Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac

V

After two hours’ thought and care, during which Eugenie jumped up twenty times from her work to see if the coffee were boiling, or to go and listen to the noise her cousin made in dressing, she succeeded in preparing a simple little breakfast, very inexpensive, but which, nevertheless, departed alarmingly from the inveterate customs of the house. The midday breakfast was always taken standing. Each took a slice of bread, a little fruit or some butter, and a glass of wine. As Eugenie looked at the table drawn up near the fire with an arm-chair placed before her cousin’s plate, at the two dishes of fruit, the egg-cup, the bottle of white wine, the bread, and the sugar heaped up in a saucer, she trembled in all her limbs at the mere thought of the look her father would give her if he should come in at that moment. She glanced often at the clock to see if her cousin could breakfast before the master’s return.

“Don’t be troubled, Eugenie; if your father comes in, I will take it all upon myself,” said Madame Grandet.

Eugenie could not repress a tear.

“Oh, my good mother!” she cried, “I have never loved you enough.”

Charles, who had been tramping about his room for some time, singing to himself, now came down. Happily, it was only eleven o’clock. The true Parisian! he had put as much dandyism into his dress as if he were in the chateau of the noble lady then travelling in Scotland. He came into the room with the smiling, courteous manner so becoming to youth, which made Eugenie’s heart beat with mournful joy. He had taken the destruction of his castles in Anjou as a joke, and came up to his aunt gaily.

“Have you slept well, dear aunt? and you, too, my cousin?”

“Very well, monsieur; did you?” said Madame Grandet.

“I? perfectly.”

“You must be hungry, cousin,” said Eugenie; “will you take your seat?”

“I never breakfast before midday; I never get up till then. However, I fared so badly on the journey that I am glad to eat something at once. Besides —” here he pulled out the prettiest watch Breguet ever made. “Dear me! I am early, it is only eleven o’clock!”

“Early?” said Madame Grandet.

“Yes; but I wanted to put my things in order. Well, I shall be glad to have anything to eat — anything, it doesn’t matter what, a chicken, a partridge.”

“Holy Virgin!” exclaimed Nanon, overhearing the words.

“A partridge!” whispered Eugenie to herself; she would gladly have given the whole of her little hoard for a partridge.

“Come and sit down,” said his aunt.

The young dandy let himself drop into an easy-chair, just as a pretty woman falls gracefully upon a sofa. Eugenie and her mother took ordinary chairs and sat beside him, near the fire.

“Do you always live here?” said Charles, thinking the room uglier by daylight than it had seemed the night before.

“Always,” answered Eugenie, looking at him, “except during the vintage. Then we go and help Nanon, and live at the Abbaye des Noyers.”

“Don’t you ever take walks?”

“Sometimes on Sunday after vespers, when the weather is fine,” said Madame Grandet, “we walk on the bridge, or we go and watch the haymakers.”

“Have you a theatre?”

“Go to the theatre!” exclaimed Madame Grandet, “see a play! Why, monsieur, don’t you know it is a mortal sin?”

“See here, monsieur,” said Nanon, bringing in the eggs, “here are your chickens — in the shell.”

“Oh! fresh eggs,” said Charles, who, like all people accustomed to luxury, had already forgotten about his partridge, “that is delicious: now, if you will give me the butter, my good girl.”

“Butter! then you can’t have the galette.”

“Nanon, bring the butter,” cried Eugenie.

The young girl watched her cousin as he cut his sippets, with as much pleasure as a grisette takes in a melodrama where innocence and virtue triumph. Charles, brought up by a charming mother, improved, and trained by a woman of fashion, had the elegant, dainty, foppish movements of a coxcomb. The compassionate sympathy and tenderness of a young girl possess a power that is actually magnetic; so that Charles, finding himself the object of the attentions of his aunt and cousin, could not escape the influence of feelings which flowed towards him, as it were, and inundated him. He gave Eugenie a bright, caressing look full of kindness — a look which seemed itself a smile. He perceived, as his eyes lingered upon her, the exquisite harmony of features in the pure face, the grace of her innocent attitude, the magic clearness of the eyes, where young love sparkled and desire shone unconsciously.

