Sylvain Pons is an ugly man who has no family except one cousin, Monsieur de Marville, a rich and influential government official. As a result of his connection, Cousin Pons, as the de Marvilles calls him, is able to dine out at a rich man’s home at least once a week. These opportunities satisfy one of Pons’s two pleasures in life, a delight in good food well served. Pons’s job as conductor of the orchestra at a ballet theater and his series of private music pupils provide him the money to live and to satisfy his other delight in life, collecting works of art.
By the time he is in his sixties, Pons has built up a collection worth more than one million francs, though neither he nor anyone else realizes that it is so valuable. Pons’s only friend is a musician in his orchestra, an old German named Schmucke. The two men live together in an apartment filled with Pons’s art treasures. Their lives are extremely simple; the portress at the house, Madame Cibot, cooks for them and cleans the apartment, and their work keeps them busy most of the time. The only flaw in their existence, as Schmucke sees it, is the fact that Pons goes out to dinner once a week and sometimes twice.
Even that flaw is remedied when Madame de Marville, the wife of Pons’s cousin, grows tired of having the old man in her home and makes her attitude obvious to him. He then begins eating all of his meals at home with Schmucke. Pons, however, is too fond of dining out on rich food to be happy with the arrangement, and he misses the company that he enjoyed for more than forty years. With Schmucke’s help, Pons determines to make peace with Madame de Marville by securing a rich husband for Cécile, the de Marvilles’ daughter. The attempt is a dismal failure and as a result the de Marvilles’ house and those of all their friends become closed to Pons.
The shock of finding that his cousin and all of his cousin’s connections regard him as vicious and hateful and will no longer speak to him is too much for Pons. He falls ill, and nothing the doctor can do helps. His friend Schmucke tries to keep their small establishment going with the aid of Madame Cibot, who acts as a nurse, while Schmucke works at the theater or gives music lessons.
It is unfortunate for the two old men that Madame Cibot learns that the art treasures lying about the apartment are extremely valuable. At first she thinks only of having Pons set up an annuity for her at his death, in return for her nursing care, but her avarice eventually leads her to conceive the idea of getting the entire fortune into her own hands. She takes into her confidence a small dealer in bric-a-brac named Remonencq, who in turn enlists the aid of Elie Magus, a Jew with a passion for art. The Jew, with the help of the other two, gains admittance to Pons’s apartment and makes an estimate of the collection’s value. At the same time, he makes an agreement to pay Madame Cibot more than forty thousand francs if she will get Schmucke, who knows nothing of art, to sell four of his friend’s pictures for money to pay Pons’s doctor bills.
Poor Schmucke, who thinks only of saving his friend’s life, readily agrees to sell four masterpieces, whose value he does not know, for a...
(The entire section is 1328 words.)