By Charles Matthews

Saturday, June 19, 2010

22. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 522-548

Part Three: An Inventor's Tribulations, The History of a Lawsuit, 10. A free public lecture on dishonoured bills for those unable to meet them; 11. Lucien under distraint; 12. "Your house is on fire"; 13. A contrast in loyalties; 14. Keeping the fire going
After Eve learns that her brother has forged David's signature to the bills, Balzac gives us a "lecture" on the financial system in which the Séchards have found themselves entangled, on the premise that "there is nothing about which people are more ignorant than what they ought to know: the workings of the law!" Unfortunately for a reader like me who is ignorant of finance, and especially of the financial system of France in the 1820s, the explanation is fairly hard-going. But the upshot is simple: David is screwed. Not only is he responsible for the debts Lucien has laid on him, but he also has incurred the distrust of the public, who even express "approval and admiration for the severity which old Séchard was showing to his son."

Eve is faced with a choice of sides: her husband or her brother. And she chooses her husband, especially after David receives this note from Métivier, the chief creditor in the case:
Your brother-in-law, Monsieur Chardon, is a man of bad faith and has registered his furniture under the name of the actress with whom he is living. You ought, Monsieur, to have loally informed me of these circumstances to spare me from taking futile legal proceedings, for you did not answer my letter of May tenth. Do not therefore take it in evil part if I ask you immediately to reimburse me for the three bills of exchange and all my expenses.
Until this moment, Eve has thought that Lucien "had atoned for his crime by paying off the forged bills." She sends David off to see Petit-Claud, who is not only his solicitor but also attended school with David. Ignorant of Petit-Claud's deal with Boniface Cointet, David trusts the advice the solicitor gives him. He is still banking on the success of the paper-making process he is inventing, though Petit-Claud advises that commercializing the invention, including taking out a patent, "will take time and money." He doesn't succeed in worming the secret of the process out of David, however. Petit-Claud gets David to sign over power of attorney to him, and to send Eve to do likewise. And he learns from David that the person he trusts most is his "watch-dog," Kolb. He ends with this warning to David: "your house is on fire."

As David walks home from Petit-Claud's, he chews on a stalk of nettle that he has been working with in his research and discovers that the ball of chewed pulp in his mouth has the adhesive properties he needs for paper-making. This lifts his spirits, but Eve is not so sanguine. She is determined to go back to work -- her mother can look after the baby, whom they have named -- of course -- Lucien. She has heard that the forewoman at the laundry where she worked has retired and that a woman she knows from her days there, Basine Clerget, has taken over for her. Eve decides to go to work for her. She also writes Métivier asking him to list the printing-office for sale again, telling him they will pay the debt out of what they get for it. Métivier is away, however, and his clerk tells he he can do nothing in his absence. But he will renew the bills if David's father will agree to endorse them.

So Eve set out on her own to see old Séchard, who remains obdurate and bad-mouths David: "You'd like to know what David is? I'll tell you. He's a good-for-nothing, a scholar!... I'm no scholar. I never had a foreman's job at the Didots, a first-rate printing-firm. But I've never had a summons!" And when he learns that David is being sued, he says, "That's what comes of being able to sign your name!" But he agrees to go see his lawyer, Cachan, to see what can be done.

Eve returns and tells David of the situation, and while they are talking Marion and Kolb come to see them. They have saved up eleven hundred francs and are willing to invest it in David's invention. David sends Kolb with a thousand francs to Cachan, but warns him not to divulge anything about the invention and not to let anyone see him when he's gathering the herbs that David is testing for the paper. When they leave, he says to Eve, "It would be worth getting rich if only to be able to reward such kind souls."

More legal maneuvering takes place: Eve is recognized as David's creditor for ten thousand francs, the amount of her dowry, and "In discharge of this debt he made over to her the stock-in-trade of the printing-office and the household furniture." And when old Séchard goes to see the solicitor Cachan about recovering the rent David owes him, he is sent to Petit-Claud. As a result of these (to me) somewhat arcane maneuvers, the court "ceded the ownership of only movable furniture to Madame Séchard, rejected the claims of Séchard senior and flatly ordered him to pay four hundred and thirty-four francs and sixty-five centimes in costs." Balzac sums up:
David now owed Métivier, by formal judgment and valid writs of execution -- quite legally in fact -- the lump sum of five thousand two hundred francs and twenty-five centimes exclusive of interest. He owed Petit-Claud twelve hundred francs plus his fees, the figure for which ... was left to his generosity. Madame Séchard owed Petit-Claud about three  hundred and fifty francs, and fees into the bargain. Old Séchard's debt came to four hundred and thirty-four francs and sixty-five centimes, and Petit-Claud also demanded three hundred francs from him in fees. The whole thus amounted to some ten thousand francs.
All from the bill Lucien forged for three thousand francs.

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