Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau

Author: Honore de Balzac


After admitting his insolvency and filing his schedule, a merchant should find some retired spot in France, or in foreign countries, where he may live without taking part in life, like the child that he is; for the law declares him a minor, and not competent for any legal action as a citizen. This, however, is never done. Before reappearing he obtains a safe-conduct, which neither judge nor creditor ever refuses to give; for if the debtor were found without this /exeat/ he would be put in prison, while with it he passes safely, as with a flag of truce, through the enemy’s camp,—not by way of curiosity, but for the purpose of defeating the severe intention of the laws relating to bankruptcy. The effect of all laws which touch private interests is to develop, enormously, the knavery of men’s minds. The object of a bankrupt, like that of other persons whose interests are thwarted by any law, is to make void the law in his particular case.

The status of civil death in which the bankrupt remains a chrysalis lasts for about three months,—a period required by formalities which precede a conference at which the creditors and their debtor sign a treaty of peace, by which the bankrupt is allowed the ability to make payments, and receives a bankrupt’s certificate. This transaction is called the /concordat/,—a word implying, perhaps, that peace reigns after the storm and stress of interests violently in opposition.

As soon as the insolvent’s schedule is filed, the Court of commerce appoints a judge-commissioner, whose duty it is to look after the interests of the still unknown body of creditors, and also to protect the insolvent against the vexatious measures of angry creditors,—a double office, which might be nobly magnified if the judges had time to attend to it. The commissioner, however, delegates an agent to take possession of the property, the securities, and the merchandise, and to verify the schedule; when this is done, the court appoints a day for a meeting of the creditors, notice of which is trumpeted forth in the newspapers. The creditors, real or pretended, are expected to be present and choose the provisional assignees, who are to supersede the agent, step into the insolvent’s shoes, became by a fiction of law the insolvent himself, and are authorized to liquidate the business, negotiate all transactions, sell the property,—in short, recast everything in the interest of the creditors, provided the bankrupt makes no opposition. The majority of Parisian failures stop short at this point, and the reason is as follows:

The appointment of one or more permanent assignees is an act which gives opportunity for the bitterest action on the part of creditors who are thirsting for vengeance, who have been tricked, baffled, cozened, trapped, duped, robbed, and cheated. Although, as a general thing, all creditors are cheated, robbed, duped, trapped, cozened, tricked, and baffled, yet there is not in all Paris a commercial passion able to keep itself alive for ninety days. The paper of commerce alone maintains its vitality, and rises, athirst for payment, in three months. Before ninety days are over, the creditors, worn out by coming and going, by the marches and countermarches which a failure entails, are asleep at the side of their excellent little wives. This may help a stranger to understand why it is that the provisional in France is so often the definitive: out of every thousand provisional assignees, not more than five ever become permanent. The subsidence of passions stirred up by failures is thus accounted for.

But here it becomes necessary to explain to persons who have not had the happiness to be in business the whole drama of bankruptcy, so as to make them understand how it constitutes in Paris a monstrous legal farce; and also how the bankruptcy of Cesar Birotteau was a signal exception to the general rule.

This fine commercial drama is in three distinct acts,—the agent’s act, the assignee’s act, the /concordat/, or certificate-of-bankruptcy act. Like all theatrical performances, it is played with a doubleintent: it is put upon the stage for the public eye, but it also has a hidden purpose; there is one performance for the pit, and another for the side-scenes. Posted in the side-scenes are the bankrupt and his solicitor, the attorney of the creditors, the assignees, the agent, and the judge-commissioner himself. No one out of Paris knows, and no one in Paris does not know, that a judge of the commercial courts is the most extraordinary magistrate that society ever allowed itself to create. This judge may live in dread of his own justice at any moment. Paris has seen the president of her courts of commerce file his own schedule. Instead of being an experienced retired merchant, to whom the magistracy might properly be made the reward of a pure life, this judge is a trader, bending under the weight of enormous enterprises, and at the head of some large commercial house. The /sine qua non/ condition in the election of this functionary, whose business it is to pass judgment on the avalanche of commercial suits incessantly rolling through the courts, is that he shall have the greatest difficulty in managing his own affairs. This commercial tribunal, far from being made a useful means of transition whereby a merchant might rise, without ridicule, into the ranks of the nobility, is in point of fact made up of traders who are trading, and who are liable to suffer for their judgments when they next meet with dissatisfied parties,—very much as Birotteau was now punished by du Tillet.

