Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac

XI

For several months the old wine-grower came constantly to his wife’s room at all hours of the day, without ever uttering his daughter’s name, or seeing her, or making the smallest allusion to her. Madame Grandet did not leave her chamber, and daily grew worse. Nothing softened the old man; he remained unmoved, harsh, and cold as a granite rock. He continued to go and come about his business as usual; but ceased to stutter, talked less, and was more obdurate in business transactions than ever before. Often he made mistakes in adding up his figures.

“Something is going on at the Grandets,” said the Grassinists and the Cruchotines.

“What has happened in the Grandet family?” became a fixed question which everybody asked everybody else at the little evening-parties of Saumur. Eugenie went to Mass escorted by Nanon. If Madame des Grassins said a few words to her on coming out of church, she answered in an evasive manner, without satisfying any curiosity. However, at the end of two months, it became impossible to hide, either from the three Cruchots or from Madame des Grassins, the fact that Eugenie was in confinement. There came a moment when all pretexts failed to explain her perpetual absence. Then, though it was impossible to discover by whom the secret had been betrayed, all the town became aware that ever since New Year’s day Mademoiselle Grandet had been kept in her room without fire, on bread and water, by her father’s orders, and that Nanon cooked little dainties and took them to her secretly at night. It was even known that the young woman was not able to see or take care of her mother, except at certain times when her father was out of the house.

Grandet’s conduct was severely condemned. The whole town outlawed him, so to speak; they remembered his treachery, his hard-heartedness, and they excommunicated him. When he passed along the streets, people pointed him out and muttered at him. When his daughter came down the winding street, accompanied by Nanon, on her way to Mass or Vespers, the inhabitants ran to the windows and examined with intense curiosity the bearing of the rich heiress and her countenance, which bore the impress of angelic gentleness and melancholy. Her imprisonment and the condemnation of her father were as nothing to her. Had she not a map of the world, the little bench, the garden, the angle of the wall? Did she not taste upon her lips the honey that love’s kisses left there? She was ignorant for a time that the town talked about her, just as Grandet himself was ignorant of it. Pious and pure in heart before God, her conscience and her love helped her to suffer patiently the wrath and vengeance of her father.

One deep grief silenced all others. Her mother, that gentle, tender creature, made beautiful by the light which shone from the inner to the outer as she approached the tomb — her mother was perishing from day to day. Eugenie often reproached herself as the innocent cause of the slow, cruel malady that was wasting her away. This remorse, though her mother soothed it, bound her still closer to her love. Every morning, as soon as her father left the house, she went to the bedside of her mother, and there Nanon brought her breakfast. The poor girl, sad, and suffering through the sufferings of her mother, would turn her face to the old servant with a mute gesture, weeping, and yet not daring to speak of her cousin. It was Madame Grandet who first found courage to say —

“Where is he? Why does he not write?”

“Let us think about him, mother, but not speak of him. You are ill — you, before all.”

“All” meant “him.”

“My child,” said Madame Grandet, “I do not wish to live. God protects me and enables me to look with joy to the end of my misery.”

Every utterance of this woman was unfalteringly pious and Christian. Sometimes, during the first months of the year, when her husband came to breakfast with her and tramped up and down the room, she would say to him a few religious words, always spoken with angelic sweetness, yet with the firmness of a woman to whom approaching death lends a courage she had lacked in life.

“Monsieur, I thank you for the interest you take in my health,” she would answer when he made some commonplace inquiry; “but if you really desire to render my last moments less bitter and to ease my grief, take back your daughter: be a Christian, a husband, and a father.”

When he heard these words, Grandet would sit down by the bed with the air of a man who sees the rain coming and quietly gets under the shelter of a gateway till it is over. When these touching, tender, and religious supplications had all been made, he would say —

“You are rather pale today, my poor wife.”

Absolute forgetfulness of his daughter seemed graven on his stony brow, on his closed lips. He was unmoved by the tears which flowed down the white cheeks of his unhappy wife as she listened to his meaningless answers.

“May God pardon you,” she said, “even as I pardon you! You will some day stand in need of mercy.”

