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Honoré de Balzac.

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

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ful on Helene's part, dark and threatening on her
mother's. Helene instantly looked down at her
embroidery frame, drew her needle hastily in and
out, and for a long time did not raise her head,
which seemed to have become too heavy for her to
carry. Was the mother too harsh to her child,
and did she deem that harshness necessary ? Was
she jealous of Helene's beauty, which she might
still hope to rival, but only by resorting to all
the wiles of the toilet? Or had the girl, as many
girls do when they reach the discerning age,
divined secrets, which this woman, who was to
all appearance so religiously faithful to her duties,
thought she had buried in her heart as deeply as
in a grave?

Helene had reached an age when purity of soul
tends to produce a degree of rigidity that goes be-
yond the point at which the sentiments should halt.
In certain minds, transgressions assume the propor-
tions of crime; the imagination thereupon reacts
upon the conscience, and at such times young girls
often exaggerate the punishment in proportion to
their idea of the offence. Helene seemed to regard
herself as utterly unworthy. A secret of her past
life, an accident perhaps, misunderstood at first, but
developed by her keen intelligence, influenced by
religious ideas, seemed of late to have degraded her
to an extraordinary degree in her own eyes. The
change in her behavior had begun on the day when
she first read Schiller's noble tragedy of Wilhelm
14



210 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

Tell in the translation recently issued for the use
of theatres in other countries than Germany. After
she had scolded her daughter for letting the volume
fall, the mother had noticed that the disturbance
caused in Helene's mind by her perusal of the
tragedy was due to the scene in which the poet es-
tablishes a sort of fraternity between Tell, who sheds
one man's blood to save a whole nation, and John
the Parricide. Helene became submissive, pious
and thoughtful and no longer desired to attend balls.
She was more affectionate to her father than she
had ever been, especially when the marchioness
was not present to witness her girlish cajolery.
And yet, if Helene's affection for her mother had
grown cold, the consequent change in her manner
was so slight that the general was not likely to
notice it, jealous as he was of any signs of discord
in his family. No man would have had a suffi-
ciently keen eye to sound the depths of those two
female hearts : one, young and impulsive ; the other,
sensitive and proud; the first, a treasure of indul-
gence; the second, overflowing with delicacy and
love. If the mother saddened her daughter by an
adroit woman's despotism, it was visible to no eyes
but the victim's. However, the sequel is responsi-
ble for all these insoluble conjectures. Until the
night in question, no accusing flash had escaped from
those two hearts ; but between them and God there
was, assuredly, some dark mystery.

"Come, Abel," cried the marchioness, taking
advantage of a moment when Moina and her brother,



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 211

exhausted by their play, were sitting still; "come,
my dear, you must go to bed."

And with an imperative glance she quickly took
him on her knees.

"How is this," said the general, "half-past ten
and not one of the servants has returned ? Ah ! the
rascals! Gustave, " he added, turning to his son,
"I only gave you that book on condition that you
should put it down at ten o'clock; you ought to
have closed it of your own accord at that time, and
have gone to bed, as you promised me. If you
want to make your mark in the world, you must
make your word a sort of second religion, and think
as much of it as of your honor. Fox, one of the
greatest of English orators, was especially remark-
able for his nobility of character. Absolute fidelity
to his promises was his leading characteristic. In
his childhood, his father, an Englishman of the old
stock, gave him a lesson that was well calculated to
make an everlasting impression on a young boy's
mind. When he was about your age, Fox went
home to pass his vacation with his father, who had,
like all wealthy Englishmen, a park of considerable
size around his country house. There was an old
summer-house in the park, that was to be pulled
down and rebuilt at a spot where there was a mag-
nificent view. Children always enjoy seeing things
torn to pieces. Young Fox was anxious to have
two or three additional days of vacation so that he
could see the fall of the summer-house; but his
father insisted on his returning to his school on the



212 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

day fixed for the classes to begin ; the result was a
dispute between the father and son. Like all
mammas, the mother took young Fox's part. The
father thereupon gave his son his solemn promise
that he would wait until the next vacation before
pulling down the summer-house.

