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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Firm Of Nucingen - Part 3
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The Firm Of Nucingen - Part 3 Post by :McKinley Category :Long Stories Author :Honore De Balzac Date :May 2012 Read :1028

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The Firm Of Nucingen - Part 3

"In January 1823, after Godefroid de Beaudenord had set foot in the various social circles which it pleased him to enter, and knew his way about in them, and felt himself secure amid these joys, he saw the necessity of a sunshade--the advantage of having a great lady to complain of, instead of chewing the stems of roses bought for fivepence apiece of Mme. Prevost, after the manner of the callow youngsters that chirp and cackle in the lobbies of the Opera, like chickens in a coop. In short, he resolved to centre his ideas, his sentiments, his affections upon a woman, _one woman_?--LA PHAMME! Ah! . . . .

"At first he conceived the preposterous notion of an unhappy passion, and gyrated for a while about his fair cousin, Mme. d'Aiglemont, not perceiving that she had already danced the waltz in Faust with a diplomatist. The year '25 went by, spent in tentatives, in futile flirtations, and an unsuccessful quest. The loving object of which he was in search did not appear. Passion is extremely rare; and in our time as many barriers have been raised against passion in social life as barricades in the streets. In truth, my brothers, the 'improper' is gaining upon us, I tell you!

"As we may incur reproach for following on the heels of portrait painters, auctioneers, and fashionable dressmakers, I will not inflict any description upon you of _her in whom Godefroid recognized the female of his species. Age, nineteen; height, four feet eleven inches; fair hair, eyebrows _idem_, blue eyes, forehead neither high nor low, curved nose, little mouth, short turned-up chin, oval face; distinguishing signs--none. Such was the description on the passport of the beloved object. You will not ask more than the police, or their worships the mayors, of all the towns and communes of France, the gendarmes and the rest of the powers that be? In other respects--I give you my word for it--she was a rough sketch of a Venus dei Medici.

"The first time that Godefroid went to one of the balls for which Mme. de Nucingen enjoyed a certain not undeserved reputation, he caught a glimpse of his future lady-love in a quadrille, and was set marveling by that height of four feet eleven inches. The fair hair rippled in a shower of curls about the little girlish head, she looked as fresh as a naiad peeping out through the crystal pane of her stream to take a look at the spring flowers. (This is quite in the modern style, strings of phrases as endless as the macaroni on the table a while ago.) On that 'eyebrows _idem_' (no offence to the prefect of police) Parny, that writer of light and playful verse, would have hung half-a-dozen couplets, comparing them very agreeably to Cupid's bow, at the same time bidding us to observe that the dart was beneath; the said dart, however, was neither very potent nor very penetrating, for as yet it was controlled by the namby-pamby sweetness of a Mlle. de la Valliere as depicted on fire-screens, at the moment when she solemnizes her betrothal in the sight of heaven, any solemnization before the registrar being quite out to the question.

"You know the effect of fair hair and blue eyes in the soft, voluptuous decorous dance? Such a girl does not knock audaciously at your heart, like the dark-haired damsels that seem to say after the fashion of Spanish beggars, 'Your money or your life; give me five francs or take my contempt!' These insolent and somewhat dangerous beauties may find favor in the sight of many men, but to my thinking the blonde that has the good fortune to look extremely tender and yielding, while foregoing none of her rights to scold, to tease, to use unmeasured language, to be jealous without grounds, to do anything, in short, that makes woman adorable,--the fair-haired girl, I say, will always be more sure to marry than the ardent brunette. Firewood is dear, you see.

"Isaure, white as an Alsacienne (she first saw the light at Strasbourg, and spoke German with a slight and very agreeable French accent), danced to admiration. Her feet, omitted on the passport, though they really might have found a place there under the heading Distinguishing Signs, were remarkable for their small size, and for that particular something which old-fashioned dancing masters used to call flic-flac, a something that put you in mind of Mlle. Mars' agreeable delivery, for all the Muses are sisters, and the dancer and poet alike have their feet upon the earth. Isaure's feet spoke lightly and swiftly with a clearness and precision which augured well for things of the heart. '_Elle a duc flic-flac_,' was old Marcel's highest word of praise, and old Marcel was the dancing master that deserved the epithet of 'the Great.' People used to say 'the Great Marcel,' as they said 'Frederick the Great,' and in Frederick's time."

