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Droll Stories, Volume 3
by Honore de Balzac
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When the two spouses set out they were accompanied a long way by knights in mourning, and even by the common people, who wished them every happiness, because Madame Imperia had been hard on the rich only, and had always been kind and gentle with the poor. This lovely queen of love was hailed with acclamations throughout the journey in all the towns of Italy where the report of her conversion had spread, and where everyone was curious to see pass, a case so rare as two such spouses. Several princes received this handsome couple at their courts, saying it was but right to show honour to this woman who had the courage to renounce her empire over the world of fashion, to become a virtuous woman. But there was an evil-minded fellow, one my lord Duke of Ferrara, who said to l'Ile Adam that his great fortune had not cost him much. At this first offence Madame Imperia showed what a good heart she had, for she gave up all the money she had received from her lovers, to ornament the dome of St. Maria del Fiore, in the town of Florence, which turned the laugh against the Sire d'Este, who boasted that he had built a church in spite of the empty condition of his purse. You may be sure he was reprimanded for this joke by his brother the cardinal.

The fair Imperia only kept her own wealth and that which the Emperor had bestowed upon her out of pure friendship since his departure, the amount of which was however, considerable. The cadet of l'Ile Adam had a duel with the duke, in which he wounded him. Thus neither Madame de l'Ile Adam, nor her husband could be in any way reproached. This piece of chivalry caused her to be gloriously received in all places she passed through, especially in Piedmont, where the fetes were splendid. Verses which the poet then composed, such as sonnets, epithalamias, and odes, have been given in certain collections; but all poetry was weak in comparison with her, who was, according to an expression of Monsieur Boccaccio, poetry herself.

The prize in this tourney of fetes and gallantry must be awarded to the good Emperor of the Romans, who, knowing of the misbehaviour of the Duke of Ferrara, dispatched an envoy to his old flame, charged with Latin manuscripts, in which he told her that he loved her so much for herself, that he was delighted to know that she was happy, but grieved to know that all her happiness was not derived from him; that he had lost his right to make her presents, but that, if the king of France received her coldly, he would think it an honour to acquire a Villiers to the holy empire, and would give him such principalities as he might choose from his domains. The fair Imperia replied that she was extremely obliged to the Emperor, but that had she to suffer contumely upon contumely in France, she still intended there to finish her days.

II HOW THIS MARRIAGE ENDED

Not knowing if it she would be received or not, the lady of l'Ile Adam would not go to court, but lived in the country, where her husband made a fine establishment, purchasing the manor of Beaumont-le-Vicomte, which gave rise to the equivoque upon his name, made by our well-beloved Rabelais, in his most magnificent book. He acquired also the domain of Nointel, the forest of Carenelle, St. Martin, and other places in the neighbourhood of the l'Ile Adam, where his brother Villiers resided. These said acquisitions made him the most powerful lord in the l'Ile de France and county of Paris. He built a wonderful castle near Beaumont, which was afterwards ruined by the English, and adorned it with the furniture, foreign tapestries, chests, pictures, statues, and curiosities, of his wife, who was a great connoisseur, which made this place equal to the most magnificent castles known.

The happy pair led a life so envied by all, that nothing was talked about in Paris and at Court but this marriage, the good fortune of the Sire de Beaumont, and, above all, of the perfect, loyal, gracious, and religious life of his wife, who from habit many still called Madame Imperia; who was no longer proud and sharp as steel, but had the virtues and qualities of a respectable woman, and was an example in many things to a queen. She was much beloved by the Church on account of her great religion, for she had never once forgotten God, having, as she once said, spent much of her time with churchmen, abbots, bishops, and cardinals, who had sprinkled her well with holy water, and under the curtains worked her eternal salvation.