The commissioner is of necessity a personage before whom much is said; who listens, recollecting all the while his own interests, and leaves the cause to the assignees and the attorneys,—except, possibly, in a few strange and unusual cases where dishonesty is accompanied by peculiar circumstances, when the judge usually observes that the debtor, or the creditors, as it may happen, are clever people. This personage, set up in the drama like the royal bust in a public audience-chamber, may be found early in the morning at his wood-yard, if he sells wood; in his shop, if, like Birotteau, he is a perfumer; or, in the evenings, at his dessert after dinner,—always, it should be added, in a terrible hurry; as a general thing he is silent. Let us, however, do justice to the law: the legislation that governs his functions, and which was pushed through in haste, has tied the hands of this commissioner; and it sometimes happens that he sanctions fraud which he cannot hinder,—as the reader will shortly see.

The agent to whom the judge delegates the first proceedings, instead of serving the creditors, may become if he please a tool of the debtor. Every one hopes to swell his own gains by getting on the right side of the debtor, who is always supposed to keep back a hidden treasure. The agent may make himself useful to both parties; on the one hand by not laying the bankrupt’s business in ashes, on the other by snatching a few morsels for men of influence,—in short, he runs with the hare and holds with the hounds. A clever agent has frequently arrested judgment by buying up the debts and then releasing the merchant, who then rebounds like an india-rubber ball. The agent chooses the best-stocked crib, whether it leads him to cover the largest creditors and shear the debtor, or to sacrifice the creditors for the future prosperity of the restored merchant. The action of the agent is decisive. This man, together with the bankrupt’s solicitor, plays the utility role in the drama, where it may be said neither the one nor the other would accept a part if not sure of their fees. Taking the average of a thousand failures, an agent would be found nine hundred and fifty times on the side of the bankrupt. At the period of our history, the solicitors frequently sought the judge with the request that he would appoint an agent whom they proposed to him, —a man, as they said, to whom the affairs of the bankrupt were wellknown, who would know how to reconcile the interests of the whole body of creditors with those of a man honorably overtaken by misfortune. For some years past the best judges have sought the advice of the solicitors in this matter for the purpose of not taking it, endeavoring to appoint some other agent /quasi/ virtuous.

During this act of the drama the creditors, real or pretended, come forward to select the provisional assignees, who are often, as we have said, the final ones. In this electoral assembly all creditors have the right to vote, whether the sum owing to them is fifty sous, or fifty thousand francs. This assembly, in which are found pretended creditors introduced by the bankrupt,—the only electors who never fail to come to the meeting,—proposes the whole body of creditors as candidates from among whom the commissioner, a president without power, is supposed to select the assignees. Thus it happens that the judge almost always appoints as assignees those creditors whom it suits the bankrupt to have,—another abuse which makes the catastrophe of bankruptcy one of the most burlesque dramas to which justice ever lent her name. The honorable bankrupt overtaken by misfortune is then master of the situation, and proceeds to legalize the theft he premeditated. As a rule, the petty trades of Paris are guiltless in this respect. When a shopkeeper gets as far as making an assignment, the worthy man has usually sold his wife’s shawl, pawned his plate, left no stone unturned, and succumbs at last with empty hands, ruined, and without enough money to pay his attorney, who in consequence cares little for him.

The law requires that the /concordat/, at which is granted the bankrupt’s certificate that remits to the merchant a portion of his debt, and restores to him the right of managing his affairs, shall be attended by a majority of the creditors, and also that they shall represent a certain proportion of the debt. This important action brings out much clever diplomacy, on the part of the bankrupt, his assignees, and his solicitor, among the contending interests which cross and jostle each other. A usual and very common manoeuvre is to offer to that section of the creditors who make up in number and amount the majority required by law certain premiums, which the debtor consents to pay over and above the dividend publicly agreed upon. This monstrous fraud is without remedy. The thirty commercial courts which up to the present time have followed one after the other, have each known of it, for all have practised it. Enlightened by experience, they have lately tried to render void such fraudulent agreements; and as the bankrupts have reason to complain of the extortion, the judges had some hope of reforming to that extent the system of bankruptcy. The attempt, however, will end in producing something still more immoral; for the creditors will devise other rascally methods, which the judges will condemn as judges, but by which they will profit as merchants.

