Against him I have not a word to say. You love him, and in all probability I have never seen him; but some idle day I hope you will send me a sketch, however slight, of this rare, fine animal.
If you see me so resigned and cheerful, it is because I am convinced that, once the honeymoon is over you will both with one accord, fall back into the common track. Some day, two years hence, when we are walking along this famous road, you will exclaim, "Why, there is the chalet which was to be my home for ever!" And you will laugh your dear old laugh, which shows all your pretty teeth!
I have said nothing yet to Louis; it would be too good an opening for his ridicule. I shall tell him simply that you are going to be married, and that you wish it kept secret. Unluckily, you need neither mother nor sister for your bridal evening. We are in October now; like a brave woman, you are grappling with winter first. If it were not a question of marriage, I should say you were taking the bull by the horns. In any case, you will have in me the most discreet and intelligent of friends. That mysterious region, known as the centre of Africa, has swallowed up many travelers, and you seem to me to be launching on an expedition which, in the domain of sentiment, corresponds to those where so many explorers have perished, whether in the sands or at the hands of natives. Your desert is, happily, only two leagues from Paris, so I can wish you quite cheerfully, "A safe journey and speedy return."
LI. THE COMTESSE DE L'ESTORADE TO MME. MARIE GASTON 1835.
What has come to you, my dear? After a silence of two years, surely Renee has a right to feel anxious about Louise. So this is love! It brushes aside and scatters to the winds a friendship such as ours! You must admit that, devoted as I am to my children—more even perhaps than you to your Gaston—a mother's love has something expansive about it which does not allow it to steal from other affections, or interfere with the claims of friendship. I miss your letters, I long for a sight of your dear, sweet face. Oh! Louise, my heart has only conjecture to feed upon!
As regards ourselves, I will try and tell you everything as briefly as possible.
On reading your last letter but one, I find some stinging comments on our political situation. You mocked at us for keeping the post in the Audit Department, which, as well as the title of Count, Louis owed to the favor of Charles X. But I should like to know, please, how it would be possible out of an income of forty thousand livres, thirty thousand of which go with the entail, to give a suitable start in life to Athenais and my poor little beggar Rene. Was it not a duty to live on our salary and prudently allow the income of the estate to accumulate? In this way we shall, in twenty years, have put together about six hundred thousand francs, which will provide portions for my daughter and for Rene, whom I destine for the navy. The poor little chap will have an income of ten thousand livres, and perhaps we may contrive to leave him in cash enough to bring his portion up to the amount of his sister's.
When he is Captain, my beggar will be able to make a wealthy marriage, and take a position in society as good as his elder brother's.
These considerations of prudence determined the acceptance in our family of the new order of things. The new dynasty, as was natural, raised Louis to the Peerage and made him a grand officer of the Legion of Honor. The oath once taken, l'Estorade could not be half-hearted in his services, and he has since then made himself very useful in the Chamber. The position he has now attained is one in which he can rest upon his oars till the end of his days. He has a good deal of adroitness in business matters; and though he can hardly be called an orator, speaks pleasantly and fluently, which is all that is necessary in politics. His shrewdness and the extent of his information in all matters of government and administration are fully appreciated, and all parties consider him indispensable. I may tell you that he was recently offered an embassy, but I would not let him accept it. I am tied to Paris by the education of Armand and Athenais—who are now respectively thirteen and nearly eleven—and I don't intend leaving till little Rene has completed his, which is just beginning.
We could not have remained faithful to the elder branch of the dynasty and returned to our country life without allowing the education and prospects of the three children to suffer. A mother, my sweet, is hardly called on to be a Decius, especially at a time when the type is rare. In fifteen years from now, l'Estorade will be able to retire to La Crampade on a good pension, having found a place as referendary for Armand in the Audit Department.
As for Rene, the navy will doubtless make a diplomatist of him. The little rogue, at seven years old, has all the cunning of an old Cardinal.
Oh! Louise, I am indeed a happy mother. My children are an endless source of joy to me.
Senza brama sicura ricchezza.
Armand is a day scholar at Henry IV.'s school. I made up my mind he should have a public-school training, yet could not reconcile myself to the thought of parting with him; so I compromised, as the Duc d'Orleans did before he became—or in order that he might become—Louis Philippe. Every morning Lucas, the old servant whom you will remember, takes Armand to school in time for the first lesson, and brings him home again at half-past four. In the house we have a private tutor, an admirable scholar, who helps Armand with his work in the evenings, and calls him in the morning at the school hour. Lucas takes him some lunch during the play hour at midday. In this way I am with my boy at dinner and until he goes to bed at night, and I see him off in the morning.
Armand is the same charming little fellow, full of feeling and unselfish impulse, whom you loved; and his tutor is quite pleased with him. I still have Nais and the baby—two restless little mortals—but I am quite as much a child as they are. I could not bring myself to lose the darlings' sweet caresses. I could not live without the feeling that at any moment I can fly to Armand's bedside and watch his slumbers or snatch a kiss.
Yet home education is not without its drawbacks, to which I am fully alive. Society, like nature, is a jealous power, and will have not her rights encroached on, or her system set at naught. Thus, children who are brought up at home are exposed too early to the fire of the world; they see its passions and become at home with its subterfuges. The finer distinctions, which regulate the conduct of matured men and women, elude their perceptions, and they take feeling and passion for their guide instead of subordinating those to the code of society; whilst the gay trappings and tinsel which attract so much of the world's favor blind them to the importance of the more sober virtues. A child of fifteen with the assurance of a man of the world is a thing against all nature; at twenty-five he will be prematurely old, and his precocious knowledge only unfits him for the genuine study on which all solid ability must rest. Life in society is one long comedy, and those who take part in it, like other actors, reflect back impressions which never penetrate below the surface. A mother, therefore, who wishes not to part from her children, must resolutely determine that they shall not enter the gay world; she must have courage to resist their inclinations, as well as her own, and keep them in the background. Cornelia had to keep her jewels under lock and key. Shall I do less for the children who are all the world to me?
Now that I am thirty, the heat of the day is over, the hardest bit of the road lies behind me. In a few years I shall be an old woman, and the sense of duty done is an immense encouragement. It would almost seem as though my trio can read my thoughts and shape themselves accordingly. A mysterious bond of sympathy unites me to these children who have never left my side. If they knew the blank in my life which they have to fill, they could not be more lavish of the solace they bring.
Armand, who was dull and dreamy during his first three years at school, and caused me some uneasiness, has made a sudden start. Doubtless he realized, in a way most children never do, the aim of all this preparatory work, which is to sharpen the intelligence, to get them into habits of application and accustom them to that fundamental principle of all society—obedience. My dear, a few days ago I had the proud joy of seeing Armand crowned at the great interscholastic competition in the crowded Sorbonne, when your godson received the first prize for translation. At the school distribution he got two first prizes—one for verse, and one for an essay. I went quite white when his name was called out, and longed to shout aloud, "I am his mother!" Little Nais squeezed my hand till it hurt, if at such a moment it were possible to feel pain. Ah! Louise, a day like this might outweigh many a dream of love!
His brother's triumphs have spurred on little Rene, who wants to go to school too. Sometimes the three children make such a racket, shouting and rushing about the house, that I wonder how my head stands it. I am always with them; no one else, not even Mary, is allowed to take care of my children. But the calling of a mother, if taxing, has so many compensating joys! To see a child leave its play and run to hug one, out of the fulness of its heart, what could be sweeter?
