Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac

II

It is now easy to understand the full meaning of the term, “the house of Monsieur Grandet,”— that cold, silent, pallid dwelling, standing above the town and sheltered by the ruins of the ramparts. The two pillars and the arch, which made the porte-cochere on which the door opened, were built, like the house itself, of tufa — a white stone peculiar to the shores of the Loire, and so soft that it lasts hardly more than two centuries. Numberless irregular holes, capriciously bored or eaten out by the inclemency of the weather, gave an appearance of the vermiculated stonework of French architecture to the arch and the side walls of this entrance, which bore some resemblance to the gateway of a jail. Above the arch was a long bas-relief, in hard stone, representing the four seasons, the faces already crumbling away and blackened. This bas-relief was surmounted by a projecting plinth, upon which a variety of chance growths had sprung up — yellow pellitory, bindweed, convolvuli, nettles, plantain, and even a little cherry-tree, already grown to some height.

The door of the archway was made of solid oak, brown, shrunken, and split in many places; though frail in appearance, it was firmly held in place by a system of iron bolts arranged in symmetrical patterns. A small square grating, with close bars red with rust, filled up the middle panel and made, as it were, a motive for the knocker, fastened to it by a ring, which struck upon the grinning head of a huge nail. This knocker, of the oblong shape and kind which our ancestors called jaquemart, looked like a huge note of exclamation; an antiquary who examined it attentively might have found indications of the figure, essentially burlesque, which it once represented, and which long usage had now effaced. Through this little grating — intended in olden times for the recognition of friends in times of civil war — inquisitive persons could perceive, at the farther end of the dark and slimy vault, a few broken steps which led to a garden, picturesquely shut in by walls that were thick and damp, and through which oozed a moisture that nourished tufts of sickly herbage. These walls were the ruins of the ramparts, under which ranged the gardens of several neighboring houses.

The most important room on the ground-floor of the house was a large hall, entered directly from beneath the vault of the porte-cochere. Few people know the importance of a hall in the little towns of Anjou, Touraine, and Berry. The hall is at one and the same time antechamber, salon, office, boudoir, and dining-room; it is the theatre of domestic life, the common living-room. There the barber of the neighborhood came, twice a year, to cut Monsieur Grandet’s hair; there the farmers, the cure, the under-prefect, and the miller’s boy came on business. This room, with two windows looking on the street, was entirely of wood. Gray panels with ancient mouldings covered the walls from top to bottom; the ceiling showed all its beams, which were likewise painted gray, while the space between them had been washed over in white, now yellow with age. An old brass clock, inlaid with arabesques, adorned the mantel of the ill-cut white stone chimney-piece, above which was a greenish mirror, whose edges, bevelled to show the thickness of the glass, reflected a thread of light the whole length of a gothic frame in damascened steel-work. The two copper-gilt candelabra which decorated the corners of the chimney-piece served a double purpose: by taking off the side-branches, each of which held a socket, the main stem — which was fastened to a pedestal of bluish marble tipped with copper — made a candlestick for one candle, which was sufficient for ordinary occasions. The chairs, antique in shape, were covered with tapestry representing the fables of La Fontaine; it was necessary, however, to know that writer well to guess at the subjects, for the faded colors and the figures, blurred by much darning, were difficult to distinguish.

At the four corners of the hall were closets, or rather buffets, surmounted by dirty shelves. An old card-table in marquetry, of which the upper part was a chess-board, stood in the space between the two windows. Above this table was an oval barometer with a black border enlivened with gilt bands, on which the flies had so licentiously disported themselves that the gilding had become problematical. On the panel opposite to the chimney-piece were two portraits in pastel, supposed to represent the grandfather of Madame Grandet, old Monsieur de la Bertelliere, as a lieutenant in the French guard, and the deceased Madame Gentillet in the guise of a shepherdess. The windows were draped with curtains of red gros de Tours held back by silken cords with ecclesiastical tassels. This luxurious decoration, little in keeping with the habits of Monsieur Grandet, had been, together with the steel pier-glass, the tapestries, and the buffets, which were of rose-wood, included in the purchase of the house.

