Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac

VII

At this moment the town of Saumur was more excited about the dinner given by Grandet to the Cruchots than it had been the night before at the sale of his vintage, though that constituted a crime of high-treason against the whole wine-growing community. If the politic old miser had given his dinner from the same idea that cost the dog of Alcibiades his tail, he might perhaps have been called a great man; but the fact is, considering himself superior to a community which he could trick on all occasions, he paid very little heed to what Saumur might say.

The des Grassins soon learned the facts of the failure and the violent death of Guillaume Grandet, and they determined to go to their client’s house that very evening to commiserate his misfortune and show him some marks of friendship, with a view of ascertaining the motives which had led him to invite the Cruchots to dinner. At precisely five o’clock Monsieur C. de Bonfons and his uncle the notary arrived in their Sunday clothes. The party sat down to table and began to dine with good appetites. Grandet was grave, Charles silent, Eugenie dumb, and Madame Grandet did not say more than usual; so that the dinner was, very properly, a repast of condolence. When they rose from table Charles said to his aunt and uncle —

“Will you permit me to retire? I am obliged to undertake a long and painful correspondence.”

“Certainly, nephew.”

As soon as the goodman was certain that Charles could hear nothing and was probably deep in his letter-writing, he said, with a dissimulating glance at his wife —

“Madame Grandet, what we have to talk about will be Latin to you; it is half-past seven; you can go and attend to your household accounts. Good-night, my daughter.”

He kissed Eugenie, and the two women departed. A scene now took place in which Pere Grandet brought to bear, more than at any other moment of his life, the shrewd dexterity he had acquired in his intercourse with men, and which had won him from those whose flesh he sometimes bit too sharply the nickname of “the old dog.” If the mayor of Saumur had carried his ambition higher still, if fortunate circumstances, drawing him towards the higher social spheres, had sent him into congresses where the affairs of nations were discussed, and had he there employed the genius with which his personal interests had endowed him, he would undoubtedly have proved nobly useful to his native land. Yet it is perhaps equally certain that outside of Saumur the goodman would have cut a very sorry figure. Possibly there are minds like certain animals which cease to breed when transplanted from the climates in which they are born.

“M-m-mon-sieur le p-p-president, you said t-t-that b-b-bankruptcy —”

The stutter which for years the old miser had assumed when it suited him, and which, together with the deafness of which he sometimes complained in rainy weather, was thought in Saumur to be a natural defect, became at this crisis so wearisome to the two Cruchots that while they listened they unconsciously made faces and moved their lips, as if pronouncing the words over which he was hesitating and stuttering at will. Here it may be well to give the history of this impediment of the speech and hearing of Monsieur Grandet. No one in Anjou heard better, or could pronounce more crisply the French language (with an Angevin accent) than the wily old cooper. Some years earlier, in spite of his shrewdness, he had been taken in by an Israelite, who in the course of the discussion held his hand behind his ear to catch sounds, and mangled his meaning so thoroughly in trying to utter his words that Grandet fell a victim to his humanity and was compelled to prompt the wily Jew with the words and ideas he seemed to seek, to complete himself the arguments of the said Jew, to say what that cursed Jew ought to have said for himself; in short, to be the Jew instead of being Grandet. When the cooper came out of this curious encounter he had concluded the only bargain of which in the course of a long commercial life he ever had occasion to complain. But if he lost at the time pecuniarily, he gained morally a valuable lesson; later, he gathered its fruits. Indeed, the goodman ended by blessing that Jew for having taught him the art of irritating his commercial antagonist and leading him to forget his own thoughts in his impatience to suggest those over which his tormentor was stuttering. No affair had ever needed the assistance of deafness, impediments of speech, and all the incomprehensible circumlocutions with which Grandet enveloped his ideas, as much as the affair now in hand. In the first place, he did not mean to shoulder the responsibility of his own scheme; in the next, he was determined to remain master of the conversation and to leave his real intentions in doubt.

“M-m-monsieur de B-B-Bonfons,”— for the second time in three years Grandet called the Cruchot nephew Monsieur de Bonfons; the president felt he might consider himself the artful old fellow’s son-inlaw, —“you-ou said th-th-that b-b-bankruptcy c-c-could, in some c-c-cases, b-b-be p-p-prevented b-b-by —”

“By the courts of commerce themselves. It is done constantly,” said Monsieur C. de Bonfons, bestriding Grandet’s meaning, or thinking he guessed it, and kindly wishing to help him out with it. “Listen.”