"Fox returned to school. The father thought that
a small boy engrossed in his studies would forget
all about it, so he had the summer-house pulled
down and rebuilt in the other place. The obstinate
boy thought of nothing but the summer-house.
When he returned home, his first thought was to go
and look at the old building; but he came sadly
back to the house at breakfast time and said to his
father: 'You deceived me.' The old gentleman,
confused, but without losing his dignity, replied:
'It is true, my son, but I will undo the wrong I have
done. Every man should think more of his word
than his fortune; for to keep to one's word brings
fortune, and all the fortune in the world will not
efface the stain upon the conscience due to a failure
to keep your word. ' The father had the old sum-
mer-house rebuilt where it was before; and after it
was done, he ordered it demolished before his son's
eyes. Let this story be a lesson to you, Gustave. "

Gustave, who had listened attentively to his
father, closed his book instantly. There was a
moment's silence during which the general took
possession of Moina, who was struggling against
drowsiness, and took her gently in his arms. The
little creature let her head fall uncertainly on her



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 213

father's breast, and fell sound asleep, enveloped in
the golden masses of her lovely hair. At that
moment, hurried footsteps were heard in the street
and on the turf ; and suddenly three blows upon the
door woke the echoes of the house. The meaning
of those prolonged blows was as easy to understand
as the cry of a man whose life is in danger. The
watchdog barked furiously. Helene, Gustave, the
general and his wife, were greatly startled; but
Abel, whom his mother had just finished undressing,
and Moina, did not awake.

"That man's in a hurry!" cried the old soldier,
depositing his daughter on the couch.

He hurried from the salon, not hearing his wife's
entreaty :

"My dear, don't go"

The marquis went to his bedroom, took a pair of
pistols, lighted his dark lantern, rushed into the
hall and down the stairs with the rapidity of light-
ning, and soon reached the outer door, whither his
son fearlessly followed him.

"Who is there?" he demanded.

"Open," a voice replied, almost stifled by the
violent gasping for breath that accompanied it

"Are you a friend?"

"Yes, a friend."

"Are you alone?"

"Yes but open, for they are coming!"

A man glided through the door with the extraor-
dinary velocity of a ghost, as soon as the general
had half opened it; and before he could offer any



214 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

resistance, the stranger forced him to let go his
hold, as he closed the door with a vigorous kick and
leaned resolutely against it as if to prevent its being
reopened. The general, as he flashed his lantern
upon him and raised his pistol to his breast to over-
awe him, saw a man of medium height enveloped
in a fur-lined pelisse, an old man's garment, of
ample dimensions and dragging on the ground, hav-
ing evidently not been made for him. Whether by
chance or as a measure of prudence, the fugitive's
brow was entirely covered by a hat that was pulled
over his eyes.

"Monsieur," he said to the general, "put down
your pistol. I have no purpose to remain in your
house without your consent; but, if I go, death
awaits me at the barrier. And such a death ! you
will be responsible for it in God's sight I ask
your hospitality for two hours. Consider, monsieur,
that, suppliant as I am, I might command with the
despotism of necessity. I ask for Arabian hospital-
ity. May I be sacred in your sight! if not, open,
and I will go to my death. Secrecy, shelter and
water 1 must have. Water ! oh, water !" he repeated
in a dying voice.

"Who are you?" the general demanded, amazed
at the feverish volubility with which the stranger
spoke.

"Ah! who am I? Very well, open, and I will
go," the man replied in a tone of infernal irony.

Despite the skill with which the marquis directed
the rays of the lantern, he could see only the lower



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 215

part of the face, and there was nothing there to
plead in favor of extending the hospitality demanded
in such a singular way: the cheeks were trembling
and ghastly pale, and the features horribly con-
tracted. In the shadow cast by the hat brim, the
eyes gleamed like flames and almost dimmed the
feeble light of the candle. However, it was neces-
sary to reply.

"Monsieur," said the general, "your language is
so extraordinary, that if you were in my place,
you "

"My life is in your hands!" cried the stranger in
a terrible voice, interrupting his host

"Two hours?" said the marquis in a hesitating
tone.

"Two hours!" the man repeated.

But suddenly he pushed back his hat with a des-
perate gesture, uncovered his forehead, and, as if
he were determined to make one last attempt to
move the general, darted a keen, penetrating glance
at him that seemed to pierce his very soul. That
gleam of intelligence and will resembled a flash of
lightning and was as crushing as the thunderbolt;
for there are moments when men are endowed with
inexplicable power.

