Balzac begins with an essay on cashiers which are a rare breed to be valued. Lacking imagination and ambition, they remain without promotion. Imagination and love are their undoing.
Rodolphe Castanier is cashier at the House of Nucingen. He is about forty-five, married and has a young mistress. When a major in the dragoons, he was seriously injured and then retired with the honorary grade of colonel, and a pension of two thousand four hundred francs.
Nucingen knew Castanier to be an honorable man and hired him as cashier. After ten years, the cashier had completely effaced the soldier.
Late one autumn afternoon after the bank is closed, as Castanier sits practicing forging Nucingen’s signature, a quiet stranger wearing English clothing appears with a bill of exchange for five hundred thousand francs. Not wanting to upset his plans, Castanier obliges the man, who sees Nucingen’s forged signatures on the letter of credit. The man signs John Melmoth and noiselessly disappears.
Thinking himself lucky that the man did not arrive the next day, Castanier takes the bill and five hundred thousand francs in notes and leaves one of the strong room keys with Delphine since Nucingen is out. When she remarks on the Monday holiday, he tells her he won’t be in until noon Tuesday.
Eugene de Rastignac tells Delphine that “the old boy looks to me as if he meant to play you some ill turn,” but Delphine exclaims, “Pshaw! impossible; he is too stupid.”
As Castanier leaves the building the porter tells him that he did not allow anyone upstairs, no one came through. Castanier has a moment of worry, but reassures himself by remembering that he will not even be missed until late Tuesday. He has passports and disguises and plans a life in Italy under the name of Conte Ferraro, a man he saw die in a marsh. He worries that he’ll be traced through his lover, Aquilina, and is startled to hear a voice say, “You will not take her!” He turns and sees the Englishman. As Castanier makes his way down the street, he continues to hear and see Melmoth.
Castanier met his mistress when she was sixteen and just on the brink of turning to prostitution. Aquilina took her name from Venice Preserved. When she was put out because he wouldn’t marry her, he confessed to having a wife in Strasbourg.
Five years ago at one of the garrison towns, a mother and other townspeople had campaigned to trap Castanier into marrying his wife. After two years this fair angel had become ugly, peevish and broke. She now lives on a small property in Strasbourg. Upon hearing this tale, Aquilina became even more attached to Castanier. They spoiled each other tremendously. Soon
Castanier’s savings were gone and he resorted to borrowing money. Eventually he realized he was too deep in debt to extract himself and concocted the plan to steal enough to live comfortably in Italy.
It appears that Aquilina really did care for Castanier in the beginning of their relationship, but she now has a lover. When Castanier wants to take her to the Gymnase for a last evening before he leaves for Italy, she treats him in a cruel manner and also says that if he takes a trip, she will not join him but will remain in Paris.
That night at the Gymnase, Castanier decides to see some of his acquaintances during the break to allay any suspicion about his departure. In the lobby, he spots Melmoth, who says, “Forger!” Melmoth tells Castanier that he knows all and can see the future and that Castanier won’t be able to resist him. When the program begins, Aquilina and the rest of the audience laugh but Castanier sees something different. First he sees that Nucingen and the police have discovered his fraud. He next sees that Aquilina has not been faithful to him. Finally he sees himself sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Melmoth, who has been in the box with Castanier, now offers:
“Suppose that the Devil were to make a bid for your soul, would you not give it to him now in exchange for the power of God? . . . ”
Melmoth says that with one word, all traces of crime will be erased and Castanier will be rich.
“If it were only possible!” said Castanier joyfully.
Melmoth asks Castanier if he would like to take his place. Upon Castanier’s agreement, they meet at his home and the deed is done.
Castanier now exposes Leon who is hiding in the wardrobe. Leon offers to duel, but Castanier tells him he will be guillotined. Aquilina offers anything if only he will save Leon. When he refuses, she grabs a stiletto and tries to stab him. He laughs and tells Leon to get out. Aquilina says she will follow Leon. Castanier offers her three hundred thousand francs which she refuses and they leave. After a time, Leon is arrested as Castanier predicted.
Castanier has changed. Aquilina’s maid Jenny is thrilled that she can take Aquilina’s place and live a spoiled life of ease. However, the next morning, Castanier tells her she would not survive that life and sends her away. He settles his accounts, quits his job and begins living a wild life but it gets old fast.
Unhappy now with his new life, Castanier seeks out Melmoth only to find that he has died. Between the story he hears from Melmoth’s confessor and the service at Saint Sulpice, he now aspires to his own death and Heaven.
Castanier goes to the stock exchange to pass on his power/curse. There he finds Claparon in dire straits. Castanier’s force and power were noticed by others at the ‘Change. After the transaction they notice he now seems divested of his power, shrunken, wrinkled, aged, and feeble. As Castanier collapses to the curb, he calls out for a priest and the curate of Saint Sulpice and wonders if he has time to repent.
Once Claparon pays his debts, he becomes afraid of his power. Unlike Castanier, who was undone by a woman, Claparon does not want to live such a life and quickly transfers the Devil’s agreement.
It appears that each successive recipient transfers it even quicker–and for less money–until we get to a house-painter who only wanted one hundred louis to buy a shawl for Euphrasia. As he laments about ten thousand francs, he is offered the deal and accepts.
After purchasing the shawl, the house painter visits Euphrasia and remains with her for twelve days. On the thirteenth day, he is ill and overcome with shame. He dies from an overdose of medicine without passing on the power.
A German demonologist came to investigate the matter.
Summary by Dagny, February 2009