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Honore De Balzac - Cesar Birotteau (1838)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

This story bears in the original the title, Histoire de la grandeur et de la decadence de Cesar Birotteau ("History of the greatness and of the fall of Cesar Birotteau"). It appeared first in two volumes and was divided into three parts, since reduced to two, and into sixteen chapters, which were after-ward suppressed. In this form it was used as a premium by the Figaro and the Estafette. Another edition was published in 1839, and in 1844 the novel was placed among the Scenes de la Vie Parisienne of the Comedy, although it had at first been intended for the Etudes Philosophiques. Many of its numerous characters are found elsewhere, and the hero himself is mentioned in Un Menage de Garcon and La Maison du Chat-qui-pelote.

CESAR BIROTTEAU, son of Jacques Birotteau, a peasant of the environs of Chinon, and of the chambermaid of a lady whose vines he tended, went on foot to Paris, when fourteen years old, to seek his fortune. He could read, write, and cipher, and he soon obtained a place as shop-boy with Monsieur and Madame Ragon, perfumers, where he received his board and lodging and six francs a month. He slept on a miserable pallet in the garret, the clerks made fun of him, and his master and mistress spoke to him as if he were a dog. But he devoted him-self so assiduously to the business, learning the goods and their marks and prices, that when the terrible conscription of the Year II cleared Citizen Ragon's house of assistants, Cesar was promoted to the place of second clerk with fifty francs a month, and a seat at the table of the Ragons.

Toward the close of the year he was made cashier, on account of his integrity, and Madame Ragon and her husband gradually became intimate with him. In 1794 Cesar had saved two thousand francs in gold; he exchanged them for six thousand francs in paper, purchased state stocks at thirty francs in the hundred, and locked up his certificate with indescribable happiness. Influenced by the Ragons, he became a devoted Royalist and a hater of the Revolution that drove hair-powder out of fashion. When M. Ragon saw that he was favorably disposed, he appointed him first clerk and initiated him into the secrets of the Queen of Roses, some of whose customers were the most active and devoted emissaries of the Bourbons. With the warmth of youth, Cesar threw himself into the conspiracy of the Royalists and terrorists on the 13th Vendemiaire, and had the honor of contending against Napoleon on the steps of Saint-Roch. Wounded at the outset of the affair, he was borne away by his friends and concealed in the garret of the Queen of Roses, where his wounds were dressed by Madame Ragon and he luckily was forgotten.

On the 18th Brumaire, Monsieur and Madame Ragon, despairing of the royal cause, decided to retire from business, and proposed to sell to Birotteau. Cesar, who at twenty years of age possessed an income of a thousand francs from the public funds, hesitated. His fancy was to retire to Chinon when he had secured an income of fifteen hundred francs, to marry a woman as rich as himself in Touraine, in order to be able to purchase and cultivate the Tresoricres, a small estate from which he could easily derive an income of three thousand francs. He was about to refuse, when the sight of a young woman standing at the door of a shop at the corner of the Quai d'Anjou caused him to change his mind. Constance Pillerault was the head shop-girl at the Sailor Boy, a fancy store which displayed a large variety of goods at low prices. Constance was a noted beauty and was in daily receipt of brilliant proposals, in which, however, the subject of marriage was never mentioned; but finally, on the advice of her uncle and guardian, Monsieur Claude-Joseph Pillerault, an ironmonger on the Quai de la Ferraille, she consented to marry Cesar Birotteau. She was then eighteen years old, and possessed eleven thousand francs. Cesar, whose love had inspired him with ambition, purchased the stock of the Queen of Roses, and removed it to a beautiful building near the Place Vendome. By the advice of Roguin, the notary of the Ragons, who drew up the marriage contract, he did not use the dowry of his wife in the purchase, but kept it as the means wherewith to engage in promising speculations.

Birotteau regarded the notary with admiration, contracted the habit of consulting him, and made him his friend. Madame Cesar produced a marvelous effect behind the counter, and her famous beauty brought large sales. The "beautiful Madame Birotteau" was all the rage among the elegants of the Empire. But at the end of the year the ambitious Cesar calculated that it would take twenty years to net a hundred thousand francs, at which figure he had fixed the limits of his fortune. Through the aid of the celebrated chemist Vauquelin, he invented a cosmetic which he called "Concentrated Sultana Paste," and a water for the complexion, styled " Carminative Water." These brought in the aggregate enormous profits, which enabled him to build factories in the Faubourg du Temple, and to deco-rate magnificently the Queen of Roses. In 1810 he was elected Judge of the Tribunal of Commerce. He was considered very rich, and the regularity of his affairs and his habit of owing nothing gave him high credit. He had one daughter, Cesarine, idolized by both Constance and himself, on whose education he lavished money without stint.