By the window nearest to the door stood a straw chair, whose legs were raised on castors to lift its occupant, Madame Grandet, to a height from which she could see the passers-by. A work-table of stained cherry-wood filled up the embrasure, and the little armchair of Eugenie Grandet stood beside it. In this spot the lives had flowed peacefully onward for fifteen years, in a round of constant work from the month of April to the month of November. On the first day of the latter month they took their winter station by the chimney. Not until that day did Grandet permit a fire to be lighted; and on the thirty-first of March it was extinguished, without regard either to the chills of the early spring or to those of a wintry autumn. A foot-warmer, filled with embers from the kitchen fire, which la Grande Nanon contrived to save for them, enabled Madame and Mademoiselle Grandet to bear the chilly mornings and evenings of April and October. Mother and daughter took charge of the family linen, and spent their days so conscientiously upon a labor properly that of working-women, that if Eugenie wished to embroider a collar for her mother she was forced to take the time from sleep, and deceive her father to obtain the necessary light. For a long time the miser had given out the tallow candle to his daughter and la Grande Nanon just as he gave out every morning the bread and other necessaries for the daily consumption.

La Grande Nanon was perhaps the only human being capable of accepting willingly the despotism of her master. The whole town envied Monsieur and Madame Grandet the possession of her. La Grande Nanon, so called on account of her height, which was five feet eight inches, had lived with Monsieur Grandet for thirty-five years. Though she received only sixty francs a year in wages, she was supposed to be one of the richest serving-women in Saumur. Those sixty francs, accumulating through thirty-five years, had recently enabled her to invest four thousand francs in an annuity with Maitre Cruchot. This result of her long and persistent economy seemed gigantic. Every servant in the town, seeing that the poor sexagenarian was sure of bread for her old age, was jealous of her, and never thought of the hard slavery through which it had been won.

At twenty-two years of age the poor girl had been unable to find a situation, so repulsive was her face to almost every one. Yet the feeling was certainly unjust: the face would have been much admired on the shoulders of a grenadier of the guard; but all things, so they say, should be in keeping. Forced to leave a farm where she kept the cows, because the dwelling-house was burned down, she came to Saumur to find a place, full of the robust courage that shrinks from no labor. Le Pere Grandet was at that time thinking of marriage and about to set up his household. He espied the girl, rejected as she was from door to door. A good judge of corporeal strength in his trade as a cooper, he guessed the work that might be got out of a female creature shaped like a Hercules, as firm on her feet as an oak sixty years old on its roots, strong in the hips, square in the back, with the hands of a cartman and an honesty as sound as her unblemished virtue. Neither the warts which adorned her martial visage, nor the red-brick tints of her skin, nor the sinewy arms, nor the ragged garments of la Grande Nanon, dismayed the cooper, who was at that time still of an age when the heart shudders. He fed, shod, and clothed the poor girl, gave her wages, and put her to work without treating her too roughly. Seeing herself thus welcomed, la Grande Nanon wept secretly tears of joy, and attached herself in all sincerity to her master, who from that day ruled her and worked her with feudal authority. Nanon did everything. She cooked, she made the lye, she washed the linen in the Loire and brought it home on her shoulders; she got up early, she went to bed late; she prepared the food of the vine-dressers during the harvest, kept watch upon the market-people, protected the property of her master like a faithful dog, and even, full of blind confidence, obeyed without a murmur his most absurd exactions.

