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Honore De Balzac - Cousins Pons (1847)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

In planning the two novels comprised under the title The Poor Relations, Balzac's intention was to make Cousin Pons the more important work. But Cousin Bette, with its devilishly vindictive heroine, got such possession of him as to become the longer and more impressive story. Balzac explicitly declares, in Cousin Pons, that the two taken conjunctively prove that "character is the chief of all social forces." He says also that the chief object of interest, on the heroine, so to speak, in Cousin Pons, "as amateurs, connoisseurs, and collectors will at once perceive, is the Pons Collection."

ABOUT three o'clock, one October afternoon in 1844, a singular-looking man, more than sixty years old, was wending his way along the Boulevard des Italiens, in Paris, his nose in the air and his lips pursed up, as if he had made a good bargain. His gaunt figure was clothed with such a regard for the fashions of 1806 that he seemed a caricature of the Imperial Era. He wore black trousers and three waistcoats, the outside one black, the next white, and the inside one red; a voluminous white muslin cravat, in which his chin was engulfed; and, as a last distinctive garment, a hazel-colored spencer, which surmounted a greenish coat with white metal buttons.

His face corrected the tendency to laugh occasioned by his costume, for it was one from which no woman could have heard a word of love issue without a burst of merriment, or experiencing a recoil of loathing. The large countenance, under a leprous-looking old silk hat, resembled a Roman mask dug out of the earth. It appeared to have no bones and was deeply pitted, and had a huge Don Quixote nose as its most prominent feature, while sad, gray eyes peered forth beneath two red lines which did duty as eyebrows. His thin legs were emphasized by the voluminous trousers, and his thick, sensual lips, when they parted, showed two rows of pearly teeth which would have done credit to a shark. This uncouth visage was illumined by a smile. The man held some object carefully under the two left skirts of his coats, as if to screen it or protect it from impact.

This grotesque old fellow was Monsieur Sylvain Pons, a composer who had been a Grand Prix winner of the Academie de Rome, and now, in the autumn of his life, was conductor of an orchestra in a Boulevard theater, and, thanks to his ugliness, music-teacher in several young ladies' boarding-schools. His only sources of revenue were derived from these occupations.

In Rome he had acquired a taste for antiquities and beautiful works of art, with the result that he returned to Paris with a collection of pictures, statuettes, carvings in ivory and wood, enamels, china, and the like, which had absorbed the greater part of his patrimony. He had continued to collect, and now had nearly two thousand works of art. They were his delight, and he would have thought it a crime to sell this Pons Collection.

This passionate collector, whose delicacy and high moral nature were sustained by the beauty of art, was the slave of that one of the seven deadly sins which God will surely punish with less severity than He will any of the others. Pons was a gourmand. His slender means admitted only a diet far from what his palate craved, so he sought its worthier gratification by dining out whenever he could. Naturally, the poor fellow's value as a dinner-guest waned as his years augmented; and now that he had fallen into the triple indigence of old age, poverty, and intensified ugliness of features, he was restricted to his family circle for the gratification of his gastronomic passion. He had been led to give far too extensive an application to the limits of that circle.

In 1835, Pons had found in friendship some compensation for his denial of conquests with the fair sex. But for the existence of La Fontaine's divine fable, this history would have been entitled The Two Friends, His alter ego was a German pianist named Schmucke. Never perhaps had two such con-genial spirits met upon the wide ocean of Humanity. Schmucke was as absent-minded as Pons was observant. Pons secured a place for this friend at the theater where he conducted the orchestra. Schmucke played the piano and had charge of the scores. They lived in a modest apartment in the quiet Rue de Normandie in the Marais, sharing expenses. They soon acquired the nickname of "the pair of nut-crackers" among the denizens of the quarter. Winter and summer, they rose at seven, and after breakfast went to give their music-lessons. The evening found them united again at the theater. This twin existence was ruffled only by Pons's passion for dining out. "If it would only make him vatted" Schmucke would say to himself. A divine serenity mitigated the German's fearful ugliness.

