By Honore de Balzac
Public Domain Books
That morning Mme. de Nucingen had driven Eugene 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 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 loved; 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 Eugene, 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 Eugene’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 still have 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, Father 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. Eugene 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! Any one 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 invested in sound securities, landed property that won’t run away.”
Eugene was dumb. He folded his arms and paced up and down in his cheerless, untidy room. Father 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-Elysees, 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 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 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 some one 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 so 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 the banknote to me; it moved my darling to tears. But what can this be on your chimney-piece?” said Father Goriot at last. Rastignac had showed no sign, and he was dying of impatience.
Eugene 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 Breguet’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. Eugene 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. Father Goriot was radiant. Of course he had promised to tell his daughter every little detail of the scene and of the effect produced upon Eugene 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 his 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 a 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 around 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. de 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 Father 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 a 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 every one 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, Father Goriot, and Rastignac came downstairs in company, and, all three of them being late, were obliged to sit together.
Eugene was as distant as possible in his manner to Vautrin during dinner; but the other, so charming in Mme. Vauquer’s opinion, had never been so witty. His lively sallies and sparkling talk put the whole table in good humor. His assurance and coolness filled Eugene with consternation.
“Why, what has come to you to-day?” inquired Mme. Vauquer. “You are as merry as a skylark.”
“I am always in spirits after I have made a good bargain.”
“Bargain?” said Eugene.
“Well, yes, bargain. I have just delivered a lot of goods, and I shall be paid a handsome commission on them–Mlle. Michonneau,” he went on, seeing that the elderly spinster was scrutinizing him intently, “have you any objection to some feature in my face, that you are making those lynx eyes at me? Just let me know, and I will have it changed to oblige you . . . We shall not fall out about it, Poiret, I dare say?" he added, winking at the superannuated clerk.
“Bless my soul, you ought to stand as model for a burlesque Hercules," said the young painter.
“I will, upon my word! if Mlle. Michonneau will consent to sit as the Venus of Pere-Lachaise,” replied Vautrin.
“There’s Poiret,” suggested Bianchon.
“Oh! Poiret shall pose as Poiret. He can be a garden god!” cried Vautrin; “his name means a pear––”
“A sleepy pear!” Bianchon put in. “You will come in between the pear and the cheese.”
“What stuff are you all talking!” said Mme. Vauquer; “you would do better to treat us to your Bordeaux; I see a glimpse of a bottle there. It would keep us all in a good humor, and it is good for the stomach besides.”
“Gentlemen,” said Vautrin, “the Lady President calls us to order. Mme. Couture and Mlle. Victorine will take your jokes in good part, but respect the innocence of the aged Goriot. I propose a glass or two of Bordeauxrama, rendered twice illustrious by the name of Laffite, no political allusions intended.–Come, you Turk!” he added, looking at Christophe, who did not offer to stir. “Christophe! Here! What, you don’t answer to your own name? Bring us some liquor, Turk!”
“Here it is, sir,” said Christophe, holding out the bottle.
Vautrin filled Eugene’s glass and Goriot’s likewise, then he deliberately poured out a few drops into his own glass, and sipped it while his two neighbors drank their wine. All at once he made a grimace.
“Corked!” he cried. “The devil! You can drink the rest of this, Christophe, and go and find another bottle; take from the right-hand side, you know. There are sixteen of us; take down eight bottles.”
“If you are going to stand treat,” said the painter, “I will pay for a hundred chestnuts.”
These exclamations came from all parts of the table like squibs from a set firework.
“Come, now, Mama Vauquer, a couple of bottles of champagne,” called Vautrin.
“Quien! just like you! Why not ask for the whole house at once. A couple of bottles of champagne; that means twelve francs! I shall never see the money back again, I know! But if M. Eugene has a mind to pay for it, I have some currant cordial.”
“That currant cordial of hers is as bad as a black draught,” muttered the medical student.
“Shut up, Bianchon,” exclaimed Rastignac; “the very mention of black draught makes me feel––. Yes, champagne, by all means; I will pay for it,” he added.
“Sylvie,” called Mme. Vauquer, “bring in some biscuits, and the little cakes.”
“Those little cakes are mouldy graybeards,” said Vautrin. “But trot out the biscuits.”
