Honoré de Balzac.

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

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"This is the fourth time that Monsieur le Cure
has called to see Madame la Marquise; and he is so
persistent to-day that we don't know what to say to

"He has come, no doubt, to get money for the
poor of the village ; take twenty-five louis and give
them to him from me."

"Madame," said the maid, returning a moment
later, "Monsieur le Cure refuses to take the money
and wishes to speak with you."

"Let him come then!" replied the marchioness,
with a gesture of annoyance that augured ill for the
priest's reception, as it was evident that she pro-
posed to avoid his persecution in future by a brief
and outspoken explanation.

The marchioness had lost her mother when she
was very young, and her education was naturally
affected by the prevailing laxity that loosened the
bonds of religion in France during the Revolution.
Piety is a female virtue which only women transmit
to any extent, and the marchioness was a child of
the eighteenth century, whose philosophic beliefs
were adopted by her father. She followed no
religious ceremonial. In her eyes, a priest was a



public functionary whose usefulness was not beyond
dispute. In her present situation, the voice of
religion could only envenom her suffering; further-
more, she had but little faith in village cures or their
learning; she resolved therefore to teach this one of
her own to know his place, without harshness, and
to rid herself of him after the fashion of the wealthy,
by opening her purse.

The cure came and his appearance did not change
the marchioness's ideas. She saw a little stout man
with a protruding paunch, and a ruddy, but old and
wrinkled face, who tried to smile, but with ill suc-
cess; his hairless skull, furrowed by numerous
transverse wrinkles, overhung his face and dwarfed
it; a few white hairs adorned the lower part of his
head above the nape of his neck and extended for-
ward toward his ears. Nevertheless, his features
were those of a man of a naturally jovial disposi-
tion. His thick lips, his slightly turned-up nose,
his chin which disappeared in a mass of wrinkles,
bore witness to a happy temperament. At first
sight, the marchioness saw only these prominent
features ; but at the first words the priest said she
looked at him more closely, and noticed that beneath
his grizzled eyebrows were eyes that had wept; the
contour of his cheeks, too, seen in profile, gave to
his face such an imposing expression of sorrow, that
the marchioness conceived that she had found a
man in this priest.

"Madame la Marquise, the rich come within our
jurisdiction only when they suffer; the sufferings


of a married woman, young and rich and beautiful,
who has lost neither children nor parents, are easily
guessed, they are caused by wounds whose ache can
be allayed only by religion. Your soul is in danger,
madame. I am not speaking at this moment of the
other life that awaits us! No, I am not in the con-
fessional. But is it not my duty to enlighten you
as to the future of your social existence? You will,
I trust, forgive an old man an intrusion which has
no other object than your happiness."

"Happiness, monsieur, is not for me. I shall be-
long to you soon, as you say, but it will be for-

"No, madame, you will not die of the sorrow that
is crushing you and can be read in your features.
If you were destined to die of it, you would not be at
Saint-Lange. We are less likely to die from the
effects of certain regret than from the effects of un-
fulfilled hopes. I have known of grief more heart-
rending, more intolerable than yours, that has not
caused death."

The marchioness made an incredulous gesture.

"Madame, I know a man whose suffering has
been so great that your grief would seem a mere
trifle when compared to his "

Whether because her long solitude was beginning
to pall upon her, or because she was attracted by
the prospect of being able to pour out her painful
thoughts into a friendly heart, she looked at the
cure with a questioning expression that it was im-
possible to misunderstand.


"Madame," the priest resumed, "the man I
speak of was a father who had but three children
remaining of a once numerous family. He had lost
his parents, and then in quick succession a daughter
and a wife, both dearly loved. He was left alone,
upon a little estate in a distant province, where he
had long lived happily. His three sons were in the
army, each holding a rank proportioned to the length
of time he had served. During the Hundred Days,
the oldest joined the guards and became a colonel ;
the second was a major of artillery, and the youngest
a major of dragoons. Madame, those children loved
their father as dearly as he loved them. If you
knew the reckless natures of those young men,
whose passions so engrossed them that they had no
time to give to family affections, you would under-
stand from a single fact the depth of their love for a
poor, lonely old man who lived only in them and for
them. Not a week passed that he did not receive a
letter from one of them. But he had never been
weakly indulgent to them, a failing that diminishes
a child's respect; nor had he hurt them by undue
severity, nor repelled them by being over-greedy of
sacrifices on their part. No, he had been more than
a father, he had been their brother, their friend. At
last he went to Paris to bid them adieu on the eve of
their departure for Belgium ; he must see that they
had good horses, that they lacked nothing. When
they had gone, the father returned home. The
war began; he received letters from Fleurus, from
Ligny, and all went well. The battle of Waterloo


