The Grégoire property, La Piolaine, is two kilometers from Montsou. It was once part of a grand estate, but it is now smaller, surrounded by walls enclosing the orchard and kitchen garden. The fruits and vegetables grown here are known as the finest in the region. The avenue of foliage, three hundred meters long, is a visible landmark on an empty, barren plain.
This morning the Grégoires are up at eight o’clock, an hour earlier than usual, because an overnight storm has made them restless. He goes out to check for any damage, and she comes to the kitchen in her gown and slippers. She is a plump fifty-eight-year-old with a baby face and a continual look of surprise. She tells their cook of thirty years to start the brioche so Mademoiselle Cécile can have some with her chocolate when she gets up later. Honorine, a twenty-year-old girl raised since childhood by the Grégoires, is now a housemaid and will help the cook. The only other servants are Francis the coachman, who does the heavy work, and a gardener and his wife, who tend everything else.
The kitchen is warm and “overflowing with provisions.” Leon Grégoire, a kindly sixty-year-old with curly white hair, reports no major damage from the storm. This family is used to living a quiet but quite comfortable life, and even the servants dote on the daughter. Cécile’s indulgent parents go to watch her sleep. She is a beautiful girl, and even more so to her parents who waited so long to have her.
Their fortune of forty thousand francs per year is derived solely from their holding in the mines. At the end of the last century, there was a frenzy to find coal. Baron Desrumaux was the most persevering miner, prospecting for forty years despite formidable obstacles and setbacks. He finally established Desrumaux, Fauquenoix and Company in Montsou. The pits were just beginning to yield scant returns when two neighboring concessions nearly ruined him with their competition. On August 25, 1760, the three companies merged to become The Montsou Mining Company. The total capital for the enterprise was nearly three million francs. Desrumaux was near death but victorious, and his share was significant.
At the time, Desrumaux owned La Piolaine and plenty of surrounding land and his steward was Honore Grégoire, the great-grandfather of Cecile’s father. Honoré had saved fifty thousand francs and, with great trepidation, bought a share of the company based on his employer’s unwavering conviction; he was afraid he was squandering part of his children’s inheritance. His son did not receive much in the way of dividends and foolishly spent the rest of his inheritance; however, the profits continued to rise and Honoré’s grandson Felicién realized his dream and was able to purchase La Piolaine.
The Grégoires had to survive the Revolution and Napoleon’s bloody reign, but over a century, the ten thousand francs tentatively invested increased a hundredfold and were worth one million francs just two years ago. The current Grégoire had been encouraged to sell at that price, but he benignly and naively refused,...
(The entire section contains 824 words.)
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