Home  »  Old Goriot  »  Paras. 900–999

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

Paras. 900–999

“Yes, his Excellency is taking a personal interest in the matter,” said Gondureau.

Who would think it probable that Poiret, a retired clerk, doubtless possessed of some notions of civic virtue, though there might be nothing else in his head—who would think it likely that such a man would continue to lend an ear to the supposed independent gentleman of the Rue de Buffon, when the latter dropped the mask of a decent citizen by that word “police,” and gave a glimpse of the features of a detective from the Rue de Jérusalem? And yet nothing was more natural. Perhaps the following remarks from the hitherto unpublished records made by certain observers will throw a light on the particular species to which Poiret belonged in the great family of fools. There is a race of quill-drivers, confined in the columns of the budget between the first degree of latitude (a kind of administrative Greenland where the salaries begin at twelve hundred francs) to the third degree, a more temperate zone, where incomes grow from three to six thousand francs, a climate where the bonus flourishes like a half-hardy annual in spite of some difficulties of culture. A characteristic trait that best reveals the feeble narrow-mindedness of these inhabitants of petty officialdom is a kind of involuntary, mechanical, and instinctive reverence for the Grand Lama of every Ministry, known to the rank and file only by his signature (an illegible scrawl) and by his title—“His Excellency Monseigneur le Ministre,” five words which produce as much effect as the il Bondo Cani of the Calife de Bagdad, five words which in the eyes of this low order of intelligence represent a sacred power from which there is no appeal. The Minister is administratively infallible for the clerks in the employ of the Government, as the Pope is infallible for good Catholics. Something of his peculiar radiance invests everything he does or says, or that is said or done in his name; the robe of office covers everything and legalizes everything done by his orders; does not his very title—His Excellency—vouch for the purity of his intentions and the righteousness of his will, and serve as a sort of passport and introduction to ideas that otherwise would not be entertained for a moment? Pronounce the words “his Excellency,” and these poor folk will forthwith proceed to do what they would not do for their own interests. Passive obedience is as well known in a Government department as in the army itself; and the administrative system silences consciences, annihilates the individual, and ends (give it time enough) by fashioning a man into a vice or a thumbscrew, and he becomes part of the machinery of Government. Wherefore, M. Gondureau, who seemed to know something of human nature, recognized Poiret at once as one of these dupes of officialdom, and brought out for his benefit, at the proper moment, the deux ex machinâ, the magical words “his Excellency,” so as to dazzle Poiret just as he himself unmasked his batteries, for he took Poiret and the Michonneau for the male and female of the same species.

“If his Excellency himself, his Excellency the Minister… Ah! that is quite another thing,” said Poiret.

“You seem to be guided by this gentleman’s opinion, and you hear what he says,” said the man of independent means, addressing Mlle. Michonneau. “Very well, his Excellency is at this moment absolutely certain that the so-called Vautrin, who lodges at the Maison Vauquer, is a convict who escaped from penal servitude at Toulon, where he is known by the nickname Trompe-la-Mort.”

“Trompe-la-Mort?” said Poiret. “Dear me, he is very lucky if he deserves that nickname.”

“Well, yes,” said the detective. “They call him so because he has been so lucky as not to lose his life in the very risky business that he has carried through. He is a dangerous man, you see! He has qualities that are out of the common; the thing he is wanted for, in fact, was a matter which gained him no end of credit with his own set——”

“Then is he a man of honor?” asked Poiret.

“Yes, according to his notions. He agreed to take another man’s crime upon himself—a forgery committed by a very handsome young fellow that he had taken a great fancy to, a young Italian, a bit of a gambler, who has since gone into the army, where his conduct has been unexceptionable.”

“But if his Excellency the Minister of Police is certain that M. Vautrin is this Trompe-la-Mort, why should be want me?” asked Mlle. Michonneau.

