Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau

Author: Honore de Balzac


During winter nights noise never ceases in the Rue Saint-Honore except for a short interval. Kitchen-gardeners carrying their produce to market continue the stir of carriages returning from theatres and balls. Near the middle of this sustained pause in the grand symphony of Parisian uproar, which occurs about one o’clock in the morning, the wife of Monsieur Cesar Birotteau, a perfumer established near the Place Vendome, was startled from her sleep by a frightful dream. She had seen her double. She had appeared to herself clothed in rags, turning with a shrivelled, withered hand the latch of her own shopdoor, seeming to be at the threshold, yet at the same time seated in her armchair behind the counter. She was asking alms of herself, and heard herself speaking from the doorway and also from her seat at the desk.

She tried to grasp her husband, but her hand fell on a cold place. Her terror became so intense that she could not move her neck, which stiffened as if petrified; the membranes of her throat became glued together, her voice failed her. She remained sitting erect in the same posture in the middle of the alcove, both panels of which were wide open, her eyes staring and fixed, her hair quivering, her ears filled with strange noises, her heart tightened yet palpitating, and her person bathed in perspiration though chilled to the bone.

Fear is a half-diseased sentiment, which presses so violently upon the human mechanism that the faculties are suddenly excited to the highest degree of their power or driven to utter disorganization. Physiologists have long wondered at this phenomenon, which overturns their systems and upsets all theories; it is in fact a thunderbolt working within the being, and, like all electric accidents, capricious and whimsical in its course. This explanation will become a mere commonplace in the day when scientific men are brought to recognize the immense part which electricity plays in human thought.

Madame Birotteau now passed through several of the shocks, in some sort electrical, which are produced by terrible explosions of the will forced out, or held under, by some mysterious mechanism. Thus during a period of time, very short if judged by a watch, but immeasurable when calculated by the rapidity of her impressions, the poor woman had the supernatural power of emitting more ideas and bringing to the surface more recollections than, under any ordinary use of her faculties, she could put forth in the course of a whole day. The poignant tale of her monologue may be abridged into a few absurd sentences, as contradictory and bare of meaning as the monologue itself.

"There is no reason why Birotteau should leave my bed! He has eaten so much veal that he may be ill. But if he were ill he would have waked me. For nineteen years that we have slept together in this bed, in this house, it has never happened that he left his place without telling me,—poor sheep! He never slept away except to pass the night in the guard-room. Did he come to bed to-night? Why, of course; goodness! how stupid I am."

She cast her eyes upon the bed and saw her husband’s night-cap, which still retained the almost conical shape of his head.

"Can he be dead? Has he killed himself? Why?" she went on. "For the last two years, since they made him deputy-mayor, he is /all-I-don’tknow-how/. To put him into public life! On the word of an honest woman, isn’t it pitiable? His business is doing well, for he gave me a shawl. But perhaps it isn’t doing well? Bah! I should know of it. Does one ever know what a man has got in his head; or a woman either?— there is no harm in that. Didn’t we sell five thousand francs’ worth to-day? Besides, a deputy mayor couldn’t kill himself; he knows the laws too well. Where is he then?"

She could neither turn her neck, nor stretch out her hand to pull the bell, which would have put in motion a cook, three clerks, and a shopboy. A prey to the nightmare, which still lasted though her mind was wide awake, she forgot her daughter peacefully asleep in an adjoining room, the door of which opened at the foot of her bed. At last she cried "Birotteau!" but got no answer. She thought she had called the name aloud, though in fact she had only uttered it mentally.

