Letters of Two Brides/Chapter XXXI

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

It is nearly five months now since baby was born, and not once, dear heart, have I found a single moment for writing to you. When you are a mother yourself, you will be more ready to excuse me, than you are now; for you have punished me a little bit in making your own letters so few and far between. Do write, my darling! Tell me of your pleasures; lay on the blue as brightly as you please. It will not hurt me, for I am happy now, happier than you can imagine.

I went in state to the parish church to hear the Mass for recovery from childbirth, as is the custom in the old families of Provence. I was supported on either side by the two grandfathers—Louis' father and my own. Never had I knelt before God with such a flood of gratitude in my heart. I have so much to tell you of, so many feelings to describe, that I don't know where to begin; but from amidst these confused memories, one rises distinctly, that of my prayer in the church.

When I found myself transformed into a joyful mother, on the very spot where, as a girl, I had trembled for my future, it seemed to my fancy that the Virgin on the altar bowed her head and pointed to the infant Christ, who smiled at me! My heart full of pure and heavenly love, I held out little Armand for the priest to bless and bathe, in anticipation of the regular baptism to come later. But you will see us together then, Armand and me.

My child—come see how readily the word comes, and indeed there is none sweeter to a mother's heart and mind or on her lips—well, then, dear child, during the last two months I used to drag myself wearily and heavily about the gardens, not realizing yet how precious was the burden, spite of all the discomforts it brought! I was haunted by forebodings so gloomy and ghastly, that they got the better even of curiosity; in vain did I picture the delights of motherhood. My heart made no response even to the thought of the little one, who announced himself by lively kicking. That is a sensation, dear, which may be welcome when it is familiar; but as a novelty, it is more strange than pleasing. I speak for myself at least; you know I would never affect anything I did not really feel, and I look on my child as a gift straight from Heaven. For one who saw in it rather the image of the man she loved, it might be different.

But enough of such sad thoughts, gone, I trust, for ever.

When the crisis came, I summoned all my powers of resistance, and braced myself so well for suffering, that I bore the horrible agony —so they tell me—quite marvelously. For about an hour I sank into a sort of stupor, of the nature of a dream. I seemed to myself then two beings—an outer covering racked and tortured by red-hot pincers, and a soul at peace. In this strange state the pain formed itself into a sort of halo hovering over me. A gigantic rose seemed to spring out of my head and grow ever larger and larger, till it enfolded me in its blood-red petals. The same color dyed the air around, and everything I saw was blood-red. At last the climax came, when soul and body seemed no longer able to hold together; the spasms of pain gripped me like death itself. I screamed aloud, and found fresh strength against this fresh torture. Suddenly this concert of hideous cries was overborne by a joyful sound—the shrill wail of the newborn infant. No words can describe that moment. It was as though the universe took part in my cries, when all at once the chorus of pain fell hushed before the child's feeble note.

They laid me back again in the large bed, and it felt like paradise to me, even in my extreme exhaustion. Three or four happy faces pointed through tears to the child. My dear, I exclaimed in terror:

"It's just like a little monkey! Are you really and truly certain it is a child?"

I fell back on my side, miserably disappointed at my first experience of motherly feeling.

"Don't worry, dear," said my mother, who had installed herself as nurse. "Why, you've got the finest baby in the world. You mustn't excite yourself; but give your whole mind now to turning yourself as much as possible into an animal, a milch cow, pasturing in the meadow."

I fell asleep then, fully resolved to let nature have her way.

Ah! my sweet, how heavenly it was to waken up from all the pain and haziness of the first days, when everything was still dim, uncomfortable, confused. A ray of light pierced the darkness; my heart and soul, my inner self—a self I had never known before—rent the envelope of gloomy suffering, as a flower bursts its sheath at the first warm kiss of the sun, at the moment when the little wretch fastened on my breast and sucked. Not even the sensation of the child's first cry was so exquisite as this. This is the dawn of motherhood, this is the Fiat lux!

Here is happiness, joy ineffable, though it comes not without pangs. Oh! my sweet jealous soul, how you will relish a delight which exists only for ourselves, the child, and God! For this tiny creature all knowledge is summed up in its mother's breast. This is the one bright spot in its world, towards which its puny strength goes forth. Its thoughts cluster round this spring of life, which it leaves only to sleep, and whither it returns on waking. Its lips have a sweetness beyond words, and their pressure is at once a pain and a delight, a delight which by every excess becomes pain, or a pain which culminates in delight. The sensation which rises from it, and which penetrates to the very core of my life, baffles all description. It seems a sort of centre whence a myriad joy-bearing rays gladden the heart and soul. To bear a child is nothing; to nourish it is birth renewed every hour.