“Oh, yes,” said Poiret, “if the Minister, as you have been so obliging as to tell us, really knows for a certainty——”

“Certainty is not the word; he only suspects. You will soon understand how things are. Jacques Collin, nicknamed Trompe-la-Mort, is in the confidence of every convict in the three prisons; he is their man of business and their banker. He makes a very good thing out of managing their affairs, which want a man of mark to see about them.”

“Ha! ha! do you see the pun, Mademoiselle?” asked Poiret. “This gentleman calls him a man of mark because he is a marked man—branded, you know.

“This so-called Vautrin,” said the detective, “receives the money belonging to my lords the convicts, invests it for them, and holds it at the disposal of those who escape, or hands it over to their families if they leave a will, or to their mistresses when they draw upon him for their benefit.”

“Their mistresses! You mean their wives,” remarked Poiret.

“No, sir. A convict’s wife is usually an illegitimate connection. We call them concubines.”

“Then they all live in a state of concubinage.”


“Why, these are abominations that his Excellency ought not to allow. Since you have the honor of seeing his Excellency, you, who seem to have philanthropic ideas, ought really to enlighten him as to their immoral conduct—they are setting a shocking example to the rest of society.”

“But the Government does not hold them up as models of all the virtues, my dear sir.”

“Of course not, sir; but still——”

“Just let the gentleman say what he has to say, dearie,” said Mlle. Michonneau.

‘You see how it is, Mademoiselle,” Gondureau continued. “The Government may have the strongest reasons for getting this illicit hoard into its hands; it mounts up to something considerable, by all that we can make out. Trompe-la-Mort not only holds very large sums for his friends the convicts, but he has other amounts which are paid over to him by the Society of the Ten Thousand——”

“Ten Thousand Thieves!” cried Poiret in alarm.

“No. The Society of the Ten Thousand is not an association of petty offenders, but of people who set about their work on a large scale—they won’t touch a matter unless there are ten thousand francs in it. It is composed of the most distinguished of the men who are sent straight to the Assize Courts when they come up for trial. They know the Code too well to risk their necks when they are nabbed. Collin is their confidential agent and legal adviser. By means of the large sums of money at his disposal he has established a sort of detective system of his own; it is widespread, and mysterious in its workings. We have had spies all about him for a twelve-month, and yet we could not manage to fathom his games. His capital and his cleverness are at the service of vice and crime; this money furnishes the necessary funds for a regular army of blackguards in his pay who wage incessant war against society. If we can catch Trompe-la-Mort, and take possession of his funds, we should strike at the root of this evil. So this job is a kind of Government affair—a State secret—and likely to redound to the honor of those who bring the thing to a successful conclusion. You, sir, for instance, might very well be taken into a Government department again; they might make you secretary to a Commissary of Police; you could accept that post without prejudice to your retiring pension.”

Mlle. Michonneau interposed at this point with, “What is there to hinder Trompe-la-Mort from making off with the money?”

“Oh!” said the detective, “a man is told off to follow him everywhere he goes, with orders to kill him if he were to rob the convicts Then it is not quite as easy to make off with a lot of money as it is to run away with a young lady of family. Besides, Collin is not the sort of fellow to play such a trick; he would be disgraced, according to his notions.”

“You are quite right, sir,” said Poiret, “utterly disgraced he would be.”

“But none of all this explains why you do not come and take him without more ado,” remarked Mlle. Michonneau.

“Very well, Mademoiselle, I will explain—but,” he added in her ear, “keep your companion quiet, or I shall never have done. The old boy ought to pay people handsomely for listening to him.—Trompe-la-Mort, when he came back here,” he went on aloud, “slipped into the skin of an honest man; he turned up disguised as a decent Parisian citizen, and took up his quarters in an unpretending lodging-house. He is cunning, that he is! You won’t catch him napping. Then M. Vautrin is a man of consequence, who transacts a good deal of business.”

“Naturally,” said Poiret to himself.

“And suppose that the Minister were to make a mistake and get hold of the real Vautrin, he would put every one’s back up among the business men in Paris, and public opinion would be against him. M. le Prefet de Police is on slippery ground; he has enemies. They would take advantage of any mistake. There would be a fine outcry and fuss made by the Opposition, and he would be sent packing. We must set about this just as we did about the Cogniard affair, the sham Comte de Sainte-Hélène; if he had been the real Comte de Sainte-Hélène, we should have been in the wrong box. We want to be quite sure what we are about.”