In the famous year of 1811, when the grapes were gathered with unheard-of difficulty, Grandet resolved to give Nanon his old watch, — the first present he had made her during twenty years of service. Though he turned over to her his old shoes (which fitted her), it is impossible to consider that quarterly benefit as a gift, for the shoes were always thoroughly worn-out. Necessity had made the poor girl so niggardly that Grandet had grown to love her as we love a dog, and Nanon had let him fasten a spiked collar round her throat, whose spikes no longer pricked her. If Grandet cut the bread with rather too much parsimony, she made no complaint; she gaily shared the hygienic benefits derived from the severe regime of the household, in which no one was ever ill. Nanon was, in fact, one of the family; she laughed when Grandet laughed, felt gloomy or chilly, warmed herself, and toiled as he did. What pleasant compensations there were in such equality! Never did the master have occasion to find fault with the servant for pilfering the grapes, nor for the plums and nectarines eaten under the trees. “Come, fall-to, Nanon!” he would say in years when the branches bent under the fruit and the farmers were obliged to give it to the pigs.

To the poor peasant who in her youth had earned nothing but harsh treatment, to the pauper girl picked up by charity, Grandet’s ambiguous laugh was like a sunbeam. Moreover, Nanon’s simple heart and narrow head could hold only one feeling and one idea. For thirty-five years she had never ceased to see herself standing before the wood-yard of Monsieur Grandet, ragged and barefooted, and to hear him say: “What do you want, young one?” Her gratitude was ever new. Sometimes Grandet, reflecting that the poor creature had never heard a flattering word, that she was ignorant of all the tender sentiments inspired by women, that she might some day appear before the throne of God even more chaste than the Virgin Mary herself — Grandet, struck with pity, would say as he looked at her, “Poor Nanon!” The exclamation was always followed by an undefinable look cast upon him in return by the old servant. The words, uttered from time to time, formed a chain of friendship that nothing ever parted, and to which each exclamation added a link. Such compassion arising in the heart of the miser, and accepted gratefully by the old spinster, had something inconceivably horrible about it. This cruel pity, recalling, as it did, a thousand pleasures to the heart of the old cooper, was for Nanon the sum total of happiness. Who does not likewise say, “Poor Nanon!” God will recognize his angels by the inflexions of their voices and by their secret sighs.

There were very many households in Saumur where the servants were better treated, but where the masters received far less satisfaction in return. Thus it was often said: “What have the Grandets ever done to make their Grande Nanon so attached to them? She would go through fire and water for their sake!” Her kitchen, whose barred windows looked into the court, was always clean, neat, cold — a true miser’s kitchen, where nothing went to waste. When Nanon had washed her dishes, locked up the remains of the dinner, and put out her fire, she left the kitchen, which was separated by a passage from the living-room, and went to spin hemp beside her masters. One tallow candle sufficed the family for the evening. The servant slept at the end of the passage in a species of closet lighted only by a fan-light. Her robust health enabled her to live in this hole with impunity; there she could hear the slightest noise through the deep silence which reigned night and day in that dreary house. Like a watch-dog, she slept with one ear open, and took her rest with a mind alert.

A description of the other parts of the dwelling will be found connected with the events of this history, though the foregoing sketch of the hall, where the whole luxury of the household appears, may enable the reader to surmise the nakedness of the upper floors.

In 1819, at the beginning of an evening in the middle of November, la Grande Nanon lighted the fire for the first time. The autumn had been very fine. This particular day was a fete-day well known to the Cruchotines and the Grassinists. The six antagonists, armed at all points, were making ready to meet at the Grandets and surpass each other in testimonials of friendship. That morning all Saumur had seen Madame and Mademoiselle Grandet, accompanied by Nanon, on their way to hear Mass at the parish church, and every one remembered that the day was the anniversary of Mademoiselle Eugenie’s birth. Calculating the hour at which the family dinner would be over, Maitre Cruchot, the Abbe Cruchot, and Monsieur C. de Bonfons hastened to arrive before the des Grassins, and be the first to pay their compliments to Mademoiselle Eugenie. All three brought enormous bouquets, gathered in their little green-houses. The stalks of the flowers which the president intended to present were ingeniously wound round with a white satin ribbon adorned with gold fringe. In the morning Monsieur Grandet, following his usual custom on the days that commemorated the birth and the fete of Eugenie, went to her bedside and solemnly presented her with his paternal gift — which for the last thirteen years had consisted regularly of a curious gold-piece. Madame Grandet gave her daughter a winter dress or a summer dress, as the case might be. These two dresses and the gold-pieces, of which she received two others on New Year’s day and on her father’s fete-day, gave Eugenie a little revenue of a hundred crowns or thereabouts, which Grandet loved to see her amass. Was it not putting his money from one strong-box to another, and, as it were, training the parsimony of his heiress? from whom he sometimes demanded an account of her treasure (formerly increased by the gifts of the Bertellieres), saying: “It is to be your marriage dozen.”