"Has he a mistress? He is too stupid," she added. "Besides, he loves me too well for that. Didn’t he tell Madame Roguin that he had never been unfaithful to me, even in thought? He is virtue upon earth, that man. If any one ever deserved paradise he does. What does he accuse himself of to his confessor, I wonder? He must tell him a lot of fiddle-faddle. Royalist as he is, though he doesn’t know why, he can’t froth up his religion. Poor dear cat! he creeps to Mass at eight o’clock as slyly as if he were going to a bad house. He fears God for God’s sake; hell is nothing to him. How could he have a mistress? He is so tied to my petticoat that he bores me. He loves me better than his own eyes; he would put them out for my sake. For nineteen years he has never said to me one word louder than another. His daughter is never considered before me. But Cesarine is here—Cesarine! Cesarine! —Birotteau has never had a thought which he did not tell me. He was right enough when he declared to me at the Petit-Matelot that I should never know him till I tried him. And /not here/! It is extraordinary!"

She turned her head with difficulty and glanced furtively about the room, then filled with those picturesque effects which are the despair of language and seem to belong exclusively to the painters of genre. What words can picture the alarming zig-zags produced by falling shadows, the fantastic appearance of curtains bulged out by the wind, the flicker of uncertain light thrown by a night-lamp upon the folds of red calico, the rays shed from a curtain-holder whose lurid centre was like the eye of a burglar, the apparition of a kneeling dress,—in short, all the grotesque effects which terrify the imagination at a moment when it has no power except to foresee misfortunes and exaggerate them? Madame Birotteau suddenly saw a strong light in the room beyond her chamber, and thought of fire; but perceiving a red foulard which looked like a pool of blood, her mind turned exclusively to burglars, especially when she thought she saw traces of a struggle in the way the furniture stood about the room. Recollecting the sum of money which was in the desk, a generous fear put an end to the chill ferment of her nightmare. She sprang terrified, and in her night-gown, into the very centre of the room to help her husband, whom she supposed to be in the grasp of assassins.

"Birotteau! Birotteau!" she cried at last in a voice full of anguish.

She then saw the perfumer in the middle of the next room, a yard-stick in his hand measuring the air, and so ill wrapped up in his green cotton dressing-gown with chocolate-colored spots that the cold had reddened his legs without his feeling it, preoccupied as he was. When Cesar turned about to say to his wife, "Well, what do you want, Constance?" his air and manner, like those of a man absorbed in calculations, were so prodigiously silly that Madame Birotteau began to laugh.

"Goodness! Cesar, if you are not an oddity like that!" she said. "Why did you leave me alone without telling me? I have nearly died of terror; I did not know what to imagine. What are you doing there, flying open to all the winds? You’ll get as hoarse as a wolf. Do you hear me, Birotteau?"

"Yes, wife, here I am," answered the perfumer, coming into the bedroom.

"Come and warm yourself, and tell me what maggot you’ve got in your head," replied Madame Birotteau opening the ashes of the fire, which she hastened to relight. "I am frozen. What a goose I was to get up in my night-gown! But I really thought they were assassinating you."

The shopkeeper put his candlestick on the chimney-piece, wrapped his dressing-gown closer about him, and went mechanically to find a flannel petticoat for his wife.

"Here, Mimi, cover yourself up," he said. "Twenty-two by eighteen," he resumed, going on with his monologue; "we can get a superb salon."

"Ah, ca! Birotteau, are you on the high road to insanity? Are you dreaming?"

"No, wife, I am calculating."

"You had better wait till daylight for your nonsense," she cried, fastening the petticoat beneath her short night-gown and going to the door of the room where her daughter was in bed.

"Cesarine is asleep," she said, "she won’t hear us. Come, Birotteau, speak up. What is it?"

"We can give a ball."

"Give a ball! we? On the word of an honest woman, you are dreaming, my friend."

"I am not dreaming, my beautiful white doe. Listen. People should always do what their position in life demands. Government has brought me forward into prominence. I belong to the government; it is my duty to study its mind, and further its intentions by developing them. The Duc de Richelieu has just put an end to the occupation of France by the foreign armies. According to Monsieur de la Billardiere, the functionaries who represent the city of Paris should make it their duty, each in his own sphere of influence, to celebrate the liberation of our territory. Let us show a true patriotism which shall put these liberals, these damned intriguers, to the blush; hein? Do you think I don’t love my country? I wish to show the liberals, my enemies, that to love the king is to love France."