“Yes, but what you want is a pretty woman,” said Mlle. Michonneau briskly.

“Trompe-la-Mort would not let a woman come near him,” said the detective. “I will tell you a secret—he does not like them.”

“Still, I do not see what I can do, supposing that I did agree to identify him for two thousand francs.”

“Nothing simpler,” said the stranger. “I will send you a little bottle containing a dose that will send a rush of blood to the head; it will do him no harm whatever, but he will fall down as if he were in a fit. The drug can be put into wine or coffee; either will do equally well. You carry your man to bed at once, and undress him to see that he is not dying. As soon are you are alone, you give him a slap on the shoulder, and, presto! the letters will appear.”

“Why, that is just nothing at all,” said Poiret.

“Well, do you agree?” said Gondureau, addressing the old maid.

“But, my dear sir, suppose there are no letters at all,” said Mlle. Michonneau; “am I to have the two thousand francs all the same?”


“What will you give me, then?”

“Five hundred francs.”

“It is such a thing to do for so little! It lies on your conscience just the same, and I must quiet my conscience, sir.”

“I assure you,” said Poiret, “that Mademoiselle has a great deal of conscience, and not only so, she is a very amiable person, and very intelligent.”

“Well, now,” Mlle. Michonneau went on, “make it three thousand francs if he is Trompe-la-Mort, and nothing at all if he is an ordinary man.”

“Done!” said Gondureau, “but on condition that the thing is settled to-morrow.”

“Not quite so soon, my dear sir; I must consult my confessor first.”

“You are a sly one,” said the detective as he rose to his feet. “Good-by till to-morrow, then. And if you should want to see me in a hurry, go to the Petite Rue Sainte-Anne at the bottom of the Cour de la Sainte Chapelle. There is only one door under the archway. Ask there for M. Gondureau.”

Bianchon, on his way back from Cuvier’s lecture, overheard the sufficiently striking nickname of Trompe-la-Mort, and caught the celebrated chief detective’s “Done!”

“Why didn’t you close with him? It would be three hundred francs a year,” said Poiret to Mlle. Michonneau.

“Why didn’t I?” she asked. “Why, it wants thinking over. Suppose that M. Vautrin is this Trompe-la-Mort, perhaps we might do better for ourselves with him. Still, on the other hand, if you ask him for money, it would put him on his guard, and he is just the man to clear out without paying, and that would be an abominable sell.”

“And suppose you did warn him,” Poiret went on, “didn’t that gentleman say that he was closely watched? You would spoil everything.”

“Anyhow,” thought Mlle. Michonneau, “I can’t abide him. He says nothing but disagreeable things to me.”

“But you can do better than that,” Poiret resumed. “As that gentleman said (and he seemed to me to be a very good sort of man, besides being very well got up), it is an act of obedience to the laws to rid society of a criminal, however virtuous he may be. Once a thief, always a thief. Suppose he were to take it into his head to murder us all? The deuce! We should be guilty of manslaughter, and be the first to fall victims in the bargain!”

Mlle. Michonneau’s musings did not permit her to listen very closely to the remarks that fell one by one from Poiret’s lips like water dripping from a leaky tap. When once this elderly babbler began to talk, he would go on like clockwork unless Mlle. Michonneau stopped him. He started on some subject or other, and wandered on through parenthesis after parenthesis till he came to regions as remote as possible from his premises without coming to any conclusions by the way.

By the time they reached the Maison Vauquer he had tacked together a whole string of examples and quotations more or less irrelevant to the subject in hand, which led him to give a full account of his own deposition in the case of the Sieur Ragoulleau versus Dame Morin, when he had been summoned as a witness for the defense.

