Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac

XII

On the morrow of this death Eugenie felt a new motive for attachment to the house in which she was born, where she had suffered so much, where her mother had just died. She could not see the window and the chair on its castors without weeping. She thought she had mistaken the heart of her old father when she found herself the object of his tenderest cares. He came in the morning and gave her his arm to take her to breakfast; he looked at her for hours together with an eye that was almost kind; he brooded over her as though she had been gold. The old man was so unlike himself, he trembled so often before his daughter, that Nanon and the Cruchotines, who witnessed his weakness, attributed it to his great age, and feared that his faculties were giving away. But the day on which the family put on their mourning, and after dinner, to which meal Maitre Cruchot (the only person who knew his secret) had been invited, the conduct of the old miser was explained.

“My dear child,” he said to Eugenie when the table had been cleared and the doors carefully shut, “you are now your mother’s heiress, and we have a few little matters to settle between us. Isn’t that so, Cruchot?”

“Yes.”

“Is it necessary to talk of them today, father?”

“Yes, yes, little one; I can’t bear the uncertainty in which I’m placed. I think you don’t want to give me pain?”

“Oh! father —”

“Well, then! let us settle it all to-night.”

“What is it you wish me to do?”

“My little girl, it is not for me to say. Tell her, Cruchot.”

“Mademoiselle, your father does not wish to divide the property, nor sell the estate, nor pay enormous taxes on the ready money which he may possess. Therefore, to avoid all this, he must be released from making the inventory of his whole fortune, part of which you inherit from your mother, and which is now undivided between you and your father —”

“Cruchot, are you quite sure of what you are saying before you tell it to a mere child?”

“Let me tell it my own way, Grandet.”

“Yes, yes, my friend. Neither you nor my daughter wish to rob me — do you, little one?”

“But, Monsieur Cruchot, what am I to do?” said Eugenie impatiently.

“Well,” said the notary, “it is necessary to sign this deed, by which you renounce your rights to your mother’s estate and leave your father the use and disposition, during his lifetime, of all the property undivided between you, of which he guarantees you the capital.”

“I do not understand a word of what you are saying,” returned Eugenie; “give me the deed, and show me where I am to sign it.”

Pere Grandet looked alternately at the deed and at his daughter, at his daughter and at the deed, undergoing as he did so such violent emotion that he wiped the sweat from his brow.

“My little girl,” he said, “if, instead of signing this deed, which will cost a great deal to record, you would simply agree to renounce your rights as heir to your poor dear, deceased mother’s property, and would trust to me for the future, I should like it better. In that case I will pay you monthly the good round sum of a hundred francs. See, now, you could pay for as many masses as you want for anybody — Hein! a hundred francs a month — in livres?”

“I will do all you wish, father.”

“Mademoiselle,” said the notary, “it is my duty to point out to you that you are despoiling yourself without guarantee —”

“Good heavens! what is all that to me?”

“Hold your tongue, Cruchot! It’s settled, all settled,” cried Grandet, taking his daughter’s hand and striking it with his own. “Eugenie, you won’t go back on your word? — you are an honest girl, hein?”

“Oh! father! —”

He kissed her effusively, and pressed her in his arms till he almost choked her.

“Go, my good child, you restore your father’s life; but you only return to him that which he gave you: we are quits. This is how business should be done. Life is a business. I bless you! you are a virtuous girl, and you love your father. Do just what you like in future. To-morrow, Cruchot,” he added, looking at the horrified notary, “you will see about preparing the deed of relinquishment, and then enter it on the records of the court.”

The next morning Eugenie signed the papers by which she herself completed her spoliation. At the end of the first year, however, in spite of his bargain, the old man had not given his daughter one sou of the hundred francs he had so solemnly pledged to her. When Eugenie pleasantly reminded him of this, he could not help coloring, and went hastily to his secret hiding-place, from whence he brought down about a third of the jewels he had taken from his nephew, and gave them to her.

“There, little one,” he said in a sarcastic tone, “do you want those for your twelve hundred francs?”

“Oh! father, truly? will you really give them to me?”

“I’ll give you as many more next year,” he said, throwing them into her apron. “So before long you’ll get all his gewgaws,” he added, rubbing his hands, delighted to be able to speculate on his daughter’s feelings.

Nevertheless, the old man, though still robust, felt the importance of initiating his daughter into the secrets of his thrift and its management. For two consecutive years he made her order the household meals in his presence and receive the rents, and he taught her slowly and successively the names and remunerative capacity of his vineyards and his farms. About the third year he had so thoroughly accustomed her to his avaricious methods that they had turned into the settled habits of her own life, and he was able to leave the household keys in her charge without anxiety, and to install her as mistress of the house.