"Do you think you have got any enemies, my poor Birotteau?"

"Why, yes, wife, we have enemies. Half our friends in the quarter are our enemies. They all say, ’Birotteau has had luck; Birotteau is a man who came from nothing: yet here he is deputy-mayor; everything succeeds with him.’ Well, they are going to be finely surprised. You are the first to be told that I am made a chevalier of the Legion of honor. The king signed the order yesterday."

"Oh! then," said Madame Birotteau, much moved, "of course we must give the ball, my good friend. But what have you done to merit the cross?"

"Yesterday, when Monsieur de la Billardiere told me the news," said Birotteau, modestly, "I asked myself, as you do, what claims I had to it; but I ended by seeing what they were, and in approving the action of the government. In the first place, I am a royalist; I was wounded at Saint-Roch in Vendemiaire: isn’t it something to have borne arms in those days for the good cause? Then, according to the merchants, I exercised my judicial functions in a way to give general satisfaction. I am now deputy-mayor. The king grants four crosses to the municipality of Paris; the prefect, selecting among the deputies suitable persons to be thus decorated, has placed my name first on the list. The king moreover knows me: thanks to old Ragon. I furnish him with the only powder he is willing to use; we alone possess the receipt of the late queen,—poor, dear, august victim! The mayor vehemently supported me. So there it is. If the king gives me the cross without my asking for it, it seems to me that I cannot refuse it without failing in my duty to him. Did I seek to be deputy-mayor? So, wife, since we are sailing before the wind, as your uncle Pillerault says when he is jovial, I have decided to put the household on a footing in conformity with our high position. If I can become anything, I’ll risk being whatever the good God wills that I shall be, —sub-prefect, if such be my destiny. My wife, you are much mistaken if you think a citizen has paid his debt to his country by merely selling perfumery for twenty years to those who came to buy it. If the State demands the help of our intelligence, we are as much bound to give it as we are to pay the tax on personal property, on windows and doors, /et caetera/. Do you want to stay forever behind your counter? You have been there, thank God, a long time. This ball shall be our fete,—yours and mine. Good-by to economy,—for your sake, be it understood. I burn our sign, ’The Queen of Roses’; I efface the name, ’Cesar Birotteau, Perfumer, Successor to Ragon,’ and put simply, ’Perfumery’ in big letters of gold. On the /entresol/ I place the office, the counting-room, and a pretty little sanctum for you. I make the shop out of the back-shop, the present dining-room, and kitchen. I hire the first floor of the next house, and open a door into it through the wall. I turn the staircase so as to pass from house to house on one floor; and we shall thus get a grand appartement, furnished like a nest. Yes, I shall refurnish your bedroom, and contrive a boudoir for you and a pretty chamber for Cesarine. The shop-girl whom you will hire, our head clerk, and your lady’s-maid (yes, Madame, you are to have one!) will sleep on the second floor. On the third will be the kitchen and rooms of the cook and the man-ofall-work. The fourth shall be a general store-house for bottle, crystals, and porcelains. The workshop for our people, in the attic! Passers-by shall no longer see them gumming on the labels, making the bags, sorting the flasks, and corking the phials. Very well for the Rue Saint-Denis, but for the Rue Saint-Honore—fy! bad style! Our shop must be as comfortable as a drawing-room. Tell me, are we the only perfumers who have reached public honors? Are there not vinegar merchants and mustard men who command in the National Guard and are very well received at the Palace? Let us imitate them; let us extend our business, and at the same time press forward into higher society."

