Eugénie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac


While these events were happening in Saumur, Charles was making his fortune in the Indies. His commercial outfit had sold well. He began by realizing a sum of six thousand dollars. Crossing the line had brushed a good many cobwebs out of his brain; he perceived that the best means of attaining fortune in tropical regions, as well as in Europe, was to buy and sell men. He went to the coast of Africa and bought Negroes, combining his traffic in human flesh with that of other merchandise equally advantageous to his interests. He carried into this business an activity which left him not a moment of leisure. He was governed by the desire of reappearing in Paris with all the prestige of a large fortune, and by the hope of regaining a position even more brilliant than the one from which he had fallen.

By dint of jostling with men, travelling through many lands, and studying a variety of conflicting customs, his ideas had been modified and had become sceptical. He ceased to have fixed principles of right and wrong, for he saw what was called a crime in one country lauded as a virtue in another. In the perpetual struggle of selfish interests his heart grew cold, then contracted, and then dried up. The blood of the Grandets did not fail of its destiny; Charles became hard, and eager for prey. He sold Chinamen, Negroes, birds’ nests, children, artists; he practised usury on a large scale; the habit of defrauding custom-houses soon made him less scrupulous about the rights of his fellow men. He went to the Island of St. Thomas and bought, for a mere song, merchandise that had been captured by pirates, and took it to ports where he could sell it at a good price. If the pure and noble face of Eugenie went with him on his first voyage, like that image of the Virgin which Spanish mariners fastened to their masts, if he attributed his first success to the magic influence of the prayers and intercessions of his gentle love, later on women of other kinds, — blacks, mulattoes, whites, and Indian dancing-girls — orgies and adventures in many lands, completely effaced all recollection of his cousin, of Saumur, of the house, the bench, the kiss snatched in the dark passage. He remembered only the little garden shut in with crumbling walls, for it was there he learned the fate that had overtaken him; but he rejected all connection with his family. His uncle was an old dog who had filched his jewels; Eugenie had no place in his heart nor in his thoughts, though she did have a place in his accounts as a creditor for the sum of six thousand francs.

Such conduct and such ideas explain Charles Grandet’s silence. In the Indies, at St. Thomas, on the coast of Africa, at Lisbon, and in the United States the adventurer had taken the pseudonym of Shepherd, that he might not compromise his own name. Charles Shepherd could safely be indefatigable, bold, grasping, and greedy of gain, like a man who resolves to snatch his fortune quibus cumque viis, and makes haste to have done with villany, that he may spend the rest of his life as an honest man.

With such methods, prosperity was rapid and brilliant; and in 1827 Charles Grandet returned to Bordeaux on the “Marie Caroline,” a fine brig belonging to a royalist house of business. He brought with him nineteen hundred thousand francs worth of gold-dust, from which he expected to derive seven or eight per cent more at the Paris mint. On the brig he met a gentleman-inordinary to His Majesty Charles X., Monsieur d’Aubrion, a worthy old man who had committed the folly of marrying a woman of fashion with a fortune derived from the West India Islands. To meet the costs of Madame d’Aubrion’s extravagance, he had gone out to the Indies to sell the property, and was now returning with his family to France.

Monsieur and Madame d’Aubrion, of the house of d’Aubrion de Buch, a family of southern France, whose last captal, or chief, died before 1789, were now reduced to an income of about twenty thousand francs, and they possessed an ugly daughter whom the mother was resolved to marry without a dot — the family fortune being scarcely sufficient for the demands of her own life in Paris. This was an enterprise whose success might have seemed problematical to most men of the world, in spite of the cleverness with which such men credit a fashionable woman; in fact, Madame d’Aubrion herself, when she looked at her daughter, almost despaired of getting rid of her to any one, even to a man craving connection with nobility. Mademoiselle d’Aubrion was a long, spare, spindling demoiselle, like her namesake the insect; her mouth was disdainful; over it hung a nose that was too long, thick at the end, sallow in its normal condition, but very red after a meal — a sort of vegetable phenomenon which is particularly disagreeable when it appears in the middle of a pale, dull, and uninteresting face. In one sense she was all that a worldly mother, thirty-eight years of age and still a beauty with claims to admiration, could have wished. However, to counterbalance her personal defects, the marquise gave her daughter a distinguished air, subjected her to hygienic treatment which provisionally kept her nose at a reasonable flesh-tint, taught her the art of dressing well, endowed her with charming manners, showed her the trick of melancholy glances which interest a man and make him believe that he has found a long-sought angel, taught her the manoeuvre of the foot — letting it peep beneath the petticoat, to show its tiny size, at the moment when the nose became aggressively red; in short, Madame d’Aubrion had cleverly made the very best of her offspring. By means of full sleeves, deceptive pads, puffed dresses amply trimmed, and high-pressure corsets, she had obtained such curious feminine developments that she ought, for the instruction of mothers, to have exhibited them in a museum.

