Honoré de Balzac.

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

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sioned voice had a strange sound in that cold soli-
tude, to which he brought the warm inspiration of
youth and the intellectual charm that reveals a care-
ful training. Madame de Beauseant had been too
long a stranger to the emotions aroused by sincere
sentiments cunningly expressed, not to enjoy them
keenly. She could not refrain from watching Mon-
sieur de Nueil's expressive face, and admiring in him
the refreshing confidence of the heart that has not
yet been rent by cruel experience of the life of the
world, nor consumed by the incessant scheming of
ambition or vanity. Gaston was youth in its flower,
and exhibited himself as a man of high character
who knew nothing as yet of his lofty destiny. Thus
both, unknown to each other, were indulging in re-
flections most dangerous to their repose, and trying
to hide them from each other. Monsieur de Nueil
recognized in the viscountess one of those rare
women who are always victims of their own perfec-
tions and their inextinguishable tenderness, whose
winning beauty is their least charm when they


have once opened the doors of their hearts, wherein
the sentiments are infinite, where everything is
good, where the instinct of the beautiful unites with
the most varied expressions of love to purify the
passions and make them almost holy; marvelous
secret of womankind, an exquisite gift so rarely
accorded by nature. The viscountess, too, as she
listened to the tone of sincerity in which Gaston
spoke of the misadventures of her youth, appreciated
the torture inflicted by timidity upon tall children of
twenty-five, when study has guaranteed them
against the corrupt contact of men of the world,
whose garrulous experience taints the noble qualities
of youth. She found in him the man that all women
dream of, a man who has as yet no trace of the
egotism of family and fortune, nor of the personal
sentiment that ends by killing, in their first burst
of enthusiasm, devotion, honor, self-abnegation and
self-esteem, flowers of the heart, soon withered,
which at first enrich life with delicate though pow-
erful emotions", and revive probity of the heart in
man. Once launched upon the vast ocean of senti-
ment, they traveled very far in theory, sounded the
depth of each other's hearts, and investigated the
sincerity of their expressions. This examination,
involuntary on Gaston's part, was premeditated on
Madame de Beauseant's. Resorting to her natural
or acquired finesse, she expressed, without lowering
herself in her own estimation, opinions contrary to
those she really held, in order to ascertain Monsieur
de Nueil's. She was so bright and amiable, so


thoroughly herself with a young man who did not
arouse her suspicion, as she never expected to see
him again, that Gaston exclaimed naively at one
extremely charming remark she made:

"Ah! madame, how could a man have deserted

The viscountess made no reply. Gaston blushed.
He thought he had offended her. But she was taken
by surprise by the first profound, genuine pleasure
she had felt since the day disaster came upon her.
The most adroit rou'e could not have made with all
his art the progress Monsieur de Nueil owed to that
cry from his heart. This judgment extorted from
a young man's candid soul made her innocent in
her own eyes, condemned society, accused the
man who had left her, and justified her in coming
to languish in that desert. Worldly absolution,
touching sympathy, social esteem, all so fervently
longed-for, so cruelly refused in a word, her most
secret desires were gratified by that exclamation,
embellished as it was by the sweetest flatteries
of the heart and by the admiration that is always
greedily devoured by women. So she was appre-
ciated and understood at last, and Monsieur de Nueil
in the most natural way gave her the opportunity
to make herself the greater for her fall. She
glanced at the clock.

"Oh! madame," cried Gaston, "do not punish
me for my thoughtlessness. If you give me but one
evening, pray do not shorten it."

She smiled at the compliment.


"As we are not to meet again," she replied,
"what matters a moment more or less? If I should
please you, it would be a great misfortune."

"A misfortune that has already happened," said
he, sadly.