"Goodness! Birotteau, do you know what I am thinking of as I listen to you? You are like the man who looks for knots in a bulrush. Recollect what I said when it was a question of making you deputy-mayor: ’your peace of mind before everything!’ You are as fit, I told you, ’to be put forward in public life as my arm is to turn a windmill. Honors will be your ruin!’ You would not listen to me, and now the ruin has come. To play a part in politics you must have money: have we any? What! would you burn your sign, which cost six hundred francs, and renounce ’The Queen of Roses,’ your true glory? Leave ambition to others. He who puts his hand in the fire gets burned,—isn’t that true? Politics burn in these days. We have one hundred good thousand francs invested outside of our business, our productions, our merchandise. If you want to increase your fortune, do as they did in 1793. The Funds are at sixty-two: buy into the Funds. You will get ten thousand francs’ income, and the investment won’t hamper our property. Take advantage of the occasion to marry our daughter; sell the business, and let us go and live in your native place. Why! for fifteen years you have talked of nothing but buying Les Tresorieres, that pretty little property near Chinon, where there are woods and fields, and ponds and vineyards, and two dairies, which bring in a thousand crowns a year, with a house which we both like,—all of which we can have for sixty thousand francs; and, lo! Monsieur now wants to become something under government! Recollect what we are,—perfumers. If sixteen years before you invented the DOUBLE PASTE OF SULTANS and the CARMINATIVE BALM some one had said, ’You are going to make enough money to buy Les Tresorieres,’ wouldn’t you have been half sick with joy? Well, you can acquire that property which you wanted so much that you hardly opened your mouth about anything else, and now you talk of spending on nonsense money earned by the sweat of our brow: I can say ours, for I’ve sat behind the desk through all that time, like a poor dog in his kennel. Isn’t it much better to come and visit our daughter after she is married to a notary of Paris, and live eight months of the year at Chinon, than to begin here to make five sous six blanks, and of six blanks nothing? Wait for a rise in the Funds, and you can give eight thousand francs a year to your daughter and we can keep two thousand for ourselves, and the proceeds of the business will allow us to buy Les Tresorieres. There in your native place, my good little cat, with our furniture, which is worth a great deal, we shall live like princes; whereas here we want at least a million to make any figure at all."

"I expected you to say all this, wife," said Cesar Birotteau. "I am not quite such a fool (though you think me a great fool, you do) as not to have thought of all that. Now, listen to me. Alexandre Crottat will fit us like a glove for a son-in-law, and he will succeed Roguin; but do you suppose he will be satisfied with a hundred thousand francs /dot/?—supposing that we gave our whole property outside of the business to establish our daughter, and I am willing; I would gladly live on dry bread the rest of my days to see her happy as a queen, the wife of a notary of Paris, as you say. Well, then, a hundred thousand francs, or even eight thousand francs a year, is nothing at all towards buying Roguin’s practice. Little Xandrot, as we call him, thinks, like all the rest of the world, that we are richer than we are. If his father, that big farmer who is as close as a snail, won’t sell a hundred thousand francs worth of land Xandrot can’t be a notary, for Roguin’s practice is worth four or five hundred thousand. If Crottat does not pay half down, how could he negotiate the affair? Cesarine must have two hundred thousand francs /dot/; and I mean that you and I shall retire solid bourgeois of Paris, with fifteen thousand francs a year. Hein! If I could make you see that as plain as day, wouldn’t it shut your mouth?"

"Oh, if you’ve got the mines of Peru—"

"Yes, I have, my lamb. Yes," he said, taking his wife by the waist and striking her with little taps, under an emotion of joy which lighted up his features, "I did not wish to tell you of this matter till it was all cooked; but to-morrow it will be done,—that is, perhaps it will. Here it is then: Roguin has proposed a speculation to me, so safe that he has gone into it with Ragon, with your uncle Pillerault, and two other of his clients. We are to buy property near the Madeleine, which, according to Roguin’s calculations, we shall get for a quarter of the value which it will bring three years from now, at which time, the present leases having expired, we shall manage it for ourselves. We have all six taken certain shares. I furnish three hundred thousand francs,—that is, three-eighths of the whole. If any one of us wants money, Roguin will get it for him by hypothecating his share. To hold the gridiron and know how the fish are fried, I have chosen to be nominally proprietor of one half, which is, however, to be the common property of Pillerault and the worthy Ragon and myself. Roguin will be, under the name of Monsieur Charles Claparon, co-proprietor with me, and will give a reversionary deed to his associates, as I shall to mine. The deeds of purchase are made by promises of sale under private seal, until we are masters of the whole property. Roguin will investigate as to which of the contracts should be paid in money, for he is not sure that we can dispense with registering and yet turn over the titles to those to whom we sell in small parcels. But it takes too long to explain all this to you. The ground once paid for, we have only to cross our arms and in three years we shall be rich by a million. Cesarine will then be twenty, our business will be sold, and we shall step, by the grace of God, modestly to eminence."

