Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau

Author: Honore de Balzac


Eight days after his ball, the last dying flash of a prosperity of eighteen years now about to be extinguished, Cesar Birotteau watched the passers-by from the windows of his shop, thinking over the expansion of his affairs, and beginning to find them burdensome. Until then all had been simple in his life; he manufactured and sold, or bought to sell again. To-day the land speculation, his share in the house of A. Popinot and Company, the repayment of the hundred and sixty thousand francs thrown upon the market, which necessitated either a traffic in promissory notes (of which his wife would disapprove), or else some unheard-of success in Cephalic Oil, all fretted the poor man by the multiplicity of ideas which they involved; he felt he had more irons in the fire than he could lay hold of. How would Anselme guide the helm? Birotteau treated Popinot as a professor of rhetoric treats a pupil,—he distrusted his methods, and regretted that he was not at his elbow. The kick he had given Popinot to make him hold his tongue at Vauquelin’s explains the uneasiness which the young merchant inspired in his mind.

Birotteau took care that neither his wife nor his daughter nor the clerks should suspect his anxiety; but he was in truth like a humble boatman on the Seine whom the government has suddenly put in command of a frigate. Troubled thoughts filled his mind, never very capable of reflection, as if with a fog; he stood still, as it were, and peered about to see his way. At this moment a figure appeared in the street for which he felt a violent antipathy; it was that of his new landlord, little Molineux. Every one has dreamed dreams filled with the events of a lifetime, in which there appears and reappears some wayward being, commissioned to play the mischief and be the villain of the piece. To Birotteau’s fancy Molineux seemed delegated by chance to fill some part in his life. His weird face had grinned diabolically at the ball, and he had looked at its magnificence with an evil eye. Catching sight of him again at this moment, Cesar was all the more reminded of the impression the little skin-flint (a word of his vocabulary) had made upon him, because Molineux excited fresh repugnance by reappearing in the midst of his anxious reverie.

"Monsieur," said the little man, in his atrociously hypocritical voice, "we settled our business so hastily that you forgot to guarantee the signatures on the little private deed."

Birotteau took the lease to repair the mistake. The architect came in at this moment, and bowed to the perfumer, looking about him with a diplomatic air.

"Monsieur," he whispered to Cesar presently, "you can easily understand that the first steps in a profession are difficult; you said you were satisfied with me, and it would oblige me very much if you would pay me my commission."

Birotteau, who had stripped himself of ready money when he put his current cash into Roguin’s hands two weeks earlier, called to Celestin to make out an order for two thousand francs at ninety days’ sight, and to write the form of a receipt.

"I am very glad you took part of your neighbor’s rental on yourself," said Molineux in a sly, half-sneering tone. "My porter came to tell me just now that the sheriff has affixed the seals to the Sieur Cayron’s appartement; he has disappeared."

"I hope I’m not juggled out of five thousand francs," thought Birotteau.

"Cayron always seemed to do a good business," said Lourdois, who just then came in to bring his bill.

"A merchant is never safe from commercial reverses until he has retired from business," said little Molineux, folding up his document with fussy precision.

The architect watched the queer old man with the enjoyment all artists find in getting hold of a caricature which confirms their theories about the bourgeoisie.

"When we have got our head under an umbrella we generally think it is protected from the rain," he said.

Molineux noticed the mustachios and the little chin-tuft of the artist much more than he did his face, and he despised that individual folly as much as Grindot despised him. He waited to give him a parting scratch as he went out. By dint of living so long with his cats Molineux had acquired, in his manners as well as in his eyes, something unmistakably feline.

Just at this moment Ragon and Pillerault came in.

"We have been talking of the land affair with the judge," said Ragon in Cesar’s ear; "he says that in a speculation of that kind we must have a warranty from the sellers, and record the deeds, and pay in cash, before we are really owners and co-partners."

"Ah! you are talking of the lands about the Madeleine," said Lourdois; "there is a good deal said about them: there will be some houses to build."

The painter who had come intending to have his bill settled, suddenly thought it more to his interest not to press Birotteau.

"I brought my bill because it was the end of the year," he whispered to Cesar; "but there’s no hurry."

