Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311
A solitary figure stalks down a bleak hill in Poland. He is an old man, his face gentle and sad. His footsteps leave in the soil imprints of a cross made by the several large nails in his shoes. He is hurrying, for he has to be in Paris on the thirteenth of February, 1832, when the surviving descendants of his sister will gather in that city—the last members of that family over whom he watched for eighteen centuries. The lonely traveler is the Wandering Jew, that artisan of Jerusalem who mocks Christ on the day of the Crucifixion, the sinner condemned to wander undying through the centuries over all the world. Far in the wilds of America a woman also turns toward Paris, driven by that same power that guides the Wandering Jew. She is Herodias, who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a charger, also condemned to live through the centuries of sorrow.
François Baudoin, called Dagobert, a faithful friend of Marshal Simon and an old Bonapartist hero, never falters in his loyalty toward the Simon family. Years before, he followed the marshal’s Polish wife into Siberia, where she was exiled, and after her death he set out with her twin daughters, Blanche and Rose, for Paris, where, on a certain day in February, 1832, a legacy awaits the two girls. This is the legacy of Marius de Rennepont, an ancestor who, despoiled by the Jesuits, salvaged out of his ruined estate a house and a small sum of money. He placed the money in the hands of a faithful Jewish friend named Samuel, who promised to invest it profitably. One hundred fifty years later the descendants of this ancestor are to gather at a house where each is to receive a share of the legacy. Blanche and Rose Simon are only half-aware of the fortune awaiting them, for they were too young to understand what Dagobert told them about their inheritance.
If these heirs of Marius de Rennepont do not know of the legacy, others nevertheless do. For many years the Jesuits, masters of an intricate and diabolical conspiracy, plot to prevent the descendants from acquiring the money. They are responsible for Marshal Simon’s exile and for his wife’s banishment to Siberia.
The plotters are so meticulous and so thorough in their scheming that they persuade young Gabriel de Rennepont to become a priest and a member of the Society of Jesus. Through Gabriel they hope to acquire the tremendous fortune, for by preventing the other heirs from reaching Paris—and the society has agents all over the world who will do its bidding under any conditions—they can ensure that Gabriel will inherit the legacy. Then, since he is forbidden by his vow of poverty to possess money, the funds will revert to the society. With that money the Jesuits will be able to reestablish their supremacy over the French people and will be able once more to govern countries and guide the destiny of Europe.
As soon as Dagobert and the two girls arrive in Paris, the Jesuits arrange to have them spirited away to a convent. Adrienne de Cardoville, another descendant of the de Rennepont family, is declared insane and committed to an asylum. Jacques de Rennepont, a good-hearted sensualist named Couche-tout-Nud, is jailed for debt. Prince Djalma, who left India despite the efforts of the Jesuits, is drugged. François Hardy, a benevolent manufacturer, is sent out of town through the treachery of a friend who is a Jesuit spy.
As a result of that Jesuit conspiracy, on that fateful day in February, 1832, only the priest, Gabriel de Rennepont, goes to claim the legacy at the house of an old Jew known as Samuel. With Gabriel are Monsieur l’Abbe d’Aigrigny, Provincial of the Jesuits, and Rodin, his secretary. Before the reading of the will, Gabriel is persuaded to sign a paper in which he renounces all claims to the legacy. When the bequest is announced, the Jesuits are astounded at the incredible sum of the inheritance, which grew from 150,000 francs to a fortune of 212,175,000 francs. Just as the money is being handed over to the priests, however, a strange woman appears and produces a codicil to the will, a document suspending its execution for three months. The woman is Herodias, but none then call her by that name. The priests are enraged, and they fear that their conspiracy will be exposed. Adrienne de Cardoville is certain to be released from the asylum. General Simon is reported to be on his way back to France to claim his daughters. Couche-tout-Nud will borrow money from his friends to pay his debts. Prince Djalma will soon awaken. Hardy will return to Paris from his fruitless errand.
Rodin immediately produces a paper that places him in complete charge of the Jesuit cabal. He proclaims that they did not lose, that they can and will win by employing psychological methods instead of violence. He will let each heir destroy himself or herself by his or her own desires, passions, or vices.
During the following three months, Rodin pretends that he leaves the service of the Abbe d’Aigrigny and passes himself off as a friend of the de Rennepont heirs. He secures the release of the Simon girls and Adrienne, and by those acts he becomes known as a good, unselfish man. Shortly before her death, one of Adrienne’s servants confesses that she was blackmailed into spying for the Jesuits, and she reveals the whole sordid, brutal, unprincipled conspiracy. Rodin, however, is not yet willing to accept defeat. At his direction, Hardy’s factory is burned to the ground, his best friend’s treachery is revealed, and his beautiful young mistress is spirited away. A broken man, Hardy is taken to a Jesuit retreat, where he accepts the doctrines of the order and dies as the result of the penances and fasts imposed upon him. Couche-tout-Nud, separated from his mistress, dies a miserable death after an orgy arranged by another Jesuit agent. The Simon girls are taken to a hospital during a cholera epidemic and die there of the disease. Prince Djalma, led to believe that Adrienne has become the mistress of Agricola Baudoin, Dagobert’s son, attacks Agricola and kills a girl whom he mistakes for Adrienne. He discovers his error too late, for in his remorse he already swallowed poison. Adrienne chooses to die with him.
When the time comes for the final disposition of the de Rennepont legacy, Gabriel is the only survivor. Just as Rodin is about to claim the inheritance in the name of his churchly office, the casket containing the money and securities bursts into flames and the fortune is lost forever. A moment later Rodin falls to the floor and writhes in agony. As he left a church, shortly before claiming the legacy, he took holy water from the fingers of an Indian who accompanied Prince Djalma from India and who became a lay member of the Jesuits. Too late, Rodin realizes that he was poisoned in some manner by the Indian. He dies a few minutes later.
Gabriel de Rennepont, shocked when he realizes the crimes of greed and lust for power that the lost fortune caused, retires to live out the rest of his brief life with his friends, the Baudoin family. After Gabriel’s body is laid in the de Rennepont tomb, old Samuel goes to a secret spot where a great cross is set upon a lonely hill. There Herodias finds him. In the dawn’s light each sees upon the face of the other the marks that age put upon them, but they find peace and happiness at last. Samuel—for he is the Wandering Jew—gives praise that their long punishment is ended, and Herodias echoes his words.