Copyright
Honoré de Balzac.

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

. (page 17 of 22)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 17 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


warning from above in the respect which fate seemed
to entertain for the child of her heart, and accorded
only a fleeting thought now and then to her children
who had already fallen in obedience to the caprice
of death, and who remained at the bottom of her
heart, like the gravestones erected on a battlefield,
which are almost hidden from sight by wild flowers.
Society might well have held the marchioness to
a strict accounting for this indifference and this
favoritism; but society in Paris is hurried along by
such a torrent of events and new fashions and ideas,
that Madame d'Aiglemont's life was sure to be in
some sort forgotten. No one thought of imputing to
her as crimes a lack of warmth and a neglect which
interested no one; while her ardent affection for



278 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

Moina interested many people, and had all the sanc-
tity of a prejudice. Besides, the marchioness went
but little into society; and to most of those who
knew her she seemed a kindly, gentle, pious, indul-
gent mother. Now, must one not have a very keen
interest to induce one to go deeper than the appear-
ances with which society is content? And then,
what can we not forgive old people, when they
efface themselves like ghosts, and no longer seek to
be anything more than memories? In short, Ma-
dame d'Aiglemont was complacently cited as a
model by children to their fathers, by sons-in-law
to their mothers-in-law. She had given her prop-
erty to Moina during her life, content with the
young countess's happiness, and living only in
her and for her. If prudent old men and disap-
pointed uncles disapproved her conduct, saying:
"Madame d'Aiglemont may repent some day of
having divested herself of her fortune in her
daughter's favor; for, even if she knows Madame
de Saint-Hereen's heart perfectly, can she be as
sure of her son-in-law's probity?" there was a gen-
eral outcry against the prophets ; and eulogies rained
upon Moina from all sides.

"We must do Madame de Saint-Hereen the jus-
tice to admit," remarked one young woman, "that
her mother found no change in her surroundings.
Madame d'Aiglemont has wonderfully pleasant
quarters ; she has a carriage at her service and can
go wherever she pleases in society, just as be-
fore"



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 279

"Except to the Italiens," murmured an old para-
site, one of the people who imagine that they have
a right to overwhelm their friends with epigrams
on the pretext of displaying their independence.
"The dowager cares for almost nothing but music,
speaking of things that her spoiled child knows
nothing about. She was such a fine musician in
her day! But, as the countess's box is always
invaded by young butterflies, and as she would be
rather an embarrassment to that young person, who
is already talked about as a great flirt, the poor
mother never goes to the Italiens."

"Madame de Saint-Hereen," said an old maid,
"gives delightful evening parties for her mother and
has a salon that all Paris frequents."

"A salon where no one pays any attention to the
marchioness," replied the parasite.

"The fact is, that Madame d'Aiglemont is never
alone," said a dandy, supporting the party of the
young, ladies.

"In the morning," rejoined the old sycophant,
"in the morning dear Moina sleeps. At four
o'clock, dear Moina drives in the Bois. In the even-
ing, dear Moina goes to the ball or the Bouffes. But
to be sure, Madame d'Aiglemont has the privilege of
seeing her dear daughter while she is dressing, or
during dinner, when dear Moina happens to dine
with her dear mother. It isn't a week ago, mon-
sieur," said the sycophant, taking by the arm a shy
preceptor, a new comer in the house in which he
then was, "since I saw the poor mother sitting sad



280 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

and alone at the corner of her hearth. 'What is it?'
I asked her. The marchioness smiled as she looked
up at me, but she had certainly been weeping. 'I
was thinking,' she said, 'that it is very strange that
I should be all alone after I have had five children ;
but it is all in our destiny! And then I am happy
when I know that Mo'ina is enjoying herself!' She
could safely confide in me, because I used to know
her husband. He was a poor creature, and he was
very lucky to have her for a wife; he certainly
owed to her his peerage, and his office at the court of
Charles X."

But so many errors glide into the conversation of
society, such profound harm is heedlessly done
there, that the historian of manners is compelled to
weigh carefully the assertions recklessly put forth
by so many reckless gossips. Perhaps, indeed, one
ought never to undertake to say whether the child
or the mother is right or wrong. Between those
two hearts there is but one possible judge. That
judge is God! God, Who often wreaks His ven-
geance in the bosom of families, and constantly
makes use of children against mothers, of fathers
against sons, of peoples against kings, of princes
against nations, of everything against everything;
replacing one set of sentiments by another in the
moral world, as young leaves expel the old leaves in
the spring; acting by virtue of an unchangeable
system, in pursuit of an object known to Him alone.
We know that everyone goes to His bosom, or, better
still, returns thither.



