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

Paras. 1500–1599

“How are you now?” she asked.

“Quite comfortable. Do not worry about me; I shall get up presently. Don’t stay with me, children; go, go and be happy.”

Eugène went back with Delphine as far as her door; but he was not easy about Goriot, and would not stay to dinner, as she proposed. He wanted to be back at the Maison Vauquer. Old Goriot had left his room, and was just sitting down to dinner as he came in. Bianchon had placed himself where he could watch the old man carefully; and when the old vermicelli maker took up his square of bread and smelt it to find out the quality of the flour, the medical student, studying him closely, saw that the action was purely mechanical, and shook his head.

“Just come and sit over here, hospitaler of Cochin,” said Eugène.

Bianchon went the more willingly because his change of place brought him next to the old lodger.

“What is wrong with him?” asked Rastignac.

“It is all up with him, or I am much mistaken! Something very extraordinary must have taken place; he looks to me as if he were in imminent danger of serious apoplexy. The lower part of his face is composed enough, but the upper part is drawn and distorted. Then there is that peculiar look about the eyes that indicates an effusion of serum in the brain; they look as though they were covered with a film of fine dust, do you notice? I shall know more about it by to-morrow morning.”

“Is there any cure for it?”

“None. It might be possible to stave death off for a time if a way could be found of setting up a reaction in the lower extremities; but if the symptoms do not abate by to-morrow evening, it will be all over with him, poor old fellow! Do you know what has happened to bring this on? There must have been some violent shock, and his mind has given away.”

“Yes, there was,” said Rastignac, remembering how the two daughters had struck blow on blow at their father’s heart.

“But Delphine at any rate loves her father,” he said to himself.

That evening at the opera Rastignac chose his words carefully, lest he should give Mme. de Nucingen needless alarm.

“Do not be anxious about him,” she said, however, as soon as Eugène began, “our, father has really a strong constitution, but this morning we gave him a shock. Our whole fortunes were in peril, so the thing was serious, you see. I could not live if your affection did not make me insensible to troubles that I should once have thought too hard to bear. At this moment I have but one fear left but one misery to dread—to lose the love that has made me feel so glad to live. Everything else is as nothing to me compared with your love; I care for nothing else, for you are all the world to me. If I feel glad to be rich, it is for your sake. To my shame be it said, I think of my lover before my father. Do you ask why? I cannot tell you, but all my life is in you. My father gave me a heart, but you have taught it to beat. The whole world may condemn me; what does it matter if I stand acquitted in your eyes, for you have no right to think ill of me for the faults which a tyrannous love has forced me to commit for you! Do you think me an unnatural daughter? Oh, no! no one could help loving such a dear kind father as ours. But how could I hide the inevitable consequences of our miserable marriages from him? Why did he allow us to marry when he did? Was it not his duty to think for us and foresee for us? To-day I know he suffers as much as we do, but how can it be helped? And as for comforting him we could not comfort him in the least. Our resignation would give him more pain and hurt him far more than complaints and upbraidings. There are times in life when everything turns to bitterness.”

Eugène was silent; the artless and sincere outpouring made an impression on him.

Parisian women are often false, intoxicated with vanity, selfish and self-absorbed, frivolous and shallow; yet of all women, when they love, they sacrifice their personal feelings to their passion; they rise but so much the higher for all the pettiness overcome in their nature, and become sublime. Then Eugène was struck by the profound discernment and insight displayed by this woman in judging of natural affection, when a privileged affection has separated and set her at a distance apart. Mme. de Nucingen was piqued by the silence.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

“I am thinking about what you said just now. Hitherto I have always felt sure that I cared far more for you than you did for me.”

She smiled, and would not give way to the happiness she felt, lest their talk should exceed the conventional limits of propriety. She had never heard the vibrating tones of a sincere and youthful love; a few more words and she feared for her self-control.

“Eugène,” she said, changing the conversation, “I wonder whether you know what has been happening? All Paris will go to Mme. de Beauséant’s to-morrow. The Rochefides and the Marquis d’Ajuda have agreed to keep the matter a profound secret, but to-morrow the King will sign the marriage-contract, and your poor cousin the Vicomtesse knows nothing of it as yet. She cannot put off her ball, and the Marquis will not be there. People are wondering what will happen?”

