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Honoré de Balzac.

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"A woman!" he cried softly. "Is it possible?
Go away," he continued. "I recognize no one's
right to pity me, to absolve me or to condemn me.
I must live my life' alone. Go, my child, " he added
with a regal gesture, "I should ill requite the ser-
vice the master of this house is doing me, if I
allowed a single one of the persons who occupy it to
breathe the same air as myself. I must submit to
the laws of society."

This last sentence was uttered in a low voice.
As his profound intuition completed the mental pic-
ture of the miserable future evoked by that depress-
ing thought, he cast a sly glance at Helene and set
in motion in that strange maiden's heart, a train of
thought that had hitherto lain sleeping there. It
was as if a bright light had illuminated unfamiliar
countries. Her heart was completely overthrown,
subjugated, before she could find strength to defend
herself against the magnetic power of that glance,
involuntary though it was. Ashamed and trembling,
she left the room and returned to the salon only an
instant before her father's return, so that she was
unable to say a word to her mother.

The general, deeply preoccupied, paced silently
back and forth, with folded arms, from the windows
looking on the courtyard to the garden windows.
His wife was holding the sleeping Abel. Moina lay
upon the couch, like a bird in its nest, sleeping the
untroubled sleep of childhood. The older sister
held a silk pin-cushion in one hand and a needle in
the other, and was gazing at the fire. The profound



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 227

silence that reigned in the salon and throughout
the house as well as out of doors, was broken only
by the dragging steps of the servants, as they went
to bed one by one; by a stifled laugh now and
then, the last echo of the nuptial festivities and
their pleasure; and by the noise made by the doors
of their respective chambers as they held them
open, speaking to one another, and then closed them.
After that there were some muffled sounds around
their beds. A chair fell. An old coachman coughed
feebly for a moment. But soon the sombre majesty,
characteristic of sleeping nature at midnight, held
sway everywhere. The stars alone were shining.
The frost had seized upon the earth. Not a living
thing spoke or stirred. The fire alone crackled
softly as if to emphasize the profoundness of the
silence. The clock at Montreuil struck one. At
that moment, extremely light steps were heard on
the floor above. The marquis and his daughter,
certain that Monsieur de Mauny's assassin was
safely under lock and key, attributed the sound to
one of the women, and were not astonished when
they heard the door of the room adjoining the salon
open. Suddenly, the murderer appeared in the
midst of them. The utter stupefaction of the mar-
quis, the mother's intense curiosity and the daugh-
ter's astonishment having made it possible for him
to come forward almost to the middle of the salon,
he said to the general in a singularly calm and
melodious voice:
"Monsieur, the two hours will soon expire."



228 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

"You here?" cried the general. "By what
power "

And with a terrible glance, he questioned his wife
and children. Helene became as red as fire.

"You here among us!" continued the old soldier
in a tone of intense excitement. "An assassin
covered with blood, here! You make a blot upon
this picture! Go! go!" he added, in a sort of
frenzy.

At the word assassin, the marchioness uttered an
exclamation. As to Helene, the word seemed to
decide her destiny, and her face did not betray the
least astonishment She seemed to have been ex-
pecting the man. Her far-reaching thoughts had a
meaning. The punishment decreed by Heaven for
her sins was made manifest. Believing herself to
be as great a criminal as the man before her, the
girl looked at him with a serene expression; she
was his companion, his sister. In her eyes, the in-
cident was a manifestation of God's will. A few
years later, common sense would have dealt sum-
marily with her remorse; but at that moment it
made her mad. The stranger remained unmoved
and cold. A smile of disdain played over his feat-
ures and his full red lips.

"You do but ill requite the nobility of my be-
havior to you," he said slowly. "I would not touch
my hand to the glass in which you gave me water
to allay my thirst. I have not even thought of
washing my blood-stained hands under your roof,
and I go hence, leaving behind me nothing of my



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 22Q

crime," at those words his lips contracted "except
the idea of it, for I have tried to come and go with-
out leaving a trace. Lastly, I did not even permit
your daughter to "

"My daughter!" cried the general, with a horri-
fied glance at Helene. "Ah! villain, begone, or I
will kill you "

"The two hours have not expired. You can
neither kill me nor give me up without forfeiting
your own esteem and mine."

