My beloved! God has judged me, Monsieur de Mortsauf will pardon me, but you—will you be merciful? Will you listen to this voice which now issues from my tomb? Will you repair the evils of which we are equally guilty?—you, perhaps, less than I. You know what I wish to ask of you. Be to Monsieur de Mortsauf what a sister of charity is to a sick man; listen to him, love him—no one loves him. Interpose between him and his children as I have done. Your task will not be a long one. Jacques will soon leave home to be in Paris near his grandfather, and you have long promised me to guide him through the dangers of that life. As for Madeleine, she will marry; I pray that you may please her. She is all myself, but stronger; she has the will in which I am lacking; the energy necessary for the companion of a man whose career destines him to the storms of political life; she is clever and perceptive. If your lives are united she will be happier than her mother. By acquiring the right to continue my work at Clochegourde you will blot out the faults I have not sufficiently expiated, though they are pardoned in heaven and also on earth, for he is generous and will forgive me. You see I am ever selfish; is it not the proof of a despotic love? I wish you to still love me in mine. Unable to be yours in life, I bequeath to you my thoughts and also my duties. If you do not wish to marry Madeleine you will at least seek the repose of my soul by making Monsieur de Mortsauf as happy as he ever can be.
Farewell, dear child of my heart; this is the farewell of a mind absolutely sane, still full of life; the farewell of a spirit on which thou hast shed too many and too great joys to suffer thee to feel remorse for the catastrophe they have caused. I use that word "catastrophe" thinking of you and how you love me; as for me, I reach the haven of my rest, sacrificed to duty and not without regret—ah! I tremble at that thought. God knows better than I whether I have fulfilled his holy laws in accordance with their spirit. Often, no doubt, I have tottered, but I have not fallen; the most potent cause of my wrong-doing lay in the grandeur of the seductions that encompassed me. The Lord will behold me trembling when I enter His presence as though I had succumbed. Farewell again, a long farewell like that I gave last night to our dear valley, where I soon shall rest and where you will often—will you not?—return.
I fell into an abyss of terrible reflections, as I perceived the depths unknown of the life now lighted up by this expiring flame. The clouds of my egotism rolled away. She had suffered as much as I—more than I, for she was dead. She believed that others would be kind to her friend; she was so blinded by love that she had never so much as suspected the enmity of her daughter. That last proof of her tenderness pained me terribly. Poor Henriette wished to give me Clochegourde and her daughter.
Natalie, from that dread day when first I entered a graveyard following the remains of my noble Henriette, whom now you know, the sun has been less warm, less luminous, the nights more gloomy, movement less agile, thought more dull. There are some departed whom we bury in the earth, but there are others more deeply loved for whom our souls are winding-sheets, whose memory mingles daily with our heart-beats; we think of them as we breathe; they are in us by the tender law of a metempsychosis special to love. A soul is within my soul. When some good thing is done by me, when some true word is spoken, that soul acts and speaks. All that is good within me issues from that grave, as the fragrance of a lily fills the air; sarcasm, bitterness, all that you blame in me is mine. Natalie, when next my eyes are darkened by a cloud or raised to heaven after long contemplation of earth, when my lips make no reply to your words or your devotion, do not ask me again, "Of what are you thinking?"
* * * * *
Dear Natalie, I ceased to write some days ago; these memories were too bitter for me. Still, I owe you an account of the events which followed this catastrophe; they need few words. When a life is made up of action and movement it is soon told, but when it passes in the higher regions of the soul its story becomes diffuse. Henriette's letter put the star of hope before my eyes. In this great shipwreck I saw an isle on which I might be rescued. To live at Clochegourde with Madeleine, consecrating my life to hers, was a fate which satisfied the ideas of which my heart was full. But it was necessary to know the truth as to her real feelings. As I was bound to bid the count farewell, I went to Clochegourde to see him, and met him on the terrace. We walked up and down for some time. At first he spoke of the countess like a man who knew the extent of his loss, and all the injury it was doing to his inner self. But after the first outbreak of his grief was over he seemed more concerned about the future than the present. He feared his daughter, who, he told me, had not her mother's gentleness. Madeleine's firm character, in which there was something heroic blending with her mother's gracious nature, alarmed the old man, used to Henriette's tenderness, and he now foresaw the power of a will that never yielded. His only consolation for his irreparable loss, he said, was the certainty of soon rejoining his wife; the agitations, the griefs of these last few weeks had increased his illness and brought back all his former pains; the struggle which he foresaw between his authority as a father and that of his daughter, now mistress of the house, would end his days in bitterness; for though he should have struggled against his wife, he should, he knew, be forced to give way before his child. Besides, his son was soon to leave him; his daughter would marry, and what sort of son-in-law was he likely to have? Though he thus talked of dying, his real distress was in feeling himself alone for many years to come without sympathy.
