THE FIRM OF NUCINGEN
THE FIRM OF NUCINGEN
HONORE DE BALZAC
TO MADAME ZULMA CARRAUD
To whom madame but to you should I inscribe this work; to you
whose lofty and candid intellect is a treasury to your friends;
to you that are to me not only a whole public but the most
indulgent of sisters as well? Will you deign to accept a token of
the friendship of which I am proud? You and some few souls as
noble will grasp the whole of the thought underlying The Firm of
Nucingen appended to Cesar Birotteau. Is there not a whole social
lesson in the contrast between the two stories?
You know how slight the partitions are between the private rooms of
fashionable restaurants in Paris; Very's largest room for instance
is cut in two by a removable screen. This Scene is NOT laid at Very's
but in snug quarters which for reasons of my own I forbear to
specify. We were two so I will say like Henri Monnier's Prudhomme
"I should not like to compromise HER!"
We had remarked the want of solidity in the wall-structure so we
talked with lowered voices as we sat together in the little private
room lingering over the dainty dishes of a dinner exquisite in more
senses than one. We had come as far as the roast however and still
we had no neighbors; no sound came from the next room save the
crackling of the fire. But when the clock struck eight we heard
voices and noisy footsteps; the waiters brought candles. Evidently
there was a party assembled in the next room and at the first words I
knew at once with whom we had to do--four bold cormorants as ever
sprang from the foam on the crests of the ever-rising waves of this
present generation--four pleasant young fellows whose existence was
problematical since they were not known to possess either stock or
landed estates yet they lived and lived well. These ingenious
condottieri of a modern industrialism that has come to be the most
ruthless of all warfares leave anxieties to their creditors and keep
the pleasures for themselves. They are careful for nothing save
dress. Still with the courage of the Jean Bart order that will smoke
cigars on a barrel of powder (perhaps by way of keeping up their
character) with a quizzing humor that outdoes the minor newspapers
sparing no one not even themselves; clear-sighted wary keen after
business grasping yet open handed envious yet self-complacent
profound politicians by fits and starts analyzing everything
guessing everything--not one of these in question as yet had contrived
to make his way in the world which they chose for their scene of
operations. Only one of the four indeed had succeeded in coming as
far as the foot of the ladder.
To have money is nothing; the self-made man only finds out all that he
lacks after six months of flatteries. Andoche Finot the self-made man
in question stiff taciturn cold and dull-witted possessed the
sort of spirit which will not shrink from groveling before any
creature that may be of use to him and the cunning to be insolent
when he needs a man no longer. Like one of the grotesque figures in
the ballet in Gustave he was a marquis behind a boor in front. And
this high-priest of commerce had a following.
Emile Blondet Journalist with abundance of intellectual power
reckless brilliant and indolent could do anything that he chose
yet he submitted to be exploited with his eyes open. Treacherous or
kind upon impulse a man to love but not to respect; quick-witted as
a soubrette unable to refuse his pen to any one that asked or his
heart to the first that would borrow it Emile was the most
fascinating of those light-of-loves of whom a fantastic modern wit
declared that "he liked them better in satin slippers than in boots."
The third in the party Couture by name lived by speculation
grafting one affair upon another to make the gains pay for the losses.
He was always between wind and water keeping himself afloat by his
bold sudden strokes and the nervous energy of his play. Hither and
thither he would swim over the vast sea of interests in Paris in
quest of some little isle that should be so far a debatable land that
he might abide upon it. Clearly Couture was not in his proper place.
As for the fourth and most malicious personage his name will be
enough--it was Bixiou! Not (alas!) the Bixiou of 1825 but the Bixiou
of 1836 a misanthropic buffoon acknowledged supreme by reason of
his energetic and caustic wit; a very fiend let loose now that he saw
how he had squandered his intellect in pure waste; a Bixiou vexed by
the thought that he had not come by his share of the wreckage in the
last Revolution; a Bixiou with a kick for every one like Pierrot at
the Funambules. Bixiou had the whole history of his own times at his
finger-ends more particularly its scandalous chronicle embellished
by added waggeries of his own. He sprang like a clown upon everybody's
back only to do his utmost to leave the executioner's brand upon
every pair of shoulders.
The first cravings of gluttony satisfied our neighbors reached the
stage at which we also had arrived to wit the dessert; and as we
made no sign they believed that they were alone. Thanks to the
champagne the talk grew confidential as they dallied with the dessert
amid the cigar smoke. Yet through it all you felt the influence of the
icy esprit that leaves the most spontaneous feeling frost-bound and
stiff that checks the most generous inspirations and gives a sharp
ring to the laughter. Their table-talk was full of bitter irony which
turns a jest into a sneer; it told of the exhaustion of souls given
over to themselves; of lives with no end in view but the satisfaction
of self--of egoism induced by these times of peace in which we live. I
can think of nothing like it save a pamphlet against mankind at large
which Diderot was afraid to publish a book that bares man's breast
simply to expose the plague-sores upon it. We listened to just such a
pamphlet as Rameau's Nephew spoken aloud in all good faith in the
course of after-dinner talk in which nothing not even the point which
the speaker wished to carry was sacred from epigram; nothing taken
for granted nothing built up except on ruins nothing reverenced save
the sceptic's adopted article of belief--the omnipotence omniscience
and universal applicability of money.