At that last word the old soldier, utterly dum-
founded, tried to meet the criminal's glance; but he
was forced to lower his eyes, for he found it impos-
sible to sustain the insupportable brilliancy of a
gaze that disorganized his faculties for the second
time. He feared that he should abate his severity
again, as he realized that his will was already
growing weak.

"Murder an old man! Have you never known
what it is to have a family?" he said, waving his
hand paternally toward his wife and children.

"Yes, an old man," echoed the stranger, and his
brow contracted slightly.

"Fly!" cried the general, not venturing to look
at his guest. "Our agreement is broken. I will
not kill you. No! 1 will never make myself the
purveyor to the scaffold. But go; you fill us with
horror."

"I know it," the criminal replied, resignedly.
"There is no spot of earth in France where I can
safely put my foot; but if justice could, like God,



230 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

judge special cases fairly; if it would deign to in-
quire which of the two is the monster, the assassin
or the victim, I should continue to hold up my head
among my fellow-men. Do you not feel instinct-
ively that a man who is killed with an axe must
have been guilty of crimes in the past? I consti-
tuted myself judge and executioner, I filled the
place of impotent human justice. That is my
crime. Adieu, monsieur. Despite the bitterness
with which you have tinctured your hospitality, I
shall remember it. I shall retain in my heart a
feeling of gratitude toward one man in the world,
and you are that man. But I could have wished
that you were more generous."

He walked toward the door. At that moment,
Helene stooped over her mother and said a word in
her ear.

"Ah!"

This cry emitted by his wife made the general
start as if he had seen Moina lying dead. Helene
was standing, and the murderer instinctively turned
about, his face betraying a sort of anxiety for the
family.

"What is it, my dear?" the marquis asked.

"Helene wants to go with him," was the reply.

The murderer blushed.

"As my mother translates so inaccurately an
almost involuntary exclamation," said Helene in a
low voice, "I will gratify her wishes."

After looking about with a glance that was almost
fierce in its pride, the girl cast down her eyes



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 231

and remained standing in an admirable, modest
attitude.

"Helene, " said the general, "did you go up into
the room where I put ?"

"Yes, father."

"In that case, it is not natural that you should
think of"

"If it is not natural, at all events it is true,
father."

"Ah! my child!" said the marchioness in an un-
dertone, but loud enough for her husband to hear.
"Helene, you are giving the lie to all the principles
of honor, modesty and virtue I have tried to de-
velop in your heart. If you have done nothing but
act a lie up to this fatal hour, then you are not to
be regretted. Is it this stranger's moral perfection
that tempts you ? is it the sort of power essential to
people who commit crime? I esteem you too much
to imagine "

"Oh! imagine anything, madame," Helene re-
plied, coldly.

But, notwithstanding the force of character she
displayed at that moment, the fire that glowed in
her eyes could hardly dry the tears in which they
were swimming. The stranger guessed the
mother's language from the daughter's tears, and
fixed his eagle eye upon the marchioness, who was
compelled, by an irresistible force, to look up at this
redoubtable seducer. And when that woman's eyes
met the bright, gleaming eyes of the man who
confronted her, she was conscious of an internal



232 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

shudder like that which seizes us at the sight of
a serpent or when we touch a Leyden jar.

"My dear," she cried to her husband, "he is the
evi! one himself! He guesses everything "

The general rose to grasp a bell cord.

"He will destroy you," said Helene to the mur-
derer.

The stranger smiled, stepped forward, seized the
marquis's arm and forced him to endure a glance
that benumbed his faculties and deprived him of all
energy.

"1 propose to pay you for your hospitality," he
said, "and we shall be quits. I will save you from
dishonor by giving myself up. After all, what can
I do on earth now?"

"You can repent," said Helene, suggesting a hope
to him of the sort that shines only in a maiden's
eyes.

"I shall never repent," said the murderer in a
resonant voice, proudly raising his head.

"His hands are stained with blood," said the
father to his daughter.

"I will wash them," said she.

"But," continued the general, without venturing
to look toward the stranger, "do you know whether
he wants you to do even that?"

