Honoré de Balzac.

Honoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) online

. (page 10 of 22)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 10 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

a disaster. Between them is the immeasurable
interval that separates the foreseen from the unfore-
seen, strength from weakness. The woman of thirty
satisfies every craving, and the young girl should
satisfy none, or she is not a young girl at all. These
ideas develop in a young man's heart, and go to
form the most powerful of passions therein, for it
combines the factitious sentiments inspired by cus-
tom with the real sentiments of nature.

The most important and most decisive step in a
woman's life is the one that a woman always deems
the most insignificant. Once married, she no longer
belongs to herself, she is the queen and the slave of
the domestic fireside. The sanctity of woman is
incompatible with the duties and liberties of society.
To emancipate women is to corrupt them. By
granting to a stranger the privilege of entering the


sanctuary, do we not put it at his mercy ? but for a
woman to entice him thither is a transgression, or,
to be exact, the beginning of a transgression, is it
not ? We must accept this theory in all its rigor or ab-
solve the passions from blame. Up to the present
time, society in France has succeeded in adopting a
me^p termine ; it makes sport of conjugal disasters.
Like the Spartans who punished lack of skill only,
it seems to look kindly upon theft. But, perhaps,
that system is a very judicious one. General con-
tempt constitutes the most horrible of all punish-
ments, in that it strikes the woman to the heart.
Women set great store, and rightly too, upon being
held in honor, for they cannot live without esteem;
therefore it is the first sentiment they demand of
love. The most corrupt of them insists, first of all,
upon absolution for the past, when she sells her
future, and she tries to make her lover understand
that she is exchanging the honor that society will
deny her for irresistible felicity. There is no
woman who, when she receives a young man in her
own house for the first time, and finds herself alone
with him, does not indulge in some of the foregoing
reflections; especially if he be clever or well-made,
like Charles de Vandenesse. In the same way, few
young men fail to base some secret aspirations upon
one of the many thoughts that justify their instinct-
ive love for beautiful, clever and unhappy, women
like Madame d'Aiglemont. And so the marchioness,
when Monsieur de Vandenesse was announced, was
somewhat disturbed; and he was almost ashamed,


notwithstanding the self-assurance which is, in some
sort, a part of a diplomatist's costume. But the
marchioness soon adopted the hearty manner behind
which women take shelter against the possible in-
terpretations of vanity. This manner precluded all
mental reservation and made allowance, so to speak,
for sentiment by tempering it with the forms of
politeness. Women maintain themselves as long
as they choose in this equivocal position, as at the
meeting of four roads which lead to respect, indif-
ference, astonishment and passion respectively. At
thirty, a woman first understands the possibilities of
that situation. She can laugh and joke and be
pathetic therein without compromising herself.
At that age, she possesses the necessary tact to play
upon all the sensitive chords in a man's nature and
to study the sounds she draws from them. Her
silence is as dangerous as her speech. You can
never guess at that age whether she is true or false,
whether her confessions are made in sport or in
good faith. After she has given you the right to
contend with her, suddenly, by a word, by a glance,
by one of those gestures whose power is well known
to her, she puts an end to the battle, turns her back
upon you, and remains mistress of your secret, at
liberty to sacrifice you with a jest or to devote her-
self to you, protected alike by her own weakness
and your strength. Although the marchioness took
her stand upon neutral ground during this first visit,
she maintained a lofty and dignified bearing. Her
secret suffering was still hovering over her factitious


cheerfulness, like a light cloud that only partially
conceals the sun. Vandenesse took his leave, hav-
ing experienced a strange and unfamiliar pleasure
in her conversation ; but he was fully convinced that
the marchioness was one of those women whose
conquest costs so dear that a man cannot afford
to fall in love with them.