"Did Marcel compose any ballets?" inquired Finot.

"Yes, something in the style of _Les Quatre Elements and _L'Europe galante_."

"What times they were, when great nobles dressed the dancers!" said Finot.

"Improper!" said Bixiou. "Isaure did not raise herself on the tips of her toes, she stayed on the ground, she swayed in the dance without jerks, and neither more nor less voluptuously than a young lady ought to do. There was a profound philosophy in Marcel's remark that every age and condition had its dance; a married woman should not dance like a young girl, nor a little jackanapes like a capitalist, nor a soldier like a page; he even went so far as to say that the infantry ought not to dance like the cavalry, and from this point he proceeded to classify the world at large. All these fine distinctions seem very far away."

"Ah!" said Blondet, "you have set your finger on a great calamity. If Marcel had been properly understood, there would have been no French Revolution."

"It had been Godefroid's privilege to run over Europe," resumed Bixiou, "nor had he neglected his opportunities of making a thorough comparative study of European dancing. Perhaps but for profound diligence in the pursuit of what is usually held to be useless knowledge, he would never have fallen in love with this young lady; as it was, out of the three hundred guests that crowded the handsome rooms in the Rue Saint-Lazare, he alone comprehended the unpublished romance revealed by a garrulous quadrille. People certainly noticed Isaure d'Aldrigger's dancing; but in this present century the cry is 'Skim lightly over the surface, do not lean your weight on it;' so one said (he was a notary's clerk), 'There is a girl that dances uncommonly well;' another (a lady in a turban), 'There is a young lady that dances enchantingly;' and a third (a woman of thirty), 'That little thing is not dancing badly.'--But to return to the great Marcel, let us parody his best known saying with, 'How much there is in an _avant-deux_.'"

"And let us get on a little faster," said Blondet; "you are maundering."

"Isaure," continued Bixiou, looking askance at Blondet, "wore a simple white crepe dress with green ribbons; she had a camellia in her hair, a camellia at her waist, another camellia at her skirt-hem, and a camellia----"

"Come, now! here comes Sancho's three hundred goats."

"Therein lies all literature, dear boy. _Clarissa is a masterpiece, there are fourteen volumes of her, and the most wooden-headed playwright would give you the whole of _Clarissa in a single act. So long as I amuse you, what have you to complain of? That costume was positively lovely. Don't you like camillias? Would you rather have dahlias? No? Very good, chestnuts then, here's for you." (And probably Bixiou flung a chestnut across the table, for we heard something drop on a plate.)

"I was wrong, I acknowledge it. Go on," said Blondet.

"I resume. 'Pretty enough to marry, isn't she?' said Rastignac, coming up to Godefroid de Beaudenord, and indicating the little one with the spotless white camellias, every petal intact.

"Rastignac being an intimate friend, Godefroid answered in a low voice, 'Well, so I was thinking. I was saying to myself that instead of enjoying my happiness with fear and trembling at every moment; instead of taking a world of trouble to whisper a word in an inattentive ear, of looking over the house at the Italiens to see if some one wears a red flower or a white in her hair, or watching along the Corso for a gloved hand on a carriage door, as we used to do at Milan; instead of snatching a mouthful of baba like a lackey finishing off a bottle behind a door, or wearing out one's wits with giving and receiving letters like a postman--letters that consist not of a mere couple of tender lines, but expand to five folio volumes to-day and contract to a couple of sheets to-morrow (a tiresome practice); instead of dragging along over the ruts and dodging behind hedges--it would be better to give way to the adorable passion that Jean-Jacques Rousseau envied, to fall frankly in love with a girl like Isaure, with a view to making her my wife, if upon exchange of sentiments our hearts respond to each other; to be Werther, in short, with a happy ending.'

"'Which is a common weakness,' returned Rastignac without laughing. 'Possibly in your place I might plunge into the unspeakable delights of that ascetic course; it possesses the merits of novelty and originality, and it is not very expensive. Your Monna Lisa is sweet, but inane as music for the ballet; I give you warning.'

