Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac

IX

The following day the family, meeting at eight o’clock for the early breakfast, made a picture of genuine domestic intimacy. Grief had drawn Madame Grandet, Eugenie, and Charles en rapport; even Nanon sympathized, without knowing why. The four now made one family. As to the old man, his satisfied avarice and the certainty of soon getting rid of the dandy without having to pay more than his journey to Nantes, made him nearly indifferent to his presence in the house. He left the two children, as he called Charles and Eugenie, free to conduct themselves as they pleased, under the eye of Madame Grandet, in whom he had implicit confidence as to all that concerned public and religious morality. He busied himself in straightening the boundaries of his fields and ditches along the high-road, in his poplar-plantations beside the Loire, in the winter work of his vineyards, and at Froidfond. All these things occupied his whole time.

For Eugenie the springtime of love had come. Since the scene at night when she gave her little treasure to her cousin, her heart had followed the treasure. Confederates in the same secret, they looked at each other with a mutual intelligence which sank to the depth of their consciousness, giving a closer communion, a more intimate relation to their feelings, and putting them, so to speak, beyond the pale of ordinary life. Did not their near relationship warrant the gentleness in their tones, the tenderness in their glances? Eugenie took delight in lulling her cousin’s pain with the pretty childish joys of a new-born love. Are there no sweet similitudes between the birth of love and the birth of life? Do we not rock the babe with gentle songs and softest glances? Do we not tell it marvellous tales of the golden future? Hope herself, does she not spread her radiant wings above its head? Does it not shed, with infant fickleness, its tears of sorrow and its tears of joy? Does it not fret for trifles, cry for the pretty pebbles with which to build its shifting palaces, for the flowers forgotten as soon as plucked? Is it not eager to grasp the coming time, to spring forward into life? Love is our second transformation. Childhood and love were one and the same thing to Eugenie and to Charles; it was a first passion, with all its child-like play — the more caressing to their hearts because they now were wrapped in sadness. Struggling at birth against the gloom of mourning, their love was only the more in harmony with the provincial plainness of that gray and ruined house. As they exchanged a few words beside the well in the silent court, or lingered in the garden for the sunset hour, sitting on a mossy seat saying to each other the infinite nothings of love, or mused in the silent calm which reigned between the house and the ramparts like that beneath the arches of a church, Charles comprehended the sanctity of love; for his great lady, his dear Annette, had taught him only its stormy troubles. At this moment he left the worldly passion, coquettish, vain, and showy as it was, and turned to the true, pure love. He loved even the house, whose customs no longer seemed to him ridiculous. He got up early in the mornings that he might talk with Eugenie for a moment before her father came to dole out the provisions; when the steps of the old man sounded on the staircase he escaped into the garden. The small criminality of this morning tete-a-tete which Nanon pretended not to see, gave to their innocent love the lively charm of a forbidden joy.

After breakfast, when Grandet had gone to his fields and his other occupations, Charles remained with the mother and daughter, finding an unknown pleasure in holding their skeins, in watching them at work, in listening to their quiet prattle. The simplicity of this half-monastic life, which revealed to him the beauty of these souls, unknown and unknowing of the world, touched him keenly. He had believed such morals impossible in France, and admitted their existence nowhere but in Germany; even so, they seemed to him fabulous, only real in the novels of Auguste Lafontaine. Soon Eugenie became to him the Margaret of Goethe — before her fall. Day by day his words, his looks enraptured the poor girl, who yielded herself up with delicious non-resistance to the current of love; she caught her happiness as a swimmer seizes the overhanging branch of a willow to draw himself from the river and lie at rest upon its shore. Did no dread of a coming absence sadden the happy hours of those fleeting days? Daily some little circumstance reminded them of the parting that was at hand.

Three days after the departure of des Grassins, Grandet took his nephew to the Civil courts, with the solemnity which country people attach to all legal acts, that he might sign a deed surrendering his rights in his father’s estate. Terrible renunciation! species of domestic apostasy! Charles also went before Maitre Cruchot to make two powers of attorney — one for des Grassins, the other for the friend whom he had charged with the sale of his belongings. After that he attended to all the formalities necessary to obtain a passport for foreign countries; and finally, when he received his simple mourning clothes from Paris, he sent for the tailor of Saumur and sold to him his useless wardrobe. This last act pleased Grandet exceedingly.