In 1814 Birotteau took into his house as first clerk a young man of twenty-two, named Ferdinand du Tillet. He was a foundling, the child of a poor girl of Tillet, a small place near the Andelys, who had drowned herself after the birth of her infant in the garden of the curate. He had led a roving life in a world in which he had made up his mind to succeed at any price. Birotteau learned with astonishment that his clerk went out at night elegantly dressed, returned home very late, and attended balls at the houses of bankers and notaries. His habits displeased Cesar, and finally, by the advice of his wife, whom Du Tillet had tried to seduce, his dismissal was resolved upon.

Three days before parting with him, Birotteau, in making up his monthly account one Saturday evening, discovered a deficit of three thousand francs. His consternation was great, but whom should he accuse? The cashier was a nephew of Madame Ragon, named Popinot, a young man of nineteen who lived with them and was integrity itself. On the next Sunday, while the Birotteaus were entertaining friends at cards, Monsieur Roguin put down on the table several antique gold pieces that Madame Birotteau recognized as some she had taken in the shop. Roguin said he had won them at a banker's house of Du Tillet, who confirmed the notary's story without a blush. That night Du Tillet acknowledged the theft, and Cesar pardoned him; but two weeks later Du Tillet entered the service of a broker, to study banking, he said.

Some months afterward Du Tillet came to Cesar to ask him to become security for him in a certain business transaction. The perfumer, surprised at his effrontery, blushed red as he complied with his request, and gave him a searching look that caused the fellow to vow relentless hatred to him.

The Restoration made an important personage of Cesar, whose zeal in the royal cause was not forgotten, and when the municipal body of Paris was remodeled the prefect wanted him appointed mayor. Thanks to his wife, he accepted the post of deputy, which rendered him less conspicuous and pro-cured him the friendship of the Mayor, Monsieur de la Billardiere. It also won him the cross of the Legion of Honor. Cesar, now forty years old, began to have elevated ideas. He had succeeded in everything he had undertaken, and he made up his mind to abandon the shop and ascend to the regions of the upper bourgeoisie of Paris.

With this end in view, he embarked, contrary to the advice of his wife and in disregard of her warnings, in a large speculation in lands in the neighborhood of the Madeleine, which he declared were sure to quadruple in value in three or four years. In this scheme, planned by Roguin, the notary, Birotteau was expected to subscribe three hundred thousand francs and represent three eighths of the capital.

"You shall never do it, Cesar, while I am alive!" exclaimed his wife. "We shall soon have nothing left but our eyes to weep with."

" Oh, you don't understand. Chance offers me a career of splendor, and I accept the offer."

Anselme Popinot, Birotteau's cashier, was in love with Cesarine. Though he was small, red-haired, and afflicted with a clubfoot, he was capable and honest, and Birotteau had selected him to aid him in his schemes. He had invented a new oil for the hair, made of nut oil, and opened a new establishment for its sale in the Rue des Cinq Diamants, under the name of A. Popinot and Company.

To celebrate properly his decoration with the Legion of Honor, Birotteau determined to give a grand ball. As this necessitated some changes in his house, he employed an architect and gave him carte blanche in respect to alterations, additions, and decorations. The magnificence of the projected entertainment was celebrated in the newspapers and commented on in business circles, where the perfumer was censured for his ambition and laughed at for his political pre-tensions.

Constance, though trembling when she thought of the expense, was so delighted when she saw the result of the architect's work that she fell on her husband's neck and shed tears of happiness, saying, "Ah, Cesar, you make me very wild and very happy."

"So you appreciate me at last," said the perfumer.

The ball was a great success, being attended by many government functionaries and even by several of the nobility. Birotteau, thoroughly intoxicated by the shower of felicitations, took all compliments in earnest, and saw no sarcasm in the remarks of any of his guests.

"You have given a national festivity which does you honor," said Camusot.

"I have rarely seen so fine a ball," said M. de la Billardiere. "What an enchanting spectacle ! Are you going to give balls often?" asked Madame Lebas.

The ball at last came to an end, and the weary but happy Birotteaus went to sleep at daylight to dream of the grand entertainment which had cost Cesar, though he was far from suspecting it, hard upon sixty thousand francs. Such was the issue of the fatal red ribbon fastened by a king to a perfumer's buttonhole.

A week after the ball the bills began to come in. Birotteau, who had completely drained himself of ready money in the Madeleine speculation, ordered his cashier to write out notes, payable three months from date. While the larger creditors were paid by notes, small creditors, who expected cash, were put off two or three times. A neighbor, for whom he had discounted notes for five thousand francs, failed, and the notes proved worthless. In trade such matters are whispered about and are more injurious than a disaster. Birotteau's till was empty. He was frightened; such a thing had never happened in all his business experience. He was afraid of his wife, and to conceal from her his dejection at this simoom of calamities, he went out for a walk. But he met the architect, who held one of his notes.