As they entered the dining-room, Eugène de Rastignac was talking apart with Mlle. Taillefer; the conversation appeared to be of such thrilling interest that the pair never noticed the two older lodgers as they passed through the room. None of this was thrown away on Mlle. Michonneau.

“I knew how it would end,” remarked that lady, addressing Poiret. “They have been making eyes at each other in a heartrending way for a week past.”

“Yes,” he answered. “So she was found guilty.”


“Mme. Morin.”

“I am talking about Mlle. Victorine,” said Mlle. Michonneau, as she entered Poiret’s room with an absent air, “and you answer, ‘Mme. Morin.’ Who may Mme. Morin be?”

“What can Mlle Victorine be guilty of?” demanded Poiret.

“Guilty of falling in love with M. Eugène de Rastignac, and going further and further without knowing exactly where she is going, poor innocent!”

That morning Mme. de Nucingen had driven Eugène to despair. In his own mind he had completely surrendered himself to Vautrin, and deliberately shut his eyes to the motive for the friendship which that extraordinary man professed for him, nor would he look to the consequences of such an alliance. Nothing short of a miracle could extricate him now out of the gulf into which he had walked an hour ago, when he exchanged vows in the softest of whispers with Mlle. Taillefer. To Victorine it seemed as if she heard an angel’s voice that heaven was opening above her; the Maison Vauquer took strange and wonderful hues, like a stage fairy-palace. She loved and she was beloved; at any rate, she believed that she was loved; and what woman would not likewise have believed after seeing Rastignac’s face and listening to the tones of his voice during that hour snatched under the argus eyes of the Maison Vauquer? He had trampled on his conscience; he knew that he was doing wrong, and did it deliberately; he had said to himself that a woman’s happiness should atone for this venial sin. The energy of desperation had lent new beauty to his face; the lurid fire that burned in his heart shone from his eyes. Luckily for him, the miracle took place. Vautrin came in in high spirits, and at once read the hearts of these two young creatures whom he had brought together by the combinations of his infernal genius, but his deep voice broke in upon their bliss.

  • “A charming girl is my Fanchette
  • In her simplicity,”
  • he sang mockingly.

    Victorine fled. Her heart was more full than it had ever been, but it was full of joy, and not of sorrow. Poor child! A pressure of the hand, the light touch of Rastignac’s hair against her cheek, a word whispered in her ear so closely that she felt the student’s warm breath on her, the pressure of a trembling arm about her waist, a kiss upon her throat—such had been her betrothal. The near neighborhood of the stout Sylvie, who might invade that glorified room at any moment, only made these first tokens of love more ardent, more eloquent, more entrancing than the noblest deeds done for love’s sake in the most famous romances.

    This plain-song of love, to use the pretty expression of our forefathers, seemed almost criminal to the devout young girl who went to confession every fortnight. In that one hour she had poured out more of the treasures of her soul than she could give in later days of wealth and happiness, when her whole self followed the gift.

    “The thing is arranged,” Vautrin said to Eugène, who remained. “Our two dandies have fallen out. Everything was done in proper form. It is a matter of opinion. Our pigeon has insulted my hawk. They will meet to-morrow in the redoubt at Clignancourt. By half-past eight in the morning Mlle. Taillefer, calmly dipping her bread and butter in her coffee cup, will be sole heiress of her father’s fortune and affections. A funny way of putting it, isn’t it? Taillefer’s youngster is an expert swordsman, and quite cocksure about it, but he will be bled; I have just invented a thrust for his benefit, a way of raising your sword point and driving it at the forehead. I must show you that thrust; it is an uncommonly handy thing to know.”

    Rastignac heard him in dazed bewilderment; he could not find a word in reply. Just then Goriot came in, and Bianchon and a few of the boarders likewise appeared.

    “That is just as I intended,” Vautrin said. “You know quite well what you are about. Good, my little eaglet! You are born to command, you are strong, you stand firm on your feet, you are game! I respect you.”

    He made as though he would take Eugène’s hand, but Rastignac hastily withdrew it, sank into a chair, and turned ghastly pale; it seemed to him that there was a sea of blood before his eyes.

