Home  »  Old Goriot  »  Paras. 1100–1199

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

Paras. 1100–1199

“Sir!” cried Eugène.

“Well, what then, you big baby!” said Vautrin, swallowing down his coffee imperturbably, an operation which Mlle. Michonneau watched with such close attention that she had no emotion to spare for the amazing news that had struck the others dumb with amazement. “Are there not duels every morning in Paris?” added Vautrin.

“I will go with you, Victorine,” said Mme. Couture, and the two women hurried away at once without either hats or shawls. But before she went, Victorine, with her eyes full of tears, gave Eugène a glance that said—“How little I thought that our happiness should cost me tears!”

“Dear me, you are a prophet, M. Vautrin,” said Mme. Vauquer.

“I am all sorts of things,” said Vautrin.

“Queer, isn’t it?” said Mme. Vauquer, stringing together a succession of commonplaces suited to the occasion. “Death takes us off without asking us about it. The young often go before the old. It is a lucky thing for us women that we are not liable to fight duels, but we have other complaints that men don’t suffer from. We bear children, and it takes a long time to get over it. What a windfall for Victorine! Her father will have to acknowledge her now!”

“There!” said Vautrin, looking at Eugène, “yesterday she had not a penny; this morning she has several millions to her fortune.”

“I say, M. Eugène!” cried Mme. Vauquer, “you have landed on your feet!”

At this exclamation, old Goriot looked at the student, and saw the crumpled letter still in his hand.

“You have not read it through! What does this mean? Are you going to be like the rest of them?” he asked.

“Madame, I shall never marry Mlle. Victorine,” said Eugène, turning to Mme. Vauquer with an expression of terror and loathing that surprised the onlookers at this scene.

Old Goriot caught the student’s hand and grasped it warmly. He could have kissed it.

“Oh, ho!” said Vautrin, “the Italians have a good proverb—Col tempo.”

“Is there any answer?” said Mme. de Nucingen’s messenger, addressing Eugène.

“Say that I will come directly.”

The man went. Eugène was in a state of such violent excitement that he could not be prudent.

“What is to be done?” he exclaimed aloud. “There are no proofs!”

Vautrin began to smile. Though the drug he had taken was doing its work, the convict was so vigorous that he rose to his feet, gave Rastignac a look, and said in hollow tones, “Luck comes to us while we sleep, young man,” and fell stiff and stark, as if he were struck dead.

“So there is a Divine Justice!” said Eugène.

“Well, if ever! What has come to that poor dear M. Vautrin?”

“A stroke!” cried Mlle. Michonneau.

“Here, Sylvie! girl, run for the doctor,” called the widow. “Oh, M. Rastignac, just go for M. Bianchon, and be as quick as you can; Sylvie might not be in time to catch our doctor, M. Grimprel.”

Rastignac was glad of an excuse to leave that den of horrors, his hurry for the doctor was nothing but a flight.

“Here, Christophe, go round to the chemist’s and ask for something that’s good for the apoplexy.”

Christophe likewise went.

“Father Goriot, just help us to get him upstairs.”

Vautrin was taken up among them, carried carefully up the narrow staircase, and laid upon his bed.

“I can do no good here, so I shall go to see my daughter,” said M. Goriot.

“Selfish old thing!” cried Mme. Vauquer. “Yes, go; I wish you may die like a dog.”

“Just go and see if you can find some ether,” said Mlle. Michonneau to Mme. Vauquer; the former, with some help from Poiret, had unfastened the sick man’s clothes.

Mme. Vauquer went down to her room, and left Mlle. Michonneau mistress of the situation.

“Now! just pull down his shirt and turn him over, quick! You might be of some use in sparing my modesty,” she said to Poiret, “instead of standing there like a stock.”

Vautrin was turned over; Mlle. Michonneau gave his shoulder a sharp slap, and the two portentous letters appeared, white against the red.

“There, you have earned your three thousand francs very easily,” exclaimed Poiret, supporting Vautrin while Mlle. Michonneau slipped on the shirt again. “Ouf! how heavy he is,” he added, as he laid the convict down.