"What is the matter, Cesar?" said Pillerault, noticing the amazement of his nephew, who, having glanced at the bill, made no reply to either Ragon or Lourdois.

"Oh, a trifle. I took notes to the amount of five thousand francs from my neighbor, a dealer in umbrellas, and he has failed. If he has given me bad securities I shall be caught, like a fool."

"And yet I have warned you many times," cried Ragon; "a drowning man will catch at his father’s leg to save himself, and drown him too. I have seen so many failures! People are not exactly scoundrels when the disaster begins, but they soon come to be, out of sheer necessity."

"That’s true," said Pillerault.

"If I ever get into the Chamber of Deputies, and ever have any influence in the government," said Birotteau, rising on his toes and dropping back on his heels,—

"What would you do?" said Lourdois, "for you’ve a long head."

Molineux, interested in any discussion about law, lingered in the shop; and as the attention of a few persons is apt to make others attentive, Pillerault and Ragon listened as gravely as the three strangers, though they perfectly well knew Cesar’s opinions.

"I would have," said the perfumer, "a court of irremovable judges, with a magistracy to attend to the application and execution of the laws. After the examination of a case, during which the judge should fulfil the functions of agent, assignee, and commissioner, the merchant should be declared /insolvent with rights of reinstatement/, or else /bankrupt/. If the former, he should be required to pay in full; he should be left in control of his own property and that of his wife; all his belongings and his inherited property should belong to his creditors, and he should administer his affairs in their interests under supervision; he should still carry on his business, signing always ’So-and-so, insolvent,’ until the whole debt is paid off. If bankrupt, he should be condemned, as formerly, to the pillory on the Place de la Bourse, and exposed for two hours, wearing a green cap. His property and that of his wife, and all his rights of every kind should be handed over to his creditors, and he himself banished from the kingdom."

"Business would be more secure," said Lourdois; "people would think twice before launching into speculations."

"The existing laws are not enforced," cried Cesar, lashing himself up. "Out of every hundred merchants there are more than fifty who never realize seventy-five per cent of the whole value of their business, or who sell their merchandise at twenty-five per cent below the invoice price; and that is the destruction of commerce."

"Monsieur is very right," said Molineux; "the law leaves a great deal too much latitude. There should either be total relinquishment of everything, or infamy."

"Damn it!" said Cesar, "at the rate things are going now, a merchant will soon be a licensed thief. With his mere signature he can dip into anybody’s money-drawer."

"You have no mercy, Monsieur Birotteau," said Lourdois.

"He is quite right," said old Ragon.

"All insolvents are suspicious characters," said Cesar, exasperated by his little loss, which sounded in his ears like the first cry of the view-halloo in the ears of the game.

At this moment the late major-domo brought in Chevet’s account, followed by a clerk sent by Felix, a waiter from the cafe Foy, and Collinet’s clarionet, each with a bill.

"Rabelais’ quarter of an hour," said Ragon, smiling.

"It was a fine ball," said Lourdois.

"I am busy," said Cesar to the messengers; who all left the bills and went away.

"Monsieur Grindot," said Lourdois, observing that the architect was folding up Birotteau’s cheque, "will you certify my account? You need only to add it up; the prices were all agreed to by you on Monsieur Birotteau’s behalf."

Pillerault looked at Lourdois and Grindot.

"Prices agreed upon between the architect and contractor?" he said in a low voice to his nephew,—"they have robbed you."

Grindot left the shop, and Molineux followed him with a mysterious air.

"Monsieur," he said, "you listened to me, but you did not understand me,—I wish you the protection of an umbrella."