Among the "relatives" to whom Pons was restricted as a dinner-guest at the period in which we have seen him walking the Boulevard des Italiens, there was actually only one who merited the title, and he was only a cousin once removed: Camusot de Marville, president of one of the divisions of the Court Royal of Paris. This gentleman's deceased mother had been first cousin to Pons. Their parents had been members of the rich firm of Pons Brothers, perfumers. Madame Camusot de Marville, the second wife of this gentleman, never had given a warm reception to "Cousin'' Pons. She was a Cardot, so Cousin Pons considered the Cardot tribe his relatives, as well as the Chiffrevilles, into which family her brother had married, and through these, the Popinots. Such was the bourgeois firmament which Pons styled his family! and in which, by many a painful effort, he had retained the privilege of eating good dinners. The daughter of Camusot de Marville, Cecile, a rude, red-haired young woman of twenty-three, whom they were eager to marry off, was as disaffected toward Cousin Pons as her virulent mamma. It was to their house that the old gentleman with his concealed treasure was hastening. Even the servants had caught the prevalent note toward the "poor relation," and had often made the sensitive Pons wince by their audible comments.

When Pons arrived this evening, the mother and daughter had planned a coup which would rout the "cousin." They pretended they had an engagement but told him he could stay and dine alone. And Pons had brought to this insolent woman an exquisite, delicately carved fan, painted by Watteau, and once a possession of Madame de Pompadour.

"It is high time," said Cousin Pons, "that what has been in the service of Vice should be placed in the hands of Virtue."

The lady, who was quite ignorant of even the name " Watteau," accepted the fan, but was so insolent later that, stung to the quick, Pons took his dismissal (for he felt it was that), and burning with humiliated pride, rushed home, his wounded dignity driving him along like a straw before the wind. The contemptuous epithet of "sponger," which he had heard muttered by one of the lackeys of the Camusots, scorched him with humiliation, and the gentle soul could hardly restrain his tears. He dashed past Madame Cibot, the doorkeeper of the house where he had lodged for twenty-six years, with no sort of recognition. He poured his pitiful tale into Schmucke's wholly sympathetic ear, and said he would dine with him. The loyal German, enraptured, cried out: "Tine here effery day! We will pric-a-prack together, and the teffil will neffer put his tail into our home."

To Schmucke's perfect joy, they did have their dinners together for four months. But Pons missed the refinement, the choice viands, the exquisite wines, and the sophisticated conversation of those tables of his "relations." Moreover, paying for his dinners diminished by just so much his expenditure for objets d'art. The loss of two such coveted pleasures made the old gentleman melancholy, and even his gauntness was notably augmented.

"I would gift almost anyting to zave him," said the faithful Schmucke. "He finds life vearyzome."

Fate was to restore Pons to his former status. Count Popinot, meeting him one day, wrung from him the reason for his disappearance, and promptly acquainted Camusot with this grievance. Madame Camusot, who was the meanest of snobs, immediately threw the blame upon the impudent remarks of the servants. Her husband required them, by a threat of dismissal otherwise, to go to Pons and apologize, which they did. Thus Pons found himself restored to the delights of fine dinners, and the moribund old man became the self-contented parasite once more. Schmucke became almost ill over the change, but buried his sorrow in his heart.

Just at this time, through his German friend, Pons had be-come acquainted with a wealthy bachelor of forty, Fritz Brunner, and conceived the idea that he might in him supply Cecile Camusot with a husband. Plans were made to bring this about, which seemed quite promising at first. But later the astute German got the measure of the young woman's character so well that he absolutely withdrew. Poor Pons was made the scapegoat of this "affront." Madame Camusot affected to see in the negotiations a scheme of Pons to heap contumely on them. It was an infernal device which would save the honor of the family.

"I hope, Monsieur Pons, that for the future you will spare us the pain of seeing you in a house into which you have endeavored to introduce shame and dishonor," she said venomously. "Neither your master nor myself will ever be at home to this gentleman," she continued, speaking to the servants and pointing at Pons, "should he call." All the connections accepted this story, and poor Cousin Pons became a pariah whom they "cut" absolutely.