“Hush! Suppose there is a strong box here!” said the old maid briskly; her glances seemed to pierce the walls, she scrutinized every article of the furniture with greedy eyes.

“Could we find some excuse for opening that desk?”

“It mightn’t be right,” responded Poiret to this.

“Where is the harm? It is money stolen from all sorts of people, so it doesn’t belong to anyone now. But we haven’t time, there is the Vauquer.”

“Here is the ether,” said that lady. “I must say that this is an eventful day. Lord! that man can’t have had a stroke; he is as white as curds.”

“White as curds?” echoed Poiret.

“And his pulse is steady,” said the widow, laying her hand on his breast.

“Steady?” said the astonished Poiret.

“He is all right.”

“Do you think so?” asked Poiret.

“Lord! Yes, he looks as if he were sleeping. Sylvie has gone for a doctor. I say, Mlle. Michonneau, he is sniffing the ether. Pooh! it is only a spasm. His pulse is good. He is as strong as a Turk. Just look, Mademoiselle, what a fur tippet he has on his chest; that is the sort of man to live till he is a hundred. His wig holds on tightly, however. Dear me! it is glued on, and his own hair is red; that is why he wears a wig. They always say that red-haired people are either the worst or the best. Is he one of the good ones, I wonder?”

“Good to hang,” said Poiret.

“Round a pretty woman’s neck, you mean,” said Mlle. Michonneau, hastily. “Just go away, M. Poiret. It is a woman’s duty to nurse you men when you are ill. Besides, for all the good you are doing, you may as well take yourself off,” she added. “Mme. Vauquer and I will take great care of dear M. Vautrin.”

Poiret went out on tiptoe without a murmur, like a dog kicked out of the room by his master.

Rastignac had gone out for the sake of physical exertion; he wanted to breathe the air, he felt stifled. Yesterday evening he had meant to prevent the murder arranged for half-past eight that morning. What had happened? What ought he to do now? He trembled to think that he himself might be implicated. Vautrin’s coolness still further dismayed him.

“Yet, how if Vautrin should die without saying a word?” Rastignac asked himself.

He hurried along the alleys of the Luxembourg Gardens as if the hounds of justice were after him, and he already heard the baying of the pack.

“Well,” shouted Bianchon, “have you seen the Pilote?”

The Pilote was a Radical sheet, edited by M. Tissot. It came out several hours later than the morning papers, and was meant for the benefit of the country subscribers; for it brought the morning’s news into provincial districts twenty-four hours sooner than the ordinary local journals.

“There is a wonderful history in it,” said the house student of the Hôpital Cochin. “Young Taillefer called out Count Franchessini, of the Old Guard, and the Count put a couple of inches of steel into his forehead. And here is little Victorine one of the richest heiresses in Paris! If we had known that, eh? What a game of chance death is! They said Victorine was sweet on you; was there any truth in it?”

“Shut up, Bianchon; I shall never marry her. I am in love with a charming woman, and she is in love with me, so——”

“You said that as if you were screwing yourself up to be faithful to her. I should like to see the woman worth the sacrifice of Master Taillefer’s money!”

“Are all the devils of hell at my heels?” cried Rastignac.

“What is the matter with you? Are you mad? Give us your hand,” said Bianchon, “and let me feel your pulse. You are feverish.”

“Just go to Mother Vauquer’s,” said Rastignac; “that scoundrel Vautrin has dropped down like one dead.”

“Aha!” said Bianchon, leaving Rastignac to his reflections, “you confirm my suspicions, and now I mean to make sure for myself.”

The law student’s long walk was a memorable one for him. He made in some sort a survey of his conscience. After a close scrutiny, after hesitation and self-examination, his honor at any rate came out scathless from this sharp and terrible ordeal, like a bar of iron tested in the English fashion. He remembered old Goriot’s confidences of the evening before; he recollected the rooms taken for him in the Rue d’Artois, so that he might be near Delphine; and then he thought of his letter, and read it again and kissed it.