"Where will you get your three hundred thousand francs?" said Madame Birotteau.

"You don’t understand business, my beloved little cat. I shall take the hundred thousand francs which are now with Roguin; I shall borrow forty thousand on the buildings and gardens where we now have our manufactory in the Faubourg du Temple; we have twenty thousand francs here in hand,—in all, one hundred and sixty thousand. There remain one hundred and forty thousand more, for which I shall sign notes to the order of Monsieur Charles Claparon, banker. He will pay the value, less the discount. So there are the three hundred thousand francs provided for. He who owns rents owes nothing. When the notes fall due we can pay them off with our profits. If we cannot pay them in cash, Roguin will give the money at five per cent, hypothecated on my share of the property. But such loans will be unnecessary. I have discovered an essence which will make the hair grow—an Oil Comagene, from Syria! Livingston has just set up for me a hydraulic press to manufacture the oil from nuts, which yield it readily under strong pressure. In a year, according to my calculations, I shall have made a hundred thousand francs at least. I meditate an advertisement which shall begin, ’Down with wigs!’—the effect will be prodigious. You have never found out my wakefulness, Madame! For three months the success of Macassar Oil has kept me from sleeping. I am resolved to take the shine out of Macassar!"

"So these are the fine projects you’ve been rolling in your noddle for two months without choosing to tell me? I have just seen myself begging at my own door,—a warning from heaven! Before long we shall have nothing left but our eyes to weep with. Never while I live shall you do it; do you hear me, Cesar? Underneath all this there is some plot which you don’t perceive; you are too upright and loyal to suspect the trickery of others. Why should they come and offer you millions? You are giving up your property, you are going beyond your means; and if your oil doesn’t succeed, if you don’t make the money, if the value of the land can’t be realized, how will you pay your notes? With the shells of your nuts? To rise in society you are going to hide your name, take down your sign, ’The Queen of Roses,’ and yet you mean to salaam and bow and scrape in advertisements and prospectuses, which will placard Cesar Birotteau at every corner, and on all the boards, wherever they are building."

"Oh! you are not up to it all. I shall have a branch establishment, under the name of Popinot, in some house near the Rue des Lombards, where I shall put little Anselme. I shall pay my debt of gratitude to Monsieur and Madame Ragon by setting up their nephew, who can make his fortune. The poor Ragonines look to me half-starved of late."

"Bah! all those people want your money."