The praises sung in honour of this lady had such an effect, that the king came to Beauvoisis to gaze upon this wonder, and did the sire the honour to sleep at Beaumont, remained there three days, and had a royal hunt there with the queen and the whole Court. You may be sure that he was surprised, as were also the queen, the ladies, and the Court, at the manners of this superb creature, who was proclaimed a lady of courtesy and beauty. The king first, then the queen, and afterwards every individual member of the company, complemented l'Ile Adam on having chosen such a wife. The modesty of the chatelaine did more than pride would have accomplished; for she was invited to court, and everywhere, so imperious was her great heart, so tyrannic her violent love for her husband. You may be sure that her charms, hidden under the garments of virtue, were none the less exquisite. The king gave the vacant post of lieutenant of the Ile de France and provost of Paris to his ancient ambassador, giving him the title of Viscount of Beaumont, which established him as governor of the whole province, and put him on an excellent footing at court. But this was the cause of a great wound in Madame's heart, because a wretch, jealous of this unclouded happiness, asked her, playfully, if Beaumont had ever spoken to her of his first love, Mademoiselle de Montmorency, who at that time was twenty-two years of age, as she was sixteen at the time the marriage took place in Rome—the which young lady loved l'Ile Adam so much that she remained a maiden, would listen to no proposals of marriage, and was dying of a broken heart, unable to banish her perfidious lover from her remembrance and was desirous of entering the convent of Chelles. Madame Imperia, during the six years of her marriage, had never heard this name, and was sure from this fact that she was indeed beloved. You can imagine that this time had been passed as a single day, that both believed that they had only been married the evening before, and that each night was as a wedding night, and that if business took the knight out of doors, he was quite melancholy, being unwilling ever to have her out of his sight, and she was the same with him.

The king, who was very partial to the viscount, also made a remark to him which stung him to the quick, when he said, "You have no children?"

To which Beaumont replied, with the face of a man whose raw place you have touched with your finger, "Monsiegneur, my brother has; thus our line is safe."

Now it happened that his brother's two children died suddenly—one from a fall from his horse at a tournament and the other from illness. Monsieur l'Ile Adam the elder was so stricken with grief at these two deaths that he expired soon after, so much did he love his two sons. By this means the manor of Beaumont, the property at Carenelle, St. Martin, Nointel, and the surrounding domains, were reunited to the manor of l'Ile Adam, and the neighbouring forests, and the cadet became the head of the house. At this time Madame was forty-five, and was still fit to bear children; but alas! she conceived not. As soon as she saw the lineage of l'Ile Adam destroyed, she was anxious to obtain offspring.

Now, as during the seven years which had elapsed she had never once had the slightest hint of pregnancy, she believed, according to the statement of a clever physician whom she sent for from Paris, that this barrenness proceeded from the fact, that both she and her husband, always more lovers than spouses, allowed pleasure to interfere with business, and by this means engendering was prevented. Then she endeavoured to restrain her impetuosity, and to take things coolly, because the physician had explained to her that in a state of nature animals never failed to breed, because the females employed none of those artifices, tricks, and hanky-pankies with which women accommodate the olives of Poissy, and for this reason they thoroughly deserved the title of beasts. She promised him no longer to play with such a serious affair, and to forget all the ingenious devices in which she had been so fertile. But, alas! although she kept as quiet as that German woman who lay so still that her husband embraced her to death, and then went, poor baron, to obtain absolution from the pope, who delivered his celebrated brief, in which he requested the ladies of Franconia to be a little more lively, and prevent a repetition of such a crime. Madame de l'Ile Adam did not conceive, and fell into a state of great melancholy.

Then she began to notice how thoughtful had become her husband, l'Ile Adam, whom she watched when he thought she was not looking, and who wept that he had no fruit of his great love. Soon this pair mingled their tears, for everything was common to the two in this fine household, and as they never left the other, the thought of the one was necessarily the thought of the other. When Madame beheld a poor person's child she nearly died of grief, and it took her a whole day to recover. Seeing this great sorrow, l'Ile Adam ordered all children to be kept out of his wife's sight, and said soothing things to her, such as that children often turned out badly; to which she replied, that a child made by those who loved so passionately would be the finest child in the world. He told her that her sons might perish, like those of his poor brother; to which she replied, that she would not let them stir further from her petticoats than a hen allows her chickens. In fact, she had an answer for everything.

