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Honoré de Balzac.

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His thoughts were of the sort one does not put into
words, swift as the acids that kill as they evaporate.
But his brow was overcast, and Madame d'Aiglemont
obeyed her woman's instinct by sharing his dejec-
tion without understanding it. She was not privy
to the evil she was doing, and Vandenesse discovered
that fact. He spoke of his situation and his jealousy
as if they were some of the hypotheses that lovers
take pleasure in discussing. The marchioness un-
derstood it all, and was thereupon so deeply moved
that she could not restrain her tears. At that
moment they entered the paradise of love. Heaven
and hell are two great poems which set forth in form
the only two points upon which our existence turns:
joy and sorrow. Is not heaven, will it not always



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 177

be, an image of the infinitude of our sentiments,
which will never be painted except in its details,
because happiness is always the same; and does
not hell represent the infinite tortures of our sor-
rows, whereof we can construct a poetic fabric be-
cause they are all dissimilar?

One evening the lovers were alone, seated side
by side, in silence, and gazing intently at one of
the loveliest aspects of the firmament, a sky of
purest blue tinged slightly with purple and gold by
the last rays of the setting sun. At that time of
day, the gradual fading of the light seems to awaken
tender sentiments; our passions vibrate gently and
we have a troubled consciousness of some vague
disturbance amid the tranquillity. By showing
happiness to us by means of vague images, nature
invites us to enjoy it when it is near at hand, or
causes us to regret it when it has fled. At such
moments, fertile in enchantment, beneath the
canopy of the lovely light whose harmonious beauty
lends its aid to the voice of the seducer, it is hard to
resist the impulses of the heart, which are then
possessed of such magic power! then chagrin is
blunted, joy intoxicates and sorrow overwhelms.
The pompous approach of evening gives the signal
for confessions and encourages them. Silence be-
comes more dangerous than speech, for it imparts to
the eyes all the power of the infinite expanse of
heaven which is reflected in their depth. If you
speak, the lightest word possesses an irresistible
power. For is there not at such times light in the

12



178 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

voice and purple in the glance? Is it not as if
heaven were in us, or does it not seem as if we
were in heaven? However, Vandenesse and Julie
for some days she had allowed herself to be ad-
dressed thus familiarly by him whom she took
pleasure in calling Charles Vandenesse and Julie
were talking, but the original subject of their con-
versation had long since disappeared; and, although
they no longer knew the meaning of their words,
they listened with delight to the secret thoughts
they served to cloak. The marchioness's hand lay
in Vandenesse's, and she abandoned it to him with-
out a thought that it was a favor.

They placed their heads together to gaze upon a
majestic landscape of snow-covered fields, of glaciers,
and the gray shadows that darkened the slopes of
mountains of fantastic shape; a picture filled with
sharp contrasts between the red tongues of flame
and the dark shades that embellish the heavens
with inimitable but fleeting poesy; magnificent
swaddling clothes in which the sun is bgrn again,
a lovely winding sheet in which it expires. At
that moment, Julie's hair brushed against Vande-
nesse's cheek; she felt the slight contact, she shiv-
ered violently, and he even more than she; for both
had gradually reached one of those inexplicable
crises in which the tranquillity of nature imparts
such delicate perception to the senses that the
slightest shock causes the tears to fall and the sad-
ness in the heart to overflow, if the heart is given
over to sad thoughts, or gives it ineffable joy if it



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 179

is lost in the vertigo of love. Julie almost involun-
tarily pressed her friend's hand. This persuasive
pressure inspired the timid lover with courage.
The bliss of that moment and the hope of the
future blended in the emotion of a first caress, the
chaste and modest kiss that Madame d'Aiglemont
allowed him to bestow upon her cheek. The more
trivial the favor, the more potent, the more dan-
gerous it was. Unhappily for both there was
no falsity or pretence in it It was the token of a
complete understanding between two noble hearts,
separated by the law, united by all nature's power
of seduction.

At that moment General d'Aiglemont entered
the room.

"There has been a change of ministry," he said.
"Your uncle is a member of the new cabinet. So
you have a most excellent chance to be an ambas-
sador, Vandenesse."