"It would be an outpouring of sentiment forever
and ever," he said to himself as he walked away,
"a correspondence that would tire out an ambitious
deputy clerk! And yet, if I chose "

That fatal If I chose! has been the ruin of many
an obstinate man. In Fra'nce, self-esteem leads to
passion. Charles called upon Madame d'Aiglemont
again, and imagined that he could see that she en-
joyed his conversation. Instead of abandoning him-
self frankly to the happiness of loving, he undertook
thereupon to play a double r&le. He tried to appear
impassioned, then to analyze in cold blood the pro-
gress of the intrigue, to be lover and diplomatist at
once; but he was open-hearted and young, and his
analysis was certain to lead him on to a love that
knew no bounds; for the marchioness, artificial or
natural, was always stronger than he. Every time
that he left her house, Charles persisted in distrust-
ing her, and subjected the successive stages through
which his heart progressed to a strict analysis,
which destroyed his own emotions.

"To-day," he said to himself after his third
visit, "she gave me to understand that she is very
unhappy, and alone in the world, and that, if it


were not for her daughter, she would ardently long
for death. She seemed perfectly resigned. Now,
I am neither her brother nor her confessor, and why
did she confide her sorrows to me? She loves me."

Two days after, as he went away, he apostro-
phized modern morals:

"Love takes on the color of every age. In 1822
it is doctrinaire. Instead of manifesting itself, as
formerly, by deeds, it is made the subject of discus-
sion and dissertation and pulpit eloquence. Women
are reduced to three methods: first, they throw
doubt upon our passion, deny that we are capable of
loving as they love. Coquetry! a veritable chal-
lenge which the marchioness threw in my face to-
night. Secondly, they make themselves out as very
unhappy to arouse our natural generous instincts or
our self-esteem. Doesn't it flatter a young man to
be allowed to offer solace in times of dire distress?
Lastly, they have a mania for playing the virgin!
She must have thought I believed her to be entirely
new to the tender passion. My good faith may
prove to be an excellent speculation."

But one day, after he had exhausted his suspi-
cions, he began to wonder if the marchioness were
not sincere; if such suffering could be feigned, why
feign resignation? she lived quite alone, and de<-
voured in silence the grief which could hardly be
detected in the more or less constrained tone of an
interjection. From that moment Charles took a
keen interest in Madame d'Aiglemont. And yet,
as he went to keep a regular appointment, which


had become a necessity to both of them, at an hour
that each reserved for the other by a sort of mutual
instinct, Vandenesse still deemed his mistress more
adroit than genuine, and his last words were:
"Unquestionably, she is a very shrewd woman."
He entered and found the marchioness in her
favorite attitude, an attitude of profound melan-
choly ; she raised her eyes to his face without mov-
ing, and bestowed upon him one of those significant
glances which resemble a smile. Her glance ex-
pressed confidence, true friendship, but not love.
Charles sat down and could find nothing to say.
He was moved by a sensation which there are no
words to interpret

"What is the matter?" she said, in a voice that
betrayed emotion.

"Nothing Yes," he added, "I was thinking of
something that has not yet occurred to you."

"What is that?"

"Why the Congress is at an end."

"Indeed," said she; "were you to have gone to
the Congress?"

A direct answer would have been the most elo-
quent and most delicate of declarations, but Charles
did not make it. Madame d'Aiglemont's face bore
witness to a sincere friendship which destroyed all
the scheming of vanity, all the hopes of love, all the
suspicions of the diplomatist; she was or seemed to
be entirely ignorant that she was beloved; and
when Charles, painfully confused, reflected upon
what had thus far taken place between them, he


was obliged to confess to himself that he had neither
done nor said anything to authorize her to think it
He found the marchioness that evening just as she
always was: simple and cordial, genuine in her
grief, happy to have a friend, proud to have fallen
in with a heart that understood her own ; she went
no farther than that, and did not suppose that a
woman could allow herself to be seduced twice; but
she had known what love is and kept it still bleed-
ing in the depths of her heart; she did not imagine
that happiness could intoxicate a woman twice, for
she did not believe in the mind alone, but in the
heart; and, in her view, love was not seduction,
but it permitted all noble forms of seduction. At
that moment, Charles became a young man once
more; he was subjugated by the splendor of so
grand a character and longed to be admitted to all
the secrets of this existence, blasted by chance
rather than by wrong-doing. Madame d'Aiglemont
cast but one glance at her friend when he asked her
the reason of the great burden of sorrow that im-
parted to her beauty all the harmonious characteris-
tics of melancholy; but that searching glance was
like the seal upon a solemn contract.