Another much-used stratagem, and one to which we owe the term "serious and legitimate creditor," is that of creating creditors,—just as du Tillet created a banker and a banking-house,—and introducing a certain quantity of Claparons under whose skin the bankrupt hides, diminishing by just so much the dividends of the true creditors, and laying up for the honest man a store for the future; always, however, providing a sufficient majority of votes and debts to secure the passage of his certificate. The "gay and illegitimate creditors" are like false electors admitted into the electoral college. What chance has the "serious and legitimate creditor" against the "gay and illegitimate creditor?" Shall he get rid of him by attacking him? How can he do it? To drive out the intruder the legitimate creditor must sacrifice his time, his own business, and pay an attorney to help him; while the said attorney, making little out of it, prefers to manage the bankruptcy in another capacity, and therefore works for the genuine credit without vigor.

To dislodge the illegitimate creditor it is necessary to thread the labyrinth of proceedings in bankruptcy, search among past events, ransack accounts, obtain by injunction the books of the false creditors, show the improbability of the fiction of their existence, prove it to the judges, sue for justice, go and come, and stir up sympathy; and, finally, to charge like Don Quixote upon each "gay and illegitimate creditor," who if convicted of "gaiety" withdraws from court, saying with a bow to the judges, "Excuse me, you are mistaken, I am very ’serious.’" All this without prejudice to the rights of the bankrupt, who may carry Don Quixote and his remonstrance to the upper courts; during which time Don Quixote’s own business is suffering, and he is liable to become a bankrupt himself.

The upshot of all this is, that in point of fact the debtor appoints his assignees, audits his own accounts, and draws up the certificate of bankruptcy himself.

Given these premises, it is easy to imagine the devices of Frontin, the trickeries of Sganarelle, the lies of Mascarille, and the empty bags of Scapin which such a system develops. There has never been a failure which did not generate enough matter to fill the fourteen volumes of "Clarissa Harlowe," if an author could be found to describe them. A single example will suffice. The illustrious Gobseck,—ruler of Palma, Gigonnet, Werbrust, Keller, Nucingen, and the like,—being concerned in a failure where he attempted to roughly handle the insolvent, who had managed to get the better of him, obtained notes from his debtor for an amount which together with the declared dividend made up the sum total of his loss. These notes were to fall due after the /concordat/. Gobseck then brought about a settlement in the /concordat/ by which sixty-five per cent was remitted to the bankrupt. Thus the creditors were swindled in the interests of Gobseck. But the bankrupt had signed the illicit notes with the name of his insolvent firm, and he was therefore able to bring them under the reduction of sixty-five per cent. Gobseck, the great Gobseck, received scarcely fifty per cent on his loss. From that day forth he bowed to his debtor with ironical respect.

As all operations undertaken by an insolvent within ten days before his failure can be impeached, prudent men are careful to enter upon certain affairs with a certain number of creditors whose interest, like that of the bankrupt, is to arrive at the /concordat/ as fast as possible. Skilful creditors will approach dull creditors or very busy ones, give an ugly look into the failure, and buy up their claims at half what they are worth at the liquidation; in this way they get back their money partly by the dividend on their own claims, partly from the half, or third, or fourth, gained on these purchased claims.

A failure is the closer, more or less hermetically tight, of a house where pillage has left a few remaining bags of silver. Lucky the man who can get in at a window, slide down a chimney, creep in through a cellar or through a hole, and seize a bag to swell his share! In the general rout, the /sauve qui peut/ of Beresina is passed from mouth to mouth; all is legal and illegal, false and true, honest and dishonest. A man is admired if he "covers" himself. To "cover" himself means that he seizes securities to the detriment of the other creditors. France has lately rung with the discussion of an immense failure that took place in a town where one of the upper courts holds its sittings, and where the judges, having current accounts with the bankrupts, wore such heavy india-rubber mantles that the mantle of justice was rubbed into holes. It was absolutely necessary, in order to avert legitimate suspicion, to send the case for judgment in another court. There was neither judge nor agent nor supreme court in the region where the failure took place that could be trusted.

This alarming commercial tangle is so well understood in Paris, that unless a merchant is involved to a large amount he accepts a failure as total shipwreck without insurance, passes it to his profit-and-loss account, and does not commit the folly of wasting time upon it; he contents himself with brewing his own malt. As to the petty trader, worried about his monthly payments, busied in pushing the chariot of his little fortunes, a long and costly legal process terrifies him. He gives up trying to see his way, imitates the substantial merchant, bows his head, and accepts his loss.

The wholesale merchants seldom fail, nowadays; they make friendly liquidations; the creditors take what is given to them, and hand in their receipts. In this way many things are avoided,—dishonor, judicial delays, fees to lawyers, and the depreciation of merchandise. All parties think that bankruptcy will give less in the end than liquidation. There are now more liquidations than bankruptcies in Paris.