Then it is only in being constantly with them that one can study their characters. It is the duty of a mother, and one which she can depute to no hired teacher, to decipher the tastes, temper, and natural aptitudes of her children from their infancy. All home-bred children are distinguished by ease of manner and tact, two acquired qualities which may go far to supply the lack of natural ability, whereas no natural ability can atone for the loss of this early training. I have already learned to discriminate this difference of tone in the men whom I meet in society, and to trace the hand of a woman in the formation of a young man's manners. How could any woman defraud her children of such a possession? You see what rewards attend the performance of my tasks!
Armand, I feel certain, will make an admirable judge, the most upright of public servants, the most devoted of deputies. And where would you find a sailor bolder, more adventurous, more astute than my Rene will be a few years hence? The little rascal has already an iron will, whatever he wants he manages to get; he will try a thousand circuitous ways to reach his end, and if not successful then, will devise a thousand and first. Where dear Armand quietly resigns himself and tries to get at the reason of things, Rene will storm, and strive, and puzzle, chattering all the time, till at last he finds some chink in the obstacle; if there is room for the blade of a knife to pass, his little carriage will ride through in triumph.
And Nais? Nais is so completely a second self that I can hardly realize her as distinct from my own flesh and blood. What a darling she is, and how I love to make a little lady of her, to dress her curly hair, tender thoughts mingling the while with every touch! I must have her happy; I shall only give her to the man who loves her and whom she loves. But, Heavens! when I let her put on her little ornaments, or pass a cherry-colored ribbon through her hair, or fasten the shoes on her tiny feet, a sickening thought comes over me. How can one order the destiny of a girl? Who can say that she will not love a scoundrel or some man who is indifferent to her? Tears often spring to my eyes as I watch her. This lovely creature, this flower, this rosebud which has blossomed in one's heart, to be handed over to a man who will tear it from the stem and leave it bare! Louise, it is you—you, who in two years have not written three words to tell me of your welfare—it is you who have recalled to my mind the terrible possibilities of marriage, so full of anguish for a mother wrapped up, as I am, in her child. Farewell now, for in truth you don't deserve my friendship, and I hardly know how to write. Oh! answer me, dear Louise.
LII. MME. GASTON TO MME. DE L'ESTORADE The Chalet.
So, after a silence of two years, you are pricked by curiosity, and want to know why I have not written. My dear Renee, there are no words, no images, no language to express my happiness. That we have strength to bear it sums up all I could say. It costs us no effort, for we are in perfect sympathy. The whole two years have known no note of discord in the harmony, no jarring word in the interchange of feeling, no shade of difference in our lightest wish. Not one in this long succession of days has failed to bear its own peculiar fruit; not a moment has passed without being enriched by the play of fancy. So far are we from dreading the canker of monotony in our life, that our only fear is lest it should not be long enough to contain all the poetic creations of a love as rich and varied in its development as Nature herself. Of disappointment not a trace! We find more pleasure in being together than on the first day, and each hour as it goes by discloses fresh reason for our love. Every day as we take our evening stroll after dinner, we tell each other that we really must go and see what is doing in Paris, just as one might talk of going to Switzerland.
"Only think," Gaston will exclaim, "such and such a boulevard is being made, the Madeleine is finished. We ought to see it. Let us go to-morrow."
And to-morrow comes, and we are in no hurry to get up, and we breakfast in our bedroom. Then midday is on us, and it is too hot; a siesta seems appropriate. Then Gaston wishes to look at me, and he gazes on my face as though it were a picture, losing himself in this contemplation, which, as you may suppose, is not one-sided. Tears rise to the eyes of both as we think of our love and tremble. I am still the mistress, pretending, that is, to give less than I receive, and I revel in this deception. To a woman what can be sweeter than to see passion ever held in check by tenderness, and the man who is her master stayed, like a timid suitor, by a word from her, within the limits that she chooses?
You asked me to describe him; but, Renee, it is not possible to make a portrait of the man we love. How could the heart be kept out of the work? Besides, to be frank between ourselves, we may admit that one of the dire effects of civilization on our manners is to make of man in society a being so utterly different from the natural man of strong feeling, that sometimes not a single point of likeness can be found between these two aspects of the same person. The man who falls into the most graceful operatic poses, as he pours sweet nothings into your ear by the fire at night, may be entirely destitute of those more intimate charms which a woman values. On the other hand, an ugly, boorish, badly-dressed figure may mark a man endowed with the very genius of love, and who has a perfect mastery over situations which might baffle us with our superficial graces. A man whose conventional aspect accords with his real nature, who, in the intimacy of wedded love, possesses that inborn grace which can be neither given nor acquired, but which Greek art has embodied in statuary, that careless innocence of the ancient poets which, even in frank undress, seems to clothe the soul as with a veil of modesty—this is our ideal, born of our own conceptions, and linked with the universal harmony which seems to be the reality underlying all created things. To find this ideal in life is the problem which haunts the imagination of every woman—in Gaston I have found it.
Ah! dear, I did not know what love could be, united to youth, talent, and beauty. Gaston has no affectations, he moves with an instinctive and unstudied grace. When we walk alone together in the woods, his arm round my waist, mine resting on his shoulder, body fitting to body, and head touching head, our step is so even, uniform, and gentle, that those who see us pass by night take the vision for a single figure gliding over the graveled walks, like one of Homer's immortals. A like harmony exists in our desires, our thoughts, our words. More than once on some evening when a passing shower has left the leaves glistening and the moist grass bright with a more vivid green, it has chanced that we ended our walk without uttering a word, as we listened to the patter of falling drops and feasted our eyes on the scarlet sunset, flaring on the hilltops or dyeing with a warmer tone the gray of the tree trunks.
Beyond a doubt our thoughts then rose to Heaven in silent prayer, pleading as it were, for our happiness. At times a cry would escape us at the moment when some sudden bend on the path opened up fresh beauties. What words can tell how honey-sweet, how full of meaning, is a kiss half-timidly exchanged within the sanctuary of nature—it is as though God had created us to worship in this fashion.
And we return home, each more deeply in love than ever.
A love so passionate between old married people would be an outrage on society in Paris; only in the heart of the woods, like lovers, can we give scope to it.
To come to particulars, Gaston is of middle height—the height proper to all men of purpose. Neither stout nor thin, his figure is admirably made, with ample fulness in the proportions, while every motion is agile; he leaps a ditch with the easy grace of a wild animal. Whatever his attitude, he seems to have an instinctive sense of balance, and this is very rare in men who are given to thought. Though a dark man, he has an extraordinarily fair complexion; his jet-black hair contrasts finely with the lustreless tints of the neck and forehead. He has the tragic head of Louis XIII. His moustache and tuft have been allowed to grow, but I made him shave the whiskers and beard, which were getting too common. An honorable poverty has been his safeguard, and handed him over to me, unsoiled by the loose life which ruins so many young men. His teeth are magnificent, and he has a constitution of iron. His keen blue eyes, for me full of tenderness, will flash like lightning at any rousing thought.
Like all men of strong character and powerful mind, he has an admirable temper; its evenness would surprise you, as it did me. I have listened to the tale of many a woman's home troubles; I have heard of the moods and depression of men dissatisfied with themselves, who either won't get old or age ungracefully, men who carry about through life the rankling memory of some youthful excess, whose veins run poison and whose eyes are never frankly happy, men who cloak suspicion under bad temper, and make their women pay for an hour's peace by a morning of annoyance, who take vengeance on us for a beauty which is hateful to them because they have ceased themselves to be attractive,—all these are horrors unknown to youth. They are the penalty of unequal unions. Oh! my dear, whatever you do, don't marry Athenais to an old man!
But his smile—how I feast on it! A smile which is always there, yet always fresh through the play of subtle fancy, a speaking smile which makes of the lips a storehouse for thoughts of love and unspoken gratitude, a smile which links present joys to past. For nothing is allowed to drop out of our common life. The smallest works of nature have become part and parcel of our joy. In these delightful woods everything is alive and eloquent of ourselves. An old moss-grown oak, near the woodsman's house on the roadside, reminds us how we sat there, wearied, under its shade, while Gaston taught me about the mosses at our feet and told me their story, till, gradually ascending from science to science, we touched the very confines of creation.
