Letters of Two Brides/Chapter LIV

Letters of Two Brides by Honore de Balzac

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.

May 25th.

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!

May 30th.

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.

July 1st.

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.

July 10th.

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."

July 15th.

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.