Letters of Two Brides/Chapter LV

Letters of Two Brides by Honore de Balzac
Chapter 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.