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

Paras. 1700–1816

Rastignac rushed down the stairs, and drove off to the Rue du Helder. The awful scene through which he had just passed quickened his imagination, and he grew fiercely indignant. He reached Mme. de Restaud’s house only to be told by the servant that his mistress could see no one.

“But I have brought a message from her father, who is dying,” Rastignac told the man.

“The Count has given us the strictest orders, sir——”

“If it is M. de Restaud who has given the orders, tell him that his father-in-law is dying, and that I am here, and must speak with him at once.”

The man went.

Eugène waited for a long while. “Perhaps her father is dying at this moment,” he thought.

Then the man came back, and Eugène followed him to the little drawing-room. M. de Restaud was standing before the fireless grate, and did not ask his visitor to seat himself.

“M. le Comte,” said Rastignac, “M. Goriot, your father-in-law, is lying at the point of death in a squalid den in the Latin Quarter. He has not a penny to pay for firewood; he is expected to die at any moment, and keeps calling for his daughter——”

“I feel very little affection for M. Goriot, sir, as you probably are aware,” the Count answered coolly. “His character has been compromised in connection with Mme. de Restaud; he is the author of the misfortunes that have embittered my life and troubled my peace of mind. It is a matter of perfect indifference to me if he lives or dies. Now you know my feelings with regard to him. Public opinion may blame me, but I care nothing for public opinion. Just now I have other and much more important matters to think about than the things that fools and chatterers may say about me. As for Mme. de Restaud, she cannot leave the house; she is no condition to do so. And, besides, I shall not allow her to leave it. Tell her father that as soon as she has done her duty by her husband and child she shall go to see him. If she has any love for her father, she can be free to go to him, if she chooses, in a few seconds; it lies entirely with her——”

“M. le Comte, it is no business of mine to criticize your conduct; you can do as you please with your wife, but may I count upon your keeping your word with me? Well, then, promise me to tell her that her father has not twenty-four hours to live; that he looks in vain for her, and has cursed her already as he lies on his deathbed,—that is all I ask.”

“You can tell her yourself,” the Count answered, impressed by the thrill of indignation in Eugène’s voice.

The Count led the way to the room where his wife usually sat. She was drowned in tears, and lay crouching in the depths of an arm-chair, as if she were tired of life and longed to die. It was piteous to see her. Before venturing to look at Rastignac, she glanced at her husband in evident and abject terror that spoke of complete prostration of body and mind; she seemed crushed by a tyranny both mental and physical. The Count jerked his head towards her; she construed this as a permission to speak.

“I heard all that you said, Monsieur. Tell my father that if he knew all he would forgive me.… I did not think there was such torture in the world as this; it is more than I can endure, Monsieur!—But I will not give way as long as I live,” she said, turning to her husband. “I am a mother.—Tell my father that I have never sinned against him in spite of appearances!” she cried aloud in her despair.

Eugène bowed to the husband and wife; he guessed the meaning of the scene, and that this was a terrible crisis in the Countess’s life. M. de Restaud’s manner had told him that his errand was a fruitless one; he saw that Anastasie had no longer any liberty of action. He came away mazed and bewildered, and hurried to Mme. de Nucingen. Delphine was in bed.

“Poor dear Eugène, I am ill,” she said. “I caught cold after the ball, and I am afraid of pneumonia. I am waiting for the doctor to come.”

“If you were at death’s door,” Eugène broke in, “you must be carried somehow to your father. He is calling for you. If you could hear the faintest of those cries, you would not feel ill any longer.”

“Eugène, I dare say my father is not quite so ill as you say; but I cannot bear to do anything that you do not approve, so I will do just as you wish. As for him, he would die of grief I know if I went out to see him and brought on a dangerous illness. Well, I will go as soon as I have seen the doctor.—Ah!” she cried out, “you are not wearing your watch, how is that?”

Eugène reddened.

“Eugène, Eugène! if you have sold it already or lost it… Oh! it would be very wrong of you!”

The student bent over Delphine and said in her ear, “Do you want to know? Very well, then, you shall know. Your father has nothing left to pay for the shroud that they will lay him in this evening. Your watch has been pawned, for I had nothing either.”

Delphine sprang out of bed, ran to her desk, and took out her purse. She gave it to Eugène, and rang the bell, crying—

“I will go, I will go at once, Eugène. Leave me, I will dress. Why, I should be an unnatural daughter! Go back; I will be there before you.—Thérèse,” she called to the waiting-woman, “ask M. de Nucingen to come upstairs at once and speak to me.”

