Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1328
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 fraction of their true value. After they are sold, thinking that Pons will never notice, he simply hangs four other pictures in their places. Delighted at her success in fleecing the old men, Madame Cibot decides to try to get all the collection and enlists the aid of the doctor, who is a poor man, and a rascally attorney named Fraisier. Fraisier knows of Pons’s influential relatives and points out to Madame Cibot that the relatives will fight any attempt by the portress to get the old man’s estate. He also convinces her that they are powerful enough to send her to the guillotine if they can prove her guilt. Feeling that her only chance of success lies with him, Madame Cibot agrees to follow the attorney’s advice.
The attorney goes to Madame de Marville, who is also avaricious, and tells her of Pons’s wealth and his determination to leave it to Schmucke. Madame de Marville immediately agrees to do anything she can to gain the fortune for herself, for all the family’s wealth has gone into her daughter’s dowry. She promises to have her husband get good appointments for Fraisier and the doctor, and she consents to set up an annuity for Madame Cibot. When she tells her husband, he agrees.
Fraisier and Madame Cibot then begin to lay plans to find a way into Pons’s confidence. Unfortunately, Pons becomes suspicious of Madame Cibot. His suspicions are confirmed when he awakens one afternoon to find Magus, his rival collector, examining the art objects on the walls and tables. Summoning his remaining strength, Pons leaves his sickbed, staggers to the other rooms, and discovers that his paintings are gone. He realizes immediately that someone is fleecing him at poor Schmucke’s expense. That night, after Schmucke confesses to selling the paintings, he and Schmucke discuss what they could do. Pons forgives Schmucke, for he knows that the German has no idea of the cash values of the paintings or the more personal value they have for Pons himself.
Pons draws up a will naming Madame Cibot as one of his heirs, in an attempt to deceive her as to his real intentions. He even leaves the will where she will see it. The portress is pleased, although the will does not provide for as much as she wants. Fraisier also sees the document and is pleased because it is a will that can easily be broken in court for the benefit of the de Marville family. Pons hoped that they would react in that way, and the following day he secretly makes a new will that leaves his fortune to the crown, with the stipulation that in return the government will give Schmucke a lifetime annuity.
When Pons dies shortly afterward, his death leaves poor Schmucke in a dreadful state. The German musician knows little of the world, and Pons’s death leaves him without judgment or willpower. All he cares about is dying quickly in order to meet his friend in heaven. Because of his state of mind, the plotters believe it will be easy to take the estate away from him.
The de Marvilles, bringing a suit to break the will, hope that Schmucke, to avoid trouble, will accept a small annuity and let them have the bulk of the estate. They are right in their belief, but just as the papers are about to be signed, a messenger brings Schmucke a copy of the charges made in court against the old man, charges that he influenced his friend in an attempt to get the estate. The shock to Schmucke is so great that he dies within a few days, allowing the estate to go unchallenged to the de Marvilles, who denied their cousin and despised him during his last years.
Many people gain by the deaths of Pons and Schmucke. The de Marvilles recoup their fortune; Fraisier, the rascally attorney, receives an office of trust for his part in the affair; the doctor who tended Pons receives a sinecure; Magus, the Jew, has his coveted pictures; and Madame Cibot has her annuity. She also has a new husband, for Remonencq, her fellow conspirator, poisons her husband and then marries her. Everyone, except Schmucke, the man Pons wanted most to help, benefits from Pons’s fortune.
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