"Rastignac made this last remark in a way which set Beaudenord thinking that his friend had his own motives for disenchanting him; Beaudenord had not been a diplomatist for nothing; he fancied that Rastignac wanted to cut him out. If a man mistakes his vocation, the false start none the less influences him for the rest of his life. Godefroid was so evidently smitten with Mlle. Isaure d'Aldrigger, that Rastignac went off to a tall girl chatting in the card-room. --'Malvina,' he said, lowering his voice, 'your sister has just netted a fish worth eighteen thousand francs a year. He has a name, a manner, and a certain position in the world; keep an eye on them; be careful to gain Isaure's confidence; and if they philander, do not let her send word to him unless you have seen it first----'

"Towards two o'clock in the morning, Isaure was standing beside a diminutive Shepherdess of the Alps, a little woman of forty, coquettish as a Zerlina. A footman announced that 'Mme. la Baronne's carriage stops the way,' and Godefroid forthwith saw his beautiful maiden out of a German song draw her fantastical mother into the cloakroom, whither Malvina followed them; and (boy that he was) he must needs go to discover into what pot of preserves the infant Joby had fallen, and had the pleasure of watching Isaure and Malvina coaxing that sparkling person, their mamma, into her pelisse, with all the little tender precautions required for a night journey in Paris. Of course, the girls on their side watched Beaudenord out of the corners of their eyes, as well-taught kittens watch a mouse, without seeming to see it at all. With a certain satisfaction Beaudenord noted the bearing, manner, and appearance, of the tall well-gloved Alsacien servant in livery who brought three pairs of fur-lined overshoes for his mistresses.

"Never were two sisters more unlike than Isaure and Malvina. Malvina the elder was tall and dark-haired, Isaure was short and fair, and her features were finely and delicately cut, while her sister's were vigorous and striking. Isaure was one of those women who reign like queens through their weakness, such a woman as a schoolboy would feel it incumbent upon him to protect; Malvina was the _Andalouse of Musset's poem. As the sisters stood together, Isaure looked like a miniature beside a portrait in oils.

"'She is rich!' exclaimed Godefroid, going back to Rastignac in the ballroom.

"'Who?'

"'That young lady.'

"'Oh, Isaure d'Aldrigger? Why, yes. The mother is a widow; Nucingen was once a clerk in her husband's bank at Strasbourg. Do you want to see them again? Just turn off a compliment for Mme. de Restaud; she is giving a ball the day after to-morrow; the Baroness d'Aldrigger and her two daughters will be there. You will have an invitation.'

"For three days Godefroid beheld Isaure in the camera obscura of his brain--_his Isaure with her white camellias and the little ways she had with her head--saw her as you see the bright thing on which you have been gazing after your eyes are shut, a picture grown somewhat smaller; a radiant, brightly-colored vision flashing out of a vortex of darkness."

"Bixiou, you are dropping into phenomena, block us out our pictures," put in Couture.

"Here you are, gentlemen! Here is the picture you ordered!" (from the tones of Bixiou's voice, he evidently was posing as a waiter.) "Finot, attention, one has to pull at your mouth as a jarvie pulls at his jade. In Madame Theodora Marguerite Wilhelmine Adolphus (of the firm of Adolphus and Company, Manheim), relict of the late Baron d'Aldrigger, you might expect to find a stout, comfortable German, compact and prudent, with a fair complexion mellowed to the tint of the foam on a pot of beer; and as to virtues, rich in all the patriarchal good qualities that Germany possesses--in romances, that is to say. Well there was not a gray hair in the frisky ringlets that she wore on either side of her face; she was still as fresh and as brightly colored on the cheek-bone as a Nuremberg doll; her eyes were lively and bright; a closely-fitting bodice set off the slenderness of her waist. Her brow and temples were furrowed by a few involuntary wrinkles which, like Ninon, she would fain have banished from her head to her heel, but they persisted in tracing their zigzags in the more conspicuous place. The outlines of the nose had somewhat fallen away, and the tip had reddened, and this was the more awkward because it matched the color on the cheek-bones.

"An only daughter and an heiress, spoilt by her father and mother, spoilt by her husband and the city of Strasbourg, spoilt still by two daughters who worshiped their mother, the Baroness d'Aldrigger indulged a taste for rose color, short petticoats, and a knot of ribbon at the point of the tightly-fitting corselet bodice. Any Parisian meeting the Baroness on the boulevard would smile and condemn her outright; he does not admit any plea of extenuating circumstances, like a modern jury on a case of fratricide. A scoffer is always superficial, and in consequence cruel; the rascal never thinks of throwing the proper share of ridicule on society that made the individual what he is; for Nature only makes dull animals of us, we owe the fool to artificial conditions."

