The Death of Balzac
By Victor Hugo
On the 18th of August, 1850, my wife, who had been during the day to see Mme. de Balzac, told me that Balzac was dying. I hurried to him.
M. de Balzac had been suffering for eighteen months from hypertrophy of the heart. After the revolution of February he went to Russia, and there married. Some days before his departure I met him in the boulevard. He was then complaining, and breathing noisily. In May, 1850, he returned to France, married, rich, and dying! When he arrived, his legs were already swollen. Four doctors held a consultation. One of them, M. Louis, told me on the 6th of July, “He has not six weeks to live.” It is the same disease that killed Frederic Soulie.
On August 18th my uncle, General Louis Hugo, was dining with me. As soon as the table was cleared I left, and took a cab to the Avenue Fortunee (No. 14), in the Quartier Beaujon, where M. de Balzac lived. He had purchased what remained of the mansion of M. de Beaujon, some portion having escaped demolition. He had furnished it magnificently, and made it a very pretty little house, having a carriage entrance in the Avenue Fortunee, and for a garden a long and narrow court, in which the pavement was here and there cut in flower-beds.
I rang. The moon was up, but obscured by clouds. The street was deserted. No one came. I rang again. The door opened. A servant appeared with a candle. “What to you want, sir?” she asked. She was crying.
I told her my name. She ushered me into a room on the ground-floor, in which, on a console opposite the chimney-piece, was a colossal bust of Balzac by David. A wax candle was burning upon a splendid table in the centre of the salon, and which had for feet six statuettes, gilt with the purest gold.
Another woman, who was also crying, came and said, “He is dying. Madame has gone to her room. The doctors have not been here since yesterday. He has a wound in the left leg. Gangrene has set in. The doctors do not know what to do; they say that the dropsy is a couennous dropsy, an infiltration. That is what they call it; that the skin and the flesh are like lard, and that it is impossible to tap him. Last month, when going to bed, master ran against a decorated piece of furniture and tore the skin of his leg, and all the water in the body ran out. The doctors were much astonished, and since then they have made puncturations. They said, ‘Imitate nature.’ But an abscess of the limb has supervened. M. Roux operated. Yesterday they removed the dressing; the wound, instead of having suppurated, was red, dry, and burning. Then they said, ‘He is lost,’ and they have never returned. Four or five have been sent for in vain. Every one said, ‘It is no use.’ He had a bad night. This morning at nine Monsieur could not speak. Madame sent for a priest; he came, and has given Monsieur extreme unction. One hour after he shook the hand of his sister, Madame de Surville. Since eleven o’clock the rattle has been in his throat, and he can see no longer. He will not live through the night. If you wish, sir, I will go and look for M. de Surville, who has not yet retired.”
The woman left me. I waited for some minutes. The candle scarcely lighted the room, its splendid furniture and fine pictures by Porbus and Holbein. The marble bust shows back vaguely in the gloom like the spectre of the man who was dying. A corpse-like smell pervaded the house.
M. de Surville entered and confirmed all that the servant had said. I requested to see M. de Balzac.
We proceeded along a corridor, ascended a staircase covered with red carpet and laden with objects of art–vases, statues, pictures, credence-tables–and then another corridor; and I perceived an open door. I heard a loud and sinister rattling noise. I was in the death-chamber of Balzac.
A bed stood in the middle of the room, a mahogany bedstead having a suspensory arrangement at the head and foot for the convenience of moving the invalid. M. de Balzac was in this bed, his head supported on a pile of pillows, to which had been added the red damask cushions from the sofa. His face was purple, almost black, and drawn to the right side; his beard untrimmed, his grey hair cut short, his eyes fixed and open. I saw him in profile, and thus he resembled the Emperor.
An old woman, the nurse, and a man-servant stood at each side of the bed; a candle was burning behind the head of the bed upon a table, another upon the drawers near the door. A silver vase was placed on the night-table. This man and this woman stood silent in fear, and listened to the dying rattle of the invalid.
The candle behind the bed lighted up brightly the portrait of a young man, ruddy and smiling, hanging near the fireplace.
An unsupportable smell issued from the bed. I lifted the counterpane and took the hand of Balzac. It was clammy. I pressed it. He did not respond to the pressure.
This was the same room in which I had come to see him a month previously. He was then cheerful, full of hope, having no doubt of his recovery, showing his swelled limb, and laughing. We had a long conversation and a political dispute. He called me his demagogue. He was a Legitimist. He said to me, “How have you so quietly renounced the title of Peer of France, the best after that of King of France?” He also said, “I have the house of M. de Beaujon without the garden, but with the seat in the little church at the corner of the street. A door in my staircase opens into this church,–one turn of the key and I can hear Mass. I think more of the seat than of the garden.” When I was about to leave him he conducted me to this staircase with difficulty, and showed me the door, and then he called out to his wife, “Mind you show Hugo all my pictures.”
The nurse said to me, “He will die at daybreak.”
I came downstairs again, bearing in mind the livid face. Crossing the dining-room, I found the bust immovable, impassible, haughty, vaguely radiant, and I compared death with immortality.
When I reached home it was Sunday. I found many people awaiting me, among others Riza-Bey, the Turkish Charge d’Affaires, Navarette the Spanish poet, and the Count Arrivabene, the exiled Italian. I said to them, “Gentlemen, Europe is on the point of losing a great soul.”
He died in the night. He was fifty-one years old.
They buried him on Wednesday.
He lay first in the Beaujon Chapel, and he was carried thither by the door, the key of which was more precious to him than all the beautiful gardens of the former “Fermier General.”
Giraud took his portrait on the very day of his death. They wished to mould his mask, but could not; decomposition was too rapid. The day after his death, in the morning, the modellers who came found his face deformed and the nose fallen upon the cheek. They put him in an oak and lead coffin.
The service was performed at Saint-Philippe du Roule. As I stood by the coffin I remembered that there my second daughter had been baptized, and I had not been in the church since. In our memories death touches birth.
The Minister of the Interior, Baroche, came to the funeral. He was seated by me in church, near the bier, and from time to time he spoke to me. He said, “He was a distinguished man.” I replied, “He was a genius.”
The procession traversed Paris and went by way of the boulevards to Pere la Chaise. A few drops of rain fell when we were leaving the church and when we reached the cemetery. It was one of those days on which it seems that the heavens must shed tears.
We walked all the way. I proceeded in front of the coffin, holding one of the silver tassels of the pall; Alexandre Dumas was on the other side.
When we came to the grave, which was some distance up the hill, we found an immense crowd. The road was rough and narrow; the horses had some difficulty in pulling the hearse, which rolled back again. I found myself imprisoned between a wheel and a tomb, and was very nearly crushed. The spectators who were standing on the tomb helped me up.
The coffin was lowered into the grave, which is close to those of Charles Nodier and of Casimir Delavigne. The priest said the last prayer, and I spoke a few words. As I was speaking the sun set. All Paris appeared in the distance enveloped in the splendid haze of the setting orb. The earth began to fall into the grave almost at my feet, and I was interrupted by the dull sound of this earth dropping on the coffin.