Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac

VI

About four o’clock an abrupt knock at the door struck sharply on the heart of Madame Grandet.

“What can have happened to your father?” she said to her daughter.

Grandet entered joyously. After taking off his gloves, he rubbed his hands hard enough to take off their skin as well, if his epidermis had not been tanned and cured like Russia leather — saving, of course, the perfume of larch-trees and incense. Presently his secret escaped him.

“Wife,” he said, without stuttering, “I’ve trapped them all! Our wine is sold! The Dutch and the Belgians have gone. I walked about the market-place in front of their inn, pretending to be doing nothing. That Belgian fellow — you know who I mean — came up to me. The owners of all the good vineyards have kept back their vintages, intending to wait; well, I didn’t hinder them. The Belgian was in despair; I saw that. In a minute the bargain was made. He takes my vintage at two hundred francs the puncheon, half down. He paid me in gold; the notes are drawn. Here are six louis for you. In three months wines will have fallen.”

These words, uttered in a quiet tone of voice, were nevertheless so bitterly sarcastic that the inhabitants of Saumur, grouped at this moment in the market-place and overwhelmed by the news of the sale Grandet had just effected, would have shuddered had they heard them. Their panic would have brought the price of wines down fifty per cent at once.

“Did you have a thousand puncheons this year, father?”

“Yes, little one.”

That term applied to his daughter was the superlative expression of the old miser’s joy.

“Then that makes two hundred thousand pieces of twenty sous each?”

“Yes, Mademoiselle Grandet.”

“Then, father, you can easily help Charles.”

The amazement, the anger, the stupefaction of Belshazzar when he saw the Mene–Tekel-Upharsin before his eyes is not to be compared with the cold rage of Grandet, who, having forgotten his nephew, now found him enshrined in the heart and calculations of his daughter.

“What’s this? Ever since that dandy put foot in my house everything goes wrong! You behave as if you had the right to buy sugar-plums and make feasts and weddings. I won’t have that sort of thing. I hope I know my duty at my time of life! I certainly sha’n’t take lessons from my daughter, or from anybody else. I shall do for my nephew what it is proper to do, and you have no need to poke your nose into it. As for you, Eugenie,” he added, facing her, “don’t speak of this again, or I’ll send you to the Abbaye des Noyers with Nanon, see if I don’t; and no later than tomorrow either, if you disobey me! Where is that fellow, has he come down yet?”

“No, my friend,” answered Madame Grandet.

“What is he doing then?”

“He is weeping for his father,” said Eugenie.

Grandet looked at his daughter without finding a word to say; after all, he was a father. He made a couple of turns up and down the room, and then went hurriedly to his secret den to think over an investment he was meditating in the public Funds. The thinning out of his two thousand acres of forest land had yielded him six hundred thousand francs: putting this sum to that derived from the sale of his poplars and to his other gains for the last year and for the current year, he had amassed a total of nine hundred thousand francs, without counting the two hundred thousand he had got by the sale just concluded. The twenty per cent which Cruchot assured him would gain in a short time from the Funds, then quoted at seventy, tempted him. He figured out his calculation on the margin of the newspaper which gave the account of his brother’s death, all the while hearing the moans of his nephew, but without listening to them. Nanon came and knocked on the wall to summon him to dinner. On the last step of the staircase he was saying to himself as he came down —

“I’ll do it; I shall get eight per cent interest. In two years I shall have fifteen hundred thousand francs, which I will then draw out in good gold — Well, where’s my nephew?”

“He says he doesn’t want anything to eat,” answered Nanon; “that’s not good for him.”

“So much saved,” retorted her master.

“That’s so,” she said.

“Bah! he won’t cry long. Hunger drives the wolves out of the woods.”

The dinner was eaten in silence.

“My good friend,” said Madame Grandet, when the cloth was removed, “we must put on mourning.”

“Upon my word, Madame Grandet! what will you invent next to spend money on? Mourning is in the heart, and not in the clothes.”

“But mourning for a brother is indispensable; and the Church commands us to —”

“Buy your mourning out of your six louis. Give me a hat-band; that’s enough for me.”

