The Brotherhood of Consolation

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Author: Honore de Balzac

III the House of Mongenod

The next day, as Godefroid rose amid the appointments of modern luxury and the choice appliances of English "comfort," he remembered the details of his visit to that cloister of Notre-Dame, and the meaning of the things he had seen there came into his mind. The three unknown and silent men, whose dress, attitude, and stillness acted powerfully upon him, were no doubt boarders like the priest. The solemnity of Madame de la Chanterie now seemed to him a secret dignity with which she bore some great misfortune. But still, in spite of the explanations which Godefroid gave himself, he could not help fancying there was an air of mystery about those sober figures.

He looked around him and selected the pieces of furniture that he would keep, those that were indispensable to him; but when he transported them in thought to the miserable lodging in the rue Chanoinesse, he began to laugh at the contrast they would make there, resolving to sell all and let Madame de la Chanterie furnish the rooms for him. He wanted a new life, and the very sight of these objects would remind him of that which he wished to forget. In his desire for transformation (for he belonged to those characters who spring at a bound into the middle of a situation, instead of advancing, as others do, step by step), he was seized while he breakfasted with an idea,— he would turn his whole property into money, pay his debts, and place the remainder of his capital in the banking-house with which his father had done business.

This house was the firm of Mongenod and Company, established in 1816 or 1817, whose reputation for honesty and uprightness had never been questioned in the midst of the commercial depravity which smirched, more or less, all the banking-houses of Paris. In spite of their immense wealth, the houses of Nucingen, du Tillet, the Keller Brothers, Palma and Company, were each regarded, more or less, with secret disrespect, although it is true this disrespect was only whispered. Evil means had produced such fine results, such political successes, dynastic principles covered so completely base workings, that no one in 1834 thought of the mud in which the roots of these fine trees, the mainstay of the State, were plunged. Nevertheless there was not a single one of those great bankers to whom the confidence expressed in the house of Mongenod was not a wound. Like English houses, the Mongenods made no external display of luxury. They lived in dignified stillness, satisfied to do their business prudently, wisely, and with a stern uprightness which enabled them to carry it from one end of the globe to the other.

The actual head of the house, Frederic Mongenod, is the brother-in-law of the Vicomte de Fontaine; therefore, this numerous family is allied through the Baron de Fontaine to Monsieur Grossetete, the receivergeneral, brother of the Grossetete and Company of Limoges, to the Vandenesses, and to Planat de Baudry, another receiver-general. These connections, having procured for the late Mongenod, father of the present head of the house, many favors in the financial operations under the Restoration, obtained for him also the confidence of the old /noblesse/, whose property and whose savings, which were immense, were deposited in this bank. Far from coveting a peerage, like the Kellers, Nucingen, and du Tillet, the Mongenods kept away from politics, and only knew as much about them as their banking interests demanded.

The house of Mongenod is established in a fine old mansion in the rue de la Victoire, where Madame Mongenod, the mother, lived with her two sons, all three being partners in the house,—the share of the Vicomtesse de Fontaine having been bought out by them on the death of the elder Mongenod in 1827.

Frederic Mongenod, a handsome young man about thirty-five years of age, cold, silent, and reserved in manner like a Swiss, and neat as an Englishman, had acquired by intercourse with his father all the qualities necessary for his difficult profession. Better educated than the generality of bankers, his studies had the breadth and universality which characterize the polytechnic training; and he had, like most bankers, predilections and tastes outside of his business,— he loved mechanics and chemistry. The second brother, who was ten years younger than Frederic, held the same position in the office of his elder brother that a head clerk holds in that of a notary or lawyer. Frederic trained him, as he had himself been trained by his father, in the variety of knowledge necessary to a true banker, who is to money what a writer is to ideas,—they must both know all of that with which they have to deal.

When Godefroid reached the banking house and gave his name, he saw at once the estimation in which his father had been held; for he was ushered through the offices without delay to the private counting-room of the Mongenods. This counting-room was closed with a glass door, so that Godefroid, without any desire to listen, overheard as he approached it what was being said there.

