Letters of Two Brides/Chapter LII

Letters of Two Brides by Honore de Balzac

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.