* * * * *

Five years passed away without a single event to relieve the monotonous existence of Eugenie and her father. The same actions were performed daily with the automatic regularity of clockwork. The deep sadness of Mademoiselle Grandet was known to every one; but if others surmised the cause, she herself never uttered a word that justified the suspicions which all Saumur entertained about the state of the rich heiress’s heart. Her only society was made up of the three Cruchots and a few of their particular friends whom they had, little by little, introduced into the Grandet household. They had taught her to play whist, and they came every night for their game. During the year 1827 her father, feeling the weight of his infirmities, was obliged to initiate her still further into the secrets of his landed property, and told her that in case of difficulty she was to have recourse to Maitre Cruchot, whose integrity was well known to him.

Towards the end of this year the old man, then eighty-two, was seized by paralysis, which made rapid progress. Dr. Bergerin gave him up. Eugenie, feeling that she was about to be left alone in the world, came, as it were, nearer to her father, and clasped more tightly this last living link of affection. To her mind, as in that of all loving women, love was the whole of life. Charles was not there, and she devoted all her care and attention to the old father, whose faculties had begun to weaken, though his avarice remained instinctively acute. The death of this man offered no contrast to his life. In the morning he made them roll him to a spot between the chimney of his chamber and the door of the secret room, which was filled, no doubt, with gold. He asked for an explanation of every noise he heard, even the slightest; to the great astonishment of the notary, he even heard the watch-dog yawning in the court-yard. He woke up from his apparent stupor at the day and hour when the rents were due, or when accounts had to be settled with his vine-dressers, and receipts given. At such times he worked his chair forward on its castors until he faced the door of the inner room. He made his daughter open it, and watched while she placed the bags of money one upon another in his secret receptacles and relocked the door. Then she returned silently to her seat, after giving him the key, which he replaced in his waistcoat pocket and fingered from time to time. His old friend the notary, feeling sure that the rich heiress would inevitably marry his nephew the president, if Charles Grandet did not return, redoubled all his attentions; he came every day to take Grandet’s orders, went on his errands to Froidfond, to the farms and the fields and the vineyards, sold the vintages, and turned everything into gold and silver, which found their way in sacks to the secret hiding-place.

At length the last struggle came, in which the strong frame of the old man slowly yielded to destruction. He was determined to sit at the chimney-corner facing the door of the secret room. He drew off and rolled up all the coverings which were laid over him, saying to Nanon, “Put them away, lock them up, for fear they should be stolen.”

So long as he could open his eyes, in which his whole being had now taken refuge, he turned them to the door behind which lay his treasures, saying to his daughter, “Are they there? are they there?” in a tone of voice which revealed a sort of panic fear.

“Yes, my father,” she would answer.

“Take care of the gold — put gold before me.”

Eugenie would then spread coins on a table before him, and he would sit for hours together with his eyes fixed upon them, like a child who, at the moment it first begins to see, gazes in stupid contemplation at the same object, and like the child, a distressful smile would flicker upon his face.

“It warms me!” he would sometimes say, as an expression of beatitude stole across his features.

When the cure of the parish came to administer the last sacraments, the old man’s eyes, sightless, apparently, for some hours, kindled at the sight of the cross, the candlesticks, and the holy-water vessel of silver; he gazed at them fixedly, and his wen moved for the last time. When the priest put the crucifix of silver-gilt to his lips, that he might kiss the Christ, he made a frightful gesture, as if to seize it; and that last effort cost him his life. He called Eugenie, whom he did not see, though she was kneeling beside him bathing with tears his stiffening hand, which was already cold.

“My father, bless me!” she entreated.

“Take care of it all. You will render me an account yonder!” he said, proving by these last words that Christianity must always be the religion of misers.

* * * * *

Eugenie Grandet was now alone in the world in that gray house, with none but Nanon to whom she could turn with the certainty of being heard and understood — Nanon the sole being who loved her for herself and with whom she could speak of her sorrows. La Grande Nanon was a providence for Eugenie. She was not a servant, but a humble friend. After her father’s death Eugenie learned from Maitre Cruchot that she possessed an income of three hundred thousand francs from landed and personal property in the arrondissement of Saumur; also six millions invested at three per cent in the Funds (bought at sixty, and now worth seventy-six francs); also two millions in gold coin, and a hundred thousand francs in silver crown-pieces, besides all the interest which was still to be collected. The sum total of her property reached seventeen millions.