There is something so kindred in our minds that they seem to me like two editions of the same book. You see what a literary tendency I have developed! We both have the habit, or the gift, of looking at every subject broadly, of taking in all its points of view, and the proof we are constantly giving ourselves of the singleness of our inward vision is an ever-new pleasure. We have actually come to look on this community of mind as a pledge of love; and if it ever failed us, it would mean as much to us as would a breach of fidelity in an ordinary home.
My life, full as it is of pleasures, would seem to you, nevertheless, extremely laborious. To begin with, my dear, you must know that Louise-Armande-Marie de Chaulieu does her own room. I could not bear that a hired menial, some woman or girl from the outside, should become initiated—literary touch again!—into the secrets of my bedroom. The veriest trifles connected with the worship of my heart partake of its sacred character. This is not jealousy; it is self-respect. Thus my room is done out with all the care a young girl in love bestows on her person, and with the precision of an old maid. My dressing-room is no chaos of litter; on the contrary, it makes a charming boudoir. My keen eye has foreseen all contingencies. At whatever hour the lord and master enters, he will find nothing to distress, surprise, or shock him; he is greeted by flowers, scents, and everything that can please the eye.
I get up in the early dawn, while he is still sleeping, and, without disturbing him, pass into the dressing-room, where, profiting by my mother's experience, I remove the traces of sleep by bathing in cold water. For during sleep the skin, being less active, does not perform its functions adequately; it becomes warm and covered with a sort of mist or atmosphere of sticky matter, visible to the eye. From a sponge-bath a woman issues ten years younger, and this, perhaps, is the interpretation of the myth of Venus rising from the sea. So the cold water restores to me the saucy charm of dawn, and, having combed and scented my hair and made a most fastidious toilet, I glide back, snake-like, in order that my master may find me, dainty as a spring morning, at his wakening. He is charmed with this freshness, as of a newly-opened flower, without having the least idea how it is produced.
The regular toilet of the day is a matter for my maid, and this takes place later in a larger room, set aside for the purpose. As you may suppose, there is also a toilet for going to bed. Three times a day, you see, or it may be four, do I array myself for the delight of my husband; which, again, dear one, is suggestive of certain ancient myths.
But our work is not all play. We take a great deal of interest in our flowers, in the beauties of the hothouse, and in our trees. We give ourselves in all seriousness to horticulture, and embosom the chalet in flowers, of which we are passionately fond. Our lawns are always green, our shrubberies as well tended as those of a millionaire. And nothing I assure you, can match the beauty of our walled garden. We are regular gluttons over our fruit, and watch with tender interest our Montreuil peaches, our hotbeds, our laden trellises, and pyramidal pear-trees.
But lest these rural pursuits should fail to satisfy my beloved's mind, I have advised him to finish, in the quiet of this retreat, some plays which were begun in his starvation days, and which are really very fine. This is the only kind of literary work which can be done in odd moments, for it requires long intervals of reflection, and does not demand the elaborate pruning essential to a finished style. One can't make a task-work of dialogue; there must be biting touches, summings-up, and flashes of wit, which are the blossoms of the mind, and come rather by inspiration than reflection. This sort of intellectual sport is very much in my line. I assist Gaston in his work, and in this way manage to accompany him even in the boldest flights of his imagination. Do you see now how it is that my winter evenings never drag?
Our servants have such an easy time, that never once since we were married have we had to reprimand any of them. When questioned about us, they have had wit enough to draw on their imaginations, and have given us out as the companion and secretary of a lady and gentleman supposed to be traveling. They never go out without asking permission, which they know will not be refused; they are contented too, and see plainly that it will be their own fault if there is a change for the worse. The gardeners are allowed to sell the surplus of our fruits and vegetables. The dairymaid does the same with the milk, the cream, and the fresh butter, on condition that the best of the produce is reserved for us. They are well pleased with their profits, and we are delighted with an abundance which no money and no ingenuity can procure in that terrible Paris, where it costs a hundred francs to produce a single fine peach.
All this is not without its meaning, my dear. I wish to fill the place of society to my husband; now society is amusing, and therefore his solitude must not be allowed to pall on him. I believed myself jealous in the old days, when I merely allowed myself to be loved; now I know real jealousy, the jealousy of the lover. A single indifferent glance unnerves me. From time to time I say to myself, "Suppose he ceased to love me!" And a shudder goes through me. I tremble before him, as the Christian before his God.
Alas! Renee, I am still without a child. The time will surely come—it must come—when our hermitage will need a father's and a mother's care to brighten it, when we shall both pine to see the little frocks and pelisses, the brown or golden heads, leaping, running through our shrubberies and flowery paths. Oh! it is a cruel jest of Nature's, a flowering tree that bears no fruit. The thought of your lovely children goes through me like a knife. My life has grown narrower, while yours has expanded and shed its rays afar. The passion of love is essentially selfish, while motherhood widens the circle of our feelings. How well I felt this difference when I read your kind, tender letter! To see you thus living in three hearts roused my envy. Yes, you are happy; you have had wisdom to obey the laws of social life, whilst I stand outside, an alien.
Children, dear and loving children, can alone console a woman for the loss of her beauty. I shall soon be thirty, and at that age the dirge within begins. What though I am still beautiful, the limits of my woman's reign are none the less in sight. When they are reached, what then? I shall be forty before he is; I shall be old while he is still young. When this thought goes to my heart, I lie at his feet for an hour at a time, making him swear to tell me instantly if ever he feels his love diminishing.
But he is a child. He swears, as though the mere suggestion were an absurdity, and he is so beautiful that—Renee, you understand—I believe him.
Good-bye, sweet one. Shall we ever again let years pass without writing? Happiness is a monotonous theme, and that is, perhaps, the reason why, to souls who love, Dante appears even greater in the Paradiso than in the Inferno. I am not Dante; I am only your friend, and I don't want to bore you. You can write, for in your children you have an ever-growing, every-varying source of happiness, while mine... No more of this. A thousand loves.
LIII. MME. DE L'ESTORADE TO MME. GASTON
My dear Louise,—I have read and re-read your letter, and the more deeply I enter into its spirit, the clearer does it become to me that it is the letter, not of a woman, but of a child. You are the same old Louise, and you forget, what I used to repeat over and over again to you, that the passion of love belongs rightly to a state of nature, and has only been purloined by civilization. So fleeting is its character, that the resources of society are powerless to modify its primitive condition, and it becomes the effort of all noble minds to make a man of the infant Cupid. But, as you yourself admit, such love ceases to be natural.
Society, my dear abhors sterility; but substituting a lasting sentiment for the mere passing frenzy of nature, it has succeeded in creating that greatest of all human inventions—the family, which is the enduring basis of all organized society. To the accomplishment of this end, it has sacrificed the individual, man as well as woman; for we must not shut our eyes to the fact that a married man devotes his energy, his power, and all his possession to his wife. Is it not she who reaps the benefit of all his care? For whom, if not for her, are the luxury and wealth, the position and distinction, the comfort and the gaiety of the home?
Oh! my sweet, once again you have taken the wrong turning in life. To be adored is a young girl's dream, which may survive a few springtimes; it cannot be that of the mature woman, the wife and mother. To a woman's vanity it is, perhaps, enough to know that she can command adoration if she likes. If you would live the life of a wife and mother, return, I beg of you, to Paris. Let me repeat my warning: It is not misfortune which you have to dread, as others do—it is happiness.