was fought, you know the result. All France was
put into mourning at a single blow. Every family
was plunged into the most painful anxiety. He,
madame, you understand, could do naught but wait;
he had neither rest nor respite ; he read the gazettes,
he went every day to the post himself. One even-
ing, the servant of his son the colonel arrived. He
was riding his master's horse, so there was no need
to ask any questions; the colonel was dead, cut in
two by a cannon-ball. Toward the end of the even-
ing the youngest son's servant arrived on foot; the
youngest had died the day after the battle. Lastly,
at midnight, an artilleryman came and announced
the death of the last child, upon whose head the
poor father had rested all his hope for those few
hours. Yes, madame, they had all fallen!"

After a pause the priest, having overcome his
emotion, added these words in a gentle voice:

"And the father has lived on, madame. He
understood that, since God had left him upon earth,
he must continue to live and suffer here, and he is
suffering; but he has sought comfort in the bosom
of religion. What could he do?"

The marchioness raised her eyes to the cure's
face, a sublime picture of melancholy resignation,
and waited for the words, which brought tears to
her eyes :

"Become a priest, madame: he was consecrated
by tears before being consecrated at the altar's

Silence reigned for a moment. The marchioness


and the cure looked through the window at the
misty horizon, as if they could see there those who
were no longer on earth.

"Not a city priest, but a simple cure," he con-

"At Saint-Lange," she said, wiping her eyes.

"Yes, madame. "

Never had the majesty of grief appeared more
sublime to Julie; and that Yes, madame, fell upon
her heart with the weight of an infinite sorrow.
The voice that rang so softly in her ears moved her
to the lowest depths of her nature. Ah ! it was the
voice of grief, the resonant, grave voice that seems
to teem with penetrating fluid.

"Monsieur," said the marchioness almost respect-
fully, "if I do not die, what will become of me?"

"Have you not a child, madame?"

"Yes," said she, coldly.

The cure glanced at her in the way a doctor
glances at a dangerously sick patient, and deter-
mined to do his utmost to rescue her from the genius
of evil whose hand was already stretched out over

"As you see, madame, we must live with our sor-
rows, and religion alone offers us real consolation.
Will you permit me to come again so that you may
hear the voice of a man who knows how to sympa-
thize with all forms of suffering, and about whom
there is nothing repulsive, I trust?"

"Yes, monsieur, come. I thank you for having
thought of me."


and the cure looked through the window at the
misty horizon, as if they could see there those who
were no longer on earth.

'Not a city priest, but a simple cure," he con-
tinue I.

"At Saint-Lange," she said, wiping her eyes.

"Yes, madame."

Never had the majesty pf grief appeared more
sublime to Julie; and that Yes, madame, fell upon
her heart with the weight of an infinite sorrow.
The voice that rang so softly in her ears moved her

voice of grJSJV.fl^r9A<^3t, U&Mv^oice that seems
to teem with penetrating fluid.

"Monsieur," said lire maichioness almost respect-
fully, "if I do not die, what will become of me?"

,, The cure glanceJ ai her in .the way. a. doctor
Yd.. .^wftwwwr J^> ws\ . iftft. -r^VsA. ^ su\j
glances at a dangerously sick panent, ana deter-


rows, and religion alone offers us
Will you permit me to come again so that you may
hear the voice of a man who knows how to sympa-
thize with all forms of suffering, and about whom
there is nothing repulsive, I trust?"

"Yes, monsieur, come. I thank you for having
thought of me."



"Well, madame, I shall see you soon."