“Where is my cousin?” was her one thought.

The day on which Maitre Cruchot handed in to his client a clear and exact schedule of the whole inheritance, Eugenie remained alone with Nanon, sitting beside the fireplace in the vacant hall, where all was now a memory, from the chair on castors which her mother had sat in, to the glass from which her cousin drank.

“Nanon, we are alone —”

“Yes, mademoiselle; and if I knew where he was, the darling, I’d go on foot to find him.”

“The ocean is between us,” she said.

While the poor heiress wept in company of an old servant, in that cold dark house, which was to her the universe, the whole province rang, from Nantes to Orleans, with the seventeen millions of Mademoiselle Grandet. Among her first acts she had settled an annuity of twelve hundred francs on Nanon, who, already possessed of six hundred more, became a rich and enviable match. In less than a month that good soul passed from single to wedded life under the protection of Antoine Cornoiller, who was appointed keeper of all Mademoiselle Grandet’s estates. Madame Cornoiller possessed one striking advantage over her contemporaries. Although she was fifty-nine years of age, she did not look more than forty. Her strong features had resisted the ravages of time. Thanks to the healthy customs of her semi-conventual life, she laughed at old age from the vantage-ground of a rosy skin and an iron constitution. Perhaps she never looked as well in her life as she did on her marriage-day. She had all the benefits of her ugliness, and was big and fat and strong, with a look of happiness on her indestructible features which made a good many people envy Cornoiller.

“Fast colors!” said the draper.

“Quite likely to have children,” said the salt merchant. “She’s pickled in brine, saving your presence.”

“She is rich, and that fellow Cornoiller has done a good thing for himself,” said a third man.

When she came forth from the old house on her way to the parish church, Nanon, who was loved by all the neighborhood, received many compliments as she walked down the tortuous street. Eugenie had given her three dozen silver forks and spoons as a wedding present. Cornoiller, amazed at such magnificence, spoke of his mistress with tears in his eyes; he would willingly have been hacked in pieces in her behalf. Madame Cornoiller, appointed housekeeper to Mademoiselle Grandet, got as much happiness out of her new position as she did from the possession of a husband. She took charge of the weekly accounts; she locked up the provisions and gave them out daily, after the manner of her defunct master; she ruled over two servants — a cook, and a maid whose business it was to mend the house-linen and make mademoiselle’s dresses. Cornoiller combined the functions of keeper and bailiff. It is unnecessary to say that the women-servants selected by Nanon were “perfect treasures.” Mademoiselle Grandet thus had four servants, whose devotion was unbounded. The farmers perceived no change after Monsieur Grandet’s death; the usages and customs he had sternly established were scrupulously carried out by Monsieur and Madame Cornoiller.

At thirty years of age Eugenie knew none of the joys of life. Her pale, sad childhood had glided on beside a mother whose heart, always misunderstood and wounded, had known only suffering. Leaving this life joyfully, the mother pitied the daughter because she still must live; and she left in her child’s soul some fugitive remorse and many lasting regrets. Eugenie’s first and only love was a wellspring of sadness within her. Meeting her lover for a few brief days, she had given him her heart between two kisses furtively exchanged; then he had left her, and a whole world lay between them. This love, cursed by her father, had cost the life of her mother and brought her only sorrow, mingled with a few frail hopes. Thus her upward spring towards happiness had wasted her strength and given her nothing in exchange for it. In the life of the soul, as in the physical life, there is an inspiration and a respiration; the soul needs to absorb the sentiments of another soul and assimilate them, that it may render them back enriched. Were it not for this glorious human phenomenon, there would be no life for the heart; air would be wanting; it would suffer, and then perish. Eugenie had begun to suffer. For her, wealth was neither a power nor a consolation; she could not live except through love, through religion, through faith in the future. Love explained to her the mysteries of eternity. Her heart and the Gospel taught her to know two worlds; she bathed, night and day, in the depths of two infinite thoughts, which for her may have had but one meaning. She drew back within herself, loving, and believing herself beloved. For seven years her passion had invaded everything. Her treasuries were not the millions whose revenues were rolling up; they were Charles’s dressing-case, the portraits hanging above her bed, the jewels recovered from her father and proudly spread upon a bed of wool in a drawer of the oaken cabinet, the thimble of her aunt, used for a while by her mother, which she wore religiously as she worked at a piece of embroidery — a Penelope’s web, begun for the sole purpose of putting upon her finger that gold so rich in memories.