"Madame, your account is balanced to sixteen hundred thousand francs," said the younger Mongenod. "I do not know what my brother’s intentions are; he alone can say whether an advance of a hundred thousand francs can be made. You must have been imprudent. Sixteen hundred thousand francs should not be entrusted to any business."

"Do not speak so loud, Louis!" said a woman’s voice. "Your brother has often told you to speak in a low voice. There may be some one in the next room."

At this moment Frederic Mongenod himself opened the door of communication between his private house and the counting-room. He saw Godefroid and crossed the room, bowing respectfully to the lady who was conversing with his brother.

"To whom have I the honor of speaking?" he said to Godefroid.

As soon as Godefroid gave his name, Frederic begged him to be seated; and as the banker opened the lid of his desk, Louis Mongenod and the lady, who was no other than Madame de la Chanterie, rose and went up to him. All three then moved into the embrasure of a window and talked in a low voice with Madame Mongenod, the mother, who was sitting there, and to whom all the affairs of the bank were confided. For over thirty years this woman had given, to her husband first and then to her sons, such proofs of business sagacity that she had long been a managing partner in the firm and signed for it.

Godefroid, as he looked about him, noticed on a shelf certain boxes ticketed with the words "De la Chanterie," and numbered 1 to 7. When the conference was ended by the banker saying to his brother, "Very good; go down to the cashier," Madame de la Chanterie turned round, saw Godefroid, checked a gesture of surprise, and asked a few questions of the banker in a low voice, to which he replied in a few words spoken equally in a whisper.

Madame de la Chanterie now wore gray silk stockings and small prunella shoes; her gown was the same as before, but she was wrapped in a Venetian "mantua,"—a sort of cloak which was just then returning into fashion. On her head was a drawn bonnet of green silk, lined with white silk, of a style called /a la bonne femme/. Her face was framed by a cloud of lace. She held herself very erect, in an attitude which bespoke, if not noble birth, certainly the habits of an aristocratic life. Without the extreme affability of her manner, she might have seemed haughty; she was certainly imposing.

"It is the will of Providence rather than mere chance that has brought us here together, monsieur," she said to Godefroid; "for I had almost decided to refuse a lodger whose ways of life seemed to me quite antipathetic to those of my household; but Monsieur Mongenod has just given me some information about your family which—"

"Ah, madame,—monsieur!" said Godefroid, addressing both Madame de la Chanterie and the banker, "I have no longer a family; and I have come here now to ask some financial advice of my father’s business advisers as to the best method of adapting my means to a new way of life."

Godefroid then succinctly, and in as few words as possible, related his history, and expressed his desire to change his existence.

"Formerly," he said, "a man in my position would have made himself a monk; but there are no longer any religious orders."

"Go and live with madame, if she is willing to take you," said Frederic Mongenod, after exchanging a glance with Madame de la Chanterie, "and do not sell out your property; leave it in my hands. Give me the exact amount of your debts; I will agree with your creditors for payment at certain dates, and you can have for yourself about a hundred and fifty francs a month. It will thus take two years to clear you. During those two years, if you take those quiet lodgings, you will have time to think of a career, especially among the persons with whom you will live, who are all good counsellors."

Here Louis Mongenod returned, bringing in his hand a hundred notes of a thousand francs each, which he gave to Madame de la Chanterie. Godefroid offered his arm to his future hostess, and took her down to the hackney-coach which was waiting for her.

"I hope I shall see you soon, monsieur," she said in a cordial tone of voice.

"At what hour shall you be at home, madame?" he asked.

"At two o’clock."

"I shall have time to sell my furniture," he said, as he bowed to her.

During the short time that Madame de la Chanterie’s arm rested upon his as they walked to the carriage, Godefroid could not escape the glamour of the words: "Your account is for sixteen hundred thousand francs!"—words said by Louis Mongenod to the woman whose life was spent in the depths of the cloisters of Notre-Dame. The thought, "She must be rich!" entirely changed his way of looking at the matter. "How old is she?" he began to ask himself; and a vision of a romance in the rue Chanoinesse came to him. "She certainly has an air of nobility! Can she be concerned in some bank?" thought he.