The architect was frightened. The more illegal a man’s gains the more he clings to them: the human heart is so made. Grindot had really studied the appartement lovingly; he had put all his art and all his time into it; he had given ten thousand francs worth of labor, and he felt that in so doing he had been the dupe of his vanity: the contractors therefore had little trouble in seducing him. The irresistible argument and threat, fully understood, of injuring him professionally by calumniating his work were, however, less powerful than a remark made by Lourdois about the lands near the Madeleine. Birotteau did not expect to hold a single house upon them; he was speculating only on the value of the land; but architects and contractors are to each other very much what authors and actors are,— mutually dependent. Grindot, ordered by Birotteau to stipulate the costs, went for the interests of the builders against the bourgeoisie; and the result was that three large contractors—Lourdois, Chaffaroux, and Thorein the carpenter—proclaimed him "one of those good fellows it is a pleasure to work for." Grindot guessed that the contractor’s bills, out of which he was to have a share, would be paid, like his commission, in notes; and little Molineux had just filled his mind with doubts as to their payment. The architect was about to become pitiless,—after the manner of artists, who are most intolerant of men in their dealings with the middle classes.

By the end of December bills to the amount of sixty thousand francs had been sent in. Felix, the cafe Foy, Tanrade, and all the little creditors who ought to be paid in ready money, had asked for payment three times. Failure to pay such trifles as these do more harm in business than a real misfortune,—they foretell it: known losses are definite, but a panic defies all reckoning. Birotteau saw his coffers empty, and terror seized him: such a thing had never happened throughout his whole commercial life. Like all persons who have never struggled long with poverty, and who are by nature feeble, this circumstance, so common among the greater number of the petty Parisian tradesmen, disturbed for a moment Cesar’s brain. He ordered Celestin to send round the bills of his customers and ask for payment. Before doing so, the head clerk made him repeat the unheard-of order. The clients,—a fine term applied by retail shopkeepers to their customers, and used by Cesar in spite of his wife, who however ended by saying, "Call them what you like, provided they pay!"—his clients, then, were rich people, through whom he had never lost money, who paid when they pleased, and among whom Cesar often had a floating amount of fifty or sixty thousand francs due to him. The second clerk went through the books and copied off the largest sums. Cesar dreaded his wife: that she might not see his depression under this simoom of misfortune, he prepared to go out.

"Good morning, monsieur," said Grindot, entering with the lively manner artists put on when they speak of business, and wish to pretend they know nothing about it; "I cannot get your paper cashed, and I am obliged to ask you to give me the amount in ready money. I am truly unhappy in making this request, but I don’t wish to go to the usurers. I have not hawked your signature about; I know enough of business to feel sure it would injure you. It is really in your own interest that I—"

"Monsieur," said Birotteau, horrified, "speak lower if you please; you surprise me strangely."

Lourdois entered.

"Lourdois," said Birotteau, smiling, "would you believe—"

The poor man stopped short; he was about to ask the painter to take the note given to Grindot, ridiculing the architect with the good nature of a merchant sure of his own standing; but he saw a cloud upon Lourdois’ brow, and he shuddered at his own imprudence. The innocent jest would have been the death of his suspected credit. In such a case a prosperous merchant takes back his note, and does not offer it elsewhere. Birotteau felt his head swim, as though he had looked down the sides of a precipice into a measureless abyss.

"My dear Monsieur Birotteau," said Lourdois, drawing him to the back of the shop, "my account has been examined, audited, and certified; I must ask you to have the money ready for me to-morrow. I marry my daughter to little Crottat; he wants money, for notaries will not take paper; besides, I never give promissory notes."

"Send to me on the day after to-morrow," said Birotteau proudly, counting on the payment of his own bills. "And you too, Monsieur," he said to the architect.

"Why not pay at once?" said Grindot.

"I have my workmen in the faubourg to pay," said Birotteau, who knew not how to lie.

He took his hat once more intending to follow them out, but the mason, Thorein, and Chaffaroux stopped him as he was closing the door.

"Monsieur," said Chaffaroux, "we are in great need of money."

"Well, I have not the mines of Peru," said Cesar, walking quickly away from them. "There is something beneath all this," he said to himself. "That cursed ball! All the world thinks I am worth millions. Yet Lourdois had a look that was not natural; there’s a snake in the grass somewhere."

He walked along the Rue Saint-Honore, in no special direction, and feeling much discomposed. At the corner of a street he ran against Alexandre Crottat, just as a ram, or a mathematician absorbed in the solution of a problem, might have knocked against another of his kind.

"Ah, monsieur," said the future notary, "one word! Has Roguin given your four hundred thousand francs to Monsieur Claparon?"