During this hour when he spoke only of himself, and asked for my friendship in his wife's name, he completed a picture in my mind of the remarkable figure of the Emigre,—one of the most imposing types of our period. In appearance he was frail and broken, but life seemed persistent in him because of his sober habits and his country avocations. He is still living.
Though Madeleine could see me on the terrace, she did not come down. Several times she came out upon the portico and went back in again, as if to signify her contempt. I seized a moment when she appeared to beg the count to go to the house and call her, saying I had a last wish of her mother to convey to her, and this would be my only opportunity of doing so. The count brought her, and left us alone together on the terrace.
"Dear Madeleine," I said, "if I am to speak to you, surely it should be here where your mother listened to me when she felt she had less reason to complain of me than of the circumstances of life. I know your thoughts; but are you not condemning me without a knowledge of the facts? My life and happiness are bound up in this place; you know that, and yet you seek to banish me by the coldness you show, in place of the brotherly affection which has always united us, and which death should have strengthened by the bonds of a common grief. Dear Madeleine, you for whom I would gladly give my life without hope of recompense, without your even knowing it,—so deeply do we love the children of those who have succored us,—you are not aware of the project your adorable mother cherished during the last seven years. If you knew it your feelings would doubtless soften towards me; but I do not wish to take advantage of you now. All that I ask is that you do not deprive me of the right to come here, to breathe the air on this terrace, and to wait until time has changed your ideas of social life. At this moment I desire not to ruffle them; I respect a grief which misleads you, for it takes even from me the power of judging soberly the circumstances in which I find myself. The saint who now looks down upon us will approve the reticence with which I simply ask that you stand neutral between your present feelings and my wishes. I love you too well, in spite of the aversion you are showing me, to say one word to the count of a proposal he would welcome eagerly. Be free. Later, remember that you know no one in the world as you know me, that no man will ever have more devoted feelings—"
Up to this moment Madeleine had listened with lowered eyes; now she stopped me by a gesture.
"Monsieur," she said, in a voice trembling with emotion. "I know all your thoughts; but I shall not change my feelings towards you. I would rather fling myself into the Indre than ally myself to you. I will not speak to you of myself, but if my mother's name still possesses any power over you, in her name I beg you never to return to Clochegourde so long as I am in it. The mere sight of you causes me a repugnance I cannot express, but which I shall never overcome."
She bowed to me with dignity, and returned to the house without looking back, impassible as her mother had been for one day only, but more pitiless. The searching eye of that young girl had discovered, though tardily, the secrets of her mother's heart, and her hatred to the man whom she fancied fatal to her mother's life may have been increased by a sense of her innocent complicity.
All before me was now chaos. Madeleine hated me, without considering whether I was the cause or the victim of these misfortunes. She might have hated us equally, her mother and me, had we been happy. Thus it was that the edifice of my happiness fell in ruins. I alone knew the life of that unknown, noble woman. I alone had entered every region of her soul; neither mother, father, husband, nor children had ever known her.—Strange truth! I stir this heap of ashes and take pleasure in spreading them before you; all hearts may find something in them of their closest experience. How many families have had their Henriette! How many noble feelings have left this earth with no historian to fathom their hearts, to measure the depth and breadth of their spirits. Such is human life in all its truth! Often mothers know their children as little as their children know them. So it is with husbands, lovers, brothers. Did I imagine that one day, beside my father's coffin, I should contend with my brother Charles, for whose advancement I had done so much? Good God! how many lessons in the simplest history.