"Do not say so," she rejoined, gravely. "Under
any other circumstances I should receive you with
great pleasure. I am going to speak frankly to you,
and you will understand why I will not, why I must
not see you again. I believe you to be too intelli-
gent not to perceive that if I should be simply so
much as suspected of a second misstep, I should be-
come, in everybody's eyes, a vulgar, despicable
creature, I should resemble other women. A pure
and spotless life will give dignity to my character.
I am too proud not to endeavor to live in the midst
of society as a being apart, a victim of the laws by
my marriage, a victim of men by my love. If I did
not remain faithful to my position, I should deserve
all the blame that has been poured out upon me and
should forfeit my own esteem. I have not had the
lofty social virtue of belonging to a man I did not
love. I broke the bonds of marriage, in the teeth of
the law; it was a mistake, a crime, call it what you
please ; but to me the married state was equivalent
to death. 1 chose to live. If I had been a mother,
perhaps I should have found strength to endure the
torture of a marriage arranged from motives of con-
venience. At eighteen, we poor girls hardly know
what we are made to do. I violated the laws of so-
ciety and society has punished me; we both acted


rightly. I was in search of happiness. Isn't it a
law of our nature to be happy ? I was young, I was
beautiful I believed that I had met a being as lov-
ing as he seemed passionate. I was loved dearly
for a moment!"

She paused.

"I thought," she continued, "that no man would
ever desert a woman in the plight in which I was.
I was deserted, so I must have ceased to please.
Yes, I failed doubtless to obey some law of nature.
I must have been too loving, too devoted, too exact-
ing, I cannot say what. Misfortune enlightened
me. After I had been for a long while the accuser,
I resigned myself to be the only criminal. Thus I
absolved at my own expense the man of whom I
thought I had a right to complain. I was not clever
enough to keep him : fate has punished me severely
for my lack of cleverness. I simply know how to
love: how can one think of one's self when one
loves ? And so I was the slave when I should have
been the tyrant. Those who know me may con-
demn me, but they shall esteem me. My sufferings
have taught me not to expose myself again to
desertion. I cannot understand how I continue
to live, after undergoing the agony of the first
week that followed the catastrophe, the most fright-
ful that can occur in a woman's life. One must
have lived alone for three years to have acquired
the strength to speak of that agony as I am speak-
ing at this moment. Agony ordinarily ends in
death, but, monsieur, this was an agony without


the grave for a conclusion. Oh! I did suffer

The viscountess raised her lovely eyes to the
cornice, to which in all likelihood she confided all
that a stranger might not hear.

A cornice is the gentlest, the most submissive,
the most obliging confidant that a woman can find
on occasions when she dares riot look at her inter-
locutor. The cornice in a boudoir is an institution.
Is it not a confessional, minus the priest? At that
moment, Madame de Beauseant was eloquent and
lovely; we might say coquettish, if that word were
not a little too strong. By doing herself justice, by
placing the highest barriers between herself and
love, she gave a spur to all the sensations of the
man before her ; and the higher she raised the goal
the more clearly his eyes could see it At last she
looked down at Gaston, having first forced her eyes
to lay aside the too alluring expression that the re-
membrance of her suffering had imparted to them.

"Admit that it is my duty to remain unmoved
and alone," she said, calmly.

Monsieur de Nueil was conscious of a violent im-
pulse to fall at her feet; but, sublime in his good
sense as in his madness, he feared to appear ridicu-
lous to her; he repressed his excitement and his
thoughts, therefore ; he felt at the same moment the
fear that he might not succeed in expressing them
clearly, and the dread of some crushing refusal, or
of a mocking retort, the apprehension of which
freezes the most ardent hearts. The reaction of the
sentiments that he forced back, just as they were
22 (337)


rushing forth from his heart, caused him the pro-
found pain familiar to timid and ambitious persons,
who are often forced to devour their desires. How-
ever, he could not refrain from breaking the silence
to say in a trembling voice:

"Permit me, madame, to yield to one of the most
powerful emotions of my whole life, by confessing
to you how you cause me to feel. You expand my
heart ! I feel within me a longing to pass my life in
helping you to forget your sorrows, in loving you
for all those who have hated or wounded you. But
it is a very sudden effusion of the heart, for which
there is no justification to-day,and which I should "

"Enough, monsieur, "said Madame de Beauseant
"We have both gone too far. I desired to divest of
all appearance of harshness, the refusal that I can-
not avoid, by explaining to you the melancholy
reasons for it, and not to win homage from you.
Coquetry is becoming to none but happy women.
Believe me, we had better remain strangers. Later
you will learn that it is not well to form ties at all
when they must necessarily be broken some day."