Eugenie raised her eyes to heaven without uttering a word. Her generous instincts, slumbering and long repressed but now suddenly and for the first time awakened, were galled at every turn. The evening passed to all appearance like a thousand other evenings of their monotonous life, yet it was certainly the most horrible. Eugenie sewed without raising her head, and did not use the workbox which Charles had despised the night before. Madame Grandet knitted her sleeves. Grandet twirled his thumbs for four hours, absorbed in calculations whose results were on the morrow to astonish Saumur. No one came to visit the family that day. The whole town was ringing with the news of the business trick just played by Grandet, the failure of his brother, and the arrival of his nephew. Obeying the desire to gossip over their mutual interests, all the upper and middle-class wine-growers in Saumur met at Monsieur des Grassins, where terrible imprecations were being fulminated against the ex-mayor. Nanon was spinning, and the whirr of her wheel was the only sound heard beneath the gray rafters of that silent hall.

“We don’t waste our tongues,” she said, showing her teeth, as large and white as peeled almonds.

“Nothing should be wasted,” answered Grandet, rousing himself from his reverie. He saw a perspective of eight millions in three years, and he was sailing along that sheet of gold. “Let us go to bed. I will bid my nephew good-night for the rest of you, and see if he will take anything.”

Madame Grandet remained on the landing of the first storey to hear the conversation that was about to take place between the goodman and his nephew. Eugenie, bolder than her mother, went up two stairs.

“Well, nephew, you are in trouble. Yes, weep, that’s natural. A father is a father; but we must bear our troubles patiently. I am a good uncle to you, remember that. Come, take courage! Will you have a little glass of wine?” (Wine costs nothing in Saumur, and they offer it as tea is offered in China.) “Why!” added Grandet, “you have got no light! That’s bad, very bad; you ought to see what you are about,” and he walked to the chimney-piece. “What’s this?” he cried. “A wax candle! How the devil did they filch a wax candle? The spendthrifts would tear down the ceilings of my house to boil the fellow’s eggs.”

Hearing these words, mother and daughter slipped back into their rooms and burrowed in their beds, with the celerity of frightened mice getting back to their holes.

“Madame Grandet, have you found a mine?” said the man, coming into the chamber of his wife.

“My friend, wait; I am saying my prayers,” said the poor mother in a trembling voice.

“The devil take your good God!” growled Grandet in reply.

Misers have no belief in a future life; the present is their all in all. This thought casts a terrible light upon our present epoch, in which, far more than at any former period, money sways the laws and politics and morals. Institutions, books, men, and dogmas, all conspire to undermine belief in a future life — a belief upon which the social edifice has rested for eighteen hundred years. The grave, as a means of transition, is little feared in our day. The future, which once opened to us beyond the requiems, has now been imported into the present. To obtain per fas et nefas a terrestrial paradise of luxury and earthly enjoyment, to harden the heart and macerate the body for the sake of fleeting possessions, as the martyrs once suffered all things to reach eternal joys, this is now the universal thought — a thought written everywhere, even in the very laws which ask of the legislator, “What do you pay?” instead of asking him, “What do you think?” When this doctrine has passed down from the bourgeoisie to the populace, where will this country be?

“Madame Grandet, have you done?” asked the old man.

“My friend, I am praying for you.”

“Very good! Good-night; tomorrow morning we will have a talk.”

The poor woman went to sleep like a schoolboy who, not having learned his lessons, knows he will see his master’s angry face on the morrow. At the moment when, filled with fear, she was drawing the sheet above her head that she might stifle hearing, Eugenie, in her night-gown and with naked feet, ran to her side and kissed her brow.

“Oh! my good mother,” she said, “tomorrow I will tell him it was I.”

“No; he would send you to Noyers. Leave me to manage it; he cannot eat me.”

“Do you hear, mamma?”

“What?”

He is weeping still.”

“Go to bed, my daughter; you will take cold in your feet: the floor is damp.”