When Madeleine disappeared into the house, I went away with a broken heart. Bidding farewell to my host at Sache, I started for Paris, following the right bank of the Indre, the one I had taken when I entered the valley for the first time. Sadly I drove through the pretty village of Pont-de-Ruan. Yet I was rich, political life courted me; I was not the weary plodder of 1814. Then my heart was full of eager desires, now my eyes were full of tears; once my life was all before me to fill as I could, now I knew it to be a desert. I was still young,—only twenty-nine,—but my heart was withered. A few years had sufficed to despoil that landscape of its early glory, and to disgust me with life. You can imagine my feelings when, on turning round, I saw Madeleine on the terrace.
A prey to imperious sadness, I gave no thought to the end of my journey. Lady Dudley was far, indeed, from my mind, and I entered the courtyard of her house without reflection. The folly once committed, I was forced to carry it out. My habits were conjugal in her house, and I went upstairs thinking of the annoyances of a rupture. If you have fully understood the character and manners of Lady Dudley, you can imagine my discomfiture when her majordomo ushered me, still in my travelling dress, into a salon where I found her sumptuously dressed and surrounded by four persons. Lord Dudley, one of the most distinguished old statesmen of England, was standing with his back to the fireplace, stiff, haughty, frigid, with the sarcastic air he doubtless wore in parliament; he smiled when he heard my name. Arabella's two children, who were amazingly like de Marsay (a natural son of the old lord), were near their mother; de Marsay himself was on the sofa beside her. As soon as Arabella saw me she assumed a distant air, and glanced at my travelling cap as if to ask what brought me there. She looked me over from head to foot, as though I were some country gentlemen just presented to her. As for our intimacy, that eternal passion, those vows of suicide if I ceased to love her, those visions of Armida, all had vanished like a dream. I had never clasped her hand; I was a stranger; she knew me not. In spite of the diplomatic self-possession to which I was gradually being trained, I was confounded; and all others in my place would have felt the same. De Marsay smiled at his boots, which he examined with remarkable interest. I decided at once upon my course. From any other woman I should modestly have accepted my defeat; but, outraged at the glowing appearance of the heroine who had vowed to die for love, and who had scoffed at the woman who was really dead, I resolved to meet insolence with insolence. She knew very well the misfortunes of Lady Brandon; to remind her of them was to send a dagger to her heart, though the weapon might be blunted by the blow.
"Madame," I said, "I am sure you will pardon my unceremonious entrance, when I tell you that I have just arrived from Touraine, and that Lady Brandon has given me a message for you which allows of no delay. I feared you had already started for Lancashire, but as you are still in Paris I will await your orders at any hour you may be pleased to appoint."
She bowed, and I left the room. Since that day I have only met her in society, where we exchange a friendly bow, and occasionally a sarcasm. I talk to her of the inconsolable women of Lancashire; she makes allusion to Frenchwomen who dignify their gastric troubles by calling them despair. Thanks to her, I have a mortal enemy in de Marsay, of whom she is very fond. In return, I call her the wife of two generations.
So my disaster was complete; it lacked nothing. I followed the plan I had laid out for myself during my retreat at Sache; I plunged into work and gave myself wholly to science, literature, and politics. I entered the diplomatic service on the accession of Charles X., who suppressed the employment I held under the late king. From that moment I was firmly resolved to pay no further attention to any woman, no matter how beautiful, witty, or loving she might be. This determination succeeded admirably; I obtained a really marvellous tranquillity of mind, and great powers of work, and I came to understand how much these women waste our lives, believing, all the while, that a few gracious words will repay us.
But—all my resolutions came to naught; you know how and why. Dear Natalie, in telling you my life, without reserve, without concealment, precisely as I tell it to myself, in relating to you feelings in which you have had no share, perhaps I have wounded some corner of your sensitive and jealous heart. But that which might anger a common woman will be to you—I feel sure of it—an additional reason for loving me. Noble women have indeed a sublime mission to fulfil to suffering and sickened hearts,—the mission of the sister of charity who stanches the wound, of the mother who forgives a child. Artists and poets are not the only ones who suffer; men who work for their country, for the future destiny of the nations, enlarging thus the circle of their passions and their thoughts, often make for themselves a cruel solitude. They need a pure, devoted love beside them,—believe me, they understand its grandeur and its worth.