The innocent man was ill for a month from the hideous in-justice of this calumny, and Schmucke was heart-broken at his dejection. For the first time in his lamblike existence, he was roused to fierce indignation, and called these maligners "beasts."

The walk on which Pons had been scornfully "cut" by the two most important members of his circle of "relations" was the last he ever took. He walked wearily and silently home, leaning on the arm of Schmucke, took to his bed, and was found by the district doctor, Poulain, to be dangerously ill with inflammation of the liver. Most important consequences flowed from this doctor's visit. Dr. Poulain told Madame Cibot that, as her lodger was too poor to engage a nurse, she would have to care for him, and that, as he would be extremely irritable, nothing must be done to fret him, as it might cost Pons his life.

Remonencqs, a lean dealer in curiosities, with a small shop in the neighborhood, had heard Brunner, after a visit to Pons, remark, on leaving, that his collection was worth thousands of francs. He repeated this to Dr. Poulain and Madame Cibot, with the result of arousing a fierce cupidity in both. The doorkeeper already saw herself "well remembered" in Pons's will! It practically turned her from a negative probity to absolute depravity through the cupidity aroused in her.

She began at once an aggressive domination of the invalid, who was necessarily left alone in her charge much of the time. She found out that Pons meant to leave all to Schmucke, to whose "consideration" he would recommend her. For both these childlike beings regarded the terrible harpy as a kind but rough creature, genuinely interested in them.

Dr. Poulain recommended her to consult a lawyer friend of his, named Fraisier, a cunning, sordid wretch, adding that she had better feather her own nest as best she could and then accept what Fraisier and himself would do for her for helping their game. The doorkeeper accordingly misrepresented the expense and exertion to which the care of the two old gentlemen had subjected her, especially since Pons's illness, and thereby forced Schmucke into consenting to the sale of some of the pictures in order to indemnify her. Schmucke was as trustful and as ignorant of business as a little child, but when she urged him to this step he at first replied with simplicity : "I gannot dizpose of things which do not belong to me." Where-upon Madame Cibot procured a summons, and the official document so impressed the poor German that he said, with tears in his eyes : "Sell de bigdures!"

Elie Magus, one of the greatest collectors in Europe, and Remonencqs got eight of the best paintings, and the cunning Madame Cibot secured sixty-eight thousand francs for having brought about the transaction. Remonencqs, who had long coveted a shop for curios on the Boulevard, became convinced that this shrewd and wealthy woman would be a great help in conducting it, if he could only marry her, which seemed to him very feasible, were it not for the lady's husband, a tailor. To a mind like his, it was a slight step to facilitate her becoming a widow, and he managed to "doctor" the invalid husband's barley-water with a copper rundle greatly oxidized! There was no reason for suspecting anybody of an interest in this old fellow's demise!

Fraisier had taken care to frighten Madame Cibot when she consulted him, by saying that Madame Camusot, who was greatly interested in her husband's inheriting from Pons (which he would do if the old collector failed to make a will), was a terrible force to rouse against oneself. He had instantly conceived a scheme by which he could secure the appointment of justice of the peace for himself, and that of head of a Paris hospital for his friend, Dr. Poulain, should it "happen" that Pons died intestate! He went to Madame Camusot, and, by insinuations, which veiled a covert agreement, set forth that if Dr. Poulain should insist on the removal of Madame Cibot's administrations (which he might do if he considered their effect on the irritable invalid as too detrimental), that gentleman might recover !

