Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac

XIV

Eugenie came slowly back from the garden to the house, and avoided passing, as was her custom, through the corridor. But the memory of her cousin was in the gray old hall and on the chimney-piece, where stood a certain saucer and the old Sevres sugar-bowl which she used every morning at her breakfast.

This day was destined to be solemn throughout and full of events. Nanon announced the cure of the parish church. He was related to the Cruchots, and therefore in the interests of Monsieur de Bonfons. For some time past the old abbe had urged him to speak to Mademoiselle Grandet, from a purely religious point of view, about the duty of marriage for a woman in her position. When she saw her pastor, Eugenie supposed he had come for the thousand francs which she gave monthly to the poor, and she told Nanon to go and fetch them; but the cure only smiled.

“To-day, mademoiselle,” he said, “I have come to speak to you about a poor girl in whom the whole town of Saumur takes an interest, who, through lack of charity to herself, neglects her Christian duties.”

“Monsieur le cure, you have come to me at a moment when I cannot think of my neighbor, I am filled with thoughts of myself. I am very unhappy; my only refuge is in the Church; her bosom is large enough to hold all human woe, her love so full that we may draw from its depths and never drain it dry.”

“Mademoiselle, in speaking of this young girl we shall speak of you. Listen! If you wish to insure your salvation you have only two paths to take — either leave the world or obey its laws. Obey either your earthly destiny or your heavenly destiny.”

“Ah! your voice speaks to me when I need to hear a voice. Yes, God has sent you to me; I will bid farewell to the world and live for God alone, in silence and seclusion.”

“My daughter, you must think long before you take so violent a step. Marriage is life, the veil is death.”

“Yes, death — a quick death!” she said, with dreadful eagerness.

“Death? but you have great obligations to fulfil to society, mademoiselle. Are you not the mother of the poor, to whom you give clothes and wood in winter and work in summer? Your great fortune is a loan which you must return, and you have sacredly accepted it as such. To bury yourself in a convent would be selfishness; to remain an old maid is to fail in duty. In the first place, can you manage your vast property alone? May you not lose it? You will have law-suits, you will find yourself surrounded by inextricable difficulties. Believe your pastor: a husband is useful; you are bound to preserve what God has bestowed upon you. I speak to you as a precious lamb of my flock. You love God too truly not to find your salvation in the midst of his world, of which you are noble ornament and to which you owe your example.”

At this moment Madame des Grassins was announced. She came incited by vengeance and the sense of a great despair.

“Mademoiselle,” she said —“Ah! here is monsieur le cure; I am silent. I came to speak to you on business; but I see that you are conferring with —”

“Madame,” said the cure, “I leave the field to you.”

“Oh! monsieur le cure,” said Eugenie, “come back later; your support is very necessary to me just now.”

“Ah, yes, indeed, my poor child!” said Madame des Grassins.

“What do you mean?” asked Eugenie and the cure together.

“Don’t I know about your cousin’s return, and his marriage with Mademoiselle d’Aubrion? A woman doesn’t carry her wits in her pocket.”

Eugenie blushed, and remained silent for a moment. From this day forth she assumed the impassible countenance for which her father had been so remarkable.

“Well, madame,” she presently said, ironically, “no doubt I carry my wits in my pocket, for I do not understand you. Speak, say what you mean, before monsieur le cure; you know he is my director.”

“Well, then, mademoiselle, here is what des Grassins writes me. Read it.”

Eugenie read the following letter:—

My dear Wife — Charles Grandet has returned from the Indies and has been in Paris about a month —

“A month!” thought Eugenie, her hand falling to her side. After a pause she resumed the letter —

I had to dance attendance before I was allowed to see the future Vicomte d’Aubrion. Though all Paris is talking of his marriage and the banns are published —

“He wrote to me after that!” thought Eugenie. She did not conclude the thought; she did not cry out, as a Parisian woman would have done, “The villain!” but though she said it not, contempt was none the less present in her mind.

The marriage, however, will not come off. The Marquis d’Aubrion will never give his daughter to the son of a bankrupt. I went to tell Grandet of the steps his uncle and I took in his father’s business, and the clever manoeuvres by which we had managed to keep the creditor’s quiet until the present time. The insolent fellow had the face to say to me — to me, who for five years have devoted myself night and day to his interests and his honor! — that his father’s affairs were not his! A solicitor would have had the right to demand fees amounting to thirty or forty thousand francs, one per cent on the total of the debts. But patience! there are twelve hundred thousand francs legitimately owing to the creditors, and I shall at once declare his father a bankrupt.