"Whoever you may be, you will be safe under
my roof," rejoined the master of the house, gravely,
obeying, as he conceived, one of those instinctive
impulses which man cannot always explain.

"May God reward you!" said the stranger, with
a long-drawn sigh.



2l6 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

"Are you armed?" the general asked.

By way of reply, the stranger, hardly giving him
time to glance at his pelisse, opened it and hastily
turned it inside out He was apparently unarmed
and dressed as if he had just left a dancing party.
Swift as the suspicious soldier's scrutiny was, he
saw enough to make him exclaim :

"Where the devil could you get so splashed in
such dry weather?"

"More questions !" retorted the stranger, haught-
ily.

At that moment, the marquis caught sight of his
son and remembered the lesson he had just given him
as to the strict observance of one's plighted word ; he
was so keenly annoyed by the incident, that he said
to him, not without a trace of anger in his tone :

"How do you happen to be here, you little rascal,
instead of in your bed?"

"Because I thought I might be of some assistance
to you in your danger," Gustave replied.

"Go up to your room," said the father, somewhat
softened by his son's reply. "And do you," he
said, turning to the stranger, "follow me."

They became as silent as two gamblers who dis-
trust each other. Indeed, the general was beginning
to be conscious of some unpleasant presentiments.
The stranger already weighed upon his conscience
like a nightmare; but, dominated by the sanctity of
his oath, he led him through the corridors and up
the stairs to a large room on the third floor directly
over the salon. It was an unoccupied room used as



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 217

a drying-room in winter, communicated with no
other room, and had no decoration on its four yellow
walls save a wretched mirror left on the mantel-
piece by the last owner, and a large pier glass, for
which no place was found when the marquis took
possession of the house, so that it had been tempo-
rarily deposited before the hearth in the room in
question. The floor of this vast attic had never
been swept, two old, dilapidated chairs were its only
furniture, and the atmosphere was freezingly cold.
Having placed his lantern on the mantelpiece, the
general said to the stranger :

"Your safety requires that this wretched attic be
your place of refuge. As you have my pledge of
secrecy, you will permit me to lock you in."

The man bowed in token of assent.

"1 asked for nothing but shelter, secrecy and
water," he observed.

"I will bring you some, "the marquis replied; he
closed the door carefully and felt his way down to
the salon for a light, in order to go himself to the
pantry for a carafe of water.

"Well, monsieur, what is it?" the marchioness
eagerly asked her husband.

"Nothing, my dear," he replied, coldly.

"But we listened and heard you taking somebody
upstairs "

"Helene," said the general, looking at his daugh-
ter, who raised her eyes to his, "remember that
your father's honor depends upon your discretion.
You have heard nothing."



218 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

The young girl replied with a significant move-
ment of the head. The marchioness remained
quite abashed and inwardly annoyed by the man-
ner which her husband had adopted to impose
silence upon her. The general procured a carafe
and a glass, and returned to the room where his
prisoner was; he found him leaning bare-headed
against the wall near the fireplace; he had tossed
his hat on one of the two chairs. Doubtless he did
not expect to be exposed to so bright a light. His
brow contracted and his face became careworn when
his eyes met the piercing eyes of the general ; but
he restrained his feelings and assumed a more
gracious expression as he thanked his protector.
When the latter had placed the glass and the carafe
on the mantelpiece, the stranger, after he had cast
his flaming eyes around the room once more, broke
the silence.

"Monsieur," he said, in a pleasant voice, which
bore no trace of its recent guttural convulsions, but
which nevertheless indicated some internal trepi-
dation, "I am going to ask a favor that will seem
very extraordinary to you. Pardon a caprice that
circumstances make necessary. If you remain
here, I beg that you will not look at me when I
drink."

Vexed at having still to comply with the whims
of a man, who was extremely distasteful to him,
the general abruptly turned his back on him. The
stranger took a white handkerchief from his pocket
and wrapped his right hand in it; then he seized



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 219

the carafe and drank at one draught all the water it
contained. Without realizing that he was breaking
his tacit promise, the marquis instinctively looked
at the mirror; the two mirrors being so placed
with reference to each other that he could see the
stranger perfectly, he saw that the handkerchief
suddenly became red from contact with his hands,
which seemed to be covered with blood.