“The world laughs at baseness and connives at it. But this will kill Mme. de Beauséant.”

“Oh, no,” said Delphine, smiling, “you do not know that kind of woman. Why, all Paris will be there, and so shall I; I ought to go there for your sake.”

“Perhaps, after all, it is one of those absurd reports that people set in circulation here.”

“We shall know the truth to-morrow.”

Eugène did not return to the Maison Vauquer. He could not forego the pleasure of occupying his new rooms in the Rue d’Artois. Yesterday evening he had been obliged to leave Delphine soon after midnight, but that night it was Delphine who stayed with him until two o’clock in the morning. He rose late, and waited for Mme. de Nucingen, who came about noon to breakfast with him. Youth snatches eagerly at these rosy moments of happiness, and Eugène had almost forgotten Goriot’s existence. The pretty things that surrounded him were growing familiar; this domestication in itself was one long festival for him, and Mme. de Nucingen was there to glorify it all by her presence. It was four o’clock before they thought of Goriot, and of how he had looked forward to the new life in that house. Eugène said that the old man ought to be moved at once, lest he should grow too ill to move. He left Delphine, and hurried back to the lodging-house. Neither old Goriot nor young Bianchon was in the dining-room with the others.

“Aha!” said the painter as Eugène came in, “Father Goriot has broken down at last. Bianchon is upstairs with him. One of his daughters—the Comtesse de Restaurama—came to see the old gentleman, and he would get up and go out, and made himself worse. Society is about to lose one of its brightest ornaments.”

Rastignac sprang to the staircase.

“Hey! M. Eugène!”

“M. Eugène, the mistress is calling you,” shouted Sylvie.

“It is this, sir,” said the widow. “You and M. Goriot should by rights have moved out on the 15th of February. That was three days ago; to-day is the 18th, I ought really to be paid a month in advance; but if you will engage to pay for both, I shall be quite satisfied.”

“Why can’t you trust him?”

“Trust him, indeed! If the old gentleman went off his head and died, those daughters of his would not pay me a farthing, and his things won’t fetch ten francs. This morning he went out with all the spoons and forks he has left, I don’t know why. He had got himself up to look quite young, and—Lord, forgive me—but I thought he had rouge on his cheeks; he looked quite young again.”

“I will be responsible,” said Eugène, shuddering with horror, for he foresaw the end.

He climbed the stairs and reached old Goriot’s room. The old man was tossing on his bed. Bianchon was with him.

“Good-evening, father,” said Eugène.

The old man turned his glassy eyes on him, smiled gently, and said—

“How is she?”

“She is quite well. But how are you?”

“There is nothing much the matter.”

“Don’t tire him,” said Bianchon, drawing Eugène into a corner of the room.

“Well?” said Rastignac.

“Nothing but a miracle can save him now. Serious congestion has set in; I have put on mustard plasters, and luckily he can feel them, they are acting.”

“Is it possible to move him?”

“Quite out of the question. He must stay where he is, and be kept as quiet as possible——”

“Dear Bianchon,” said Eugène, “we will nurse him between us.”

“I have had the head physician round from my hospital to see him.”

“And what did he say?”

“He will give no opinion till to-morrow evening. He promised to look in again at the end of the day. Unluckily, the preposterous creature must needs go and do something foolish this morning; he will not say what it was. He is as obstinate as a mule. As soon as I begin to talk to him he pretends not to hear, and lies as if he were asleep instead of answering, or if he opens his eyes he begins to groan. Some time this morning he went out on foot in the streets, nobody knows where he went, and he took everything that he had of any value with him. He has been driving some confounded bargain, and it has been too much for his strength. One of his daughters has been here.”

“Was it the Countess?” asked Eugène. “A tall, dark-haired woman, with large bright eyes, slender figure, and little feet?”


“Leave him to me for a bit,” said Rastignac. “I will make him confess; he will tell me all about it.”

“And meanwhile I will get my dinner. But try not to excite him; there is still some hope left.”

“All right.”

“How they will enjoy themselves to-morrow,” said old Goriot when they were alone. “They are going to a grand ball.”

“What were you doing this morning, papa, to make yourself so poorly this evening that you have to stop in bed?”


“Did not Anastasie come to see you?” demanded Rastignac.

“Yes,” said old Goriot.

“Well, then, don’t keep anything from me. What more did she want of you?”

