Letters of Two Brides/Chapter V

Letters of Two Brides by Honore de Balzac


How deeply your letter moved me; above all, when I compare our widely different destinies! How brilliant is the world you are entering, how peaceful the retreat where I shall end my modest career!

In the Castle of Maucombe, which is so well known to you by description that I shall say no more of it, I found my room almost exactly as I left it; only now I can enjoy the splendid view it gives of the Gemenos valley, which my childish eyes used to see without comprehending. A fortnight after my arrival, my father and mother took me, along with my two brothers, to dine with one of our neighbors, M. de l'Estorade, an old gentleman of good family, who has made himself rich, after the provincial fashion, by scraping and paring.

M. de l'Estorade was unable to save his only son from the clutches of Bonaparte; after successfully eluding the conscription, he was forced to send him to the army in 1813, to join the Emperor's bodyguard. After Leipsic no more was heard of him. M. de Montriveau, whom the father interviewed in 1814, declared that he had seen him taken by the Russians. Mme. de l'Estorade died of grief whilst a vain search was being made in Russia. The Baron, a very pious old man, practised that fine theological virtue which we used to cultivate at Blois—Hope! Hope made him see his son in dreams. He hoarded his income for him, and guarded carefully the portion of inheritance which fell to him from the family of the late Mme. de l'Estorade, no one venturing to ridicule the old man.

At last it dawned upon me that the unexpected return of this son was the cause of my own. Who could have imagined, whilst fancy was leading us a giddy dance, that my destined husband was slowly traveling on foot through Russia, Poland, and Germany? His bad luck only forsook him at Berlin, where the French Minister helped his return to his native country. M. de l'Estorade, the father, who is a small landed proprietor in Provence, with an income of about ten thousand livres, has not sufficient European fame to interest the world in the wandering Knight de l'Estorade, whose name smacks of his adventures.

The accumulated income of twelve thousand livres from the property of Mme. de l'Estorade, with the addition of the father's savings, provides the poor guard of honor with something like two hundred and fifty thousand livres, not counting house and lands—quite a considerable fortune in Provence. His worthy father had bought, on the very eve of the Chevalier's return, a fine but badly-managed estate, where he designs to plant ten thousand mulberry-trees, raised in his nursery with a special view to this acquisition. The Baron, having found his long-lost son, has now but one thought, to marry him, and marry him to a girl of good family.

My father and mother entered into their neighbor's idea with an eye to my interests so soon as they discovered that Renee de Maucombe would be acceptable without a dowry, and that the money the said Renee ought to inherit from her parents would be duly acknowledged as hers in the contract. In a similar way, my younger brother, Jean de Maucombe, as soon as he came of age, signed a document stating that he had received from his parents an advance upon the estate equal in amount to one-third of whole. This is the device by which the nobles of Provence elude the infamous Civil Code of M. de Bonaparte, a code which will drive as many girls of good family into convents as it will find husbands for. The French nobility, from the little I have been able to gather, seem to be divided on these matters.

The dinner, darling, was a first meeting between your sweetheart and the exile. The Comte de Maucombe's servants donned their old laced liveries and hats, the coachman his great top-boots; we sat five in the antiquated carriage, and arrived in state about two o'clock—the dinner was for three—at the grange, which is the dwelling of the Baron de l'Estorade.

My father-in-law to be has, you see, no castle, only a simple country house, standing beneath one of our hills, at the entrance of that noble valley, the pride of which is undoubtedly the Castle of Maucombe. The building is quite unpretentious: four pebble walls covered with a yellowish wash, and roofed with hollow tiles of a good red, constitute the grange. The rafters bend under the weight of this brick-kiln. The windows, inserted casually, without any attempt at symmetry, have enormous shutters, painted yellow. The garden in which it stands is a Provencal garden, enclosed by low walls, built of big round pebbles set in layers, alternately sloping or upright, according to the artistic taste of the mason, which finds here its only outlet. The mud in which they are set is falling away in places.

Thanks to an iron railing at the entrance facing the road, this simple farm has a certain air of being a country-seat. The railing, long sought with tears, is so emaciated that it recalled Sister Angelique to me. A flight of stone steps leads to the door, which is protected by a pent-house roof, such as no peasant on the Loire would tolerate for his coquettish white stone house, with its blue roof, glittering in the sun. The garden and surrounding walks are horribly dusty, and the trees seem burnt up. It is easy to see that for years the Baron's life has been a mere rising up and going to bed again, day after day, without a thought beyond that of piling up coppers. He eats the same food as his two servants, a Provencal lad and the old woman who used to wait on his wife. The rooms are scantily furnished.