Charles and Julie glanced at each other and
blushed. This mutual shame was an additional
bond between them. Both had the same thought,
the same feeling of remorse; a terrible bond, and
every whit as strong between two brigands who
have just murdered a man as between two lovers
guilty of a kiss. It was necessary to answer the
marquis.

"I have no desire to leave Paris again," said
Charles de Vandenesse.

"We know why," rejoined the general, with the
knowing air of a man who has fathomed a secret.



180 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

"You don't want to leave your uncle, so that he
may make you the heir of his peerage."

The marchioness fled to her room, with this harsh
criticism of her husband upon her lips:

"He is too great a fool for words!"



THE FINGER OF GOD



Between the Barriere d'ltalie and the Barriere de
la Sante, on the inner boulevard leading to the
Jardin des Plantes, there is a view well calculated
to enchant the artist, or the traveler who is most
blase upon the subject of lovely landscapes. When
you reach the summit of a gentle eminence, from
which the boulevard, shaded by tall trees with dense
foliage, curves away as gracefully as a green-car-
peted, silent woodland avenue, you see before you,
at your feet, a deep valley, dotted with unpreten-
tious structures, with patches of verdure here and
there, and watered by the dark-colored streams of
the Bievre or the Gobelins. On the opposite slope
some thousands of roofs, huddled together like heads
in a crowd, conceal the destitution of Faubourg
Saint-Marceau. The magnificent cupola of the Pan-
theon, and the sad-colored, melancholy dome of the
Val-de-Grace tower proudly over a whole city laid
out like an amphitheatre, the successive tiers being
designed in strange fashion by winding streets.
From that point the proportions of the two monu-
ments seem gigantic; they dwarf the frail dwell-
ings and the tallest poplars in the valley. At the
left, the Observatoire, through whose windows and
(181)



1 82 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

galleries the light produces indescribably fantastic
effects, looks like a gaunt, black spectre. In the
distance, the graceful dome of the Invalides glistens
between the bluish masses of the Luxembourg and
the gray towers of Saint-Sulpice. As seen from
that point the architectural lines are mingled with
the foliage, the shadows, and subjected to the
caprices of a sky that offers an incessant change in
color, light and general appearance. Far away from
you the air is peopled with great buildings; around
you is a labyrinth of waving trees, of country paths.
At the right through a broad cleft in this peculiar
landscape, you perceive the long white sheet of the
Canal Saint-Martin, framed with reddish stones,
adorned with lindens, and bordered by those truly
Roman structures, the public granaries. There,
stretching away in the background, the smoky hills
of Belleville, covered with houses and mills, blend
their inequalities with those of the clouds. But
there is a city that you do not see, between the
row of roofs that border the valley and yonder
horizon, vague as a memory of childhood; an im-
mense city, lost, as at the bottom of a precipice, be-
tween the towers of the Hopital de la Pitie and
the summit of the cemetery of the East, between
suffer ing and death. It emits a dull rumbling sound
like that made by the Ocean beating against the
foot of a cliff, as if to say: "I am here." If the
sun pours its floods of light upon this side of Paris,
if it purifies it, if it softens its lines, if it sets some
windows here ablaze, brightens up the roofs, sets



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 183

fire to the gilded crosses, whitens the walls and
transforms the atmosphere into a veil of gauze; if
it creates rich contrasts with the fantastic shadows;
if the sky is blue and the earth quivers, if the bells
speak, then you may gaze in admiration upon one
of those eloquent scenes from fairyland, which the
imagination never forgets, and with which you will
be as enchanted, as enraptured as with a marvelous
view of Naples or Stamboul, or a landscape in
Florida. Nothing is lacking to the perfect harmony
of the concert. There the sounds of the busy world
and the poetic peace of solitude, the voices of a
million beings and the voice of God are murmuring
together. There a capital city lies beneath the nod-
ding cypresses of Pere-Lachaise.