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 28 1

Such devout thoughts as these, so natural to the
minds of old people, floated vaguely through Ma-
dame d'Aiglemont's mind; they shed an uncertain
light there, being sometimes buried out of sight,
sometimes completely unfolded, like flowers tossed
about on the surface of the water during a tempest.
She was sitting, worn out, enfeebled by long medi-
tation, lost in one of those reveries in which one's
whole life stands forth, unfolds itself before the
eyes of those who feel the approach of death.

This woman, grown old before her time, would
have presented an interesting picture to a poet who
chanced to pass along the boulevard. Anyone who
saw her sitting in the slender shadow of an acacia
the shadow of an acacia at noon could have read
one of the thousand things written upon that face,
pale and cold even in the hot rays of the sun. Her
expressive face spoke of something even more solemn
than life is at its decline, of something more pro-
found than a heart benumbed by experience. She
was one of those types which, among a thousand faces
from which you turn contemptuously aside because
they are without character, make you pause for a
moment and reflect; just as, amid the countless
pictures in a gallery, you are profoundly impressed,
it may be by the sublime face upon which Murillo
depicts maternal grief, or by the face of Beatrice
Cenci whereon Guido succeeded in depicting the
most touching innocence as a background to the
most horrible of crimes, or by the sombre face of
Philip II., whereon Velasquez has expressed for all



282 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

ages the majestic terror that royalty should inspire.
Certain human faces are despotic images, that speak
to you and question you, answer your secret
thoughts, and compose entire poems. Madame
d'Aiglemont's rigid face was one of those terrible
poems, one of the faces that are scattered broadcast
by thousands through the Divine Comedy of Dante
Alighieri.

During the brief season that a woman remains in
bloom, the characteristics of her beauty second ad-
mirably the dissimulation to which her natural
weakness and our social laws condemn her. Beneath
the rich coloring of her fresh young face, beneath
the fire of her eyes, beneath the lovely network of
her delicate features, of such a labyrinth of lines,
curved or straight, but unbroken and perfectly well
marked, all her emotions may be kept secret; the
blush reveals nothing then, for it simply deepens
colors that are already brilliant; all the interior
flames blend so perfectly with the light of her eyes,
beaming with animation, that the fleeting gleam of
a momentary pang appears simply as an added
charm. Therefore nothing is so prudent as a youth-
ful face, because nothing is more impassive. A
young woman's face has the calmness, the smooth-
ness, the freshness of the surface of a lake. A
woman's real face does not begin to show until she
is thirty. Until that age the painter finds in their
faces only the same shades of pink and white, smiles
and expressions which repeat the same thought, the
thought of youth and love, an unvarying thought



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 283

that has no depth; but, in old age, everything
about a woman speaks, the passions are graven upon
her features; she has been sweetheart, wife and
mother; the most violent expressions of joy and
grief have ended by distorting, torturing her linea-
ments, by leaving their marks there in countless
wrinkles, all of which have a language of their own ;
and a woman's face thereupon becomes sublimely
terrible, beautifully sad, or magnificently calm; if
we may venture to pursue this strange metaphor,
the lake when it has run dry lays bare the traces of
all the torrents that produced it; an old woman's
face no longer belongs to the frivolous world, which
views therein with dismay the destruction of all the
ideas of elegance to which it is accustomed, nor to
commonplace artists who can discover nothing there-
in, but to the true poets, to those who can appre-
ciate a beautiful object independently of all the
conventions that lie at the root of so many preju-
dices concerning art and beauty.

