Honoré de Balzac.

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

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some motive into his present life, in a word, by a
multitude of reasons impossible to describe, which
the word fatality often serves to express. The Vis-
comtesse de Beauseant had suddenly arisen before
him, accompanied by a swarm of attractive images;
she was a new world; with her there was unques-
tionably something to fear, to hope for, to do battle
with and to conquer. She was certain to form a
striking contrast to the persons now before Gaston's
eyes in that shabby salon; in short, she was a
woman, and he had not as yet met a woman in that
frigid circle, where sentiment was replaced by
scheming, where courtesy was simply a duty, and
there was something so offensive in the simplest
ideas that they could not be accepted, or even
uttered. Madame de Beauseant awakened in his
mind the memory of his youthful dreams and his
liveliest passions, momentarily sleeping. He was
absent-minded during the rest of the evening. He
was pondering the means of gaining admission to
Madame de Beauseant's house, and in truth there
seemed to be none. She was said to be eminently
clever. But if intellectual females ever allow them-
selves to be seduced by shrewd or original expe-
dients, they are exacting, they are quick at divining
everything; with them therefore, there are as many


chances of self-destruction as of success in the diffi-
cult enterprise of pleasing them. Moreover, the
viscountess knew how to combine the dignity that
her name enjoined upon her with the pride due to
her situation. The utter solitude of her life seemed
to be the least of the barriers between her and
society. It was therefore almost impossible for a
stranger, however excellent his family, to gain ad-
mission to her house. However, the next morning
Monsieur de Nueil directed his steps toward the
country house of Courcelles, and walked several
times around the enclosure in which it lay. De-
ceived by the illusions in which it is so natural for
a young man of his years to believe, he looked
through the gaps or over the walls, stood in mute
contemplation before the closed blinds or examined
those that were open. He hoped for some romantic
adventure, he arranged its results in his mind, with-
out perceiving their impossibility, in such a way
as to introduce himself beneath the stranger's roof.
He walked there several mornings to very little
purpose ; but every morning, that woman, living out-
side the world, the victim of true love, buried in
solitude, assumed greater proportions in his mind
and effected a lodgment in his heart. And so Gas-
ton's heart beat high with joy and hope, if per-
chance, as he skirted the walls of Courcelles, he
heard a gardener's heavy tread.

He thought seriously of writing to Madame de
Beauseant ; but what can you say to a woman you
never saw and who does not know you ? Moreover,


Gaston was distrustful of himself; and, like all
young men who are still filled with illusions, he
feared the terrible disdain of silence more than death
itself, and shuddered when he thought of all the
chances his first amorous effusion would have of
being thrown into the fire. In his mind a thou-
sand opposing ideas struggled for the mastery. But
at last, by dint of evolving chimeras, composing
romances and cudgeling his brains, he conceived
one of those happy stratagems which occur sooner
or later among the great number of those of which
we dream, and which reveal to the most guileless
woman the extent of the passion a man has formed
for her. Often social whims create as many real
obstacles between a woman and her lover, as the
oriental poets introduce into their delicious tales, and
their most fantastic whims are rarely exaggerated.
Thus, in real life as in fairyland, a woman ought
always to belong to the man who succeeds in mak-
ing his way to her side and delivering her from the
sad plight in which she is languishing. The poorest
of calenders, falling in love with a caliph's daughter,
was surely separated from her by no greater dis-
tance than that which divided Gaston and Madame
de Beauseant The viscountess was absolutely
ignorant of the lines of circumvallation drawn
around her by Monsieur de Nueil, whose love waxed
greater in proportion to the size of the obstacles to
be surmounted, and who attributed to his impro-
vised mistress, the charms that every distant object

