Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac

VIII

“My father has gone,” thought Eugenie, who heard all that took place from the head of the stairs. Silence was restored in the house, and the distant rumbling of the carriage, ceasing by degrees, no longer echoed through the sleeping town. At this moment Eugenie heard in her heart, before the sound caught her ears, a cry which pierced the partitions and came from her cousin’s chamber. A line of light, thin as the blade of a sabre, shone through a chink in the door and fell horizontally on the balusters of the rotten staircase.

“He suffers!” she said, springing up the stairs. A second moan brought her to the landing near his room. The door was ajar, she pushed it open. Charles was sleeping; his head hung over the side of the old armchair, and his hand, from which the pen had fallen, nearly touched the floor. The oppressed breathing caused by the strained posture suddenly frightened Eugenie, who entered the room hastily.

“He must be very tired,” she said to herself, glancing at a dozen letters lying sealed upon the table. She read their addresses: “To Messrs. Farry, Breilmann, & Co., carriage-makers”; “To Monsieur Buisson, tailor,” etc.

“He has been settling all his affairs, so as to leave France at once,” she thought. Her eyes fell upon two open letters. The words, “My dear Annette,” at the head of one of them, blinded her for a moment. Her heart beat fast, her feet were nailed to the floor.

“His dear Annette! He loves! he is loved! No hope! What does he say to her?”

These thoughts rushed through her head and heart. She saw the words everywhere, even on the bricks of the floor, in letters of fire.

“Resign him already? No, no! I will not read the letter. I ought to go away — What if I do read it?”

She looked at Charles, then she gently took his head and placed it against the back of the chair; he let her do so, like a child which, though asleep, knows its mother’s touch and receives, without awaking, her kisses and watchful care. Like a mother Eugenie raised the drooping hand, and like a mother she gently kissed the chestnut hair —“Dear Annette!” a demon shrieked the words in her ear.

“I am doing wrong; but I must read it, that letter,” she said. She turned away her head, for her noble sense of honor reproached her. For the first time in her life good and evil struggled together in her heart. Up to that moment she had never had to blush for any action. Passion and curiosity triumphed. As she read each sentence her heart swelled more and more, and the keen glow which filled her being as she did so, only made the joys of first love still more precious.

My dear Annette — Nothing could ever have separated us but the great misfortune which has now overwhelmed me, and which no human foresight could have prevented. My father has killed himself; his fortune and mine are irretrievably lost. I am orphaned at an age when, through the nature of my education, I am still a child; and yet I must lift myself as a man out of the abyss into which I am plunged. I have just spent half the night in facing my position. If I wish to leave France an honest man — and there is no doubt of that — I have not a hundred francs of my own with which to try my fate in the Indies or in America. Yes, my poor Anna, I must seek my fortune in those deadly climates. Under those skies, they tell me, I am sure to make it. As for remaining in Paris, I cannot do so. Neither my nature nor my face are made to bear the affronts, the neglect, the disdain shown to a ruined man, the son of a bankrupt! Good God! think of owing two millions! I should be killed in a duel the first week; therefore I shall not return there. Your love — the most tender and devoted love which ever ennobled the heart of man — cannot draw me back. Alas! my beloved, I have no money with which to go to you, to give and receive a last kiss from which I might derive some strength for my forlorn enterprise.

“Poor Charles! I did well to read the letter. I have gold; I will give it to him,” thought Eugenie.

She wiped her eyes, and went on reading.

I have never thought of the miseries of poverty. If I have the hundred louis required for the mere costs of the journey, I have not a sou for an outfit. But no, I have not the hundred louis, not even one louis. I don’t know that anything will be left after I have paid my debts in Paris. If I have nothing, I shall go quietly to Nantes and ship as a common sailor; and I will begin in the new world like other men who have started young without a sou and brought back the wealth of the Indies. During this long day I have faced my future coolly. It seems more horrible for me than for another, because I have been so petted by a mother who adored me, so indulged by the kindest of fathers, so blessed by meeting, on my entrance into life, with the love of an Anna! The flowers of life are all I have ever known. Such happiness could not last. Nevertheless, my dear Annette, I feel more courage than a careless young man is supposed to feel — above all a young man used to the caressing ways of the dearest woman in all Paris, cradled in family joys, on whom all things smiled in his home, whose wishes were a law to his father — oh, my father! Annette, he is dead!