“Ah! now you look like a man prepared to embark and make your fortune,” he said, when Charles appeared in a surtout of plain black cloth. “Good! very good!”

“I hope you will believe, monsieur,” answered his nephew, “that I shall always try to conform to my situation.”

“What’s that?” said his uncle, his eyes lighting up at a handful of gold which Charles was carrying.

“Monsieur, I have collected all my buttons and rings and other superfluities which may have some value; but not knowing any one in Saumur, I wanted to ask you to —”

“To buy them?” said Grandet, interrupting him.

“No, uncle; only to tell me of an honest man who —”

“Give me those things, I will go upstairs and estimate their value; I will come back and tell you what it is to a fraction. Jeweller’s gold,” examining a long chain, “eighteen or nineteen carats.”

The goodman held out his huge hand and received the mass of gold, which he carried away.

“Cousin,” said Grandet, “may I offer you these two buttons? They can fasten ribbons round your wrists; that sort of bracelet is much the fashion just now.”

“I accept without hesitation,” she answered, giving him an understanding look.

“Aunt, here is my mother’s thimble; I have always kept it carefully in my dressing-case,” said Charles, presenting a pretty gold thimble to Madame Grandet, who for many years had longed for one.

“I cannot thank you; no words are possible, my nephew,” said the poor mother, whose eyes filled with tears. “Night and morning in my prayers I shall add one for you, the most earnest of all — for those who travel. If I die, Eugenie will keep this treasure for you.”

“They are worth nine hundred and eighty-nine francs, seventy-five centimes,” said Grandet, opening the door. “To save you the pain of selling them, I will advance the money — in livres.”

The word livres on the littoral of the Loire signifies that crown prices of six livres are to be accepted as six francs without deduction.

“I dared not propose it to you,” answered Charles; “but it was most repugnant to me to sell my jewels to some second-hand dealer in your own town. People should wash their dirty linen at home, as Napoleon said. I thank you for your kindness.”

Grandet scratched his ear, and there was a moment’s silence.

“My dear uncle,” resumed Charles, looking at him with an uneasy air, as if he feared to wound his feelings, “my aunt and cousin have been kind enough to accept a trifling remembrance of me. Will you allow me to give you these sleeve-buttons, which are useless to me now? They will remind you of a poor fellow who, far away, will always think of those who are henceforth all his family.”

“My lad, my lad, you mustn’t rob yourself this way! Let me see, wife, what have you got?” he added, turning eagerly to her. “Ah! a gold thimble. And you, little girl? What! diamond buttons? Yes, I’ll accept your present, nephew,” he answered, shaking Charles by the hand. “But — you must let me — pay — your — yes, your passage to the Indies. Yes, I wish to pay your passage because — d’ye see, my boy? — in valuing your jewels I estimated only the weight of the gold; very likely the workmanship is worth something. So let us settle it that I am to give you fifteen hundred francs — in livres; Cruchot will lend them to me. I haven’t got a copper farthing here — unless Perrotet, who is behindhand with his rent, should pay up. By the bye, I’ll go and see him.”

He took his hat, put on his gloves, and went out.

“Then you are really going?” said Eugenie to her cousin, with a sad look, mingled with admiration.

“I must,” he said, bowing his head.

For some days past, Charles’s whole bearing, manners, and speech had become those of a man who, in spite of his profound affliction, feels the weight of immense obligations and has the strength to gather courage from misfortune. He no longer repined, he became a man. Eugenie never augured better of her cousin’s character than when she saw him come down in the plain black clothes which suited well with his pale face and sombre countenance. On that day the two women put on their own mourning, and all three assisted at a Requiem celebrated in the parish church for the soul of the late Guillaume Grandet.

At the second breakfast Charles received letters from Paris and began to read them.

“Well, cousin, are you satisfied with the management of your affairs?” said Eugenie in a low voice.