One day, trusting to his inspiration, he based
the wildest hopes on the love that he knew must
gush from his eyes. Believing the spoken word to
be more eloquent than the most impassioned letter,
and speculating also upon the natural curiosity of
woman, he went to Monsieur de Champignelles,
proposing to make use of him in carrying out his
enterprise. He said to that gentleman that he had
an important and delicate mission to fulfil to Ma-
dame de Beauseant; but, as he did not know
whether she would read letters written in a strange
handwriting or would bestow her confidence upon a
stranger, he begged him to ask the viscountess,
when he next called upon her, if she would deign to
receive him. While requesting the marquis to keep
his secret in case of refusal, he very cleverly pre-
vailed on him to promise to use with Madame de
Beauseant any arguments that were likely to pro-
cure his admission to her house. Was he not a man
of honor, straightforward and incapable of taking part
in anything that was not in the best of taste or was
unseemly in any respect? The haughty nobleman,
whose petty vanity he flattered, was completely
taken in by this diplomacy of passion which lends a
young man the cool assurance and eminent power of
dissimulation of an old ambassador. He tried his
best to fathom Gaston's secrets; but as that gentle-
man would have been much embarrassed to reveal


them to him, he met Monsieur de Champignelles'
adroit questions with Norman phrases and was com-
plimented by him, like a true French chevalier,
upon his discretion.

The marquis hurried off at once to Courcelles
with the eagerness which gentlemen of a certain age
display in rendering a service to a pretty woman.
Madame de Beauseant's situation was then such
that a message of that sort was well calculated to
puzzle her. And so, although her memory afforded
her no light as to any possible motive that could
bring Monsieur de Nueil to her, she saw no impro-
priety in receiving him, but only after she had
prudently made inquiries as to his social position.
She began by refusing, however; then she discussed
the point of propriety with Monsieur de Champig-
nelles, questioning him so as to ascertain whether
he knew the motive of the proposed visit; then
she revoked her refusal. The discussion and the
marquis's involuntary discretion had aroused her

Monsieur de Champignelles, not wishing to appear
ridiculous, declared, with the manner of a man
who was himself well informed but discreet, that
the viscountess must certainly know the motive of
the visit, although she was seeking in perfect good
faith, but unsuccessfully, to find out what it was.
Madame de Beauseant devised all sorts of imaginary
relations between Gaston and people he did not
know, lost herself in absurd suppositions, and won-
dered if she had ever seen Monsieur de Nueil. The


most sincere or most adroit love-letter would surely
have produced less effect than this species of insol-
uble enigma over which Madame de Beauseant puz-
zled more than once.

When Gaston learned that he could see the vis-
countess, he was at the same moment wild with joy
at obtaining so promptly a favor so ardently desired,
and singularly embarrassed as to the sequel of his

"Bah!" he said to himself as he was dressing,
"to see her; to see her, that is all I want!"

He hoped too that, on crossing the threshold at
Courcelles, he should hit upon some expedient to
cut the Gordian knot that he had himself tied.
Gaston was one of those men who, believing in the
omnipotence of necessity, always go ahead; and at
the last moment, when they are face to face with
danger, take inspiration from it and find strength
to overcome it. He devoted particular attention to
his toilet. He imagined, as young people do, that
his success might depend upon the adjustment of a
buckle, not knowing that in youth everything is
charming and attractive. Besides, women of the
rare worth of Madame de Beauseant yield to no
seductions save the charms of wit and superiority of
character. A lofty character flatters their vanity,
gives promise of a grand passion and seems certain
to satisfy the demands of their hearts. Wit amuses
them and answers the subtleties of their nature, and
they believe that they are understood. Now what
do all women crave, if not to be amused, understood


or adored ? But one must have pondered long over
the vicissitudes of life to be able to divine the
artistic coquetry that consists in negligence in the
matter of costume and mental reserve at a first
interview. When we become sufficiently crafty to
be skilful politicians, we are too old to profit by our
experience. While Gaston distrusted his mental
powers sufficiently to borrow attractions from his
clothing, Madame de Beauseant herself instinctively
took especial pains with her toilet, and said to her-
self as she arranged her hair :

"I certainly don't wish to look like a fright"
Monsieur de Nueil had in his mind, in his person,
and in his manners that frankly original turn which
gives a sort of savor to the most ordinary ideas and
gestures, permits a man to say anything, and makes
everything he says or does pass current. He was
well-informed and shrewd, with a face as bright and
mobile as his impressionable soul. There were
passion and tenderness in his sparkling eyes, and
his essentially kind heart did not belie them. The
decision he formed as he entered Courcelles was in
harmony, therefore, with his frank character and
his ardent imagination. Despite the proverbial in-
trepidity of love, he could not keep down the violent
beating of his heart, when, after crossing a broad
courtyard laid out like an English garden, he was
ushered into a hall where a footman took his name
and then disappeared, returning at once to introduce

"Monsieur le Baron de Nueil.'