“Such a love is my anchor of safety,” he said to himself. “How the old man’s heart must have been wrung! He says nothing about all that he has been through; but who could not guess? Well, then, I will be like a son to him; his life shall be made happy. If she cares for me, she will often come to spend the day with him. That grand Comtesse de Restaud is a heartless thing; she would make her father into her hall porter. Dear Delphine! she is kinder to the old man; she is worthy to be loved. Ah! this evening I shall be very happy!”

He took out his watch and admired it.

“I have had nothing but success! If two people mean to love each other forever, they may help each other, and I can take this. Besides, I shall succeed, and I will repay her a hundredfold. There is nothing criminal in this liaison; nothing that could cause the most austere moralist to frown. How many respectable people contract similar unions! We deceive nobody; it is deception that makes a position humiliating. If you lie, you lower yourself at once. She and her husband have lived apart for a long while. Besides, how if I called upon that Alsatian to resign a wife whom he cannot make happy?”

Rastignac’s battle with himself went on for a long while; and though the scruples of youth inevitably gained the day, an irresistible curiosity led him, about half-past four, to return to the Maison Vauquer through the gathering dusk.

Bianchon had given Vautrin an emetic, reserving the contents of the stomach for chemical analysis at the hospital. Mlle. Michonneau’s officious alacrity had still further strengthened his suspicions of her. Vautrin, moreover, had recovered so quickly, that it was impossible not to suspect some plot against the leader of all frolics at the lodging-house. Vautrin was standing in front of the stove in the dining-room when Rastignac came in. All the lodgers were assembled sooner than usual by the news of young Taillefer’s duel. They were anxious to hear any detail about the affair, and to talk over the probable change in Victorine’s prospects. Old Goriot alone was absent, but the rest were chatting. No sooner did Eugène come into the room, than his eyes met the inscrutable gaze of Vautrin. It was the same look that had read his thoughts before—the look that had such power to waken evil thoughts in his heart. He shuddered.

“Well, dear boy,” said the escaped convict, “I am likely to cheat death for a good while yet. According to these ladies, I have had a stroke that would have felled an ox, and come off with flying colors.”

“A bull, you might say,” cried the widow.

“You really might be sorry to see me still alive,” said Vautrin in Rastignac’s car, thinking that he guessed the student’s thoughts. “You must be mighty sure of yourself.”

“Mlle. Michonneau was talking the day before yesterday about a gentleman nicknamed Trompe-la-Mort,” said Bianchon; “and, upon my word, that name would do very well for you.”

Vautrin seemed thunderstruck. He turned pale, and staggered back. He turned his magnetic glance, like a ray of vivid light, on Mlle. Michonneau; the old maid shrank and trembled under the influence of that strong will, and collapsed into a chair. The mask of good-nature had dropped from the convict’s face; from the unmistakable ferocity of that sinister look, Poiret felt that the old maid was in danger, and hastily stepped between them. None of the lodgers understood this scene in the least. They looked on in mute amazement. There was a pause. Just then there was a sound of tramping feet outside; there were soldiers there, it seemed, for there was a ring of several rifles on the pavement of the street. Collin was mechanically looking round the walls for a way of escape, when four men entered by way of the sitting-room.

“In the name of the King and the Law!” said an officer, but the words were almost lost in a murmur of astonishment.

Silence fell on the room. The lodgers made way for three of the men, who had each a hand on a cocked pistol in a side pocket. Two policemen, who followed the detectives, kept the entrance to the sitting-room, and two more appeared in the doorway that gave access to the staircase. A sound of footsteps came from the garden, and again the rifles of several soldiers rang on the cobble-stones under the window. All chance of salvation by flight was cut off for Trompe-la-Mort, to whom all eyes instinctively turned. The chief walked straight up to him, and commenced operations by giving him a sharp blow on the head, so that the wig fell off, and Collin’s face was revealed in all its ugliness. There was a terrible suggestion of strength mingled with cunning in the short, brick-red crop of hair, the whole head was in harmony with his powerful frame, and at that moment the fires of hell seemed to gleam from his eyes. In that flash the real Vautrin shone forth, revealed at once before them all; they understood his past, his present and future, his pitiless doctrines, his actions, the religion of his own good pleasure, the majesty with which his cynicism and contempt for mankind invested him, the physical strength of an organism proof against all trials. The blood flew to his face, and his eyes glared like the eyes of a wildcat. He started back with savage energy and a fierce growl that drew exclamations of alarm from the lodgers. At that leonine start the police caught at their pistols under cover of the general clamor. Collin saw the gleaming muzzles of the weapons, saw his danger, and instantly gave proof of a power of the highest order. There was something horrible and majestic in the spectacle of the sudden transformation in his face; he could only be compared to a caldron full of the steam that can send mountains flying, a terrific force dispelled in a moment by a drop of cold water. The drop of water that cooled his wrathful fury was a reflection that flashed across his brain like lightning. He began to smile, and looked down at his wig.