“Oh, she was very miserable,” he answered, gathering up all his strength to speak. “It was this way, my boy. Since that affair of the diamonds, Nasie has not had a penny of her own. For this ball she had ordered a golden gown like a setting for a jewel! Her mantua maker, a woman without a conscience, would not give her credit, so Nasie’s waiting-woman advanced a thousand francs on account. Poor Nasie! reduced to such shifts! It cut me to the heart to think of it! But when Nasie’s maid saw how things were between her master and mistress, she was afraid of losing her money, and came to an understanding with the dressmaker, and the woman refuses to send the ball-dress until the money is paid. The gown is ready, and the ball is to-morrow night; Nasie was in despair. She wanted to borrow my forks and spoons to pawn them. Her husband is determined that she shall go and wear the diamonds, so as to contradict the stories that are told all over Paris. How can she go to that heartless scoundrel and say, ‘I owe a thousand francs to my dress-maker; pay her for me’? She cannot. I saw that myself. Delphine will be there too in a superb toilet, and Anatasie ought not to be outshone by her youngest sister. And then—she was drowned in tears, poor girl! I felt so humbled yesterday when I had not the twelve thousand francs, that I would have given the rest of my miserable life to wipe out that wrong. You see, I could have borne anything once, but latterly this want of money has broken my heart. Oh! I did not do it by halves; I titivated myself up a bit, and went out and sold my spoons and forks and buckles for six hundred francs; then I went to old Daddy Gobseck, and sold a year’s interest in my annuity for four hundred francs down. Pshaw! I can live on dry bread, as I did when I was a young man; if I have done it before, I can do it again. My Nasie shall have one happy evening, at any rate. She shall be smart. The bank-note for a thousand francs is here under my pillow; it warms me to have it lying there under my head, for it is going to make my poor Nasie happy. She can turn that bad girl Victorie out of the house. A servant that cannot trust her mistress, did anyone ever hear the like! I shall be quite well to-morrow. Nasie is coming at ten o’clock. They must not think that I am ill, or they will not go to the ball; they will stop and take care of me. To-morrow Nasie will come and hold me in her arms as if I were one of her children; her kisses will make me well again. After all, I might have spent the thousand francs on physic; I would far rather give them to my little Nasie, who can charm all the pain away. At any rate, I am some comfort to her in her misery; and that makes up for my unkindness in buying an annuity. She is in the depths, and I cannot draw her out of them now. Oh! I will go into business again, I will buy wheat in Odessa; out there, wheat fetches a quarter of the price it sells for here. There is a law against the importation of grain, but the good folk who made the law forgot to prohibit the introduction of wheat products and food stuffs made from corn. Hey! hey!… That struck me this morning. There is a fine trade to be done in starch.”

Eugène, watching the old man’s face, thought that his friend was light-headed.

“Come,” he said, “do not talk any more, you must rest—” Just then Bianchon came up, and Eugène went down to dinner.

The two students sat up with him that night, relieving each other in turn. Bianchon brought up his medical books and studied; Eugène wrote letters home to his mother and sisters. Next morning Bianchon thought the symptoms more hopeful, but the patient’s condition demanded continual attention, which the two students alone were willing to give—a task impossible to describe in the squeamish phraseology of the epoch. Leeches must be applied to the wasted body; the poultices and hot foot-baths, and other details of the treatment, required the physical strength and devotion of the two young men. Mme. de Restaud did not come; but she sent a messenger for the money.

“I expected she would come herself, but it would have been a pity for her to come, she would have been anxious about me,” said the father, and to all appearance he was well content.

At seven o’clock that evening Thérèse came with a letter from Delphine.

  • “What are you doing, dear friend? I have been loved for a very little while, and am I neglected already? In the confidences of heart and heart, I have learned to know your soul—you are too noble not to be faithful forever, for you know that love with all its infinite subtle changes of feeling is never the same. Once you said, as we were listening to the Prayer in Mosè in Egitto, ‘For some it is the monotony of a single note; for others, it is the infinite of sound.’ Remember that I am expecting you this evening to take me to Mme. de Beauséant’s ball. Everyone knows now that the King signed M. d’Ajuda’s marriage-contract this morning, and the poor Vicomtesse knew nothing of it until two o’clock this afternoon. All Paris will flock to her house, of course, just as a crowd fills the Place de Grève to see an execution. It is horrible, is it not, to go out of curiosity to see if she will hide her anguish, and whether she will die courageously? I certainly should not go, my friend, if I had been at her house before; but, of course, she will not receive society any more after this, and all my efforts would be in vain. My position is a very unusual one, and besides, I am going there partly on your account. I am waiting for you. If you are not beside me in less than two hours, I do not know whether I could forgive such treason.”
  • Rastignac took up a pen and wrote—