To-morrow I shall know if I have deceived myself in loving you.
ANSWER TO THE ENVOI
Madame la Comtesse Natalie de Manerville to Monsieur le Comte Felix de Vandenesse.
Dear Count,—You received a letter from poor Madame de Mortsauf, which, you say, was of use in guiding you through the world,—a letter to which you owe your distinguished career. Permit me to finish your education.
Give up, I beg of you, a really dreadful habit; do not imitate certain widows who talk of their first husband and throw the virtues of the deceased in the face of their second. I am a Frenchwoman, dear count; I wish to marry the whole of the man I love, and I really cannot marry Madame de Mortsauf too. Having read your tale with all the attention it deserves,—and you know the interest I feel in you,—it seems to me that you must have wearied Lady Dudley with the perfections of Madame de Mortsauf, and done great harm to the countess by overwhelming her with the experiences of your English love. Also you have failed in tact to me, poor creature without other merit than that of pleasing you; you have given me to understand that I cannot love as Henriette or Arabella loved you. I acknowledge my imperfections; I know them; but why so roughly make me feel them?
Shall I tell you whom I pity?—the fourth woman whom you love. She will be forced to struggle against three others. Therefore, in your interests as well as in hers, I must warn you against the dangers of your tale. For myself, I renounce the laborious glory of loving you,—it needs too many virtues, Catholic or Anglican, and I have no fancy for rivalling phantoms. The virtues of the virgin of Clochegourde would dishearten any woman, however sure of herself she might be, and your intrepid English amazon discourages even a wish for that sort of happiness. No matter what a poor woman may do, she can never hope to give you the joys she will aspire to give. Neither heart nor senses can triumph against these memories of yours. I own that I have never been able to warm the sunshine chilled for you by the death of your sainted Henriette. I have felt you shuddering beside me.
My friend,—for you will always be my friend,—never make such confidences again; they lay bare your disillusions; they discourage love, and compel a woman to feel doubtful of herself. Love, dear count, can only live on trustfulness. The woman who before she says a word or mounts her horse, must ask herself whether a celestial Henriette might not have spoken better, whether a rider like Arabella was not more graceful, that woman you may be very sure, will tremble in all her members. You certainly have given me a desire to receive a few of those intoxicating bouquets—but you say you will make no more. There are many other things you dare no longer do; thoughts and enjoyments you can never reawaken. No woman, and you ought to know this, will be willing to elbow in your heart the phantom whom you hold there.
You ask me to love you out of Christian charity. I could do much, I candidly admit, for charity; in fact I could do all—except love. You are sometimes wearisome and wearied; you call your dulness melancholy. Very good,—so be it; but all the same it is intolerable, and causes much cruel anxiety to one who loves you. I have often found the grave of that saint between us. I have searched my own heart, I know myself, and I own I do not wish to die as she did. If you tired out Lady Dudley, who is a very distinguished woman, I, who have not her passionate desires, should, I fear, turn coldly against you even sooner than she did. Come, let us suppress love between us, inasmuch as you can find happiness only with the dead, and let us be merely friends—I wish it.
Ah! my dear count, what a history you have told me! At your entrance into life you found an adorable woman, a perfect mistress, who thought of your future, made you a peer, loved you to distraction, only asked that you would be faithful to her, and you killed her! I know nothing more monstrous. Among all the passionate and unfortunate young men who haunt the streets of Paris, I doubt if there is one who would not stay virtuous ten years to obtain one half of the favors you did not know how to value! When a man is loved like that how can he ask more? Poor woman! she suffered indeed; and after you have written a few sentimental phrases you think you have balanced your account with her coffin. Such, no doubt, is the end that awaits my tenderness for you. Thank you, dear count, I will have no rival on either side of the grave. When a man has such a crime upon his conscience, at least he ought not to tell of it. I made you an imprudent request; but I was true to my woman's part as a daughter of Eve,—it was your part to estimate the effect of the answer. You ought to have deceived me; later I should have thanked you. Is it possible that you have never understood the special virtue of lovers? Can you not feel how generous they are in swearing that they have never loved before, and love at last for the first time?