"I can't get this paper of yours cashed," he said, "though I've tried high and low; so I shall have to ask you to change it for specie. I don't like to peddle your signature about, as it must degrade it; so that it is in your interest to "

"Sir," said Birotteau, stupefied, "not so loud, if you please, you surprise me strangely."

Presently he met another creditor, who insisted on the immediate payment of his account.

"What does it mean?" said Birotteau to himself. "There's something underneath all this. That cursed ball!"

In the Rue Saint-Honore he fell in with Alexander Crottat, who expected to succeed Roguin as a notary.

"Ah, sir, one question. Did Roguin hand your four hundred thousand francs to Monsieur Claparon, his business agent?"

"Why do you ask, for mercy's sake?"

"Why do I ask? Because Roguin has made off with them and with Claparon's money, as well as the hundred thousand francs I paid him for the good will of his office, for which I took no receipt. The owners of your lots have not received a single sou on them. Madame Roguin's life is despaired of; Du Tillet watched with her during the night. Roguin has been using his clients' deposits for five years—and for whom, think you? For a woman, la belle Hollandaise! The vicious old blackguard! He advised me three weeks ago not to marry your Cesarine, for you would soon be without bread to your mouths, the monster!"

Birotteau stood motionless, petrified. Every sentence was a blow from a sledge-hammer. Crottat, alarmed at his pallor, gave his arm to Cesar, and tried to make him walk, but his legs gave way as if he had been intoxicated. Alexander got him into a carriage and took him home.

"I thought it would be so," said his wife, who had no suspicion of the calamity, "he's been working for two months like a galley-slave, as if he still had his bread to earn."

Cesar was put to bed at once, and for three terrible days his reason was in danger, but his peasant constitution came off victorious and he got on his feet again. As soon as he was himself once more, he set about making reparation. "I have been dreaming for twenty-two years," he said, "and I wake again to-day with my staff in my hand."

He handed the cross of the Legion of Honor to his confessor, Abbe Loroax, saying, "You will return it to me when I can wear it without shame." He also sent in his resignation as deputy-mayor. "May God take pity on me!" he said, as he signed his balance sheet.

While he was in the depths of despair, Anselme Popinot, who had always been true to Cesarine, asked for her hand. This request brought tears to the eyes of all except Cesar, who arose, took Anselme's hand and said in a hollow voice, "My son, you shall never marry the daughter of a bankrupt."

"Will you promise, sir," said Anselme, "in the presence of your family, to consent to our marriage, if Mademoiselle accepts me for her husband, on the day when your failure shall be redeemed?" Cesarine held out her hand to Anselme, who kissed it. "Do you consent, too?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"At last I belong to the family, and have a right to take an interest in its affairs," he said, as he rushed out precipitately.

As soon as Birotteau had turned over everything to his creditors, Madame Cesar obtained for him, through the influence of the Duc de Lenoncourt, a clerkship in the office of the Sinking Fund, worth twenty-five hundred francs a year. A week later Cesarine was established in the richest fancy-goods house in Paris, where she received board and lodging and three thousand francs salary, and Madame Cesar went to Popinot's establishment to keep his books and accounts, for which she received also a salary of three thousand francs.

Birotteau's liabilities amounted to four hundred and forty thousand francs, while his assets were two hundred and forty-five thousand francs. As he thus paid his creditors more than fifty per cent., his failure was not disgraceful, as Du Tillet had hoped it would be. Every creditor, except his former clerk, sincerely pitied him when they saw how regular his books were and how straightforward his business career had been. At the final meeting of his creditors, it was unanimously agreed to remit the remainder of their claims, and Birotteau was discharged by the court a free man. He pressed the Judge's hands with tears in his eyes, and announced that he should work until he had paid his creditors in full.

Eighteen months after the failure, Birotteau was enabled, through his own savings and those of his wife and daughter, with some aid from Uncle Pillerault, to pay his creditors fifty thousand francs. In 1822 Du Tillet, who had bought in Birotteau's claims in the Madeleine lands, which were fast in-creasing in value, came to Popinot to endeavor to buy a lease of the land on which the latter had built a factory. A canal was projected there, and Du Tillet knew that he could get a large sum for the property if he could buy this lease, which had fifteen years to run. Popinot was ignorant of Du Tillet's theft when a clerk, but he was indignant at seeing him grow rich out of the spoils of his old employer; so when Du Tillet explained the object of his visit, he said, "I want sixty thousand francs for it, and I won't take the fourth part of a sou less."