Listen to me, my child! It is the simple things of life—bread, air, silence—of which we do not tire; they have no piquancy which can create distaste; it is highly-flavored dishes which irritate the palate, and in the end exhaust it. Were it possible that I should to-day be loved by a man for whom I could conceive a passion, such as yours for Gaston, I would still cling to the duties and the children, who are so dear to me. To a woman's heart the feelings of a mother are among the simple, natural, fruitful, and inexhaustible things of life. I can recall the day, now nearly fourteen years ago, when I embarked on a life of self-sacrifice with the despair of a shipwrecked mariner clinging to the mast of his vessel; now, as I invoke the memory of past years, I feel that I would make the same choice again. No other guiding principle is so safe, or leads to such rich reward. The spectacle of your life, which, for all the romance and poetry with which you invest it, still remains based on nothing but a ruthless selfishness, has helped to strengthen my convictions. This is the last time I shall speak to you in this way; but I could not refrain from once more pleading with you when I found that your happiness had been proof against the most searching of all trials.
And one more point I must urge on you, suggested by my meditations on your retirement. Life, whether of the body or the heart, consists in certain balanced movements. Any excess introduced into the working of this routine gives rise either to pain or to pleasure, both of which are a mere fever of the soul, bound to be fugitive because nature is not so framed as to support it long. But to make of life one long excess is surely to choose sickness for one's portion. You are sick because you maintain at the temperature of passion a feeling which marriage ought to convert into a steadying, purifying influence.
Yes, my sweet, I see it clearly now; the glory of a home consists in this very calm, this intimacy, this sharing alike of good and evil, which the vulgar ridicule. How noble was the reply of the Duchesse de Sully, the wife of the great Sully, to some one who remarked that her husband, for all his grave exterior, did not scruple to keep a mistress. "What of that?" she said. "I represent the honor of the house, and should decline to play the part of a courtesan there."
But you, Louise, who are naturally more passionate than tender, would be at once the wife and the mistress. With the soul of a Heloise and the passions of a Saint Theresa, you slip the leash on all your impulses, so long as they are sanctioned by law; in a word, you degrade the marriage rite. Surely the tables are turned. The reproaches you once heaped on me for immorally, as you said, seizing the means of happiness from the very outset of my wedded life, might be directed against yourself for grasping at everything which may serve your passion. What! must nature and society alike be in bondage to your caprice? You are the old Louise; you have never acquired the qualities which ought to be a woman's; self-willed and unreasonable as a girl, you introduce withal into your love the keenest and most mercenary of calculations! Are you sure that, after all, the price you ask for your toilets is not too high? All these precautions are to my mind very suggestive of mistrust.
Oh, dear Louise, if only you knew the sweetness of a mother's efforts to discipline herself in kindness and gentleness to all about her! My proud, self-sufficing temper gradually dissolved into a soft melancholy, which in turn has been swallowed up by those delights of motherhood which have been its reward. If the early hours were toilsome, the evening will be tranquil and clear. My dread is lest the day of your life should take the opposite course.
When I had read your letter to a close, I prayed God to send you among us for a day, that you might see what family life really is, and learn the nature of those joys, which are lasting and sweeter than tongue can tell, because they are genuine, simple, and natural. But, alas! what chance have I with the best of arguments against a fallacy which makes you happy? As I write these words, my eyes fill with tears. I had felt so sure that some months of honeymoon would prove a surfeit and restore you to reason. But I see that there is no limit to your appetite, and that, having killed a man who loved you, you will not cease till you have killed love itself. Farewell, dear misguided friend. I am in despair that the letter which I hoped might reconcile you to society by its picture of my happiness should have brought forth only a paean of selfishness. Yes, your love is selfish; you love Gaston far less for himself than for what he is to you.
LIV. MME. GASTON TO THE COMTESSE DE L'ESTORADE May 20th.
Renee, calamity has come—no, that is no word for it—it has burst like a thunderbolt over your poor Louise. You know what that means; calamity for me is doubt; certainty would be death.
The day before yesterday, when I had finished my first toilet, I looked everywhere for Gaston to take a little turn with me before lunch, but in vain. I went to the stable, and there I saw his mare all in a lather, while the groom was removing the foam with a knife before rubbing her down.
"Who in the world has put Fedelta in such a state?" I asked.
"Master," replied the lad.
I saw the mud of Paris on the mare's legs, for country mud is quite different; and at once it flashed through me, "He has been to Paris."
This thought raised a swarm of others in my heart, and it seemed as though all the life in my body rushed there. To go to Paris without telling me, at the hour when I leave him alone, to hasten there and back at such speed as to distress Fedelta. Suspicion clutched me in its iron grip, till I could hardly breathe. I walked aside a few steps to a seat, where I tried to recover my self-command.
Here Gaston found me, apparently pale and fluttered, for he immediately exclaimed, "What is wrong?" in a tone of such alarm, that I rose and took his arm. But my muscles refused to move, and I was forced to sit down again. Then he took me in his arms and carried me to the parlor close by, where the frightened servants pressed after us, till Gaston motioned them away. Once left to ourselves, I refused to speak, but was able to reach my room, where I shut myself in, to weep my fill. Gaston remained something like two hours at my door, listening to my sobs and questioning with angelic patience his poor darling, who made no response.
At last I told him that I would see him when my eyes were less red and my voice was steady again.
My formal words drove him from the house. But by the time I had bathed my eyes in iced water and cooled my face, I found him in our room, the door into which was open, though I had heard no steps. He begged me to tell him what was wrong.
"Nothing," I said; "I saw the mud of Paris on Fedelta's trembling legs; it seemed strange that you should go there without telling me; but, of course, you are free."
"I shall punish you for such wicked thoughts by not giving any explanation till to-morrow," he replied.
"Look at me," I said.
My eyes met his; deep answered to deep. No, not a trace of the cloud of disloyalty which, rising from the soul, must dim the clearness of the eye. I feigned satisfaction, though really unconvinced. It is not women only who can lie and dissemble!
The whole of the day we spent together. Ever and again, as I looked at him, I realized how fast my heart-strings were bound to him. How I trembled and fluttered within when, after a moment's absence, he reappeared. I live in him, not in myself. My cruel sufferings gave the lie to your unkind letter. Did I ever feel my life thus bound up in the noble Spaniard, who adored me, as I adore this heartless boy? I hate that mare! Fool that I was to keep horses! But the next thing would have been to lame Gaston or imprison him in the cottage. Wild thoughts like these filled my brain; you see how near I was to madness! If love be not the cage, what power on earth can hold back the man who wants to be free?
I asked him point-blank, "Do I bore you?"
"What needless torture you give yourself!" was his reply, while he looked at me with tender, pitying eyes. "Never have I loved you so deeply."
"If that is true, my beloved, let me sell Fedelta," I answered.
"Sell her, by all means!"
The reply crushed me. Was it not a covert taunt at my wealth and his own nothingness in the house? This may never have occurred to him, but I thought it had, and once more I left him. It was night, and I would go to bed.
Oh! Renee, to be alone with a harrowing thought drives one to thoughts of death. These charming gardens, the starry night, the cool air, laden with incense from our wealth of flowers, our valley, our hills—all seemed to me gloomy, black, and desolate. It was as though I lay at the foot of a precipice, surrounded by serpents and poisonous plants, and saw no God in the sky. Such a night ages a woman.
Next morning I said:
"Take Fedelta and be off to Paris! Don't sell her; I love her. Does she not carry you?"
But he was not deceived; my tone betrayed the storm of feeling which I strove to conceal.
"Trust me!" he replied; and the gesture with which he held out his hand, the glance of his eye, were so full of loyalty that I was overcome.
"What petty creatures women are!" I exclaimed.