Since Madame Grandet’s illness he had not dared to make use of his terrible “Ta, ta, ta, ta!” Yet, for all that, his despotic nature was not disarmed by this angel of gentleness, whose ugliness day by day decreased, driven out by the ineffable expression of moral qualities which shone upon her face. She was all soul. The spirit of prayer seemed to purify her and refine those homely features and make them luminous. Who has not seen the phenomenon of a like transfiguration on sacred faces where the habits of the soul have triumphed over the plainest features, giving them that spiritual illumination whose light comes from the purity and nobility of the inward thought? The spectacle of this transformation wrought by the struggle which consumed the last shreds of the human life of this woman, did somewhat affect the old cooper, though feebly, for his nature was of iron; if his language ceased to be contemptuous, an imperturbable silence, which saved his dignity as master of the household, took its place and ruled his conduct.

When the faithful Nanon appeared in the market, many quips and quirks and complaints about the master whistled in her ears; but however loudly public opinion condemned Monsieur Grandet, the old servant defended him, for the honor of the family.

“Well!” she would say to his detractors, “don’t we all get hard as we grow old? Why shouldn’t he get horny too? Stop telling lies. Mademoiselle lives like a queen. She’s alone, that’s true; but she likes it. Besides, my masters have good reasons.”

At last, towards the end of spring, Madame Grandet, worn out by grief even more than by illness, having failed, in spite of her prayers, to reconcile the father and daughter, confided her secret troubles to the Cruchots.

“Keep a girl of twenty-three on bread and water!” cried Monsieur de Bonfons; “without any reason, too! Why, that constitutes wrongful cruelty; she can contest, as much in as upon —”

“Come, nephew, spare us your legal jargon,” said the notary. “Set your mind at ease, madame; I will put a stop to such treatment tomorrow.”

Eugenie, hearing herself mentioned, came out of her room.

“Gentlemen,” she said, coming forward with a proud step, “I beg you not to interfere in this matter. My father is master in his own house. As long as I live under his roof I am bound to obey him. His conduct is not subject to the approbation or the disapprobation of the world; he is accountable to God only. I appeal to your friendship to keep total silence in this affair. To blame my father is to attack our family honor. I am much obliged to you for the interest you have shown in me; you will do me an additional service if you will put a stop to the offensive rumors which are current in the town, of which I am accidentally informed.”

“She is right,” said Madame Grandet.

“Mademoiselle, the best way to stop such rumors is to procure your liberty,” answered the old notary respectfully, struck with the beauty which seclusion, melancholy, and love had stamped upon her face.

“Well, my daughter, let Monsieur Cruchot manage the matter if he is so sure of success. He understands your father, and how to manage him. If you wish to see me happy for my few remaining days, you must, at any cost, be reconciled to your father.”

On the morrow Grandet, in pursuance of a custom he had begun since Eugenie’s imprisonment, took a certain number of turns up and down the little garden; he had chosen the hour when Eugenie brushed and arranged her hair. When the old man reached the walnut-tree he hid behind its trunk and remained for a few moments watching his daughter’s movements, hesitating, perhaps, between the course to which the obstinacy of his character impelled him and his natural desire to embrace his child. Sometimes he sat down on the rotten old bench where Charles and Eugenie had vowed eternal love; and then she, too, looked at her father secretly in the mirror before which she stood. If he rose and continued his walk, she sat down obligingly at the window and looked at the angle of the wall where the pale flowers hung, where the Venus-hair grew from the crevices with the bindweed and the sedum — a white or yellow stone-crop very abundant in the vineyards of Saumur and at Tours. Maitre Cruchot came early, and found the old wine-grower sitting in the fine June weather on the little bench, his back against the division wall of the garden, engaged in watching his daughter.

“What may you want, Maitre Cruchot?” he said, perceiving the notary.

“I came to speak to you on business.”

“Ah! ah! have you brought some gold in exchange for my silver?”

“No, no, I have not come about money; it is about your daughter Eugenie. All the town is talking of her and you.”

“What does the town meddle for? A man’s house is his castle.”

