The Best Mystery and Detective Stories HTML version
HONORE DE BALZAC (1799-1850)
To Monsieur le Général Baron de Pommereul, a token of the friendship between
our fathers, which survives in their sons.
There is a special variety of human nature obtained in the Social Kingdom by a process
analogous to that of the gardener's craft in the Vegetable Kingdom, to wit, by the forcing-
house—a species of hybrid which can be raised neither from seed nor from slips. This
product is known as the Cashier, an anthropomorphous growth, watered by religious
doctrine, trained up in fear of the guillotine, pruned by vice, to flourish on a third floor
with an estimable wife by his side and an uninteresting family. The number of cashiers in
Paris must always be a problem for the physiologist. Has anyone as yet been able to state
correctly the terms of the proportion sum wherein the cashier figures as the unknown x?
Where will you find the man who shall live with wealth, like a cat with a caged mouse?
This man, for further qualification, shall be capable of sitting boxed in behind an iron
grating for seven or eight hours a day during seven-eighths of the year, perched upon a
cane-seated chair in a space as narrow as a lieutenant's cabin on board a man-of-war.
Such a man must be able to defy anchylosis of the knee and thigh joints; he must have a
soul above meanness, in order to live meanly; must lose all relish for money by dint of
handling it. Demand this peculiar specimen of any creed, educational system, school, or
institution you please, and select Paris, that city of fiery ordeals and branch establishment
of hell, as the soil in which to plant the said cashier. So be it. Creeds, schools,
institutions, and moral systems, all human rules and regulations, great and small, will,
one after another, present much the same face that an intimate friend turns upon you
when you ask him to lend you a thousand francs. With a dolorous dropping of the jaw,
they indicate the guillotine, much as your friend aforesaid will furnish you with the
address of the money lender, pointing you to one of the hundred gates by which a man
comes to the last refuge of the destitute.
Yet Nature has her freaks in the making of a man's mind; she indulges herself and makes
a few honest folk now and again, and now and then a cashier.
Wherefore, that race of corsairs whom we dignify with the title of bankers, the gentry
who take out a license for which they pay a thousand crowns, as the privateer takes out
his letters of marque, hold these rare products of the incubations of virtue in such esteem
that they confine them in cages in their counting-houses, much as governments procure
and maintain specimens of strange beasts at their own charges.
If the cashier is possessed of an imagination or of a fervid temperament; if, as will
sometimes happen to the most complete cashier, he loves his wife, and that wife grows
tired of her lot, has ambitions, or merely some vanity in her composition, the cashier is