"No, you love me, that is all," he said, pressing me to his heart.
"Go to Paris without me," I said, and this time I made him understand that my suspicions were laid aside.
He went; I thought he would have stayed. I won't attempt to tell you what I suffered. I found a second self within, quite strange to me. A crisis like this has, for the woman who loves, a tragic solemnity that baffles words; the whole of life rises before you then, and you search in vain for any horizon to it; the veriest trifle is big with meaning, a glance contains a volume, icicles drift on uttered words, and the death sentence is read in a movement of the lips.
I thought he would have paid me back in kind; had I not been magnanimous? I climbed to the top of the chalet, and my eyes followed him on the road. Ah! my dear Renee, he vanished from my sight with an appalling swiftness.
"How keen he is to go!" was the thought that sprang of itself.
Once more alone, I fell back into the hell of possibilities, the maelstrom of mistrust. There were moments when I would have welcomed any certainty, even the worst, as a relief from the torture of suspense. Suspense is a duel carried on in the heart, and we give no quarter to ourselves.
I paced up and down the walks. I returned to the house, only to tear out again, like a mad woman. Gaston, who left at seven o'clock, did not return till eleven. Now, as it only takes half an hour to reach Paris through the park of St. Cloud and the Bois de Boulogne, it is plain that he must have spent three hours in town. He came back radiant, with a whip in his hand for me, an india-rubber whip with a gold handle.
For a fortnight I had been without a whip, my old one being worn and broken.
"Was it for this you tortured me?" I said, as I admired the workmanship of this beautiful ornament, which contains a little scent-box at one end.
Then it flashed on me that the present was a fresh artifice. Nevertheless I threw myself at once on his neck, not without reproaching him gently for having caused me so much pain for the sake of a trifle. He was greatly pleased with his ingenuity; his eyes and his whole bearing plainly showed the restrained triumph of the successful plotter; for there is a radiance of the soul which is reflected in every feature and turn of the body. While still examining the beauties of this work of art, I asked him at a moment when we happened to be looking each other in the face:
"Who is the artist?"
"A friend of mine."
"Ah! I see it has been mounted by Verdier," and I read the name of the shop printed on the handle.
Gaston is nothing but a child yet. He blushed, and I made much of him as a reward for the shame he felt in deceiving me. I pretended to notice nothing, and he may well have thought the incident was over.
The next morning I was in my riding-habit by six o'clock, and by seven landed at Verdier's, where several whips of the same pattern were shown to me. One of the men serving recognized mine when I pointed it out to him.
"We sold that yesterday to a young gentleman," he said. And from the description I gave him of my traitor Gaston, not a doubt was left of his identity. I will spare you the palpitations which rent my heart during that journey to Paris and the little scene there, which marked the turning-point of my life.
By half-seven I was home again, and Gaston found me, fresh and blooming, in my morning dress, sauntering about with a make-believe nonchalance. I felt confident that old Philippe, who had been taken into my confidence, would not have betrayed my absence.
"Gaston," I said, as we walked by the side of the lake, "you cannot blind me to the difference between a work of art inspired by friendship and something which has been cast in a mould."
He turned white, and fixed his eyes on me rather than on the damaging piece of evidence I thrust before them.
"My dear," I went on, "this is not a whip; it is a screen behind which you are hiding something from me."
Thereupon I gave myself the gratification of watching his hopeless entanglement in the coverts and labyrinths of deceit and the desperate efforts he made to find some wall he might scale and thus escape. In vain; he had perforce to remain upon the field, face to face with an adversary, who at last laid down her arms in a feigned complacence. But it was too late. The fatal mistake, against which my mother had tried to warm me, was made. My jealousy, exposed in all its nakedness, had led to war and all its stratagems between Gaston and myself. Jealousy, dear, has neither sense nor decency.
I made up my mind now to suffer in silence, but to keep my eyes open, until my doubts were resolved one way or another. Then I would either break with Gaston or bow to my misfortune: no middle course is possible for a woman who respects herself.
What can he be concealing? For a secret there is, and the secret has to do with a woman. Is it some youthful escapade for which he still blushes? But if so, what? The word what is written in letters of fire on all I see. I read it in the glassy water of my lake, in the shrubbery, in the clouds, on the ceilings, at table, in the flowers of the carpets. A voice cries to me what? in my sleep. Dating from the morning of my discovery, a cruel interest has sprung into our lives, and I have become familiar with the bitterest thought that can corrode the heart—the thought of treachery in him one loves. Oh! my dear, there is heaven and hell together in such a life. Never had I felt this scorching flame, I to whom love had appeared only in the form of devoutest worship.
"So you wished to know the gloomy torture-chamber of pain!" I said to myself. Good, the spirits of evil have heard your prayer; go on your road, unhappy wretch!
Since that fatal day Gaston no longer works with the careless ease of the wealthy artist, whose work is merely pastime; he sets himself tasks like a professional writer. Four hours a day he devotes to finishing his two plays.
"He wants money!"
A voice within whispered the thought. But why? He spends next to nothing; we have absolutely no secrets from each other; there is not a corner of his study which my eyes and my fingers may not explore. His yearly expenditure does not amount to two thousand francs, and I know that he has thirty thousand, I can hardly say laid by, but scattered loose in a drawer. You can guess what is coming. At midnight, while he was sleeping, I went to see if the money was still there. An icy shiver ran through me. The drawer was empty.
That same week I discovered that he went to Sevres to fetch his letters, and these letters he must tear up immediately; for though I am a very Figaro in contrivances, I have never yet seen a trace of one. Alas! my sweet, despite the fine promises and vows by which I bound myself after the scene of the whip, an impulse, which I can only call madness, drove me to follow him in one of his rapid rides to the post-office. Gaston was appalled to be thus discovered on horseback, paying the postage of a letter which he held in his hand. He looked fixedly at me, and then put spurs to Fedelta. The pace was so hard that I felt shaken to bits when I reached the lodge gate, though my mental agony was such at the time that it might well have dulled all consciousness of bodily pain. Arrived at the gate, Gaston said nothing; he rang the bell and waited without a word. I was more dead than alive. I might be mistaken or I might not, but in neither case was it fitting for Armande-Louise-Marie de Chaulieu to play the spy. I had sunk to the level of the gutter, by the side of courtesans, opera-dancers, mere creatures of instinct; even the vulgar shop-girl or humble seamstress might look down on me.
What a moment! At last the door opened; he handed his horse to the groom, and I also dismounted, but into his arms, which were stretched out to receive me. I threw my skirt over my left arm, gave him my right, and we walked on—still in silence. The few steps we thus took might be reckoned to me for a hundred years of purgatory. A swarm of thoughts beset me as I walked, now seeming to take visible form in tongues of fire before my eyes, now assailing my mind, each with its own poisoned dart. When the groom and the horses were far away, I stopped Gaston, and, looking him in the face, said, as I pointed, with a gesture that you should have seen, to the fatal letter still in his right hand:
"May I read it?"
He gave it to me. I opened it and found a letter from Nathan, the dramatic author, informing Gaston that a play of his had been accepted, learned, rehearsed, and would be produced the following Saturday. He also enclosed a box ticket.
Though for me this was the opening of heaven's gates to the martyr, yet the fiend would not leave me in peace, but kept crying, "Where are the thirty thousand francs?" It was a question which self-respect, dignity, all my old self in fact, prevented me from uttering. If my thought became speech, I might as well throw myself into the lake at once, and yet I could hardly keep the words down. Dear friend, was not this a trial passing the strength of woman?
I returned the letter, saying:
"My poor Gaston, you are getting bored down here. Let us go back to Paris, won't you?"
"To Paris?" he said. "But why? I only wanted to find out if I had any gift, to taste the flowing bowl of success!"