Nevertheless, the house of l'Estorade had done its best; the cupboards had been ransacked, and its last man beaten up for the dinner, which was served to us on old silver dishes, blackened and battered. The exile, my darling pet, is like the railing, emaciated! He is pale and silent, and bears traces of suffering. At thirty-seven he might be fifty. The once beautiful ebon locks of youth are streaked with white like a lark's wing. His fine blue eyes are cavernous; he is a little deaf, which suggests the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.

Spite of all this, I have graciously consented to become Mme. de l'Estorade and to receive a dowry of two hundred and fifty thousand livres, but only on the express condition of being allowed to work my will upon the grange and make a park there. I have demanded from my father, in set terms, a grant of water, which can be brought thither from Maucombe. In a month I shall be Mme. de l'Estorade; for, dear, I have made a good impression. After the snows of Siberia a man is ready enough to see merit in those black eyes, which according to you, used to ripen fruit with a look. Louis de l'Estorade seems well content to marry the fair Renee de Maucombe—such is your friend's splendid title.

Whilst you are preparing to reap the joys of that many-sided existence which awaits a young lady of the Chaulieu family, and to queen it in Paris, your poor little sweetheart, Renee, that child of the desert, has fallen from the empyrean, whither together we had soared, into the vulgar realities of a life as homely as a daisy's. I have vowed to myself to comfort this young man, who has never known youth, but passed straight from his mother's arms to the embrace of war, and from the joys of his country home to the frosts and forced labor of Siberia.

Humble country pleasures will enliven the monotony of my future. It shall be my ambition to enlarge the oasis round my house, and to give it the lordly shade of fine trees. My turf, though Provencal, shall be always green. I shall carry my park up the hillside and plant on the highest point some pretty kiosque, whence, perhaps, my eyes may catch the shimmer of the Mediterranean. Orange and lemon trees, and all choicest things that grow, shall embellish my retreat; and there will I be a mother among my children. The poetry of Nature, which nothing can destroy, shall hedge us round; and standing loyally at the post of duty, we need fear no danger. My religious feelings are shared by my father-in-law and by the Chevalier.

Ah! darling, my life unrolls itself before my eyes like one of the great highways of France, level and easy, shaded with evergreen trees. This century will not see another Bonaparte; and my children, if I have any, will not be rent from me. They will be mine to train and make men of—the joy of my life. If you also are true to your destiny, you who ought to find your mate amongst the great ones of the earth, the children of your Renee will not lack a zealous protectress.

Farewell, then, for me at least, to the romances and thrilling adventures in which we used ourselves to play the part of heroine. The whole story of my life lies before me now; its great crises will be the teething and nutrition of the young Masters de l'Estorade, and the mischief they do to my shrubs and me. To embroider their caps, to be loved and admired by a sickly man at the mouth of the Gemenos valley —there are my pleasures. Perhaps some day the country dame may go and spend a winter in Marseilles; but danger does not haunt the purlieus of a narrow provincial stage. There will be nothing to fear, not even an admiration such as could only make a woman proud. We shall take a great deal of interest in the silkworms for whose benefit our mulberry-leaves will be sold! We shall know the strange vicissitudes of life in Provence, and the storms that may attack even a peaceful household. Quarrels will be impossible, for M. de l'Estorade has formally announced that he will leave the reins in his wife's hands; and as I shall do nothing to remind him of this wise resolve, it is likely he may persevere in it.

You, my dear Louise, will supply the romance of my life. So you must narrate to me in full all your adventures, describe your balls and parties, tell me what you wear, what flowers crown your lovely golden locks, and what are the words and manners of the men you meet. Your other self will be always there—listening, dancing, feeling her finger-tips pressed—with you. If only I could have some fun in Paris now and then, while you played the house-mother at La Crampade! such is the name of our grange. Poor M. de l'Estorade, who fancies he is marrying one woman! Will he find out there are two?

I am writing nonsense now, and as henceforth I can only be foolish by proxy, I had better stop. One kiss, then, on each cheek—my lips are still virginal, he has only dared to take my hand. Oh! our deference and propriety are quite disquieting, I assure you. There, I am off again. . . . Good-bye, dear.

P. S.—I have just opened your third letter. My dear, I have about one thousand livres to dispose of; spend them for me on pretty things, such as we can't find here, nor even at Marseilles. While speeding on your own business, give a thought to the recluse of La Crampade. Remember that on neither side have the heads of the family any people of taste in Paris to make their purchases. I shall reply to your letter later.