The murderer walked toward Helene, whose
beauty, chaste and meditative as it was, seemed to
be illuminated by an internal light, whose reflection
brightened and placed in relief, so to speak, the
slightest features and the most delicate lines; and



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 233

after he had bestowed upon the ravishing creature
a mild glance, in which there was none the less a
fierce flame burning, he said, in a tone indicative of
deep emotion:

"Do I not prove that I love you for your own
sake, and at the same time pay for the two hours of
existence your father has sold me, by refusing to
accept your devotion?"

"And you, you too repulse me!" cried Helene, in
a heartrending tone. "Then adieu to all; I am go-
ing to die!"

"What does this mean?" said her father and
mother, with one voice.

She made no reply, but lowered her eyes, after
she had bestowed an eloquent glance upon the mar-
chioness. From the moment that the general and
his wife had tried to contest by word or deed, the
extraordinary privilege that the stranger arrogated
to himself, of remaining among them, at which time
he had flashed upon them the dazzling light that
streamed from his eyes, they had seemed to be in a
state of inexplicable torpor: and their benumbed
reasoning power afforded them but little assistance
in repelling the supernatural power under which
they succumbed. The air seemed heavy to them,
and they breathed with difficulty, but they could
find no words with which to accuse the man who
oppressed them thus, although an interior voice left
them in no doubt that the sorcerer was the moving
cause of their powerlessness. In the midst of his
mental suffering, the general realized that his efforts



234 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

should be aimed at influencing his daughter's wav-
ering reason: he put his arm around her waist and
led her to a window recess, at some distance from
the murderer.

"My dear child," said he in an undertone, "if
some strange passion has suddenly been born in
your heart, your innocent life and your pure, devout
mind have afforded me too many proofs of the ele-
vation of your character for me to suppose that you
have not the necessary strength of will to subdue a
mad impulse. Therefore, there must be some
mystery behind your conduct. Even so, my heart
>is overflowing with indulgent feeling and you can
safely confide everything to it; even if you should
rend it, my child, I should be strong to conceal my
suffering and maintain absolute silence touching
your secret Tell me, are you jealous of our fond-
ness for your brothers or your little sister? Have
you had any disappointment in love that is weigh-
ing on your heart? Are you unhappy here?
Come, tell me the reasons that induce you to leave
your family, to abandon us and deprive us of the
greatest charm of our lives, to leave your mother
and your brothers and your little sister!"

"I am not jealous of anybody, father," she re-
plied, "nor in love with anybody, not even your
friend Monsieur de Vandenesse, the diplomatist."

The marchioness turned pale, and her daughter,
who was watching her, changed the subject.

"Mustn't I go and live under some man's protec-
tion, sooner or later?"



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 235

"True."

"Do we ever know," she continued, "to what
human being our destiny unites us? I believe in
this man."

"Child," said the general, raising his voice,
"you don't consider all the suffering that is certain
to fall to your lot."

"I think of his suffering."

"What a life!" said the father.

"The life of a true wife," murmured the girl.

"You know a great deal about it!" cried the mar-
chioness, recovering the use of her tongue.

"Madame, questions call forth replies; but, if
you wish, I will speak more clearly."

"Say whatever you choose, my daughter I am
a mother."

At that point, the daughter glanced at her mother,
and the glance caused the marchioness to change
her tone.

"Helene, I will submit to your reproaches, if
you have anything to reproach me for, rather than
see you follow a man whom the world avoids in
horror."

"You see, madame, that without me he would be
alone."

"Enough, madame !" cried the general ; "we have
more than one daughter, have we not?"

And he glanced at Molna, who was still asleep.

"I will shut you up in a convent," he added,
turning to Helene.

"Very well, father," she replied with the calmness



236 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

of desperation; "I shall die there. You are respon-
sible for my life and his soul to God only."

A profound silence succeeded her last words.
The various participants in this scene, in which
everything outraged the ordinary proprieties of
social life, did not dare to look at one another.
Suddenly the marquis noticed his pistols, seized one
of them, cocked it hastily and pointed it at the
stranger. At the noise made by the hammer, the
man turned and fixed his calm, piercing eyes upon
the general, whose arm, relaxed by a weakness he
could not control, fell heavily to his side and the
pistol rolled upon the carpet.

"My daughter," said the father, overcome by this
fearful struggle, "you are free. Embrace your
mother, if she consents. For my own part, I never
want to see or hear of you again."