Well, I have thought over my position, and yours as well. I have grown old in twenty-four hours. Dear Anna, if in order to keep me with you in Paris you were to sacrifice your luxury, your dress, your opera-box, we should even then not have enough for the expenses of my extravagant ways of living. Besides, I would never accept such sacrifices. No, we must part now and forever —

“He gives her up! Blessed Virgin! What happiness!”

Eugenie quivered with joy. Charles made a movement, and a chill of terror ran through her. Fortunately, he did not wake, and she resumed her reading.

When shall I return? I do not know. The climate of the West Indies ages a European, so they say; especially a European who works hard. Let us think what may happen ten years hence. In ten years your daughter will be eighteen; she will be your companion, your spy. To you society will be cruel, and your daughter perhaps more cruel still. We have seen cases of the harsh social judgment and ingratitude of daughters; let us take warning by them. Keep in the depths of your soul, as I shall in mine, the memory of four years of happiness, and be faithful, if you can, to the memory of your poor friend. I cannot exact such faithfulness, because, do you see, dear Annette, I must conform to the exigencies of my new life; I must take a commonplace view of them and do the best I can. Therefore I must think of marriage, which becomes one of the necessities of my future existence; and I will admit to you that I have found, here in Saumur, in my uncle’s house, a cousin whose face, manners, mind, and heart would please you, and who, besides, seems to me —

“He must have been very weary to have ceased writing to her,” thought Eugenie, as she gazed at the letter which stopped abruptly in the middle of the last sentence.

Already she defended him. How was it possible that an innocent girl should perceive the cold-heartedness evinced by this letter? To young girls religiously brought up, whose minds are ignorant and pure, all is love from the moment they set their feet within the enchanted regions of that passion. They walk there bathed in a celestial light shed from their own souls, which reflects its rays upon their lover; they color all with the flame of their own emotion and attribute to him their highest thoughts. A woman’s errors come almost always from her belief in good or her confidence in truth. In Eugenie’s simple heart the words, “My dear Annette, my loved one,” echoed like the sweetest language of love; they caressed her soul as, in childhood, the divine notes of the Venite adoremus, repeated by the organ, caressed her ear. Moreover, the tears which still lingered on the young man’s lashes gave signs of that nobility of heart by which young girls are rightly won. How could she know that Charles, though he loved his father and mourned him truly, was moved far more by paternal goodness than by the goodness of his own heart? Monsieur and Madame Guillaume Grandet, by gratifying every fancy of their son, and lavishing upon him the pleasures of a large fortune, had kept him from making the horrible calculations of which so many sons in Paris become more or less guilty when, face to face with the enjoyments of the world, they form desires and conceive schemes which they see with bitterness must be put off or laid aside during the lifetime of their parents. The liberality of the father in this instance had shed into the heart of the son a real love, in which there was no afterthought of self-interest.

Nevertheless, Charles was a true child of Paris, taught by the customs of society and by Annette herself to calculate everything; already an old man under the mask of youth. He had gone through the frightful education of social life, of that world where in one evening more crimes are committed in thought and speech than justice ever punishes at the assizes; where jests and clever sayings assassinate the noblest ideas; where no one is counted strong unless his mind sees clear: and to see clear in that world is to believe in nothing, neither in feelings, nor in men, nor even in events — for events are falsified. There, to “see clear” we must weigh a friend’s purse daily, learn how to keep ourselves adroitly on the top of the wave, cautiously admire nothing, neither works of art nor glorious actions, and remember that self-interest is the mainspring of all things here below. After committing many follies, the great lady — the beautiful Annette — compelled Charles to think seriously; with her perfumed hand among his curls, she talked to him of his future position; as she rearranged his locks, she taught him lessons of worldly prudence; she made him effeminate and materialized him — a double corruption, but a delicate and elegant corruption, in the best taste.

