Honoré de Balzac.

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

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an innocent young girl and a man she has not
known three months; she is sold for her whole life.
To be sure, the price is high ! If, as you permit her
to have no compensation for her suffering, you would
only respect her ; but no, society slanders the most
virtuous of us ! Such is our destiny, looked at in its
two aspects: public prostitution and shame, private


prostitution and unhappiness. As for the poor girls
without dot, they go mad and die ; no pity for them !
Beauty, virtue, have no value in your human
bazaar, and you call that den of selfishness society!
Better disinherit women altogether! in that way
you would at least obey a law of nature by choosing
your companions, and marrying them in accordance
with the dictates of your hearts."

"Madame, your words prove that neither the
family spirit, nor the religious spirit appeals to you.
Therefore you will not hesitate between the social
selfishness that wounds your sensibilities, and the
animal selfishness that will lead you to crave physi-
cal enjoyment "

"Is there such a thing as family, monsieur? I
deny that such a thing exists, under a social regime,
which, at the death of the father or mother, divides
the property and bids each child go his own way.
The family is a temporary, fortuitous association,
speedily dissolved by death. Our laws have de-
stroyed families, inheritances, and the permanence
of examples and traditions. I see only ruins around

"Madame, you will not return to God, until His
hand weighs heavily upon you, and I trust that you
will have time enough to make your peace with
Him. You seek consolation by keeping your eyes
fixed upon the earth, instead of raising them to
Heaven. The philosophical spirit and self-interest
have attacked your heart ; you are deaf to the voice
of religion like all the children of this unbelieving


age ! The pleasures of the world engender naught
but suffering. You are about to change one form of
misery for another, that's all."

"I shall prove your prophecy to be false," said
she, smiling bitterly; "I shall be faithful to him
who died for me."

"Sorrow can exist," he replied, "only in the
hearts prepared therefor by religion."

He respectfully lowered his eyes in order to con-
ceal the doubts that might be expressed therein.
The energetic lamentations of the marchioness had
saddened him. Recognizing the human ego in all
its thousand forms, he despaired of softening that
heart which misfortune had withered instead of ex-
panding, and in which the seed sown by the Di-
vine Sower could not take root, because his gentle
voice was drowned by the loud and awful clamor of
egoism. Nevertheless, he displayed the constancy
of the apostle and repeated his visit several times,
always brought back by the hope of turning that
proud and noble heart to God; but he lost courage
the day that he discovered that the marchioness
liked to talk with him only because it was pleasant
to her to speak of him who was no more. He did
not choose to degrade his ministry by becoming the
confidant of a passion; he ceased to talk seriously
with her and reverted gradually to the stereotyped
commonplaces of conversation. The spring came.
The marchioness found means of diverting her
thoughts from her profound melancholy, and occu-
pied her leisure in the care of her estate, amusing


herself by ordering some improvements. In Octo-
ber, she left the old chateau of Saint-Lange, where
she had become lovely and blooming once more in
the idleness of a sorrow which was at the outset as
violent as the motion of a quoit thrown by a strong
arm, but had finally died away to gentle melancholy,
as the oscillations of the quoit become gradually
weaker and weaker until it stops. Melancholy con-
sists of a series of similar mental oscillations, the
first of which borders upon despair, and the last is
akin to pleasure: in youth, it is the morning twi-
light; in old age, the dusk of evening.

When her caleche passed through the village, the
marchioness received the salutation of the cure, who
was returning from the church to his vicarage; but,
after replying to it, she lowered her eyes and turned
her head in order not to see him again. The priest
was too nearly accurate in his judgment of this poor
Diana of the Ephesians.