The assignee’s act in the drama is intended to prove that every assignee is incorruptible, and that no collusion has ever existed between any of them and the bankrupt. The pit—which has all, more or less, been assignee in its day—knows very well that every assignee is a "covered" merchant. It listens, and believes as it likes. After three months employed in auditing the debtor and creditor accounts, the time comes for the /concordat/. The provisional assignees make a little report at the meeting, of which the following is the usual formula:—

Messieurs,—There is owing to the whole of us, in bulk, about a
million. We have dismantled our man like a condemned frigate. The
nails, iron, wood, and copper will bring about three hundred
thousand francs. We shall thus get about thirty per cent of our
money. Happy in obtaining this amount, when our debtor might have
left us only one hundred thousand, we hereby declare him an
Aristides; we vote him a premium and crown of encouragement, and
propose to leave him to manage his assets, giving him ten or
twelve years in which to pay us the fifty per cent which he has
been so good as to offer us. Here is the certificate of
bankruptcy; have the goodness to walk up to the desk and sign it.

At this speech, all the fortune creditors congratulate each other and shake hands. After the ratification of the certificate, the bankrupt becomes once more a merchant, precisely such as he was before; he receives back his securities, he continues his business, he is not deprived of the power to fail again, on the promised dividend,—an additional little failure which often occurs, like the birth of a child nine months after the mother has married her daughter.

If the certificate of bankruptcy is not granted, the creditors then select the permanent assignees, take extreme measures, and form an association to get possession of the whole property and the business of their debtor, seizing everything that he has or ever will have,— his inheritance from his father, his mother, his aunt, /et caetera/. This stern measure can only be carried through by an association of creditors.


There are therefore two sorts of failures,—the failure of the merchant who means to repossess himself of his business, and the failure of the merchant who has fallen into the water and is willing to sink to the bottom. Pillerault knew the difference. It was, to his thinking and to that of Ragon, as hard to come out pure from the first as to come out safe from the second. After advising Cesar to abandon everything to his creditors, he went to the most honorable solicitor in such matters, that immediate steps might be taken to liquidate the failure and put everything at once at the disposition of the creditors. The law requires that while the drama is being acted, the creditors shall provide for the support of the bankrupt and his family. Pillerault notified the commissioner that he would himself supply the wants of his niece and nephew.

Du Tillet had worked all things together to make the failure a prolonged agony for his old master; and this is how he did it. Time is so precious in Paris that it is customary, when two assignees are appointed, for only one to attend to the affair: the duty of the other is merely formal,—he approves and signs, like the second notary in notarial deeds. By this means, the largest failures in Paris are so vigorously handled that, in spite of the law’s delays, they are adjusted, settled, and secured with such rapidity that within a hundred days the judge can echo the atrocious saying of the Minister, —"Order reigns in Warsaw."

Du Tillet meant to compass Cesar’s commercial death. The names of the assignees selected through the influence of du Tillet were very significant to Pillerault. Monsieur Bidault, called Gigonnet,—the principal creditor,—was the one to take no active part; and Molineux, the mischievous old man who lost nothing by the failure, was to manage everything. Du Tillet flung the noble commercial carcass to the little jackal, that he might torment it as he devoured it. After the meeting at which the creditors appointed the assignees, little Molineux returned home "honored," so he said, "by the suffrages of his fellowcitizens"; happy in the prospect of hectoring Birotteau, just as a child delights in having an insect to maltreat. The landlord, astride of his hobby,—the law,—begged du Tillet to favor him with his ideas; and he bought a copy of the commercial Code. Happily, Joseph Lebas, cautioned by Pillerault, had already requested the president of the Board of Commerce to select a sagacious and well-meaning commissioner. Gobenheim-Keller, whom du Tillet hoped to have, found himself displaced by Monsieur Camusot, a substitute-judge,—a rich silkmerchant, Liberal in politics, and the owner of the house in which Pillerault lived; a man counted honorable.


One of the cruellest scenes of Cesar’s life was his forced conference with little Molineux,—the being he had once regarded as a nonentity, who now by a fiction of law had become Cesar Birotteau. He was compelled to go to the Cour Batave, to mount the six flights, and re-enter the miserable appartement of the old man, now his custodian, his /quasi/ judge,—the representative of his creditors. Pillerault accompanied him.

"What is the matter?" said the old man, as Cesar gave vent to an exclamation.

"Ah, uncle! you do not know the sort of man this Molineux is!"

"I have seen him from time to time for fifteen years past at the cafe David, where he plays dominoes. That is why I have come with you."

