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Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). Old Goriot.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Paras. 1000–1099

Eugène was as distant as possible in his manner to Vautrin during dinner; but the other, so charming in Mme. Vauquer’s opinion, had never been so witty. His lively sallies and sparkling talk put the whole table in good humor. His assurance and coolness filled Eugène with consternation.

“Why, what has come to you to-day?” inquired Mme. Vauquer. “You are as merry as a skylark.”

“I am always in spirits after I have made a good bargain.”

“Bargain?” said Eugène.

“Well, yes, bargain. I have just delivered a lot of goods, and I shall be paid a handsome commission on them.—Mlle. Michonneau,” he went on, seeing that the elderly spinster was scrutinizing him intently, “have you any objection to some feature in my face, that you are making those lynx eyes at me? Just let me know, and I will have it changed to oblige.… We shall not fall out about it. Poiret, I daresay?” he added, winking at the superannuated clerk.

“Bless my soul, you ought to stand as model for a burlesque Hercules,” said the young painter.

“I will, upon my word! if Mlle. Michonneau will consent to sit as the Venus of Père-Lachaise,” replied Vautrin.

“There’s Poiret,” suggested Bianchon.

“Oh! Poiret shall pose as Poiret. He can be a garden god!” cried Vautrin; “his name means a pear——”

“A sleepy pear!” Bianchon put in. “You will come in between the pear and the cheese.”

“What stuff you are all talking!” said Mme. Vauquer; “you would do better to treat us to your Bordeaux; I see a glimpse of a bottle there. It would keep us all in a good humor, and it is good for the stomach besides.”

“Gentleman,” said Vautrin, “the Lady President calls us to order. Mme. Couture and Mlle. Victorine will take your jokes in good part, but respect the innocence of the aged Goriot. I propose a glass or two of Bordeauxrama, rendered twice illustrious by the name of Laffitte, no political allusions intended.—Come, you Turk!” he added, looking at Christophe, who did not offer to stir. “Christophe! Here! What, you don’t answer to your own name? Bring us some liquor, Turk!”

“Here it is, sir,” said Christophe, holding out the bottle.

Vautrin filled Eugène’s glass and Goriot’s likewise, then he deliberately poured out a few drops into his own glass, and sipped it while his two neighbors drank their wine. All at once he made a grimace.

“Corked!” he cried. “The devil! You can drink the rest of this, Christophe, and go and find another bottle; take from the right-hand side, you know. There are sixteen of us; take down eight bottles.”

“If you are going to stand treat,” said the painter, “I will pay for a hundred chestnuts.”

“Oh! oh!”



These exclamations came from all parts of the table like squibs from a set firework.

“Come, now, Mamma Vauquer, a couple of bottles of champagne,” called Vautrin.

“Quien! just like you! Why not ask for the whole house at once? A couple of bottles of champagne; that means twelve francs! I shall never see the money back again, I know! But if M. Eugène has a mind to pay for it, I have some currant cordial.”

“That currant cordial of hers is as bad as a black draught,” muttered the medical student.

“Shut up, Bianchon,” exclaimed Rastignac; “the very mention of black draught makes me feel—— Yes, champagne, by all means; I will pay for it,” he added.

“Sylvie,” called Mme. Vauquer, “bring in some biscuits, and the little cakes.”

“Those little cakes are moldy graybeards,” said Vautrin. “But trot out the biscuits.”

The Bordeaux wine circulated; the dinner table became a livelier scene than ever, and the fun grew fast and furious. Imitations of the cries of various animals mingled with the loud laughter; the Museum official having taken it into his head to mimic a cat-call rather like the caterwauling of the animal in question, eight voices simultaneously struck up with the following variations:—

“Scissors to grind!”

“Chick-weed for singing bir-ds!”

“Brandy-snaps, ladies!”

“China to mend!”

“Boat ahoy!”

“Sticks to beat your wives or your clothes!”

“Old clo’!”

“Cherries all ripe!”

But the palm was awarded to Bianchon for the nasal accent with which he rendered the cry of “Umbrellas to me-end!”