A young man, of exalted hopes, belonging to one
of the historic houses whose names will always,
even despite the laws, be closely interwoven with
the glories of France, attended a dancing party at
Madame Firmiani's. That lady had given him
letters of introduction to two or three of her friends
at Naples. Monsieur Charles de Vandenesse such
was the young man's name had come to thank
her and to take leave of her. Having filled sev-
eral diplomatic posts with distinction, Vandenesse
had recently been appointed attache to one of our
ministers plenipotentiary to the Congress of Lay-
bach, and desired to avail himself of the opportunity
to study Italy. This entertainment, therefore, was
a sort of farewell to the dissipations of Paris, to the
swift-flowing life, the vortex of thoughts and pleas-
ures which are often spoken slightingly of, but to
which it is so delightful to abandon one's self. As
he had become accustomed, by his experiences of
the past three years, to make his bow in European
capitals and to turn his back upon them at the bid-
ding of the caprice of his diplomatic destiny, Charles
de Vandenesse had little to regret on leaving Paris.
Women had ceased to produce any impression upon



him, whether because he considered that a genuine
passion occupied too much of a diplomat's life, or
because the wretched trifling of superficial gallantry
seemed to him too unmeaning for strong minds.
All of us make great pretensions to strength of mind.
In France no man, however mediocre his talent, is
content to be considered simply clever. And so
Charles, young though he was barely thirty had
already philosophically accustomed himself to see
ideas, results, methods, where men of his age usually
see sensations, pleasures, illusions. He forced back
the natural ardor and exaltation of youth into the
deep recesses of his heart, which nature had created
in a generous mould. He labored to make himself a
cold and calculating schemer; to display in an at-
tractive exterior, in manner and in the wiles of
seduction, the treasures of intellect that he owed to
chance: truly an ambitious man's task; a pitiful
role, undertaken with the object of attaining what
we call to-day a fine position.

He cast a last glance into the salons where
dancing was in progress. Before leaving the ball,
he desired, doubtless, to impress its image upon his
memory, as a spectator never leaves his box at the
Opera without a glance at the final tableau. But, in
obedience to a fancy easily understood, Monsieur
de Vandenesse studied the purely French animation,
the brilliancy and the smiling faces of this Parisian
festivity, contrasting them by anticipation in his
mind with the new faces and the picturesque scenes
that awaited him at Naples, where he proposed to


pass a few days before going on to his post He
seemed to be comparing France, the ever-changing,
France that can be studied so readily, with a coun-
try whose territory and manners were known to him
only by contradictory reports, or through books that
were for the most part wretchedly written. Certain
reflections, not unpoetic, but very commonplace in
these days, passed through his mind, and answered,
unknown to him it may be, the secret longings of
his heart, which was out of occupation rather than
withered, particular in its requirements rather than

"Here," he said to himself, "are the most fash-
ionable, the noblest, the richest women in Paris.
Here are the celebrities of the day, renowned ora-
tors, renowned aristocrats and men of letters : artists
on this side, ministers on the other. And yet I see
nothing but petty intrigues, stillborn love affairs,
smiles that say nothing, disdain without cause,
lustreless glances, abundant wit, but all expended to
no purpose. All these pink and white faces are in
quest of distraction rather than enjoyment. No
emotion is genuine. If you care simply for well-
arranged feathers, fresh muslins, pretty costumes,
frail women; if life in your eyes is simply a surface
to be skimmed over, this is where you belong. Be
content with these unmeaning phrases, these charm-
ing grimaces, and seek not for sentiment in the
hearts of these people. For my own part, I have
a horror of all this tedious intriguing, which ends in
marriages, sub-prefectures or receiver-generalships,


or, if love is concerned, in secret arrangement,
everyone is so ashamed of the slightest semblance
of passion. I fail to see a single one of those elo-
quent countenances which denote a mind abandoned
to an idea as to remorse. Here regret or un-
happiness conceals itself shamefacedly beneath a
jest. I see none of those women with whom one
would like to contend, and who draw you on into an
abyss. Where can one find energy in Paris? A
dagger is a curiosity that is kept hanging on a
gilded nail, and is embellished with a pretty sheath.
Women, ideas, sentiments, all resemble one another.
Passions no longer exist because individuality has
disappeared. Ranks, intellects, fortunes have been
reduced to the same level, and we are all wearing
black coats as if we intended to put on mourning for
dead France. We are not fond of our equals. Be-
tween two lovers there must be discrepancies to be
effaced, gaps to be filled. The charm of love van-
ished in 1789! Our weariness, our insipid manners
are the result of our political system. In Italy
everything is high-flavored at all events. Women
are still wicked creatures there, dangerous sirens,
unreasoning, guided by no other logic than that of
their inclinations and appetites, and to be distrusted
as one distrusts tigers "

Madame Firmiani suddenly interrupted this mon-
ologue of vague, incomplete, contradictory, untrans-
latable thoughts. The charm of a reverie consists
entirely in its indefmiteness; is it not a sort of in-
tellectual vapor?