Gaston entered slowly, but with sufficient ease of
manner, a much more difficult matter in a salon
where there is only one woman than in one where
there are twenty. At the corner of the fireplace,
where, despite the season, a huge fire was burning,
and over which two candelabra were lighted, shed-
ding a soft light through the room, he espied a
young woman seated in one of the modern easy-
chairs with a very high back, and a seat so low that
it allowed her to place her head in various attitudes
instinct with grace and charm to rest it upon one
side, to throw it back, to raise it languidly as if it
were a heavy burden ; and then she could cross her
feet, and show them or draw them back beneath the
long folds of a black dress. The viscountess at-
tempted to place the book she was reading upon a
small round table ; but as she turned her head toward
Monsieur de Nueil at the same moment, the book
missed its mark and fell upon the floor between the
table and her chair. Exhibiting no surprise at the
incident, she drew herself up, and bowed in response
to the young man's salutation; but her bow was
almost imperceptible and she hardly rose from her
seat, in which her body was still buried. She bent
forward and hastily stirred the fire; then she
stooped, picked up a glove which she distractedly
drew on her left hand, seeking the other with a
glance that she quickly repressed ; for with her right
hand a white, almost transparent hand, without
rings, slender, with taper fingers and pink nails that
formed a perfect oval, she pointed to a chair as if to


bid Gaston be seated. When her stranger-guest
had taken his seat, she turned her face toward him
with a coquettish, questioning movement, whose
perfect delicacy it would be impossible to describe;
it was one of those gracious gestures instinct with
kindly, but closely-guarded meaning, which are the
result of early education and constant familiarity
with those things that good taste enjoins. These
various movements succeeded one another rapidly,
in an instant, smoothly and without abruptness, and
fascinated Gaston by the combination of reserve
and ease of manner with which a pretty woman im-
proves upon the aristocratic airs of the first society.
Madame de Beauseant presented so striking a con-
trast to the automata among whom he had been
living for two months of exile in the wilds of Nor-
mandie, that she seemed the personification of the
poetry of his dreams ; he could recall none of the
women whose charms he had formerly admired who
could be compared to her. Facing that woman, in
a salon furnished like the ordinary salon of Fau-
bourg Saint-Germain, filled with the costly trifles
that lie around upon tables, and with books and
flowers in profusion, it seemed as if he were in
Paris once more. He was treading upon a genuine
Parisian carpet, he saw once more the distinguished
type, the slender figure of the Parisian woman, her
exquisite grace and her indifference to the studied
effects that so greatly detract from the charms of
women in the provinces.

Madame la Vicomtesse de Beauseant was of light


complexion, fair as any blonde, and had brown eyes.
She possessed a noble brow, the brow of a fallen
angel who exults in her fall and does not seek for-
giveness. Her luxuriant hair, arranged in high
braids above two bands which described broad
curves around her brow, added another element of
majesty to her head. The imagination saw in the
spiral tresses of that golden headdress, the ducal
crown of Bourgogne, and in the great lady's spark-
ling eyes, all the courage of her family; the courage
of a woman strong only to repel scorn or insolence,
but overflowing with tenderness for the softer sen-
timents. The outline of her small head, admirably
poised upon a long white neck; her thin lips and
the various features of her intelligent, mobile face
maintained an expression of rare prudence, a
tinge of affected irony which resembled slyness
and impertinence. It was difficult not to for-
give her those two foibles of womankind,
when one considered her misfortunes, the pas-
sion that had well-nigh cost her her life and
was attested, as well by the wrinkles that furrowed
her brow at the slightest excitement, as by the piti-
ful eloquence of her lovely eyes which were often
raised to Heaven. Was it not an imposing spec-
tacle made even more imposing by the imagination
to see in that immense, silent salon a woman cut
off from the whole world, a woman who for three
years had been living in a little valley, far from
the town, alone with the memories of a brilliant,
happy, passionate youth, once filled with fetes, with