"Helene," said the mother, thereupon, "remem-
ber that you will be poor and miserable."

A sound not unlike the death rattle attracted at-
tention to the stranger. His face wore a disdainful
expression.

"The hospitality I have given you costs me dear,"
cried the general, rising. "You murdered an old
man a short time ago; now you are murdering a
whole family. Whatever happens, there will be
woe in this house."

"But suppose your daughter is happy?" queried
the murderer, gazing steadfastly at his host.

"If she is happy with you," replied the father
with a superhuman effort, "I shall not regret her."



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 237

Helene knelt timidly at her father's feet and said
to him in a caressing voice:

"O father, I love and respect you, whether you
lavish the treasures of your kindness upon me or the
harsh treatment due to one who has disgraced her-
self. But I implore you, do not let your last words
be words of anger."

The general did not venture to look at her. At
that moment, the stranger stepped forward and said,
glancing at Helene with a smile in which there was
something infernal and divine at once:

"Angel of pity, for whom a murderer has no fears,
come, since you persist in entrusting your destiny
to me."

"Incredible!" cried the father.

The marchioness bestowed a glance of most ex-
traordinary meaning upon her daughter and opened
her arms. Helene rushed into them, weeping.

"Adieu," she said, "adieu, mother!"

She boldly made a motion to the stranger, who
started violently. Having kissed her father's
hand and embraced Moina and Abel hastily, and
without apparent pleasure, she disappeared with
the stranger.

"Which way have they gone?" cried the general,
listening to the steps of the two fugitives. "Ma-
dame," he added, addressing his wife, "I feel as if
I were dreaming: there is some mystery behind
this adventure. You must know what it is."

The marchioness shuddered.

"Your daughter has been singularly romantic and



238 WOMAN OF THIRTY

excitable for some time past," she replied. "Not-
withstanding all the pains I have taken to combat
this tendency on her part "

"That is not clear "

But the general, imagining that he heard his
daughter's footsteps and the stranger's in the gar-
den, interrupted himself to rush to the window and
throw it open.

"Helene!" he cried.

But his voice was lost in the darkness like a vain
prophecy. As he pronounced that name, to which
nobody on earth would answer again, the general
broke, as if by enchantment, the spell that some
diabolical power had laid upon him. A sort of flash
of intelligence passed over his face. He saw clearly
the scene that had just taken place and cursed his
weakness, which he could not understand. A hot
flush ran from his heart to his head and to his feet;
he became himself once more, terrible, thirsting for
vengeance, and uttered a frightful cry :

"Help! help!"

He ran to the bell cords and pulled them as if he
would drag them down, causing an extraordinary
jangling of bells all over the house. All his ser-
vants awoke with a start. He himself, still shout-
ing, opened the windows looking on the street,
called for the gendarmes, found his pistols and dis-
charged them to accelerate the speed of the officers,
the rising of his servants and the coming of the
neighbors. The dogs recognized their master's
voice and barked furiously, the horses neighed and



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 239

stamped. It made a hideous uproar in the silence of
the calm night. As he hurried down the stairway
to run after his daughter, the general saw his people
rushing in dismay from all directions.

"My daughter Helene has been abducted. Go
into the garden ! Watch the street ! Open the door
to the gendarmes! After the assassin!"

He broke, with the strength of madness, the chain
that fastened the great watchdog.

"Helene! Helene !" he shouted to him.

The dog leaped like a lion, barked fiercely and
darted into the garden so rapidly that the general
could not keep up with him. At that moment, horses
galloping were heard in the street and the general
made haste to open the door himself.

"Brigadier," he cried, "cut off the retreat of
Monsieur de Mauny's assassin! They are escaping
through my garden. Quick, guard the roads around
the Butte de Picardie. I am going to beat up all the
fields and parks and houses. Do you," he said to
his own people, "watch the street and form a line
from the barrier to Versailles. Forward, all!"

He seized a gun that his footman brought him and
rushed into the garden, crying to the dog:

"Seek them!"

A furious barking answered in the distance, and
he made off in the direction from which the dog's
hoarse voice seemed to come.