Madame caused a woman to be sent for who dealt in magic, and who was supposed to be learned in these mysteries, who told her that she had often seen women unable to conceive in spite of every effort, but yet they had succeeded by studying the manners and customs of animals. Madame took the beasts of the fields for her preceptors, but she did not increase in size; her flesh still remained firm and white as marble. She returned to the physical science of the master doctors of Paris, and sent for a celebrated Arabian physician, who had just arrived in France with a new science. Then this savant, brought up in the school of one Sieur Averroes, entered into certain medical details, and declared that the loose life she had formerly led had for ever ruined her chance of obtaining offspring. The physical reasons which he assigned were so contrary to the teaching of the holy books which establish the majesty of man, made in the image of his creator, and so contrary to the system upheld by sound sense and good doctrine, that the doctors of Paris laughed them to scorn. The Arabian physician left the school where his master, the Sieur Averroes, was unknown.

The doctors told Madame, who had come to Paris, that she was to keep on as usual, since she had had during her gay life the lovely Theodora, by the cardinal of Ragusa, and that the right of having children remained with women as long as their blood circulated, and all that she had to do was to multiply the chances of conception. This advice appeared to her so good that she multiplied her victories, but it was only multiplying her defeats, since she obtained the flowers of love without its fruits.

The poor afflicted woman wrote then to the pope, who loved her much, and told him of her sorrows. The good pope replied to her with a gracious homily, written with his own hand, in which he told her that when human science and things terrestrial had failed, we should turn to Heaven and implore the grace of God. Then she determined to go with naked feet, accompanied by her husband, to Notre Dame de Liesse, celebrated for her intervention in similar cases, and made a vow to build a magnificent cathedral in gratitude for the child. But she bruised and injured her pretty feet, and conceived nothing but a violent grief, which was so great that some of her lovely tresses fell off and some turned white.

At last the faculty of making children was taken from her, which brought on the vapours consequent upon hypochondria, and caused her skin to turn yellow. She was then forty-nine years of age, and lived in her castle of l'Ile Adam, where she grew as thin as a leper in a lazar-house. The poor creature was all the more wretched because l'Ile Adam was still amorous, and as good as gold to her, who failed in her duty, because she had formerly been too free with the men, and was now, according to her own disdainful remark, only a cauldron to cook chitterlings.

"Ha!" said she, one evening when these thoughts were tormenting her. "In spite of the Church, in spite of the king, in spite of everything, Madame de l'Ile Adam is still the wicked Imperia!"

She fell into a violent passion when she saw this handsome gentleman have everything a man can desire, great wealth, royal favour, unequalled love, matchless wife, pleasure such as none other could produce, and yet fail in that which is dearest to the head of the house—namely, lineage. With this idea in her head, she wished to die, thinking how good and noble he had been to her, and how much she failed in her duty in not giving him children, and in being henceforward unable to do so. She hid her sorrow in the secret recesses of her heart, and conceived a devotion worthy her great love. To put into practice this heroic design she became still more amorous, took extreme care of her charms, and made use of learned precepts to maintain her bodily perfection, which threw out an incredible lustre.

About this time the Sieur de Montmorency conquered the repulsion his daughter entertained for marriage, and her alliance with one Sieur de Chatillon was much talked about. Madame Imperia, who lived only three leagues distant from Montmorency, one day sent her husband out hunting in the forests, and set out towards the castle where the young lady lived. Arrived in the grounds she walked about there, telling a servant to inform her mistress that a lady had a most important communication to make to her, and that she had come to request an audience. Much interested by the account which she received by the beauty, courtesy, and manners of the unknown lady, Mademoiselle de Montmorency went in great haste into the gardens, and there met her rival, whom she did not know.