“Y-yes,” said Grandet humbly, with the mischievous expression of a boy who is inwardly laughing at his teacher while he pays him the greatest attention.

“When a man so respected and important as, for example, your late brother —”

“M-my b-b-brother, yes.”

“— is threatened with insolvency —”

“They c-c-call it inins-s-solvency?”

“Yes; when his failure is imminent, the court of commerce, to which he is amenable (please follow me attentively), has the power, by a decree, to appoint a receiver. Liquidation, you understand, is not the same as failure. When a man fails, he is dishonored; but when he merely liquidates, he remains an honest man.”

“T-t-that’s very d-d-different, if it d-d-doesn’t c-c-cost m-m-more,” said Grandet.

“But a liquidation can be managed without having recourse to the courts at all. For,” said the president, sniffing a pinch of snuff, “don’t you know how failures are declared?”

“N-n-no, I n-n-never t-t-thought,” answered Grandet.

“In the first place,” resumed the magistrate, “by filing the schedule in the record office of the court, which the merchant may do himself, or his representative for him with a power of attorney duly certified. In the second place, the failure may be declared under compulsion from the creditors. Now if the merchant does not file his schedule, and if no creditor appears before the courts to obtain a decree of insolvency against the merchant, what happens?”

“W-w-what h-h-happens?”

“Why, the family of the deceased, his representatives, his heirs, or the merchant himself, if he is not dead, or his friends if he is only hiding, liquidate his business. Perhaps you would like to liquidate your brother’s affairs?”

“Ah! Grandet,” said the notary, “that would be the right thing to do. There is honor down here in the provinces. If you save your name — for it is your name — you will be a man —”

“A noble man!” cried the president, interrupting his uncle.

“Certainly,” answered the old man, “my b-b-brother’s name was G-G-Grandet, like m-m-mine. Th-that’s c-c-certain; I d-d-don’t d-d-deny it. And th-th-this l-l-liquidation might be, in m-m-many ways, v-v-very advan-t-t-tageous t-t-to the interests of m-m-my n-n-nephew, whom I l-l-love. But I must consider. I don’t k-k-know the t-t-tricks of P-P-Paris. I b-b-belong to Sau-m-mur, d-d-don’t you see? M-m-my vines, my d-d-drains — in short, I’ve my own b-b-business. I never g-g-give n-n-notes. What are n-n-notes? I t-t-take a good m-m-many, but I have never s-s-signed one. I d-d-don’t understand such things. I have h-h-heard say that n-n-notes c-c-can be b-b-bought up.”

“Of course,” said the president. “Notes can be bought in the market, less so much per cent. Don’t you understand?”

Grandet made an ear-trumpet of his hand, and the president repeated his words.

“Well, then,” replied the man, “there’s s-s-something to be g-g-got out of it? I k-know n-nothing at my age about such th-th-things. I l-l-live here and l-l-look after the v-v-vines. The vines g-g-grow, and it’s the w-w-wine that p-p-pays. L-l-look after the v-v-vintage, t-t-that’s my r-r-rule. My c-c-chief interests are at Froidfond. I c-c-can’t l-l-leave my h-h-house to m-m-muddle myself with a d-d-devilish b-b-business I kn-know n-n-nothing about. You say I ought to l-l-liquidate my b-b-brother’s af-f-fairs, to p-p-prevent the f-f-failure. I c-c-can’t be in two p-p-places at once, unless I were a little b-b-bird, and —”

“I understand,” cried the notary. “Well, my old friend, you have friends, old friends, capable of devoting themselves to your interests.”

“All right!” thought Grandet, “make haste and come to the point!”

“Suppose one of them went to Paris and saw your brother Guillaume’s chief creditor and said to him —”

“One m-m-moment,” interrupted the goodman, “said wh-wh-what? Something l-l-like this. Monsieur Gr–Grandet of Saumur this, Monsieur Grandet of Saumur that. He l-loves his b-b-brother, he loves his n-nephew. Grandet is a g-g-good uncle; he m-m-means well. He has sold his v-v-vintage. D-d-don’t declare a f-f-failure; c-c-call a meeting; l-l-liquidate; and then Gr–Gr-Grandet will see what he c-c-can do. B-b-better liquidate than l-let the l-l-law st-st-stick its n-n-nose in. Hein? isn’t it so?”

“Exactly so,” said the president.