Nothing would be easier than for me to ransack the drawer sometime while he is working and pretend great surprise at finding the money gone. But that would be going half-way to meet the answer, "Oh! my friend So-and-So was hard up!" etc., which a man of Gaston's quick wit would not have far to seek.
The moral, my dear, is that the brilliant success of this play, which all Paris is crowding to see, is due to us, though the whole credit goes to Nathan. I am represented by one of the two stars in the legend: Et M * *. I saw the first night from the depths of one of the stage boxes.
Gaston's work and his visits to Paris shall continue. He is preparing new plays, partly because he wants a pretext for going to Paris, partly in order to make money. Three plays have been accepted, and two more are commissioned.
Oh! my dear, I am lost, all is darkness around me. I would set fire to the house in a moment if that would bring light. What does it all mean? Is he ashamed of taking money from me? He is too high-minded for so trumpery a matter to weigh with him. Besides, scruples of the kind could only be the outcome of some love affair. A man would take anything from his wife, but from the woman he has ceased to care for, or is thinking of deserting, it is different. If he needs such large sums, it must be to spend them on a woman. For himself, why should he hesitate to draw from my purse? Our savings amount to one hundred thousand francs!
In short, my sweetheart, I have explored a whole continent of possibilities, and after carefully weighing all the evidence, am convinced I have a rival. I am deserted—for whom? At all costs I must see the unknown.
Light has come, and it is all over with me. Yes, Renee, at the age of thirty, in the perfection of my beauty, with all the resources of a ready wit and the seductive charms of dress at my command, I am betrayed—and for whom? A large-boned Englishwoman, with big feet and thick waist—a regular British cow! There is no longer room for doubt. I will tell you the history of the last few days.
Worn out with suspicions, which were fed by Gaston's guilty silence (for, if he had helped a friend, why keep it a secret from me?), his insatiable desire for money, and his frequent journeys to Paris; jealous too of the work from which he seemed unable to tear himself, I at last made up my mind to take certain steps, of such a degrading nature that I cannot tell you about them. Suffice it to say that three days ago I ascertained that Gaston, when in Paris, visits a house in the Rue de la Ville l'Eveque, where he guards his mistress with jealous mystery, unexampled in Paris. The porter was surly, and I could get little out of him, but that little was enough to put an end to any lingering hope, and with hope to life. On this point my mind was resolved, and I only waited to learn the whole truth first.
With this object I went to Paris and took rooms in a house exactly opposite the one which Gaston visits. Thence I saw him with my own eyes enter the courtyard on horseback. Too soon a ghastly fact forced itself on me. This Englishwoman, who seems to me about thirty-six, is known as Mme. Gaston. This discovery was my deathblow.
I saw him next walking to the Tuileries with a couple of children. Oh! my dear, two children, the living images of Gaston! The likeness is so strong that it bears scandal on the face of it. And what pretty children! in their handsome English costumes! She is the mother of his children. Here is the key to the whole mystery.
The woman herself might be a Greek statue, stepped down from some monument. Cold and white as marble, she moves sedately with a mother's pride. She is undeniably beautiful but heavy as a man-of-war. There is no breeding or distinction about her; nothing of the English lady. Probably she is a farmer's daughter from some wretched and remote country village, or, it may be, the eleventh child of some poor clergyman!
I reached home, after a miserable journey, during which all sorts of fiendish thoughts had me at their mercy, with hardly any life left in me. Was she married? Did he know her before our marriage? Had she been deserted by some rich man, whose mistress she was, and thus thrown back upon Gaston's hands? Conjectures without end flitted through my brain, as though conjecture were needed in the presence of the children.
The next day I returned to Paris, and by a free use of my purse extracted from the porter the information that Mme. Gaston was legally married.
His reply to my question took the form, "Yes, Miss."
My dear, my love for Gaston is stronger than ever since that morning, and he has every appearance of being still more deeply in love. He is so young! A score of times it has been on my lips, when we rise in the morning, to say, "Then you love me better than the lady of the Rue de la Ville l'Eveque?" But I dare not explain to myself why the words are checked on my tongue.
"Are you very fond of children?" I asked.
"Oh, yes!" was his reply; "but children will come!"
"What makes you think so?"
"I have consulted the best doctors, and they agree in advising me to travel for a couple of months."
"Gaston," I said, "if love in absence had been possible for me, do you suppose I should ever have left the convent?"
He laughed; but as for me, dear, the word "travel" pierced my heart. Rather, far rather, would I leap from the top of the house than be rolled down the staircase, step by step.—Farewell, my sweetheart. I have arranged for my death to be easy and without horrors, but certain. I made my will yesterday. You can come to me now, the prohibition is removed. Come, then, and receive my last farewell. I will not die by inches; my death, like my life, shall bear the impress of dignity and grace.
Good-bye, dear sister soul, whose affection has never wavered nor grown weary, but has been the constant tender moonlight of my soul. If the intensity of passion has not been ours, at least we have been spared its venomous bitterness. How rightly you have judged of life! Farewell.
LV. THE COMTESSE DE L'ESTORADE TO MME. GASTON July 16th.
My dear Louise,—I send this letter by an express before hastening to the chalet myself. Take courage. Your last letter seemed to me so frantic, that I thought myself justified, under the circumstances, in confiding all to Louis; it was a question of saving you from yourself. If the means we have employed have been, like yours, repulsive, yet the result is so satisfactory that I am certain you will approve. I went so far as to set the police to work, but the whole thing remains a secret between the prefect, ourselves and you.
In one word, Gaston is a jewel! But here are the facts. His brother, Louis Gaston, died at Calcutta, while in the service of a mercantile company, when he was on the very point of returning to France, a rich, prosperous, married man, having received a very large fortune with his wife, who was the widow of an English merchant. For ten years he had worked hard that he might be able to send home enough to support his brother, to whom he was devotedly attached, and from whom his letters generously concealed all his trials and disappointments.
Then came the failure of the great Halmer house; the widow was ruined, and the sudden shock affected Louis Gaston's brain. He had no mental energy left to resist the disease which attacked him, and he died in Bengal, whither he had gone to try and realize the remnants of his wife's property. The dear, good fellow had deposited with a banker a first sum of three hundred thousand francs, which was to go to his brother, but the banker was involved in the Halmer crash, and thus their last resource failed them.
Louis' widow, the handsome woman whom you took for your rival, arrived in Paris with two children—your nephews—and an empty purse, her mother's jewels having barely sufficed to pay for bringing them over. The instructions which Louis Gaston had given the banker for sending the money to his brother enabled the widow to find your husband's former home. As Gaston had disappeared without leaving any address, Mme. Louis Gaston was directed to d'Arthez, the only person who could give any information about him.
D'Arthez was the more ready to relieve the young woman's pressing needs, because Louis Gaston, at the time of his marriage four years before, had written to make inquiries about his brother from the famous author, whom he knew to be one of his friends. The Captain had consulted d'Arthez as to the best means of getting the money safely transferred to Marie, and d'Arthez had replied, telling him that Gaston was now a rich man through his marriage with the Baronne de Macumer. The personal beauty, which was the mother's rich heritage to her sons, had saved them both—one in India, the other in Paris—from destitution. A touching story, is it not?
D'Arthez naturally wrote, after a time, to tell your husband of the condition of his sister-in-law and her children, informing him, at the same time, of the generous intentions of the Indian Gaston towards his Paris brother, which an unhappy chance had frustrated. Gaston, as you may imagine, hurried off to Paris. Here is the first ride accounted for. During the last five years he had saved fifty thousand francs out of the income you forced him to accept, and this sum he invested in the public funds under the names of his two nephews, securing them each, in this way, an income of twelve hundred francs. Next he furnished his sister-in-law's rooms, and promised her a quarterly allowance of three thousand francs. Here you see the meaning of his dramatic labors and the pleasure caused him by the success of his first play.