I went into this business on the word of that old crocodile Grandet, and I have made promises in the name of his family. If Monsieur de vicomte d’Aubrion does not care for his honor, I care for mine. I shall explain my position to the creditors. Still, I have too much respect for Mademoiselle Eugenie (to whom under happier circumstances we once hoped to be allied) to act in this matter before you have spoken to her about it —

There Eugenie paused, and coldly returned the letter without finishing it.

“I thank you,” she said to Madame des Grassins.

“Ah! you have the voice and manner of your deceased father,” Madame des Grassins replied.

“Madame, you have eight thousand francs to pay us,” said Nanon, producing Charles’s cheque.

“That’s true; have the kindness to come with me now, Madame Cornoiller.”

“Monsieur le cure,” said Eugenie with a noble composure, inspired by the thought she was about to express, “would it be a sin to remain a virgin after marriage?”

“That is a case of conscience whose solution is not within my knowledge. If you wish to know what the celebrated Sanchez says of it in his treatise ‘De Matrimonio,’ I shall be able to tell you tomorrow.”

The cure went away; Mademoiselle Grandet went up to her father’s secret room and spent the day there alone, without coming down to dinner, in spite of Nanon’s entreaties. She appeared in the evening at the hour when the usual company began to arrive. Never was the old hall so full as on this occasion. The news of Charles’s return and his foolish treachery had spread through the whole town. But however watchful the curiosity of the visitors might be, it was left unsatisfied. Eugenie, who expected scrutiny, allowed none of the cruel emotions that wrung her soul to appear on the calm surface of her face. She was able to show a smiling front in answer to all who tried to testify their interest by mournful looks or melancholy speeches. She hid her misery behind a veil of courtesy. Towards nine o’clock the games ended and the players left the tables, paying their losses and discussing points of the game as they joined the rest of the company. At the moment when the whole party rose to take leave, an unexpected and striking event occurred, which resounded through the length and breadth of Saumur, from thence through the arrondissement, and even to the four surrounding prefectures.

“Stay, monsieur le president,” said Eugenie to Monsieur de Bonfons as she saw him take his cane.

There was not a person in that numerous assembly who was unmoved by these words. The president turned pale, and was forced to sit down.

“The president gets the millions,” said Mademoiselle de Gribeaucourt.

“It is plain enough; the president marries Mademoiselle Grandet,” cried Madame d’Orsonval.

“All the trumps in one hand,” said the abbe.

“A love game,” said the notary.

Each and all said his say, made his pun, and looked at the heiress mounted on her millions as on a pedestal. The drama begun nine years before had reached its conclusion. To tell the president, in face of all Saumur, to “stay,” was surely the same thing as proclaiming him her husband. In provincial towns social conventionalities are so rigidly enforced than an infraction like this constituted a solemn promise.

“Monsieur le president,” said Eugenie in a voice of some emotion when they were left alone, “I know what pleases you in me. Swear to leave me free during my whole life, to claim none of the rights which marriage will give you over me, and my hand is yours. Oh!” she added, seeing him about to kneel at her feet, “I have more to say. I must not deceive you. In my heart I cherish one inextinguishable feeling. Friendship is the only sentiment which I can give to a husband. I wish neither to affront him nor to violate the laws of my own heart. But you can possess my hand and my fortune only at the cost of doing me an inestimable service.”

“I am ready for all things,” said the president.

“Here are fifteen hundred thousand francs,” she said, drawing from her bosom a certificate of a hundred shares in the Bank of France. “Go to Paris — not tomorrow, but instantly. Find Monsieur des Grassins, learn the names of my uncle’s creditors, call them together, pay them in full all that was owing, with interest at five per cent from the day the debt was incurred to the present time. Be careful to obtain a full and legal receipt, in proper form, before a notary. You are a magistrate, and I can trust this matter in your hands. You are a man of honor; I will put faith in your word, and meet the dangers of life under shelter of your name. Let us have mutual indulgence. We have known each other so long that we are almost related; you would not wish to render me unhappy.”

The president fell at the feet of the rich heiress, his heart beating and wrung with joy.

“I will be your slave!” he said.

“When you obtain the receipts, monsieur,” she resumed, with a cold glance, “you will take them with all the other papers to my cousin Grandet, and you will give him this letter. On your return I will keep my word.”