Eugène was almost happy when he reached the Rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève; he was so glad to bring the news to the dying man that one of his daughters was coming. He fumbled in Delphine’s purse for money, so as to dismiss the cab at once; and discovered that the young, beautiful, and wealthy woman of fashion had only seventy francs in her private purse.

He climbed the stairs and found Bianchon supporting Goriot, while the house surgeon from the hospital was applying moxas to the patient’s back—under the direction of the physician, it was the last expedient of science, and it was tried in vain.

“Can you feel them?” asked the physician. But Goriot had caught sight of Rastignac, and answered, “They are coming, are they not?”

“There is hope yet,” said the surgeon; “he can speak.”

“Yes,” said Eugène, “Delphine is coming.”

“Oh! that is nothing!” said Bianchon; “he has been talking about his daughters all the time. He calls for them as a man impaled calls for water, they say——”

“We may as well give up,” said the physician, addressing the surgeon. “Nothing more can be done now; the case is hopeless.”

Bianchon and the house surgeon stretched the dying man out again on his loathsome bed.

“But the sheets ought to be changed,” added the physician.

“Even if there is no hope left, something is due to human nature. I shall come back again, Bianchon,” he said, turning to the medical student. “If he complains again, rub some laudanum over the diaphragm.”

He went, and the house surgeon went with him.

“Come, Eugène, pluck up heart, my boy,” said Bianchon, as soon as they were alone; “we must set about changing his sheets, and put him into a clean shirt. Go and tell Sylvie to bring up some sheets and come and help us to make the bed.”

Eugène went downstairs, and found Mme. Vauquer engaged in setting the table; Sylvie was helping her. Eugène had scarcely opened his mouth before the widow walked up to him with the acidulous sweet smile of a cautious shopkeeper who is anxious neither to lose money nor to offend a customer.

“My dear M. Eugène,” she said, when he had spoken, “you know quite as well as I do that old Goriot has not a brass farthing left. If you give out clean linen for a man who is just going to turn up his eyes, you are not likely to see your sheets again, for one is sure to be wanted to wrap him in. Now, you owe me a hundred and forty-four francs as it is, add forty francs to that for the pair of sheets, and then there are several little things, besides the candle that Sylvie will give you; altogether, it will all mount up to at least two hundred francs, which is more than a poor widow like me can afford to lose. Lord! now, M. Eugène, look at it fairly. I have lost quite enough in these five days since this run of ill-luck set in for me. I would rather than ten crowns that the old gentleman had moved out as you said. It sets the other lodgers against the house. It would not take much to make me send him to the workhouse. In short, just put yourself in my place. I have to think of my establishment first, for I have my own living to make.”

Eugène hurried up to Goriot’s room.

“Bianchon,” he cried, “the money or the watch?”

“There it is on the table, or the three hundred and sixty odd francs that are left out of it. I paid up all the old scores out of it before they let me have the things. The pawn ticket lies there under the money.”

Rastignac hurried downstairs.

“Here, Madame,” he said in disgust, “let us square accounts. M. Goriot will not stay much longer in your house, nor shall I——”

“Yes, he will go out feet foremost, poor old gentleman,” she said, counting the francs with a half-facetious, half-lugubrious expression.

“Let us get this over,” said Rastignac.

“Sylvie, look out some sheets, and go upstairs to help the gentleman.”

“You won’t forget Sylvie,” said Mme. Vauquer in Eugène’s ear; “she has been sitting up these two nights.”

As soon as Eugène’s back was turned, the old woman hurried after her handmaid.

“Take the sheets that have had the sides turned into the middle, number 7. Lord! they are plenty good enough for a corpse,” she said in Sylvie’s ear.

Eugène, by this time, was part of the way upstairs, and did not overhear the elderly economist.

“Quick,” said Bianchon, “let us change his shirt. Hold him upright.”

Eugène went to the head of the bed and supported the dying man, while Bianchon drew off his shirt; and then Goriot made a movement as if he tried to clutch something to his breast, uttering a low inarticulate moaning the while, like some dumb animal in mortal pain.

“Ah yes!” cried Bianchon. “It is the little locket and the chain made of hair that he wants; we took it off a while ago when we put the blisters on him. Poor fellow! he must have it again. There it lies on the chimney-piece.”