“You are not in the politest of humors to-day,” he remarked to the chief, and he held out his hands to the policemen with a jerk of his head.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “put on the bracelets or the handcuffs. I call on those present to witness that I make no resistance.”

A murmur of admiration ran through the room at the sudden outpouring like fire and lava flood from this human volcano, and its equally sudden cessation.

“There’s a sell for you, master crusher,” the convict added, looking at the famous director of police.

“Come, strip!” said he of the Petite Rue Sainte-Anne, contemptuously.

“Why?” asked Collin. “There are ladies present; I deny nothing, and surrender.”

He paused and looked round the room like an orator who is about to overwhelm his audience.

“Take this down, Daddy Lachapelle,” he went on, addressing a little, white-haired old man who had seated himself at the end of the table; and after drawing a printed form from a portfolio, was proceeding to draw up a document. “I acknowledge myself to be Jacques Collin, otherwise known as Trompe-la-Mort, condemned to twenty years’ penal servitude, and I have just proved that I have come fairly by my nickname.—If I had as much as raised my hand,” he went on, addressing the other lodgers, “those three sneaking wretches yonder would have drawn claret on Mamma Vauquer’s domestic hearth. The rogues have laid their heads together to set a trap for me.”

Mme. Vauquer felt sick and faint at these words.”

“Good Lord!” she cried, “this does give one a turn; and me at the Gaîté with him only last night!” she said to Sylvie.

“Summon your philosophy, mamma,” Collin resumed. “Is it a misfortune to have sat in my box at the Gaîté yesterday evening? After all, are you better than we are? The brand upon our shoulders is less shameful than the brand set on your hearts, you flabby members of a society rotten to the core. Not the best man among you could stand up to me.” His eyes rested upon Rastignac, to whom he spoke with a pleasant smile that seemed strangely at variance with the savage expression in his eyes.—“Our little bargain still holds good, dear boy; you can accept any time you like! Do you understand?” And he sang—

  • “A charming girl is my Fanchette
  • In her simplicity.”
  • “Don’t you trouble yourself,” he went on; “I can get in my money. They are too much afraid of me to swindle me.”

    The convicts’ prison, its language and customs, its sudden sharp transitions from the humorous to the horrible, its appalling grandeur, its triviality and its dark depths, were all revealed in turn by the speaker’s discourse; he seemed to be no longer a man, but the type and mouthpiece of a degenerate race, a brutal, supple, clear-headed race of savages. In one moment Collin became the poet of an inferno, wherein all thoughts and passions that move human nature (save repentance) find a place. He looked about him like a fallen archangel who is for war to the end. Rastignac lowered his eyes, and acknowledged this kinship claimed by crime as an expiation of his own evil thoughts.

    “Who betrayed me?” said Collin, and his terrible eyes traveled round the room. Suddenly they rested on Mlle. Michonneau.