“Ah! my dear cousin, if you were in full dress at the Opera, I assure you my aunt’s words would come true — you would make the men commit the mortal sin of envy, and the women the sin of jealousy.”

The compliment went to Eugenie’s heart and set it beating, though she did not understand its meaning.

“Oh! cousin,” she said, “you are laughing at a poor little country girl.”

“If you knew me, my cousin, you would know that I abhor ridicule; it withers the heart and jars upon all my feelings.” Here he swallowed his buttered sippet very gracefully. “No, I really have not enough mind to make fun of others; and doubtless it is a great defect. In Paris, when they want to disparage a man, they say: ‘He has a good heart.’ The phrase means: ‘The poor fellow is as stupid as a rhinoceros.’ But as I am rich, and known to hit the bull’s-eye at thirty paces with any kind of pistol, and even in the open fields, ridicule respects me.”

“My dear nephew, that bespeaks a good heart.”

“You have a very pretty ring,” said Eugenie; “is there any harm in asking to see it?”

Charles held out his hand after loosening the ring, and Eugenie blushed as she touched the pink nails of her cousin with the tips of her fingers.

“See, mamma, what beautiful workmanship.”

“My! there’s a lot of gold!” said Nanon, bringing in the coffee.

“What is that?” exclaimed Charles, laughing, as he pointed to an oblong pot of brown earthenware, glazed on the inside, and edged with a fringe of ashes, from the bottom of which the coffee-grounds were bubbling up and falling in the boiling liquid.

“It is boiled coffee,” said Nanon.

“Ah! my dear aunt, I shall at least leave one beneficent trace of my visit here. You are indeed behind the age! I must teach you to make good coffee in a Chaptal coffee-pot.”

He tried to explain the process of a Chaptal coffee-pot.

“Gracious! if there are so many things as all that to do,” said Nanon, “we may as well give up our lives to it. I shall never make coffee that way; I know that! Pray, who is to get the fodder for the cow while I make the coffee?”

“I will make it,” said Eugenie.

“Child!” said Madame Grandet, looking at her daughter.

The word recalled to their minds the sorrow that was about to fall upon the unfortunate young man; the three women were silent, and looked at him with an air of commiseration that caught his attention.

“Is anything the matter, my cousin?” he said.

“Hush!” said Madame Grandet to Eugenie, who was about to answer; “you know, my daughter, that your father charged us not to speak to monsieur —”

“Say Charles,” said young Grandet.

“Ah! you are called Charles? What a beautiful name!” cried Eugenie.

Presentiments of evil are almost always justified. At this moment Nanon, Madame Grandet, and Eugenie, who had all three been thinking with a shudder of the old man’s return, heard the knock whose echoes they knew but too well.

“There’s papa!” said Eugenie.

She removed the saucer filled with sugar, leaving a few pieces on the table-cloth; Nanon carried off the egg-cup; Madame Grandet sat up like a frightened hare. It was evidently a panic, which amazed Charles, who was wholly unable to understand it.

“Why! what is the matter?” he asked.

“My father has come,” answered Eugenie.

“Well, what of that?”

Monsieur Grandet entered the room, threw his keen eye upon the table, upon Charles, and saw the whole thing.

“Ha! ha! so you have been making a feast for your nephew; very good, very good, very good indeed!” he said, without stuttering. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

“Feast!” thought Charles, incapable of suspecting or imagining the rules and customs of the household.

“Give me my glass, Nanon,” said the master

Eugenie brought the glass. Grandet drew a horn-handled knife with a big blade from his breeches’ pocket, cut a slice of bread, took a small bit of butter, spread it carefully on the bread, and ate it standing. At this moment Charlie was sweetening his coffee. Pere Grandet saw the bits of sugar, looked at his wife, who turned pale, and made three steps forward; he leaned down to the poor woman’s ear and said —

“Where did you get all that sugar?”

“Nanon fetched it from Fessard’s; there was none.”

It is impossible to picture the profound interest the three women took in this mute scene. Nanon had left her kitchen and stood looking into the room to see what would happen. Charles, having tasted his coffee, found it bitter and glanced about for the sugar, which Grandet had already put away.

