Letters of Two Brides/Chapter XXVII

Letters of Two Brides by Honore de Balzac


I have not written to you, dear, since our marriage, nearly eight months ago. And not a line from you! Madame, you are inexcusable.

To begin with, we set off in a post-chaise for the Castle of Chantepleurs, the property which Macumer has bought in Nivernais. It stands on the banks of the Loire, sixty leagues from Paris. Our servants, with the exception of my maid, were there before us, and we arrived, after a very rapid journey, the next evening. I slept all the way from Paris to beyond Montargis. My lord and master put his arm round me and pillowed my head on his shoulder, upon an arrangement of handkerchiefs. This was the one liberty he took; and the almost motherly tenderness which got the better of his drowsiness, touched me strangely. I fell asleep then under the fire of his eyes, and awoke to find them still blazing; the passionate gaze remained unchanged, but what thoughts had come and gone meanwhile! Twice he had kissed me on the forehead.

At Briare we had breakfast in the carriage. Then followed a talk like our old talks at Blois, while the same Loire we used to admire called forth our praises, and at half-past seven we entered the noble long avenue of lime-trees, acacias, sycamores, and larches which leads to Chantepleurs. At eight we dined; at ten we were in our bedroom, a charming Gothic room, made comfortable with every modern luxury. Felipe, who is thought so ugly, seemed to me quite beautiful in his graceful kindness and the exquisite delicacy of his affection. Of passion, not a trace. All through the journey he might have been an old friend of fifteen years' standing. Later, he has described to me, with all the vivid touches of his first letter, the furious storms that raged within and were not allowed to ruffle the outer surface.

"So far, I have found nothing very terrible in marriage," I said, as I walked to the window and looked out on the glorious moon which lit up a charming park, breathing of heavy scents.

He drew near, put his arm again round me, and said:

"Why fear it? Have I ever yet proved false to my promise in gesture or look? Why should I be false in the future?"

Yet never were words or glances more full of mastery; his voice thrilled every fibre of my heart and roused a sleeping force; his eyes were like the sun in power.

"Oh!" I exclaimed, "what a world of Moorish perfidy in this attitude of perpetual prostration!"

He understood, my dear.

So, my fair sweetheart, if I have let months slip by without writing, you can now divine the cause. I have to recall the girl's strange past in order to explain the woman to myself. Renee, I understand you now. Not to her dearest friend, not to her mother, not, perhaps, even to herself, can a happy bride speak of her happiness. This memory ought to remain absolutely her own, an added rapture—a thing beyond words, too sacred for disclosure!

Is it possible that the name of duty has been given to the delicious frenzy of the heart, to the overwhelming rush of passion? And for what purpose? What malevolent power conceived the idea of crushing a woman's sensitive delicacy and all the thousand wiles of her modesty under the fetters of constraint? What sense of duty can force from her these flowers of the heart, the roses of life, the passionate poetry of her nature, apart from love? To claim feeling as a right! Why, it blooms of itself under the sun of love, and shrivels to death under the cold blast of distaste and aversion! Let love guard his own rights!

Oh! my noble Renee! I understand you now. I bow to your greatness, amazed at the depth and clearness of your insight. Yes, the woman who has not used the marriage ceremony, as I have done, merely to legalize and publish the secret election of her heart, has nothing left but to fly to motherhood. When earth fails, the soul makes for heaven!

One hard truth emerges from all that you have said. Only men who are really great know how to love, and now I understand the reason of this. Man obeys two forces—one sensual, one spiritual. Weak or inferior men mistake the first for the last, whilst great souls know how to clothe the merely natural instinct in all the graces of the spirit. The very strength of this spiritual passion imposes severe self-restraint and inspires them with reverence for women. Clearly, feeling is sensitive in proportion to the calibre of the mental powers generally, and this is why the man of genius alone has something of a woman's delicacy. He understands and divines woman, and the wings of passion on which he raises her are restrained by the timidity of the sensitive spirit. But when the mind, the heart, and the senses all have their share in the rapture which transports us—ah! then there is no falling to earth, rather it is to heaven we soar, alas! for only too brief a visit.

Such, dear soul, is the philosophy of the first three months of my married life. Felipe is angelic. Without figure of speech, he is another self, and I can think aloud with him. His greatness of soul passes my comprehension. Possession only attaches him more closely to me, and he discovers in his happiness new motives for loving me. For him, I am the nobler part of himself. I can foresee that years of wedded life, far from impairing his affection, will only make it more assured, develop fresh possibilities of enjoyment, and bind us in more perfect sympathy. What a delirium of joy!