The “marriage dozen” is an old custom sacredly preserved and still in force in many parts of central France. In Berry and in Anjou, when a young girl marries, her family, or that of the husband, must give her a purse, in which they place, according to their means, twelve pieces, or twelve dozen pieces, or twelve hundred pieces of gold. The poorest shepherd-girl never marries without her dozen, be it only a dozen coppers. They still tell in Issoudun of a certain “dozen” presented to a rich heiress, which contained a hundred and forty-four portugaises d’or. Pope Clement VII., uncle of Catherine de’ Medici, gave her when he married her to Henri II. a dozen antique gold medals of priceless value.

During dinner the father, delighted to see his Eugenie looking well in a new gown, exclaimed: “As it is Eugenie’s birthday let us have a fire; it will be a good omen.”

“Mademoiselle will be married this year, that’s certain,” said la Grande Nanon, carrying away the remains of the goose — the pheasant of tradesmen.

“I don’t see any one suitable for her in Saumur,” said Madame Grandet, glancing at her husband with a timid look which, considering her years, revealed the conjugal slavery under which the poor woman languished.

Grandet looked at his daughter and exclaimed gaily —

“She is twenty-three years old today, the child; we must soon begin to think of it.”

Eugenie and her mother silently exchanged a glance of intelligence.

Madame Grandet was a dry, thin woman, as yellow as a quince, awkward, slow, one of those women who are born to be down-trodden. She had big bones, a big nose, a big forehead, big eyes, and presented at first sight a vague resemblance to those mealy fruits that have neither savor nor succulence. Her teeth were black and few in number, her mouth was wrinkled, her chin long and pointed. She was an excellent woman, a true la Bertelliere. L’abbe Cruchot found occasional opportunity to tell her that she had not done ill; and she believed him. Angelic sweetness, the resignation of an insect tortured by children, a rare piety, a good heart, an unalterable equanimity of soul, made her universally pitied and respected. Her husband never gave her more than six francs at a time for her personal expenses. Ridiculous as it may seem, this woman, who by her own fortune and her various inheritances brought Pere Grandet more than three hundred thousand francs, had always felt so profoundly humiliated by her dependence and the slavery in which she lived, against which the gentleness of her spirit prevented her from revolting, that she had never asked for one penny or made a single remark on the deeds which Maitre Cruchot brought for her signature. This foolish secret pride, this nobility of soul perpetually misunderstood and wounded by Grandet, ruled the whole conduct of the wife.

Madame Grandet was attired habitually in a gown of greenish levantine silk, endeavoring to make it last nearly a year; with it she wore a large kerchief of white cotton cloth, a bonnet made of plaited straws sewn together, and almost always a black-silk apron. As she seldom left the house she wore out very few shoes. She never asked anything for herself. Grandet, seized with occasional remorse when he remembered how long a time had elapsed since he gave her the last six francs, always stipulated for the “wife’s pin-money” when he sold his yearly vintage. The four or five louis presented by the Belgian or the Dutchman who purchased the wine were the chief visible signs of Madame Grandet’s annual revenues. But after she had received the five louis, her husband would often say to her, as though their purse were held in common: “Can you lend me a few sous?” and the poor woman, glad to be able to do something for a man whom her confessor held up to her as her lord and master, returned him in the course of the winter several crowns out of the “pin-money.” When Grandet drew from his pocket the five-franc piece which he allowed monthly for the minor expenses, — thread, needles, and toilet — of his daughter, he never failed to say as he buttoned his breeches’ pocket: “And you, mother, do you want anything?”