At seven o'clock in the morning, the search of the
gendarmes and the general, his people and his
neighbors had had no result. The dog had not



240 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

returned. Worn out with fatigue, and prematurely
aged by sorrow, the marquis returned to his salon,
thenceforth a desert in his eyes, although his other
children were there.

"You were very cold to your daughter!" he said,
looking at his wife. "That's all we have left of
her!" he added, pointing to the embroidery frame,
on which he spied a flower just begun. "She was
there so short a time ago, and now, lost lost!"

He wept, hid his face in his hands, and was
silent for a moment, afraid to look about at the
salon, which recently afforded such a lovely picture
of domestic happiness. The first rays of dawn were
struggling with the expiring lamps; the candles
were consuming their festoons of paper; everything
was in accord with the father's despair.

"We must destroy that," he said after a moment's
silence, pointing to the frame. "I can't endure to
see anything that reminds us of her."

That terrible Christmas night, during which the
marquis and his wife had the misfortune to lose
their oldest daughter, powerless as they were to
oppose the extraordinary power of domination ex-
erted by her involuntary abductor, was like a warn-
ing given them by Destiny. The failure of a stock-
broker ruined the marquis. He mortgaged his wife's
property to enter into a speculation, the profits
of which were to restore to his family all their
original fortune; but the enterprise completed his
ruin. Impelled by desperation to try every possi-
ble expedient, the general expatriated himself. Six



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 241

years had passed since his departure. Although
his family had heard from him but rarely, he an-
nounced his approaching return to France a few
days before the freedom of the South American re-
publics was recognized by Spain.

So it happened that on a certain lovely morning,
he, with several French merchants, impatient to re-
turn to their native country with the wealth acquired
by hard labor and perilous voyages in Mexico or
Colombia, found themselves upon a Spanish brig, a
few leagues from Bordeaux. One man, who ap-
peared far older than his years warranted, as a re-
sult of exhausting toil or of grief, was leaning
against the bulwarks, apparently insensible to the
spectacle presented to the gaze of the other passen-
gers who were grouped upon the deck. Rejoiced to
feel that the dangers of the voyage were past, and
tempted by the beauty of the day, they had all left
the cabin, as if to salute their native land. Most of
them were anxious to have pointed out to them, in
the distance, the various lighthouses, the towns of
Gascogne, the Tour de Cordouan, mingled with the
fantastic creations of the clouds that lay along the
horizon. Except for the silvery coast line that
sparkled in the sun ahead of the brig and the long
wake, rapidly effaced, that it left astern, the trav-
elers might have fancied that they were motionless
in the middle of the ocean, the sea was so calm.
The heavens were enchantingly beautiful. Their
deep blue blended, by insensible gradations, with
the blue waters, the point of junction being marked

16



242 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

by a sparkling line as brilliant as the stars. The
sun was reflected in millions of faces in the vast ex-
panse of sea, so that the wide plains of water were
more luminous perhaps than the boundless fields of
the firmament. The brig's sails were filled by a
wind of marvelous softness, and the great folds of
snowy canvas, the yellow flags fluttering aloft, and
the labyrinth of rigging were sharply outlined
against the brilliant background of sky and ocean,
untinged by any shade of color other than the sha-
dows cast by the phantom-like sails. A lovely day,
a fresh wind, a tranquil sea, the melancholy plash-
ing of the waves, the fatherland in sight, and a
graceful, solitary brig, gliding over the ocean like a
woman hurrying to a rendezvous, all combined to
make a harmonious picture, a scene wherein the
human mind might embrace illimitable space, start-
ing from a point where all is movement. There
was a marvelous contrast of solitude with life, of
silence with vague sounds, and no one could say
where to look for the noise and life, or for the soli-
tude and silence; nor did a human voice break
the divine charm. The Spanish captain, his crew
and the French passengers sat or stood about, all
alike absorbed in devout contemplation, their minds
overflowing with reminiscences. There was in-
dolence in the very air. The happy faces denoted
complete forgetfulness of past ills, and their owners
swayed this way and that with the motion of the
ship, as in a golden dream. But, from time to time,
the old passenger, leaning against the bulwarks,



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 243

gazed at the horizon with a sort of anxious longing.
Distrust of fate was written in his every feature,
and he seemed to fear that he should never reach
the shores of France in time. That man was the


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Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 14 of 22)