It is part of my nature that pleasure has an exhilarating effect on me; it leaves sunshine behind, and becomes a part of my inner being. The interval which parts one ecstasy from another is like the short night which marks off our long summer days. The sun which flushed the mountain tops with warmth in setting finds them hardly cold when it rises. What happy chance has given me such a destiny? My mother had roused a host of fears in me; her forecast, which, though free from the alloy of vulgar pettiness, seemed to me redolent of jealousy, has been falsified by the event. Your fears and hers, my own—all have vanished in thin air!

We remained at Chantepleurs seven months and a half, for all the world like a couple of runaway lovers fleeing the parental warmth, while the roses of pleasure crowned our love and embellished our dual solitude. One morning, when I was even happier than usual, I began to muse over my lot, and suddenly Renee and her prosaic marriage flashed into my mind. It seemed to me that now I could grasp the inner meaning in your life. Oh! my sweet, why do we speak a different tongue? Your marriage of convenience and my love match are two worlds, as widely separated as the finite from infinity. You still walk the earth, whilst I range the heavens! Your sphere is human, mine divine! Love crowned me queen, you reign by reason and duty. So lofty are the regions where I soar, that a fall would shiver me to atoms.

But no more of this. I shrink from painting to you the rainbow brightness, the profusion, the exuberant joy of love's springtime, as we know it.

For ten days we have been in Paris, staying in a charming house in the Rue du Bac, prepared for us by the architect to whom Felipe intrusted the decoration of Chantepleurs. I have been listening, in all the full content of an assured and sanctioned love, to that divine music of Rossini's, which used to soothe me when, as a restless girl, I hungered vaguely after experience. They say I am more beautiful, and I have a childish pleasure in hearing myself called "Madame."

Friday morning.

Renee, my fair saint, the happiness of my own life pulls me for ever back to you. I feel that I can be more to you than ever before, you are so dear to me! I have studied your wedded life closely in the light of my own opening chapters; and you seem to me to come out of the scrutiny so great, so noble, so splendid in your goodness, that I here declare myself your inferior and humble admirer, as well as your friend. When I think what marriage has been to me, it seems to me that I should have died, had it turned out otherwise. And you live! Tell me what your heart feeds on! Never again shall I make fun of you. Mockery, my sweet, is the child of ignorance; we jest at what we know nothing of. "Recruits will laugh where the veteran soldier looks grave," was a remark made to me by the Comte de Chaulieu, that poor cavalry officer whose campaigning so far has consisted in marches from Paris to Fontainebleau and back again.

I surmise, too, my dear love, that you have not told me all. There are wounds which you have hidden. You suffer; I am convinced of it. In trying to make out at this distance and from the scraps you tell me the reasons of your conduct, I have weaved together all sorts of romantic theories about you. "She has made a mere experiment in marriage," I thought one evening, "and what is happiness for me had proved only suffering to her. Her sacrifice is barren of reward, and she would not make it greater than need be. The unctuous axioms of social morality are only used to cloak her disappointment." Ah! Renee, the best of happiness is that it needs no dogma and no fine words to pave the way; it speaks for itself, while theory has been piled upon theory to justify the system of women's vassalage and thralldom. If self-denial be so noble, so sublime, what, pray, of my joy, sheltered by the gold-and-white canopy of the church, and witnessed by the hand and seal of the most sour-faced of mayors? Is it a thing out of nature?

For the honor of the law, for her own sake, but most of all to make my happiness complete, I long to see my Renee content. Oh! tell me that you see a dawn of love for this Louis who adores you! Tell me that the solemn, symbolic torch of Hymen has not alone served to lighten your darkness, but that love, the glorious sun of our hearts, pours his rays on you. I come back always, you see, to this midday blaze, which will be my destruction, I fear.

Dear Renee, do you remember how, in your outbursts of girlish devotion, you would say to me, as we sat under the vine-covered arbor of the convent garden, "I love you so, Louise, that if God appeared to me in a vision, I would pray Him that all the sorrows of life might be mine, and all the joy yours. I burn to suffer for you"? Now, darling, the day has come when I take up your prayer, imploring Heaven to grant you a share in my happiness.

I must tell you my idea. I have a shrewd notion that you are hatching ambitious plans under the name of Louis de l'Estorade. Very good; get him elected deputy at the approaching election, for he will be very nearly forty then; and as the Chamber does not meet till six months later, he will have just attained the age necessary to qualify for a seat. You will come to Paris—there, isn't that enough? My father, and the friends I shall have made by that time, will learn to know and admire you; and if your father-in-law will agree to found a family, we will get the title of Comte for Louis. That is something at least! And we shall be together.