Eugène went to the chimney-piece and found a little plait of faded golden hair—Mme. Goriot’s hair, no doubt. He read the names on the little round locket, ANASTASIE on the one side, DELPHINE on the other. It was the symbol of his own heart that the father always wore on his breast. The curls of hair inside the locket were so fine and soft that it was plain they had been taken from two childish heads. When the old man felt the locket once more, his chest heaved with a long deep sigh of satisfaction, like a groan. It was something terrible to see, for it seemed as if the last quiver of the nerves were laid bare to their eyes, the last communication of sense to the mysterious point within whence our sympathies come and whither they go. A delirious joy lighted up the distorted face. The terrific and vivid force of the feeling that had survived the power of thought made such an impression on the students, that the dying man felt their hot tears falling on him, and gave a shrill cry of delight.

“Nasie! Fifine!”

“There is life in him yet,” said Bianchon.

“What does he go on living for?” said Sylvie.

“To suffer,” answered Rastignac.

Bianchon made a sign to his friend to follow his example, knelt down and passed his arms under the sick man, and Rastignac on the other side did the same, so that Sylvie, standing in readiness, might draw the sheet from beneath and replace it with the one that she had brought. Those tears, no doubt, had misled Goriot; for he gathered up all his remaining strength in a last effort, stretched out his hands, groped for the students’ heads, and as his fingers caught convulsively at their hair, they heard a faint whisper—

“Ah! my angels!”

Two words, two inarticulate murmurs, shaped into words by the soul which fled forth with them as they left his lips.

“Poor dear!” cried Sylvie, melted by that exclamation; the expression of the great love raised for the last time to a sublime height by that most ghastly and involuntary of lies.

The father’s last breath must have been a sigh of joy, and in that sigh his whole life was summed up; he was cheated even at the last. They laid Father Goriot upon his wretched bed with reverent hands. Thenceforward there was no expression on his face, only the painful traces of the struggle between life and death that was going on in the machine; for that kind of cerebral consciousness that distinguishes between pleasure and pain in a human being was extinguished; it was only a question of time—and the mechanism itself would be destroyed.

“He will lie like this for several hours, and die so quietly at last, that we shall not know when he goes; there will be no rattle in the throat. The brain must be completely suffused.”

As he spoke there was a footstep on the staircase, and a young woman hastened up, panting for breath.

“She has come too late,” said Rastignac.

But it was not Delphine; it was Thérèse, her waiting woman, who stood in the doorway.

“M. Eugène,” she said, “Monsieur and Madame have had a terrible scene about some money that Madame (poor thing!) wanted for her father. She fainted, and the doctor came, and she had to be bled, calling out all the while, ‘My father is dying; I want to see papa!’ It was heart-breaking to hear her——”

“That will do, Thérèse, If she came now, it would be trouble thrown away. M. Goriot cannot recognize anyone now.”

“Poor, dear gentleman, is he as bad as that?” said Thérèse.

“You don’t want me now, I must go and look after my dinner; it is half-past four,” remarked Sylvie. The next instant she all but collided with Mme. de Restaud on the landing outside.

There was something awful and appalling in the sudden apparition of the Countess. She saw the bed of death by the dim light of the single candle, and her tears flowed at the sight of her father’s passive features, from which the life had almost ebbed. Bianchon with thoughtful tact left the room.

“I could not escape soon enough,” she said to Rastignac

The student bowed sadly in reply. Mme. de Restaud took her father’s hand and kissed it.

“Forgive me, father! You used to say that my voice would call you back from the grave; ah! come back for one moment to bless your penitent daughter. Do you hear me? Oh! this is fearful! No one on earth will ever bless me henceforth; everyone hates me; no one loves me but you in all the world. My own children will hate me. Take me with you, father; I will love you, I will take care of you. He does not hear me… I am mad…”

She fell on her knees, and gazed wildly at the human wreck before her.

“My cup of misery is full,” she said, turning her eyes upon Eugène. “M. de Trailles has fled, leaving enormous debts behind him, and I have found out that he was deceiving me. My husband will never forgive me, and I have left my fortune in his hands. I have lost all my illusions. Alas! I have forsaken the one heart that loved me” (she pointed to her father as she spoke), “and for whom? I have held his kindness cheap, and slighted his affection; many and many a time I have given him pain, ungrateful wretch that I am!”

“He knew it,” said Rastignac.

Just then Goriot’s eyelids unclosed; it was only a muscular contraction, but the Countess’s sudden start of reviving hope was no less dreadful than the dying eyes.