In our day nine hundred and ninety-nine young men out of a thousand in Godefroid’s position would have had the thought of marrying that woman.

A furniture dealer, who also had apartments to let, paid about three thousand francs for the articles Godefroid was willing to sell, and agreed to let him keep them during the few days that were needed to prepare the shabby apartment in the rue Chanoinesse for this lodger with a sick mind. Godefroid went there at once, and obtained from Madame de la Chanterie the address of a painter who, for a moderate sum, agreed to whiten the ceilings, clean the windows, paint the woodwork, and stain the floors, within a week. Godefroid took the measure of the rooms, intending to put the same carpet in all of them, —a green carpet of the cheapest kind. He wished for the plainest uniformity in this retreat, and Madame de la Chanterie approved of the idea. She calculated, with Manon’s assistance, the number of yards of white calico required for the window curtains, and also for those of the modest iron bed; and she undertook to buy and have them made for a price so moderate as to surprise Godefroid. Having brought with him a certain amount of furniture, the whole cost of fitting up the rooms proved to be not over six hundred francs.

"We lead here," said Madame de la Chanterie, "a Christian life, which does not, as you know, accord with many superfluities; I think you have too many as it is."

In giving this hint to her future lodger, she looked at a diamond which gleamed in the ring through which Godefroid’s blue cravat was slipped.

"I only speak of this," she added, "because of the intention you expressed to abandon the frivolous life you complained of to Monsieur Mongenod."

Godefroid looked at Madame de la Chanterie as he listened to the harmonies of her limpid voice; he examined that face so purely white, resembling those of the cold, grave women of Holland whom the Flemish painters have so wonderfully reproduced with their smooth skins, in which a wrinkle is impossible.

"White and plump!" he said to himself, as he walked away; "but her hair is white, too."

Godefroid, like all weak natures, took readily to a new life, believing it satisfactory; and he was now quite eager to take up his abode in the rue Chanoinesse. Nevertheless, a prudent thought, or, if you prefer to say so, a distrustful thought, occurred to him. Two days before his installation, he went again to see Monsieur Mongenod to obtain some more definite information about the house he was to enter.

During the few moments he had spent in his future lodgings overlooking the changes that were being made in them, he had noticed the coming and going of several persons whose appearance and behavior, without being exactly mysterious, excited a belief that some secret occupation or profession was being carried on in that house. At that particular period there was much talk of attempts by the elder branch of the Bourbons to recover the throne, and Godefroid suspected some conspiracy. When he found himself in the banker’s counting-room held by the scrutinizing eye of Frederic Mongenod while he made his inquiry, he felt ashamed as he saw a derisive smile on the lips of the listener.

"Madame la Baronne de la Chanterie," replied the banker, "is one of the most obscure persons in Paris, but she is also one of the most honorable. Have you any object in asking for information?"

Godefroid retreated into generalities: he was going to live among strangers; he naturally wished to know something of those with whom he should be intimately thrown. But the banker’s smile became more and more sarcastic; and Godefroid, more and more embarrassed, was ashamed of the step he had taken, and which bore no fruit, for he dared not continue his questions about Madame de la Chanterie and her inmates.

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Chicago: Honore de Balzac, "III the House of Mongenod," The Brotherhood of Consolation, trans. Marriage, Ellen, Bell, Clara in The Brotherhood of Consolation Original Sources, accessed August 19, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q7FCB3ECIWEIAE3.

MLA: de Balzac, Honore. "III the House of Mongenod." The Brotherhood of Consolation, translted by Marriage, Ellen, Bell, Clara, in The Brotherhood of Consolation, Original Sources. 19 Aug. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q7FCB3ECIWEIAE3.

Harvard: de Balzac, H, 'III the House of Mongenod' in The Brotherhood of Consolation, trans. . cited in , The Brotherhood of Consolation. Original Sources, retrieved 19 August 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q7FCB3ECIWEIAE3.