Monsieur Molineux showed the utmost politeness to Pillerault, and much disdainful condescension to the bankrupt; he had thought over his part, studied the shades of his demeanor, and prepared his ideas.

"What information is it that you need?" asked Pillerault. "There is no dispute as to the claims."

"Oh," said little Molineux, "the claims are in order,—they have been examined. The creditors are all serious and legitimate. But the law, monsieur,—the law! The expenditures of the bankrupt have been disproportional to his fortune. It appears that the ball—"

"At which you were present," interrupted Pillerault.

"—cost nearly sixty thousand francs, and at that time the assets of the insolvent amounted to not more than one hundred and a few thousand francs. There is cause to arraign the bankrupt on a charge of wilful bankruptcy."

"Is that your intention?" said Pillerault, noticing the despondency into which these words had cast Birotteau.

"Monsieur, I make a distinction; the Sieur Birotteau was a member of the municipality—"

"You have not sent for us, I presume, to explain that we are to be brought into a criminal police court?" said Pillerault. "The cafe David would laugh finely at your conduct this evening."

The opinion of the cafe David seemed to frighten the old man, who looked at Pillerault with a startled air. He had counted on meeting Birotteau alone, intending to pose as the sovereign arbiter of his fate,—a legal Jupiter. He meant to frighten him with the thunder-bolt of an accusation, to brandish the axe of a criminal charge over his head, enjoy his fears and his terrors, and then allow himself to be touched and softened, and persuaded at last to restore his victim to a life of perpetual gratitude. Instead of his insect, he had got hold of an old commercial sphinx.

"Monsieur," he replied, "I see nothing to laugh at."

"Excuse me," said Pillerault. "You have negotiated largely with Monsieur Claparon; you have neglected the interests of the main body of the creditors, so as to make sure that certain claims shall have a preference. Now I can as one of the creditors interfere. The commissioner is to be taken into account."

"Monsieur," said Molineux, "I am incorruptible."

"I am aware of it," said Pillerault. "You have only taken your iron out of the fire, as they say. You are keen; you are acting just as you do with your tenants—"

"Oh, monsieur!" said the assignee, suddenly dropping into the landlord,—just as the cat metamorphosed into a woman ran after a mouse when she caught sight of it,—"my affair of the Rue Montorgeuil is not yet settled. What they call an impediment has arisen. The tenant is the chief tenant. This conspirator declares that as he has paid a year in advance, and having only one more year to"—here Pillerault gave Cesar a look which advised him to pay strict attention —"and, the year being paid for, that he has the right to take away his furniture. I shall sue him! I must hold on to my securities to the last; he may owe something for repairs before the year is out."

"But," said Pillerault, "the law only allows you to take furniture as security for the rent—"

"And its accessories!" cried Molineux, assailed in his trenches. "That article in the Code has been interpreted by various judgments rendered in the matter: however, there ought to be legislative rectification to it. At this very moment I am elaborating a memorial to his Highness, the Keeper of the Seals, relating to this flaw in our statutes. It is desirable that the government should maintain the interests of landlords. That is the chief question in statecraft. We are the taproot of taxation."

"You are well fitted to enlighten the government," said Pillerault; "but in what way can we enlighten you—about our affairs?"

"I wish to know," said Molineux, with pompous authority, "if Monsieur Birotteau has received moneys from Monsieur Popinot."

"No, monsieur," said Birotteau.

Then followed a discussion on Birotteau’s interests in the house of Popinot, from which it appeared that Popinot had the right to have all his advances paid in full, and that he was not involved in the failure to the amount of half the costs of his establishment, due to him by Birotteau. Molineux, judiciously handled by Pillerault, insensibly got back to gentler ways, which only showed how he cared for the opinion of those who frequented the cafe David. He ended by offering consolation to Birotteau, and by inviting him, as well as Pillerault, to share his humble dinner. If the ex-perfumer had gone alone, he would probably have irritated Molineux, and the matter would have become envenomed. In this instance, as in others, old Pillerault was his tutelary angel.

Commercial law imposes a horrible torture upon the bankrupt; he is compelled to appear in person at the meeting of his creditors, when they decide upon his future fate. For a man who can hold himself above it all, or for a merchant who expects to recover himself, this ceremony is little feared. But to a man like Cesar Birotteau it was agony only to be compared to the last day of a criminal condemned to death. Pillerault did all in his power to make that terrible day endurable to his nephew.