“You are very foolish, Charles,” she would say to him. “I shall have a great deal of trouble in teaching you to understand the world. You behaved extremely ill to Monsieur des Lupeaulx. I know very well he is not an honorable man; but wait till he is no longer in power, then you may despise him as much as you like. Do you know what Madame Campan used to tell us? —‘My dears, as long as a man is a minister, adore him; when he falls, help to drag him in the gutter. Powerful, he is a sort of god; fallen, he is lower than Marat in the sewer, because he is living, and Marat is dead. Life is a series of combinations, and you must study them and understand them if you want to keep yourselves always in good position.’”

Charles was too much a man of the world, his parents had made him too happy, he had received too much adulation in society, to be possessed of noble sentiments. The grain of gold dropped by his mother into his heart was beaten thin in the smithy of Parisian society; he had spread it superficially, and it was worn away by the friction of life. Charles was only twenty-one years old. At that age the freshness of youth seems inseparable from candor and sincerity of soul. The voice, the glance, the face itself, seem in harmony with the feelings; and thus it happens that the sternest judge, the most sceptical lawyer, the least complying of usurers, always hesitate to admit decrepitude of heart or the corruption of worldly calculation while the eyes are still bathed in purity and no wrinkles seam the brow. Charles, so far, had had no occasion to apply the maxims of Parisian morality; up to this time he was still endowed with the beauty of inexperience. And yet, unknown to himself, he had been inoculated with selfishness. The germs of Parisian political economy, latent in his heart, would assuredly burst forth, sooner or later, whenever the careless spectator became an actor in the drama of real life.

Nearly all young girls succumb to the tender promises such an outward appearance seems to offer: even if Eugenie had been as prudent and observing as provincial girls are often found to be, she was not likely to distrust her cousin when his manners, words, and actions were still in unison with the aspirations of a youthful heart. A mere chance — a fatal chance — threw in her way the last effusions of real feeling which stirred the young man’s soul; she heard as it were the last breathings of his conscience. She laid down the letter — to her so full of love — and began smilingly to watch her sleeping cousin; the fresh illusions of life were still, for her at least, upon his face; she vowed to herself to love him always. Then she cast her eyes on the other letter, without attaching much importance to this second indiscretion; and though she read it, it was only to obtain new proofs of the noble qualities which, like all women, she attributed to the man her heart had chosen.

My dear Alphonse — When you receive this letter I shall be without friends; but let me assure you that while I doubt the friendship of the world, I have never doubted yours. I beg you therefore to settle all my affairs, and I trust to you to get as much as you can out of my possessions. By this time you know my situation. I have nothing left, and I intend to go at once to the Indies. I have just written to all the people to whom I think I owe money, and you will find enclosed a list of their names, as correct as I can make it from memory. My books, my furniture, my pictures, my horses, etc., ought, I think, to pay my debts. I do not wish to keep anything, except, perhaps, a few baubles which might serve as the beginning of an outfit for my enterprise. My dear Alphonse, I will send you a proper power of attorney under which you can make these sales. Send me all my weapons. Keep Briton for yourself; nobody would pay the value of that noble beast, and I would rather give him to you — like a mourning-ring bequeathed by a dying man to his executor. Farry, Breilmann, & Co. built me a very comfortable travelling-carriage, which they have not yet delivered; persuade them to keep it and not ask for any payment on it. If they refuse, do what you can in the matter, and avoid everything that might seem dishonorable in me under my present circumstances. I owe the British Islander six louis, which I lost at cards; don’t fail to pay him —