    “Oh! so we have still a few dubious tatters of the swaddling clothes of virtue about us!” murmured Vautrin. “But Papa Doliban has three millions; I know the amount of his fortune. Once have her dowry in your hands, and your character will be as white as the bride’s white dress, even in your own eyes.”

    Rastignac hesitated no longer. He made up his mind that he would go that evening to warn the Taillefers, father and son. But just as Vautrin left him, old Goriot came up and said in his ear, “You look melancholy, my boy; I will cheer you up. Come with me.”

    The old vermicelli dealer lighted his dip at one of the lamps as he spoke. Eugène went with him, his curiosity had been aroused.

    “Let us go up to your room,” the worthy soul remarked, when he had asked Sylvie for the law student’s key. “This morning,” he resumed, “you thought that she did not care about you, did you not? Eh? She would have nothing to say to you, and you went away out of humor and out of heart. Stuff and rubbish! She wanted you to go because she was expecting me! Now do you understand? We were to complete the arrangements for taking some chambers for you, a jewel of a place, you are to move into it in three days’ time. Don’t split upon me. She wants it to be a surprise; but I couldn’t bear to keep the secret from you. You will be in the Rue d’Artois, only a step or two from the Rue Saint-Lazare, and you are to be housed like a prince! Anyone might have thought we were furnishing the house for a bride. Oh! we have done a lot of things in the last month, and you knew nothing about it. My attorney has appeared on the scene, and my daughter is to have thirty-six thousand francs a year, the interest on her money, and I shall insist on having her eight hundred thousand francs invested in sound securities, landed property that won’t run away.”

    Eugène was dumb. He folded his arms and paced up and down his cheerless, untidy room. Old Goriot waited till the student’s back was turned, and seized the opportunity to go to the chimney-piece and set upon it a little red morocco case with Rastignac’s arms stamped in gold on the leather.

    “My dear boy,” said the kind soul, “I have been up to the eyes in this business. You see, there was plenty of selfishness on my part; I have an interested motive in helping you to change lodgings. You will not refuse me if I ask you something; will you, eh?”

    “What is it?”

    “There is a room on the fifth floor, up above your rooms, that is to let along with them; that is where I am going to live, isn’t that so? I am getting old; I am too far from my girls. I shall not be in the way, but I shall be there, that is all. You will come and talk to me about her every evening. It will not put you about, will it? I shall have gone to bed before you come in, but I shall hear you come up, and I shall say to myself, ‘He has just seen my little Delphine. He has been to a dance with her, and she is happy, thanks to him.’ If I were ill, it would do my heart good to hear you moving about below, to know when you leave the house and when you come in. It is only a step to the Champs-Elysées, where they go every day, so I shall be sure of seeing them, whereas now I am sometimes too late. And then—perhaps she may come to see you! I shall hear her, I shall see her in her soft quilted pelisse tripping about as daintily as a kitten. In this one month she has become my little girl again, so light-hearted and gay. Her soul is recovering, and her happiness is owing to you! Oh! I would do impossibilities for you. Only just now she said to me, ‘I am very happy, papa!’ When they say ‘father’ stiffly, it sends a chill through me; but when they call me ‘papa,’ it is as if they were little girls again, and it brings all the old memories back. I feel most their father then; I even believe that they belong to me, and to no one else.”

    The good old man wiped his eyes, he was crying.