The steps taken by Molineux, and agreed to by the bankrupt, were as follows: The suit relating to the mortgage on the property in the Faubourg du Temple having been won in the courts, the assignees decided to sell that property, and Cesar made no opposition. Du Tillet, hearing privately that the government intended to cut a canal which should lead from Saint-Denis to the upper Seine through the Faubourg du Temple, bought the property of Birotteau for seventy thousand francs. All Cesar’s rights in the lands about the Madeleine were turned over to Monsieur Claparon, on condition that he on his side would abandon all claim against Birotteau for half the costs of drawing up and registering the contracts; also for all payments on the price of the lands, by receiving himself, under the failure, the dividend which was to be paid over to the sellers. The interests of the perfumer in the house of Popinot and Company were sold to the said Popinot for the sum of forty-eight thousand francs. The business of "The Queen of Roses" was bought by Celestin Crevel at fifty-seven thousand francs, with the lease, the fixtures, the merchandise, furniture, and all rights in the Paste of Sultans and the Carminative Balm, with twelve years’ lease of the manufactories, whose various appliances were also sold to him. The assets when liquidated came to one hundred and ninety-five thousand francs, to which the assignees added seventy thousand produced by Birotteau’s claims in the liquidation of the "unfortunate" Roguin. Thus the total amount made over to Cesar’s creditors was two hundred and fifty-five thousand francs. The debts amounted to four hundred and forty thousand; consequently, the creditors received more than fifty per cent on their claims.

Bankruptcy is a species of chemical transmutation, from which a clever merchant tries to emerge in fresh shape. Birotteau, distilled to the last drop in this retort, gave a result which made du Tillet furious. Du Tillet looked to see a dishonorable failure; he saw an honorable one. Caring little for his own gains, though he was about to get possession of the lands around the Madeleine without ever drawing his purse-strings, he wanted to see his old master dishonored, lost, and vilified. The creditors at the general meeting would undoubtedly show the poor man that they respected him.

By degrees, as Birotteau’s courage came back to him, Pillerault, like a wise doctor, informed him, by gradual doses, of the transactions resulting from his failure. These harsh tidings were like so many blows. A merchant cannot learn without a shock the depreciation of property which represents to him so much money, so much solicitude, so much labor. The facts his uncle now told him petrified the poor man.

"Fifty-seven thousand francs for ’The Queen of Roses’! Why, the shop alone cost ten thousand; the appartement cost forty thousand; the mere outlay on the manufactories, the utensils, the frames, the boilers, cost thirty thousand. Why! at fifty per cent abatement, if my creditors allow me that, there would still be ten thousand francs worth of property in the shop. Why! the Paste and the Balm are solid property,—worth as much as a farm!"

Poor Cesar’s jeremiads made no impression upon Pillerault. The old merchant took them as a horse takes a down-pour; but he was alarmed by the gloomy silence Birotteau maintained when it was a question of the meeting. Those who comprehend the vanities and weaknesses which in all social spheres beset mankind, will know what a martyrdom it was for this poor man to enter as a bankrupt the commercial tribunal of justice where he once sat as judge; to meet affronts where so often he had been thanked for services rendered,—he, Birotteau, whose inflexible opinions about bankruptcy were so well known; he who had said, "A man may be honest till he fails, but he comes out of a meeting of his creditors a swindler." Pillerault watched for the right moment to familiarize Cesar’s mind with the thought of appearing before his creditors as the law demands. The thought killed him. His mute grief and resignation made a deep impression on his uncle, who often heard him at night, through the partition, crying out to himself, "Never! never! I will die sooner."

Pillerault, a strong man,—strong through the simplicity of his life, —was able to understand weakness. He resolved to spare Cesar the anguish of appearing before his creditors,—a terrible scene which the law renders inevitable, and to which, indeed, he might succumb. On this point the law is precise, formal, and not to be evaded. The merchant who refused to appear would, for that act alone, be brought before the criminal police courts. But though the law compels the bankrupt to appear, it has no power to oblige the creditor to do so. A meeting of creditors is a ceremony of no real importance except in special cases,—when, for instance, a swindler is to be dispossessed and a coalition among the creditors agreed upon, when there is difference of opinion between the privileged creditors and the unsecured creditors, or when the /concordat/ is specially dishonest, and the bankrupt is in need of a deceptive majority. But in the case of a failure when all has been given up, the meeting is a mere formality. Pillerault went to each creditor, one after the other, and asked him to give his proxy to his attorney. Every creditor, except du Tillet, sincerely pitied Cesar, after striking him down. Each knew that his conduct was scrupulously honest, that his books were regular, and his business as clear as the day. All were pleased to find no "gay and illegitimate creditor" among them. Molineux, first the agent and then the provisional assignee, had found in Cesar’s house everything the poor man owned, even the engraving of Hero and Leander which Popinot had given him, his personal trinkets, his breast-pin, his gold buckles, his two watches,—things which an honest man might have taken without thinking himself less than honest. Constance had left her modest jewel-case. This touching obedience to the law struck the commercial mind keenly. Birotteau’s enemies called it foolishness; but men of sense held it up to its true light as a magnificent supererogation of integrity. In two months the opinion of the Bourse had changed; every one, even those who were most indifferent, admitted this failure to be a rare commercial wonder, seldom seen in the markets of Paris. Thus the creditors, knowing that they were secure of nearly sixty per cent of their claims, were very ready to do what Pillerault asked of them. The solicitors of the commercial courts are few in number; it therefore happened that several creditors employed the same man, giving him their proxies. Pillerault finally succeeded in reducing the formidable assemblage to three solicitors, himself, Ragon, the two assignees, and the commissioner.