“Dear cousin!” whispered Eugenie, throwing down the letter and running softly back to her room, carrying one of the lighted candles. A thrill of pleasure passed over her as she opened the drawer of an old oak cabinet, a fine specimen of the period called the Renaissance, on which could still be seen, partly effaced, the famous royal salamander. She took from the drawer a large purse of red velvet with gold tassels, edged with a tarnished fringe of gold wire — a relic inherited from her grandmother. She weighed it proudly in her hand, and began with delight to count over the forgotten items of her little hoard. First she took out twenty portugaises, still new, struck in the reign of John V., 1725, worth by exchange, as her father told her, five lisbonnines, or a hundred and sixty-eight francs, sixty-four centimes each; their conventional value, however, was a hundred and eighty francs apiece, on account of the rarity and beauty of the coins, which shone like little suns. Item, five genovines, or five hundred-franc pieces of Genoa; another very rare coin worth eighty-seven francs on exchange, but a hundred francs to collectors. These had formerly belonged to old Monsieur de la Bertelliere. Item, three gold quadruples, Spanish, of Philip V., struck in 1729, given to her one by one by Madame Gentillet, who never failed to say, using the same words, when she made the gift, “This dear little canary, this little yellow-boy, is worth ninety-eight francs! Keep it, my pretty one, it will be the flower of your treasure.” Item (that which her father valued most of all, the gold of these coins being twenty-three carats and a fraction), a hundred Dutch ducats, made in the year 1756, and worth thirteen francs apiece. Item, a great curiosity, a species of medal precious to the soul of misers — three rupees with the sign of the Scales, and five rupees with the sign of the Virgin, all in pure gold of twenty-four carats; the magnificent money of the Great Mogul, each of which was worth by mere weight thirty-seven francs, forty centimes, but at least fifty francs to those connoisseurs who love to handle gold. Item, the napoleon of forty francs received the day before, which she had forgotten to put away in the velvet purse. This treasure was all in virgin coins, true works of art, which Grandet from time to time inquired after and asked to see, pointing out to his daughter their intrinsic merits — such as the beauty of the milled edge, the clearness of the flat surface, the richness of the lettering, whose angles were not yet rubbed off.

Eugenie gave no thought to these rarities, nor to her father’s mania for them, nor to the danger she incurred in depriving herself of a treasure so dear to him; no, she thought only of her cousin, and soon made out, after a few mistakes of calculation, that she possessed about five thousand eight hundred francs in actual value, which might be sold for their additional value to collectors for nearly six thousand. She looked at her wealth and clapped her hands like a happy child forced to spend its overflowing joy in artless movements of the body. Father and daughter had each counted up their fortune this night — he, to sell his gold; Eugenie to fling hers into the ocean of affection. She put the pieces back into the old purse, took it in her hand, and ran upstairs without hesitation. The secret misery of her cousin made her forget the hour and conventional propriety; she was strong in her conscience, in her devotion, in her happiness.

As she stood upon the threshold of the door, holding the candle in one hand and the purse in the other, Charles woke, caught sight of her, and remained speechless with surprise. Eugenie came forward, put the candle on the table, and said in a quivering voice:

“My cousin, I must beg pardon for a wrong I have done you; but God will pardon me — if you — will help me to wipe it out.”

“What is it?” asked Charles, rubbing his eyes.

“I have read those letters.”

Charles colored.

“How did it happen?” she continued; “how came I here? Truly, I do not know. I am tempted not to regret too much that I have read them; they have made me know your heart, your soul, and —”

“And what?” asked Charles.

“Your plans, your need of a sum —”

“My dear cousin —”

“Hush, hush! my cousin, not so loud; we must not wake others. See,” she said, opening her purse, “here are the savings of a poor girl who wants nothing. Charles, accept them! This morning I was ignorant of the value of money; you have taught it to me. It is but a means, after all. A cousin is almost a brother; you can surely borrow the purse of your sister.”

Eugenie, as much a woman as a young girl, never dreamed of refusal; but her cousin remained silent.

“Oh! you will not refuse?” cried Eugenie, the beatings of whose heart could be heard in the deep silence.

Her cousin’s hesitation mortified her; but the sore need of his position came clearer still to her mind, and she knelt down.

“I will never rise till you have taken that gold!” she said. “My cousin, I implore you, answer me! let me know if you respect me, if you are generous, if —”

As he heard this cry of noble distress the young man’s tears fell upon his cousin’s hands, which he had caught in his own to keep her from kneeling. As the warm tears touched her, Eugenie sprang to the purse and poured its contents upon the table.

“Ah! yes, yes, you consent?” she said, weeping with joy. “Fear nothing, my cousin, you will be rich. This gold will bring you happiness; some day you shall bring it back to me — are we not partners? I will obey all conditions. But you should not attach such value to the gift.”