No, your programme cannot be carried out. To attempt to be both Madame de Mortsauf and Lady Dudley,—why, my dear friend, it would be trying to unite fire and water within me! Is it possible that you don't know women? Believe me, they are what they are, and they have therefore the defects of their virtues. You met Lady Dudley too early in life to appreciate her, and the harm you say of her seems to me the revenge of your wounded vanity. You understood Madame de Mortsauf too late; you punished one for not being the other,—what would happen to me if I were neither the one nor the other? I love you enough to have thought deeply about your future; in fact, I really care for you a great deal. Your air of the Knight of the Sad Countenance has always deeply interested me; I believed in the constancy of melancholy men; but I little thought that you had killed the loveliest and the most virtuous of women at the opening of your life.
Well, I ask myself, what remains for you to do? I have thought it over carefully. I think, my friend, that you will have to marry a Mrs. Shandy, who will know nothing of love or of passion, and will not trouble herself about Madame de Mortsauf or Lady Dudley; who will be wholly indifferent to those moments of ennui which you call melancholy, during which you are as lively as a rainy day,—a wife who will be to you, in short, the excellent sister of charity whom you are seeking. But as for loving, quivering at a word, anticipating happiness, giving it, receiving it, experiencing all the tempests of passion, cherishing the little weaknesses of a beloved woman—my dear count, renounce it all! You have followed the advice of your good angel about young women too closely; you have avoided them so carefully that now you know nothing about them. Madame de Mortsauf was right to place you high in life at the start; otherwise all women would have been against you, and you never would have risen in society.
It is too late now to begin your training over again; too late to learn to tell us what we long to hear; to be superior to us at the right moment, or to worship our pettiness when it pleases us to be petty. We are not so silly as you think us. When we love we place the man of our choice above all else. Whatever shakes our faith in our supremacy shakes our love. In flattering us men flatter themselves. If you intend to remain in society, to enjoy an intercourse with women, you must carefully conceal from them all that you have told me; they will not be willing to sow the flowers of their love upon the rocks or lavish their caresses to soothe a sickened spirit. Women will discover the barrenness of your heart and you will be ever more and more unhappy. Few among them would be frank enough to tell you what I have told you, or sufficiently good-natured to leave you without rancor, offering their friendship, like the woman who now subscribes herself
Your devoted friend,
Natalie de Manerville.
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
Birotteau, Abbe Francois Cesar Birotteau The Vicar of Tours
Blamont-Chauvry, Princesse de The Thirteen Madame Firmiani
Brandon, Lady Marie Augusta The Member for Arcis La Grenadiere
Chessel, Madame de The Government Clerks
Dudley, Lord The Thirteen A Man of Business Another Study of Woman A Daughter of Eve
Dudley, Lady Arabella The Ball at Sceaux The Magic Skin The Secrets of a Princess A Daughter of Eve Letters of Two Brides
Givry Letters of Two Brides Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
Lenoncourt, Duc de Cesar Birotteau Jealousies of a Country Town The Gondreville Mystery Beatrix
Lenoncourt-Givry, Duchesse de Letters of Two Brides Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
Listomere, Marquis de A Distinguished Provincial at Paris A Study of Woman
Listomere, Marquise de Lost Illusions A Distinguished Provincial at Paris A Study of Woman A Daughter of Eve
Louis XVIII., Louis-Stanislas-Xavier The Chouans The Seamy Side of History The Gondreville Mystery Scenes from a Courtesan's Life The Ball at Sceaux Colonel Chabert The Government Clerks
Manerville, Comtesse Paul de A Marriage Settlement A Daughter of Eve
Marsay, Henri de The Thirteen The Unconscious Humorists Another Study of Woman Father Goriot Jealousies of a Country Town Ursule Mirouet A Marriage Settlement Lost Illusions A Distinguished Provincial at Paris Letters of Two Brides The Ball at Sceaux Modeste Mignon The Secrets of a Princess The Gondreville Mystery A Daughter of Eve
Stanhope, Lady Esther Lost Illusions
Vandenesse, Comte Felix de Lost Illusions A Distinguished Provincial at Paris Cesar Birotteau Letters of Two Brides A Start in Life The Marriage Settlement The Secrets of a Princess Another Study of Woman The Gondreville Mystery A Daughter of Eve