Although Madame d'Aiglemont wore a fashion-
able capote, it was easy to see that her hair, once
black, had been whitened by cruel emotions; but
the way in which she separated it into two broad
bands betrayed her excellent taste, revealed the at-
tractive manners of a woman of the world, and out-
lined perfectly her withered, wrinkled brow, in
whose shape could still be seen some traces of its
former splendor. The lines of her face, the regu-
larity of her features conveyed some idea a feeble
idea, it is true of the beauty of which she might



284 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

well have been proud; but those same tokens indi-
cated even more clearly the sorrow that had been
enough to furrow that face, to wither the temples,
to hollow the cheeks, to draw dark circles around
the eyes and deprive them of their lashes, which
lend charm to the glance. She was always silent;
her gait and her movements had that solemn, medi-
tative moderation that compels respect. Her mod-
esty, transformed into timidity, seemed to be the
result of the habit, which she had adopted some
years before, of effacing herself in her daughter's
presence ; she spoke but rarely, and her speech was
soft, like that of all persons who are compelled to
reflect, to concentrate their feelings, to live in them-
selves. Her attitude and her reserve inspired an
indefinable sentiment, which was neither fear nor
compassion, but in which all the ideas aroused by
those diverse emotions were mysteriously blended.
In fine, the nature of her wrinkles, the way in
which her face was seamed, the pallor of her piti-
ful expression, all bore eloquent witness to the tears
that are consumed by the heart and never fall to
earth. Those wretched creatures who are accus-
tomed to gaze up to Heaven to appeal to it from the
woes of their earthly lives, would readily have
recognized in this mother's eyes, the wearing habit
of praying every instant of the day, and the faint
vestiges of the secret bruises that finally destroy the
flowers of the heart, even to the sentiment of
maternity. Painters have colors for these portraits,
but ideas and words are powerless to describe them



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 285

faithfully; there are in the tones of the complexion,
in the expression of the face, inexplicable phenom-
ena, which the mind grasps through the eyes; but
the narrative of the events to which such terrible
upheavals of the countenance are due, is the only
resource remaining to the poet to make them under-
stood. Her face betokened a cold, calm storm within,
a secret combat between the heroism of maternal
grief and the infirmity of our emotions, which are
finite like ourselves, and among which nothing im-
mortal is ever found. This constantly repressed
suffering had at last caused her to become morbid to
some extent. Doubtless some over-violent emotions
had wrought an organic change in her maternal
heart, and some fatal disease, an aneurism perhaps,
threatened Julie, unknown to her, with gradual de-
cay. Genuine suffering is apparently so tranquil in
the deep bed it makes for itself, where it seems to
sleep, but continues to corrode the heart, like that
redoubtable acid that eats through crystal ! At that
moment, two tears rolled down the marchioness's
cheeks, and she rose as if some more poignant re-
flection than all that had gone before, had wounded
her to the quick. She had undoubtedly formed an
accurate forecast of Moina's future. And as she
meditated upon the sorrow that was in store for her
daughter, all the disasters of her own life fell with
crushing weight upon her heart.

The mother's situation will be better understood
when we have explained her daughter's.

The Comte de Saint-Hereen had left Paris some



286 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

six months before upon a political mission. During
his absence Moina, who, to all the petty vanities of
the flirt added the capricious fancies of the spoiled
child, had amused herself, through mere lighthead-
edness or from the inborn coquetry of woman, or it
may be to try her power, too, by playing with the
passion of a clever but heartless man, who claimed
to be intoxicated with love, with that love with which
all the little social and absurd ambitions of the dandy
are commingled. Madame d'Aiglemont, who had by
long experience acquired a knowledge of life, and
had learned to judge men and to fear the world, had
watched the progress of the intrigue, and foresaw
her daughter's ruin when she found that she had
fallen into the hands of a man to whom nothing was
sacred. Was it not a terrible thing for her to recog-
nize a true rou'e in the man whom Moina seemed to
listen to with delight? Therefore, her darling child
was on the brink of an abyss. She had a horrible
certainty that it was so, but did not dare check her,
for she was afraid of the countess. She knew be-
forehand that Mo'ina would listen to none of her
wise words of warning; she had no power over that
heart, as hard as iron toward her, but soft to others.
Her affection would have led her to interest herself
in the woes and pains of a passion justified by the
seducer's noble qualities, but her daughter was act-
ing upon an impulse of coquetry; and the mar-
chioness despised Comte Alfred de Vandenesse,
knowing that he was the man to look upon his con-
test with Moina as a game of chess. Although