"I want to introduce you to a lady who has the
greatest desire to know you because of all that she
has heard about you," she said, taking his arm.

She led him into an adjoining salon, where she
pointed out to him with a gesture, a smile and a
glance truly Parisian, a woman sitting at one corner
of the fireplace.

"Who is she?" demanded the Comte de Vande-
nesse eagerly.

"A woman whom you have undoubtedly talked
about more than once, to praise her or to speak ill
of her, a woman who lives alone a downright

"If you have ever been kind in your life, I pray
you, tell me her name."

"The Marquise d'Aiglemont."

"1 am going to take lessons from her ; she has suc-
ceeded in making a peer of France out of a husband
of very moderate parts, a capable politician out of
an absolute nobody. But, tell me, do you believe
Lord Grenville died for her sake, as some women

"Perhaps. Since that adventure, true or false,
the poor woman has changed a great deal. She
hasn't gone into society yet Constancy for four
whole years is a remarkable thing in Paris. Her
reason for coming here "

Madame Firmiani checked herself; then she added,

"I forgot that I was to say nothing. Go and talk
with her."


Charles stood for a moment without moving, his
back resting lightly against the door frame, busily
engaged in examining a woman who had become
famous without anybody's being able to explain
upon what her celebrity was based. Society affords
many such curious anomalies. Madame d'Aigle-
mont's reputation was assuredly no more extraordi-
nary than that of certain men who are always in
travail with a work that nobody sees : statisticians
supposed to possess vast knowledge on the faith of
investigations whose results they are careful not to
publish; politicians who live upon an article in a
newspaper; authors or artists whose work always
remains in their portfolio; men who are scholars in
the eyes of those who know nothing of science, as
Sganarelle is a profound Latinist to those who do not
know Latin; men who are accredited with recog-
nized capacity in a singJe direction, artistic it may
be, or diplomatic. That admirable phrase: // is his
specialty, seems to have been invented for these
political or literary acephala. Charles stood there
absorbed in contemplation longer than he intended,
and was displeased to find his mind so taken up with
a woman; but that woman's presence was in itself
a refutation of the thoughts the young diplomatist
had conceived a moment before as he looked on at
the ball.

The marchioness, at this time about thirty years
old, was a lovely woman, although her figure was
frail and her appearance excessively delicate. Her
greatest charm was due to a face whose tranquillity


betrayed marvelous depth of mind. Her eyes were
full of sparkle, but seemed veiled by constant
thought, betokening an agitated life and the most
perfect resignation. Her eyelids were almost
always modestly cast down toward the ground, and
were seldom raised. If she happened to glance
about her it was with a sad expression, and you
would have said that she reserved the fire of her
eyes for her secret meditations. Thus it was that
every man of superior mind felt curiously drawn
toward this sweet, silent creature. If the mind
sought to divine the mysteries of the perpetual re-
action that was taking place within her, from the
present to the past, from society to solitude, the
heart was no less interested in fathoming the secrets
of a heart that was in a certain sense proud of its
suffering. Moreover, there was nothing about her to
give the lie to the ideas she inspired at first Like
almost all women who have very long hair, she
was pale and perfectly white. Her skin, which was
incomparably fine, a token that rarely misleads,
denoted genuine sensitiveness, confirmed by the
character of her features, which had the marvelous
finish that the Chinese painters give their fanciful
faces. Her neck was a little long, perhaps; but that
sort of neck is the most graceful and imparts to a
woman's head a vague affinity with the magnetic
undulations of the serpent. If there did not exist a
single one of the thousand indications by which the
most cleverly dissembled natures reveal themselves
to the observer, it would be enough for him to study