Early in the morning of the solemn day, Pillerault said to his nephew,—

"Cesar, you can go to your meeting to-day without fear; nobody will be there."

Monsieur Ragon wished to accompany his debtor. When the former master of "The Queen of Roses" first made known the wish in his little dry voice, his ex-successor turned pale; but the good old man opened his arms, and Birotteau threw himself into them as a child into the arms of its father, and the two perfumers mingled their tears. The bankrupt gathered courage as he felt the indulgences shown to him, and he got into the coach with his uncle and Ragon. Precisely at half past ten o’clock the three reached the cloister Saint-Merri, where the Court of Commerce was then held. At that hour there was no one in the Hall of Bankruptcy. The day and the hour had been chosen by agreement with the judge and the assignees. The three solicitors were already there on behalf of their clients. There was nothing, therefore, to distress or intimidate Cesar Birotteau; yet the poor man could not enter the office of Monsieur Camusot—which chanced to be the one he had formerly occupied—without deep emotion, and he shuddered as he passed through the Hall of Bankruptcy.

"It is cold," said Monsieur Camusot to Birotteau. "I am sure these gentlemen will not be sorry to stay here, instead of our going to freeze in the Hall." He did not say the word "Bankruptcy." "Gentlemen, be seated."

Each took his seat, and the judge gave his own armchair to Birotteau, who was bewildered. The solicitors and the assignees signed the papers.

"In consideration of the surrender of your entire property," said Camusot to Birotteau, "your creditors unanimously agree to relinquish the rest of their claims. Your certificate is couched in terms which may well soften your pain; your solicitor will see that it is promptly recorded; you are now free. All the judges of this court, dear Monsieur Birotteau," said Camusot, taking him by the hand, "feel for your position, and are not surprised at your courage; none have failed to do justice to your integrity. In the midst of a great misfortune you have been worthy of what you once were here. I have been in business for twenty years, and this is only the second time that I have seen a fallen merchant gaining, instead of losing, public respect."

Birotteau took the hands of the judge and wrung them, with tears in his eyes. Camusot asked him what he now meant to do. Birotteau replied that he should work till he had paid his creditors in full to the last penny.

"If to accomplish that noble task you should ever want a few thousand francs, you will always find them with me," said Camusot. "I would give them with a great deal of pleasure to witness a deed so rare in Paris."

Pillerault, Ragon, and Birotteau retired.

"Well! that wasn’t the ocean to drink," said Pillerault, as they left the court-room.

"I recognize your hand in it," said the poor man, much affected.

"Now, here you are, free, and we are only a few steps from the Rue des Cinq-Diamants; come and see my nephew," said Ragon.

A cruel pang shot through Cesar’s heart when he saw Constance sitting in a little office in the damp, dark /entresol/ above the shop, whose single window was one third darkened by a sign which intercepted the daylight and bore the name,—A. POPINOT.

"Behold a lieutenant of Alexander," said Cesar, with the gaiety of grief, pointing to the sign.

This forced gaiety, through which an inextinguishable sense of the superiority which Birotteau attributed to himself was naively revealed, made Ragon shudder in spite of his seventy years. Cesar saw his wife passing down letters and papers for Popinot to sign; he could neither restrain his tears nor keep his face from turning pale.

"Good-morning, my friend," she said to him, smiling.

"I do not ask if you are comfortable here," said Cesar, looking at Popinot.

"As if I were living with my own son," she answered, with a tender manner that struck her husband.

Birotteau took Popinot and kissed him, saying,—

"I have lost the right, forever, of calling him my son."