“Is it possible that he can hear me?” cried the Countess.

“No,” she answered herself, and sat down beside the bed. As Mme. de Restaud seemed to wish to sit by her father, Eugène went down to take a little food. The boarders were already assembled.

“Well,” remarked the painter, as he joined them, “it seems that there is to be a death-orama upstairs.”

“Charles, I think you might find something less painful to joke about,” said Eugène.

“So we may not laugh here?” returned the painter. “What harm does it do? Bianchon said that the old man was quite insensible.”

“Well, then,” said the employé from the Muséum, “he will die as he has lived.”

“My father is dead!” shrieked the Countess.

The terrible cry brought Sylvie, Rastignac, and Bianchon; Mme. de Restaud had fainted away. When she recovered they carried her downstairs, and put her into the cab that stood waiting at the door. Eugène sent Thérèse with her, and bade the maid take the Countess to Mme. de Nucingen.

Bianchon came down to them.

“Yes, he is dead,” he said.

“Come, sit down to dinner, gentlemen,” said Mme. Vauquer, “or the soup will be cold.”

The two students sat down together.

“What is the next thing to be done?” Eugène asked of Bianchon.

“I have closed his eyes and composed his limbs,” said Bianchon. “When the certificate has been officially registered at the Mayor’s office, we will sew him in his winding sheet and bury him somewhere. What do you think we ought to do?”

“He will not smell at his bread like any more,” said the painter, mimicking the old man’s little trick.

“Oh, hang it all!” cried the tutor, “let old Goriot drop, and let us have something else for a change. He is a standing dish, and we have had him with every sauce this hour or more. It is one of the privileges of the good city of Paris that anybody may be born, or live, or die there without attracting any attention whatsoever. Let us profit by the advantages of civilization. There are fifty or sixty deaths every day; if you have a mind to do it, you can sit down at any time and wail over whole hecatombs of dead in Paris. Old Goriot has gone off the hooks, has he? So much the better for him. If you venerate his memory, keep it to yourselves, and let the rest of us feed in peace.”

“Oh, to be sure,” said the widow, “it is all the better for him that he is dead. It looks as though he had had trouble enough, poor soul, while he was alive.”

And this was all the funeral oration delivered over him who had been for Eugène the type and embodiment of fatherhood.

The fifteen lodgers began to talk as usual. When Bianchon and Eugène had satisfied their hunger, the rattle of spoons and forks, the boisterous conversation, the expressions on the faces that bespoke various degrees of want of feeling, gluttony, or indifference, everything about them made them shiver with loathing. They went out to find a priest to watch that night with the dead. It was necessary to measure their last pious cares by the scanty sum of money that remained. Before nine o’clock that evening the body was laid out on the bare sacking of the bedstead in the desolate room; a lighted candle stood on either side, and the priest watched at the foot. Rastignac made inquiries of this latter as to the expenses of the funeral, and wrote to the Baron de Nucingen and the Comte de Restaud, entreating both gentlemen to authorize their man of business to defray the charges of laying their father-in-law in the grave. He sent Christophe with the letters; then he went to bed, tired out, and slept.

Next day Bianchon and Rastignac were obliged to take the certificate to the registrar themselves, and by twelve o’clock the formalities were completed. Two hours went by; no word came form the Count nor from the Baron; nobody appeared to act for them, and Rastignac had already been obliged to pay the priests. Sylvie asked ten francs for sewing the old man in his winding-sheet and making him ready for the grave, and Eugène and Bianchon calculated that they had scarcely sufficient to pay for the funeral, if nothing was forthcoming from the dead man’s family. So it was the medical student who laid him in a pauper’s coffin, dispatched from Bianchon’s hospital, whence he obtained it at a cheaper rate.

“Let us play those wretches a trick,” said he. “Go to the cemetery, buy a grave for five years at Père-Lachaise, and arrange with the Church and the undertaker to have a third-class funeral. If the daughters and their husbands decline to repay you, you can carve this on the headstone— ‘Here lies M. Goriot, father of the Comtesse de Restaud and the Baronne de Nucingen, interred at the expense of two students.’”

Eugène took part of his friend’s advice, but only after he had gone in person first to M. and Mme. de Nucingen, and then to M. and Mme. de Restaud—a fruitless errand. He went no further than the doorstep in either house. The servants had received strict orders to admit no one.