This visit relaxed, so to speak, the tension of the
marchioness's heart; her faculties had been too
rudely shaken by grief and solitude. The priest
left a balsamic perfume in her heart with the salu-
tary echo of his devout words. Then she felt that
sort of satisfaction which gladdens the prisoner,
when, having come to realize his absolute solitude
and the weight of his fetters, he falls in with a
neighbor who strikes upon the wall, making it give
forth a sound by which they can express their
thoughts. She had an unhoped-for confidant. But
she soon fell back into her habit of bitter medita-
tion, and said to herself, like the prisoner, that a
companion in affliction would not lighten her bonds
or make her future brighter. The cure did not
choose to give too rude a shock to a wholly selfish
sorrow at his first visit; but he hoped, by virtue of
his art, to be able to advance the cause of religion
at a second interview. Two days later he came
again, and the warmth of the marchioness's greeting
proved that his visit was desired.

"Well, Madame la Marquise," said the old man,
"have you reflected upon the vast sum of human
suffering? have you raised your eyes to heaven?
have you gazed upon that immensity of worlds
which, by diminishing our importance and crushing
our vanity, lessens the poignancy of our grief?"

"No, monsieur," said she. "The laws of society
weigh so heavily upon me and oppress me so bitterly
that 1 cannot raise myself heavenward. But the


laws perhaps are less cruel than the customs of
society. Oh! society!"

"We must obey both alike, madame: the law is
the word, and the customs are the acts of society."

"Obey society ?" rejoined the marchioness with
a horrified gesture. "Ah! monsieur, all our woes
come from society. God never made a single law
of misery; but men, by combining, have perverted
His work. We women are more maltreated by civ-
ilization than we should be by nature. Nature im-
poses upon us physical suffering which you have
not allayed, and civilization has developed senti-
ments which you constantly outrage. Nature stifles
feeble creatures, but you condemn them to live in
order to expose them to never-ending misery.
Marriage, the institution upon which society rests
to-day, requires us to carry its whole weight; to
man liberty, to woman, duty. We owe you our
whole lives, you owe us only a few scattered
moments of yours. And man makes his choice
where we simply submit blindly. Oh! monsieur,
I can speak freely to you. Marriage, as it is carried
on to-day, seems to me nothing less than legalized
prostitution. That is the source of all my unhap-
piness. But I alone, among all the wretched crea-
tures under the fatal yoke, have no right to com-
plain! I alone am the author of my misery, for my
marriage was my own act."

She stopped, wept bitterly and was silent.

"In this profound misery, in the midst of this
ocean of sorrow," she continued after a pause, "I


had found a few grains of sand upon which I could
rest my feet, so that I could suffer at my ease ; but
a tempest swept them all away. And here I am,
alone, without support, too weak to withstand the
storms of life."

"We are never weak when God is with us," said
the priest "And even if you have no affections to
satisfy here on earth, have you no duties to fulfil?"

"Duty, always duty!" she cried with something
like impatience. "Pray where am I to find the
sentiments that give us the strength to accomplish
our duty? Monsieur, nothing from nothing or noth-
ing for nothing is one of the justest laws of nature
and morals and physics. Would you expect these
trees to produce their foliage without the sap that
gives them life? The heart has its sap too! In my
case, the sap is dried up at its source."

"I will say nothing of the religious sentiments
that engender resignation," said the cure; "but is
not maternity, madame "

"Stop, monsieur!" said the marchioness. "With
you, I will be frank. Alas! henceforth I can be so
with no one else; 1 am condemned to double deal-
ing; the world demands constant grimacing, and
orders" us, under pain of disgrace, to conform to its
conventions. There are two forms of maternity,
monsieur. Formerly I knew nothing of such dis-
tinctions ; to-day, I know. I am but half a mother
and it would be better if I were not so at all. Helene
is not his I Oh ! do not shudder ! Saint-Lange is an
abyss in which many false sentiments are swallowed


