Letters of Two Brides/Chapter XXIV

Letters of Two Brides by Honore de Balzac
Chapter XXIV: LOUISE DE CHAULIEU TO RENEE DE L'ESTORADE

October.

My dear friend,—How is it possible that you, who brought yourself in two months to marry a broken-down invalid in order to mother him, should know anything of that terrible shifting drama, enacted in the recesses of the heart, which we call love—a drama where death lies in a glance or a light reply?

I had reserved for Felipe one last supreme test which was to be decisive. I wanted to know whether his love was the love of a Royalist for his King, who can do no wrong. Why should the loyalty of a Catholic be less supreme?

He walked with me a whole night under the limes at the bottom of the garden, and not a shadow of suspicion crossed his soul. Next day he loved me better, but the feeling was as reverent, as humble, as regretful as ever; he had not presumed an iota. Oh! he is a very Spaniard, a very Abencerrage. He scaled my wall to come and kiss the hand which in the darkness I reached down to him from my balcony. He might have broken his neck; how many of our young men would do the like?

But all this is nothing; Christians suffer the horrible pangs of martyrdom in the hope of heaven. The day before yesterday I took aside the royal ambassador-to-be at the court of Spain, my much respected father, and said to him with a smile:

"Sir, some of your friends will have it that you are marrying your dear Armande to the nephew of an ambassador who has been very anxious for this connection, and has long begged for it. Also, that the marriage-contract arranges for his nephew to succeed on his death to his enormous fortune and his title, and bestows on the young couple in the meantime an income of a hundred thousand livres, on the bride a dowry of eight hundred thousand francs. Your daughter weeps, but bows to the unquestioned authority of her honored parent. Some people are unkind enough to say that, behind her tears, she conceals a worldly and ambitious soul.

"Now, we are going to the gentleman's box at the Opera to-night, and M. le Baron de Macumer will visit us there."

"Macumer needs a touch of the spur then," said my father, smiling at me, as though I were a female ambassador.

"You mistake Clarissa Harlowe for Figaro!" I cried, with a glance of scorn and mockery. "When you see me with my right hand ungloved, you will give the lie to this impertinent gossip, and will mark your displeasure at it."

"I may make my mind easy about your future. You have no more got a girl's headpiece than Jeanne d'Arc had a woman's heart. You will be happy, you will love nobody, and will allow yourself to be loved."

This was too much. I burst into laughter.

"What is it, little flirt?" he said.

"I tremble for my country's interests . . ."

And seeing him look quite blank, I added:

"At Madrid!"

"You have no idea how this little nun has learned, in a year's time, to make fun of her father," he said to the Duchess.

"Armande makes light of everything," my mother replied, looking me in the face.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Why, you are not even afraid of rheumatism on these damp nights," she said, with another meaning glance at me.

"Oh!" I answered, "the mornings are so hot!"

The Duchess looked down.

"It's high time she were married," said my father, "and it had better be before I go."

"If you wish it," I replied demurely.

Two hours later, my mother and I, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and Mme. d'Espard, were all four blooming like roses in the front of the box. I had seated myself sideways, giving only a shoulder to the house, so that I could see everything, myself unseen, in that spacious box which fills one of the two angles at the back of the hall, between the columns.

Macumer came, stood up, and put his opera-glasses before his eyes so that he might be able to look at me comfortably.

In the first interval entered the young man whom I call "king of the profligates." The Comte Henri de Marsay, who has great beauty of an effeminate kind, entered the box with an epigram in his eyes, a smile upon his lips, and an air of satisfaction over his whole countenance. He first greeted my mother, Mme. d'Espard, and the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, the Comte d'Esgrignon, and M. de Canalis; then turning to me, he said:

"I do not know whether I shall be the first to congratulate you on an event which will make you the object of envy to many."

"Ah! a marriage!" I cried. "Is it left for me, a girl fresh from the convent, to tell you that predicted marriages never come off."

M. de Marsay bent down, whispering to Macumer, and I was convinced, from the movement of his lips, that what he said was this:

"Baron, you are perhaps in love with that little coquette, who has used you for her own ends; but as the question is one not of love, but of marriage, it is as well for you to know what is going on."

Macumer treated this officious scandal-monger to one of those glances of his which seem to me so eloquent of noble scorn, and replied to the effect that he was "not in love with any little coquette." His whole bearing so delighted me, that directly I caught sight of my father, the glove was off.

Felipe had not a shadow of fear or doubt. How well did he bear out my expectations! His faith is only in me, society cannot hurt him with its lies. Not a muscle of the Arab's face stirred, not a drop of the blue blood flushed his olive cheek.

The two young counts went out, and I said, laughing, to Macumer:

"M. de Marsay has been treating you to an epigram on me."

"He did more," he replied. "It was an epithalamium."

"You speak Greek to me," I said, rewarding him with a smile and a certain look which always embarrasses him.

My father meantime was talking to Mme. de Maufrigneuse.

"I should think so!" he exclaimed. "The gossip which gets about is scandalous. No sooner has a girl come out than everyone is keen to marry her, and the ridiculous stories that are invented! I shall never force Armande to marry against her will. I am going to take a turn in the promenade, otherwise people will be saying that I allowed the rumor to spread in order to suggest the marriage to the ambassador; and Caesar's daughter ought to be above suspicion, even more than his wife—if that were possible."

The Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and Mme. d'Espard shot glances first at my mother, then at the Baron, brimming over with sly intelligence and repressed curiosity. With their serpent's cunning they had at last got an inkling of something going on. Of all mysteries in life, love is the least mysterious! It exhales from women, I believe, like a perfume, and she who can conceal it is a very monster! Our eyes prattle even more than our tongues.