  • “I am waiting till the doctor comes to know if there is any hope of your father’s life. He is lying dangerously ill. I will come and bring you the news, but I am afraid it may be a sentence of death. When I come you can decide whether you can go to the ball.—Yours a thousand times.”
  • At half-past eight the doctor arrived. He did not take a very hopeful view of the case, but thought that there was no immediate danger. Improvements and relapses might be expected, and the good man’s life and reason hung in the balance.

    “It would be better for him to die at once,” the doctor said as he took leave.

    Eugène left Goriot to Bianchon’s care, and went to carry the sad news to Mme. de Nucingen. Family feeling lingered in her, and this must put an end for the present to her plans of amusement.

    “Tell her to enjoy her evening as if nothing had happened,” cried Goriot. He had been lying in a sort of stupor, but he suddenly sat upright as Eugène went out.

    Eugène, half heartbroken, entered Delphine’s room. Her hair had been dressed; she wore her dancing slippers; she had only to put on her ball-dress; but when the artist is giving the finishing stroke to his creation, the last touches require more time than the whole groundwork of the picture.

    “Why! you are not dressed!” she cried.

    “Madame, your father——”

    “My father again!” she exclaimed, breaking in upon him. “You need not teach me what is due to my father. I have known my father this long while. Not a word, Eugène. I will hear what you have to say when you are dressed. My carriage is waiting, take it, go round to your rooms and dress. Thérèse has put out everything in readiness for you. Come back as soon as you can; we will talk about my father on the way to Mme. de Beauséant’s. We must go early; if we have to wait our turn in a row of carriages, we shall be lucky if we get there by eleven o’clock.”


    “Quick! not a word!” she cried, darting into her dressing room for a necklace.

    “Do go, M. Eugène, or you will vex Madame,” said Thérèse, hurrying him away; and Eugène was too horror-stricken by this elegant parricide to resist.

    He went to his rooms and dressed, sad, thoughtful, and dispirited. The world of Paris was like an ocean of mud for him just then; and it seemed that whoever set foot in that black mire must needs sink into it up to the chin.

    “Their crimes are paltry,” said Eugène to himself. “Vautrin was greater.”

    He had seen society in its three great phases—Obedience, Struggle, and Revolt; the Family, the World, and Vautrin; and he hesitated in his choice. Obedience was dull, Revolt impossible, Struggle hazardous. His thoughts wandered back to the home circle. He thought of the quiet uneventful life, the pure happiness of the days spent among those who loved him there. Those loving and beloved beings passed their lives in obedience to the natural laws of the hearth, and in that obedience found a deep and constant serenity, unvexed by torments such as these. Yet, for all his good impulses, he could not bring himself to make profession of the religion of pure souls to Delphine, nor to prescribe the duties of piety to her in the name of love. His education had begun to bear its fruits; he loved selfishly already. Besides, his tact had discovered to him the real nature of Delphine; he divined instinctively that she was capable of stepping over her father’s corpse to go to the ball; and within himself he felt that he had neither the strength of mind to play the part of mentor, nor the strength of character to vex her, nor the courage to leave her to go alone.

    “She would never forgive me for putting her in the wrong over it,” he said to himself. Then he turned the doctor’s dictum over in his mind; he tried to believe that Goriot was not so dangerously ill as he had imagined, and ended by collecting together a sufficient quantity of traitorous excuses for Delphine’s conduct. She did not know how ill her father was; the kind old man himself would have made her go to the ball if she had gone to see him. So often it happens that this one or that stands condemned by the social laws that govern family relations; and yet there are peculiar circumstances in the case, differences of temperament, divergent interests, innumerable complications of family life that excuse the apparent offense.