* * * * *

Thus passed the solemn day which was destined to weight upon the whole life of the rich and poor heiress, whose sleep was never again to be so calm, nor yet so pure, as it had been up to this moment. It often happens that certain actions of human life seem, literally speaking, improbable, though actual. Is not this because we constantly omit to turn the stream of psychological light upon our impulsive determinations, and fail to explain the subtile reasons, mysteriously conceived in our minds, which impelled them? Perhaps Eugenie’s deep passion should be analyzed in its most delicate fibres; for it became, scoffers might say, a malady which influenced her whole existence. Many people prefer to deny results rather than estimate the force of ties and links and bonds, which secretly join one fact to another in the moral order. Here, therefore, Eugenie’s past life will offer to observers of human nature an explanation of her naive want of reflection and the suddenness of the emotions which overflowed her soul. The more tranquil her life had been, the more vivid was her womanly pity, the more simple-minded were the sentiments now developed in her soul.

Made restless by the events of the day, she woke at intervals to listen to her cousin, thinking she heard the sighs which still echoed in her heart. Sometimes she saw him dying of his trouble, sometimes she dreamed that he fainted from hunger. Towards morning she was certain that she heard a startling cry. She dressed at once and ran, in the dawning light, with a swift foot to her cousin’s chamber, the door of which he had left open. The candle had burned down to the socket. Charles, overcome by nature, was sleeping, dressed and sitting in an armchair beside the bed, on which his head rested; he dreamed as men dream on an empty stomach. Eugenie might weep at her ease; she might admire the young and handsome face blotted with grief, the eyes swollen with weeping, that seemed, sleeping as they were, to well forth tears. Charles felt sympathetically the young girl’s presence; he opened his eyes and saw her pitying him.

“Pardon me, my cousin,” he said, evidently not knowing the hour nor the place in which he found himself.

“There are hearts who hear you, cousin, and we thought you might need something. You should go to bed; you tire yourself by sitting thus.”

“That is true.”

“Well, then, adieu!”

She escaped, ashamed and happy at having gone there. Innocence alone can dare to be so bold. Once enlightened, virtue makes her calculations as well as vice. Eugenie, who had not trembled beside her cousin, could scarcely stand upon her legs when she regained her chamber. Her ignorant life had suddenly come to an end; she reasoned, she rebuked herself with many reproaches.

“What will he think of me? He will think that I love him!”

That was what she most wished him to think. An honest love has its own prescience, and knows that love begets love. What an event for this poor solitary girl thus to have entered the chamber of a young man! Are there not thoughts and actions in the life of love which to certain souls bear the full meaning of the holiest espousals? An hour later she went to her mother and dressed her as usual. Then they both came down and sat in their places before the window waiting for Grandet, with that cruel anxiety which, according to the individual character, freezes the heart or warms it, shrivels or dilates it, when a scene is feared, a punishment expected — a feeling so natural that even domestic animals possess it, and whine at the slightest pain of punishment, though they make no outcry when they inadvertently hurt themselves. The goodman came down; but he spoke to his wife with an absent manner, kissed Eugenie, and sat down to table without appearing to remember his threats of the night before.

“What has become of my nephew? The lad gives no trouble.”

“Monsieur, he is asleep,” answered Nanon.

“So much the better; he won’t want a wax candle,” said Grandet in a jeering tone.

This unusual clemency, this bitter gaiety, struck Madame Grandet with amazement, and she looked at her husband attentively. The goodman — here it may be well to explain that in Touraine, Anjou, Pitou, and Bretagne the word “goodman,” already used to designate Grandet, is bestowed as often upon harsh and cruel men as upon those of kindly temperament, when either have reached a certain age; the title means nothing on the score of individual gentleness — the goodman took his hat and gloves, saying as he went out —

“I am going to loiter about the market-place and find Cruchot.”

“Eugenie, your father certainly has something on his mind.”

Grandet, who was a poor sleeper, employed half his nights in the preliminary calculations which gave such astonishing accuracy to his views and observations and schemes, and secured to them the unfailing success at sight of which his townsmen stood amazed. All human power is a compound of time and patience. Powerful beings will and wait. The life of a miser is the constant exercise of human power put to the service of self. It rests on two sentiments only — self-love and self-interest; but self-interest being to a certain extent compact and intelligent self-love, the visible sign of real superiority, it follows that self-love and self-interest are two parts of the same whole — egotism. From this arises, perhaps, the excessive curiosity shown in the habits of a miser’s life whenever they are put before the world. Every nature holds by a thread to those beings who challenge all human sentiments by concentrating all in one passion. Where is the man without desire? and what social desire can be satisfied without money?