"The business was settled in your presence. Monsieur Claparon gave me no receipt; my acceptances were to be—negotiated. Roguin was to give him—my two hundred and forty thousand francs. He was told that he was to pay for the property definitely. Monsieur Popinot the judge said— The receipt!—but—why do you ask the question?"

"Why ask the question? To know if your two hundred and forty thousand francs are still with Roguin. Roguin was so long connected with you, that perhaps out of decent feeling he may have paid them over to Claparon, and you will escape! But, no! what a fool I am! He has carried off Claparon’s money as well! Happily, Claparon had only paid over, to my care, one hundred thousand francs. I gave them to Roguin just as I would give you my purse, and I have no receipt for them. The owners of the land have not received one penny; they have just been talking to me. The money you thought you raised upon your property in the Faubourg du Temple had no existence for you, or the borrower; Roguin has squandered it, together with your hundred thousand francs, which he used up long ago,—and your last hundred thousand as well, for I just remember drawing them from the bank."

The pupils of Cesar’s eyes dilated so enormously that he saw only red flames.

"Your hundred thousand francs in his hands, my hundred thousand for his practice, a hundred thousand from Claparon,—there’s three hundred thousand francs purloined, not to speak of other thefts which will be discovered," exclaimed the young notary. "Madame Roguin is not to be counted on. Du Tillet has had a narrow escape. Roguin tormented him for a month to get into that land speculation, but happily all his funds were tied up in an affair with Nucingen. Roguin has written an atrocious letter to his wife; I have read it. He has been making free with his clients’ money for years; and why? for a mistress,—la belle Hollandaise. He left her two weeks ago. The squandering hussy hasn’t a farthing left; they sold her furniture,—she had signed promissory notes. To escape arrest, she took refuge in a house in the Palais- Royal, where she was assassinated last night by a captain in the army. God has quickly punished her; she has wasted Roguin’s whole fortune and much more. There are some women to whom nothing is sacred: think of squandering the trust moneys of a notary! Madame Roguin won’t have a penny, except by claiming her rights of dower; the scoundrel’s whole property is encumbered to its full value. I bought the practice for three hundred thousand francs,—I, who thought I was getting a good thing!—and paid a hundred thousand down. I have no receipt; the creditors will think I am an accomplice if I say a word about that hundred thousand francs, and when a man is starting in life he must be careful of his reputation. There will hardly be thirty per cent saved for the creditors. At my age, to get such a set-back! A man fifty-nine years of age to keep a mistress! the old villain! It is only two weeks since he told me not to marry Cesarine; he said you would soon be without bread,—the monster!"

Alexandre might have talked on indefinitely, for Birotteau stood still, petrified. Every phrase was a calamity, like the blows of a bludgeon. He heard the death-bells tolling in his ears,—just as his eyes had seen, at the first word, the flames of his fortune. Alexandre Crottat, who thought the worthy perfumer a strong and able man, was alarmed at his paleness and rigidity. He was not aware that Roguin had carried off Cesar’s whole property. The thought of immediate suicide passed through the brain of the victim, deeply religious as he was. In such a case suicide is only a way to escape a thousand deaths; it seems logical to take it. Alexandre Crottat gave him his arm, and tried to make him walk on, but it was impossible: his legs gave way under him as if he were drunk.

"What is the matter?" said Crottat. "Dear Monsieur Cesar, take courage! it is not the death of a man. Besides, you will get back your forty thousand francs. The lender hadn’t the money ready, you never received it,—that is sufficient to set aside the agreement."

"My ball—my cross—two hundred thousand francs in paper on the market,—no money in hand! The Ragons, Pillerault,—and my wife, who saw true—"

A rain of confused words, revealing a weight of crushing thoughts and unutterable suffering, poured from his lips, like hail lashing the flowers in the garden of "The Queen of Roses."

"I wish they would cut off my head," he said at last; "its weight troubles me, it is good for nothing."

"Poor Pere Birotteau," said Alexandre, "are you in danger?"


"Well, take courage; make an effort."


"Du Tillet was your clerk; he has a good head; he will help you."

"Du Tillet!"

"Come, try to walk."