"Ask me no more such questions," said she.
"Four years ago, on such a day as this, the man
who loved me, the only man to whose happiness I
would have sacrificed everything, even to my own
esteem, died, and died to save my honor. That affair
came to an end when it was still young and pure
and full of illusions. Before I yielded to a passion


toward which I was impelled by an unexampled
fatality, I had been fascinated, as so many young
girls are to their undoing, by a man of attractive
exterior, but with no mind. Marriage destroyed
my hopes one by one. To-day I have lost legiti-
mate happiness and the happiness which is named
criminal, without having known happiness at all.
I have nothing left. If I cannot die, 1 should at least
remain faithful to my memories."

She did not weep as she spoke, but lowered her
eyes and twisted her fingers in and out as her hands
lay clasped, as usual, in her lap. It was said simply,
but the tone of her voice was the expression of a
despair as profound as her love seemed to be, and
left Charles absolutely no hope. This ghastly
existence, described in three phrases and empha-
sized by wringing her hands, this powerful grief in
so frail a woman, this yawning abyss in a pretty
head, in a word, the melancholy and tears of a sor-
row four years old, fascinated Vandenesse, who sat
silent and very small in his own estimation before
that grand, noble woman: he no longer saw the
exquisite, incomparable material beauty, but the
keenly sensitive heart. He had met at last the
ideal creature so often seen in improbable dreams
and so loudly invoked by all those who throw their
lives into a passion, pursue it with ardor, and often
die before they have been able to enjoy the treas-
ures of which they have dreamed.

In presence of that sublime beauty, and listening
to the words she uttered, Charles's own ideas


seemed very narrow to him. Powerless as he was
to raise his own language to the level of the scene,
at once so simple and so lofty, he replied with some
trite remark about the destiny of women.

"Madame," he said, "we must find a way to for-
get our sorrows, or dig graves for ourselves."

But reason always makes a paltry appearance be-
side sentiment; one is naturally limited, like every-
thing that is positive, and the other is infinite. To
reason when one should be guided by his feelings
only, is the peculiar property of narrow minds.
Vandenesse kept silence therefore, gazed long at
Madame d'Aiglemont, and left the house. With his
mind engrossed with new ideas which made the
woman grander than ever in his eyes, he resembled
a painter who, after he has taken the vulgar models
of his studio for types, should suddenly fall in with
the Mnemosyne of the Musee, the loveliest and the
least appreciated of antique statues. Charles was
profoundly smitten. He loved Madame d'Aiglemont
with the good faith of youth, with the fervor that
imparts to the first passion an ineffable charm, a
candor that a man inevitably finds in ruins, when,
later in life, he loves again: a delicious passion and
almost always keenly enjoyed by the woman who
arouses it, because at the lovely age of thirty, the
poetic climax of a woman's life, she can embrace its
whole course and look back into the past as well as
forward into the future. Women then know all the
value of love and enjoy it with the fear of losing it;
then their hearts are still beautiful with the youth


that is soon to desert them, and their passion is
constantly reinforced by the terrifying thought of
the future.

"I am in love," said Vandenesse as he left the
marchioness on this occasion, "and I am unlucky
enough to have fallen in love with a woman who is
bound hand and foot by memories of the past. It is
a hard matter to contend with a dead man who isn't
here, who can't say foolish things, who never does
anything to displease her, and whose good qualities
only are seen. Is it not trying to supplant perfec-
tion itself, to try and overcome the charms of
memory and the hopes which survive a lost lover,
just because he never aroused anything but desire,
which is the loveliest and most seductive thing love
has to offer?"