carefully the motions of the head and the curving of
the neck, varied and expressive as they are, to judge
a woman's character. In Madame d'Aiglemont's
case, the costume was in harmony with the train of
thought that dominated her actions. The heavy
braids of hair formed a high crown upon her head,
and no ornament ever appeared among them, for she
seemed to have said farewell forever to the refine-
ments of the toilet. In like manner, she was never
detected in any of the little coquettish wiles that
spoil so many women. But, modest as her corsage
always was, it did not wholly conceal the elegance
of her figure. Then, too, the beauty of her long
dress consisted in its extremely distinguished cut;
and, if it is permissible to seek ideas in the arrange-
ment of a dress fabric, we might say that the
numerous and simple folds of her dress imparted an
air of great nobility to her bearing. And yet, per-
haps, she gave token of woman's indelible weakness
in the extreme care that she took of her hands and
feet; but, although she took some pleasure in show-
ing them, it would have been hard for the most
malicious rival to accuse her movements of affecta-
tion, they seemed so entirely involuntary, or due to
habits contracted in childhood. This remnant of
coquetry obtained its own forgiveness by virtue of
her charming nonchalance of manner. This collec-
tion of features, this assortment of trifles which
make a woman ugly or pretty, attractive or disa-
greeable, can only be indicated, especially when, as
was the case with Madame d'Aiglemont, the heart


is the bond that connects all the details and makes
them into a charming whole. Her manner was in
perfect accord with the character of her face and her
costume. Until they reach a certain age, many of
the noblest women do not learn to make their atti-
tude speak. Is it sorrow or is it happiness that
makes known to the woman of thirty, be she happy
or unhappy, the secret of the eloquent countenance?
That will always be a living enigma, which every-
one will interpret at the bidding of his desires, his
hopes or his theories. The manner in which the
marchioness rested her elbows on the arms of her
chair and joined the finger ends of her two hands as
if in play; the curve of her neck, the languor of her
fatigued but supple body, which seemed to have
collapsed in a well-bred way in her chair, the un-
studied position of her legs, the careless indifference
of her attitude, her weary movements, all pointed
to her as a woman without interest in life, who had
not known the pleasures of love but had dreamed of
them, and who was bending beneath the burdens
with which her memory overwhelmed her ; a woman
who had long ago given up all hope of the future or
of herself, a woman without occupation who mistook
the emptiness of life for extinction. Charles de
Vandenesse admired the magnificent picture, but he
admired it as the product of a more skilful touch
than that of most women. He knew D'Aiglemont
At the first glance at his wife whom he had not be-
fore seen, the young diplomatist at once detected a
lack of proportion, an incompatibility let us use


the legal term between the two, too great to admit
the possibility of the marchioness loving her hus-
band. And yet Madame d'Aiglemont's conduct was
absolutely irreproachable, and her virtue imparted a
still greater value to all the mysteries an observer
might forecast in her. When his first feeling of sur-
prise had passed away, Vandenesse reflected upon
the best way of approaching Madame d'Aiglemont,
and, resorting to a stratagem very common in diplo-
macy, he determined to embarrass her in order to
ascertain how she would receive a foolish remark.

"Madame," said he, taking a seat beside her,
"thanks to a lucky slip of the tongue I have dis-
covered that I have the good fortune, through what
merit of my own I do not know, to be selected for
distinction by you. I am the more indebted to you
therefor, because I have never been the recipient of
a similar favor. So you will be responsible for one
of my failings. Henceforth I do not propose to be
modest "

"You will be ill-advised, monsieur," she said
laughingly; "you must leave vanity to those who
have nothing else to put forward."

A conversation thereupon ensued between the
marchioness and the young man, who, as the custom
was, attacked in a moment a multitude of subjects :
painting, music, literature, politics, men, events
and things. At last they arrived by insensible de-
grees at the everlasting subject of conversation in
France and in foreign lands, love, the sentiments
and womankind.


"We are slaves."

"You are queens."

The more or less clever and intellectual remarks
of Charles and the marchioness might be condensed
into that simple summary of all conversations
present and to come upon that subject Do not
those two sentences always come to mean within
a given time:

"Love me."