It seemed unlikely that Mademoiselle Grandet would marry during the period of her mourning. Her genuine piety was well known. Consequently the Cruchots, whose policy was sagely guided by the old abbe, contented themselves for the time being with surrounding the great heiress and paying her the most affectionate attentions. Every evening the hall was filled with a party of devoted Cruchotines, who sang the praises of its mistress in every key. She had her doctor in ordinary, her grand almoner, her chamberlain, her first lady of honor, her prime minister; above all, her chancellor, a chancellor who would fain have said much to her. If the heiress had wished for a train-bearer, one would instantly have been found. She was a queen, obsequiously flattered. Flattery never emanates from noble souls; it is the gift of little minds, who thus still further belittle themselves to worm their way into the vital being of the persons around whom they crawl. Flattery means self-interest. So the people who, night after night, assembled in Mademoiselle Grandet’s house (they called her Mademoiselle de Froidfond) outdid each other in expressions of admiration. This concert of praise, never before bestowed upon Eugenie, made her blush under its novelty; but insensibly her ear became habituated to the sound, and however coarse the compliments might be, she soon was so accustomed to hear her beauty lauded that if any new-comer had seemed to think her plain, she would have felt the reproach far more than she might have done eight years earlier. She ended at last by loving the incense, which she secretly laid at the feet of her idol. By degrees she grew accustomed to be treated as a sovereign and to see her court pressing around her every evening.

Monsieur de Bonfons was the hero of the little circle, where his wit, his person, his education, his amiability, were perpetually praised. One or another would remark that in seven years he had largely increased his fortune, that Bonfons brought in at least ten thousand francs a year, and was surrounded, like the other possessions of the Cruchots, by the vast domains of the heiress.

“Do you know, mademoiselle,” said an habitual visitor, “that the Cruchots have an income of forty thousand francs among them!”

“And then, their savings!” exclaimed an elderly female Cruchotine, Mademoiselle de Gribeaucourt.

“A gentleman from Paris has lately offered Monsieur Cruchot two hundred thousand francs for his practice,” said another. “He will sell it if he is appointed juge de paix.”

“He wants to succeed Monsieur de Bonfons as president of the Civil courts, and is taking measures,” replied Madame d’Orsonval. “Monsieur le president will certainly be made councillor.”

“Yes, he is a very distinguished man,” said another — “don’t you think so, mademoiselle?”

Monsieur de Bonfons endeavored to put himself in keeping with the role he sought to play. In spite of his forty years, in spite of his dusky and crabbed features, withered like most judicial faces, he dressed in youthful fashions, toyed with a bamboo cane, never took snuff in Mademoiselle de Froidfond’s house, and came in a white cravat and a shirt whose pleated frill gave him a family resemblance to the race of turkeys. He addressed the beautiful heiress familiarly, and spoke of her as “Our dear Eugenie.” In short, except for the number of visitors, the change from loto to whist, and the disappearance of Monsieur and Madame Grandet, the scene was about the same as the one with which this history opened. The pack were still pursuing Eugenie and her millions; but the hounds, more in number, lay better on the scent, and beset the prey more unitedly. If Charles could have dropped from the Indian Isles, he would have found the same people and the same interests. Madame des Grassins, to whom Eugenie was full of kindness and courtesy, still persisted in tormenting the Cruchots. Eugenie, as in former days, was the central figure of the picture; and Charles, as heretofore, would still have been the sovereign of all. Yet there had been some progress. The flowers which the president formerly presented to Eugenie on her birthdays and fete-days had now become a daily institution. Every evening he brought the rich heiress a huge and magnificent bouquet, which Madame Cornoiller placed conspicuously in a vase, and secretly threw into a corner of the court-yard when the visitors had departed.

Early in the spring, Madame des Grassins attempted to trouble the peace of the Cruchotines by talking to Eugenie of the Marquis de Froidfond, whose ancient and ruined family might be restored if the heiress would give him back his estates through marriage. Madame des Grassins rang the changes on the peerage and the title of marquise, until, mistaking Eugenie’s disdainful smile for acquiescence, she went about proclaiming that the marriage with “Monsieur Cruchot” was not nearly as certain as people thought.

“Though Monsieur de Froidfond is fifty,” she said, “he does not look older than Monsieur Cruchot. He is a widower, and he has children, that’s true. But then he is a marquis; he will be peer of France; and in times like these where you will find a better match? I know it for a fact that Pere Grandet, when he put all his money into Froidfond, intended to graft himself upon that stock; he often told me so. He was a deep one, that old man!”

“Ah! Nanon,” said Eugenie, one night as she was going to bed, “how is it that in seven years he has never once written to me?”

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