"The thing that I admire about Bixiou is his completeness," said Blondet; "whenever he is not gibing at others, he is laughing at himself."

"I will be even with you for that, Blondet," returned Bixiou in a significant tone. "If the little Baroness was giddy, careless, selfish, and incapable in practical matters, she was not accountable for her sins; the responsibility is divided between the firm of Adolphus and Company of Manheim and Baron d'Aldrigger with his blind love for his wife. The Baroness was a gentle as a lamb; she had a soft heart that was very readily moved; unluckily, the emotion never lasted long, but it was all the more frequently renewed.

"When the Baron died, for instance, the Shepherdess all but followed him to the tomb, so violent and sincere was her grief, but--next morning there was green peas at lunch, she was fond of green peas, the delicious green peas calmed the crisis. Her daughters and her servants loved her so blindly that the whole household rejoiced over a circumstance that enabled them to hide the dolorous spectacle of the funeral from the sorrowing Baroness. Isaure and Malvina would not allow their idolized mother to see their tears.

"While the Requiem was chanted, they diverted her thoughts to the choice of mourning dresses. While the coffin was placed in the huge, black and white, wax-besprinkled catafalque that does duty for some three thousand dead in the course of its career--so I was informed by a philosophically-minded mute whom I once consulted on a point over a couple of glasses of _petit blanc_--while an indifferent priest mumbling the office for the dead, do you know what the friends of the departed were saying as, all dressed in black from head to foot, they sat or stood in the church? (Here is the picture you ordered.) Stay, do you see them?

"'How much do you suppose old d'Aldrigger will leave?' Desroches asked of Taillefer.--You remember Taillefer that gave us the finest orgy ever known not long before he died?"

"He was in treaty for practice in 1822," said Couture. "It was a bold thing to do, for he was the son of a poor clerk who never made more than eighteen hundred francs a year, and his mother sold stamped paper. But he worked very hard from 1818 to 1822. He was Derville's fourth clerk when he came; and in 1819 he was second!"

"Desroches?"

"Yes. Desroches, like the rest of us, once groveled in the poverty of Job. He grew so tired of wearing coats too tight and sleeves too short for him, that he swallowed down the law in desperation and had just bought a bare license. He was a licensed attorney, without a penny, or a client, or any friends beyond our set; and he was bound to pay interest on the purchase-money and the cautionary deposit besides."

"He used to make me feel as if I had met a tiger escaped from the Jardin des Plantes," said Couture. "He was lean and red-haired, his eyes were the color of Spanish snuff, and his complexion was harsh. He looked cold and phlegmatic. He was hard upon the widow, pitiless to the orphan, and a terror to his clerks; they were not allowed to waste a minute. Learned, crafty, double-faced, honey-tongued, never flying into a passion, rancorous in his judicial way."

"But there is goodness in him," cried Finot; "he is devoted to his friends. The first thing he did was to take Godeschal, Mariette's brother, as his head-clerk."

"At Paris," said Blondet, "there are attorneys of two shades. There is the honest man attorney; he abides within the province of the law, pushes on his cases, neglects no one, never runs after business, gives his clients his honest opinion, and makes them compromise on doubtful points--he is a Derville, in short. Then there is the starveling attorney, to whom anything seems good provided that he is sure of expenses; he will set, not mountains fighting, for he sells them, but planets; he will work to make the worse appear the better cause, and take advantage of a technical error to win the day for a rogue. If one of these fellows tries one of Maitre Gonin's tricks once too often, the guild forces him to sell his connection. Desroches, our friend Desroches, understood the full resources of a trade carried on in a beggarly way enough by poor devils; he would buy up causes of men who feared to lose the day; he plunged into chicanery with a fixed determination to make money by it. He was right; he did his business very honestly. He found influence among men in public life by getting them out of awkward complications; there was our dear les Lupeaulx, for instance, whose position was so deeply compromised. And Desroches stood in need of influence; for when he began, he was anything but well looked on at the court, and he who took so much trouble to rectify the errors of his clients was often in trouble himself. See now, Bixiou, to go back to the subject--How came Desroches to be in the church?"