"My God! I cannot go home as I am," said Birotteau. "You who are my friend, if there are friends,—you in whom I took an interest, who have dined at my house,—take me somewhere in a carriage, for my wife’s sake. Xandrot, go with me!"

The young notary compassionately put the inert mechanism which bore the name of Cesar into a street coach, not without great difficulty.

"Xandrot," said the perfumer, in a voice choked with tears,—for the tears were now falling from his eyes, and loosening the iron band which bound his brow,—"stop at my shop; go in and speak to Celestin for me. My friend, tell him it is a matter of life or death, that on no consideration must he or any one talk about Roguin’s flight. Tell Cesarine to come down to me, and beg her not to say a word to her mother. We must beware of our best friends, of Pillerault, Ragon, everybody."

The change in Birotteau’s voice startled Crottat, who began to understand the importance of the warning; he fulfilled the instructions of the poor man, whom Celestin and Cesarine were horrified to find pale and half insensible in a corner of the carriage.

"Keep the secret," he said.

"Ah!" said Xandrot to himself, "he is coming to. I thought him lost."

From thence they went, at Cesar’s request, to a judge of the commercial courts. The conference between Crottat and the magistrate lasted long, and the president of the chamber of notaries was summoned. Cesar was carried about from place to place, like a bale of goods; he never moved, and said nothing. Towards seven in the evening Alexandre Crottat took him home. The thought of appearing before Constance braced his nerves. The young notary had the charity to go before, and warn Madame Birotteau that her husband had had a rush of blood to the head.

"His ideas are rather cloudy," he said, with a gesture implying disturbance of the brain. "Perhaps he should be bled, or leeches applied."

"No wonder," said Constance, far from dreaming of a disaster; "he did not take his precautionary medicine at the beginning of the winter, and for the last two months he has been working like a galley slave,— just as if his fortune were not made."

The wife and daughter entreated Cesar to go to bed, and they sent for his old friend Monsieur Haudry. The old man was a physician of the school of Moliere, a great practitioner and in favor of the oldfashioned formulas, who dosed his patients neither more nor less than a quack, consulting physician though he was. He came, studied the expression of Cesar’s face, and observing symptoms of cerebral congestion, ordered an immediate application of mustard plasters to the soles of his feet.

"What can have caused it?" asked Constance.

"The damp weather," said the doctor, to whom Cesarine had given a hint.

It often becomes a physician’s duty to utter deliberately some silly falsehood, to save honor or life, to those who are about a sick-bed. The old doctor had seen much in his day, and he caught the meaning of half a word. Cesarine followed him to the staircase, and asked for directions in managing the case.

"Quiet and silence; when the head is clear we will try tonics."

Madame Cesar passed two days at the bedside of her husband, who seemed to her at times delirious. He lay in her beautiful blue room, and as he looked at the curtains, the furniture, and all the costly magnificence about him, he said things that were wholly incomprehensible to her.

"He must be out of his mind," she whispered to Cesarine, as Cesar rose up in bed and recited clauses of the commercial Code in a solemn voice.

"’If the expenditure is judged excessive!’ Away with those curtains!"

At the end of three terrible days, during which his reason was in danger, the strong constitution of the Tourangian peasant triumphed; his head grew clear. Monsieur Haudry ordered stimulants and generous diet, and before long, after an occasional cup of coffee, Cesar was on his feet again. Constance, wearied out, took her husband’s place in bed.

"Poor woman!" said Cesar, looking at her as she slept.

"Come, papa, take courage! you are so superior a man that you will triumph in the end. This trouble won’t last; Monsieur Anselme will help you."

Cesarine said these vague words in the tender tones which give courage to a stricken heart, just as the songs of a mother soothe the weary child tormented with pain as its cuts its teeth.

"Yes, my child, I shall struggle on; but say not a word to any one,— not to Popinot who loves us, nor to your uncle Pillerault. I shall first write to my brother; he is canon and vicar of the cathedral. He spends nothing, and I have no doubt he has means. If he saves only three thousand francs a year, that would give him at the end of twenty years one hundred thousand francs. In the provinces the priests lay up money."

Cesarine hastened to bring her father a little table with writingthings upon it,—among them the surplus of invitations printed on pink paper.