Fraisier, to be able to state to Madame Camusot de Marville the value of the Pons Collection, had seen the necessity of having it appraised. He had therefore induced Madame Cibot to arrange that he, Elie Magus, and Remonencqs should do this at a time when Schmucke was absent and when Pons was asleep, his slumber having been induced by Madame Cibot's meddling with his medicine. Despite this, Pons awoke, and although the two men had promptly fled at his cry of "Thieves!" when he saw them, he recognized Elie Magus! His suspicions were more than confirmed when, later, he dragged himself to his gallery and saw that certain inferior canvases from Schmucke's room had been substituted for several of the most precious of his paintings! When he learned of the specious trickery by which the simple German, whose one dominant aspiration was to have Pons restored to health, had been induced to sell these, he fell into deep pondering. The result was to turn the simple Pons into a being of extraordinary astuteness. His one aim now was to convince Schmucke of the devilish duplicity of the Cibot woman, in whom they both had been hideously deceived, and then to secure his property as inalienably as possible to his artless but devoted friend. He therefore had him summon a notary, and drew up a will which was duly witnessed, and which bequeathed his entire collection to the State if a certain annuity would be paid to Schmucke for life. He told Schmucke to keep close watch and see whether Madame Cibot would not meddle with this will, feeling that this would open even his trusting soul to conviction of her vileness. Then he sent for Mademoiselle Heloise Brisetout, danseuse at his theater, and had her send him a reliable and learned notary who would draw up an unassailable will by which everything would become Schmucke's.

When Pons told him this scheme, the honest fellow clasped the hands of his friend, and breathed a fervent prayer to him-self. Pons asked him what he was doing.

"I was braying to God to take us to Himself togedder," replied Schmucke simply, when his prayer was ended.

With great difficulty, for he was suffering the acutest pain, Pons managed to stoop low and imprint a kiss on Schmucke's forehead. In that kiss, Pons poured forth his whole soul in a blessing upon that being, who in heart and mind resembled the Lamb that reposes at the feet of God.

The scheme worked perfectly. Madame Cibot filched the will from the compartment in the desk in which it had been locked up, and took it down-stairs to show it to Fraisier. He recognized how fatal this will was to Madame Camusot's interests, and consequently to his own hopes, since the agreement had been that the favors she would secure for him were contingent on her inheriting. He promptly substituted a blank paper in the envelope, without letting Madame Cibot see him do it, then sealed it and restored it to her. "That cuts you off," he said. "But there is a fire in the grate! And if Pons dies intestate I will promise you a hundred thousand francs."

Madame Cibot returned to the room and was about to throw the envelope in the fire when Pons and Schmucke gripped her by the shoulders. She screamed and went into convulsions. Then, rallying, she declared vehemently that her act was due only to a woman's curiosity. Schmucke reviled her as a monster and drove her from the room. When she returned with this tale to Fraisier, he declared that she was liable to prosecution for stealing a will! He then pacified the terror-stricken woman by promising to aid her if she would be sub-missive to his wishes.

The next morning Madame Cibot's husband, thanks to Remonencqs's continued interest in his health, sent for the priest and received the last sacraments. In the confusion, Pons's lawyer got to his apartment, and the dying collector made his last will as he had planned, constituting his devoted Schmucke his universal legatee. After which, utterly prostrated by the excitement of the past twenty-four hours and the reaction, he called for a priest himself and prepared for death.

When, some hours later, Madame Cibot sent a messenger to see what was going on, the woman was not permitted to enter the room. Fraisier, who was waiting below, conceived the idea of introducing his own housekeeper into the apartment as a watch-dog, and managed to do this by having Madame Cantinet, the wife of the beadle of St. Francis's Church, take her as an assistant, when, at the abbe's suggestion, that good woman had been summoned to take Madame Cibot's place as attendant on Pons and Schmucke. Just as they entered the room poor Cousin Pons died, so quietly that it was only when Madame Sauvage, Fraisier's housekeeper, touched his hands that they learned he had passed away. Schmucke, agonized at this death of his one friend—and it was the first death he had ever seen—could only groan to any and every suggestion : " Do what you bleaze!" This truest of friends was to go through a veritable martyrdom. He watched the women and their proceedings as an idiot might have. His eyes were fixed on the dead face of his late companion, whose contour was purified by the repose of death into something fascinating, and Schmucke not only was absolutely indifferent to everything terrestrial, but felt nothing except a longing to die and join his friend. He would eat nothing, and whenever he was left alone with the body of Pons, he held it clasped in a close embrace.