This melancholy reflection, due to discouragement
and to the fear of failure with which all true pas-
sions begin, was the last effort at reasoning of his
expiring diplomacy. Thenceforth he made no more
mental reservations, but he became the plaything
of his love, and lost himself among the trifles of the
inexplicable happiness that feeds upon a word, a
pause, a vague hope. He determined to love pla-
tonically, went every day to breathe the air that
Madame d'Aiglemont breathed, almost became a
part of her house, and accompanied her everywhere
with the tyranny of a passion that combines selfish-
ness with the most absolute devotion. Love has its
instinct; it can find its way to the heart as the
weakest insect goes straight to its flower with an


irresistible purpose that takes fright at nothing. So
it is that, when a sentiment is genuine, its destiny
is not doubtful. Is it not enough to cast a woman
into all the anguish of dismay, if it occurs to her
that her life depends upon the greater or less amount
of force, persistence and honesty with which her
lover seeks to accomplish his desires? Now, it is
impossible for a woman, a wife, a mother to protect
herself against a young man's love; the only thing
in her power is to refuse to see him the moment that
she divines the secret of the heart that a woman
always does divine. But that course seems too de-
cisive for a woman to take at an age when mar-
riage weighs upon her, bores her and fatigues her,
when conjugal affectio.n is less than lukewarm, if
indeed her husband has not already deserted her.
Ugly women are flattered by a love that makes them
beautiful; if they are young and charming, the
power of fascination must be on a level with their
fascinations, that is to say immense ; if they are
virtuous, a sublime but very earthly sentiment leads
them to discover absolution in some form in the very
grandeur of the sacrifices they make to their lovers,
and of the glory to be won in the bitter struggle.
Everything is a snare. Therefore, no lesson is too
severe for such severe temptations. The enforced
seclusion of women in Greece in former times, in
the Orient, and recently to a considerable extent in
England, is the only safeguard of morality; but
where that system prevails, all the pleasures of life
disappear ; neither society, nor courtesy, nor refined


manners are possible. The nations will have to
make their choice.

Some few months after her first meeting with
Vandenesse, Madame d'Aiglemont found that her
life was closely connected with that youth's, and
she astonished herself, without overmuch confusion
and almost with pleasure, by the discovery that she
shared his thoughts and his inclinations. Had she
adopted Vandenesse's ideas, or had Vandenesse
made her slightest caprices his own? she made no
investigation in that direction. Although she was
already in the grasp of the current of passion, the
adorable creature said to herself, with the false good-
faith of fear :

"Oh no! I will be faithful to the man who died
for me."

Pascal has said: "To doubt God is to believe in
Him." In like manner, a woman does not struggle
until she is caught. On the day when the marchion-
ess confessed to herself that she was beloved, she
found herself wavering among a thousand contrary
sentiments. The superstitions of experience spoke
their language. Would she be happy? could she
find happiness outside the laws which society,
rightly or wrongly, takes for its guide in matters of
morality? Thus far, life had poured nothing into
her cup but bitterness. Was it possible that there
could be a happy ending to the union of two beings
who are separated by the laws of society ? But can
one ever pay too high a price for happiness? And
perhaps she would at last enjoy the happiness that


she had so fervently longed for, and that it is so
natural to seek ! Curiosity always pleads the cause
of lovers. In the midst of this internal discussion
Vandenesse arrived. His presence put to flight the
metaphysical phantom of reason. If such are the
successive transformations through which a senti-
ment passes, rapid though it be, in the mind of a
young man and in the mind of a woman of thirty,
there is a moment when the subtle distinctions
blend, when the arguments all come together in a
single one, in a single reflection which becomes
confused with an aspiration and confirms it. The
longer the resistance has been, the more powerful
is the voice of love. Here ends, then, the lesson or
rather the study of the ecorch'e, if we may be
allowed to borrow from the painter's art one of its
most picturesque expressions; for this narrative
describes the dangers and mechanism of love rather
than paints them. But from that day forth each
day added color to the skeleton, clothed it with the
charms of youth, reanimated its flesh, gave new life
to its movements, restored its brilliancy and beauty,
the fascinations of sentiment and the attractions of
life. Charles found Madame d'Aiglemont in a pen-
sive mood; and when he said to her in an earnest
tone which the seductive witchery of the heart made
persuasive: "What is the matter?" she made no
reply. That significant question denoted a perfect
understanding between their hearts; and with the
marvelous instinct of woman, the marchioness
realized that a complaint or a word of her private


sorrow would be in some sort an advance. If every
word they had already spoken had a meaning under-
stood by them both, into what frightful pit was she
about to step ? She read her own mind with a clear,
lucid glance, and held her peace, and her silence was
imitated by Vandenesse.