Mme. Gaston, therefore, is no rival of yours, and has every right to your name. A man of Gaston's sensitive delicacy was bound to keep the affair secret from you, knowing as he did, your generous nature. Nor does he look on what you give him as his own. D'Arthez read me the letter he had from your husband, asking him to be one of the witnesses at his marriage. Gaston in this declares that his happiness would have been perfect but for the one drawback of his poverty and indebtedness to you. A virgin soul is at the mercy of such scruples. Either they make themselves felt or they do not; and when they do, it is easy to imagine the conflict of feeling and embarrassment to which they give rise. Nothing is more natural than Gaston's wish to provide in secret a suitable maintenance for the woman who is his brother's widow, and who had herself set aside one hundred thousand francs for him from her own fortune. She is a handsome woman, warm-hearted, and extremely well-bred, but not clever. She is a mother; and, you may be sure, I lost my heart to her at first sight when I found her with one child in her arms, and the other dressed like a little lord. The children first! is written in every detail of her house.
Far from being angry, therefore, with your beloved husband, you should find in all this fresh reason for loving him. I have met him, and think him the most delightful young fellow in Paris. Yes! dear child, when I saw him, I had no difficulty in understanding that a woman might lose her head about him; his soul is mirrored in his countenance. If I were you, I should settle the widow and her children at the chalet, in a pretty little cottage which you could have built for them, and adopt the boys!
Be at peace, then, dear soul, and plan this little surprise, in your turn, for Gaston.
LVI. MME. GASTON TO THE COMTESSE DE L'ESTORADE
Ah! my dear friend, what can I say in answer except the cruel "It is too late" of that fool Lafayette to his royal master? Oh! my life, my sweet life, what physician will give it back to me. My own hand has dealt the deathblow. Alas! have I not been a mere will-o'-the-wisp, whose twinkling spark was fated to perish before it reached a flame? My eyes rain torrents of tears—and yet they must not fall when I am with him. I fly to him, and he seeks me. My despair is all within. This torture Dante forgot to place in his Inferno. Come to see me die!
LVII. THE COMTESSE DE L'ESTORADE TO THE COMTE DE L'ESTORADE THE CHALET, August 7th.
My love,—Take the children away to Provence without me; I remain with Louise, who has only a few days yet to live. I cannot leave either her or her husband, for whose reason I fear.
You know the scrap of letter which sent me flying to Ville d'Avray, picking up the doctors on my way. Since then I have not left my darling friend, and it has been impossible to write to you, for I have sat up every night for a fortnight.
When I arrived, I found her with Gaston, in full dress, beautiful, laughing, happy. It was a heroic falsehood! They were like two lovely children together in their restored confidence. For a moment I was deceived, like Gaston, by the effrontery; but Louise pressed my hand, whispering:
"He must not know; I am dying."
An icy chill fell over me as I felt her burning hand and saw the red spots on her cheeks. I congratulated myself on my prudence in leaving the doctors in the wood till they should be sent for.
"Leave us for a little," she said to Gaston. "Two women who have not met for five years have plenty of secrets to talk over, and Renee, I have no doubt, has things to confide in me."
Directly we were alone, she flung herself into my arms, unable longer to restrain her tears.
"Tell me about it," I said. "I have brought with me, in case of need, the best surgeon and the best physician from the hospital, and Bianchon as well; there are four altogether."
"Ah!" she cried, "have them in at once if they can save me, if there is still time. The passion which hurried me to death now cries for life!"
"But what have you done to yourself?"
"I have in a few days brought myself to the last stage of consumption."
"I got myself into a profuse perspiration in the night, and then ran out and lay down by the side of the lake in the dew. Gaston thinks I have a cold, and I am dying!"
"Send him to Paris; I will fetch the doctors myself," I said, as I rushed out wildly to the spot where I had left them.
Alas! my love, after the consultation was over, not one of the doctors gave me the least hope; they all believe that Louise will die with the fall of the leaves. The dear child's constitution has wonderfully helped the success of her plan. It seems she has a predisposition to this complaint; and though, in the ordinary course, she might have lived a long time, a few days' folly has made the case desperate.
I cannot tell you what I felt on hearing this sentence, based on such clear explanations. You know that I have lived in Louise as much as in my own life. I was simply crushed, and could not stir to escort to the door these harbingers of evil. I don't know how long I remained lost in bitter thoughts, the tears running down my cheeks, when I was roused from my stupor by the words:
"So there is no hope for me!" in a clear, angelic voice.
It was Louise, with her hand on my shoulder. She made me get up, and carried me off to her small drawing-room. With a beseeching glance, she went on:
"Stay with me to the end; I won't have doleful faces round me. Above all, I must keep the truth from him. I know that I have the strength to do it. I am full of youth and spirit, and can die standing! For myself, I have no regrets. I am dying as I wished to die, still young and beautiful, in the perfection of my womanhood.
"As for him, I can see very well now that I should have made his life miserable. Passion has me in its grips, like a struggling fawn, impatient of the toils. My groundless jealousy has already wounded him sorely. When the day came that my suspicions met only indifference—which in the long run is the rightful meed of all jealousy—well, that would have been my death. I have had my share of life. There are people whose names on the muster-roll of the world show sixty years of service, and yet in all that time they have not had two years of real life, whilst my record of thirty is doubled by the intensity of my love.
"Thus for him, as well as for me, the close is a happy one. But between us, dear Renee, it is different. You lose a loving sister, and that is a loss which nothing can repair. You alone here have the right to mourn my death."
After a long pause, during which I could only see her through a mist of tears, she continued:
"The moral of my death is a cruel one. My dear doctor in petticoats was right; marriage cannot rest upon passion as its foundation, nor even upon love. How fine and noble is your life! keeping always to the one safe road, you give your husband an ever-growing affection; while the passionate eagerness with which I threw myself into wedded life was bound in nature to diminish. Twice have I gone astray, and twice has Death stretched forth his bony hand to strike my happiness. The first time, he robbed me of the noblest and most devoted of men; now it is my turn, the grinning monster tears me from the arms of my poet husband, with all his beauty and his grace.
"Yet I would not complain. Have I not known in turn two men, each the very pattern of nobility—one in mind, the other in outward form? In Felipe, the soul dominated and transformed the body; in Gaston, one could not say which was supreme—heart, mind, or grace of form. I die adored—what more could I wish for? Time, perhaps, in which to draw near the God of whom I may have too little thought. My spirit will take its flight towards Him, full of love, and with the prayer that some day, in the world above, He will unite me once more to the two who made a heaven of my life below. Without them, paradise would be a desert to me.
"To others, my example would be fatal, for mine was no common lot. To meet a Felipe or a Gaston is more than mortals can expect, and therefore the doctrine of society in regard to marriage accords with the natural law. Woman is weak, and in marrying she ought to make an entire sacrifice of her will to the man who, in return, should lay his selfishness at her feet. The stir which women of late years have created by their whining and insubordination is ridiculous, and only shows how well we deserve the epithet of children, bestowed by philosophers on our sex."
She continued talking thus in the gentle voice you know so well, uttering the gravest truths in the prettiest manner, until Gaston entered, bringing with him his sister-in-law, the two children, and the English nurse, whom, at Louise's request, he had been to fetch from Paris.
"Here are the pretty instruments of my torture," she said, as her nephews approached. "Was not the mistake excusable? What a wonderful likeness to their uncle!"
She was most friendly to Mme. Gaston the elder and begged that she would look upon the chalet as her home; in short, she played the hostess to her in her best de Chaulieu manner, in which no one can rival her.