On a certain morning in spring, just as the sun
was bringing out in full relief all the beauties of the
landscape, I was gazing in admiration upon them as
I stood leaning against a great elm, whose yellow
flowers were swaying in the wind. At the sight of
that rich, sublime picture, I reflected bitterly upon
the contempt we profess, even in our books, for our
country as it is to-day. I cursed the poor-spirited
rich men who, being disgusted with our fair land of
France, have purchased the right to look down upon
their native country, by visiting at a gallop and ex-
amining through an opera glass the famous localities
in Italy, which has become so commonplace. I was
gazing fondly at modern Paris and musing deeply,
when suddenly the sound of a kiss disturbed my
solitude and put philosophy to flight. On the



1 84 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

lateral path that crowns the steep incline at whose
foot the waters murmur, I espied a woman looking
out beyond the Pont des Gobelins; she seemed to
be still quite young, was dressed with the greatest
simplicity and refinement, and her sweet face
seemed to reflect the cheerful humor of the land-
scape. A handsome young man was just putting
down the prettiest little boy it is possible to imag-
ine, so that I never knew whether the kiss was be-
stowed on the mother's cheek or on the child's. The
same thought, loving and ardent, shone in the eyes,
in the smile, in the gestures of both the young peo-
ple. They wound their arms about each other with
such joyous freedom and drew close together with
such marvelous concert of movement, that, being
entirely wrapped up in themselves, they did not
notice my presence. But another child, a discon-
tented, sulky child, who kept her back turned to
them, glanced at me with a most striking expression
in her eyes. Leaving her brother to run about
alone, sometimes in advance of her mother and the
young man and sometimes behind them, this child,
who was as beautiful and graceful as the other, but
more slender, remained dumb and motionless, in the
attitude of a torpid serpent. It was a little girl.
There was something curiously mechanical about
the promenade of the pretty woman and her com-
panion. Contenting themselves, perhaps through
absent-mindedness, with traversing the short space
between the little bridge and a carriage that was
standing at a turn in the boulevard, they went over



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 185

the same ground again and again, stopping, looking
at each other, laughing at the capricious bidding of
a conversation that was by turns animated, languish-
ing, joyous or solemn.

Hidden by the great elm, I enjoyed this charming
scene to the full, and should doubtless have re-
spected its mysteries, had I not detected upon the
thoughtful, taciturn little girl's face the traces of
more profound thought than was consistent with her
age. When her mother and the young man turned
back after approaching her, she would frequently
put her head slyly forward and dart a furtive glance
of most extraordinary meaning at them and at her
brother. But no words could describe the piercing
shrewdness, the mischievous innocence, the fierce
attention that lighted up that childish face with its
scarcely perceptible circle about the eyes, when the
pretty woman or her companion smoothed the little
boy's fair locks or threw their arms about his soft
neck with its little white collar, when the fancy
took him to try and walk with them. There was
something very like a man's passion on the strange
child's thin features. She was suffering or she was
in deep thought. Now, which is the more certain
forerunner of death in such budding creatures as
she? is it physical suffering, or is it the premature
thought that consumes their unformed minds?
A mother knows, perhaps. For my own part I can
imagine nothing more horrible than an old man's
thought upon a child's brow; blasphemy on a vir-
gin's lips is less monstrous than that So it was



1 86 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

that the almost stupid manner of this thoughtful
child, and the infrequency of her movements,
aroused my interest. I examined her curiously.
It naturally occurred to me, as a disinterested ob-
server, to compare her with her brother, seeking to
detect the points of resemblance and of difference
between them. The girl had brown hair, black
eyes and an appearance of precocious strength that
formed a striking contrast to the fair hair, sea-green
eyes and charming weakness of the younger child.
The elder was apparently some seven or eight years
of age, the other not more than four. They were
dressed alike; but as I looked carefully at them I
noticed a difference in their shirt collars; trivial
enough it was, but a little later it revealed to me a
whole romance in the past, a whole drama in the
future. And yet it was a very small matter. The
little brunette's collar had a plain hem along the
edge, while her brother's was embellished with
pretty embroidery, betraying a secret of the heart,
an unspoken favoritism which children can read in
their mother's hearts as surely as if they possessed
God's power. The fair-haired boy, joyous and
heedless, resembled a little girl, his skin was so
white and smooth, his movements so graceful, his
expression so sweet; while the elder, despite her
strength, despite the beauty of her features and her
brilliant complexion, resembled a sickly little boy.
Her sharp eyes, which had none of the humid vapor
that imparts such charm to a child's expression,
seemed to have been dried up by an internal fire,