“My friend,” Madame Grandet would answer, moved by a sense of maternal dignity, “we will see about that later.”

Wasted dignity! Grandet thought himself very generous to his wife. Philosophers who meet the like of Nanon, of Madame Grandet, of Eugenie, have surely a right to say that irony is at the bottom of the ways of Providence.

After the dinner at which for the first time allusion had been made to Eugenie’s marriage, Nanon went to fetch a bottle of black-currant ratafia from Monsieur Grandet’s bed-chamber, and nearly fell as she came down the stairs.

“You great stupid!” said her master; “are you going to tumble about like other people, hey?”

“Monsieur, it was that step on your staircase which has given way.”

“She is right,” said Madame Grandet; “it ought to have been mended long ago. Yesterday Eugenie nearly twisted her ankle.”

“Here,” said Grandet to Nanon, seeing that she looked quite pale, “as it is Eugenie’s birthday, and you came near falling, take a little glass of ratafia to set you right.”

“Faith! I’ve earned it,” said Nanon; “most people would have broken the bottle; but I’d sooner have broken my elbow holding it up high.”

“Poor Nanon!” said Grandet, filling a glass.

“Did you hurt yourself?” asked Eugenie, looking kindly at her.

“No, I didn’t fall; I threw myself back on my haunches.”

“Well! as it is Eugenie’s birthday,” said Grandet, “I’ll have the step mended. You people don’t know how to set your foot in the corner where the wood is still firm.”

Grandet took the candle, leaving his wife, daughter, and servant without any other light than that from the hearth, where the flames were lively, and went into the bakehouse to fetch planks, nails, and tools.

“Can I help you?” cried Nanon, hearing him hammer on the stairs.

“No, no! I’m an old hand at it,” answered the former cooper.

At the moment when Grandet was mending his worm-eaten staircase and whistling with all his might, in remembrance of the days of his youth, the three Cruchots knocked at the door.

“Is it you, Monsieur Cruchot?” asked Nanon, peeping through the little grating.

“Yes,” answered the president.

Nanon opened the door, and the light from the hearth, reflected on the ceiling, enabled the three Cruchots to find their way into the room.

“Ha! you’ve come a-greeting,” said Nanon, smelling the flowers.

“Excuse me, messieurs,” cried Grandet, recognizing their voices; “I’ll be with you in a moment. I’m not proud; I am patching up a step on my staircase.”

“Go on, go on, Monsieur Grandet; a man’s house is his castle,” said the president sententiously.

Madame and Mademoiselle Grandet rose. The president, profiting by the darkness, said to Eugenie:

“Will you permit me, mademoiselle, to wish you, on this the day of your birth, a series of happy years and the continuance of the health which you now enjoy?”

He offered her a huge bouquet of choice flowers which were rare in Saumur; then, taking the heiress by the elbows, he kissed her on each side of her neck with a complacency that made her blush. The president, who looked like a rusty iron nail, felt that his courtship was progressing.

“Don’t stand on ceremony,” said Grandet, entering. “How well you do things on fete-days, Monsieur le president!”

“When it concerns mademoiselle,” said the abbe, armed with his own bouquet, “every day is a fete-day for my nephew.”

The abbe kissed Eugenie’s hand. As for Maitre Cruchot, he boldly kissed her on both cheeks, remarking: “How we sprout up, to be sure! Every year is twelve months.”

As he replaced the candlestick beside the clock, Grandet, who never forgot his own jokes, and repeated them to satiety when he thought them funny, said —

“As this is Eugenie’s birthday let us illuminate.”

He carefully took off the branches of the candelabra, put a socket on each pedestal, took from Nanon a new tallow candle with paper twisted round the end of it, put it into the hollow, made it firm, lit it, and then sat down beside his wife, looking alternately at his friends, his daughter, and the two candles. The Abbe Cruchot, a plump, puffy little man, with a red wig plastered down and a face like an old female gambler, said as he stretched out his feet, well shod in stout shoes with silver buckles: “The des Grassins have not come?”