“What do you want?” said his uncle.

“The sugar.”

“Put in more milk,” answered the master of the house; “your coffee will taste sweeter.”

Eugenie took the saucer which Grandet had put away and placed it on the table, looking calmly at her father as she did so. Most assuredly, the Parisian woman who held a silken ladder with her feeble arms to facilitate the flight of her lover, showed no greater courage than Eugenie displayed when she replaced the sugar upon the table. The lover rewarded his mistress when she proudly showed him her beautiful bruised arm, and bathed every swollen vein with tears and kisses till it was cured with happiness. Charles, on the other hand, never so much as knew the secret of the cruel agitation that shook and bruised the heart of his cousin, crushed as it was by the look of the old miser.

“You are not eating your breakfast, wife.”

The poor helot came forward with a piteous look, cut herself a piece of bread, and took a pear. Eugenie boldly offered her father some grapes, saying —

“Taste my preserves, papa. My cousin, you will eat some, will you not? I went to get these pretty grapes expressly for you.”

“If no one stops them, they will pillage Saumur for you, nephew. When you have finished, we will go into the garden; I have something to tell you which can’t be sweetened.”

Eugenie and her mother cast a look on Charles whose meaning the young man could not mistake.

“What is it you mean, uncle? Since the death of my poor mother”— at these words his voice softened —“no other sorrow can touch me.”

“My nephew, who knows by what afflictions God is pleased to try us?” said his aunt.

“Ta, ta, ta, ta,” said Grandet, “there’s your nonsense beginning. I am sorry to see those white hands of yours, nephew”; and he showed the shoulder-of-mutton fists which Nature had put at the end of his own arms. “There’s a pair of hands made to pick up silver pieces. You’ve been brought up to put your feet in the kid out of which we make the purses we keep our money in. A bad look-out! Very bad!”

“What do you mean, uncle? I’ll be hanged if I understand a single word of what you are saying.”

“Come!” said Grandet.

The miser closed the blade of his knife with a snap, drank the last of his wine, and opened the door.

“My cousin, take courage!”

The tone of the young girl struck terror to Charles’s heart, and he followed his terrible uncle, a prey to disquieting thoughts. Eugenie, her mother, and Nanon went into the kitchen, moved by irresistible curiosity to watch the two actors in the scene which was about to take place in the garden, where at first the uncle walked silently ahead of the nephew. Grandet was not at all troubled at having to tell Charles of the death of his father; but he did feel a sort of compassion in knowing him to be without a penny, and he sought for some phrase or formula by which to soften the communication of that cruel truth. “You have lost your father,” seemed to him a mere nothing to say; fathers die before their children. But “you are absolutely without means,” — all the misfortunes of life were summed up in those words! Grandet walked round the garden three times, the gravel crunching under his heavy step.

In the crucial moments of life our minds fasten upon the locality where joys or sorrows overwhelm us. Charles noticed with minute attention the box-borders of the little garden, the yellow leaves as they fluttered down, the dilapidated walls, the gnarled fruit-trees, — picturesque details which were destined to remain forever in his memory, blending eternally, by the mnemonics that belong exclusively to the passions, with the recollections of this solemn hour.

“It is very fine weather, very warm,” said Grandet, drawing a long breath.

“Yes, uncle; but why —”

“Well, my lad,” answered his uncle, “I have some bad news to give you. Your father is ill —”

“Then why am I here?” said Charles. “Nanon,” he cried, “order post-horses! I can get a carriage somewhere?” he added, turning to his uncle, who stood motionless.

“Horses and carriages are useless,” answered Grandet, looking at Charles, who remained silent, his eyes growing fixed. “Yes, my poor boy, you guess the truth — he is dead. But that’s nothing; there is something worse: he blew out his brains.”

“My father!”

“Yes, but that’s not the worst; the newspapers are all talking about it. Here, read that.”

Grandet, who had borrowed the fatal article from Cruchot, thrust the paper under his nephew’s eyes. The poor young man, still a child, still at an age when feelings wear no mask, burst into tears.

“That’s good!” thought Grandet; “his eyes frightened me. He’ll be all right if he weeps — That is not the worst, my poor nephew,” he said aloud, not noticing whether Charles heard him, “that is nothing; you will get over it: but —”

“Never, never! My father! Oh, my father!”