I wrote at once to the Duc and Duchesse de Chaulieu, the Duc de Rhetore, and the Duc de Lenoncourt-Givry, as well as to Madeleine. It was time. Next day, Louise, worn out with so much exertion, was unable to go out; indeed, she only got up for dinner. In the course of the evening, Madeleine de Lenoncourt, her two brothers, and her mother arrived. The coolness which Louise's second marriage had caused between herself and her family disappeared. Every day since that evening, Louise's father and both her brothers have ridden over in the morning, and the two duchesses spend all their evenings at the chalet. Death unites as well as separates; it silences all paltry feeling.
Louise is perfection in her charm, her grace, her good sense, her wit, and her tenderness. She has retained to the last that perfect tact for which she has been so famous, and she lavishes on us the treasures of her brilliant mind, which made her one of the queens of Paris.
"I should like to look well even in my coffin," she said with her matchless smile, as she lay down on the bed where she was to linger for a fortnight.
Her room has nothing of the sick-chamber in it; medicines, ointments, the whole apparatus of nursing, is carefully concealed.
"Is not my deathbed pretty!" she said to the Sevres priest who came to confess her.
We gloated over her like misers. All this anxiety, and the terrible truths which dawned on him, have prepared Gaston for the worst. He is full of courage, but the blow has gone home. It would not surprise me to see him follow his wife in the natural course. Yesterday, as we were walking round the lake, he said to me:
"I must be a father to those two children," and he pointed to his sister-in-law, who was taking the boys for a walk. "But though I shall do nothing to hasten my end, I want your promise that you will be a second mother to them, and will persuade your husband to accept the office of guardian, which I shall depute to him in conjunction with my sister-in-law."
He said this quite simply, like a man who knows he is not long for this world. He has smiles on his face to meet Louise's, and it is only I whom he does not deceive. He is a mate for her in courage.
Louise has expressed a wish to see her godson, but I am not sorry he should be in Provence; she might want to remember him generously, and I should be in a great difficulty.
Good-bye, my love.
August 25th (her birthday).
Yesterday evening Louise was delirious for a short time; but her delirium was the prettiest babbling, which shows that even the madness of gifted people is not that of fools or nobodies. In a mere thread of a voice she sang some Italian airs from I Puritani, La Sonnambula, Moise, while we stood round the bed in silence. Not one of us, not even the Duc de Rhetore, had dry eyes, so clear was it to us all that her soul was in this fashion passing from us. She could no longer see us! Yet she was there still in the charm of the faint melody, with its sweetness not of this earth.
During the night the death agony began. It is now seven in the morning, and I have just myself raised her from bed. Some flicker of strength revived; she wished to sit by her window, and asked for Gaston's hand. And then, my love, the sweetest spirit whom we shall ever see on this earth departed, leaving us the empty shell.
The last sacrament had been administered the evening before, unknown to Gaston, who was taking a snatch of sleep during this agonizing ceremony; and after she was moved to the window, she asked me to read her the De Profundis in French, while she was thus face to face with the lovely scene, which was her handiwork. She repeated the words after me to herself, and pressed the hands of her husband, who knelt on the other side of the chair.
My heart is broken. I have just seen her in her winding-sheet; her face is quite pale now with purple shadows. Oh! I want my children! my children! Bring me my children!
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
Arthez, Daniel d' A Distinguished Provincial at Paris The Member for Arcis The Secrets of a Princess
Beauseant, Marquise de The Deserted Woman
Bianchon, Horace Father Goriot The Atheist's Mass Cesar Birotteau The Commission in Lunacy Lost Illusions A Distinguished Provincial at Paris A Bachelor's Establishment The Secrets of a Princess The Government Clerks Pierrette A Study of Woman Scenes from a Courtesan's Life Honorine The Seamy Side of History The Magic Skin A Second Home A Prince of Bohemia The Muse of the Department The Imaginary Mistress The Middle Classes Cousin Betty The Country Parson In addition, M. Bianchon narrated the following: Another Study of Woman La Grande Breteche
Bridau, Joseph The Purse A Bachelor's Establishment A Distinguished Provincial at Paris A Start in Life Modeste Mignon Another Study of Woman Pierre Grassou Cousin Betty The Member for Arcis
Bruel, Claudine Chaffaroux, Madame du A Bachelor's Establishment A Prince of Bohemia A Distinguished Provincial at Paris The Middle Classes
Canalis, Constant-Cyr-Melchior, Baron de A Distinguished Provincial at Paris Modeste Mignon The Magic Skin Another Study of Woman A Start in Life Beatrix The Unconscious Humorists The Member for Arcis
Chaulieu, Henri, Duc de Modeste Mignon A Bachelor's Establishment Scenes from a Courtesan's Life The Thirteen
Chaulieu, Eleonore, Duchesse de Eugenie Grandet
Dudley, Lady Arabella The Lily of the Valley The Ball at Sceaux The Magic Skin The Secrets of a Princess A Daughter of Eve
Esgrignon, Victurnien, Comte (then Marquis d') Jealousies of a Country Town A Man of Business The Secrets of a Princess Cousin Betty
Espard, Jeanne-Clementine-Athenais de Blamont-Chauvry, Marquise d' The Commission in Lunacy A Distinguished Provincial at Paris Scenes from a Courtesan's Life Another Study of Woman The Gondreville Mystery The Secrets of a Princess A Daughter of Eve Beatrix
Estorade, Louis, Chevalier, then Vicomte and Comte de l' The Member for Arcis
Estorade, Madame de l' The Member for Arcis Ursule Mirouet
Estorade, Armand de l' The Member for Arcis
Gaston, Louis La Grenadiere
Gaston, Marie La Grenadiere The Member for Arcis
Givry The Lily of the Valley Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
Lenoncourt-Givry, Duc de Cousin Betty The Member for Arcis
Lenoncourt-Givry, Duchesse de The Lily of the Valley Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
Marsay, Henri de The Thirteen The Unconscious Humorists Another Study of Woman The Lily of the Valley Father Goriot Jealousies of a Country Town Ursule Mirouet A Marriage Settlement Lost Illusions A Distinguished Provincial at Paris The Ball at Sceaux Modeste Mignon The Secrets of a Princess The Gondreville Mystery A Daughter of Eve
Mary The Member for Arcis
Maucombe, Comte de Lost Illusions
Maufrigneuse, Duchesse de The Secrets of a Princess Modeste Mignon Jealousies of a Country Town The Muse of the Department Scenes from a Courtesan's Life Another Study of Woman The Gondreville Mystery The Member for Arcis
Mirbel, Madame de Scenes from a Courtesan's Life The Secrets of a Princess
Nathan, Raoul Lost Illusions A Distinguished Provincial at Paris Scenes from a Courtesan's Life The Secrets of a Princess A Daughter of Eve The Seamy Side of History The Muse of the Department A Prince of Bohemia A Man of Business The Unconscious Humorists
Rhetore, Duc Alphonse de A Bachelor's Establishment A Distinguished Provincial at Paris Scenes from a Courtesan's Life Albert Savarus The Member for Arcis
Sallenauve, Comtesse de The Member for Arcis
Stael-Holstein (Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker), Baronne de The Chouans Louis Lambert
Talleyrand-Perigord, Charles-Maurice de The Chouans The Gondreville Mystery The Thirteen Gaudissart II.
Vandenesse, Comte Felix de The Lily of the Valley Lost Illusions A Distinguished Provincial at Paris Cesar Birotteau A Start in Life The Marriage Settlement The Secrets of a Princess Another Study of Woman The Gondreville Mystery A Daughter of Eve
Victorine Massimilla Doni Lost Illusions Gaudissart II.