"My dear," said the poor woman, weeping to find the young maiden as beautiful as herself, "I know that they are trying to force you into a marriage with Monsieur de Chatillon, although you still love Monsieur de l'Ile Adam. Have confidence in the prophecy that I here make you, that he whom you have loved, and who only was false to you through a snare into which an angel might have fallen, will be free from the burden of his old wife before the leaves fall. Thus the constancy of your love will have its crown of flowers. Now have the courage to refuse this marriage they are arranging for you, and you may yet clasp your first and only love. Pledge me your word to love and cherish l'Ile Adam, who is the kindest of men; never to cause him a moment's anguish, and tell him to reveal to you all the secrets of love invented by Madame Imperia, because, in practicing them, being young, you will be easily able to obliterate the remembrance of her from his mind."

Mademoiselle de Montmorency was so astonished that she could make no answer, and let this queen of beauty depart, and believed her to be a fairy, until a workman told her that the fairy was Madame de l'Ile Adam. Although the adventure was inexplicable, she told her father that she would not give her consent to the proposed marriage until after the autumn, so much is it in the nature of Love to ally itself with Hope, in spite of the bitter pills which this deceitful and gracious, companion gives her to swallow like bull's eyes. During the months when the grapes are gathered, Imperia would not let l'Ile Adam leave her, and was so amorous that one would have imagined she wished to kill him, since l'Ile Adam felt as though he had a fresh bride in his arms every night. The next morning the good woman requested him to keep the remembrance of these joys in his heart.

Then, to know what her lover's real thoughts on the subject were she said to him, "Poor l'Ile Adam, we were very silly to marry—a lad like you, with your twenty-three years, and an old woman close to 40."

He answered her, that his happiness was such that he was the envy of every one, that at her age her equal did not exist among the younger women, and that if ever she grew old he would love her wrinkles, believing that even in the tomb she would be lovely, and her skeleton lovable.

To these answers, which brought the tears into her eyes, she one morning answered maliciously, that Mademoiselle de Montmorency was very lovely and very faithful. This speech forced l'Ile Adam to tell her that she pained him by telling him of the only wrong he had ever committed in his life—the breaking of the troth pledged to his first sweetheart, all love for whom he had since effaced from his heart. This candid speech made her seize him and clasp him to her heart, affected at the loyalty of his discourse on a subject from which many would have shrunk.

"My dear love," said she, "for a long time past I have been suffering from a retraction of the heart, which has always since my youth been dangerous to my life, and in this opinion the Arabian physician coincides. If I die, I wish you to make the most binding oath a knight can make, to wed Mademoiselle Montmorency. I am so certain of dying, that I leave my property to you only on condition that this marriage takes place."

Hearing this, l'Ile Adam turned pale, and felt faint at the mere thought of an eternal separation from his good wife.

"Yes, dear treasure of love," continued she. "I am punished by God there where my sins were committed, for the great joys that I feel dilate my heart, and have, according to the Arabian doctor, weakened the vessels which in a moment of excitement will burst; but I have always implored God to take my life at the age in which I now am, because I would not see my charms marred by the ravages of time."

This great and noble woman saw then how well she was beloved. This is how she obtained the greatest sacrifice of love that ever was made upon this earth. She alone knew what a charm existed in the embraces, fondlings, and raptures of the conjugal bed, which were such that poor l'Ile Adam would rather have died than allow himself to be deprived of the amorous delicacies she knew so well how to prepare. At this confession made by her that, in the excitement of love her heart would burst, the chevalier cast himself at her knees, and declared that to preserve her life he would never ask her for love, but would live contented to see her only at his side, happy at being able to touch but the hem of her garment.

She replied, bursting into tears, "that she would rather die than lose one iota of his love; that she would die as she had lived, since luckily she could make a man embrace her when such was her desire without having to put her request into words."