“Not yet,” said Grandet.

“But are they coming?” asked the old notary, twisting his face, which had as many holes as a collander, into a queer grimace.

“I think so,” answered Madame Grandet.

“Are your vintages all finished?” said Monsieur de Bonfons to Grandet.

“Yes, all of them,” said the old man, rising to walk up and down the room, his chest swelling with pride as he said the words, “all of them.” Through the door of the passage which led to the kitchen he saw la Grande Nanon sitting beside her fire with a candle and preparing to spin there, so as not to intrude among the guests.

“Nanon,” he said, going into the passage, “put out that fire and that candle, and come and sit with us. Pardieu! the hall is big enough for all.”

“But monsieur, you are to have the great people.”

“Are not you as good as they? They are descended from Adam, and so are you.”

Grandet came back to the president and said —

“Have you sold your vintage?”

“No, not I; I shall keep it. If the wine is good this year, it will be better two years hence. The proprietors, you know, have made an agreement to keep up the price; and this year the Belgians won’t get the better of us. Suppose they are sent off empty-handed for once, faith! they’ll come back.”

“Yes, but let us mind what we are about,” said Grandet in a tone which made the president tremble.

“Is he driving some bargain?” thought Cruchot.

At this moment the knocker announced the des Grassins family, and their arrival interrupted a conversation which had begun between Madame Grandet and the abbe.

Madame des Grassins was one of those lively, plump little women, with pink-and-white skins, who, thanks to the claustral calm of the provinces and the habits of a virtuous life, keep their youth until they are past forty. She was like the last rose of autumn — pleasant to the eye, though the petals have a certain frostiness, and their perfume is slight. She dressed well, got her fashions from Paris, set the tone to Saumur, and gave parties. Her husband, formerly a quartermaster in the Imperial guard, who had been desperately wounded at Austerlitz, and had since retired, still retained, in spite of his respect for Grandet, the seeming frankness of an old soldier.

“Good evening, Grandet,” he said, holding out his hand and affecting a sort of superiority, with which he always crushed the Cruchots. “Mademoiselle,” he added, turning to Eugenie, after bowing to Madame Grandet, “you are always beautiful and good, and truly I do not know what to wish you.” So saying, he offered her a little box which his servant had brought and which contained a Cape heather — a flower lately imported into Europe and very rare.

Madame des Grassins kissed Eugenie very affectionately, pressed her hand, and said: “Adolphe wishes to make you my little offering.”

A tall, blond young man, pale and slight, with tolerable manners and seemingly rather shy, although he had just spent eight or ten thousand francs over his allowance in Paris, where he had been sent to study law, now came forward and kissed Eugenie on both cheeks, offering her a workbox with utensils in silver-gilt — mere show-case trumpery, in spite of the monogram E.G. in gothic letters rather well engraved, which belonged properly to something in better taste. As she opened it, Eugenie experienced one of those unexpected and perfect delights which make a young girl blush and quiver and tremble with pleasure. She turned her eyes to her father as if to ask permission to accept it, and Monsieur Grandet replied: “Take it, my daughter,” in a tone which would have made an actor illustrious.

The three Cruchots felt crushed as they saw the joyous, animated look cast upon Adolphe des Grassins by the heiress, to whom such riches were unheard-of. Monsieur des Grassins offered Grandet a pinch of snuff, took one himself, shook off the grains as they fell on the ribbon of the Legion of honor which was attached to the button-hole of his blue surtout; then he looked at the Cruchots with an air that seemed to say, “Parry that thrust if you can!” Madame des Grassins cast her eyes on the blue vases which held the Cruchot bouquets, looking at the enemy’s gifts with the pretended interest of a satirical woman. At this delicate juncture the Abbe Cruchot left the company seated in a circle round the fire and joined Grandet at the lower end of the hall. As the two men reached the embrasure of the farthest window the priest said in the miser’s ear: “Those people throw money out of the windows.”