“B-because, don’t you see, Monsieur de B-Bonfons, a man must l-l-look b-b-before he l-leaps. If you c-c-can’t, you c-c-can’t. M-m-must know all about the m-m-matter, all the resources and the debts, if you d-d-don’t want to be r-r-ruined. Hein? isn’t it so?”

“Certainly,” said the president. “I’m of opinion that in a few months the debts might be bought up for a certain sum, and then paid in full by an agreement. Ha! ha! you can coax a dog a long way if you show him a bit of lard. If there has been no declaration of failure, and you hold a lien on the debts, you come out of the business as white as the driven snow.”

“Sn-n-now,” said Grandet, putting his hand to his ear, “wh-wh-what about s-now?”

“But,” cried the president, “do pray attend to what I am saying.”

“I am at-t-tending.”

“A note is merchandise — an article of barter which rises and falls in prices. That is a deduction from Jeremy Bentham’s theory about usury. That writer has proved that the prejudice which condemned usurers to reprobation was mere folly.”

“Whew!” ejaculated the goodman.

“Allowing that money, according to Bentham, is an article of merchandise, and that whatever represents money is equally merchandise,” resumed the president; “allowing also that it is notorious that the commercial note, bearing this or that signature, is liable to the fluctuation of all commercial values, rises or falls in the market, is dear at one moment, and is worth nothing at another, the courts decide — ah! how stupid I am, I beg your pardon — I am inclined to think you could buy up your brother’s debts for twenty-five per cent.”

“D-d-did you c-c-call him Je–Je-Jeremy B-Ben?”

“Bentham, an Englishman.’

“That’s a Jeremy who might save us a lot of lamentations in business,” said the notary, laughing.

“Those Englishmen s-sometimes t-t-talk sense,” said Grandet. “So, ac-c-cording to Ben–Bentham, if my b-b-brother’s n-notes are worth n-n-nothing; if Je–Je — I’m c-c-correct, am I not? That seems c-c-clear to my m-m-mind — the c-c-creditors would be — No, would not be; I understand.”

“Let me explain it all,” said the president. “Legally, if you acquire a title to all the debts of the Maison Grandet, your brother or his heirs will owe nothing to any one. Very good.”

“Very g-good,” repeated Grandet.

“In equity, if your brother’s notes are negotiated — negotiated, do you clearly understand the term? — negotiated in the market at a reduction of so much per cent in value, and if one of your friends happening to be present should buy them in, the creditors having sold them of their own free-will without constraint, the estate of the late Grandet is honorably released.”

“That’s t-true; b-b-business is b-business,” said the cooper. “B-b-but, st-still, you know, it is d-d-difficult. I h-have n-no m-m-money and n-no t-t-time.”

“Yes, but you need not undertake it. I am quite ready to go to Paris (you may pay my expenses, they will only be a trifle). I will see the creditors and talk with them and get an extension of time, and everything can be arranged if you will add something to the assets so as to buy up all title to the debts.”

“We-we’ll see about th-that. I c-c-can’t and I w-w-won’t bind myself without — He who c-c-can’t, can’t; don’t you see?”

“That’s very true.”

“I’m all p-p-put ab-b-bout by what you’ve t-t-told me. This is the f-first t-t-time in my life I have b-been obliged to th-th-think —”

“Yes, you are not a lawyer.”

“I’m only a p-p-poor wine-g-grower, and know n-nothing about wh-what you have just t-told me; I m-m-must th-think about it.”

“Very good,” said the president, preparing to resume his argument.

“Nephew!” said the notary, interrupting him in a warning tone.

“Well, what, uncle?” answered the president.

“Let Monsieur Grandet explain his own intentions. The matter in question is of the first importance. Our good friend ought to define his meaning clearly, and —”

A loud knock, which announced the arrival of the des Grassins family, succeeded by their entrance and salutations, hindered Cruchot from concluding his sentence. The notary was glad of the interruption, for Grandet was beginning to look suspiciously at him, and the wen gave signs of a brewing storm. In the first place, the notary did not think it becoming in a president of the Civil courts to go to Paris and manipulate creditors and lend himself to an underhand job which clashed with the laws of strict integrity; moreover, never having known old Grandet to express the slightest desire to pay anything, no matter what, he instinctively feared to see his nephew taking part in the affair. He therefore profited by the entrance of the des Grassins to take the nephew by the arm and lead him into the embrasure of the window —

“You have said enough, nephew; you’ve shown enough devotion. Your desire to win the girl blinds you. The devil! you mustn’t go at it tooth and nail. Let me sail the ship now; you can haul on the braces. Do you think it right to compromise your dignity as a magistrate in such a —”

He stopped, for he heard Monsieur des Grassins saying to the old cooper as they shook hands —

“Grandet, we have heard of the frightful misfortunes which have just befallen your family — the failure of the house of Guillaume Grandet and the death of your brother. We have come to express our grief at these sad events.”