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 187

like courtiers' eyes. Her white skin had an inde-
finable lustreless olive tinge, an indication of a force-
ful character. Twice her young brother ran up and
offered her with touching grace, with a sweet glance
and an expressive gesture that would have enchanted
Charlet, the tiny hunting-horn upon which he blew
lustily from time to time; but on both occasions she
made no other reply than a fierce glance to his:
"Here, Helene, don't you want to take it?" said in
a most affectionate tone. A sombre, terrible crea-
ture, beneath her apparent heedlessness of manner,
the little girl started and even flushed hotly when
her brother came near her ; but he did not seem to
notice his sister's black humor, and his joyous in-
terest in his surroundings put the finishing touch to
the contrast between genuine childish innocence
and the knowledge that makes men thoughtful, and
that was already written upon the girl's features
and had dimmed their beauty with its dark clouds.

"Mamma, Helene won't play with me," the little
fellow cried, selecting for his complaint a moment
when his mother and the young man were standing
silently on the Pont des Gobelins.

"Let her alone, Charles. You know very well
that she is always cross."

These words, uttered thoughtlessly by the mother,
who at once turned abruptly away with the young
man, brought tears to Helene's eyes. She devoured
them in silence, darted at her brother one of those
searching glances that were inexplicable to me, and
looked with ominous meaning at the slope, at the



1 88 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

top of which he stood, then at the Bievre river, the
bridge, the surrounding country and myself.

I feared that I might be noticed by the young
couple, whose interview I should doubtless have
disturbed ; so I softly withdrew and took refuge be-
hind a hedge of elder bushes, whose foliage con-
cealed me completely from all eyes. I sat quietly
down at the top of the slope, looking by turns at
the ever-changing beauties of the landscape, and at
the wild little girl, whom it was still possible for
me to catch a glimpse of through the interstices of
the hedge and between the slender trunks of the
elder bushes against which my head was resting,
almost on a level with the boulevard. Helene
seemed disturbed when she no longer saw me; her
black eyes sought me along the avenue and behind
the trees with inexplicable interest. What was 1 to
her ? At that moment Charles's innocent laughter
rang out in the silence like the song of a bird. The
handsome young man, as fair as the child himself,
was dancing him in his arms, and kissed him again
and again, lavishing upon him the meaningless
words, or, if you please, words used in some other
than their real meaning, which we all say playfully
to children. The mother smiled at them as they
played together, and from time to time said, in an
undertone doubtless, a word or two that came from
her heart; for her companion would pause, beaming
with happiness, and look down at her with eyes full
of fire and idolatry. Their voices, mingled with the
child's, had an indescribably pleasing effect upon



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 189

me. They were all charming. This delightful
scene, in the centre of that superb landscape, spread
an incredibly soothing influence around. A lovely,
fair-haired, laughing woman, a love-child, a man in
the bloom of youth, a cloudless sky, in a word, all
the beauteous creatures of Nature united their har-
monies to rejoice the soul. I surprised myself in a
smile, as if their happiness were mine. The hand-
some young man heard the clock strike nine. Hav-
ing exchanged a loving embrace with his companion,
who had become grave, almost sad, he returned to
his tilbury, which came slowly forward driven by
an old servant. The prattle of the beloved child
mingled with the sound of the last kisses the young
man gave him. When he had entered his carriage
and the woman was standing, listening to the de-
parting wheels, and following the line of dust along
the green roadway of the boulevard, Charles ran to
his sister, who was then near the bridge, and I
heard him say to her in his silvery voice:

"Why didn't you come and say adieu to my dear
friend?"

When she saw her brother standing on the sloping
bank, Helene flashed upon him the most terrible
glance that ever shone in a child's eyes and pushed
him in obedience to an impulse of blind rage.
Charles slipped upon the steep incline and tripped
over a root that threw him heavily upon the sharp
stones of the wall ; he bruised his head upon them
and then, covered with blood, rolled down into the
muddy waters of the river. The water splashed up



icp A WOMAN OF THIRTY

in innumerable dark jets about his pretty, fair face.
I heard the poor child's piercing shrieks; but soon
his voice was stifled in the mud, where he disap-
peared with a dull sound like that made by a stone
when it sinks. The lightning flash is 1 not more
swift than that fall was. I sprang to my feet in hot
haste and ran down to the river by a path. Helene
stupefied with terror, was shrieking at the top of
her voice:

"Mamma! mamma!"