“Very true; and a man may kill himself if he likes, or, what is worse, he may fling his money into the gutter.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, your wife is very ill, my friend. You ought to consult Monsieur Bergerin; she is likely to die. If she does die without receiving proper care, you will not be very easy in mind, I take it.”

“Ta, ta, ta, ta! you know a deal about my wife! These doctors, if they once get their foot in your house, will come five and six times a day.”

“Of course you will do as you think best. We are old friends; there is no one in all Saumur who takes more interest than I in what concerns you. Therefore, I was bound to tell you this. However, happen what may, you have the right to do as you please; you can choose your own course. Besides, that is not what brings me here. There is another thing which may have serious results for you. After all, you can’t wish to kill your wife; her life is too important to you. Think of your situation in connection with your daughter if Madame Grandet dies. You must render an account to Eugenie, because you enjoy your wife’s estate only during her lifetime. At her death your daughter can claim a division of property, and she may force you to sell Froidfond. In short, she is her mother’s heir, and you are not.”

These words fell like a thunderbolt on the old man, who was not as wise about law as he was about business. He had never thought of a legal division of the estate.

“Therefore I advise you to treat her kindly,” added Cruchot, in conclusion.

“But do you know what she has done, Cruchot?”

“What?” asked the notary, curious to hear the truth and find out the cause of the quarrel.

“She has given away her gold!”

“Well, wasn’t it hers?” said the notary.

“They all tell me that!” exclaimed the old man, letting his arms fall to his sides with a movement that was truly tragic.

“Are you going — for a mere nothing,”— resumed Cruchot, “to put obstacles in the way of the concessions which you will be obliged to ask from your daughter as soon as her mother dies?”

“Do you call six thousand francs a mere nothing?”

“Hey! my old friend, do you know what the inventory of your wife’s property will cost, if Eugenie demands the division?”

“How much?”

“Two, three, four thousand francs, perhaps! The property would have to be put up at auction and sold, to get at its actual value. Instead of that, if you are on good terms with —”

“By the shears of my father!” cried Grandet, turning pale as he suddenly sat down, “we will see about it, Cruchot.”

After a moment’s silence, full of anguish perhaps, the old man looked at the notary and said —

“Life is very hard! It has many griefs! Cruchot,” he continued solemnly, “you would not deceive me? Swear to me upon your honor that all you’ve told me is legally true. Show me the law; I must see the law!”

“My poor friend,” said the notary, “don’t I know my own business?”

“Then it is true! I am robbed, betrayed, killed, destroyed by my own daughter!”

“It is true that your daughter is her mother’s heir.”

“Why do we have children? Ah! my wife, I love her! Luckily she’s sound and healthy; she’s a Bertelliere.”

“She has not a month to live.”

Grandet struck his forehead, went a few steps, came back, cast a dreadful look on Cruchot, and said —

“What can be done?”

“Eugenie can relinquish her claim to her mother’s property. Should she do this you would not disinherit her, I presume? — but if you want to come to such a settlement, you must not treat her harshly. What I am telling you, old man, is against my own interests. What do I live by, if it isn’t liquidations, inventories, conveyances, divisions of property? —”

“We’ll see, we’ll see! Don’t let’s talk any more about it, Cruchot; it wrings my vitals. Have you received any gold?”

“No; but I have a few old louis, a dozen or so, which you may have. My good friend, make it up with Eugenie. Don’t you know all Saumur is pelting you with stones?”

“The scoundrels!”

“Come, the Funds are at ninety-nine. Do be satisfied for once in your life.”

“At ninety-nine! Are they, Cruchot?”

“Yes.”

“Hey, hey! Ninety-nine!” repeated the old man, accompanying the notary to the street-door. Then, too agitated by what he had just heard to stay in the house, he went up to his wife’s room and said —

“Come, mother, you may have your daughter to spend the day with you. I’m going to Froidfond. Enjoy yourselves, both of you. This is our wedding-day, wife. See! here are sixty francs for your altar at the Fete–Dieu; you’ve wanted one for a long time. Come, cheer up, enjoy yourself, and get well! Hurrah for happiness!”

He threw ten silver pieces of six francs each upon the bed, and took his wife’s head between his hands and kissed her forehead.