She sighed lightly and her brow was furrowed
for a moment, to resume at once its natural purity
of surface.

"What torture for a woman," she continued, "to
be unable to follow the man she loves through all
the phases of his life. And must not her profound
disappointment awaken a ghastly echo in the man's
heart, if he loves her dearly ? Is it not a twofold


There was a moment's silence, after which she
said, smiling, and rising so that her guest was com-
pelled to rise:

"You did not expect, when you were coming to
Courcelles, to listen to a sermon here, did you?"

Gaston felt at that moment farther away from
this extraordinary woman than when he first accosted
her. Attributing the charm of the delightful hour
he had passed to the coquetry of a hostess anxious
to display her wit, he bowed coldly to the viscount-
ess, and left the house in despair. As he walked
away, the baron tried to fathom the character of
this creature, who seemed to him as supple and as
hard as a spring; but he had seen her adopt so
many different shades of conduct that it was impos-
sible for him to pass an accurate judgment upon
her. The tones of her voice still resounded in his
ears, and memory conferred so great a charm upon
her gestures, the toss of her head, the play of her
eyes, that he became more in love than ever, as a
result of his reflections. The viscountess's beauty
still shone for him in the darkness, the impressions
he had received from it awoke to renewed life, each
leading up to another, to fascinate him anew by re-
vealing to him graces of person and of mind unper-
ceived at first. He fell into one of those rambling
fits of meditation, during which the most lucid
thoughts fall out and crush one another and plunge
the mind into a brief paroxysm of madness. One
must needs be young to discover and to understand
the secrets of this species of dithyramb, in which


the heart, assailed at the same time by the most
reasonable and the wildest ideas, yields to the last
one that strikes it, to a thought of hope or of despair,
at the will of an unknown power. At the age of
twenty-three, a man is almost always dominated
by a feeling of modesty; he is as timid and con-
fused as a young girl, he is afraid of giving inade-
quate expression to his love, he sees only difficulties
and takes fright at them, he trembles with the fear
that he may cease to please, he would be bold if he
did not love so much; the more strongly he feels the
value of happiness, the less inclined he is to believe
that his mistress will readily bestow it upon him ;
or it may be that he abandons himself too entirely
to his own pleasure and fears that he confers none ;
when, unhappily, his idol is an imposing creature,
he adores her in secret and from afar ; if his state
of mind is not divined, his love expires. Often
this precocious passion, dead in a youthful heart,
remains there glowing with illusions. What man
has not several of these virgin memories which, at
a later period, awake, always more attractive than
before, and bring the image of perfect happiness?
memories like children lost in the flower of youth,
whose parents have known naught of them but
smiles. Monsieur de Nueil therefore took his de-
parture from Courcelles, in a condition of mind
heavy with extreme resolutions. Madame de Beau-
seant had already become an essential condition of
his existence; he preferred death to life without
her. As he was still young enough to feel the cruel


fascination that a perfect woman exerts over pas-
sionate and untried hearts, he was fated to pass one
of those tempestuous nights during which young
people go from bliss to suicide and from suicide
back to bliss, consume a whole happy life and fall
asleep at last exhausted. Horrible nights, when
the greatest misfortune that can happen is to awake
and find one's self a philosopher. Too genuinely
in love to be able to sleep, Monsieur de Nueil got
up, wrote a number of letters, no one of which
satisfied him, and burned them all.

The next day, he made the circuit of the little
estate of Courcelles, but not until nightfall, for he
was afraid of being seen by the viscountess. The
sentiment in obedience to which he was then acting,
belongs to so mysterious a quality of the heart, that
one must needs be still young, or be placed in a
similar situation, in order to understand its mute
felicity and its oddity; things which would call forth
a contemptuous shrug from people who are fortunate
enough always to see the positive in life. After
much painful hesitation, Gaston wrote Madame de
Beauseant the following letter, which may pass as
a model of the phraseology peculiar to lovers, and
may be compared to the drawings made in secret by
children for their parents' birthdays; presents de-
testable in the eyes of everybody except those who
receive them:


" You possess such unbounded empire over my heart and
soul and body that my fate rests entirely in your hands


to-day. Do not throw my letter into the fire. Be kind-hearted
enough to read it. Perhaps you will forgive the first sentence
when you see that it is no mere commonplace, selfish declara-
tion, but the statement of an indubitable fact. Perhaps you
will be touched by the modesty of my prayers, by the resigna-
tion inspired by my consciousness of my inferiority, by the
influence of your decision upon my life. Young as 1 am,
madame, I simply know how to love ; I am entirely ignorant
both as to what may please a woman and as to what fasci-
nates her; but I feel at my heart an intoxicating adoration
for her. I am irresistibly drawn to you by the immense joy
you cause me to feel, and I think of you with all the egotism
that draws us to the place where the life-giving heat is to be
found. I do not deem myself worthy of you. No, it seems
impossible for me, young, ignorant and timid as I am, to
afford you the thousandth part of the bliss 1 breathed while
listening to you and looking at you. You are, in my eyes,
the only woman in the world. Unable to contemplate life
without you, I have resolved to leave France and to go and
trifle with my life until 1 lose it in some impossible enterprise
in the Indies, in Africa, or God knows where. Must I not
combat a love that knows no bounds with something infinite?
But if you will leave me one ray of hope, not of belonging to
you, but of obtaining your friendship, I will remain. Permit
me even very rarely if you insist upon it to pass with you
a few such hours as those I purloined. That insecure good
fortune, the unspeakable enjoyment of which may be for-
bidden me at the first too ardent word, will suffice to enable
me to endure the boiling of my blood. Have I presumed too
far upon your generosity, in begging you to permit an inter-
course from which I alone derive any benefit? You will
easily find a way to show these people here, to whom you
sacrifice so much, that I am nothing to you. You are so
clever and so proud ! What have you to fear? I would like
to be able now to open my heart to you, in order to convince
you that my humble request conceals no mental reservation.
I would not have told you that my love knew no bounds and


at the same time have begged you simply to bestow your
friendship upon me, if I had entertained the hope of bringing
you to share the profound sentiment buried in my heart. No,
1 will be to you whatever you wish me to be, provided only
that I am something to you. If you have the heart to refuse
me, and do so, I will not murmur ; 1 will go away. If, here-
after, any other woman than yourself has any part in my life,
you will be justified ; but if I die faithful to my love, you will
feel some regret, perhaps ! The hope of causing yqu a regret
will sweeten my anguish, and will be the only vengeance of
my unappreciated heart."

One must have passed through all the serviceable
disasters to which youth is exposed, one must have
bestridden all the chimeras with the two white
wings that offer their feminine croup to burning
imaginations, to understand the torture to which
Gaston de Nueil was a victim, when he fancied
that his first ultimatum was in Madame de Beau-
seant's hands. He imagined the viscountess un-
moved, laughing and joking about love like those
who have ceased to believe in it. He would have
liked to recall his letter, it seemed ridiculous to him,
there came to his mind a thousand and one ideas in-
finitely more appropriate, and which would have
been far more touching than his stiff sentences, his
absurd, labored, sophistical, pretentious periods,
happily very badly punctuated and written in a
shocking hand. He tried not to think, not to feel;
but he did think and feel and suffer. If he had been
thirty years old, he would have got drunk; but the
still innocent youth knew nothing of the resources
of opium or of the expedients of the most highly


developed civilization. He had not at his side one of
those kind Parisian friends, who are so ready to say
to you : POETE, NON DOLET! passing you a bottle of
champagne, or dragging you off to a debauch to
lighten the hours of uncertainty. Excellent friends,
who are always ruined when you are rich, always
at the waters when you look for them, have always
lost their last louis at play when you ask them for
one, but always have a wretched nag to sell you ; in
other respects, the best fellows in the world, and
always ready to embark with you to descend one of
those swift inclines on which time and strength and
life are squandered!

At last, Monsieur de Nueil received from the
hands of Jacques, a letter sealed with the arms 'of
Bourgogne upon perfumed wax, written upon a tiny
sheet of fine paper, and redolent of lovely woman.