Charles became very intimate with Madame d’Aubrion precisely because she was desirous of becoming intimate with him. Persons who were on board the brig declared that the handsome Madame d’Aubrion neglected no means of capturing so rich a son-inlaw. On landing at Bordeaux in June, 1827, Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle d’Aubrion, and Charles lodged at the same hotel and started together for Paris. The hotel d’Aubrion was hampered with mortgages; Charles was destined to free it. The mother told him how delighted she would be to give up the ground-floor to a son-inlaw. Not sharing Monsieur d’Aubrion’s prejudices on the score of nobility, she promised Charles Grandet to obtain a royal ordinance from Charles X. which would authorize him, Grandet, to take the name and arms of d’Aubrion and to succeed, by purchasing the entailed estate for thirty-six thousand francs a year, to the titles of Captal de Buch and Marquis d’Aubrion. By thus uniting their fortunes, living on good terms, and profiting by sinecures, the two families might occupy the hotel d’Aubrion with an income of over a hundred thousand francs.

“And when a man has a hundred thousand francs a year, a name, a family, and a position at court — for I will get you appointed as gentleman-of-the-bedchamber — he can do what he likes,” she said to Charles. “You can then become anything you choose — master of the rolls in the council of State, prefect, secretary to an embassy, the ambassador himself, if you like. Charles X. is fond of d’Aubrion; they have known each other from childhood.”

Intoxicated with ambition, Charles toyed with the hopes thus cleverly presented to him in the guise of confidences poured from heart to heart. Believing his father’s affairs to have been settled by his uncle, he imagined himself suddenly anchored in the Faubourg Saint–Germain — that social object of all desire, where, under shelter of Mademoiselle Mathilde’s purple nose, he was to reappear as the Comte d’Aubrion, very much as the Dreux reappeared in Breze. Dazzled by the prosperity of the Restoration, which was tottering when he left France, fascinated by the splendor of aristocratic ideas, his intoxication, which began on the brig, increased after he reached Paris, and he finally determined to take the course and reach the high position which the selfish hopes of his would-be mother-inlaw pointed out to him. His cousin counted for no more than a speck in this brilliant perspective; but he went to see Annette. True woman of the world, Annette advised her old friend to make the marriage, and promised him her support in all his ambitious projects. In her heart she was enchanted to fasten an ugly and uninteresting girl on Charles, whose life in the West Indies had rendered him very attractive. His complexion had bronzed, his manners had grown decided and bold, like those of a man accustomed to make sharp decisions, to rule, and to succeed. Charles breathed more at his ease in Paris, conscious that he now had a part to play.

Des Grassins, hearing of his return, of his approaching marriage and his large fortune, came to see him, and inquired about the three hundred thousand francs still required to settle his father’s debts. He found Grandet in conference with a goldsmith, from whom he had ordered jewels for Mademoiselle d’Aubrion’s corbeille, and who was then submitting the designs. Charles had brought back magnificent diamonds, and the value of their setting, together with the plate and jewelry of the new establishment, amounted to more than two hundred thousand francs. He received des Grassins, whom he did not recognize, with the impertinence of a young man of fashion conscious of having killed four men in as many duels in the Indies. Monsieur des Grassins had already called several times. Charles listened to him coldly, and then replied, without fully understanding what had been said to him —

“My father’s affairs are not mine. I am much obliged, monsieur, for the trouble you have been good enough to take — by which, however, I really cannot profit. I have not earned two millions by the sweat of my brow to fling them at the head of my father’s creditors.”

“But suppose that your father’s estate were within a few days to be declared bankrupt?”

“Monsieur, in a few days I shall be called the Comte d’Aubrion; you will understand, therefore, that what you threaten is of no consequence to me. Besides, you know as well as I do that when a man has an income of a hundred thousand francs his father has never failed.” So saying, he politely edged Monsieur des Grassins to the door.

* * * * *

At the beginning of August in the same year, Eugenie was sitting on the little wooden bench where her cousin had sworn to love her eternally, and where she usually breakfasted if the weather were fine. The poor girl was happy, for the moment, in the fresh and joyous summer air, letting her memory recall the great and the little events of her love and the catastrophes which had followed it. The sun had just reached the angle of the ruined wall, so full of chinks, which no one, through a caprice of the mistress, was allowed to touch, though Cornoiller often remarked to his wife that “it would fall and crush somebody one of these days.” At this moment the postman knocked, and gave a letter to Madame Cornoiller, who ran into the garden, crying out:

“Mademoiselle, a letter!” She gave it to her mistress, adding, “Is it the one you expected?”

The words rang as loudly in the heart of Eugenie as they echoed in sound from wall to wall of the court and garden.

“Paris — from him — he has returned!”

Eugenie turned pale and held the letter for a moment. She trembled so violently that she could not break the seal. La Grande Nanon stood before her, both hands on her hips, her joy puffing as it were like smoke through the cracks of her brown face.

“Read it, mademoiselle!”

“Ah, Nanon, why did he return to Paris? He went from Saumur.”

“Read it, and you’ll find out.”

Eugenie opened the letter with trembling fingers. A cheque on the house of “Madame des Grassins and Coret, of Saumur,” fluttered down. Nanon picked it up.

My dear Cousin —

“No longer ‘Eugenie,’” she thought, and her heart quailed.

You —

“He once said ‘thou.’” She folded her arms and dared not read another word; great tears gathered in her eyes.