The Bordeaux wine circulated; the dinner table became a livelier scene than ever, and the fun grew fast and furious. Imitations of the cries of various animals mingled with the loud laughter; the Museum official having taken it into his head to mimic a cat-call rather like the caterwauling of the animal in question, eight voices simultaneously struck up with the following variations:
“Scissors to grind!”
“Chick-weeds for singing bir-ds!”
“China to mend!”
“Sticks to beat your wives or your clothes!”
“Cherries all ripe!”
But the palm was awarded to Bianchon for the nasal accent with which he rendered the cry of “Umbrellas to me-end!”
A few seconds later, and there was a head-splitting racket in the room, a storm of tomfoolery, a sort of cats’ concert, with Vautrin as conductor of the orchestra, the latter keeping an eye the while on Eugene and Father Goriot. The wine seemed to have gone to their heads already. They leaned back in their chairs, looking at the general confusion with an air of gravity, and drank but little; both of them were absorbed in the thought of what lay before them to do that evening, and yet neither of them felt able to rise and go. Vautrin gave a side glance at them from time to time, and watched the change that came over their faces, choosing the moment when their eyes drooped and seemed about to close, to bend over Rastignac and to say in his ear:–
“My little lad, you are not quite shrewd enough to outwit Papa Vautrin yet, and he is too fond of you to let you make a mess of your affairs. When I have made up my mind to do a thing, no one short of Providence can put me off. Aha! we were for going round to warn old Taillefer, telling tales out of school! The oven is hot, the dough is kneaded, the bread is ready for the oven; to-morrow we will eat it up and whisk away the crumbs; and we are not going to spoil the baking? . . . No, no, it is all as good as done! We may suffer from a few conscientious scruples, but they will be digested along with the bread. While we are having our forty winks, Colonel Count Franchessini will clear the way to Michel Taillefer’s inheritance with the point of his sword. Victorine will come in for her brother’s money, a snug fifteen thousand francs a year. I have made inquiries already, and I know that her late mother’s property amounts to more than three hundred thousand––”
Eugene heard all this, and could not answer a word; his tongue seemed to be glued to the roof of his mouth, an irresistible drowsiness was creeping over him. He still saw the table and the faces round it, but it was through a bright mist. Soon the noise began to subside, one by one the boarders went. At last, when their numbers had so dwindled that the party consisted of Mme. Vauquer, Mme. Couture, Mlle. Victorine, Vautrin, and Father Goriot, Rastignac watched as though in a dream how Mme. Vauquer busied herself by collecting the bottles, and drained the remainder of the wine out of each to fill others.
“Oh! how uproarious they are! what a thing it is to be young!” said the widow.
These were the last words that Eugene heard and understood.
“There is no one like M. Vautrin for a bit of fun like this,” said Sylvie. “There, just hark at Christophe, he is snoring like a top.”
“Good-bye, mamma,” said Vautrin; “I am going to a theatre on the boulevard to see M. Marty in Le Mont Sauvage, a fine play taken from Le Solitaire. . . . If you like, I will take you and these two ladies––”
“Thank you; I must decline,” said Mme. Couture.
“What! my good lady!” cried Mme. Vauquer, “decline to see a play founded on the Le Solitaire, a work by Atala de Chateaubriand? We were so fond of that book that we cried over it like Magdalens under the line-trees last summer, and then it is an improving work that might edify your young lady.”
“We are forbidden to go to the play,” answered Victorine.
“Just look, those two yonder have dropped off where they sit,” said Vautrin, shaking the heads of the two sleepers in a comical way.
He altered the sleeping student’s position, settled his head more comfortably on the back of his chair, kissed him warmly on the forehead, and began to sing:
“Sleep, little darlings; I watch while you slumber.”
“I am afraid he may be ill,” said Victorine.
“Then stop and take care of him,” returned Vautrin. “’Tis your duty as a meek and obedient wife,” he whispered in her ear. “The young fellow worships you, and you will be his little wife–there’s your fortune for you. In short,” he added aloud, “they lived happily ever afterwards, were much looked up to in all the countryside, and had a numerous family. That is how all the romances end.–Now, mamma,” he went on, as he turned to Madame Vauquer and put his arm round her waist, “put on your bonnet, your best flowered silk, and the countess’ scarf, while I go out and call a cab–all my own self.”
And he started out, singing as he went:
“Oh! sun! divine sun! Ripening the pumpkins every one.”