"Burn all that!" cried her father. "The devil alone could have prompted me to give that ball. If I fail, I shall seem to have been a swindler. Stop!" he added, "words are of no avail." And he wrote the following letter:—

My dear Brother,—I find myself in so severe a commercial crisis
that I must ask you to send me all the money you can dispose of,
even if you have to borrow some for the purpose.

Ever yours, Cesar.

Your niece, Cesarine, who is watching me as I write, while my poor
wife sleeps, sends you her tender remembrances.

This postscript was added at Cesarine’s urgent request; she then took the letter and gave it to Raguet.

"Father," she said, returning, "here is Monsieur Lebas, who wants to speak to you."

"Monsieur Lebas!" cried Cesar, frightened, as though his disaster had made him a criminal,—"a judge!"

"My dear Monsieur Birotteau, I take too great an interest in you," said the stout draper, entering the room, "we have known each other too long,—for we were both elected judges at the same time,—not to tell you that a man named Bidault, called Gigonnet, a usurer, has notes of yours turned over to his order, and marked ’not guaranteed,’ by the house of Claparon. Those words are not only an affront, but they are the death of your credit."

"Monsieur Claparon wishes to speak to you," said Celestin, entering; "may I tell him to come up?"

"Now we shall learn the meaning of this insult," said Lebas.

"Monsieur," said Cesar to Claparon, as he entered, "this is Monsieur Lebas, a judge of the commercial courts, and my friend—"

"Ah! monsieur is Monsieur Lebas?" interrupted Claparon. "Delighted with the opportunity, Monsieur Lebas of the commercial courts; there are so many Lebas, you know, of one kind or another—"

"He has seen," said Birotteau, cutting the gabbler short, "the notes which I gave you, and which I understood from you would not be put into circulation. He has seen them bearing the words ’not guaranteed.’"

"Well," said Claparon, "they are not in general circulation; they are in the hands of a man with whom I do a great deal of business,—Pere Bidault. That is why I affixed the words ’not guaranteed.’ If the notes were intended for circulation you would have made them payable to his order. Monsieur Lebas will understand my position. What do these notes represent? The price of landed property. Paid by whom? By Birotteau. Why should I guarantee Birotteau by my signature? We are to pay, each on his own account, our half of the price of the said land. Now, it is enough to be jointly and separately liable to the sellers. I hold inflexibly to one commercial rule: I never give my guarantee uselessly, any more than I give my receipt for moneys not yet paid. He who signs, pays. I don’t wish to be liable to pay three times."

"Three times!" said Cesar.

"Yes, monsieur," said Claparon, "I have already guaranteed Birotteau to the sellers, why should I guarantee him again to the bankers? The circumstances in which we are placed are very hard. Roguin has carried off a hundred thousand francs of mine; therefore, my half of the property costs me five hundred thousand francs instead of four hundred thousand. Roguin has also carried off two hundred and forty thousand francs of Birotteau’s. What would you do in my place, Monsieur Lebas? Stand in my skin for a moment and view the case. Give me your attention. Say that we are engaged in a transaction on equal shares; you provide the money for your share, I give bills for mine; I offer them to you, and you undertake, purely out of kindness, to convert them into money. You learn that I, Claparon,—banker, rich, respected (I accept all the virtues under the sun),—that the virtuous Claparon is on the verge of failure, with six million of liabilities to meet: would you, at such a moment, give your signature to guarantee mine? Of course not; you would be mad to do it. Well, Monsieur Lebas, Birotteau is in the position which I have supposed for Claparon. Don’t you see that if I endorse for him I am liable not only for my own share of the purchase, but I shall also be compelled to reimburse to the full amount of Birotteau’s paper, and without—"

"To whom?" asked Birotteau, interrupting him.

"—without gaining his half of the property?" said Claparon, paying no attention to the interruption. "For I should have no rights in it; I should have to buy it over again; consequently, I repeat, I should have to pay for it three times."

"Reimburse whom?" persisted Birotteau.

"Why, the holder of the notes, if I were to endorse, and you were to fail."

"I shall not fail, monsieur," said Birotteau.