He at once locked himself in his room to read and
reread his letter.

" You punish me very severely, monsieur, both for my
good nature in sparing you the mortification of a downright
refusal, and for the charm that wit always possesses for me.
I had confidence in the nobility of youth, and you have unde-
ceived me. However, I spoke to you if not with open heart,
which would have been perfectly ridiculous at all events
frankly, and I described my position to you, in order that
your youthful heart might understand my coldness. The
more you interested me, the greater the pain you caused me.
I am naturally good-tempered and affectionate ; but circum-
stances make me hard. Another woman would have burned
your letter without reading it, but I have read it and I answer
it. My arguments will prove to you that, although I am not


insensible to the expression of a sentiment of which I am the
cause, even involuntarily, I am far from sharing it, and my
conduct will demonstrate yet more clearly the sincerity of my
heart. Moreover, 1 have determined, for your good, to use
the species of authority which you give me over your life,
and I desire to exert it, once for all, to remove the veil that
covers your eyes.

" I shall soon be thirty, monsieur, and you are barely
twenty-two. You have no idea yourself what ideas you will
have when you reach my age. The oaths you take so readily
to-day, may then seem very heavy to you. To-day I am quite
willing to believe you would give me your whole life with-
out regret, you would gladly die even for a fleeting pleasure ;
but at thirty, experience would deprive you of the strength to
make sacrifices every day for me, and 1 should be profoundly
humiliated to accept them. Some day everything, even
nature itself, would bid you leave me ; as I have told you, 1
prefer death to desertion. Unhappiness, you see, has taught
me to look out for the future. I argue calmly, for I have no
passion. You force me to tell you that I do not love you,
that I cannot, will not, should not love you. I have passed
the time of life when women yield to unreflecting impulses of
the heart, and I could not be to you the mistress you seek.
My consolation, monsieur, comes from God, not from man.
Again, I can read hearts too clearly by the melancholy light
of betrayed love, to accept the friendship which you seek and
offer. You are deceived by your heart, and you rely much
more on my weakness than on your own strength. That is
all a matter of instinct. I forgive your childish stratagem,
you do not yet appreciate what you did. I command you, in
the name of this ephemeral love, in the name of your life, in
the name of my peace of mind, to remain in your country,
and not to miss the opportunity of a noble and honorable life
there, for an illusion which will necessarily be destroyed.
Hereafter, when you have, in the fulfilment of your real
destiny, developed all the sentiments that await the full-grown
man, you will appreciate my answer, which you will perhaps


at this moment characterize as heartless. You will then take
pleasure in renewing your acquaintance with an old woman
whose friendship will certainly be sweet and precious to you ;
it will not have been subjected to the vicissitudes of passion
or to the disenchantments of life ; noble, pious thoughts will
keep it pure and holy. Adieu, monsieur ; obey me, with the
thought that your success will bring some pleasure to me in
my solitude, and think of me only as you think of the absent."

Having read this letter, Gaston de Nueil wrote
these words :

" Madame, confess that if I should cease to love you and
should accept the prospect you put before me of being a com-
monplace man, I should deserve my fate. No, I will not obey
you, and I swear to be faithful to you until death dissolves
my oath. Oh ! take my life, unless indeed you fear to give
yourself cause for remorse."

When Monsieur de NueiPs servant returned from
Courcelles, his master said to him :

"To whom did you give my note?"

"To Madame la Vicomtesse herself; she was in
her carriage, just driving away."

"To come into town?"

"I think not, monsieur. Madame la Vicomtesse's
berlin was drawn by post-horses."

"Ah! she has gone away," said the baron.

"Yes, monsieur," replied the valet

Gaston at once made his arrangements to follow
Madame de Beauseant, and she led him as far as
Geneva, unconscious that he was at her heels.
Among the thousand reflections that occupied his
mind during that journey, the one that recurred


most frequently was this: "Why did she go?"
That question was the text of a multitude of conjec-
tures, from which he naturally selected the most
flattering, namely: "If the viscountess proposes to
accept my love, of course, like the clever woman
she is, she prefers Switzerland, where no one

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Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 20 of 22)