“Is he dead?” asked Nanon.

“If he were, he could not write,” said Eugenie.

She then read the whole letter, which was as follows:

My dear Cousin — You will, I am sure, hear with pleasure of the success of my enterprise. You brought me luck; I have come back rich, and I have followed the advice of my uncle, whose death, together with that of my aunt, I have just learned from Monsieur des Grassins. The death of parents is in the course of nature, and we must succeed them. I trust you are by this time consoled. Nothing can resist time, as I am well aware. Yes, my dear cousin, the day of illusions is, unfortunately, gone for me. How could it be otherwise? Travelling through many lands, I have reflected upon life. I was a child when I went away — I have come back a man. To-day, I think of many I did not dream of then. You are free, my dear cousin, and I am free still. Nothing apparently hinders the realization of our early hopes; but my nature is too loyal to hide from you the situation in which I find myself. I have not forgotten our relations; I have always remembered, throughout my long wanderings, the little wooden seat —

Eugenie rose as if she were sitting on live coals, and went away and sat down on the stone steps of the court.

— the little wooden seat where we vowed to love each other forever, the passage, the gray hall, my attic chamber, and the night when, by your delicate kindness, you made my future easier to me. Yes, these recollections sustained my courage; I said in my heart that you were thinking of me at the hour we had agreed upon. Have you always looked at the clouds at nine o’clock? Yes, I am sure of it. I cannot betray so true a friendship — no, I must not deceive you. An alliance has been proposed to me which satisfies all my ideas of matrimony. Love in marriage is a delusion. My present experience warns me that in marrying we are bound to obey all social laws and meet the conventional demands of the world. Now, between you and me there are differences which might affect your future, my dear cousin, even more than they would mine. I will not here speak of your customs and inclinations, your education, nor yet of your habits, none of which are in keeping with Parisian life, or with the future which I have marked out for myself. My intention is to keep my household on a stately footing, to receive much company — in short, to live in the world; and I think I remember that you love a quiet and tranquil life. I will be frank, and make you the judge of my situation; you have the right to understand it and to judge it.

I possess at the present moment an income of eighty thousand francs. This fortune enables me to marry into the family of Aubrion, whose heiress, a young girl nineteen years of age, brings me a title, a place of gentleman-of-the-bed-chamber to His Majesty, and a very brilliant position. I will admit to you, my dear cousin, that I do not love Mademoiselle d’Aubrion; but in marrying her I secure to my children a social rank whose advantages will one day be incalculable: monarchical principles are daily coming more and more into favor. Thus in course of time my son, when he becomes Marquis d’Aubrion, having, as he then will have, an entailed estate with a rental of forty thousand francs a year, can obtain any position in the State which he may think proper to select. We owe ourselves to our children.

You see, my cousin, with what good faith I lay the state of my heart, my hopes, and my fortune before you. Possibly, after seven years’ separation, you have yourself forgotten our youthful loves; but I have never forgotten either your kindness or my own words. I remember all, even words that were lightly uttered — words by which a man less conscientious than I, with a heart less youthful and less upright, would scarcely feel himself bound. In telling you that the marriage I propose to make is solely one of convenience, that I still remember our childish love, am I not putting myself entirely in your hands and making you the mistress of my fate? am I not telling you that if I must renounce my social ambitions, I shall willingly content myself with the pure and simple happiness of which you have shown me so sweet an image?

“Tan, ta, ta — tan, ta, ti,” sang Charles Grandet to the air of Non piu andrai, as he signed himself —

Your devoted cousin, Charles.

“Thunder! that’s doing it handsomely!” he said, as he looked about him for the cheque; having found it, he added the words:—

P.S. — I enclose a cheque on the des Grassins bank for eight thousand francs to your order, payable in gold, which includes the capital and interest of the sum you were kind enough to lend me. I am expecting a case from Bordeaux which contains a few things which you must allow me to offer you as a mark of my unceasing gratitude. You can send my dressing-case by the diligence to the hotel d’Aubrion, rue Hillerin–Bertin.

“By the diligence!” said Eugenie. “A thing for which I would have laid down my life!”

Terrible and utter disaster! The ship went down, leaving not a spar, not a plank, on a vast ocean of hope! Some women when they see themselves abandoned will try to tear their lover from the arms of a rival, they will kill her, and rush to the ends of the earth — to the scaffold, to their tomb. That, no doubt, is fine; the motive of the crime is a great passion, which awes even human justice. Other women bow their heads and suffer in silence; they go their way dying, resigned, weeping, forgiving, praying, and recollecting, till they draw their last breath. This is love — true love, the love of angels, the proud love which lives upon its anguish and dies of it. Such was Eugenie’s love after she had read that dreadful letter. She raised her eyes to heaven, thinking of the last words uttered by her dying mother, who, with the prescience of death, had looked into the future with clear and penetrating eyes: Eugenie, remembering that prophetic death, that prophetic life, measured with one glance her own destiny. Nothing was left for her; she could only unfold her wings, stretch upward to the skies, and live in prayer until the day of her deliverance.

“My mother was right,” she said, weeping. “Suffer — and die!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51