"Very good," said Claparon. "But you have been a judge, and you are a clever merchant; you know very well that we should look ahead and foresee everything; you can’t be surprised that I should attend to my business properly."

"Monsieur Claparon is right," said Joseph Lebas.

"I am right," said Claparon,—"right commercially. But this is an affair of landed property. Now, what must I have? Money, to pay the sellers. We won’t speak now of the two hundred and forty thousand francs,—which I am sure Monsieur Birotteau will be able to raise soon," said Claparon, looking at Lebas. "I have come now to ask for a trifle, merely twenty-five thousand francs," he added, turning to Birotteau.

"Twenty-five thousand francs!" cried Cesar, feeling ice in his veins instead of blood. "What claim have you, monsieur?"

"What claim? Hey! we have to make a payment and execute the deeds before a notary. Among ourselves, of course, we could come to an understanding about the payment, but when we have to do with a financial public functionary it is quite another thing! He won’t palaver; he’ll trust you no farther than he can see. We have got to come down with forty thousand francs, to secure the registration, this week. I did not expect reproaches in coming here, for, thinking this twenty-five thousand francs might be inconvenient to you just now, I meant to tell you that, by a mere chance, I have saved you—"

"What?" said Birotteau, with that rending cry of anguish which no man ever mistakes.

"A trifle! The notes amounting to twenty-five thousand francs on divers securities which Roguin gave me to negotiate I have credited to you, for the registration payment and the fees, of which I will send you an account; there will be a small amount to deduct, and you will then owe me about six or seven thousand francs."

"All that seems to me perfectly proper," said Lebas. "In your place, monsieur, I should do the same towards a stranger."

"Monsieur Birotteau won’t die of it," said Claparon; "it takes more than one shot to kill an old wolf. I have seen wolves with a ball in their head run, by God, like—wolves!"

"Who could have foreseen such villany as Roguin’s?" said Lebas, as much alarmed by Cesar’s silence as by the discovery of such enormous speculations outside of his friend’s legitimate business of perfumery.

"I came very near giving Monsieur Birotteau a receipt for his four hundred thousand francs," said Claparon. "I should have blown up if I had, for I had given Roguin a hundred thousand myself the day before. Our mutual confidence is all that saved me. Whether the money were in a lawyer’s hands or in mine until the day came to pay for the land, seemed to us all a matter of no importance."

"It would have been better," said Lebas, "to have kept the money in the Bank of France until the time came to make the payments."

"Roguin was the bank to me," said Cesar. "But he is in the speculation," he added, looking at Claparon.

"Yes, for one-fourth, by verbal agreement only. After being such a fool as to let him run off with my money, I sha’n’t be such a fool as to throw any more after it. If he sends me my hundred thousand francs, and two hundred thousand more for his half of our share, I shall then see about it. But he will take good care not to send them for an affair which needs five years’ pot-boiling before you get any broth. If he has only carried off, as they say, three hundred thousand francs, he will want the income of all of that to live suitably in foreign countries."

"The villain!"

"Eh! the devil take him! It was a woman who got him where he is," said Claparon. "Where’s the old man who can answer for himself that he won’t be the slave of his last fancy? None of us, who think ourselves so virtuous, know how we shall end. A last passion,—eh! it is the most violent of all! Look at Cardot, Camusot, Matifat; they all have their mistresses! If we have been gobbled up to satisfy Roguin’s, isn’t it our own fault? Why didn’t we distrust a notary who meddles with speculations? Every notary, every broker, every trustee who speculates is an object of suspicion. Failure for them is fraudulent bankruptcy; they are sure to go before the criminal courts, and therefore they prefer to run out of the country. I sha’n’t commit such a stupid blunder again. Well, well! we are too shaky ourselves in the matter not to let judgment go by default against the men we have dined with, who have given us fine balls,—men of the world, in short. Nobody complains; we are all to blame."

"Very much to blame," said Birotteau. "The laws about failures and insolvency should be looked into."

"If you have any need of me," said Lebas to Cesar, "I am at your service."