Charles was at last able to express his feelings.

“Yes, Eugenie; my soul would be small indeed if I did not accept. And yet — gift for gift, confidence for confidence.”

“What do you mean?” she said, frightened.

“Listen, dear cousin; I have here —” He interrupted himself to point out a square box covered with an outer case of leather which was on the drawers. “There,” he continued, “is something as precious to me as life itself. This box was a present from my mother. All day I have been thinking that if she could rise from her grave, she would herself sell the gold which her love for me lavished on this dressing-case; but were I to do so, the act would seem to me a sacrilege.” Eugenie pressed his hand as she heard these last words. “No,” he added, after a slight pause, during which a liquid glance of tenderness passed between them, “no, I will neither sell it nor risk its safety on my journey. Dear Eugenie, you shall be its guardian. Never did friend commit anything more sacred to another. Let me show it to you.”

He went to the box, took it from its outer coverings, opened it, and showed his delighted cousin a dressing-case where the rich workmanship gave to the gold ornaments a value far above their weight.

“What you admire there is nothing,” he said, pushing a secret spring which opened a hidden drawer. “Here is something which to me is worth the whole world.” He drew out two portraits, masterpieces of Madame Mirbel, richly set with pearls.

“Oh, how beautiful! Is it the lady to whom you wrote that —”

“No,” he said, smiling; “this is my mother, and here is my father, your aunt and uncle. Eugenie, I beg you on my knees, keep my treasure safely. If I die and your little fortune is lost, this gold and these pearls will repay you. To you alone could I leave these portraits; you are worthy to keep them. But destroy them at last, so that they may pass into no other hands.” Eugenie was silent. “Ah, yes, say yes! You consent?” he added with winning grace.

Hearing the very words she had just used to her cousin now addressed to herself, she turned upon him a look of love, her first look of loving womanhood — a glance in which there is nearly as much of coquetry as of inmost depth. He took her hand and kissed it.

“Angel of purity! between us two money is nothing, never can be anything. Feeling, sentiment, must be all henceforth.”

“You are like your mother — was her voice as soft as yours?”

“Oh! much softer —”

“Yes, for you,” she said, dropping her eyelids. “Come, Charles, go to bed; I wish it; you must be tired. Good-night.” She gently disengaged her hand from those of her cousin, who followed her to her room, lighting the way. When they were both upon the threshold —

“Ah!” he said, “why am I ruined?”

“What matter? — my father is rich; I think so,” she answered.

“Poor child!” said Charles, making a step into her room and leaning his back against the wall, “if that were so, he would never have let my father die; he would not let you live in this poor way; he would live otherwise himself.”

“But he owns Froidfond.”

“What is Froidfond worth?”

“I don’t know; but he has Noyers.”

“Nothing but a poor farm!”

“He has vineyards and fields.”

“Mere nothing,” said Charles disdainfully. “If your father had only twenty-four thousand francs a year do you suppose you would live in this cold, barren room?” he added, making a step in advance. “Ah! there you will keep my treasures,” he said, glancing at the old cabinet, as if to hide his thoughts.

“Go and sleep,” she said, hindering his entrance into the disordered room.

Charles stepped back, and they bid each other good-night with a mutual smile.

Both fell asleep in the same dream; and from that moment the youth began to wear roses with his mourning. The next day, before breakfast, Madame Grandet found her daughter in the garden in company with Charles. The young man was still sad, as became a poor fellow who, plunged in misfortune, measures the depths of the abyss into which he has fallen, and sees the terrible burden of his whole future life.

“My father will not be home till dinner-time,” said Eugenie, perceiving the anxious look on her mother’s face.