    “It is a long while since I have heard them talk like that, a long, long time since she took my arm as she did to-day. Yes, indeed, it must be quite ten years since I walked side by side with one of my girls. How pleasant it was to keep step with her, to feel the touch of her gown, the warmth of her arm! Well, I took Delphine everywhere this morning; I went shopping with her, and I brought her home again. Oh! you must let me live near you. You may want someone to do you a service some of these days, and I shall be on the spot to do it. Oh! if only that great dolt of an Alsatian would die, if his gout would have the sense to attack his stomach, how happy my poor child would be! You would be my son-in-law; you would be her husband in the eyes of the world. Bah! she has known no happiness, that excuses everything. Our Father in heaven is surely on the side of fathers on earth who love their children. How fond of you she is!” he said, raising his head after a pause. “All the time we were going about together she chatted away about you. ‘He is nice-looking, papa; isn’t he? He is kind-hearted! Does he talk to you about me?’ Pshaw! she said enough about you to fill whole volumes; between the Rue d’Artois and the Passage des Panoramas she poured her heart out into mine. I did not feel old once during that delightful morning; I felt as light as a feather. I told her how you had given that bank-note to me; it moved my darling to tears. But what can this be on your chimney-piece?” said old Goriot at last. Rastignac had showed no sign, and he was dying of impatience.

    Eugène stared at his neighbor in dumb and dazed bewilderment. He thought of Vautrin, of that duel to be fought to-morrow morning, and of this realization of his dearest hopes, and the violent contrast between the two sets of ideas gave him all the sensations of nightmare. He went to the chimney-piece, saw the little square case, opened it, and found a watch of Bréguet’s make wrapped in paper, on which these words were written:—

  • “I want you to think of me every hour, because
  • That last word doubtless contained an allusion to some scene that had taken place between them. Eugène felt touched. Inside the gold watch-case his arms had been wrought in enamel. The chain, the key, the workmanship, and design of the trinket were all such as he had imagined, for he had long coveted such a possession. Old Goriot was radiant. Of course he had promised to tell his daughter every little detail of the scene and of the effect produced upon Eugène by her present; he shared in the pleasure and excitement of the young people, and seemed to be not the least happy of the three. He loved Rastignac already for his own as well as for hid daughter’s sake.

    “You must go and see her; she is expecting you this evening. That great lout of an Alsatian is going to have supper with his opera-dancer. Aha! he looked very foolish when my attorney let him know where he was. He says he idolizes my daughter, does he? He had better let her alone, or I will kill him. To think that my Delphine is his”—he heaved a sigh—“it is enough to make me murder him, but it would not be manslaughter to kill that animal; he is a pig with calf’s brains.—You will take me with you, will you not?”

    “Yes, dear Father Goriot; you know very well how fond I am of you——”

    “Yes, I do know very well. You are not ashamed of me, are you? Not you! Let me embrace you,” and he flung his arms round the student’s neck.

    “You will make her very happy; promise me that you will! You will go to her this evening, will you not?”

    “Oh! yes. I must go out; I have some urgent business on hand.”

    “Can I be of any use?

    “My word, yes! Will you go to old Taillefer’s while I go to Mme. Nucingen? Ask him to make an appointment with me some time this evening; it is a matter of life and death.”

    “Really, young man!” cried old Goriot, with a change of countenance; “are you really paying court to his daughter, as those simpletons were saying down below?… Tonnerre de Dieu! you have no notion what a tap à la Goriot is like, and if you are playing a double game, I shall put a stop to it by one blow of the fist.… Oh! the thing is impossible!”

    “I swear to you that I love but one woman in the world,” said the student. “I only knew it a moment ago.”

    “Oh! what happiness!” cried Goriot.

    “But young Taillefer has been called out; the duel comes off to-morrow morning, and I have heard it said that he may lose his life in it.”

    “But what business is it of yours?” said Goriot.

    “Why, I ought to tell him so, that he may prevent his son from putting in an appearance——”

    Just at that moment Vautrin’s voice broke in upon them; he was standing at the threshold of his door and singing—

  • “Oh! Richard, oh my king!
  • All the world abandons thee!
  • Broum! broum! broum! broum! broum!
  • The same old story everywhere,
  • A roving heart and a … tra la la.”
  • “Gentlemen!” shouted Christophe, “the soup is ready, and everyone is waiting for you.”

    “Here,” Vautrin called down to him, “come and take a bottle of my Bordeaux.”

    “Do you think your watch is pretty?” asked Goriot. “She has good taste, hasn’t she? Eh?”

    Vautrin, old Goriot, and Rastignac came downstairs in company, and, all three of them being late, were obliged to sit together.