Zola, Emile. The Heirs of Rabourdin. London: Henry, 1894. Google Books. Web. 28 Sep. 2015.
by Danny C. Miller and Mekdad Muthana
Rabourdin, 60-year-old notable resident of the town of Senlis, and his god-daughter Charlotte are talking in Rabourdin’s dining room in front of his safe, which they note is completely empty. Rabourdin says that he has spent all his money, but since everybody thinks he still has a fortune left they all bring him gifts in hopes that he will mention them in his will. Charlotte reads the ledger of all the gifts that Rabourdin has received and Rabourdin identifies greed as the motivation of these gift givers: “If I hadn’t played the miser when I had hardly a farthing left, I shouldn’t have a crust of bread or a glass of water from them! Ah! If they only knew, there would be no more dainties, my poor Charlotte; no more petting, no more serene old age for me! I should be ‘that old scamp of a Rabourdin'” (3). After Rabourdin has gone to the next room to await the arrival of guests, Charlotte’s fiancé Dominique comes in unexpectedly after a five-year absence. They reminisce of their childhood and discuss plans to live together as man and wife. When Charlotte says that Rabourdin is expecting his nieces, they devise to have Dominique pretend to be his nephew.
Rabourdin’s two nieces along with his old business partner Chapuzot and his doctor Mourgue arrive, all under the mistaken impression that Rabourdin is very ill and their inheritance is close at hand. The guests argue about whom among the four of them Rabourdin will name as heir and each of the two nieces speaks ill of the other when she is out of the room. When Rabourdin enters playing up the act of being terminally ill, all four pander to him and try to out-do each other in showing concern for his poor health.
Dominique enters and greets Rabourdin as his uncle, and after a moment of hesitation Rabourdin welcomes this “nephew.” A businessman named Isaac joins the group, come to collect a debt from Rabourdin. Rabourdin employs a ruse in which he cannot find the key to his safe and in his frustration must borrow the money from his nieces, who tell him they have nothing but pocket change. It is Dominique who steps forward to pay Isaac, prompting Rabourdin to call him “a true Rabourdin”. The niece Madame Vaussard takes Isaac aside to discuss extending her loan from him in expectation of Rabourdin’s inheritance, but he refuses. Meanwhile the other niece, Madame Fiquet, speaks with Ledoux, the fiancé of her daughter Eugenie, who has been waiting in the garden. She pressures him to marry her daughter so that he can have a share of the Rabourdin inheritance. At the conclusion of act one, Charlotte, having heard from Dominique that he paid Rabourdin’s debt, swears that she will make Rabourdin repay him for the ruse.
In act two, upon confronting Rabourdin about Dominique’s money, Charlotte finds out that he has spent her dowry as well. According to Rabourdin, the heirs were responsible for making him spend all the money, so Charlotte says they must pay her back, and she devises a scheme to get the money along with a clock for her godfather. She has Dominique summon the other guests, telling them that Rabourdin is dying. Chapuzot, the business partner, comes up first to Rabourdin, who appears to be on the point of death, and celebrates his approaching hour of inheritance but will not oblige Charlotte with the money she asks for. Rabourdin, who is of course not dying at all, can barely hold back his rancor at Chapuzot’s greed but must maintain the charade. After Chapuzot leaves the room, Madame Fiquet comes in with Eugenie and Ledoux, and Charlotte convinces her that she must buy a clock from Isaac in order to receive Rabourdin’s inheritance. The doctor Mourgue comes in to treat Rabourdin, but has to attend to Chapuzot who is actually sick. Charlotte sends Madame Vaussard to race against Madame Fiquet to buy the clock, however Madame Vaussard returns with Isaac and the clock right after Fiquet leaves. Isaac agrees to lend money to Madame Fiquet after all.
In act three, the guests leave Charlotte and Rabourdin with the doctor in the bedroom. They sit in the other room discussing what they plan to do Rabourdin’s property, which they each expect to inherit. Soon after the doctor leaves, Charlotte comes out to tell everyone Rabourdin is dead. The heirs say that their feeling of loss is too great to even cry. Charlotte convinces Chapuzot he must give her money to settle Rabourdin’s affairs because while she is certain that Rabourdin left Chapuzot all the money in the safe, the key is still missing. After playing this trick on Chapuzot, Charlotte tells Madame Fiquet that she will inherit everything because Rabourdin’s will says the money must go to the person who bought him the clock. Charlotte, however, knows that she did not buy the clock but instead rented it, so Madame Fiquet runs out of the house. Next Charlotte tells Madame Vaussard that the will leaves everything to the person who pays for Rabourdin’s funeral, thus convincing Madame Vaussard to give her three thousand francs. Madame Fiquet returns with a receipt for the purchase of the clock.
Charlotte tells the two nieces they will find the will inside the safe, the key to which is under her godfather’s pillow, upon which Rabourdin’s head still rests. The nieces bicker about who will be the heiress, until they finally retrieve the key and open the safe. All that is in the safe is the ledger, upon which is a note from Rabourdin, telling the nieces that he has no money left for them to inherit. At this moment, they discover that Rabourdin is not dead, and they angrily leave the house carrying various valuable presents they had given him. However, they soon return to pander to Rabourdin once again because, as Charlotte explains, the social esteem the nieces command is dependent on the continued perception that they are the heirs of Rabourdin. Charlotte shows Dominique the money that she has recovered from the heirs through her scheme: they can now be married as they planned.