up, where the frail edifices of unnatural laws have
crumbled to pieces, and from which come omi-
nous gleams. I have a child, that is enough; I am
a mother, the law will have it so. But you, mon-
sieur, who have such delicacy of feeling and such a
sympathetic heart, will perhaps understand the cries
of a poor woman who has allowed no sham senti-
ment to find its way into her heart God will be
my judge, but I do not think I have broken His laws
by yielding to the affections He has implanted in my
heart, and this is what I have found there. A
child, monsieur, is the image of two beings, is he
not, the fruit of two sentiments freely mingled? If
he be not intertwined with all the fibres of the body
as with all the affections of the heart; if he do not
recall blissful moments, the times and places where
those two beings were happy together, and their
language overflowing with human music, and their
sweet communion of ideas, that child is an abortive
creature. Yes, for them he should be a ravishing
miniature wherein the poem of their secret double
life' is reproduced; he should be to them a never-
failing source of emotion, their whole past and their
whole future at one and the same time. My poor
little Helene is her father's child, the child of duty
and of chance; she finds in me only the wifely in-
stinct, the law that irresistibly impels us to protect
the creature born of our flesh. I am irreproachable,
socially speaking. Did I not sacrifice my life and
my happiness to her? Her cries move my very
bowels; if she should fall into the water, I would


jump in to save her. But she is not in my heart.
Ah ! love made me dream of a grander, more com-
plete maternity; in a dream that has vanished I
have caressed the child that desire conceived before
it was engendered, the delicious flower born in the
heart before it is born to the light I am to Helene
all that a mother ought to be to her children in the
natural order of things. When she has no further
need of me, that will be the end of it; when the
cause is extinct, the effects will cease. If woman
possesses the adorable privilege of prolonging her
maternity over her child's whole life, must we not
attribute this divine persistence of the maternal
sentiment to the radiation of her moral conception ?
When the child has not had its mother's heart for
its first envelope, the maternal sentiment ceases as
it ceases in animals. That is true, for I feel it; as
my poor little one grows, my heart closes more and
more. The sacrifices I have made for her have
already separated me from her, while for another
child my heart, I am sure, would have been inex-
haustible; for that other, nothing would have
been a sacrifice, everything would have been
a pleasure. In this matter, monsieur, reason,
religion, everything within me is powerless against
my sentiments. Is it sinful for a woman to wish to
die, who is neither wife nor mother, and who, to
her undoing, has caught a glimpse of love in all its
infinitude of beauty, in all its boundless joy? What
can become of her? I will tell you what such a
woman feels! A hundred times during the day, a


hundred times during the night, a shudder runs
through my head and my heart and my body, when
some memory, too feebly fought against, brings me
the image of a happiness which I conceive as
greater than it is. In face of these cruel fancies
my sentiments fade away, and I say to myself:
'What would my life have been, if ?' "

She hid her face in her hands and burst into

"I have shown you my whole heart!" she contin-
ued. "A child by him would have made it possible
for me to accept with resignation the most horrible
misery ! The Saviour who died laden with all the
sins of the world will forgive me for the thought,
which is death to me; but the world is implacable,
I know; in its eyes, my words are blasphemous; I
outrage all its laws. Ah! I would like to make war
on this vile world, in order to make over its laws
and customs, to shatter them ! Has it not wounded
me in every fibre, in all my thoughts, in all my
sentiments, in all my desires, in all my hopes, in
the past, in the present, in the future? For me the
day is full of shadows, thought is a sword, my heart
is a gaping wound, my child a negation. Yes,
when Helene speaks to me, I wish that she had
another voice; when she looks at me, I wish that
she had other eyes. She is a living witness of all
that ought to be and is not. I cannot endure her !
1 smile at her, I try to make up to her for the senti-
ments 1 steal from her. I suffer ! oh ! monsieur, I
suffer too keenly to support life. And I shall be


looked upon as a virtuous woman! I have com-
mitted no sin! I shall be honored! I struggled
against the involuntary love to which 1 ought not to
yield, but even though I have kept my faith, physi-
cally speaking, have I preserved my heart? This,"
she said, pressing her hand against her bosom,
"has belonged to only one human being. So, you
see, my child is not mistaken. There are mothers
whose glance and voice and gestures have the
power to mould their children's hearts ; but my poor
little one never feels my arms tremble, my voice
falter, my eyes grow soft, when I lift her up, or
speak to her, or look at her. She casts reproachful
glances at me which I cannot meet ! Sometimes I
tremble lest I find in her a tribunal before which I
shall be condemned unheard. May Heaven grant
that hatred do not some day come between us!
Great God ! rather let the grave open for me and let
me end my days at Saint-Lange ! I long to go to the
world where 1 shall meet my other self again, where
I shall be a mother in good truth! Oh! pardon me,
monsieur, I am mad. These words were suffocating
me and I have said them. Ah ! you are weeping too !
you will not despise me. Helene, Helene, come
here, my child!" she cried, in a sort of desperation,
hearing her daughter returning from her walk. f

The little girl came in laughing and crying with
delight; she had a butterfly that she had caught;
but when she saw her mother in tears, she held her
peace, went and stood beside her and allowed herself
to be kissed on the forehead.