"But what people, my treasure? Is it your uncle Pillerault, who loves us like the apple of his eye, and dines with us every Sunday? Is it good old Ragon, our predecessor, who has forty upright years in business to boast of, and with whom we play our game of boston? Is it Roguin, a notary, a man fifty-seven years old, twenty-five of which he has been in office? A notary of Paris! he would be the flower of the lot, if honest folk were not all worth the same price. If necessary, my associates will help me. Where is the plot, my white doe? Look here, I must tell you your defect. On the word of an honest man it lies on my heart. You are as suspicious as a cat. As soon as we had two sous worth in the shop you thought the customers were all thieves. I had to go down on my knees to you to let me make you rich. For a Parisian girl you have no ambition! If it hadn’t been for your perpetual fears, no man could have been happier than I. If I had listened to you I should never have invented the Paste of Sultans nor the Carminative Balm. Our shop has given us a living, but these two discoveries have made the hundred and sixty thousand francs which we possess, net and clear! Without my genius, for I certainly have talent as a perfumer, we should now be petty retail shopkeepers, pulling the devil’s tail to make both ends meet. I shouldn’t be a distinguished merchant, competing in the election of judges for the department of commerce; I should be neither a judge nor a deputy-mayor. Do you know what I should be? A shopkeeper like Pere Ragon,—be it said without offence, for I respect shopkeeping; the best of our kidney are in it. After selling perfumery like him for forty years, we should be worth three thousand francs a year; and at the price things are now, for they have doubled in value, we should, like them, have barely enough to live on. (Day after day that poor household wrings my heart more and more. I must know more about it, and I’ll get the truth from Popinot to-morrow!) If I had followed your advice—you who have such uneasy happiness and are always asking whether you will have to-morrow what you have got to-day—I should have no credit, I should have no cross of the Legion of honor. I should not be on the highroad to becoming a political personage. Yes, you may shake your head, but if our affair succeeds I may become deputy of Paris. Ah! I am not named Cesar for nothing; I succeed. It is unimaginable! outside every one credits me with capacity, but here the only person whom I want so much to please that I sweat blood and water to make her happy, is precisely the one who takes me for a fool."

These phrases, divided by eloquent pauses and delivered like shot, after the manner of those who recriminate, expressed so deep and constant an attachment that Madame Birotteau was inwardly touched, though, like all women, she made use of the love she inspired to gain her end.

"Well! Birotteau," she said, "if you love me, let me be happy in my own way. Neither you nor I have education; we don’t know how to talk, nor to play ’your obedient servant’ like men of the world; how then do you expect that we could succeed in government places? I shall be happy at Les Tresorieres, indeed I shall. I have always loved birds and animals, and I can pass my life very well taking care of the hens and the farm. Let us sell the business, marry Cesarine, and give up your visions. We can come and pass the winters in Paris with our sonin-law; we shall be happy; nothing in politics or commerce can then change our way of life. Why do you want to crush others? Isn’t our present fortune enough for us? When you are a millionaire can you eat two dinners; will you want two wives? Look at my uncle Pillerault! He is wisely content with his little property, and spends his life in good deeds. Does he want fine furniture? Not he! I know very well you have been ordering furniture for me; I saw Braschon here, and it was not to buy perfumery."

"Well, my beauty, yes! Your furniture is ordered; our improvements begin to-morrow, and are superintended by an architect recommended to me by Monsieur de la Billardiere."

"My God!" she cried, "have pity upon us!"

"But you are not reasonable, my love. Do you think that at thirtyseven years of age, fresh and pretty as you are, you can go and bury yourself at Chinon? I, thank God, am only thirty-nine. Chance opens to me a fine career; I enter upon it. If I conduct myself prudently I can make an honorable house among the bourgeoisie of Paris, as was done in former times. I can found the house of Birotteau, like the house of Keller, or Jules Desmartes, or Roguin, Cochin, Guillaume, Lebas, Nucingen, Saillard, Popinot, Matifat, who make their mark, or have made it, in their respective quarters. Come now! If this affair were not as sure as bars of gold—"


"Yes, sure. For two months I have figured at it. Without seeming to do so, I have been getting information on building from the department of public works, from architects and contractors. Monsieur Grindot, the young architect who is to alter our house, is in despair that he has no money to put into the speculation."

"He hopes for the work; he says that to screw something out of you."

"Can he take in such men as Pillerault, as Charles Claparon, as Roguin? The profit is as sure as that of the Paste of Sultans."