The discussion over this had waxed warm, when Madame Cesar came in and saw Du Tillet for the first time since the ball.

"This gentleman," said Popinot, "is to get three hundred thousand francs for your land, and refuses us sixty thousand francs bonus for our lease."

"But think," said Du Tillet, with emphasis, "that makes three thousand francs a year."

"Three thousand francs!" repeated Madame Cesar, simply but pointedly.

Du Tillet turned pale, and after a moment of profound silence, said, "Sign this surrender of the lease, and I will give you a check for sixty thousand francs."

Popinot looked at Madame Cesar in amazement, but complied, and received Du Tillet's check for the amount. As soon as the banker was gone, he hastened after Madame Cesar, who had left the apartment, and asked, "What power is this you have over Du Tillet, to make him conclude such an operation?"

"Oh, let us not speak of that!" she said.

"This sixty thousand francs," continued Popinot, "added to half the profits of our present business—for I have always considered Monsieur Birotteau as my partner—gives us one hundred and thirty-three thousand francs. To this I shall add such sums as may be necessary to make up the amount that is due. Thus, your husband—will be—rehabilitated."

"Rehabilitated!" cried Madame Cesar. "Dear Anselme! my dear boy ! Cesarine is yours in good earnest." She took his head in her hands and kissed him on the forehead. "Lis-ten," she continued, "I will tell you all. Du Tillet sought to ruin me, my husband was at once informed of it, and Du Tillet was to be discharged. That very day he stole three thousand francs."

"I suspected it," said Popinot.

"Anselme, your happiness requires this avowal; but let it die in your heart, as it is already dead in mine and Cesar's. To avoid a lawsuit and to spare the man, Cesar put three thousand francs into the till to make good the amount—the cost of the cashmere shawl I had to wait three years for."

"Now, I have a little secret," said Popinot. "When your stock in the Queen of Roses was sold, I saddled it with a condition. Your rooms there are precisely as you left them. I kept the second story for myself, and I shall live there with Cesarine, who will thus never leave you. In order to restore you your fortune, I will buy out Monsieur Cesar's interest for one hundred thousand francs, so that you will have, with his clerkship, ten thousand francs a year."

"Say no more, Anselme, or I shall lose my senses."

This was a joyful day for Cesar. The King's private secretary, the Viscount de Vandenesse, came to see him and said :

"Monsieur Birotteau, your efforts to pay your creditors have come to the knowledge of the King. His Majesty, touched by an act so rare, and knowing that, from humility, you do not wear the cross of the Legion of Honor, has sent me to request you to resume the emblem. He has also commissioned me to hand you this sum of six thousand francs from his privy purse, regretting that he cannot do more. Let this remain a profound secret."

On the day of his rehabilitation, Cesar went to the court surrounded by friends. He listened to the discourse of the Attorney-General, who, in reciting the history of his case, took the occasion to pay him the highest compliments; and he was nearly overcome when the solemn decree of the court was pronounced by the First President. Uncle Pillerault took him by the hand and led him from the hall, while Cesar mechanically attached the ribbon of the Legion of Honor to his buttonhole, as he was carried in triumph to his carriage.

"Where are you taking me, my friends?" he asked. "To your own house."

"No, I wish to go to the Exchange, and profit by my right."

"Drive to the Exchange," said Pillerault, who observed with anxiety certain threatening symptoms, and feared Cesar might go mad.

At the Exchange, whose threshold no bankrupt can cross, Birotteau was received with the most flattering attentions, even Du Tillet coming to congratulate him. After this triumph, Cesar set out to return to his house, where the marriage con-tract between Cesarine and Popinot was to be signed. Popinot had prepared for him a surprise and, with the connivance of Constance and Cesarine, had sent out invitations for a ball to commemorate the signing of the contract. Everything in the rooms in the Rue Saint-Honore was precisely as Cesar had left them, and when he was taken there, and saw at the foot of the staircase his wife, in the cherry-colored gown she had worn at the previous ball, with Cesarine, the Count de Fontaine, the Viscount de Vandenesse, the illustrious Vauquelin, and others, to welcome him, a veil seemed spread before his eyes, and his Uncle Pillerault, who supported him on his arm, felt a slight shudder.

Cesar took his wife's arm and whispered in a choking voice, "I am not well."

Constance, alarmed, led him to his chamber, where he dropped into his armchair, saying, "Monsieur Loraux!" The Abbe came, followed by many of the guests, who formed a terrified group. Cesar pressed the hand of his confessor and bowed his head upon the bosom of his kneeling wife. A blood-vessel had burst in his chest, and an aneurism stifled his last breath.

"Behold the death of the just," said the Abbe in a deep voice.

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