“My goodness! Well, I’m sure! Mme. Couture, I could live happily in a garret with a man like that.–There, now!” she added, looking round for the old vermicelli maker, “there is that Father Goriot half seas over. He never thought of taking me anywhere, the old skinflint. But he will measure his length somewhere. My word! it is disgraceful to lose his senses like that, at his age! You will be telling me that he couldn’t lose what he hadn’t got–Sylvie, just take him up to his room!”
Sylvie took him by the arm, supported him upstairs, and flung him just as he was, like a package, across the bed.
“Poor young fellow!” said Mme. Couture, putting back Eugene’s hair that had fallen over his eyes; “he is like a young girl, he does not know what dissipation is.”
“Well, I can tell you this, I know,” said Mme. Vauquer, “I have taken lodgers these thirty years, and a good many have passed through my hands, as the saying is, but I have never seen a nicer nor a more aristocratic looking young man than M. Eugene. How handsome he looks sleeping! Just let his head rest on your shoulder, Mme. Couture. Pshaw! he falls over towards Mlle. Victorine. There’s a special providence for young things. A little more, and he would have broken his head against the knob of the chair. They’d make a pretty pair those two would!”
“Hush, my good neighbor,” cried Mme. Couture, “you are saying such things––”
“Pooh!” put in Mme. Vauquer, “he does not hear.–Here, Sylvie! come and help me to dress. I shall put on my best stays.”
“What! your best stays just after dinner, madame?” said Sylvie. “No, you can get some one else to lace you. I am not going to be your murderer. It’s a rash thing to do, and might cost you your life.”
“I don’t care, I must do honor to M. Vautrin.”
“Are you so fond of your heirs as all that?”
“Come, Sylvie, don’t argue,” said the widow, as she left the room.
“At her age, too!” said the cook to Victorine, pointing to her mistress as she spoke.
Mme. Couture and her ward were left in the dining-room, and Eugene slept on Victorine’s shoulder. The sound of Christophe’s snoring echoed through the silent house; Eugene’s quiet breathing seemed all the quieter by force of contrast, he was sleeping as peacefully as a child. Victorine was very happy; she was free to perform one of those acts of charity which form an innocent outlet for all the overflowing sentiments of a woman’s nature; he was so close to her that she could feel the throbbing of his heart; there was a look of almost maternal protection and conscious pride in Victorine’s face. Among the countless thoughts that crowded up in her young innocent heart, there was a wild flutter of joy at this close contact.
“Poor, dear child!” said Mme. Couture, squeezing her hand.
The old lady looked at the girl. Victorine’s innocent, pathetic face, so radiant with the new happiness that had befallen her, called to mind some naive work of mediaeval art, when the painter neglected the accessories, reserving all the magic of his brush for the quiet, austere outlines and ivory tints of the face, which seems to have caught something of the golden glory of heaven.
“After all, he only took two glasses, mamma,” said Victorine, passing her fingers through Eugene’s hair.
“Indeed, if he had been a dissipated young man, child, he would have carried his wine like the rest of them. His drowsiness does him credit.”
There was a sound of wheels outside in the street.
“There is M. Vautrin, mamma,” said the girl. “Just take M. Eugene. I would rather not have that man see me like this; there are some ways of looking at you that seem to sully your soul and make you feel as though you had nothing on.”
“Oh, no, you are wrong!” said Mme. Couture. “M. Vautrin is a worthy man; he reminds me a little of my late husband, poor dear M. Couture, rough but kind-hearted; his bark is worse than his bite.”
Vautrin came in while she was speaking; he did not make a sound, but looked for a while at the picture of the two young faces–the lamplight falling full upon them seemed to caress them.