"Let us hope!" said Popinot. "/Your/ oil succeeds—thanks to my advertisements in the newspapers, and to Gaudissart, who has travelled over the whole of France; he has inundated the country with placards and prospectuses; he is now at Strasburg getting the prospectuses printed in the German language, and he is about to descend, like an invasion, upon Germany itself. We have received orders for three thousand gross."

"Three thousand gross!" exclaimed Cesar.

"And I have bought a piece of land in the Faubourg Saint-Marceau,—not dear,—where I am building a manufactory."

"Wife," whispered Cesar to Constance, "with a little help we might have pulled through."


After that fatal day Cesar, his wife, and daughter understood each other. The poor clerk resolved to attain an end which, if not impossible, was at least gigantic in its enterprise,—namely, the payment of his debts to their last penny. These three beings,—father, mother, daughter,—bound together by the tie of a passionate integrity, became misers, denying themselves everything; a farthing was sacred in their eyes. Out of sheer calculation Cesarine threw herself into her business with the devotion of a young girl. She sat up at night, taxing her ingenuity to find ways of increasing the prosperity of the establishment, and displaying an innate commercial talent. The masters of the house were obliged to check her ardor for work; they rewarded her by presents, but she refused all articles of dress and the jewels which they offered her. Money! money! was her cry. Every month she carried her salary and her little earnings to her uncle Pillerault. Cesar did the same; so did Madame Birotteau. All three, feeling themselves incapable, dared not take upon themselves the responsibility of managing their money, and they made over to Pillerault the whole business of investing their savings. Returning thus to business, the latter made the most of these funds by negotiations at the Bourse. It was known afterwards that he had been helped in this work by Jules Desmarets and Joseph Lebas, both of whom were eager to point out opportunities which Pillerault might take without risk.

Cesar, though he lived with his uncle, never ventured to question him as to what was done with the money acquired by his labor and that of his wife and daughter. He walked the streets with a bowed head, hiding from every eye his stricken, dull, distraught face. He felt, with self-reproach, that the cloth he wore was too good for him.

"At least," he said to Pillerault, with a look that was angelic, "I do not eat the bread of my creditors. Your bread is sweet to me, though it is your pity that gives it; thanks to your sacred charity, I do not steal a farthing of my salary!"

The merchants, his old associates, who met the clerk could see no vestige of the perfumer. Even careless minds gained an idea of the immensity of human disaster from the aspect of this man, on whose face sorrow had cast its black pall, who revealed the havoc caused by that which had never before appeared in him,—by thought! /N’est pas detruit qui veut/. Light-minded people, devoid of conscience, to whom all things are indifferent, can never present such a spectacle of disaster. Religion alone sets a special seal upon fallen human beings; they believe in a future, in a divine Providence; from within them gleams a light that marks them, a look of saintly resignation mingled with hope, which lends them a certain tender emotion; they realize all that they have lost, like the exiled angel weeping at the gates of heaven. Bankrupts are forbidden to enter the Bourse. Cesar, driven from the regions of integrity, was like an angel sighing for pardon. For fourteen months he lived on, full of religious thoughts with which his fall inspired him, and denying himself every pleasure. Though sure of the Ragons’ friendship, nothing could induce him to dine with them, nor with the Lebas, nor the Matifats, nor the Protez and Chiffrevilles, not even with Monsieur Vauquelin; all of whom were eager to do honor to his rare virtue. Cesar preferred to be alone in his room rather than meet the eye of a creditor. The warmest greetings of his friends reminded him the more bitterly of his position. Constance and Cesarine went nowhere. On Sundays and fete days, the only days when they were at liberty, the two women went to fetch Cesar at the hour for Mass, and they stayed with him at Pillerault’s after their religious duties were accomplished. Pillerault often invited the Abbe Loraux, whose words sustained Cesar in this life of trial. And in this way their lives were spent. The old ironmonger had too tough a fibre of integrity not to approve of Cesar’s sensitive honor. His mind, however, turned on increasing the number of persons among whom the poor bankrupt might show himself with an open brow, and an eye that could meet the eyes of his fellows.


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Honoré de Balzac

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Chicago: Honore de Balzac, "VI," Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, trans. Wormeley, Katharine Prescott, 1830-1908 in Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau Original Sources, accessed July 14, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKQDBHM6KTEC518.

MLA: de Balzac, Honore. "VI." Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, translted by Wormeley, Katharine Prescott, 1830-1908, in Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, Original Sources. 14 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKQDBHM6KTEC518.

Harvard: de Balzac, H, 'VI' in Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, trans. . cited in , Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau. Original Sources, retrieved 14 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKQDBHM6KTEC518.