    Eugène did not wish to see too clearly; he was ready to sacrifice his conscience to his mistress. Within the last few days his whole life had undergone a change. Woman had entered into his world and thrown it into chaos, family claims dwindled away before her; she had appropriated all his being to her uses. Rastignac and Delphine found each other at a crisis in their lives when their union gave them the most poignant bliss. Their passion, so long proved, had only gained in strength by the gratified desire that often extinguishes passion. This woman was his, and Eugène recognized that not until then had he loved her; perhaps love is only gratitude for pleasure. This woman, vile or sublime, he adored for the pleasures she had brought as her dower; and Delphine loved Rastignac as Tantalus would have loved some angel who had satisfied his hunger and quenched the burning thirst in his parched throat.

    “Well,” said Mme. de Nucingen when he came back in evening dress, “how is my father?”

    “Very dangerously ill,” he answered; “if you will grant me a proof of your affection, we will just go in to see him on the way.”

    “Very well,” she said. “Yes, but afterwards. Dear Eugène, do be nice, and don’t preach to me. Come.”

    They set out. Eugène said nothing for a while.

    “What is it now?” she asked.

    “I can hear the death-rattle in your father’s throat,” he said, almost angrily. And with the hot indignation of youth, he told the story of Mme. de Restaud’s vanity and cruelty, of her father’s final act of self-sacrifice, that had brought about this struggle between life and death, of the price that had been paid for Anastasie’s golden embroideries. Delphine cried.

    “I shall look frightful,” she thought. She dried her tears.

    “I will nurse my father; I will not leave his bedside,” she said aloud.

    “Ah! now you are as I would have you,” exclaimed Rastignac.

    The lamps of five hundred carriages lit up the darkness about the Hôtel de Beauséant. A gendarme in all the glory of his uniform stood on either side of the brightly lighted gateway. The great world was flocking thither that night in its eager curiosity to see the great lady at the moment of her fall, and the rooms on the ground floor were already full to overflowing, when Mme. de Nucingen and Rastignac appeared. Never since Louis XIV. tore her lover away from La grande Mademoiselle, and the whole Court hastened to visit that unfortunate princess, had a disastrous love affair made such a sensation in Paris. But the youngest daughter of the almost royal house of Burgundy had risen proudly above her pain, and moved till the last moment like a queen in this world—its vanities had always been valueless for her, save in so far as they contributed to the triumph of her passion. The salons were filled with the most beautiful women in Paris, resplendent in their toilets, and radiant with smiles. Ministers and ambassadors, the most distinguished men at Court, men bedizened with decorations, stars, and ribbons, men who bore the most illustrious names in France, had gathered about the Vicomtesse.

    The music of the orchestra vibrated in wave after wave of sound from the golden ceiling of the palace, now made desolate for its queen.

    Mme. de Beauséant stood at the door of the first salon to receive the guests who were styled her friends. She was dressed in white, and wore no ornament in the plaits of hair braided about her head; her face was calm; there was no sign there of pride, nor of pain, nor of joy that she did not feel. No one could read her soul; she stood there like some Niobe carved in marble. For a few intimate friends there was a tinge of satire in her smile; but no scrutiny saw any change in her, nor had she looked otherwise in the days of the glory of her happiness. The most callous of her guests admired her as young Rome applauded some gladiator who could die smiling. It seemed as if society had adorned itself for a last audience of one of its sovereigns.

    “I was afraid that you would not come,” she said to Rastignac.

    “Madame,” he said, in an unsteady voice, taking her speech as a reproach, “I shall be the last to go, that is why I am here.”

    “Good,” she said, and she took his hand. “You are perhaps the only one that I can trust here among all these. Oh, my friend, when you love, love a woman whom you are sure that you can love always. Never forsake a woman.”

    She took Rastignac’s arm, and went towards a sofa in the card-room.

    “I want you to go to the Marquis,” she said. “Jacques, my footman, will go with you; he has a letter that you will take. I am asking the Marquis to give my letters back to me. He will give them all up, I like to think that. When you have my letters, go up to my room with them. Someone shall bring me word.”

    She rose to go to meet the Duchesse de Langeais, her most intimate friend, who had come like the rest of the world.

    Rastignac went. He asked for the Marquis d’Ajuda at the Hôtel Rochefide, feeling certain that the latter would be spending his evening there, and so it proved. The Marquis went to his own house with Rastignac, and gave a casket to the student, saying as he did so, “They are all there.”