"1 will love you."

"Madame," Charles de Vandenesse exclaimed
tenderly, "you make me regret deeply that I have
to leave Paris. Certainly I shall pass no such im-
proving hours in Italy as this has been."

"You will find happiness there perhaps, monsieur,
and it is worth more than all the brilliant thoughts,
true or false, that are put into words every evening
in Paris."

Before taking leave of the marchioness, Charles
obtained permission to call and pay his respects be-
fore leaving Paris. He esteemed himself very for-
tunate in having preferred his request with every
outward appearance of sincerity, when he found,
upon going to bed that night, as well as throughout
the whole of the next day, that it was impossible
for him to drive the woman from his mind. Some-
times he asked himself why the marchioness had
distinguished him; what her intentions could have
been in requesting an introduction; and he ex-
hausted his powers of conjecture thereupon. Some-
times he fancied that he had discovered the motives


of her curiosity; at such times he became intoxi
cated with hope, or his ardor abated, according to
the interpretation he placed upon that polite request,
of such frequent occurrence in Paris. Sometimes it
was everything, sometimes it was nothing. At last,
he determined to resist the force that impelled him to-
ward Madame d'Aiglemont; but he went to her
house. There are such things as thoughts which
we obey without knowing that we have them : they
come to our minds unknown to us. Although this
reflection may seem more paradoxical than true,
everyone who considers it in good faith will find a
thousand proofs of it in his life. In calling upon the
marchioness, Charles obeyed one of those pre-exist-
ing texts of which our experience and the conquests
of our intellect are, at a later period, simply the
visible developments. A woman of thirty has an
irresistible attraction for a young man; nothing is
more natural, more firmly knit, or more certainly
pre-ordained, than the profound attachments of
which we see so many examples in society between
a young wife like the marchioness and a young
man like Vandenesse. An unmarried girl has too
many illusions, is too inexperienced, and her sex is
too much of an accomplice in her love, for a young
man to feel flattered thereby; while a wife knows
the whole story of the sacrifices to be made. Where
the one is impelled by curiosity, by fascinations
unconnected with those of love, the other obeys a
conscientious sentiment. One yields, the other
chooses. Is not the mere choice a most flattering


thing? Armed with knowledge that has almost
always been dearly bought by unhappiness, the
woman of experience seems, when she gives herself,
to give more than herself; while the young girl,
ignorant and credulous, knowing nothing at all, is
unable to make any comparisons or to appreciate
anything at its true value; she accepts love and
studies it. The one teaches us, advises us at an
age when we love to submit to guidance, when
obedience is a pleasure; the other wants to learn
everything and is artless where the other is affec-
tionate. The one offers you but a single triumph,
the other compels you to wage perpetual combats.
The first has only tears and pleasure, the second
has ecstasy and remorse. For a young girl to be
really your mistress she must be too corrupt, and in
that case you turn your back on her in horror;
while a married woman has a thousand ways of
preserving her power and her dignity at once. The
one, too submissive, offers you the depressing secur-
ity of repose; the other loses too much not to require
love to assume its thousand changing aspects. The
one dishonors herself alone, the other destroys an
entire family for your benefit The young girl
knows but one resource of coquetry and thinks that
all is said when she has laid aside her clothing; but
the married woman has them at her command with-
out number and conceals them beneath innumerable
veils; in short, she caresses every form of vanity,
and the no vice flatters but one. Moreover, you have
constantly to deal with indecision, fear, dread,


anxiety, outbursts of emotion, on the part of the
woman of thirty, none of which are ever met with
in the love of a maiden. When she has reached
that age, the wife requests a young man to restore
the esteem she has sacrificed to him; she lives only
for him, busies herself about his future, desires to
make his life glorious, and ordains that it shall be;
she obeys, she implores and commands, humbles
and exalts herself, and knows how to comfort him
in countless emergencies, where the girl can do
naught but groan. Lastly, over and above all the
advantages of her position, the woman of thirty can
make herself a young girl, can play all parts, be
modest if she please, and deck herself out even with

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Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 18) → online text (page 9 of 22)