After some target practice at the outer circle of their acquaintances
they turned their ill-natured shafts at their intimate friends. With a
sign I explained my wish to stay and listen as soon as Bixiou took up
his parable as will shortly be seen. And so we listened to one of
those terrific improvisations which won that artist such a name among
a certain set of seared and jaded spirits; and often interrupted and
resumed though it was memory serves me as a reporter of it. The
opinions expressed and the form of expression lie alike outside the
conditions of literature. It was more properly speaking a medley of
sinister revelations that paint our age to which indeed no other kind
of story should be told; and besides I throw all the responsibility
upon the principal speaker. The pantomime and the gestures that
accompanied Bixiou's changes of voice as he acted the parts of the
various persons must have been perfect judging by the applause and
admiring comments that broke from his audience of three.
"Then did Rastignac refuse?" asked Blondet apparently addressing
"But did you threaten him with the newspapers?" asked Bixiou.
"He began to laugh" returned Finot.
"Rastignac is the late lamented de Marsay's direct heir; he will make
his way politically as well as socially" commented Blondet.
"But how did he make his money?" asked Couture. "In 1819 both he and
the illustrious Bianchon lived in a shabby boarding-house in the Latin
Quarter; his people ate roast cockchafers and their own wine so as to
send him a hundred francs every month. His father's property was not
worth a thousand crowns; he had two sisters and a brother on his
hands and now----"
"Now he has an income of forty thousand livres" continued Finot; "his
sisters had a handsome fortune apiece and married into noble families;
he leaves his mother a life interest in the property----"
"Even in 1827 I have known him without a penny" said Blondet.
"Oh! in 1827" said Bixiou.
"Well" resumed Finot "yet to-day as we see he is in a fair way to
be a Minister a peer of France--anything that he likes. He broke
decently with Delphine three years ago; he will not marry except on
good grounds; and he may marry a girl of noble family. The chap had
the sense to take up with a wealthy woman."
"My friends give him the benefit of extenuating circumstances" urged
Blondet. "When he escaped the clutches of want he dropped into the
claws of a very clever man."
"You know what Nucingen is" said Bixiou. "In the early days Delphine
and Rastignac thought him 'good-natured'; he seemed to regard a wife
as a plaything an ornament in his house. And that very fact showed me
that the man was square at the base as well as in height" added
Bixiou. "Nucingen makes no bones about admitting that his wife is his
fortune; she is an indispensable chattel but a wife takes a second
place in the high-pressure life of a political leader and great
capitalist. He once said in my hearing that Bonaparte had blundered
like a bourgeois in his early relations with Josephine; and that after
he had had the spirit to use her as a stepping-stone he had made
himself ridiculous by trying to make a companion of her."
"Any man of unusual powers is bound to take Oriental views of women"
"The Baron blended the opinions of East and West in a charming
Parisian creed. He abhorred de Marsay; de Marsay was unmanageable but
with Rastignac he was much pleased; he exploited him though Rastignac
was not aware of it. All the burdens of married life were put on him.
Rastignac bore the brunt of Delphine's whims; he escorted her to the
Bois de Boulogne; he went with her to the play; and the little
politician and great man of to-day spent a good deal of his life at
that time in writing dainty notes. Eugene was scolded for little
nothings from the first; he was in good spirits when Delphine was
cheerful and drooped when she felt low; he bore the weight of her
confidences and her ailments; he gave up his time the hours of his
precious youth to fill the empty void of that fair Parisian's
idleness. Delphine and he held high councils on the toilettes which
went best together; he stood the fire of bad temper and broadsides of
pouting fits while she by way of trimming the balance was very nice
to the Baron. As for the Baron he laughed in his sleeve; but whenever
he saw that Rastignac was bending under the strain of the burden he
made 'as if he suspected something' and reunited the lovers by a
"I can imagine that a wealthy wife would have put Rastignac in the way
of a living and an honorable living but where did he pick up his
fortune?" asked Couture. "A fortune so considerable as his at the
present day must come from somewhere; and nobody ever accused him of
inventing a good stroke of business."
"Somebody left it to him" said Finot.
"Who?" asked Blondet.
"Some fool that he came across" suggested Couture.
"He did not steal the whole of it my little dears" said Bixiou.
"Let not your terrors rise to fever-heat
Our age is lenient with those who cheat.