A more facile victim to the plundering of everybody who had anything to gain could not be imagined, and he was pursued by Fraisier and that wretched lawyer's tools. Touts for every sort of thing connected with the disposition of a corpse swarmed about him and plucked him. In his desperation at these incessant appeals, which dragged him from the thought of his dead friend, he gladly appointed Tabareau, an accomplice of Fraisier, his proxy in all matters relating to the succession.

"I would giff all dat I bozzezz to be left alone," he sighed. Dame Sauvage, at the close of day, found him stretched across the foot of the bed where Pons lay, in the sleep of utter exhaustion. She lifted him like an infant to his own couch, and when he awoke Pons was in his coffin, beneath the carriage gateway.

Pons had one mourner besides Schmucke—a poor supernumerary at the theater, named Topinard, to whom he had given five francs every month. As Pons's body was lowered into the grave, Schmucke swooned with emotion. When he had been revived, Topinard assisted him back to the house. As the lease of the apartment was in Pons's name only, Fraisier evicted the unfortunate German, who secured a garret room in Topinard's humble lodging. "All I want is some nook to die in," he said. As he had not money to pay for anything after the drain of Pons's illness, he went to Gandissard, the proprietor of the theater, to get a month's salary. Gandissard, a friend of Popinot, and acquainted with the situation, advised the simple German to compromise with the legal heirs, who would give him a sum down and an annuity for life.

Schmucke assented, and authorized him to act. He had only two demands.

"Dobinard was Bons's vrend. He is de only berzon who followed him to de zemetery. I want tree touzand francs for him, and tree touzand francs for his nice little girl with light hair, like a little German girl."

These conditions were promptly granted. Fraisier had induced Madame Camusot de Marville to summon Schmucke and contest the will, on the ground of his undue influence over Pons, which she did. Gandissard arrived after him and told of his arrangement with Schmucke. It was agreed that the deed should be signed the next day. By signing this deed, with a preamble in which the grounds for contesting the will were stated, the poor German would admit the justice of Fraisier's fearful imputations. As Schmucke was about to sign, Topinard arrived with the summons which had been sent to Schmucke at his lodgings, to warn the old German against such injustice. Gandissard went out to meet him, and in that interval Schmucke signed the fatal document. He came forth smiling with the money in his hand. "Dis is for de little German girl and you," he said.

" Oh, dear Monsieur Schmucke, you have been enriching a pack of monsters! Read that, and you will see that your duty was to punish this wickedness by defending the action."

Schmucke read the paper. It was a mortal blow. He felt exhausted into Topinard's arms. He never recovered his reason through the ten days he survived. He was nursed by Madame Topinard and was buried obscurely by Topinard, who was the only person to follow this child of Germany to his last resting-place.

Every one of the evil hounders to death of the two friends derived great advantages from their villainy. Cousin Pons's Collection went to adorn Popinot's house, as Cecile, who was now his daughter-in-law, had inherited it. One day, a Russian nobleman, who was a collector, asked her who had amassed these exquisite treasures of art.

"A cousin who was very fond of me," replied the Viscountess.

"Monsieur Pons was a charming man," interjected Madame Camusot de Marville, in her dulcet falsetto voice. "This Watteau fan, once Madame de Pompadour's, he placed in my hands one morning with a charming little phrase, which I must not repeat! Such talent and originality, and such kindness of heart! He used to dine with us three or four times every week, because we appreciated him so thoroughly."

"And the phrase that went with the gift of the fan?" asked the nobleman.

"The little phrase is worthy of the fan," said the Viscountess (whose "little phrase" was a stereotyped expression). "He said to my mother that it was high time that what had been in the hands of Vice should be placed in the hands of Virtue."

The nobleman looked at Madame Camusot de Marville with an air of doubt that was extremely flattering to so lean a lady !

Madame Remonencq is still in her magnificent shop on the Boulevard de la Madeleine, once more a widow, through a singular chance. As her husband had had the marriage con-tract drawn up so that all the property should go to the survivor, he placed a liqueur glass of vitriol within his, wife's reach, expecting that she would make a mistake. But as she, with the best intentions in the world, changed its position, it was Remonencq who swallowed it! Such a fitting end for the miscreant is an argument in favor of the existence of Providence.

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