room. Monsieur de Sartines bursts open the coffer, however, and a clerk deciphers the secret papers, which implicate Balsamo in plans affecting the king and the government.
At that moment, Balsamo, under the name of Count de Fenix, is announced. Seeing that the coffer has been opened, he threatens to shoot Monsieur de Sartines. Madame du Barry, acting quickly on receipt of Balsamo’s letter, arrives at that moment, and Monsieur de Sartines surrenders the coffer to her. She, in turn, hands it to Balsamo with all the papers intact.
On his return to his chambers, Balsamo finds Lorenza there in convulsions. His determination to kill her ebbs as he gazes on her beauty, and an overpowering love for her sweeps his being and causes him to feel that if he surrenders his control over her he might still earn some heavenly recompense. For three days the very thought plunges him into a happiness he had never before experienced, while in her trance Lorenza dreams aloud her own mysterious love. On the third day after she had asked him to test if her ability still remains to see through space despite intervening material obstacles, Balsamo wills her to report what Madame du Barry is doing. Lorenza reports that the king’s favorite is on her way to see him.
Balsamo puts Lorenza into a still deeper sleep. As he is leaving her, he thinks he hears a creak. Looking back, he sees only her sleeping form. In her sleep, Lorenza thinks she sees part of the ceiling of her room descend and from this moving trap a Caliban-shaped creature creep toward her. Powerless to escape, she feels him place her on the circular trap, which then ascends slowly toward the ceiling.
Madame du Barry, worried because she has been followed, tells Balsamo that she saved him from arrest when Monsieur de Sartines had handed the king the deciphered names from the coffer. In appreciation, Balsamo presents her with a vial containing a draught that will ensure her twenty years of additional youth. After her departure, Balsamo returns to Lorenza’s couch, only to find her gone. He ascends to his instructor’s room and there discovers the body of Lorenza. To his horror he realizes that Althotas has drained from her the blood needed for his elixir.
Cursing his master, from whose hands the vial with the precious liquid slips and breaks, Balsamo falls unconscious on the lifeless body of his wife. He stirs only when notified by his servant that “the five masters” are waiting to see him. They had come from the secret fraternity to pronounce sentence on him as a traitor. Having watched his movements, they had seen Lorenza leave his home with a coffer containing secret names in cipher. Later, he himself arrived at the police office, and Lorenza had departed alone; he had left with Madame du Barry, whom he had summoned there to receive the secret information for which he was paid. The paper that revealed their secrets had been left with the police, they charged, but Balsamo had removed the coffer to avoid implication. As a result of this betrayal, five of their prominent agents were arrested. Balsamo does not defend himself. When he asks only for a few minutes to bring proof that will speak for him, they let him go. He returns, bearing the body of Lorenza, which he lets slip from his arms to fall at their feet. In consternation, his judges flee.
Althotas, enraged at his pupil and fearing death for himself, sets fire to his precious manuscripts and perishes in the flames. All night the fire roars in the rooms above, while Balsamo, stretched beside Lorenza’s body, never moves. The vaulted walls are thick, however, and the fire finally burns itself out.
Andrée recovers from her prostration and retires to a convent. Baron de Taverney, repudiated by the king and Richelieu, slinks back to his impoverished estate. Philippe sails for America, and Gilbert follows. Balsamo vegetates in his mansion, from which he is supposed to have reappeared during the violence of the French Revolution. On May 9, 1774, the king’s physician says the king is suffering from smallpox. The king’s daughter, Madame Louise of France, leaves her convent cell to attend him, and he is given extreme unction. Madame du Barry is sent to the château of the duchess d’Aiguillon. The king dies the next day, and Louis XVI ascends to a throne about to be engulfed in the flames of rebellion and anarchy.