“Never ask such questions, my daughter,” said Grandet. “What the devil! do I tell you my affairs? Why do you poke your nose into your cousin’s? Let the lad alone!”

“Oh! I haven’t any secrets,” said Charles.

“Ta, ta, ta, ta, nephew; you’ll soon find out that you must hold your tongue in business.”

When the two lovers were alone in the garden, Charles said to Eugenie, drawing her down on the old bench beneath the walnut-tree —

“I did right to trust Alphonse; he has done famously. He has managed my affairs with prudence and good faith. I now owe nothing in Paris. All my things have been sold; and he tells me that he has taken the advice of an old sea-captain and spent three thousand francs on a commercial outfit of European curiosities which will be sure to be in demand in the Indies. He has sent my trunks to Nantes, where a ship is loading for San Domingo. In five days, Eugenie, we must bid each other farewell — perhaps forever, at least for years. My outfit and ten thousand francs, which two of my friends send me, are a very small beginning. I cannot look to return for many years. My dear cousin, do not weight your life in the scales with mine; I may perish; some good marriage may be offered to you —”

“Do you love me?” she said.

“Oh, yes! indeed, yes!” he answered, with a depth of tone that revealed an equal depth of feeling.

“I shall wait, Charles — Good heavens! there is my father at his window,” she said, repulsing her cousin, who leaned forward to kiss her.

She ran quickly under the archway. Charles followed her. When she saw him, she retreated to the foot of the staircase and opened the swing-door; then, scarcely knowing where she was going, Eugenie reached the corner near Nanon’s den, in the darkest end of the passage. There Charles caught her hand and drew her to his heart. Passing his arm about her waist, he made her lean gently upon him. Eugenie no longer resisted; she received and gave the purest, the sweetest, and yet, withal, the most unreserved of kisses.

“Dear Eugenie, a cousin is better than a brother, for he can marry you,” said Charles.

“So be it!” cried Nanon, opening the door of her lair.

The two lovers, alarmed, fled into the hall, where Eugenie took up her work and Charles began to read the litanies of the Virgin in Madame Grandet’s prayer-book.

“Mercy!” cried Nanon, “now they’re saying their prayers.”

As soon as Charles announced his immediate departure, Grandet bestirred himself to testify much interest in his nephew. He became very liberal of all that cost him nothing; took pains to find a packer; declared the man asked too much for his cases; insisted on making them himself out of old planks; got up early in the morning to fit and plane and nail together the strips, out of which he made, to his own satisfaction, some strong cases, in which he packed all Charles’s effects; he also took upon himself to send them by boat down the Loire, to insure them, and get them to Nantes in proper time.

After the kiss taken in the passage, the hours fled for Eugenie with frightful rapidity. Sometimes she thought of following her cousin. Those who have known that most endearing of all passions — the one whose duration is each day shortened by time, by age, by mortal illness, by human chances and fatalities — they will understand the poor girl’s tortures. She wept as she walked in the garden, now so narrow to her, as indeed the court, the house, the town all seemed. She launched in thought upon the wide expanse of the ocean he was about to traverse. At last the eve of his departure came. That morning, in the absence of Grandet and of Nanon, the precious case which contained the two portraits was solemnly installed in the only drawer of the old cabinet which could be locked, where the now empty velvet purse was lying. This deposit was not made without a goodly number of tears and kisses. When Eugenie placed the key within her bosom she had no courage to forbid the kiss with which Charles sealed the act.

“It shall never leave that place, my friend,” she said.

“Then my heart will be always there.”

“Ah! Charles, it is not right,” she said, as though she blamed him.

“Are we not married?” he said. “I have thy promise — then take mine.”

“Thine; I am thine forever!” they each said, repeating the words twice over.

No promise made upon this earth was ever purer. The innocent sincerity of Eugenie had sanctified for a moment the young man’s love.

On the morrow the breakfast was sad. Nanon herself, in spite of the gold-embroidered robe and the Jeannette cross bestowed by Charles, had tears in her eyes.

“The poor dear monsieur who is going on the seas — oh, may God guide him!”