A few seconds later, and there was a head-splitting racket in the room, a storm of tomfoolery, a sort of cats’ concert, with Vautrin as conductor of the orchestra, the latter keeping an eye the while on Eugène and old Goriot. The wine seemed to have gone to their heads already. They leaned back in their chairs, looking at the general confusion with an air of gravity, and drank but little; both of them were absorbed in the thought of what lay before them to do that evening, and yet neither of them felt able to rise and go. Vautrin gave a side glance at them from time to time, and watched the change that came over their faces, choosing the moment when their eyes drooped and seemed about to close, to bend over Rastignac and to say in his ear—

“My little lad, you are not quite shrewd enough to outwit Papa Vautrin yet, and he is too fond of you to let you make a mess of your affairs. When I have made up my mind to do a thing, no one short of Providence can put me off. Aha! we were for going round to warn old Taillefer, telling tales out of school! The oven is hot, the dough is kneaded, the bread is ready for the oven; to-morrow we will eat it up and whisk away the crumbs; and we are not going to spoil the baking?… No, no, it is all as good as done! We may suffer from a few conscientious scruples, but they will be digested along with the bread. While we are having our forty winks, Colonel Count Franchessini will clear the way to Michel Taillefer’s inheritance with the point of his sword. Victorine will come in for her brother’s money, a snug fifteen thousand francs a year. I have made inquiries already, and I know that her late mother’s property amounts to more than three hundred thousand——”

Eugène heard all this, and could not answer a word; his tongue seemed to be glued to the roof of his mouth, an irresistible drowsiness was creeping over him. He still saw the table and the faces round it, but it was through a bright mist. Soon the noise began to subside, one by one the boarders went. At last, when their numbers had so dwindled that the party consisted of Mme. Vauquer, Mme. Couture, Mlle. Victorine, Vautrin, and old Goriot, Rastignac watched as though in a dream how Mme. Vauquer busied herself by collecting the bottles, and drained the remainder of the wine out of each to fill others.

“Oh! how uproarious they are! what a thing it is to be young!” said the widow.

These were the last words that Eugène heard and understood.

“There is no one like M. Vautrin for a bit of fun like this,” said Sylvie. “There, just hark at Christophe, he is snoring like a top.”

“Good-bye, mamma,” said Vautrin; “I am going to a theater on the boulevard to see M. Marty in Le Mont Sauvage, a fine play taken from Le Solitaire.… If you like, I will take you and these two ladies——”

‘Thank you; I must decline,” said Mme. Couture.

“What! my good lady!” cried Mme. Vauquer, “decline to see a play founded on Le Solitaire, a work by Atala de Chateaubriand. We were so fond of that book that we cried over it like Magdalens under the line-trees last summer, and then it is an improving work that might edify your young lady.”

“We are forbidden to go to the play,” answered Victorine.

“Just look, those two yonder have dropped off where they sit,” said Vautrin, shaking the heads of the two sleepers in a comical way.

He altered the sleeping student’s position, settled his head more comfortably on the back of his chair, kissed him warmly on the forehead, and began to sing—

  • “Sleep, little darlings;
  • I watch while you slumber.”
  • “I am afraid he may be ill,” said Victorine.

    “Then stop and take care of him,” returned Vautrin.

    “’Tis your duty as a meek and obedient wife,” he whispered in her ear. “The young fellow worships you, and you will be his little wife—there’s your fortune for you. In short,” he added aloud, “they lived happily ever afterwards, were much looked up to in all the country side, and had a numerous family. That is how all the romances end.—Now, mamma,” he went on, as he turned to Mme. Vauquer and put his arm round her waist, “put on your bonnet, your best flowered silk, and the countess’s scarf, while I go out to call a cab—all my own self.”

    And he started out, singing as he went—

  • “Oh! sun! divine sun!
  • Ripening the pumpkins every one.”
  • “My goodness! Well, I’m sure, Mme. Couture, I could live happily in a garret with a man like that.—There, now,” she added, looking round for the old vermicelli maker, “there is that old Goriot half seas over. He never thought of taking me anywhere, the old skinflint. But he will measure his length somewhere. My word! it is disgraceful to lose his senses like that, at his age! You will be telling me that he couldn’t lose what he hadn’t got—Sylvie! just take him up to his room!”

    Sylvie took him by the arm, supporting him upstairs, and flung him just as he was, like a package, across the bed.

    “Poor young fellow!” said Mme. Couture, putting back Eugène’s hair that had fallen over his eyes; “he is like a young girl, he does not know what dissipation is.”

    “Well, I can tell you this, I know,” said Mme. Vauquer, “I have taken lodgers these thirty years, and a good many have passed through my hands as the saying is, but I have never seen a nicer nor a more aristocratic looking young man than M. Eugène. How handsome he looks sleeping! Just let his head rest on your shoulder, Mme. Couture. Pshaw! he falls over towards Mlle. Victorine. There’s a special providence for young things. A little more, and he would have broken his head against the knob of the chair. They’d make a pretty pair, those two would!”