Grandet unquestionably “had something on his mind,” to use his wife’s expression. There was in him, as in all misers, a persistent craving to play a commercial game with other men and win their money legally. To impose upon other people was to him a sign of power, a perpetual proof that he had won the right to despise those feeble beings who suffer themselves to be preyed upon in this world. Oh! who has ever truly understood the lamb lying peacefully at the feet of God? — touching emblem of all terrestrial victims, myth of their future, suffering and weakness glorified! This lamb it is which the miser fattens, puts in his fold, slaughters, cooks, eats, and then despises. The pasture of misers is compounded of money and disdain. During the night Grandet’s ideas had taken another course, which was the reason of his sudden clemency. He had hatched a plot by which to trick the Parisians, to decoy and dupe and snare them, to drive them into a trap, and make them go and come and sweat and hope and turn pale — a plot by which to amuse himself, the old provincial cooper, sitting there beneath his gloomy rafters, or passing up and down the rotten staircase of his house in Saumur. His nephew filled his mind. He wished to save the honor of his dead brother without the cost of a penny to the son or to himself. His own funds he was about to invest for three years; he had therefore nothing further to do than to manage his property in Saumur. He needed some nutriment for his malicious activity, and he found it suddenly in his brother’s failure. Feeling nothing to squeeze between his own paws, he resolved to crush the Parisians in behalf of Charles, and to play the part of a good brother on the cheapest terms. The honor of the family counted for so little in this scheme that his good intentions might be likened to the interest a gambler takes in seeing a game well played in which he has no stake. The Cruchots were a necessary part of his plan; but he would not seek them — he resolved to make them come to him, and to lead up that very evening to a comedy whose plot he had just conceived, which should make him on the morrow an object of admiration to the whole town without its costing him a single penny.

In her father’s absence Eugenie had the happiness of busying herself openly with her much-loved cousin, of spending upon him fearlessly the treasures of her pity — woman’s sublime superiority, the sole she desires to have recognized, the sole she pardons man for letting her assume. Three or four times the young girl went to listen to her cousin’s breathing, to know if he were sleeping or awake; then, when he had risen, she turned her thoughts to the cream, the eggs, the fruits, the plates, the glasses — all that was a part of his breakfast became the object of some special care. At length she ran lightly up the old staircase to listen to the noise her cousin made. Was he dressing? Did he still weep? She reached the door.

“My cousin!”

“Yes, cousin.”

“Will you breakfast downstairs, or in your room?”

“Where you like.”

“How do you feel?”

“Dear cousin, I am ashamed of being hungry.”

This conversation, held through the closed door, was like an episode in a poem to Eugenie.

“Well, then, we will bring your breakfast to your own room, so as not to annoy my father.”

She ran to the kitchen with the swiftness and lightness of a bird.

“Nanon, go and do his room!”

That staircase, so often traversed, which echoed to the slightest noise, now lost its decaying aspect in the eyes of Eugenie. It grew luminous; it had a voice and spoke to her; it was young like herself, — young like the love it was now serving. Her mother, her kind, indulgent mother, lent herself to the caprices of the child’s love, and after the room was put in order, both went to sit with the unhappy youth and keep him company. Does not Christian charity make consolation a duty? The two women drew a goodly number of little sophistries from their religion wherewith to justify their conduct. Charles was made the object of the tenderest and most loving care. His saddened heart felt the sweetness of the gentle friendship, the exquisite sympathy which these two souls, crushed under perpetual restraint, knew so well how to display when, for an instant, they were left unfettered in the regions of suffering, their natural sphere.