It was easy to trace in the face and manners of the young girl and in the singular sweetness of her voice a unison of thought between her and her cousin. Their souls had espoused each other, perhaps before they even felt the force of the feelings which bound them together. Charles spent the morning in the hall, and his sadness was respected. Each of the three women had occupations of her own. Grandet had left all his affairs unattended to, and a number of persons came on business — the plumber, the mason, the slater, the carpenter, the diggers, the dressers, the farmers; some to drive a bargain about repairs, others to pay their rent or to be paid themselves for services. Madame Grandet and Eugenie were obliged to go and come and listen to the interminable talk of all these workmen and country folk. Nanon put away in her kitchen the produce which they brought as tribute. She always waited for her master’s orders before she knew what portion was to be used in the house and what was to be sold in the market. It was the goodman’s custom, like that of a great many country gentlemen, to drink his bad wine and eat his spoiled fruit.

Towards five in the afternoon Grandet returned from Angers, having made fourteen thousand francs by the exchange on his gold, bringing home in his wallet good treasury-notes which bore interest until the day he should invest them in the Funds. He had left Cornoiller at Angers to look after the horses, which were well-nigh foundered, with orders to bring them home slowly after they were rested.

“I have got back from Angers, wife,” he said; “I am hungry.”

Nanon called out to him from the kitchen: “Haven’t you eaten anything since yesterday?”

“Nothing,” answered the old man.

Nanon brought in the soup. Des Grassins came to take his client’s orders just as the family sat down to dinner. Grandet had not even observed his nephew.

“Go on eating, Grandet,” said the banker; “we can talk. Do you know what gold is worth in Angers? They have come from Nantes after it? I shall send some of ours.”

“Don’t send any,” said Grandet; “they have got enough. We are such old friends, I ought to save you from such a loss of time.”

“But gold is worth thirteen francs fifty centimes.”

“Say was worth —”

“Where the devil have they got any?”

“I went to Angers last night,” answered Grandet in a low voice.

The banker shook with surprise. Then a whispered conversation began between the two, during which Grandet and des Grassins frequently looked at Charles. Presently des Grassins gave a start of astonishment; probably Grandet was then instructing him to invest the sum which was to give him a hundred thousand francs a year in the Funds.

“Monsieur Grandet,” said the banker to Charles, “I am starting for Paris; if you have any commissions —”

“None, monsieur, I thank you,” answered Charles.

“Thank him better than that, nephew. Monsieur is going to settle the affairs of the house of Guillaume Grandet.”

“Is there any hope?” said Charles eagerly.

“What!” exclaimed his uncle, with well-acted pride, “are you not my nephew? Your honor is ours. Is not your name Grandet?”

Charles rose, seized Pere Grandet, kissed him, turned pale, and left the room. Eugenie looked at her father with admiration.

“Well, good-by, des Grassins; it is all in your hands. Decoy those people as best you can; lead ’em by the nose.”

The two diplomatists shook hands. The old cooper accompanied the banker to the front door. Then, after closing it, he came back and plunged into his armchair, saying to Nanon —

“Get me some black-currant ratafia.”

Too excited, however, to remain long in one place, he got up, looked at the portrait of Monsieur de la Bertelliere, and began to sing, doing what Nanon called his dancing steps —

“Dans les gardes francaises J’avais un bon papa.”

Nanon, Madame Grandet, and Eugenie looked at each other in silence. The hilarity of the master always frightened them when it reached its climax. The evening was soon over. Pere Grandet chose to go to bed early, and when he went to bed, everybody else was expected to go too; like as when Augustus drank, Poland was drunk. On this occasion Nanon, Charles, and Eugenie were not less tired than the master. As for Madame Grandet, she slept, ate, drank, and walked according to the will of her husband. However, during the two hours consecrated to digestion, the cooper, more facetious than he had ever been in his life, uttered a number of his own particular apothegms — a single one of which will give the measure of his mind. When he had drunk his ratafia, he looked at his glass and said —

“You have no sooner put your lips to a glass than it is empty! Such is life. You can’t have and hold. Gold won’t circulate and stay in your purse. If it were not for that, life would be too fine.”

He was jovial and benevolent. When Nanon came with her spinning-wheel, “You must be tired,” he said; “put away your hemp.”

“Ah, bah! then I shall get sleepy,” she answered.

“Poor Nanon! Will you have some ratafia?”

“I won’t refuse a good offer; madame makes it a deal better than the apothecaries. What they sell is all drugs.”

“They put too much sugar,” said the master; “you can’t taste anything else.”

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