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 287

Alfred de Vandenesse filled the wretched mother
with horror, she was obliged to bury the real reasons
for her aversion in the deepest recesses of her heart
She was intimately connected with the Marquis de
Vandenesse, Alfred's father, and their friendship,
which was entirely respectable in the eyes of the
world, authorized the young man to frequent Ma-
dame Saint-Hereen's salon on familiar terms, pro-
fessing for her, as he did, a passion conceived in
childhood. Moreover, Madame d'Aiglemont would
have found her efforts of no avail if she had deter-
mined to cast between her daughter and Alfred de
Vandenesse a terrible avowal that should separate
them ; she was certain that she would not succeed,
despite the power of that avowal, which would have
dishonored her in her daughter's eyes. Alfred was
too corrupt, Moina too shrewd to believe in such a
revelation, and the young countess would have
evaded it by treating it as a maternal stratagem.
Madame d'Aiglemont had built her prison with her
own hands and walled herself in, to die there watch-
ing Molna's lovely life destroy itself, that life
which had become her glory, her happiness and her
consolation, a life a thousand times dearer to her
than her own. Horrible, ghastly, indescribable
suffering! a bottomless abyss!

She was impatiently awaiting her daughter's
appearance, and yet she dreaded it, as the wretch
condemned to death would be glad to have done with
life, and yet turns cold when he thinks of the exe-
cutioner. The marchioness had resolved to make



288 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

one last attempt; but she was less afraid perhaps of
failing in her attempt than of receiving another of
those wounds that pierced her heart so deeply that
they had exhausted all her courage. Her mother-
love had reached this point: to love her daughter, to
fear her, to apprehend a dagger-thrust and go to
meet it. The maternal sentiment is so expansive in
loving hearts, that before becoming indifferent to
her child a mother should die, or find solace in some
great power religion or love. Since she arose, the
marchioness's too faithful memory had recalled
several of the incidents, trifling in appearance,
which are of the utmost importance in one's moral
life. In truth, a gesture sometimes develops a
whole drama, the accent of a word destroys a whole
life, an indifferent glance wrecks the happiest pas-
sion. The Marquise d'Aiglemont had unhappily
seen too many of those gestures, heard too many of
those words, received too many of those heart-pierc-
ing glances, for her memories to afford her any hope.
Everything combined to prove that Alfred had ruined
her in her daughter's heart, where she, her mother,
now figured less as a pleasure than as a duty. A
thousand things, even trifles, bore witness to the
countess's detestable conduct toward her ingrati-
tude, which the marchioness regarded perhaps as a
punishment She sought excuses for her daughter
in the designs of Providence in order that she might
still adore the hand that smote her. During that
morning she remembered everything and everything
pierced her heart anew so keenly that her cup, filled



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 289

to the brim with grief, was ready to overflow if the
slightest additional pang were inflicted on it. A
single cold glance might kill the marchioness. It is
difficult to describe these little domestic incidents,
but a few of them will suffice, perhaps, for all. For
instance, the marchioness, who had become a little
deaf, had never been able to induce Moina to raise
her voice for her; and one day when, in obedience
to the harmless impulse natural to those so afflicted,
she asked her daughter to repeat a sentence of which
she had not caught a word, the countess complied,
but with such ill grace that Madame d'Aiglemont
never felt at liberty to renew the modest request.
Since then, when Moina told a story or had anything
to say, the marchioness was careful to draw her
chair near to her ; but the countess often seemed dis-
gusted with her mother's infirmity and thought-
lessly reproached her with it. This example,
which was only one of a thousand, could not fail to
wound a mother's heart. All these things would
have escaped a casual observer perhaps, for there
are shades of cruelty imperceptible to other eyes
than a woman's. Thus, Madame d'Aiglemont hav-
ing informed her daughter one day that the Prin-
cessedeCadignan had been to see her, Moina simply
exclaimed: "What! she came to see you!" The
flippant air with which these words were spoken
and the countess's accent displayed an astonishment
and a haughty scorn that would have caused hearts
still young and tender to consider as philanthropic in
comparison, that custom by virtue of which savage
19