"Monsieur does not need any one," said the irrepressible chatterbox, whose floodgates du Tillet had set wide open when he turned on the water,—for Claparon was now repeating a lesson du Tillet had cleverly taught him. "His course is quite clear. Roguin’s assets will give fifty per cent to the creditors, so little Crottat tells me. Besides this, Monsieur Birotteau gets back the forty thousand on his note to Roguin’s client, which the lender never paid over; then, of course, he can borrow on that property. We have four months ahead before we are obliged to make a payment of two hundred thousand francs to the sellers. Between now and then, Monsieur Birotteau can pay off his notes; though of course he can’t count on what Roguin has carried off to meet them. Even if Monsieur Birotteau should be rather pinched, with a little manipulation he will come out all right."

The poor man took courage, as he heard Claparon analyzing the affair and summing it up with advice as to his future conduct. His countenance grew firm and decided; and he began to think highly of the late commercial traveller’s capacity. Du Tillet had thought best to let Claparon believe himself really the victim of Roguin. He had given Claparon a hundred thousand francs to pay over to Roguin the day before the latter’s flight, and Roguin had returned the money to du Tillet. Claparon, therefore, to that extent was playing a genuine part; and he told whoever would listen to him that Roguin had cost him a hundred thousand francs. Du Tillet thought Claparon was not bold enough, and fancied he had still too much honor and decency to make it safe to trust him with the full extent of his plans; and he knew him to be mentally incapable of conjecturing them.

"If our first friend is not our first dupe, we shall never find a second," he made answer to Claparon, on the day when his catchpenny banker reproached him for the trick; and he flung him away like a wornout instrument.

Monsieur Lebas and Claparon went out together.

"I shall pull through," said Birotteau to himself. "My liabilities amount to two hundred and thirty-five thousand francs; that is, sixtyfive thousand in bills for the cost of the ball, and a hundred and seventy-five thousand given in notes for the lands. To meet these, I have my share of Roguin’s assets, say perhaps one hundred thousand francs; and I can cancel the loan on my property in the Faubourg du Temple, as the mortgage never paid the money,—in all, one hundred and forty thousand. All depends on making a hundred thousand francs out of Cephalic Oil, and waiting patiently, with the help of a few notes, or a credit at a banker’s, until I repair my losses or the lands about the Madeleine reach their full value."

When a man crushed by misfortune is once able to make the fiction of a hope for himself by a series of arguments, more or less reasonable, with which he bolsters himself up to rest his head, it often happens that he is really saved. Many a man has derived energy from the confidence born of illusions. Possibly, hope is the better half of courage; indeed, the Catholic religion makes it a virtue. Hope! has it not sustained the weak, and given the fainting heart time and patience to await the chances and changes of life? Cesar resolved to confide his situation to his wife’s uncle before seeking for succor elsewhere. But as he walked down the Rue Saint-Honore towards the Rue des Bourdonnais, he endured an inward anguish and distress which shook him so violently that he fancied his health was giving way. His bowels seemed on fire. It is an established fact that persons who feel through their diaphragms suffer in those parts when overtaken by misfortune, just as others whose perceptions are in their heads suffer from cerebral pains and affections. In great crises, the physical powers are attacked at the point where the individual temperament has placed the vital spark. Feeble beings have the colic. Napoleon slept. Before assailing the confidence of a life-long friendship, and breaking down all the barriers of pride and self-assurance, an honorable man must needs feel in his heart—and feel it more than once —the spur of that cruel rider, necessity. Thus it happened that Birotteau had been goaded for two days before he could bring himself to seek his uncle; it was, indeed, only family reasons which finally decided him to do so. In any state of the case, it was his duty to explain his position to the severe old ironmonger, his wife’s uncle. Nevertheless, as he reached the house he felt that inward faintness which a child feels when taken to a dentist’s; but this shrinking of the heart involved the whole of his life, past, present, and to come, —it was not the fugitive pain of a moment. He went slowly up the stairs.


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Honoré de Balzac

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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 June 18, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=V9KSA68M89B3WNP.

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. 18 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=V9KSA68M89B3WNP.

Harvard: de Balzac, H, 'I' in Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, trans. . cited in , Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau. Original Sources, retrieved 18 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=V9KSA68M89B3WNP.