“What does that matter if it gets into my cellar?” retorted the old wine-grower.

“If you want to give gilt scissors to your daughter, you have the means,” said the abbe.

“I give her something better than scissors,” answered Grandet.

“My nephew is a blockhead,” thought the abbe as he looked at the president, whose rumpled hair added to the ill grace of his brown countenance. “Couldn’t he have found some little trifle which cost money?”

“We will join you at cards, Madame Grandet,” said Madame des Grassins.

“We might have two tables, as we are all here.”

“As it is Eugenie’s birthday you had better play loto all together,” said Pere Grandet: “the two young ones can join”; and the old cooper, who never played any game, motioned to his daughter and Adolphe. “Come, Nanon, set the tables.”

“We will help you, Mademoiselle Nanon,” said Madame des Grassins gaily, quite joyous at the joy she had given Eugenie.

“I have never in my life been so pleased,” the heiress said to her; “I have never seen anything so pretty.”

“Adolphe brought it from Paris, and he chose it,” Madame des Grassins whispered in her ear.

“Go on! go on! damned intriguing thing!” thought the president. “If you ever have a suit in court, you or your husband, it shall go hard with you.”

The notary, sitting in his corner, looked calmly at the abbe, saying to himself: “The des Grassins may do what they like; my property and my brother’s and that of my nephew amount in all to eleven hundred thousand francs. The des Grassins, at the most, have not half that; besides, they have a daughter. They may give what presents they like; heiress and presents too will be ours one of these days.”

At half-past eight in the evening the two card-tables were set out. Madame des Grassins succeeded in putting her son beside Eugenie. The actors in this scene, so full of interest, commonplace as it seems, were provided with bits of pasteboard striped in many colors and numbered, and with counters of blue glass, and they appeared to be listening to the jokes of the notary, who never drew a number without making a remark, while in fact they were all thinking of Monsieur Grandet’s millions. The old cooper, with inward self-conceit, was contemplating the pink feathers and the fresh toilet of Madame des Grassins, the martial head of the banker, the faces of Adolphe, the president, the abbe, and the notary, saying to himself:—

“They are all after my money. Hey! neither the one nor the other shall have my daughter; but they are useful — useful as harpoons to fish with.”

This family gaiety in the old gray room dimly lighted by two tallow candles; this laughter, accompanied by the whirr of Nanon’s spinning-wheel, sincere only upon the lips of Eugenie or her mother; this triviality mingled with important interests; this young girl, who, like certain birds made victims of the price put upon them, was now lured and trapped by proofs of friendship of which she was the dupe, — all these things contributed to make the scene a melancholy comedy. Is it not, moreover, a drama of all times and all places, though here brought down to its simplest expression? The figure of Grandet, playing his own game with the false friendship of the two families and getting enormous profits from it, dominates the scene and throws light upon it. The modern god — the only god in whom faith is preserved, — money, is here, in all its power, manifested in a single countenance. The tender sentiments of life hold here but a secondary place; only the three pure, simple hearts of Nanon, of Eugenie, and of her mother were inspired by them. And how much of ignorance there was in the simplicity of these poor women! Eugenie and her mother knew nothing of Grandet’s wealth; they could only estimate the things of life by the glimmer of their pale ideas, and they neither valued nor despised money, because they were accustomed to do without it. Their feelings, bruised, though they did not know it, but ever-living, were the secret spring of their existence, and made them curious exceptions in the midst of these other people whose lives were purely material. Frightful condition of the human race! there is no one of its joys that does not come from some species of ignorance.

At the moment when Madame Grandet had won a loto of sixteen sous — the largest ever pooled in that house — and while la Grande Nanon was laughing with delight as she watched madame pocketing her riches, the knocker resounded on the house-door with such a noise that the women all jumped in their chairs.

“There is no man in Saumur who would knock like that,” said the notary.

“How can they bang in that way!” exclaimed Nanon; “do they want to break in the door?”

“Who the devil is it?” cried Grandet.

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