Here it must be stated that the cardinal of Ragusa had given her as a present an article, which this holy joker called in articulo mortis. It was a tiny glass bottle, no bigger than a bean, made at Venice, and containing a poison so subtle that by breaking it between the teeth death came instantly and painlessly. He had received it from Signora Tophana, the celebrated maker of poisons of the town of Rome.

Now this tiny bottle was under the bezel of a ring, preserved from all objects that could break it by certain plates of gold. Poor Imperia put it into her mouth several times without being able to make up her mind to bite it, so much pleasure did she take in the moment that she believed to be her last. Then she would pass before her in mental review all her methods of enjoyment before breaking the glass, and determined that when she felt the most perfect of all joys she would bite the bottle.

The poor creature departed this life on the night on the first day of October. Then was there heard a great clamour in the forests and in the clouds, as if the loves had cried aloud, "The great Noc is dead!" in imitation of the pagan gods who, at the coming of the Saviour of men, fled into the skies, saying, "the great Pan is slain!" A cry which was heard by some persons navigating the Eubean Sea, and preserved by a Father of the Church.

Madame Imperia died without being spoiled in shape, so much had God made her the irreproachable model of a woman. She had, it was said, a magnificent tint upon her flesh, caused by the proximity of the flaming wings of Pleasure, who cried and groaned over her corpse. Her husband mourned for her most bitterly, never suspecting that she had died to deliver him from a childless wife, for the doctor who embalmed her said not a word concerning the cause of her death. This great sacrifice was discovered six years after marriage of l'Ile Adam with Mademoiselle de Montmorency, because she told him all about the visit of Madame Imperia. The poor gentleman immediately fell into a state of great melancholy and finished by dying, being unable to banish the remembrance of those joys of love which it was beyond the power of a novice to restore to him; thereby did he prove the truth of that which was said at that time, that this woman would never die in a heart where she had once reigned.

This teaches us that virtue is well understood by those who have practised vice; for among the most modest women few would thus have sacrificed life, in whatever high state of religion you look for them.



EPILOGUE

Oh! mad little one, thou whose business it is to make the house merry, again hast thou been wallowing, in spite of a thousand prohibitions, in that slough of melancholy, whence thou hast already fished out Bertha, and come back with thy tresses dishevelled, like a girl who has been ill-treated by a regiment of soldiers! Where are thy golden aiglets and bells, thy filigree flowers of fantastic design? Where hast thou left thy crimson head-dress, ornamented with precious gewgaws that cost a minot of pearls?

Why spoil with pernicious tears thy black eyes, so pleasant when therein sparkles the wit of a tale, that popes pardon thee thy sayings for the sake of thy merry laughter, feel their souls caught between the ivory of thy teeth, have their hearts drawn by the rose point of thy sweet tongue, and would barter the holy slipper for a hundred of the smiles that hover round thy vermillion lips? Laughing lassie, if thou wouldst remain always fresh and young, weep no more; think of riding the brideless fleas, of bridling with the golden clouds thy chameleon chimeras, of metamorphosing the realities of life into figures clothed with the rainbow, caparisoned with roseate dreams, and mantled with wings blue as the eyes of the partridge. By the Body and the Blood, by the Censer and the Seal, by the Book and the Sword, by the Rag and the Gold, by the Sound and the Colour, if thou does but return once into that hovel of elegies where eunuchs find ugly women for imbecile sultans, I'll curse thee; I'll rave at thee; I'll make thee fast from roguery and love; I'll—

Phist! Here she is astride a sunbeam with a volume that is ready to burst with merry meteors! She plays in their prisms, tearing about so madly, so wildly, so boldly, so contrary to good sense, so contrary to good manners, so contrary to everything, that one has to touch her with long feathers, to follow her siren's tail in the golden facets which trifle among the artifices of these new pearls of laughter. Ye gods! but she is sporting herself in them like a hundred schoolboys in a hedge full of blackberries, after vespers. To the devil with the magister! The volume is finished! Out upon work! What ho! my jovial friends; this way!

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