"Ah! you looked at me," cried the man, looking
suspiciously at the general when he had drunk and
had wrapped himself once more in his cloak. "I
am lost. They are coming; here they are!"

"I hear nothing," said the marquis.

"You are not interested, as I am, in listening in
space."

"You must have been fighting a duel, to be so
covered with blood?" said the marquis, much
excited when he distinguished the color of the great
wet stains upon his guest's clothes.

"Yes, a duel, you have guessed it," the stranger
replied, as a bitter smile played about his lips.

At that moment they heard the hoof beats of sev-
eral horses galloping in the distance; but the sound
was as faint as the first rays of dawn. The gen-
eral's trained ear detected the regular step of horses
disciplined by military drill.

"It's the gendarmerie," he said.

He cast upon his prisoner a glance of a nature to
put to flight any suspicions that his involuntary in-
discretion might have aroused, and returned to the
salon, taking the light with him. He had hardly



220 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

had time to place the key to the upper room on the
mantelpiece, when the noise made by the cavalry
drew near with a rapidity that fairly startled him.
In another moment the horses stopped at his door.
After exchanging a few words with his companions,
one of the riders dismounted, knocked violently on
the door, and forced the general to answer his sum-
mons. He could not master his secret emotion
when his eyes fell upon six gendarmes, whose hats,
trimmed with silver lace, glistened in the moon-
light.

"Monseigneur," said a brigadier, "didn't you
hear a man running toward the barrier not long
ago?"

"Toward the barrier? No."

"You haven't opened the door to anyone?"

"Am I in the habit of opening my door myself?"

"But, pardon me, general, at this moment it
seems to me "

"What! what!" cried the marquis angrily, "do
you propose to make sport of me ? have you any
right?"

"None at all, none at all, monseigneur," replied
the brigadier, mildly. "You will excuse our zeal.
We know of course that a peer of France doesn't run
the risk of opening his doors to an assassin at this
time of night; but our anxiety to get some informa-
tion"

"An assassin!" cried the general. "Who, then,
has been "

"Monsieur le Baron de Mauny has been killed



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 221

with an axe," the gendarme replied. "But we
are close on the murderer's heels. We are sure
that he's in the neighborhood and we shall run
him down. Your pardon, general."

Fortunately the gendarme was remounting as he
spoke, so that he could not see the general's face.
Being accustomed to imagine all sorts of things, he
might perhaps have had his suspicions aroused by
the aspect of that open countenance on which the
impulses of the mind were so faithfully depicted.

"Do you know the murderer's name?" the gen-
eral asked.

"No," was the reply. "He left the desk full of
gold and banknotes, without touching anything."

"Vengeance, then," said the marquis.

"Nonsense! on an old man? No, no, the rascal
didn't have time to finish his job."

The gendarme galloped off after his companions
who were already some distance away. For a
moment the general remained in a state of per-
plexity easy to understand. Soon he heard his ser-
vants returning, disputing with some heat, so that
their voices could be heard as far away as the Mon-
treuil crossroads. When they arrived, his wrath,
which required a pretext for venting itself upon
something, burst upon them with the crushing force
of a thunderbolt. His voice woke the echoes of the
house. Then he as suddenly calmed down, when
the boldest and shrewdest of them, his own valet,
explained their tardiness by telling him that they
had been stopped at the entrance to the town of



222 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

Montreuil by gendarmes and police agents in quest
of a murderer. The general instantly became mute.
Reminded by that statement of the duties of his
position, he dryly ordered all his people to go to
bed at once, leaving them profoundly astonished at
the readiness with which he accepted his valet's
falsehood.

But, while these things were happening in the
courtyard, an incident, apparently of trivial import-
ance, had changed the situation of the other char-
acters who figure in this narrative. The marquis
had no sooner left the room than his wife, glancing
first at the key on the mantelpiece and then at
Helene, finally said in a low voice, leaning toward
her daughter :

"Helene, your father left the key on the mantel-
piece."

The girl raised her head in amazement and looked
timidly at her mother, whose eyes were sparkling
with curiosity.