“My good wife, you are getting well, are not you?”

“How can you think of receiving the God of mercy in your house when you refuse to forgive your daughter?” she said with emotion.

“Ta, ta, ta, ta!” said Grandet in a coaxing voice. “We’ll see about that.”

“Merciful heaven! Eugenie,” cried the mother, flushing with joy, “come and kiss your father; he forgives you!”

But the old man had disappeared. He was going as fast as his legs could carry him towards his vineyards, trying to get his confused ideas into order. Grandet had entered his seventy-sixth year. During the last two years his avarice had increased upon him, as all the persistent passions of men increase at a certain age. As if to illustrate an observation which applies equally to misers, ambitious men, and others whose lives are controlled by any dominant idea, his affections had fastened upon one special symbol of his passion. The sight of gold, the possession of gold, had become a monomania. His despotic spirit had grown in proportion to his avarice, and to part with the control of the smallest fraction of his property at the death of his wife seemed to him a thing “against nature.” To declare his fortune to his daughter, to give an inventory of his property, landed and personal, for the purposes of division —

“Why,” he cried aloud in the midst of a field where he was pretending to examine a vine, “it would be cutting my throat!”

He came at last to a decision, and returned to Saumur in time for dinner, resolved to unbend to Eugenie, and pet and coax her, that he might die regally, holding the reins of his millions in his own hands so long as the breath was in his body. At the moment when the old man, who chanced to have his pass-key in his pocket, opened the door and climbed with a stealthy step up the stairway to go into his wife’s room, Eugenie had brought the beautiful dressing-case from the oak cabinet and placed it on her mother’s bed. Mother and daughter, in Grandet’s absence, allowed themselves the pleasure of looking for a likeness to Charles in the portrait of his mother.

“It is exactly his forehead and his mouth,” Eugenie was saying as the old man opened the door. At the look which her husband cast upon the gold, Madame Grandet cried out —

“O God, have pity upon us!”

The old man sprang upon the box as a famished tiger might spring upon a sleeping child.

“What’s this?” he said, snatching the treasure and carrying it to the window. “Gold, good gold!” he cried. “All gold — it weighs two pounds! Ha, ha! Charles gave you that for your money, did he? Hein! Why didn’t you tell me so? It was a good bargain, little one! Yes, you are my daughter, I see that —” Eugenie trembled in every limb. “This came from Charles, of course, didn’t it?” continued the old man.

“Yes, father; it is not mine. It is a sacred trust.”

“Ta, ta, ta, ta! He took your fortune, and now you can get it back.”

“Father!”

Grandet took his knife to pry out some of the gold; to do this, he placed the dressing-case on a chair. Eugenie sprang forward to recover it; but her father, who had his eye on her and on the treasure too, pushed her back so violently with a thrust of his arm that she fell upon her mother’s bed.

“Monsieur, monsieur!” cried the mother, lifting herself up.

Grandet had opened his knife, and was about to apply it to the gold.

“Father!” cried Eugenie, falling on her knees and dragging herself close to him with clasped hands, “father, in the name of all the saints and the Virgin! in the name of Christ who died upon the cross! in the name of your eternal salvation, father! for my life’s sake, father! — do not touch that! It is neither yours nor mine. It is a trust placed in my hands by an unhappy relation: I must give it back to him uninjured!”

“If it is a trust, why were you looking at it? To look at it is as bad as touching it.”

“Father, don’t destroy it, or you will disgrace me! Father, do you hear?”

“Oh, have pity!” said the mother.

“Father!” cried Eugenie in so startling a voice that Nanon ran upstairs terrified. Eugenie sprang upon a knife that was close at hand.

“Well, what now?” said Grandet coldly, with a callous smile.

“Oh, you are killing me!” said the mother.

“Father, if your knife so much as cuts a fragment of that gold, I will stab myself with this one! You have already driven my mother to her death; you will now kill your child! Do as you choose! Wound for wound!”

Grandet held his knife over the dressing-case and hesitated as he looked at his daughter.

“Are you capable of doing it, Eugenie?” he said.

“Yes, yes!” said the mother.