    “Hush, my good neighbor,” cried Mme. Couture, “you are saying such things——”

    “Pooh!” put in Mme. Vauquer, “he does not hear.—Here, Sylvie! come and help me to dress. I shall put on my best stays.”

    “What! your best stays just after dinner, Madame?” said Sylvie. “No, you can get someone else to lace you. I am not going to be your murderer. It’s a rash thing to do, and might cost you your life.”

    “I don’t care, I must do honor to M. Vautrin.”

    “Are you so fond of your heirs as all that?”

    “Come, Sylvie, don’t argue,” said the widow, as she left the room.

    “At her age, too!” said the cook to Victorine, pointing to her mistress as she spoke.

    Mme. Couture and her ward were left in the dining-room, and Eugène slept on, on Victorine’s shoulder. The sound of Christophe’s snoring echoed through the silent house; Eugène’s quiet breathing seemed all the quieter by force of contrast, he was sleeping as peacefully as a child. Victorine was very happy; she was free to perform one of those acts of charity which form an innocent outlet for all the overflowing sentiments of a woman’s nature; he was so close to her that she could feel the throbbing of his heart; there was a look of almost maternal protection and a conscious pride in Victorine’s face. Among the countless thoughts that crowded up in her young innocent heart, there was a wild flutter of joy at this close contact.

    “Poor, dear child!” said Mme. Couture, squeezing her hand.

    The old lady looked at the girl. Victorine’s innocent, pathetic face, so radiant with the new happiness that had befallen her, called to mind some naïve work of mediædic;val art, when the painter neglected the accessories, reserving all the magic of his brush for the quiet, austere outlines and ivory tints of the face, which seems to have caught something of the golden glory of heaven.

    “After all, he only took two glasses, mamma,” said Victorine, passing her fingers through Eugène’s hair.

    “Indeed, if he had been a dissipated young man, child, he would have carried the wine like the rest of them. His drowsiness does him credit.”

    There was a sound of wheels outside in the street.

    “There is M. Vautrin, mamma,” said the girl. “Just take M. Eugène. I would rather not have that man see me like this; there are some ways of looking at you that seem to sully your soul and make you feel as though you had nothing on.”

    “Oh, no, you are wrong!” said Mme. Couture. “M. Vautrin is a worthy man; he reminds me a little of my late husband, poor dear M. Couture, rough but kind-hearted; his bark is worse than his bite.”

    Vautrin came in while she was speaking; he did not make a sound, but looked for a while at the picture of the two young faces—the lamplight, falling full upon them, seemed to caress them.

    “Well,” he remarked, folding his arms, “here is a picture! It would have suggested some pleasing pages to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (good soul), who wrote Paul et Virginie. Youth is very charming, Mme. Couture!—Sleep on, poor boy,” he added, looking at Eugène, “luck sometimes comes while we are sleeping.—There is something touching and attractive to me about this young man, Madame,” he continued; “I know that his nature is in harmony with his face. Just look, the head of a cherub on an angel’s shoulder! He deserves to be loved. If I were a woman, I would die (no—not such a fool), I would live for him.” He bent lower and spoke in the widow’s ear. “When I see those two together, Madame, I cannot help think that Providence meant them for each other; He works by secret ways, and tries the reins and the heart,” he said in a loud voice. “And when I see you, my children, thus united by a like purity and by all human affections, I say to myself that it is quite impossible that the future should separate you. God is just.”—He turned to Victorine. “It seems to me,” he said, “that I have seen the line of success in your hand. Let me look at it, Mlle. Victorine; I am well up in palmistry, and I have told fortunes many a time. Come, now, don’t be frightened. Ah! what do I see? Upon my word, you will be one of the richest heiresses in Paris before very long. You will heap riches on the man who loves you. Your father will want you to go and live with him. You will marry a young and handsome man with a title, and he will idolize you.”

    The heavy footsteps of the conquettish widow, who was coming down the stairs, interrupted Vautrin’s fortune-telling. “Here is Mamma Vauquerre, fair as a starr-r-r, dressed within an inch of her life.—Aren’t we a trifle pinched for room?” he inquired, with his arm round the lady; “we are screwed up very tightly about the bust, mamma! If we are much agitated, there may be an explosion; but I will pick up the fragments with all the care of an antiquary.”

    “There is a man who can talk the language of French gallantry!” said the widow, bending to speak in Mme. Couture’s ear.

    “Good-bye, little ones!” said Vautrin, turning to Eugène and Victorine. “Bless you both!” and he laid a hand on either head. “Take my word for it, young lady, an honest man’s prayers are worth something; they should bring you happiness, for God hears them.”