"Well, mamma?" she replied in a disturbed
voice.

"I would much like to know what is going on
upstairs. If there is anyone there, he hasn't
moved. Go "

"I?" said the girl with something like dismay.

"Are you afraid?"

"No, mamma, but I think I distinguished a man's
step."

"If I could go myself, Helene, I would not ask you
to go," rejoined her mother in a tone of cold dignity.



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 223

"If your father should return and not find me here,
he would look for me perhaps, while he will not
notice your absence."

"Madame," replied Helene, "if you order me to
go, I will do it; but I shall lose my father's es-
teem"

"Indeed!" retorted the marchioness in an ironical
tone. "But, as you take what was intended only
as a joke, so very seriously, I order you now to go
and see who is upstairs. Here is the key, my
child ! Your father, when he bade you keep silent
as to what is taking place here in his house, did not
forbid your going up to that room. Go, and re-
member that a mother is never to be judged by her
daughter."

She uttered these last words with all the severity
of an outraged parent, then took the key and handed
it to Helene, who rose and left the room without a
word.

"My mother can always find a way to obtain for-
giveness, but I shall be ruined forever in my father's
esteem. Can it be that she wants to take his affec-
tion from me, to drive me from his house?"

These ideas passed suddenly through her mind
while she was walking, without a light, along the
corridor at the end of which was the door of the
mysterious chamber. When she arrived there, her
thoughts were sadly perturbed. The sort of confused
meditation into which she was plunged, caused
innumerable sentiments thus far restrained within
her heart, to overflow. Having already, it may be,



224 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

ceased to believe in the possibility of a happy
future, she definitely despaired of her life at that
frightful moment. She trembled convulsively as
she put the key in the lock, and her emotion was so
overpowering that she stopped for a moment and
put her hand to her heart, as if it had the power to
calm its loud and violent beating. At last, she
opened the door. The creaking of the hinges had
evidently appealed in vain to the murderer's ear.
Although his hearing was very keen, he stood
almost as if glued to the wall, perfectly motionless
and apparently lost in thought The lantern cast
only a feeble light upon him, and in that circle of
half light he resembled the dismal statues of knights
that one always finds standing at the corners of
time-blackened tombstones in Gothic chapels.
Drops of cold perspiration were rolling down his
broad, sallow forehead. Incredible audacity shone
in every line of those distorted features. His flam-
ing eyes, dry and staring, seemed to be gazing at a
combat in the darkness before him. Tumultuous
thoughts passed swiftly across his face, whose firm,
decided expression denoted a superior mind. His
body, his attitude, his proportions were in full
accord with his unruly intellect He was all
strength and power, and he scrutinized the shadows
as if they were a veritable image of his future.
Accustomed as he was to the energetic features of
the giants who thronged about Napoleon, and pre-
occupied principally by moral curiosity, so to speak,
the general had paid no attention to the physical



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 22$

peculiarities of this extraordinary man ; butHelene,
being susceptible, like all women, to external im-
pressions, was deeply impressed by the combina-
tion of light and shadow, of grandeur and passion,
by a sort of poetic chaos which made the stranger
resemble Lucifer rising from his fall. Suddenly,
the tempest depicted upon that face was allayed as
if by magic, and the indefinable power of which the
stranger, unknown to himself perhaps, was the ac-
tive principle and the effect, was diffused about him
with the constantly increasing rapidity of an inun-
dation. A torrent of thoughts flowed from his brow
at the moment that his features resumed their nat-
ural aspect. Fascinated, whether by the strange
nature of the interview, or by the mystery into
which she was penetrating, the young girl now had
an opportunity to admire a mild and most interest-
ing physiognomy. She stood for some time in awed
silence, a prey to emotions hitherto unknown to her
young heart. But soon, perhaps because Helene
involuntarily moved or uttered an exclamation,
perhaps because the assassin, returning from the
ideal to the real world, became conscious of another
respiration than his own, he turned his head toward
his host's daughter, and beheld indistinctly in the
shadow, the sublime face and majestic figure of a
creature whom he might well have taken for an
angel, seeing her as motionless and vaguely outlined
as a phantom.

"Monsieur " said she in a trembling voice.

The murderer started.
15



226 A WOMAN OF THIRTY


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Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 13 of 22)