At half-past ten the whole family started to escort Charles to the diligence for Nantes. Nanon let loose the dog, locked the door, and insisted on carrying the young man’s carpet-bag. All the tradesmen in the tortuous old street were on the sill of their shop-doors to watch the procession, which was joined in the market-place by Maitre Cruchot.

“Eugenie, be sure you don’t cry,” said her mother.

“Nephew,” said Grandet, in the doorway of the inn from which the coach started, kissing Charles on both cheeks, “depart poor, return rich; you will find the honor of your father safe. I answer for that myself, I— Grandet; for it will only depend on you to —”

“Ah! my uncle, you soften the bitterness of my departure. Is it not the best gift that you could make me?”

Not understanding his uncle’s words which he had thus interrupted, Charles shed tears of gratitude upon the tanned cheeks of the old miser, while Eugenie pressed the hand of her cousin and that of her father with all her strength. The notary smiled, admiring the sly speech of the old man, which he alone had understood. The family stood about the coach until it started; then as it disappeared upon the bridge, and its rumble grew fainter in the distance, Grandet said:

“Good-by to you!”

Happily no one but Maitre Cruchot heard the exclamation. Eugenie and her mother had gone to a corner of the quay from which they could still see the diligence and wave their white handkerchiefs, to which Charles made answer by displaying his.

“Ah! mother, would that I had the power of God for a single moment,” said Eugenie, when she could no longer see her lover’s handkerchief.

* * * * *

Not to interrupt the current of events which are about to take place in the bosom of the Grandet family, it is necessary to cast a forestalling eye upon the various operations which the goodman carried on in Paris by means of Monsieur des Grassins. A month after the latter’s departure from Saumur, Grandet, became possessed of a certificate of a hundred thousand francs a year from his investment in the Funds, bought at eighty francs net. The particulars revealed at his death by the inventory of his property threw no light upon the means which his suspicious nature took to remit the price of the investment and receive the certificate thereof. Maitre Cruchot was of opinion that Nanon, unknown to herself, was the trusty instrument by which the money was transported; for about this time she was absent five days, under a pretext of putting things to rights at Froidfond, — as if the goodman were capable of leaving anything lying about or out of order!

In all that concerned the business of the house of Guillaume Grandet the old cooper’s intentions were fulfilled to the letter. The Bank of France, as everybody knows, affords exact information about all the large fortunes in Paris and the provinces. The names of des Grassins and Felix Grandet of Saumur were well known there, and they enjoyed the esteem bestowed on financial celebrities whose wealth comes from immense and unencumbered territorial possessions. The arrival of the Saumur banker for the purpose, it was said, of honorably liquidating the affairs of Grandet of Paris, was enough to avert the shame of protested notes from the memory of the defunct merchant. The seals on the property were taken off in presence of the creditors, and the notary employed by Grandet went to work at once on the inventory of the assets. Soon after this, des Grassins called a meeting of the creditors, who unanimously elected him, conjointly with Francois Keller, the head of a rich banking-house and one of those principally interested in the affair, as liquidators, with full power to protect both the honor of the family and the interests of the claimants. The credit of Grandet of Saumur, the hopes he diffused by means of des Grassins in the minds of all concerned, facilitated the transactions. Not a single creditor proved recalcitrant; no one thought of passing his claim to his profit-and-loss account; each and all said confidently, “Grandet of Saumur will pay.”

Six months went by. The Parisians had redeemed the notes in circulation as they fell due, and held them under lock and key in their desks. First result aimed at by the old cooper! Nine months after this preliminary meeting, the two liquidators distributed forty-seven per cent to each creditor on his claim. This amount was obtained by the sale of the securities, property, and possessions of all kinds belonging to the late Guillaume Grandet, and was paid over with scrupulous fidelity. Unimpeachable integrity was shown in the transaction. The creditors gratefully acknowledged the remarkable and incontestable honor displayed by the Grandets. When these praises had circulated for a certain length of time, the creditors asked for the rest of their money. It became necessary to write a collective letter to Grandet of Saumur.

“Here it comes!” said the old man as he threw the letter into the fire. “Patience, my good friends!”