    “Good-by, dear,” said Madame Vauquer to her lodger. “Do you think that M. Vautrin means to run away with me?” she added, lowering her voice.

    “Lack-a-day!” said the widow.

    “Oh! mamma dear, suppose it should really happen as that kind M. Vautrin said!” Victorine with a sigh, as she looked at her hands. The two women were alone together.

    “Why, it wouldn’t take much to bring it to pass,” said the elder lady; “just a fall from his horse, and your monster of a brother——”

    “Oh, mamma!”

    “Good Lord! Well, perhaps it is a sin to wish bad luck to an enemy,” the widow remarked. “I will do penance for it. Still, I would strew flowers on his grave with the greatest pleasure, and that is the truth. Black-hearted, that he is! The coward couldn’t speak up for his own mother, and cheats you out of your share by deceit and trickery. My cousin had a pretty fortune of her own, but, unluckily for you, nothing was said in the marriage contract about anything that she might come in for.”

    “It would be very hard if my good fortune is to cost someone else his life,” said Victorine. “If I cannot be happy unless my brother is to be taken out of the world, I would rather stay here all my life.”

    “Mon Dieu! it is just as that good M. Vautrin says, and he is full of piety, you see,” Mme. Couture remarked. “I am very glad to find that he is not an unbeliever like the rest of them that talk of the Almighty with less respect than they do of the Devil. Well, as he was saying, who can know the ways by which it may please Providence to lead us?”

    With Sylvie’s help the two women at last succeeded in getting Eugène up to his room; they laid him on the bed, and the cook unfastened his clothes to make him more comfortable. Before they left the room, Victorine snatched an opportunity when her guardian’s back was turned, and pressed a kiss on Eugène’s forehead, feeling all the joy that this stolen pleasure could give her. Then she looked round the room, and gathering up, as it were, into one single thought all the untold bliss of that day, she made a picture of her memories, and dwelt upon it until she slept, the happiest creature in Paris.

    That evening’s merrymaking, in the course of which Vautrin had given the drugged wine to Eugène and old Goriot, was his own ruin. Bianchon, flustered with wine, forgot to open the subject of Trompe-la-Mort with Mlle. Michonneau. The mere mention of the name would have set Vautrin on his guard; for Vautrin, or, to give him his real name, Jacques Collin, was in fact the notorious escaped convict.

    But it was the joke about the Venus of Père-Lachaise that finally decided his fate. Mlle. Michonneau had very nearly made up her mind to warn the convict and to throw herself on his generosity, with the idea of making a better bargain for herself by helping him to escape that night; but as it was, she went out escorted by Poiret in search of the famous chief of detectives in the Petite Rue Sainte-Anne, still thinking that it was the district superintendent-one Gondureau—with whom she had to do. The head of the department received his visitors courteously. There was a little talk, and the details were definitely arranged. Mlle. Michonneau asked for the draught that she was to administer in order to set about her investigation. But the great man’s evident satisfaction set Mlle. Michonneau thinking; and she began to see that this business involved something more than the mere capture of a runaway convict. She racked her brains while he looked in a drawer in his desk for the little phial, and it dawned upon her that in consequence of treacherous revelations made by the prisoners the police were hoping to lay their hands on a considerable sum of money. But on hinting her suspicions to the old fox of the Petite Rue Sainte-Anne, that officer began to smile, and tried to put her off the scent.

    “A delusion,” he said. “Collin’s sorbonne is the most dangerous that has yet been found among the dangerous classes. That is all, and the rascals are quite aware of it. They rally round him; he is the backbone of the federation, its Bonaparte, in short; he is very popular with them all. The rogue will never leave his chump in the Place de Grève.”

    As Mlle. Michonneau seemed mystified, Gondureau explained the two slang words for her benefit. Sorbonne and chump are two forcible expressions borrowed from thieves’ Latin, thieves, of all people, being compelled to consider the human head in its two aspects. A sorbonne is the head of a living man, his faculty of thinking—his council; a chump is a contemptuous epithet that implies how little a human head is worth after the axe has done its work.

    “Collin is playing us off,” he continued. “When we come across a man like a bar of steel tempered in the English fashion, there is always one resource left—we can kill him if he takes it into his head to make the least resistance. We are reckoning on several methods of killing Collin to-morrow morning. It saves a trial, and society is rid of him without all the expense of guarding and feeding him. What with getting up the case, summoning witnesses, paying their expenses, and carrying out the sentence, it costs a lot to go through all the proper formalities before you can get quit of one of these good-for-nothings, over and above the three thousand francs that you are going to have. There is a saving in time as well. One good thrust of the bayonet into Trompe-la-Mort’s paunch will prevent scores of crimes, and save fifty scoundrels from following his example; they will be very careful to keep themselves out of the police courts. That is doing the work of the police thoroughly, and true philanthropists will tell you that it is better to prevent crime than to punish it.”