"But, my dear friend, why should Roguin speculate? He gets his commissions, and his fortune is made. I see him pass sometimes more full of care than a minister of state, with an underhand look which I don’t like; he hides some secret anxiety. His face has grown in five years to look like that of an old rake. Who can be sure that he won’t kick over the traces when he gets all your property into his own hands. Such things happen. Do we know him well? He has only been a friend for fifteen years, and I wouldn’t put my hand into the fire for him. Why! he is not decent: he does not live with his wife. He must have mistresses who ruin him; I don’t see any other cause for his anxiety. When I am dressing I look through the blinds, and I often see him coming home in the mornings: where from? Nobody knows. He seems to me like a man who has an establishment in town, who spends on his pleasures, and Madame on hers. Is that the life of a notary? If they make fifty thousand francs a year and spend sixty thousand, in twenty years they will get to the end of their property and be as naked as the little Saint John; and then, as they can’t do without luxury, they will prey upon their friends without compunction. Charity begins at home. He is intimate with that little scamp du Tillet, our former clerk; and I see nothing good in that friendship. If he doesn’t know how to judge du Tillet he must be blind; and if he does know him, why does he pet him? You’ll tell me, because his wife is fond of du Tillet. Well, I don’t look for any good in a man who has no honor with respect to his wife. Besides, the present owners of that land must be fools to sell for a hundred sous what is worth a hundred francs. If you met a child who did not know the value of a louis, wouldn’t you feel bound to tell him of it? Your affair looks to me like a theft, be it said without offence."

"Good God! how queer women are sometimes, and how they mix up ideas! If Roguin were not in this business, you would say to me: ’Look here, Cesar, you are going into a thing without Roguin; therefore it is worth nothing.’ But to-day he is in it, as security, and you tell me—"

"No, that is a Monsieur Claparon."

"But a notary cannot put his own name into a speculation."

"Then why is he doing a thing forbidden by law? How do you answer that, you who are guided by law?"

"Let me go on. Roguin is in it, and you tell me the business is worthless. Is that reasonable? You say, ’He is acting against the law.’ But he would put himself openly in the business if it were necessary. Can’t they say the same of me? Would Ragon and Pillerault come and say to me: ’Why do you have to do with this affair,—you who have made your money as a merchant?’"

"Merchants are not in the same position as notaries," said Madame Birotteau.

"Well, my conscience is clear," said Cesar, continuing; "the people who sell, sell because they must; we do not steal from them any more than you steal from others when you buy their stocks at seventy-five. We buy the ground to-day at to-day’s price. In two years it will be another thing; just so with stocks. Know then, Constance-Barbe- Josephine Pillerault, that you will never catch Cesar Birotteau doing anything against the most rigid honor, nor against the laws, nor against his conscience, nor against delicacy. A man established and known for eighteen years, to be suspected in his own household of dishonesty!"

"Come, be calm, Cesar! A woman who has lived with you all that time knows down to the bottom of your soul. You are the master, after all. You earned your fortune, didn’t you? It is yours, and you can spend it. If we are reduced to the last straits of poverty, neither your daughter nor I will make you a single reproach. But, listen; when you invented your Paste of Sultans and Carminative Balm, what did you risk? Five or six thousand francs. To-day you put all your fortune on a game of cards. And you are not the only one to play; you have associates who may be much cleverer than you. Give your ball, remodel the house, spend ten thousand francs if you like,—it is useless but not ruinous. As to your speculations near the Madeleine, I formally object. You are perfumer: be a perfumer, and not a speculator in land. We women have instincts which do not deceive us. I have warned you; now follow your own lead. You have been judge in the department of commerce, you know the laws. So far, you have guided the ship well, Cesar; I shall follow you! But I shall tremble till I see our fortune solidly secure and Cesarine well married. God grant that my dream be not a prophecy!"

This submission thwarted Birotteau, who now employed an innocent ruse to which he had had recourse on similar occasions.

"Listen, Constance. I have not given my word; though it is the same as if I had."

"Oh, Cesar, all is said; let us say no more. Honor before fortune. Come, go to bed, dear friend, there is no more wood. Besides, we shall talk better in bed, if it amuses you. Oh! that horrid dream! My God! to see one’s self! it was fearful! Cesarine and I will have to make a pretty number of /neuvaines/ for the success of your speculations."