“Well,” he remarked, folding his arms, “here is a picture! It would have suggested some pleasing pages to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (good soul), who wrote Paul et Virginie. Youth is very charming, Mme. Couture!–Sleep on, poor boy,” he added, looking at Eugene, “luck sometimes comes while you are sleeping.–There is something touching and attractive to me about this young man, madame,” he continued; “I know that his nature is in harmony with his face. Just look, the head of a cherub on an angel’s shoulder! He deserves to be loved. If I were a woman, I would die (no–not such a fool), I would live for him.” He bent lower and spoke in the widow’s ear. “When I see those two together, madame, I cannot help thinking that Providence meant them for each other; He works by secret ways, and tries the reins and the heart,” he said in a loud voice. “And when I see you, my children, thus united by a like purity and by all human affections, I say to myself that it is quite impossible that the future should separate you. God is just."–He turned to Victorine. “It seems to me,” he said, “that I have seen the line of success in your hand. Let me look at it, Mlle. Victorine; I am well up in palmistry, and I have told fortunes many a time. Come, now, don’t be frightened. Ah! what do I see? Upon my word, you will be one of the richest heiresses in Paris before very long. You will heap riches on the man who loves you. Your father will want you to go and live with him. You will marry a young and handsome man with a title, and he will idolize you.”
The heavy footsteps of the coquettish widow, who was coming down the stairs, interrupted Vautrin’s fortune-telling. “Here is Mamma Vauquerre, fair as a starr-r-r, dressed within an inch of her life. –Aren’t we a trifle pinched for room?” he inquired, with his arm round the lady; “we are screwed up very tightly about the bust, mamma! If we are much agitated, there may be an explosion; but I will pick up the fragments with all the care of an antiquary.”
“There is a man who can talk the language of French gallantry!” said the widow, bending to speak in Mme. Couture’s ear.
“Good-bye, little ones!” said Vautrin, turning to Eugene and Victorine. “Bless you both!” and he laid a hand on either head. “Take my word for it, young lady, an honest man’s prayers are worth something; they should bring you happiness, for God hears them.”
“Good-bye, dear,” said Mme. Vauquer to her lodger. “Do you think that M. Vautrin means to run away with me?” she added, lowering her voice.
“Lack-a-day!” said the widow.
“Oh! mamma dear, suppose it should really happen as that kind M. Vautrin said!” said Victorine with a sigh as she looked at her hands. The two women were alone together.
“Why, it wouldn’t take much to bring it to pass,” said the elderly lady; “just a fall from his horse, and your monster of a brother––”
“Good Lord! Well, perhaps it is a sin to wish bad luck to an enemy," the widow remarked. “I will do penance for it. Still, I would strew flowers on his grave with the greatest pleasure, and that is the truth. Black-hearted, that he is! The coward couldn’t speak up for his own mother, and cheats you out of your share by deceit and trickery. My cousin had a pretty fortune of her own, but unluckily for you, nothing was said in the marriage-contract about anything that she might come in for.”
“It would be very hard if my fortune is to cost some one else his life,” said Victorine. “If I cannot be happy unless my brother is to be taken out of the world, I would rather stay here all my life.”
“Mon Dieu! it is just as that good M. Vautrin says, and he is full of piety, you see,” Mme. Couture remarked. “I am very glad to find that he is not an unbeliever like the rest of them that talk of the Almighty with less respect than they do of the Devil. Well, as he was saying, who can know the ways by which it may please Providence to lead us?”
With Sylvie’s help the two women at last succeeded in getting Eugene up to his room; they laid him on the bed, and the cook unfastened his clothes to make him more comfortable. Before they left the room, Victorine snatched an opportunity when her guardian’s back was turned, and pressed a kiss on Eugene’s forehead, feeling all the joy that this stolen pleasure could give her. Then she looked round the room, and gathering up, as it were, into one single thought all the untold bliss of that day, she made a picture of her memories, and dwelt upon it until she slept, the happiest creature in Paris.
That evening’s merry-making, in the course of which Vautrin had given the drugged wine to Eugene and Father Goriot, was his own ruin. Bianchon, flustered with wine, forgot to open the subject of Trompe-la-Mort with Mlle. Michonneau. The mere mention of the name would have set Vautrin on his guard; for Vautrin, or, to give him his real name, Jacques Collin, was in fact the notorious escaped convict.
But it was the joke about the Venus of Pere-Lachaise that finally decided his fate. Mlle. Michonneau had very nearly made up her mind to warn the convict and to throw herself on his generosity, with the idea of making a better bargain for herself by helping him to escape that night; but as it was, she went out escorted by Poiret in search of the famous chief of detectives in the Petite Rue Saint-Anne, still thinking that it was the district superintendent–one Gondureau–with whom she had to do. The head of the department received his visitors courteously. There was a little talk, and the details were definitely arranged. Mlle. Michonneau asked for the draught that she was to administer in order to set about her investigation. But the great man’s evident satisfaction set Mlle. Michonneau thinking; and she began to see that this business involved something more than the mere capture of a runaway convict. She racked her brains while he looked in a drawer in his desk for the little phial, and it dawned upon her that in consequence of treacherous revelations made by the prisoners the police were hoping to lay their hands on a considerable sum of money. But on hinting her suspicions to the old fox of the Petite Rue Saint-Anne, that officer began to smile, and tried to put her off the scent.