constant homage, but now doomed to the horrors of
annihilation? Her smile denoted a lofty conception
of her worth. Neither wife nor mother, cast out by
society, bereft of the only heart that could cause
hers to beat joyfully without shame, deriving from
no emotion the assistance of which her tottering
soul stood in sore need, she had no choice but to
draw her strength from herself, to live her own life,
and to have no other hope than that of the deserted
mistress: to await death, to hasten its slow progress
despite the beautiful days that still remained to her.
To feel that she was made to be happy and to die
without receiving or bestowing happiness! a
woman! What agony! Monsieur de Nueil made
these reflections with the rapidity of lightning, and
became exceedingly ashamed of his own paltry in-
dividuality in presence of the most exalted poesy
with which a woman can envelop herself. Fasci-
nated by the threefold majesty of beauty, misfortune
and nobility, he stood almost agape, musing, gazing
in admiration at the viscountess, but unable to find
anything to say to her.

Madame de Beauseant, who was in all probability
not displeased by his evident surprise, put out her
hand with a mild but imperious gesture; then, re-
calling a smile to her pallid lips, as if in obedience
to the natural impulse of her sex, she said :

"Monsieur de Champignelles informed me, mon-
sieur, that you had very kindly undertaken to de-
liver a message to me. Is it from ?"

As he listened to those terrible words, Gaston


realized more fully than before the absurdity of his
situation, the wretched taste, the disloyalty of his
conduct toward a noble and unhappy woman. He
blushed. His expression, under the influence of a
thousand thoughts, became confused; but suddenly,
with the strength that youthful hearts are able to
draw from the very consciousness of their faults, he
took heart of grace; interrupting Madame de Beau-
seant, with a gesture expressive of the most humble
submission, he answered in a voice trembling with
emotion :

"Madame, I do not deserve the good fortune of be-
ing allowed to see you; I have deceived you shame-
fully. The feeling that I acted upon, however
powerful it may be, is utterly inadequate to excuse
the miserable subterfuge to which I resorted to reach
you. But, madame, if you would be kind enough
to allow me to say to you "

The viscountess flashed upon him a glance over-
flowing with haughty contempt, raised her hand to
the bell cord and rang; the footman appeared.

"Light monsieur to the door, Jacques," said she,
with a dignified glance at the young man.

She rose proudly, bowed to Gaston, and stooped
to pick up the book that had fallen. Her move-
ments were as cold and abrupt as those with which
she welcomed him had been courteous and graceful.
Monsieur de Nueil had risen, but remained standing
by his chair. Again Madame de Beauseant glanced
at him as if to say: "Well, aren't you going?"

Her glance was so marked with stinging mockery


that Gaston became as pale as though he were on
the point of fainting. Tears gathered in his eyes;
but he forced them back, dried them in the fires of
shame and despair, and gazed at Madame de Beau-
seant with a sort of pride, expressive at once of
resignation and of a certain consciousness of his
own worth; the viscountess had the right to punish
him, but would she do it? Then he left the room.
As he passed through the reception-room, his per-
spicacity and his intelligence, sharpened by passion,
caused him to realize all the danger of his situation.

"If I leave this house," he said to himself, "I
may never be admitted again; the viscountess will
always look upon me as an idiot It is impossible
for a woman and she is a woman! not to divine
the love she inspires; she may perhaps feel a vague,
involuntary regret at having dismissed me so curtly,
but she cannot, she ought not to revoke her decree :
I must find a way to understand her."

At that reflection, Gaston stopped on the door-
steps, uttered an exclamation, turned quickly, and

"I have forgotten something!"

And he walked back toward the salon, followed by
the footman, who had the utmost respect for a baron
and the sacred rights of property, and was com-
pletely deceived by the innocent tone in which the
words were said. Gaston entered softly, unan-
nounced. When the viscountess, thinking perhaps
that the intruder was her footman, raised her head,
she found Monsieur de Nueil standing before her.


"Jacques lighted me out," he said, smiling.