“There is but one sad event,” said the notary, interrupting the banker — “the death of Monsieur Grandet, junior; and he would never have killed himself had he thought in time of applying to his brother for help. Our old friend, who is honorable to his finger-nails, intends to liquidate the debts of the Maison Grandet of Paris. To save him the worry of legal proceedings, my nephew, the president, has just offered to go to Paris and negotiate with the creditors for a satisfactory settlement.”

These words, corroborated by Grandet’s attitude as he stood silently nursing his chin, astonished the three des Grassins, who had been leisurely discussing the old man’s avarice as they came along, very nearly accusing him of fratricide.

“Ah! I was sure of it,” cried the banker, looking at his wife. “What did I tell you just now, Madame des Grassins? Grandet is honorable to the backbone, and would never allow his name to remain under the slightest cloud! Money without honor is a disease. There is honor in the provinces! Right, very right, Grandet. I’m an old soldier, and I can’t disguise my thoughts; I speak roughly. Thunder! it is sublime!”

“Th-then s-s-sublime th-things c-c-cost d-dear,” answered the goodman, as the banker warmly wrung his hand.

“But this, my dear Grandet — if the president will excuse me — is a purely commercial matter, and needs a consummate business man. Your agent must be some one fully acquainted with the markets — with disbursements, rebates, interest calculations, and so forth. I am going to Paris on business of my own, and I can take charge of —”

“We’ll see about t-t-trying to m-m-manage it b-b-between us, under the p-p-peculiar c-c-circumstances, b-b-but without b-b-binding m-m-myself to anything th-that I c-c-could not do,” said Grandet, stuttering; “because, you see, monsieur le president naturally expects me to pay the expenses of his journey.”

The goodman did not stammer over the last words.

“Eh!” cried Madame des Grassins, “why it is a pleasure to go to Paris. I would willingly pay to go myself.”

She made a sign to her husband, as if to encourage him in cutting the enemy out of the commission, coute que coute; then she glanced ironically at the two Cruchots, who looked chap-fallen. Grandet seized the banker by a button and drew him into a corner of the room.

“I have a great deal more confidence in you than in the president,” he said; “besides, I’ve other fish to fry,” he added, wriggling his wen. “I want to buy a few thousand francs in the Funds while they are at eighty. They fall, I’m told, at the end of each month. You know all about these things, don’t you?”

“Bless me! then, am I to invest enough to give you a few thousand francs a year?”

“That’s not much to begin with. Hush! I don’t want any one to know I am going to play that game. You can make the investment by the end of the month. Say nothing to the Cruchots; that’ll annoy them. If you are really going to Paris, we will see if there is anything to be done for my poor nephew.”

“Well, it’s all settled. I’ll start tomorrow by the mail-post,” said des Grassins aloud, “and I will come and take your last directions at — what hour will suit you?”

“Five o’clock, just before dinner,” said Grandet, rubbing his hands.

The two parties stayed on for a short time. Des Grassins said, after a pause, striking Grandet on the shoulder —

“It is a good thing to have a relation like him.”

“Yes, yes; without making a show,” said Grandet, “I am a g-good relation. I loved my brother, and I will prove it, unless it c-c-costs —”

“We must leave you, Grandet,” said the banker, interrupting him fortunately before he got to the end of his sentence. “If I hurry my departure, I must attend to some matters at once.”

“Very good, very good! I myself — in c-consequence of what I t-told you — I must retire to my own room and ‘d-d-deliberate,’ as President Cruchot says.”

“Plague take him! I am no longer Monsieur de Bonfons,” thought the magistrate ruefully, his face assuming the expression of a judge bored by an argument.

The heads of the two factions walked off together. Neither gave any further thought to the treachery Grandet had been guilty of in the morning against the whole wine-growing community; each tried to fathom what the other was thinking about the real intentions of the wily old man in this new affair, but in vain.

“Will you go with us to Madame Dorsonval’s?” said des Grassins to the notary.

“We will go there later,” answered the president. “I have promised to say good-evening to Mademoiselle de Gribeaucourt, and we will go there first, if my uncle is willing.”