Claiming the right of relationship, Eugenie began to fold the linen and put in order the toilet articles which Charles had brought; thus she could marvel at her ease over each luxurious bauble and the various knick-knacks of silver or chased gold, which she held long in her hand under a pretext of examining them. Charles could not see without emotion the generous interest his aunt and cousin felt in him; he knew society in Paris well enough to feel assured that, placed as he now was, he would find all hearts indifferent or cold. Eugenie thus appeared to him in the splendor of a special beauty, and from thenceforth he admired the innocence of life and manners which the previous evening he had been inclined to ridicule. So when Eugenie took from Nanon the bowl of coffee and cream, and began to pour it out for her cousin with the simplicity of real feeling, giving him a kindly glance, the eyes of the Parisian filled with tears; he took her hand and kissed it.

“What troubles you?” she said.

“Oh! these are tears of gratitude,” he answered.

Eugenie turned abruptly to the chimney-piece to take the candlesticks.

“Here, Nanon, carry them away!” she said.

When she looked again towards her cousin she was still blushing, but her looks could at least deceive, and did not betray the excess of joy which innundated her heart; yet the eyes of both expressed the same sentiment as their souls flowed together in one thought — the future was theirs. This soft emotion was all the more precious to Charles in the midst of his heavy grief because it was wholly unexpected. The sound of the knocker recalled the women to their usual station. Happily they were able to run downstairs with sufficient rapidity to be seated at their work when Grandet entered; had he met them under the archway it would have been enough to rouse his suspicions. After breakfast, which the goodman took standing, the keeper from Froidfond, to whom the promised indemnity had never yet been paid, made his appearance, bearing a hare and some partridges shot in the park, with eels and two pike sent as tribute by the millers.

“Ha, ha! poor Cornoiller; here he comes, like fish in Lent. Is all that fit to eat?”

“Yes, my dear, generous master; it has been killed two days.”

“Come, Nanon, bestir yourself,” said Grandet; “take these things, they’ll do for dinner. I have invited the two Cruchots.”

Nanon opened her eyes, stupid with amazement, and looked at everybody in the room.

“Well!” she said, “and how am I to get the lard and the spices?”

“Wife,” said Grandet, “give Nanon six francs, and remind me to get some of the good wine out of the cellar.”

“Well, then, Monsieur Grandet,” said the keeper, who had come prepared with an harangue for the purpose of settling the question of the indemnity, “Monsieur Grandet —”

“Ta, ta, ta, ta!” said Grandet; “I know what you want to say. You are a good fellow; we will see about it tomorrow, I’m too busy today. Wife, give him five francs,” he added to Madame Grandet as he decamped.

The poor woman was only too happy to buy peace at the cost of eleven francs. She knew that Grandet would let her alone for a fortnight after he had thus taken back, franc by franc, the money he had given her.

“Here, Cornoiller,” she said, slipping ten francs into the man’s hand, “some day we will reward your services.”

Cornoiller could say nothing, so he went away.

“Madame,” said Nanon, who had put on her black coif and taken her basket, “I want only three francs. You keep the rest; it’ll go fast enough somehow.”

“Have a good dinner, Nanon; my cousin will come down,” said Eugenie.

“Something very extraordinary is going on, I am certain of it,” said Madame Grandet. “This is only the third time since our marriage that your father has given a dinner.”

* * * * *

About four o’clock, just as Eugenie and her mother had finished setting the table for six persons, and after the master of the house had brought up a few bottles of the exquisite wine which provincials cherish with true affection, Charles came down into the hall. The young fellow was pale; his gestures, the expression of his face, his glance, and the tones of his voice, all had a sadness which was full of grace. He was not pretending grief, he truly suffered; and the veil of pain cast over his features gave him an interesting air dear to the heart of women. Eugenie loved him the more for it. Perhaps she felt that sorrow drew him nearer to her. Charles was no longer the rich and distinguished young man placed in a sphere far above her, but a relation plunged into frightful misery. Misery begets equality. Women have this in common with the angels — suffering humanity belongs to them. Charles and Eugenie understood each other and spoke only with their eyes; for the poor fallen dandy, orphaned and impoverished, sat apart in a corner of the room, and was proudly calm and silent. Yet, from time to time, the gentle and caressing glance of the young girl shone upon him and constrained him away from his sad thoughts, drawing him with her into the fields of hope and of futurity, where she loved to hold him at her side.

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