The half-melancholy expression of his smile
divested the remark of all pleasantry and the tone
in which it was uttered went to the heart.

Madame de Beauseant was disarmed.

"Very well, be seated," she said.

Gaston eagerly took possession of the chair. His
eyes, alight with happiness, gleamed so brightly
that the viscountess could not endure the youth's
glance, but looked down upon her book, and
tasted the pleasure, always new, of being to a
man the moving principle of his happiness an im-
perishable sensation in a woman. Moreover, Ma-
dame de Beauseant's character had been divined.
A woman is so grateful when she falls in with a
man who understands the logical caprices of her
heart, the apparently contradictory workings of her
mind, the fleeting modesty of her sensations, now
timid and now bold a marvelous mingling of
coquetry and artlessness !

"Madame!" said Gaston, softly, "you know my
fault, but you do not know my crimes. If you knew
with what joy I have "

"Ah! beware," she said, raising one of her fingers
threateningly until it touched the end of her nose;
and with the other hand, she made a gesture as if
to take hold of the bell cord.

This pretty gesture, this graceful threat evidently
aroused some sad memory of her happy life, of the
time when she could afford to be all charm and fas-
cination, when happiness justified the caprices of


her mind just as it lent an additional charm to her
slightest movements. She concentrated all the
wrinkles on her forehead between her eyebrows;
her face, in the soft light of the candles, assumed a
sombre expression ; she looked at Monsieur de Nueil
with a serious air, in which there was no trace of
coldness, and said to him, in the tone of a woman
deeply impressed by the meaning of her words :

"All this is most ridiculous! Time has been,
monsieur, when I had the right to be foolishly light-
hearted, when I could have received you and laughed
with you without fear ; but to-day my life is greatly
changed, I am no longer mistress of my actions and
I am compelled to reflect before acting. To what
sentiment do I owe your visit? Is it curiosity? In
that case, I pay very dearly for a brief moment of
happiness. Could you already love passionately a
woman whom you have infallibly heard slandered,
and whom you never saw ? Your sentiments must
therefore be based upon a lack of esteem, upon a
transgression which has become famous by mere

She threw her book angrily upon the table.

"Ah yes!" she continued, with a withering glance
at Gaston, "because I have been weak once, the
world proposes that I shall be weak always ? That
is degrading, ghastly. Do you come to my house
to pity me? You are very young to sympathize
with the heartache. Understand, monsieur, I prefer
contempt to pity; I will not submit to compassion
from anyone."


There was a moment's silence.

"You see, monsieur," she said, looking up at him
with a mild and melancholy expression, "whatever
the feeling may have been that led you to force
yourself heedlessly upon me in my retirement, you
wound me. You are too young to be altogether
without kindness of heart, so you will realize the
impropriety of your conduct; 1 forgive you and
speak to you now without bitterness. You won't
come here again, will you? I request when I might
command. If you call upon me again it will not be
in your power or in mine to prevent the whole town
from believing that you are to be my lover and you
will add a very great sorrow to my present sorrows.
You have no such desire, I am sure."

As she ceased, she looked into his face with a true
dignity that covered him with confusion.

"I have done wrong, madame," he replied
earnestly; "but the ardor of youth, thoughtlessness
and an eager longing for happiness are, at my age,
good and bad qualities. Now," he continued, "I
understand that I should not have tried to see you,
and yet my desire was very natural."

He tried to describe, with more sentiment than
wit, the suffering to which his enforced exile had
condemned him. He depicted the sad plight of a
young man whose fires burned without fuel, giving
her to understand that he was worthy to be loved
dearly and yet had never known the bliss of a pas-
sion inspired by a young and beautiful woman of
taste and refinement. He explained his violation


of propriety without attempting to justify it. He
flattered Madame de Beauseant by proving to her
that in his eyes she realized the type of mistress
incessantly but vainly invoked by the majority of
young men. Then, as he spoke of his morning ex-
cursions about Courcelles and of the lawless ideas
that had taken possession of him at sight of the house
to which he had at last gained admission, he aroused
the indefinable indulgence a woman finds in her
heart for the vagaries she inspires. His impas-

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Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 19 of 22)