The president understood perfectly that he owed the acquiescence of Mademoiselle Grandet to some bitterness of love, and he made haste to obey her orders, lest time should effect a reconciliation between the pair.

When Monsieur de Bonfons left her, Eugenie fell back in her chair and burst into tears. All was over.

The president took the mail-post, and reached Paris the next evening. The morning after his arrival he went to see des Grassins, and together they summoned the creditors to meet at the notary’s office where the vouchers had been deposited. Not a single creditor failed to be present. Creditors though they were, justice must be done to them, — they were all punctual. Monsieur de Bonfons, in the name of Mademoiselle Grandet, paid them the amount of their claims with interest. The payment of interest was a remarkable event in the Parisian commerce of that day. When the receipts were all legally registered, and des Grassins had received for his services the sum of fifty thousand francs allowed to him by Eugenie, the president made his way to the hotel d’Aubrion and found Charles just entering his own apartment after a serious encounter with his prospective father-inlaw. The old marquis had told him plainly that he should not marry his daughter until all the creditors of Guillaume Grandet had been paid in full.

The president gave Charles the following letter:—

My Cousin — Monsieur le president de Bonfons has undertaken to place in your hands the aquittance for all claims upon my uncle, also a receipt by which I acknowledge having received from you the sum total of those claims. I have heard of a possible failure, and I think that the son of a bankrupt may not be able to marry Mademoiselle d’Aubrion. Yes, my cousin, you judged rightly of my mind and of my manners. I have, it is true, no part in the world; I understand neither its calculations nor its customs; and I could not give you the pleasures that you seek in it. Be happy, according to the social conventions to which you have sacrificed our love. To make your happiness complete I can only offer you your father’s honor. Adieu! You will always have a faithful friend in your cousin

Eugenie.

The president smiled at the exclamation which the ambitious young man could not repress as he received the documents.

“We shall announce our marriages at the same time,” remarked Monsieur de Bonfons.

“Ah! you marry Eugenie? Well, I am delighted; she is a good girl. But,” added Charles, struck with a luminous idea, “she must be rich?”

“She had,” said the president, with a mischievous smile, “about nineteen millions four days ago; but she has only seventeen millions today.”

Charles looked at him thunderstruck.

“Seventeen mil —”

“Seventeen millions; yes, monsieur. We shall muster, Mademoiselle Grandet and I, an income of seven hundred and fifty thousand francs when we marry.”

“My dear cousin,” said Charles, recovering a little of his assurance, “we can push each other’s fortunes.”

“Agreed,” said the president. “Here is also a little case which I am charged to give into your own hands,” he added, placing on the table the leather box which contained the dressing-case.

“Well, my dear friend,” said Madame d’Aubrion, entering the room without noticing the president, “don’t pay any attention to what poor Monsieur d’Aubrion has just said to you; the Duchesse de Chaulieu has turned his head. I repeat, nothing shall interfere with the marriage —”

“Very good, madame. The three millions which my father owed were paid yesterday.”

“In money?” she asked.

“Yes, in full, capital and interest; and I am about to do honor to his memory —”

“What folly!” exclaimed his mother-inlaw. “Who is this?” she whispered in Grandet’s ear, perceiving the president.

“My man of business,” he answered in a low voice.

The marquise bowed superciliously to Monsieur de Bonfons.

“We are pushing each other’s fortunes already,” said the president, taking up his hat. “Good-by, cousin.”

“He is laughing at me, the old cockatoo! I’d like to put six inches of iron into him!” muttered Charles.

The president was out of hearing. Three days later Monsieur de Bonfons, on his return to Saumur, announced his marriage with Eugenie. Six months after the marriage he was appointed councillor in the Cour royale at Angers. Before leaving Saumur Madame de Bonfons had the gold of certain jewels, once so precious to her, melted up, and put, together with the eight thousand francs paid back by her cousin, into a golden pyx, which she gave to the parish church where she had so long prayed for him. She now spent her time between Angers and Saumur. Her husband, who had shown some public spirit on a certain occasion, became a judge in the superior courts, and finally, after a few years, president of them. He was anxiously awaiting a general election, in the hope of being returned to the Chamber of deputies. He hankered after a peerage; and then —

“The king will be his cousin, won’t he?” said Nanon, la Grande Nanon, Madame Cornoiller, bourgeoise of Saumur, as she listened to her mistress, who was recounting the honors to which she was called.