    “It was you, old cat!” he said. “That sham stroke of apoplexy was your doing, lynx eyes!… Two words from me, and your throat would be cut in less than a week; but I forgive you, I am a Christian. You did not sell me either. But who did?—— Aha! you may rummage upstairs,” he shouted, hearing the police officers opening his cupboards and taking possession of his effects. “The nest is empty, the birds flew away yesterday, and you will be none the wiser. My ledgers are here,” he said, tapping his forehead. “Now I know who sold me! It could only be that blackguard Fil-de-Soie. That is who it was, old catchpoll, eh?” he said, turning to the chief. “It was timed so neatly to get the bank-notes up above there. There is nothing left for you—spies! As for Fil-de-Soie, he will be under the daisies in less than a fortnight, even if you were to tell off the whole force to protect him. How much did you give the Michonnette?” he asked of the police officer. “A thousand crowns? Oh you Ninon in decay, Pompadour in tatters, Venus of the graveyard, I was worth more than that! If you had given me warning, you should have had six thousand francs. Ah! you had no suspicion of that, old trafficker in flesh and blood, or I should have had the preference. Yes, I would have given six thousand francs to save myself an inconvenient journey and some loss of money,” he said, as they fastened the handcuffs on his wrists. “These folks will amuse themselves by dragging out this business till the end of time to keep me idle! If they were to send me straight to jail, I should soon be back at my old tricks in spite of the duffers at the Quai des Orfèvres. Down yonder they would all turn themselves inside out to help their general—their good Trompe-la-Mort—to get clear away. Is there a single one among you that can say, as I can, that he has ten thousand brothers ready to do anything for him?” he asked proudly. “There is some good there,” he said, tapping his heart; “I have never betrayed anyone!—Look you here, you slut,” he said to the old maid, “they are all afraid of me, do you see? but the sight of you turns them sick. Rake in your gains.”

    He was silent for a moment, and looked round at the lodgers’ faces.

    “What dolts you are, all of you! Have you never seen a convict before? A convict of Collin’s stamp, whom you see before you, is a man less weak-kneed than others; he lifts up his voice against the colossal fraud of the Social Contract, as Jean Jacques did, whose pupil he is proud to declare himself. In short, I stand here single-handed against a Government and a whole subsidized machinery of tribunals and police, and I am a match for them all.”

    “Ye Gods!” cried the painter, “what a magnificent sketch one might make of him!”

    “Look here, you gentleman-in-waiting to his highness the gibbet, master of ceremonies to the widow” (a nickname full of somber poetry, given by prisoners to the guillotine), “be a good fellow, and tell me if it really was Fil-de-Soie who sold me. I don’t want him to suffer for someone else, that would not be fair.”

    But before the chief had time to answer, the rest of the party returned from making their investigations upstairs. Everything had been opened and inventoried. A few words passed between them and the chief, and the official preliminaries were complete.

    “Gentlemen,” said Collin, addressing the lodgers, “they will take me away directly. You have all made my stay among you very agreeable, and I shall look back upon it with gratitude. Receive my adieux, and permit me to send you figs from Provence.”

    He advanced a step or two, and then turned to look once more at Rastignac.

    “Good-by, Eugène,” he said, in a sad and gentle tone, a strange transition from his previous rough and stern manner. “If you should be hard up, I have left you a devoted friend,” and, in spite of his shackles, he managed to assume a posture of defense, called, “One! two!” like a fencing master, and lunged. “If anything goes wrong, apply in that quarter. Man and money, all at your service.”

    The strange speaker’s manner was sufficiently burlesque, so that no one but Rastignac knew that there was a serious meaning underlying the pantomime.

    As soon as the police, soldiers, and detectives had left the house, Sylvie, who was rubbing her mistress’s temples with vinegar, looked round at the bewildered lodgers.

    “Well,” said she, “he was a man, he was, for all that.”

    Her words broke the spell. Everyone had been too much excited, too much moved by very various feelings, to speak. But now the lodgers began to look at each other, and then all eyes were turned at once on Mlle. Michonneau, a thin, shriveled, dead-alive, mummy-like figure crouching by the stove; her eyes were downcast, as if she feared that the green eye-shade could not shut out the expression of those faces from her. This figure and the feeling of repulsion she had so long excited were explained all at once. A smothered murmur filled the room; it was so unanimous, that it seemed as if the same feeling the loathing had pitched all the voices in one key. Mlle. Michonneau heard it, and did not stir. It was Bianchon who was the first to move; he bent over his neighbor, and said in a low voice, “If that creature is going to stop here, and have dinner with us, I shall clear out.”