In answer to the proposals contained in the letter, Grandet of Saumur demanded that all vouchers for claims against the estate of his brother should be deposited with a notary, together with aquittances for the forty-seven per cent already paid; he made this demand under pretence of sifting the accounts and finding out the exact condition of the estate. It roused at once a variety of difficulties. Generally speaking, the creditor is a species of maniac, ready to agree to anything one day, on the next breathing fire and slaughter; later on, he grows amicable and easy-going. To-day his wife is good-humored, his last baby has cut its first tooth, all is well at home, and he is determined not to lose a sou; on the morrow it rains, he can’t go out, he is gloomy, he says yes to any proposal that is made to him, so long as it will put an end to the affair; on the third day he declares he must have guarantees; by the end of the month he wants his debtor’s head, and becomes at heart an executioner. The creditor is a good deal like the sparrow on whose tail confiding children are invited to put salt — with this difference, that he applies the image to his claim, the proceeds of which he is never able to lay hold of. Grandet had studied the atmospheric variations of creditors, and the creditors of his brother justified all his calculations. Some were angry, and flatly refused to give in their vouchers.

“Very good; so much the better,” said Grandet, rubbing his hands over the letter in which des Grassins announced the fact.

Others agreed to the demand, but only on condition that their rights should be fully guaranteed; they renounced none, and even reserved the power of ultimately compelling a failure. On this began a long correspondence, which ended in Grandet of Saumur agreeing to all conditions. By means of this concession the placable creditors were able to bring the dissatisfied creditors to reason. The deposit was then made, but not without sundry complaints.

“Your goodman,” they said to des Grassins, “is tricking us.”

Twenty-three months after the death of Guillaume Grandet many of the creditors, carried away by more pressing business in the markets of Paris, had forgotten their Grandet claims, or only thought of them to say:

“I begin to believe that forty-seven per cent is all I shall ever get out of that affair.”

The old cooper had calculated on the power of time, which, as he used to say, is a pretty good devil after all. By the end of the third year des Grassins wrote to Grandet that he had brought the creditors to agree to give up their claims for ten per cent on the two million four hundred thousand francs still due by the house of Grandet. Grandet answered that the notary and the broker whose shameful failures had caused the death of his brother were still living, that they might now have recovered their credit, and that they ought to be sued, so as to get something out of them towards lessening the total of the deficit.

By the end of the fourth year the liabilities were definitely estimated at a sum of twelve hundred thousand francs. Many negotiations, lasting over six months, took place between the creditors and the liquidators, and between the liquidators and Grandet. To make a long story short, Grandet of Saumur, anxious by this time to get out of the affair, told the liquidators, about the ninth month of the fourth year, that his nephew had made a fortune in the Indies and was disposed to pay his father’s debts in full; he therefore could not take upon himself to make any settlement without previously consulting him; he had written to him, and was expecting an answer. The creditors were held in check until the middle of the fifth year by the words, “payment in full,” which the wily old miser threw out from time to time as he laughed in his beard, saying with a smile and an oath, “Those Parisians!”

But the creditors were reserved for a fate unexampled in the annals of commerce. When the events of this history bring them once more into notice, they will be found still in the position Grandet had resolved to force them into from the first.

As soon as the Funds reached a hundred and fifteen, Pere Grandet sold out his interests and withdrew two million four hundred thousand francs in gold, to which he added, in his coffers, the six hundred thousand francs compound interest which he had derived from the capital. Des Grassins now lived in Paris. In the first place he had been made a deputy; then he became infatuated (father of a family as he was, though horribly bored by the provincial life of Saumur) with a pretty actress at the Theatre de Madame, known as Florine, and he presently relapsed into the old habits of his army life. It is useless to speak of his conduct; Saumur considered it profoundly immoral. His wife was fortunate in the fact of her property being settled upon herself, and in having sufficient ability to keep up the banking-house in Saumur, which was managed in her name and repaired the breach in her fortune caused by the extravagance of her husband. The Cruchotines made so much talk about the false position of the quasi-widow that she married her daughter very badly, and was forced to give up all hope of an alliance between Eugenie Grandet and her son. Adolphe joined his father in Paris and became, it was said, a worthless fellow. The Cruchots triumphed.