"Doubtless the help of God can do no harm," said Birotteau, gravely. "But the oil in nuts is also powerful, wife. I made this discovery just as I made that of the Double Paste of Sultans,—by chance. The first time by opening a book; this time by looking at an engraving of Hero and Leander: you know, the woman who pours oil on the head of her lover; pretty, isn’t it? The safest speculations are those which depend on vanity, on self-love, on the desire of appearing well. Those sentiments never die."

"Alas! I know it well."

"At a certain age men will turn their souls inside out to get hair, if they haven’t any. For some time past hair-dressers have told me that they sell not only Macassar, but all the drugs which are said to dye hair or make it grow. Since the peace, men are more with women, and women don’t like bald-heads; hey! hey! Mimi? The demand for that article grows out of the political situation. A composition which will keep the hair in good health will sell like bread; all the more if it has the sanction, as it will have, of the Academy of Sciences. My good Monsieur Vauquelin will perhaps help me once more. I shall go to him to-morrow and submit my idea; offering him at the same time that engraving which I have at last found in Germany, after two years’ search. He is now engaged in analyzing hair: Chiffreville, his associate in the manufacture of chemical products, told me so. If my discovery should jump with his, my essence will be bought by both sexes. The idea is a fortune; I repeat it. Mon Dieu! I can’t sleep. Hey! luckily little Popinot has the finest head of hair in the world. A shop-girl with hair long enough to touch the ground, and who could say—if the thing were possible without offence to God or my neighbor —that the Oil Comagene (for it shall be an oil, decidedly) has had something to do with it,—all the gray-heads in Paris will fling themselves upon the invention like poverty upon the world. Hey! hey! Mignonne! how about the ball? I am not wicked, but I should like to meet that little scamp du Tillet, who swells out with his fortune and avoids me at the Bourse. He knows that I know a thing about him which was not fine. Perhaps I have been too kind to him. Isn’t it odd, wife, that we are always punished for our good deeds?—here below, I mean. I behaved like a father to him; you don’t know all I did for him."

"You give me goose-flesh merely speaking of it. If you knew what he wished to make of you, you would never have kept the secret of his stealing that three thousand francs,—for I guessed just how the thing was done. If you had sent him to the correctional police, perhaps you would have done a service to a good many people."

"What did he wish to make of me?"

"Nothing. If you were inclined to listen to me to-night, I would give you a piece of good advice, Birotteau; and that is, to let your du Tillet alone."

"Won’t it seem strange if I exclude him from my house,—a clerk for whom I endorsed to the amount of twenty thousand francs when he first went into business? Come, let us do good for good’s sake. Besides, perhaps du Tillet has mended his ways."

"Everything is to be turned topsy-turvy, then?"

"What do you mean with your topsy-turvy? Everything will be ruled like a sheet of music-paper. Have you forgotten what I have just told you about turning the staircase and hiring the first floor of the next house?—which is all settled with the umbrella-maker, Cayron. He and I are going to-morrow to see his proprietor, Monsieur Molineux. To-morrow I have as much to do as a minister of state."

"You turn my brain with your projects," said Constance. "I am all mixed up. Besides, Birotteau, I’m asleep."

"Good-day," replied the husband. "Just listen; I say good-day because it is morning, Mimi. Ah! there she is off, the dear child. Yes! you shall be rich, /richissime/, or I’ll renounce my name of Cesar!"

A few moments later Constance and Cesar were peacefully snoring.


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Chicago: Honore de Balzac, "I," Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, trans. Wormeley, Katharine Prescott, 1830-1908 in Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau Original Sources, accessed May 27, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=KJ722XKBEG5UCRV.

MLA: de Balzac, Honore. "I." Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, translted by Wormeley, Katharine Prescott, 1830-1908, in Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, Original Sources. 27 May. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=KJ722XKBEG5UCRV.

Harvard: de Balzac, H, 'I' in Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, trans. . cited in , Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau. Original Sources, retrieved 27 May 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=KJ722XKBEG5UCRV.