Having enjoyed the delightful sensation of finding Felipe rise to the occasion, as I had wished, it was only in nature I should hunger for more. So I made the signal agreed on for telling him that he might come to my window by the dangerous road you know of. A few hours later I found him, upright as a statue, glued to the wall, his hand resting on the balcony of my window, studying the reflections of the light in my room.

"My dear Felipe," I said, "You have acquitted yourself well to-night; you behaved exactly as I should have done had I been told that you were on the point of marrying."

"I thought," he replied, "that you would hardly have told others before me."

"And what right have you to this privilege?"

"The right of one who is your devoted slave."

"In very truth?"

"I am, and shall ever remain so."

"But suppose this marriage was inevitable; suppose that I had agreed . . ."

Two flashing glances lit up the moonlight—one directed to me, the other to the precipice which the wall made for us. He seemed to calculate whether a fall together would mean death; but the thought merely passed like lightning over his face and sparkled in his eyes. A power, stronger than passion, checked the impulse.

"An Arab cannot take back his word," he said in a husky voice. "I am your slave to do with as you will; my life is not mine to destroy."

The hand on the balcony seemed as though its hold were relaxing. I placed mine on it as I said:

"Felipe, my beloved, from this moment I am your wife in thought and will. Go in the morning to ask my father for my hand. He wishes to retain my fortune; but if you promise to acknowledge receipt of it in the contract, his consent will no doubt be given. I am no longer Armande de Chaulieu. Leave me at once; no breath of scandal must touch Louise de Macumer."

He listened with blanched face and trembling limbs, then, like a flash, had cleared the ten feet to the ground in safety. It was a moment of agony, but he waved his hand to me and disappeared.

"I am loved then," I said to myself, "as never woman was before." And I fell asleep in the calm content of a child, my destiny for ever fixed.

About two o'clock next day my father summoned me to his private room, where I found the Duchess and Macumer. There was an interchange of civilities. I replied quite simply that if my father and M. Henarez were of one mind, I had no reason to oppose their wishes. Thereupon my mother invited the Baron to dinner; and after dinner, we all four went for a drive in the Bois de Boulogne, where I had the pleasure of smiling ironically to M. de Marsay as he passed on horseback and caught sight of Macumer sitting opposite to us beside my father.

My bewitching Felipe has had his cards reprinted as follows:

HENAREZ

(Baron de Macumer, formerly Duc de Soria.)

Every morning he brings me with his own hands a splendid bouquet, hidden in which I never fail to find a letter, containing a Spanish sonnet in my honor, which he has composed during the night.

Not to make this letter inordinately large, I send you as specimens only the first and last of these sonnets, which I have translated for your benefit, word for word, and line for line:—

FIRST SONNET

  Many a time I've stood, clad in thin silken vest,
  Drawn sword in hand, with steady pulse,
  Waiting the charge of a raging bull,
  And the thrust of his horn, sharper-pointed than Phoebe's crescent.

  I've scaled, on my lips the lilt of an Andalusian dance,
  The steep redoubt under a rain of fire;
  I've staked my life upon a hazard of the dice
  Careless, as though it were a gold doubloon.

  My hand would seek the ball out of the cannon's mouth,
  But now meseems I grow more timid than a crouching hair,
  Or a child spying some ghost in the curtain's folds.

  For when your sweet eye rests on me,
  Any icy sweat covers my brow, my knees give way,
  I tremble, shrink, my courage gone.

SECOND SONNET

  Last night I fain would sleep to dream of thee,
  But jealous sleep fled my eyelids,
  I sought the balcony and looked towards heaven,
  Always my glance flies upward when I think of thee.

  Strange sight! whose meaning love alone can tell,
  The sky had lost its sapphire hue,
  The stars, dulled diamonds in their golden mount,
  Twinkled no more nor shed their warmth.

  The moon, washed of her silver radiance lily-white,
  Hung mourning over the gloomy plain, for thou hast robbed
  The heavens of all that made them bright.

  The snowy sparkle of the moon is on thy lovely brow,
  Heaven's azure centres in thine eyes,
  Thy lashes fall like starry rays.

What more gracious way of saying to a young girl that she fills your life? Tell me what you think of this love, which expends itself in lavishing the treasures alike of the earth and of the soul. Only within the last ten days have I grasped the meaning of that Spanish gallantry, so famous in old days.

Ah me! dear, what is going on now at La Crampade? How often do I take a stroll there, inspecting the growth of our crops! Have you no news to give of our mulberry trees, our last winter's plantations? Does everything prosper as you wish? And while the buds are opening on our shrubs—I will not venture to speak of the bedding-out plants—have they also blossomed in the bosom of the wife? Does Louis continue his policy of madrigals? Do you enter into each other's thoughts? I wonder whether your little runlet of wedding peace is better than the raging torrent of my love! Has my sweet lady professor taken offence? I cannot believe it; and if it were so, I should send Felipe off at once, post-haste, to fling himself at her knees and bring back to me my pardon or her head. Sweet love, my life here is a splendid success, and I want to know how it fares with life in Provence. We have just increased our family by the addition of a Spaniard with the complexion of a Havana cigar, and your congratulations still tarry.

Seriously, my sweet Renee, I am anxious. I am afraid lest you should be eating your heart out in silence, for fear of casting a gloom over my sunshine. Write to me at once, naughty child! and tell me your life in its every minutest detail; tell me whether you still hold back, whether your "independence" still stands erect, or has fallen on its knees, or is sitting down comfortably, which would indeed be serious. Can you suppose that the incidents of your married life are without interest for me? I muse at times over all that you have said to me. Often when, at the Opera, I seem absorbed in watching the pirouetting dancers, I am saying to myself, "It is half-past nine, perhaps she is in bed. What is she about? Is she happy? Is she alone with her independence? or has her independence gone the way of other dead and castoff independences?"

A thousand loves.