The mother was there beside me. She had flown
to the spot like a bird. But neither the mother's
eyes nor mine could determine the precise spot
where the child had gone down. The black water
covered an immense space. The bed of the Bievre
at that point is covered with mud to the depth often
feet. The child must surely die there, it was im-
possible to save him. At that hour it was a Sun-
day everybody was resting. There were no boats
or fishermen on the river. I could find no rod to
sound the filthy stream, nor could 1 see a living
being in the distance. Why, in Heaven's name,
should I have spoken of this ghastly incident, or
told the secret of this catastrophe? Perhaps Helene
had avenged her father. Her jealousy was the
sword of God, undoubtedly. And yet I shuddered
as I looked at the mother. To what a terrible ques-
tioning her husband, her eternal judge, would com-
pel her to submit! And she carried with her an
incorruptible witness. The child's brow is trans-
parent, its coloring diaphanous; and falsehood in a



A WOMAN OF THIRTY IQI

child is like a light that casts a flush upon his very
glance. The unhappy woman had not thought as
yet of the torture that awaited her at home. She
was looking at the Bievre.

Such an event was certain to produce a terrible
effect upon a woman's life, and the following was
one of the most terrible of the echoes that disturbed
Julie's love from time to time:

Two or three years later, one evening after din-
ner, a notary was present at the house of the
Marquis de Vandenesse, who was then in mourning
for his father and had some matters touching the
succession, to adjust. The notary in question was
not the little notary of whom Sterne wrote, but a
stout, vulgar notary qf Paris, one of those estimable
persons who do idiotic things with the utmost
solemnity, plant their foot heavily upon a hidden
wound and ask why you complain. If, by chance,
they learn the wherefore of their murderous stupid-
ity, they say: "On my word, I knew nothing
about it!" In short, he was an honest donkey of a
notary, who had no idea of anything in life but
deeds. The diplomat had Madame d'Aiglemont with
him. The general had obligingly taken his leave
before the dinner was at an end, to take his children
to some theatre on the boulevards the Ambigu-
Comique or the Gaiete. Although melodramas excite
the emotions to an unhealthy degree, they are con-
sidered at Paris to be within the proper sphere of
childhood, and innocuous, because they always end
in the triumph of innocence. The father had gone



192 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

before the dessert, his son and daughter insisting
so strenuously on arriving at the theatre before the
curtain rose.

The notary, the imperturbable notary, quite in-
capable of asking himself why Madame d'Aiglemont
sent her husband and children to the play and did
not go with them, had been, since dinner, screwed
to his chair to all intents. A discussion that arose
had kept them a long while over their dessert, and
the servants were slow in serving coffee. These
incidents, which consumed time that was doubtless
valuable to her, called forth divers impatient ges-
tures from the pretty woman: she might have been
compared to a race-horse pawing the ground before
the race. The notary, who had no knowledge of
horses or of women, considered the marchioness a
very sprightly and vivacious person. Enchanted to
be in the company of a fashionable lady and a
renowned politician, the good notary played the
wit; he took as a mark of approbation the forced
smile on the marchioness's face, whom he annoyed
beyond measure, and he continued as he had begun.
The master of the house, in concert with his com-
panion, had already taken the liberty of keeping
silent on several occasions when the notary ex-
pected a hearty response; but during those signifi-
cant periods of repose, the devil of a fellow sat and
looked at the fire, trying to remember anecdotes.
Then the diplomat had recourse to his watch. At
last the pretty woman put on her hat to go, but did
not go. The notary saw nothing, heard nothing;



r c swift

f k&PsiH

tt hot haste and ran

t : /w, stupefied ^i




192 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

before the dessert, his son and daughter insisting
so strenuously on arriving at the theatre before the
curtain rose.

The notary, the imperturbable notary, quite in-
capable of asking himself why Madame d'Aiglemont
sent her husband and children to the play and did
not go with them, had been, since dinner, screwed
to his chair to all intents. A discussion that arose
had kept them a long while over their dessert, and
the servants were slow in serving coffee. These
incidents, whBkHNt3t\SirrSS^Km'5 that was doubtless
valuable to her, called forth divers impatient ges-
tures from the pretty woman : she might have been


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Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 11 of 22)