“Farewell for the present!” said Madame des Grassins.

When the Cruchots were a few steps off, Adolphe remarked to his father —

“Are not they fuming, hein?”

“Hold your tongue, my son!” said his mother; “they might hear you. Besides, what you say is not in good taste — law-school language.”

“Well, uncle,” cried the president when he saw the des Grassins disappearing, “I began by being de Bonfons, and I have ended as nothing but Cruchot.”

“I saw that that annoyed you; but the wind has set fair for the des Grassins. What a fool you are, with all your cleverness! Let them sail off on Grandet’s ‘We’ll see about it,’ and keep yourself quiet, young man. Eugenie will none the less be your wife.”

In a few moments the news of Grandet’s magnanimous resolve was disseminated in three houses at the same moment, and the whole town began to talk of his fraternal devotion. Every one forgave Grandet for the sale made in defiance of the good faith pledged to the community; they admired his sense of honor, and began to laud a generosity of which they had never thought him capable. It is part of the French nature to grow enthusiastic, or angry, or fervent about some meteor of the moment. Can it be that collective beings, nationalities, peoples, are devoid of memory?

When Pere Grandet had shut the door he called Nanon.

“Don’t let the dog loose, and don’t go to bed; we have work to do together. At eleven o’clock Cornoiller will be at the door with the chariot from Froidfond. Listen for him and prevent his knocking; tell him to come in softly. Police regulations don’t allow nocturnal racket. Besides, the whole neighborhood need not know that I am starting on a journey.”

So saying, Grandet returned to his private room, where Nanon heard him moving about, rummaging, and walking to and fro, though with much precaution, for he evidently did not wish to wake his wife and daughter, and above all not to rouse the attention of his nephew, whom he had begun to anathematize when he saw a thread of light under his door. About the middle of the night Eugenie, intent on her cousin, fancied she heard a cry like that of a dying person. It must be Charles, she thought; he was so pale, so full of despair when she had seen him last — could he have killed himself? She wrapped herself quickly in a loose garment — a sort of pelisse with a hood — and was about to leave the room when a bright light coming through the chinks of her door made her think of fire. But she recovered herself as she heard Nanon’s heavy steps and gruff voice mingling with the snorting of several horses.

“Can my father be carrying off my cousin?” she said to herself, opening her door with great precaution lest it should creak, and yet enough to let her see into the corridor.

Suddenly her eye encountered that of her father; and his glance, vague and unnoticing as it was, terrified her. The goodman and Nanon were yoked together by a stout stick, each end of which rested on their shoulders; a stout rope was passed over it, on which was slung a small barrel or keg like those Pere Grandet still made in his bakehouse as an amusement for his leisure hours.

“Holy Virgin, how heavy it is!” said the voice of Nanon.

“What a pity that it is only copper sous!” answered Grandet. “Take care you don’t knock over the candlestick.”

The scene was lighted by a single candle placed between two rails of the staircase.

“Cornoiller,” said Grandet to his keeper in partibus, “have you brought your pistols?”

“No, monsieur. Mercy! what’s there to fear for your copper sous?”

“Oh! nothing,” said Pere Grandet.

“Besides, we shall go fast,” added the man; “your farmers have picked out their best horses.”

“Very good. You did not tell them where I was going?”

“I didn’t know where.”

“Very good. Is the carriage strong?”

“Strong? hear to that, now! Why, it can carry three thousand weight. How much does that old keg weigh?”

“Goodness!” exclaimed Nanon. “I ought to know! There’s pretty nigh eighteen hundred —”

“Will you hold your tongue, Nanon! You are to tell my wife I have gone into the country. I shall be back to dinner. Drive fast, Cornoiller; I must get to Angers before nine o’clock.”

The carriage drove off. Nanon bolted the great door, let loose the dog, and went off to bed with a bruised shoulder, no one in the neighborhood suspecting either the departure of Grandet or the object of his journey. The precautions of the old miser and his reticence were never relaxed. No one had ever seen a penny in that house, filled as it was with gold. Hearing in the morning, through the gossip of the port, that exchange on gold had doubled in price in consequence of certain military preparations undertaken at Nantes, and that speculators had arrived at Angers to buy coin, the old wine-grower, by the simple process of borrowing horses from his farmers, seized the chance of selling his gold and of bringing back in the form of treasury notes the sum he intended to put into the Funds, having swelled it considerably by the exchange.

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