“Your husband hasn’t common sense,” said Grandet as he lent Madame des Grassins some money on a note securely endorsed. “I am very sorry for you, for you are a good little woman.”

“Ah, monsieur,” said the poor lady, “who could have believed that when he left Saumur to go to Paris on your business he was going to his ruin?”

“Heaven is my witness, madame, that up to the last moment I did all I could to prevent him from going. Monsieur le president was most anxious to take his place; but he was determined to go, and now we all see why.”

In this way Grandet made it quite plain that he was under no obligation to des Grassins.

* * * * *

In all situations women have more cause for suffering than men, and they suffer more. Man has strength and the power of exercising it; he acts, moves, thinks, occupies himself; he looks ahead, and sees consolation in the future. It was thus with Charles. But the woman stays at home; she is always face to face with the grief from which nothing distracts her; she goes down to the depths of the abyss which yawns before her, measures it, and often fills it with her tears and prayers. Thus did Eugenie. She initiated herself into her destiny. To feel, to love, to suffer, to devote herself — is not this the sum of woman’s life? Eugenie was to be in all things a woman, except in the one thing that consoles for all. Her happiness, picked up like nails scattered on a wall — to use the fine simile of Bossuet — would never so much as fill even the hollow of her hand. Sorrows are never long in coming; for her they came soon. The day after Charles’s departure the house of Monsieur Grandet resumed its ordinary aspect in the eyes of all, except in those of Eugenie, to whom it grew suddenly empty. She wished, if it could be done unknown to her father, that Charles’s room might be kept as he had left it. Madame Grandet and Nanon were willing accomplices in this statu quo.

“Who knows but he may come back sooner than we think for?” she said.

“Ah, don’t I wish I could see him back!” answered Nanon. “I took to him! He was such a dear, sweet young man — pretty too, with his curly hair.” Eugenie looked at Nanon. “Holy Virgin! don’t look at me that way, mademoiselle; your eyes are like those of a lost soul.”

From that day the beauty of Mademoiselle Grandet took a new character. The solemn thoughts of love which slowly filled her soul, and the dignity of the woman beloved, gave to her features an illumination such as painters render by a halo. Before the coming of her cousin, Eugenie might be compared to the Virgin before the conception; after he had gone, she was like the Virgin Mother — she had given birth to love. These two Marys so different, so well represented by Spanish art, embody one of those shining symbols with which Christianity abounds.

Returning from Mass on the morning after Charles’s departure — having made a vow to hear it daily — Eugenie bought a map of the world, which she nailed up beside her looking-glass, that she might follow her cousin on his westward way, that she might put herself, were it ever so little, day by day into the ship that bore him, and see him and ask him a thousand questions — “Art thou well? Dost thou suffer? Dost thou think of me when the star, whose beauty and usefulness thou hast taught me to know, shines upon thee?” In the mornings she sat pensive beneath the walnut-tree, on the worm-eaten bench covered with gray lichens, where they had said to each other so many precious things, so many trifles, where they had built the pretty castles of their future home. She thought of the future now as she looked upward to the bit of sky which was all the high walls suffered her to see; then she turned her eyes to the angle where the sun crept on, and to the roof above the room in which he had slept. Hers was the solitary love, the persistent love, which glides into every thought and becomes the substance, or, as our fathers might have said, the tissue of life. When the would-be friends of Pere Grandet came in the evening for their game at cards, she was gay and dissimulating; but all the morning she talked of Charles with her mother and Nanon. Nanon had brought herself to see that she could pity the sufferings of her young mistress without failing in her duty to the old master, and she would say to Eugenie —

“If I had a man for myself I’d — I’d follow him to hell, yes, I’d exterminate myself for him; but I’ve none. I shall die and never know what life is. Would you believe, mamz’elle, that old Cornoiller (a good fellow all the same) is always round my petticoats for the sake of my money — just for all the world like the rats who come smelling after the master’s cheese and paying court to you? I see it all; I’ve got a shrewd eye, though I am as big as a steeple. Well, mamz’elle, it pleases me, but it isn’t love.”

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