Nevertheless, Monsieur de Bonfons (he had finally abolished his patronymic of Cruchot) did not realize any of his ambitious ideas. He died eight days after his election as deputy of Saumur. God, who sees all and never strikes amiss, punished him, no doubt, for his sordid calculations and the legal cleverness with which, accurante Cruchot, he had drawn up his marriage contract, in which husband and wife gave to each other, “in case they should have no children, their entire property of every kind, landed or otherwise, without exception or reservation, dispensing even with the formality of an inventory; provided that said omission of said inventory shall not injure their heirs and assigns, it being understood that this deed of gift is, etc., etc.” This clause of the contract will explain the profound respect which monsieur le president always testified for the wishes, and above all, for the solitude of Madame de Bonfons. Women cited him as the most considerate and delicate of men, pitied him, and even went so far as to find fault with the passion and grief of Eugenie, blaming her, as women know so well how to blame, with cruel but discreet insinuation.

“Madame de Bonfons must be very ill to leave her husband entirely alone. Poor woman! Is she likely to get well? What is it? Something gastric? A cancer?”—“She has grown perfectly yellow. She ought to consult some celebrated doctor in Paris.”—“How can she be happy without a child? They say she loves her husband; then why not give him an heir? — in his position, too!”—“Do you know, it is really dreadful! If it is the result of mere caprice, it is unpardonable. Poor president!”

Endowed with the delicate perception which a solitary soul acquires through constant meditation, through the exquisite clear-sightedness with which a mind aloof from life fastens on all that falls within its sphere, Eugenie, taught by suffering and by her later education to divine thought, knew well that the president desired her death that he might step into possession of their immense fortune, augmented by the property of his uncle the notary and his uncle the abbe, whom it had lately pleased God to call to himself. The poor solitary pitied the president. Providence avenged her for the calculations and the indifference of a husband who respected the hopeless passion on which she spent her life because it was his surest safeguard. To give life to a child would give death to his hopes — the hopes of selfishness, the joys of ambition, which the president cherished as he looked into the future.

God thus flung piles of gold upon this prisoner to whom gold was a matter of indifference, who longed for heaven, who lived, pious and good, in holy thoughts, succoring the unfortunate in secret, and never wearying of such deeds. Madame de Bonfons became a widow at thirty-six. She is still beautiful, but with the beauty of a woman who is nearly forty years of age. Her face is white and placid and calm; her voice gentle and self-possessed; her manners are simple. She has the noblest qualities of sorrow, the saintliness of one who has never soiled her soul by contact with the world; but she has also the rigid bearing of an old maid and the petty habits inseparable from the narrow round of provincial life. In spite of her vast wealth, she lives as the poor Eugenie Grandet once lived. The fire is never lighted on her hearth until the day when her father allowed it to be lighted in the hall, and it is put out in conformity with the rules which governed her youthful years. She dresses as her mother dressed. The house in Saumur, without sun, without warmth, always in shadow, melancholy, is an image of her life. She carefully accumulates her income, and might seem parsimonious did she not disarm criticism by a noble employment of her wealth. Pious and charitable institutions, a hospital for old age, Christian schools for children, a public library richly endowed, bear testimony against the charge of avarice which some persons lay at her door. The churches of Saumur owe much of their embellishment to her. Madame de Bonfons (sometimes ironically spoken of as mademoiselle) inspires for the most part reverential respect: and yet that noble heart, beating only with tenderest emotions, has been, from first to last, subjected to the calculations of human selfishness; money has cast its frigid influence upon that hallowed life and taught distrust of feelings to a woman who is all feeling.

“I have none but you to love me,” she says to Nanon.

The hand of this woman stanches the secret wounds in many families. She goes on her way to heaven attended by a train of benefactions. The grandeur of her soul redeems the narrowness of her education and the petty habits of her early life.

Such is the history of Eugenie Grandet, who is in the world but not of it; who, created to be supremely a wife and mother, has neither husband nor children nor family. Lately there has been some question of her marrying again. The Saumur people talk of her and of the Marquis de Froidfond, whose family are beginning to beset the rich widow just as, in former days, the Cruchots laid siege to the rich heiress. Nanon and Cornoiller are, it is said, in the interests of the marquis. Nothing could be more false. Neither la Grande Nanon nor Cornoiller has sufficient mind to understand the corruptions of the world.

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