2QO A WOMAN OF THIRTY

tribes kill their old men when they cannot cling
to the branch of a tree if it is violently shaken.
Madame d'Aiglemont rose with a smile on her face
and went off to weep in secret. Well-bred people,
especially women, betray their feelings only by
touches that are hardly perceptible, but none the less
make the vibrations of their hearts evident to those
who can remember situations in their own lives
analogous to this heart-broken mother's. Over-
whelmed by her memories, Madame d'Aiglemont
recalled more than one of those cruel, stinging epi-
sodes, in which she had never recognized more
clearly than at that moment, the atrocious contempt
hidden beneath a smiling face. But her tears
quickly dried when she heard the blinds raised in
the room where her daughter slept. She hurried
toward the windows along the path that skirted the
wall near which she had been sitting. As she went
along, she noticed the special care with which the
gardener had raked the path, which had been ill
kept for some little time. When Madame d'Aigle-
mont arrived beneath her daughter's windows, the
blinds were sharply closed again.

"Moina?" she called.

No reply.

"Madame la Comtesse is in the small salon,"
said Moina's maid, when the marchioness returned
to the house and asked if her daughter had risen.

Her heart was too full and her mind too busily
occupied to pause at that moment to consider such
trifling circumstances; she went at once to the small



A WOMAN OF THIRTY 291

salon, where she found the countess in a. peignoir,
with a cap tossed carelessly upon her disheveled
hair, her feet in slippers and the key of her bedroom
in her girdle; her face indicated that her reflections
were of a stormy nature, and her color was very
high. She was sitting on a couch and seemed to be
thinking deeply.

"Why ami disturbed?" she said in a harsh voice.
"Ah! it is you, mother," she continued absent-
mindedly, after interrupting herself.

"Yes, my child, it is your mother."

The tone in which Madame d'Aiglemont uttered
these words, denoted an effusion from the heart and
a profound emotion which it would be difficult to
describe adequately without using the word sanctity.
She was, in truth, so thoroughly invested with the
sacred character of a mother, that her daughter was
struck by it and turned toward her with an impul-
sive movement which expressed respect, uneasi-
ness and remorse at once. The marchioness closed
the door of the salon, which no one could enter
without giving warning as they came through the
adjoining rooms. Thus they were secure from in-
terruption.

"My daughter," said the marchioness, "it is my
duty to enlighten you as to one of the most moment-
ous crises that can occur in a woman's life, a
crisis that has come upon you now, unknown to
yourself perhaps, and of which I speak to you less
as a mother than as a friend. When you married,
you became mistress of your actions and you are



2Q2 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

responsible for them to no one but your husband;
but I have used my maternal authority so lightly
and I have done wrong, perhaps that I think I
have a right to ask you to listen to me, this once at
least, in your present serious situation, in which
you certainly need advice. Remember, Moina,
that I married you to a man of eminent talents, of
whom you may well be proud, that "

"Mother, "cried Moina with a rebellious air, inter-
rupting her without ceremony, "I know what you
are going to say. You are going to preach to me on
the subject of Alfred."

"You would not divine my purpose so readily,
Moina," replied the marchioness gravely, trying to
restrain her tears, "if you did not feel "

"What?" said she, with an almost arrogant ex-
pression. "Why, really, mother "

"Moina," cried Madame d'Aiglemont, making a
superhuman effort, "you must listen carefully to
what I am compelled to say to you."

"I am listening," said the countess, folding her
arms, with an impertinent affectation of submission.
"Permit me, mother," she said with indescribable
self-possession, "to ring for Pauline to send her
away."

She rang.

"My dear child, Pauline cannot hear."

"Mamma," rejoined the countess, with a serious
air which must have seemed extraordinary to her
mother, "I must "

She checked herself as the maid entered.



292 A WOMAN OF THIRTY

responsible tor them to no one but your husband;
but I Ivve used my maternal authority so lightly
anJ 1 have done wrong, perhaps that 1 think I
have a right to ask you to listen to me, this once at
least, in your present serious situation, in which
you certainly need advice. Remember, Moina,
that I married you to a man of eminent talents, of
whom you may well be proud, that "

"Mother," cried Moi'na with a rebellious air, inter-
rupting her without ceremony, "I know what you
are going to say. You are going to preach to me on
the subject of Alfred."

"You would not divine my purpose so readily,
Moina," replW^k.m^h^<b&ira$&$ trying to
restrain her tears, "if you did not feel "

"What?" said she, with an almost arrogant ex-


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 17 of 22)