    “And you do a service to our country,” said Poiret.

    “Really, you are talking in a very sensible manner to-night, that you are,” said the head of the department. “Yes, of course, we are serving our country, and we are very hardly used too. We do society very great services that are not recognized. In fact, a superior man must rise above vulgar prejudices, and a Christian must resign himself to the mishaps that doing right entails, when right is done in an out-of-the-way style. Paris is Paris, you see! That is the explanation of my life.—I have the honor to wish you a good-evening, Mademoiselle. I shall bring my men to the Jardin du Roi in the morning. Send Christophe to the Rue du Buffon, tell him to ask for M. Gondureau in the house where you saw me before.—Your servant, sir. If you should ever have anything stolen from you, come to me, and I will do my best to get it back for you.”

    “Well, now,” Poiret remarked to Mlle. Michonneau, “there are idiots who are scared out of their wits by the word police. That was a very pleasant-spoken gentleman, and what he wants you to do is as easy as saying ‘Good-day.’”

    The next day was destined to be one of the most extraordinary in the annals of the Maison Vauquer. Hitherto the most startling occurrence in its tranquil existence had been the portentous, meteor-like apparition of the sham Comtesse de I’Ambermesnil. But the catastrophes of this great day were to cast all previous events into the shade, and supply an inexhaustible topic of conversation for Mme. Vauquer and her boarders so long as she lived.

    In the first place, Goriot and Eugène de Rastignac both slept till close upon eleven o’clock. Mme. Vauquer, who came home about midnight from the Gaîté, lay abed till half-past ten. Christophe, after a prolonged slumber (he had finished Vautrin’s first bottle of wine), was behindhand with his work, but Poiret and Mlle. Michonneau uttered no complaint, though breakfast was delayed. As for Victorine and Mme. Couture, they also lay late. Vautrin went out before eight o’clock and only came back just as breakfast was ready. Nobody protested, therefore, when Sylvie and Christophe went up at a quarter-past eleven, knocked at all doors, and announced that breakfast was waiting. While Sylvie and the man were upstairs, Mlle. Michonneau, who came down first, poured the contents of the phial into the silver cup belonging to Vautrin—it was standing with the others in the bain-marie that kept the cream hot for the morning coffee. The spinster had reckoned on this custom of the house to do her stroke of business. The seven lodgers were at last collected together, not without some difficulty. Just as Eugène came downstairs, stretching himself and yawning, a commissionaire handed him a letter from Mme. de Nucingen. It ran thus:—

  • “I feel neither false vanity nor anger where you are concerned, my friend. Till two o’clock this morning I waited for you. Oh, that waiting for one whom you love! No one that had passed through that torture could inflict it on another. I know now that you have never loved before. What can have happened? Anxiety has taken hold of me. I would have come myself to find out what had happened, if I had not feared to betray the secrets of my heart. How can I walk out or drive out at this time of day? Would it not be ruin? I have felt to the full how wretched it is to be a woman. Send a word to reassure me, and explain how it is that you have not come after what my father told you. I shall be angry, but I will forgive you. One word, for pity’s sake. You will come to me very soon, will you not? If you are busy, a word will be enough. Say, ‘I will hasten to you,’ or else, ‘I am ill.’ But if you were ill my father would have come to tell me so. What can have happened?…”
  • “Yes, indeed, what has happened?” exclaimed Eugène, and, hurrying down to the dining-room, he crumpled up the letter without reading any more. “What time is it?”

    “Half-past eleven,” said Vautrin, dropping a lump of sugar into his coffee.

    The escaped convict cast a glance at Eugène, a cold and fascinating glance; men gifted with this magnetic power can quell furious lunatics in a madhouse by such a glance, it is said. Eugène shook in every limb. There was the sound of wheels in the street, and in another moment a man with a scared face rushed into the room. It was one of M. Taillefer’s servants; Mme. Couture recognized the livery at once.

    “Mademoiselle,” he cried, “your father is asking for you—something terrible has happened! M. Frédéric has had a sword thrust in the forehead in a duel, and the doctors have given him up. You will scarcely be in time to say good-by to him! he is unconscious.”

    “Poor young fellow!” exclaimed Vautrin. “How can people brawl when they have a certain income of thirty thousand livres? Young people have bad manners, and that is a fact.”