“Monsieur and Madame can see no visitors. They have just lost their father, and are in deep grief over their loss.”

Eugèe’s Parisian experience told him that it was idle to press the point. Something clutched strangely at his heart when he saw that it was impossible to reach Delphine.

“Sell some of your ornaments,” he wrote hastily in the porter’s room, “so that your father may be decently laid in his last resting-place.”

He sealed the note, and begged the porter to give it to Thérèse for her mistress; but the man took it to the Baron de Nucingen, who flung the note into the fire. Eugèe, having finished his errands, returned to the lodging-house about three o’clock. In spite of himself, the tears came into his eyes. The coffin, in its scanty covering of black cloth, was standing there on the pavement before the gate, on two chairs. A withered spring of hyssop was soaking in the holy water bowl of silver-plated copper; there was not a soul in the street, not a passer-by had stopped to sprinkle the coffin; there was not even an attempt at a black drapery over the wicket. It was a pauper who lay there; no one made a pretense of mourning for him; he had neither friends nor kindred—there was no one to follow him to the grave.

Bianchon’s duties compelled him to be at the hospital, but he had left a few lines for Eugène, telling his friend about the arrangements he had made for the burial service. The house student’s note told Rastignac that a Mass was beyond their means, that the ordinary office for the dead was cheaper, and must suffice, and that he had sent word to the undertaker by Christophe. Eugène had scarcely finished reading Bianchon’s scrawl, when he looked up and saw the little circular gold locket that contained the hair of Goriot’s two daughters in Mme. Vauquer’s hands.

“How dared you take it?” he asked.

“Good Lord! is that to be buried along with him?” retorted Sylvie. “It is gold.”

“Of course it shall!” Eugène answered indignantly; “he shall at any rate take one thing that may represent his daughters into the grave with him.”

When the hearse came, Eugène had the coffin carried into the house again, unscrewed the lid, and reverently laid on the old man’s breast the token that recalled the days when Delphine and Anastasie were innocent little maidens, before they began “to think for themselves,” as he had moaned out in his agony.

Rastignac and Christophe and the two undertaker’s men were the only followers of the funeral. The Church of Saint-Etienne du Mont was only a little distance from the Rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève. When the coffin had been deposited in a low, dark, little chapel, the law student looked round in vain for Goriot’s two daughters or their husbands. Christophe was his only fellow-mourner; Christophe, who appeared to think it was his duty to attend the funeral of the man who had put him in the way of such handsome tips. As they waited there in the chapel for the two priests, the chorister, and the beadle, Rastignac grasped Christophe’s hand. He could not utter a word just then.

“Yes, M. Eugène,” said Christophe, “he was a good and worthy man, who never said one word louder than another; he never did anyone any harm, and gave nobody any trouble.”

The two priests, the chorister, and the beadle came, and said and did as much as could be expected for seventy francs in an age when religion cannot afford to say prayers for nothing.

The ecclesiastics chanted a psalm, the Liberia nos and the De profundis. The whole service lasted about twenty minutes. There was but one mourning coach, which the priest and chorister agreed to share with Eugène and Christophe.

“There is no one else to follow us,” remarked the priest, “so we may as well go quickly, and so save time; it is half-past five.”

But just as the coffin was put in the hearse, two empty carriages, with the armorial bearings of the Comte de Restaud and the Baron de Nucingen, arrived and followed in the procession to Père-Lachaise. At six o’clock Goriot’s coffin was lowered into the grave, his daughters’ servants standing round the while. The ecclesiastic recited the short prayer that the students could afford to pay for, and then both priest and lackeys disappeared at once. The two gravediggers flung in several spadefuls of earth, and then stopped and asked Rastignac for their fee. Eugène felt in vain in his pocket, and was obliged to borrow five francs of Christophe. This thing, so trifling in itself, gave Rastignac a terrible pang of distress. It was growing dusk, the damp twilight fretted his nerves; he gazed down into the grave, and the tears he shed were drawn from him by the sacred emotion, a single-hearted sorrow. When such tears fall on earth, their radiance reaches heaven. And with that tear that fell on old Goriot’s grave, Eugène Rastignac’s youth ended. He folded his arms and gazed at the clouded sky; and Christophe, after a glance at him, turned and went—Rastignac was left alone.

He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river. His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendôme and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach. He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently—

“Henceforth there is war between us.”

And by way of throwing down the glove to Society, Rastignac went to dine with Mme. de Nucingen.