“A delusion,” he said. “Collin’s sorbonne is the most dangerous that has yet been found among the dangerous classes. That is all, and the rascals are quite aware of it. They rally round him; he is the backbone of the federation, its Bonaparte, in short; he is very popular with them all. The rogue will never leave his chump in the Place de Greve.”
As Mlle. Michonneau seemed mystified, Gondureau explained the two slang words for her benefit. Sorbonne and chump are two forcible expressions borrowed from thieves’ Latin, thieves, of all people, being compelled to consider the human head in its two aspects. A sorbonne is the head of a living man, his faculty of thinking–his council; a chump is a contemptuous epithet that implies how little a human head is worth after the axe has done its work.
“Collin is playing us off,” he continued. “When we come across a man like a bar of steel tempered in the English fashion, there is always one resource left–we can kill him if he takes it into his head to make the least resistance. We are reckoning on several methods of killing Collin to-morrow morning. It saves a trial, and society is rid of him without all the expense of guarding and feeding him. What with getting up the case, summoning witnesses, paying their expenses, and carrying out the sentence, it costs a lot to go through all the proper formalities before you can get quit of one of these good-for-nothings, over and above the three thousand francs that you are going to have. There is a saving in time as well. One good thrust of the bayonet into Trompe-la-Mort’s paunch will prevent scores of crimes, and save fifty scoundrels from following his example; they will be very careful to keep themselves out of the police courts. That is doing the work of the police thoroughly, and true philanthropists will tell you that it is better to prevent crime than to punish it.”
“And you do a service to our country,” said Poiret.
“Really, you are talking in a very sensible manner tonight, that you are,” said the head of the department. “Yes, of course, we are serving our country, and we are very hardly used too. We do society very great services that are not recognized. In fact, a superior man must rise above vulgar prejudices, and a Christian must resign himself to the mishaps that doing right entails, when right is done in an out-of-the-way style. Paris is Paris, you see! That is the explanation of my life.–I have the honor to wish you a good-evening, mademoiselle. I shall bring my men to the Jardin du Roi in the morning. Send Christophe to the Rue du Buffon, tell him to ask for M. Gondureau in the house where you saw me before.–Your servant, sir. If you should ever have anything stolen from you, come to me, and I will do my best to get it back for you.”
“Well, now,” Poiret remarked to Mlle. Michonneau, “there are idiots who are scared out of their wits by the word police. That was a very pleasant-spoken gentleman, and what he wants you to do is as easy as saying ’Good-day.’”
The next day was destined to be one of the most extraordinary in the annals of the Maison Vauquer. Hitherto the most startling occurrence in its tranquil existence had been the portentous, meteor-like apparition of the sham Comtesse de l’Ambermesnil. But the catastrophes of this great day were to cast all previous events into the shade, and supply an inexhaustible topic of conversation for Mme. Vauquer and her boarders so long as she lived.
In the first place, Goriot and Eugene de Rastignac both slept till close upon eleven o’clock. Mme. Vauquer, who came home about midnight from the Gaite, lay a-bed till half-past ten. Christophe, after a prolonged slumber (he had finished Vautrin’s first bottle of wine), was behindhand with his work, but Poiret and Mlle. Michonneau uttered no complaint, though breakfast was delayed. As for Victorine and Mme. Couture, they also lay late. Vautrin went out before eight o’clock, and only came back just as breakfast was ready. Nobody protested, therefore, when Sylvie and Christophe went up at a quarter past eleven, knocked at all the doors, and announced that breakfast was waiting. While Sylvie and the man were upstairs, Mlle. Michonneau, who came down first, poured the contents of the phial into the silver cup belonging to Vautrin–it was standing with the others in the bain-marie that kept the cream hot for the morning coffee. The spinster had reckoned on this custom of the house to do her stroke of business. The seven lodgers were at last collected together, not without some difficulty. Just as Eugene came downstairs, stretching himself and yawning, a commissionaire handed him a letter from Mme. de Nucingen. It ran thus:–
“I feel neither false vanity nor anger where you are concerned, my friend. Till two o’clock this morning I waited for you. Oh, that waiting for one whom you love! No one that had passed through that torture could inflict it on another. I know now that you have never loved before. What can have happened? Anxiety has taken hold of me. I would have come myself to find out what had happened, if I had not feared to betray the secrets of my heart. How can I walk out or drive out at this time of day? Would it not be ruin? I have felt to the full how wretched it is to be a woman. Send a word to reassure me, and explain how it is that you have not come after what my father told you. I shall be angry, but I will forgive you. One word, for pity’s sake. You will come to me soon, will you not? If you are busy, a line will be enough. Say, ’I will hasten to you,’ or else, ’I am ill.’ But if you were ill my father would have come to tell me so. What can have happened? . . .”