"I am not well," said she at last, terrified at the
possible results of a moment when the language of
the eyes supplemented the helplessness of the

"Madame," replied Charles in a tender but deeply
moved voice, "the body and the heart are closely
connected. If you were happy, you would be young
and fresh. Why do you refuse to ask of love all
that love has taken from you ? You believe that life
is at an end just when it is really beginning for you.
Trust yourself to the loving care of a friend. It is
so sweet to be loved !"

"I am old already," said she, "so that I have no
excuse for not continuing to suffer as in the past.
But, you say, I must love? Ah! I cannot, nor
ought I to. Besides yourself, whose friendship casts
some pleasure on my life, I care for nobody, and
there is nobody who can efface my memories of the
past. I accept a friend, I would fly from a lover.
And would it be generous in me to give a blighted
heart in exchange for a fresh, young heart, to wel-
come illusions which I can no longer share, to cause
a happiness in which I should not believe, or which
I should fear to lose ? I should repay its devotion
with selfishness perhaps, and scheme for my own


profit when it was moved by deep feeling; my
memory would blunt the keenness of its enjoyment.
No, a first love is never replaced, you see. Indeed,
what man would care for my heart at such a price?"

These words, inspired by a ghastly sort of
coquetry, were the last struggle of her virtue.

"If he loses heart, well, I will remain alone and
faithful. " That thought came to her mind, and was
to her what the too slender willow branch is to the
swimmer who seizes it before he is carried away by
the current.

When he heard that decree, Vandenesse allowed an
involuntary movement to escape him, which had
more effect upon the marchioness's heart than all
his past assiduity. The thing that touches a
woman most is not the charming refinement of cour-
tesy she may meet with at our hands, or the senti-
ments as exquisite as her own ; for, in them, grace
and refinement are symbols of the true. Charles's
impulsive gesture revealed genuine love. Madame
d'Aiglemont could measure the strength of his affec-
tion by the strength of her own grief.

"You are right, perhaps," said the young man
coldly. "A new love, a new disappointment."

Then he changed the subject and talked about in-
different things; but he was visibly moved and
gazed at Madame d'Aiglemont with concentrated
attention, as if it were for the last time. At last
he left her, saying, with emotion:

"Adieu, madame. "

"Au revoir," said she, with the sly coquetry, the


secret of which belongs only to the chosen few
among women.

He made no reply, but went away.

When Charles was no longer present, when his
empty chair spoke for him, she had numberless
regrets and blamed herself freely. Passion is mak-
ing enormous progress in a woman's heart when she
begins to think that she has acted ungenerously or
has wounded some noble soul. One should never
look with distrust upon harsh sentiments in love;
they are very salutary; women succumb only under
the weight of a virtue. Hell is paved with good in-
tentions is not a mere preacher's paradox. For some
days Vandenesse did not return. Every evening at
the hour at which he usually called, the marchioness
awaited him with remorseful impatience. To write
him would be a confession ; besides, her instinct told
her that he would return. On the sixth day, her foot-
man announced him. Never had she heard his name
with more real pleasure. Her joy frightened her.

"You have punished me severely," she said.

Vandenesse looked at her with a bewildered air.

"Punished you!" he repeated. "For what,

He understood her meaning perfectly; but he
wished to take his revenge for the suffering he had
undergone as soon as she suspected it

"Why did you not come to see me?" she asked
with a smile.

"Have you seen no one meanwhile?" he said, to
avoid a direct reply.


"Monsieur de Ronquerolles and Monsieur de Mar-
say were here nearly two hours yesterday, and
little D'Esgrignon about the same time this morning.
I have also seen Madame Firmiani, I believe, and
your sister, Madame de Listomere. "

Another pang! incomprehensible to those who do
not love with the all-pervading, ferocious despotism,
whose least important effect is a horrible jealousy,
a perpetual desire to remove the loved one from
every influence unconnected with one's love.

"What!" said Vandenesse to himself, "she has
received visitors, she has conversed with other con-
tented beings, while I, poor, miserable wretch, re-
mained by myself!"

He buried his chagrin and tossed his love to the
bottom of his heart, as a coffin is tossed into the sea.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 10 of 22)