“He has ruined you, you haven’t a penny.”

“What does that matter? My father! Where is my father?”

His sobs resounded horribly against those dreary walls and reverberated in the echoes. The three women, filled with pity, wept also; for tears are often as contagious as laughter. Charles, without listening further to his uncle, ran through the court and up the staircase to his chamber, where he threw himself across the bed and hid his face in the sheets, to weep in peace for his lost parents.

“The first burst must have its way,” said Grandet, entering the living-room, where Eugenie and her mother had hastily resumed their seats and were sewing with trembling hands, after wiping their eyes. “But that young man is good for nothing; his head is more taken up with the dead than with his money.”

Eugenie shuddered as she heard her father’s comment on the most sacred of all griefs. From that moment she began to judge him. Charles’s sobs, though muffled, still sounded through the sepulchral house; and his deep groans, which seemed to come from the earth beneath, only ceased towards evening, after growing gradually feebler.

“Poor young man!” said Madame Grandet.

Fatal exclamation! Pere Grandet looked at his wife, at Eugenie, and at the sugar-bowl. He recollected the extraordinary breakfast prepared for the unfortunate youth, and he took a position in the middle of the room.

“Listen to me,” he said, with his usual composure. “I hope that you will not continue this extravagance, Madame Grandet. I don’t give you MY money to stuff that young fellow with sugar.”

“My mother had nothing to do with it,” said Eugenie; “it was I who —”

“Is it because you are of age,” said Grandet, interrupting his daughter, “that you choose to contradict me? Remember, Eugenie —”

“Father, the son of your brother ought to receive from us —”

“Ta, ta, ta, ta!” exclaimed the cooper on four chromatic tones; “the son of my brother this, my nephew that! Charles is nothing at all to us; he hasn’t a farthing, his father has failed; and when this dandy has cried his fill, off he goes from here. I won’t have him revolutionize my household.”

“What is ‘failing,’ father?” asked Eugenie.

“To fail,” answered her father, “is to commit the most dishonorable action that can disgrace a man.”

“It must be a great sin,” said Madame Grandet, “and our brother may be damned.”

“There, there, don’t begin with your litanies!” said Grandet, shrugging his shoulders. “To fail, Eugenie,” he resumed, “is to commit a theft which the law, unfortunately, takes under its protection. People have given their property to Guillaume Grandet trusting to his reputation for honor and integrity; he has made away with it all, and left them nothing but their eyes to weep with. A highway robber is better than a bankrupt: the one attacks you and you can defend yourself, he risks his own life; but the other — in short, Charles is dishonored.”

The words rang in the poor girl’s heart and weighed it down with their heavy meaning. Upright and delicate as a flower born in the depths of a forest, she knew nothing of the world’s maxims, of its deceitful arguments and specious sophisms; she therefore believed the atrocious explanation which her father gave her designedly, concealing the distinction which exists between an involuntary failure and an intentional one.

“Father, could you not have prevented such a misfortune?”

“My brother did not consult me. Besides, he owes four millions.”

“What is a ‘million,’ father?” she asked, with the simplicity of a child which thinks it can find out at once all that it wants to know.

“A million?” said Grandet, “why, it is a million pieces of twenty sous each, and it takes five twenty sous pieces to make five francs.”

“Dear me!” cried Eugenie, “how could my uncle possibly have had four millions? Is there any one else in France who ever had so many millions?” Pere Grandet stroked his chin, smiled, and his wen seemed to dilate. “But what will become of my cousin Charles?”

“He is going off to the West Indies by his father’s request, and he will try to make his fortune there.”

“Has he got the money to go with?”

“I shall pay for his journey as far as — yes, as far as Nantes.”

Eugenie sprang into his arms.

“Oh, father, how good you are!”

She kissed him with a warmth that almost made Grandet ashamed of himself, for his conscience galled him a little.

“Will it take much time to amass a million?” she asked.

“Look here!” said the old miser, “you know what a napoleon is? Well, it takes fifty thousand napoleons to make a million.”

“Mamma, we must say a great many neuvaines for him.”