“Yes, indeed, what has happened?” exclaimed Eugene, and, hurrying down to the dining-room, he crumpled up the letter without reading any more. “What time is it?”
“Half-past eleven,” said Vautrin, dropping a lump of sugar into his coffee.
The escaped convict cast a glance at Eugene, a cold and fascinating glance; men gifted with this magnetic power can quell furious lunatics in a madhouse by such a glance, it is said. Eugene shook in every limb. There was the sound of wheels in the street, and in another moment a man with a scared face rushed into the room. It was one of M. Taillefer’s servants; Mme. Couture recognized the livery at once.
“Mademoiselle,” he cried, “your father is asking for you–something terrible has happened! M. Frederic has had a sword thrust in the forehead in a duel, and the doctors have given him up. You will scarcely be in time to say good-bye to him! he is unconscious.”
“Poor young fellow!” exclaimed Vautrin. “How can people brawl when they have a certain income of thirty thousand livres? Young people have bad manners, and that is a fact.”
“Sir!” cried Eugene.
“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 Eugene 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 Eugene, “yesterday she had not a penny; this morning she has several millions to her fortune.”
“I say, M. Eugene!” cried Mme. Vauquer, “you have landed on your feet!”
At this exclamation, Father 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 Eugene, turning to Mme. Vauquer with an expression of terror and loathing that surprised the onlookers at this scene.
Father 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 Eugene.
“Say that I will come directly.”
The man went. Eugene 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 Eugene.
“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 quite right,” responded Poiret to this.
“Where is the harm? It is money stolen from all sorts of people, so it doesn’t belong to any one 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 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, “you have 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 country subscribers; for it brought the morning 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 Hopital 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 say 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 scatheless from this sharp and terrible ordeal, like a bar of iron tested in the English fashion. He remembered Father 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 for ever, they may help each other, and I can take this. Besides, I shall succeed, and I will pay 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. Father Goriot alone was absent, but the rest were chatting. No sooner did Eugene 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 ear, 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 named 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 men 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 cobblestones 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 organization proof against all trials. The blood flew to his face, and his eyes glared like the eyes of a wild cat. 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 cauldron 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 Saint-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 the 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 Gaite 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 Gaite 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 banknotes 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 officers. “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 Orfevres. Down yonder they will 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 any one!–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 gentlemen-in-waiting to his highness the gibbet, master of ceremonies to the widow” (a nickname full of sombre 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 some one 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-bye, Eugene,” 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 defence, 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’ 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. Every one 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 of 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.”
In the twinkling of an eye it was clear that every one in the room, save Poiret, was of the medical student’s opinion, so that the latter, strong in the support of the majority, went up to that elderly person.
“You are more intimate with Mlle. Michonneau than the rest of us,” he said; “speak to her, make her understand that she must go, and go at once.”
“At once!” echoed Poiret in amazement.
Then he went across to the crouching figure, and spoke a few words in her ear.
“I have paid beforehand for the quarter; I have as much right to be here as any one else,” she said, with a viperous look at the boarders.
“Never mind that! we will club together and pay you the money back," said Rastignac.
“Monsieur is taking Collin’s part” she said, with a questioning, malignant glance at the law student; “it is not difficult to guess why.”
Eugene started forward at the words, as if he meant to spring upon her and wring her neck. That glance, and the depths of treachery that it revealed, had been a hideous enlightenment.
“Let her alone!” cried the boarders.