"She will be very lovely," said the priest.

"She is her father all over," replied the mar-
chioness, kissing her daughter with a display of
warmth, as if to acquit herself of a debt or to quiet
a feeling of remorse.

"You're warm, mamma."

"Go, leave us, my angel," said the marchioness.

The child went away with no indication of regret,
without looking at her mother, almost happy, appa-
rently, to escape from a sad face, and realizing
already that the sentiments expressed thereon were
inimical to her. The smile is the appanage, the
tongue, the expression of maternity. The mar-
chioness could not smile. She blushed as she looked
at the priest; she had hoped to show herself a
mother, but neither she nor her child could lie. The
kisses of a sincere woman bear a celestial honey
that seems to endow them with a soul, with a subtle
fire that penetrates the heart. Kisses that have not
that honeyed sweetness are dry and bitter. The
priest was conscious of the difference; he could
sound the depth of the chasm that lies between
maternity of the flesh and maternity of the heart.
And so with a searching glance at the woman before
him, he said:

"You are right, madame; it would be better for
you to be dead "

"Ah! I see that you understand my sufferings,"
she replied, "since you, a Christian priest, divine
and approve the sad resolutions they have inspired.
Yes, I have longed to kill myself; but I have lacked


the necessary courage to carry out my purpose.
My body has been cowardly when my heart was
strong, and when my hand ceased to tremble, my
heart faltered ! I do not know the secret of these
struggles and this vacillation. I am a real woman,
to my sorrow a woman without strength of will,
strong only to love. I despise myself! At night
when my servants were asleep, I would go most
courageously to the pond ; when I reached the shore,
my weak nature would turn sick at the thought of
destruction. I confess my weaknesses to you.
When I was in bed once more, 1 would be ashamed
of myself and my courage would return. At one of
those times I took laudanum; but I suffered only I
did not die. I intended to take all the bottle con-
tained, but I stopped at half."

"You are lost, madame," said the cure gravely,
and in a voice choking with sobs. "You will return
to society, and you will deceive society ; you will
seek and find there what you consider a compensa-
tion for your woes; then some day you will feel the
burden of your pleasures "

"I," she cried, "abandon to the first villain who
knows how to play the comedy of passion, the last,
the most precious treasures of my heart, and pollute
my whole life for a moment of doubtful pleasure?
No! my heart will be consumed by a pure flame.
Monsieur, all men have the passions of their sex;
but the man who has its heart and thus satisfies all
the demands of our nature, whose sweet harmony is
never marred except under the pressure of emotion,


such a man is not met with twice in our lives. My
future is horrible to contemplate, I know; a woman
is nothing without love, beauty is nothing without
pleasure; but would not the world blame me for be-
ing happy if happiness should ever again be mine?
I owe my daughter an honored mother. Ah ! I am
in the centre of a circle of fire from which I cannot
escape without ignominy. Family duties, performed
without hope of reward, will weary me ; I shall curse
life; but my daughter shall at least have a fair
semblance of a mother. I will bestow treasures of
virtue upon her, to take the place of the treasures of
affection of which I have defrauded her. I do not
even care to live for the purpose of tasting the joy
that mothers feel in the happiness of their children.
I do not believe in happiness. What will be
HeMene'sfate? The same as mine, no doubt What
means has a mother of assuring her daughter that
the man to whom she gives her will be a husband
after her own heart? You point the finger of scorn
at poor creatures who sell themselves for a few
crowns to the first comer ; hunger and necessity ex-
cuse such ephemeral unions ; while society tolerates,
nay, encourages the much more deplorable union of

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Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 8 of 22)