"'D'Aldrigger is leaving seven or eight hundred thousand francs,' Taillefer answered, addressing Desroches.

"'Oh, pooh, there is only one man who knows how much _they are worth,' put in Werbrust, a friend of the deceased.

"'Who?'

"'That fat rogue Nucingen; he will go as far as the cemetery; d'Aldrigger was his master once, and out of gratitude he put the old man's capital into his business.'

"'The widow will soon feel a great difference.'

"'What do you mean?'

"'Well, d'Aldrigger was so fond of his wife. Now, don't laugh, people are looking at us.'

"'Look here comes du Tillet; he is very late. The epistle is just beginning.'

"'He will marry the eldest girl in all probability.'

"'Is it possible?' asked Desroches; 'why, he is tied more than ever to Mme. Roguin.'

"'_Tied_--he?--You do not know him.'

"'Do you know how Nucingen and du Tillet stand?' asked Desroches.

"'Like this,' said Taillefer; 'Nucingen is just the man to swallow down his old master's capital, and then to disgorge it.'

"'Ugh! ugh!' coughed Werbrust, 'these churches are confoundedly damp; ugh! ugh! What do you mean by "disgorge it"?'

"'Well, Nucingen knows that du Tillet has a lot of money; he wants to marry him to Malvina; but du Tillet is shy of Nucingen. To a looker-on, the game is good fun.'

"'What!' exclaimed Werbrust, 'is she old enough to marry? How quickly we grow old!'

"'Malvina d'Aldrigger is quite twenty years old, my dear fellow. Old d'Aldrigger was married in 1800. He gave some rather fine entertainments in Strasbourg at the time of his wedding, and afterwards when Malvina was born. That was in 1801 at the peace of Amiens, and here are we in the year 1823, Daddy Werbrust! In those days everything was Ossianized; he called his daughter Malvina. Six years afterwards there was a rage for chivalry, _Partant pour la Syrie --a pack of nonsense--and he christened his second daughter Isaure. She is seventeen. So there are two daughters to marry.'

"'The women will not have a penny left in ten years' time,' said Werbrust, speaking to Desroches in a confidential tone.

"'There is d'Aldrigger's man-servant, the old fellow bellowing away at the back of the church; he has been with them since the two young ladies were children, and he is capable of anything to keep enough together for them to live upon,' said Taillefer.

"_Dies iroe_! (from the minor cannons). _Dies illa_! (from the choristers).

"'Good-day, Werbrust (from Taillefer), the _Dies iroe puts me too much in mind of my poor boy.'

"'I shall go too; it is too damp in here,' said Werbrust.

"_In favilla_.

"'A few halfpence, kind gentlemen!' (from the beggars at the door).

"'For the expenses of the church!' (from the beadle, with a rattling clatter of the money-box).

"'_Amen_' (from the choristers).

"'What did he die of?' (from a friend).

"'He broke a blood-vessel in the heel' (from an inquisitive wag).

"'Who is dead?' (from a passer-by).

"'The President de Montesquieu!' (from a relative).

"The sacristan to the poor, 'Get away, all of you; the money for you has been given to us; don't ask for any more.'"

"Done to the life!" cried Couture. And indeed it seemed to us that we heard all that went on in the church. Bixiou imitated everything, even the shuffling sound of the feet of the men that carried the coffin over the stone floor.

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"There are poets and romancers and writers that say many fine things abut Parisian manners," continued Bixiou, "but that is what really happens at a funeral. Ninety-nine out of a hundred that come to pay their respects to some poor devil departed, get together and talk business or pleasure in the middle of the church. To see some poor little touch of real sorrow, you need an impossible combination of circumstances. And, after all, is there such a thing as grief without a thought of self in it?" "Ugh!" said Blondet. "Nothing is less respected than death; is it that there
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"The prosperity of the firm of Nucingen is one of the most extraordinary things seen in our days," began Blondet. "In 1804 Nucingen's name was scarcely known. At that time bankers would have shuddered at the idea of three hundred thousand francs' worth of his acceptances in the market. The great capitalist felt his inferiority. How was he to get known? He suspended payment. Good! Every market rang with a name hitherto only known in Strasbourg and the Quartier Poissonniere. He issued deposit certificates to his creditors, and resumed payment; forthwith people grew accustomed to his paper all over France. Then
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