“She’ll do it if she says so!” cried Nanon. “Be reasonable, monsieur, for once in your life.”

The old man looked at the gold and then at his daughter alternately for an instant. Madame Grandet fainted.

“There! don’t you see, monsieur, that madame is dying?” cried Nanon.

“Come, come, my daughter, we won’t quarrel for a box! Here, take it!” he cried hastily, flinging the case upon the bed. “Nanon, go and fetch Monsieur Bergerin! Come, mother,” said he, kissing his wife’s hand, “it’s all over! There! we’ve made up — haven’t we, little one? No more dry bread; you shall have all you want — Ah, she opens her eyes! Well, mother, little mother, come! See, I’m kissing Eugenie! She loves her cousin, and she may marry him if she wants to; she may keep his case. But don’t die, mother; live a long time yet, my poor wife! Come, try to move! Listen! you shall have the finest altar that ever was made in Saumur.”

“Oh, how can you treat your wife and daughter so!” said Madame Grandet in a feeble voice.

“I won’t do so again, never again,” cried her husband; “you shall see, my poor wife!” He went to his inner room and returned with a handful of louis, which he scattered on the bed. “Here, Eugenie! see, wife! all these are for you,” he said, fingering the coins. “Come, be happy, wife! feel better, get well; you sha’n’t want for anything, nor Eugenie either. Here’s a hundred louis d’or for her. You won’t give these away, will you, Eugenie, hein?”

Madame Grandet and her daughter looked at each other in astonishment.

“Take back your money, father; we ask for nothing but your affection.”

“Well, well, that’s right!” he said, pocketing the coins; “let’s be good friends! We will all go down to dinner today, and we’ll play loto every evening for two sous. You shall both be happy. Hey, wife?”

“Alas! I wish I could, if it would give you pleasure,” said the dying woman; “but I cannot rise from my bed.”

“Poor mother,” said Grandet, “you don’t know how I love you! and you too, my daughter!” He took her in his arms and kissed her. “Oh, how good it is to kiss a daughter when we have been angry with her! There, mother, don’t you see it’s all over now? Go and put that away, Eugenie,” he added, pointing to the case. “Go, don’t be afraid! I shall never speak of it again, never!”

Monsieur Bergerin, the celebrated doctor of Saumur, presently arrived. After an examination, he told Grandet positively that his wife was very ill; but that perfect peace of mind, a generous diet, and great care might prolong her life until the autumn.

“Will all that cost much?” said the old man. “Will she need medicines?”

“Not much medicine, but a great deal of care,” answered the doctor, who could scarcely restrain a smile.

“Now, Monsieur Bergerin,” said Grandet, “you are a man of honor, are not you? I trust to you! Come and see my wife how and when you think necessary. Save my good wife! I love her — don’t you see? — though I never talk about it; I keep things to myself. I’m full of trouble. Troubles began when my brother died; I have to spend enormous sums on his affairs in Paris. Why, I’m paying through my nose; there’s no end to it. Adieu, monsieur! If you can save my wife, save her. I’ll spare no expense, not even if it costs me a hundred or two hundred francs.”

In spite of Grandet’s fervent wishes for the health of his wife, whose death threatened more than death to him; in spite of the consideration he now showed on all occasions for the least wish of his astonished wife and daughter; in spite of the tender care which Eugenie lavished upon her mother — Madame Grandet rapidly approached her end. Every day she grew weaker and wasted visibly, as women of her age when attacked by serious illness are wont to do. She was fragile as the foliage in autumn; the radiance of heaven shone through her as the sun strikes athwart the withering leaves and gilds them. It was a death worthy of her life — a Christian death; and is not that sublime? In the month of October, 1822, her virtues, her angelic patience, her love for her daughter, seemed to find special expression; and then she passed away without a murmur. Lamb without spot, she went to heaven, regretting only the sweet companion of her cold and dreary life, for whom her last glance seemed to prophesy a destiny of sorrows. She shrank from leaving her ewe-lamb, white as herself, alone in the midst of a selfish world that sought to strip her of her fleece and grasp her treasures.

“My child,” she said as she expired, “there is no happiness except in heaven; you will know it some day.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31