“I was thinking so,” said Madame Grandet.

“That’s the way, always spending my money!” cried the father. “Do you think there are francs on every bush?”

At this moment a muffled cry, more distressing than all the others, echoed through the garrets and struck a chill to the hearts of Eugenie and her mother.

“Nanon, go upstairs and see that he does not kill himself,” said Grandet. “Now, then,” he added, looking at his wife and daughter, who had turned pale at his words, “no nonsense, you two! I must leave you; I have got to see about the Dutchmen who are going away today. And then I must find Cruchot, and talk with him about all this.”

He departed. As soon as he had shut the door Eugenie and her mother breathed more freely. Until this morning the young girl had never felt constrained in the presence of her father; but for the last few hours every moment wrought a change in her feelings and ideas.

“Mamma, how many louis are there in a cask of wine?”

“Your father sells his from a hundred to a hundred and fifty francs, sometimes two hundred — at least, so I’ve heard say.”

“Then papa must be rich?”

“Perhaps he is. But Monsieur Cruchot told me he bought Froidfond two years ago; that may have pinched him.”

Eugenie, not being able to understand the question of her father’s fortune, stopped short in her calculations.

“He didn’t even see me, the darling!” said Nanon, coming back from her errand. “He’s stretched out like a calf on his bed and crying like the Madeleine, and that’s a blessing! What’s the matter with the poor dear young man!”

“Let us go and console him, mamma; if any one knocks, we can come down.”

Madame Grandet was helpless against the sweet persuasive tones of her daughter’s voice. Eugenie was sublime: she had become a woman. The two, with beating hearts, went up to Charles’s room. The door was open. The young man heard and saw nothing; plunged in grief, he only uttered inarticulate cries.

“How he loves his father!” said Eugenie in a low voice.

In the utterance of those words it was impossible to mistake the hopes of a heart that, unknown to itself, had suddenly become passionate. Madame Grandet cast a mother’s look upon her daughter, and then whispered in her ear —

“Take care, you will love him!”

“Love him!” answered Eugenie. “Ah! if you did but know what my father said to Monsieur Cruchot.”

Charles turned over, and saw his aunt and cousin.

“I have lost my father, my poor father! If he had told me his secret troubles we might have worked together to repair them. My God! my poor father! I was so sure I should see him again that I think I kissed him quite coldly —”

Sobs cut short the words.

“We will pray for him,” said Madame Grandet. “Resign yourself to the will of God.”

“Cousin,” said Eugenie, “take courage! Your loss is irreparable; therefore think only of saving your honor.”

With the delicate instinct of a woman who intuitively puts her mind into all things, even at the moment when she offers consolation, Eugenie sought to cheat her cousin’s grief by turning his thoughts inward upon himself.

“My honor?” exclaimed the young man, tossing aside his hair with an impatient gesture as he sat up on his bed and crossed his arms. “Ah! that is true. My uncle said my father had failed.” He uttered a heart-rending cry, and hid his face in his hands. “Leave me, leave me, cousin! My God! my God! forgive my father, for he must have suffered sorely!”

There was something terribly attractive in the sight of this young sorrow, sincere without reasoning or afterthought. It was a virgin grief which the simple hearts of Eugenie and her mother were fitted to comprehend, and they obeyed the sign Charles made them to leave him to himself. They went downstairs in silence and took their accustomed places by the window and sewed for nearly an hour without exchanging a word. Eugenie had seen in the furtive glance that she cast about the young man’s room — that girlish glance which sees all in the twinkling of an eye — the pretty trifles of his dressing-case, his scissors, his razors embossed with gold. This gleam of luxury across her cousin’s grief only made him the more interesting to her, possibly by way of contrast. Never before had so serious an event, so dramatic a sight, touched the imaginations of these two passive beings, hitherto sunk in the stillness and calm of solitude.

“Mamma,” said Eugenie, “we must wear mourning for my uncle.”

“Your father will decide that,” answered Madame Grandet.

They relapsed into silence. Eugenie drew her stitches with a uniform motion which revealed to an observer the teeming thoughts of her meditation. The first desire of the girl’s heart was to share her cousin’s mourning.

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