Oh! Louise, there is no caress of lover with half the power of those little pink hands, as they stray about, seeking whereby to lay hold on life. And the infant glances, now turned upon the breast, now raised to meet our own! What dreams come to us as we watch the clinging nursling! All our powers, whether of mind or body, are at its service; for it we breathe and think, in it our longings are more than satisfied! The sweet sensation of warmth at the heart, which the sound of his first cry brought to me—like the first ray of sunshine on the earth—came again as I felt the milk flow into his mouth, again as his eyes met mine, and at this moment I have felt it once more as his first smile gave token of a mind working within—for he has laughed, my dear! A laugh, a glance, a bite, a cry—four miracles of gladness which go straight to the heart and strike chords that respond to no other touch. A child is tied to our heart-strings, as the spheres are linked to their creator; we cannot think of God except as a mother's heart writ large.

It is only in the act of nursing that a woman realizes her motherhood in visible and tangible fashion; it is a joy of every moment. The milk becomes flesh before our eyes; it blossoms into the tips of those delicate flower-like fingers; it expands in tender, transparent nails; it spins the silky tresses; it kicks in the little feet. Oh! those baby feet, how plainly they talk to us! In them the child finds its first language.

Yes, Louise, nursing is a miracle of transformation going on before one's bewildered eyes. Those cries, they go to your heart and not your ears; those smiling eyes and lips, those plunging feet, they speak in words which could not be plainer if God traced them before you in letters of fire! What else is there in the world to care about? The father? Why, you could kill him if he dreamed of waking the baby! Just as the child is the world to us, so do we stand alone in the world for the child. The sweet consciousness of a common life is ample recompense for all the trouble and suffering—for suffering there is. Heaven save you, Louise, from ever knowing the maddening agony of a wound which gapes afresh with every pressure of rosy lips, and is so hard to heal—the heaviest tax perhaps imposed on beauty. For know, Louise, and beware! it visits only a fair and delicate skin.

My little ape has in five months developed into the prettiest darling that ever mother bathed in tears of joy, washed, brushed, combed, and made smart; for God knows what unwearied care we lavish upon those tender blossoms! So my monkey has ceased to exist, and behold in his stead a baby, as my English nurse says, a regular pink-and-white baby. He cries very little too now, for he is conscious of the love bestowed on him; indeed, I hardly ever leave him, and I strive to wrap him round in the atmosphere of my love.

Dear, I have a feeling now for Louis which is not love, but which ought to be the crown of a woman's love where it exists. Nay, I am not sure whether this tender fondness, this unselfish gratitude, is not superior to love. From all that you have told me of it, dear pet, I gather that love has something terribly earthly about it, whilst a strain of holy piety purifies the affection a happy mother feels for the author of her far-reaching and enduring joys. A mother's happiness is like a beacon, lighting up the future, but reflected also on the past in the guise of fond memories.

The old l'Estorade and his son have moreover redoubled their devotion to me; I am like a new person to them. Every time they see me and speak to me, it is with a fresh holiday joy, which touches me deeply. The grandfather has, I verily believe, turned child again; he looks at me admiringly, and the first time I came down to lunch he was moved to tears to see me eating and suckling the child. The moisture in these dry old eyes, generally expressive only of avarice, was a wonderful comfort to me. I felt that the good soul entered into my joy.

As for Louis, he would shout aloud to the trees and stones of the highway that he has a son; and he spends whole hours watching your sleeping godson. He does not know, he says, when he will grow used to it. These extravagant expressions of delight show me how great must have been their fears beforehand. Louis has confided in me that he had believed himself condemned to be childless. Poor fellow! he has all at once developed very much, and he works even harder than he did. The father in him has quickened his ambition.

For myself, dear soul, I grow happier and happier every moment. Each hour creates a fresh tie between the mother and her infant. The very nature of my feelings proves to me that they are normal, permanent, and indestructible; whereas I shrewdly suspect love, for instance, of being intermittent. Certainly it is not the same at all moments, the flowers which it weaves into the web of life are not all of equal brightness; love, in short, can and must decline. But a mother's love has no ebb-tide to fear; rather it grows with the growth of the child's needs, and strengthens with its strength. Is it not at once a passion, a natural craving, a feeling, a duty, a necessity, a joy? Yes, darling, here is woman's true sphere. Here the passion for self-sacrifice can expend itself, and no jealousy intrudes.

Here, too, is perhaps the single point on which society and nature are at one. Society, in this matter, enforces the dictates of nature, strengthening the maternal instinct by adding to it family spirit and the desire of perpetuating a name, a race, an estate. How tenderly must not a woman cherish the child who has been the first to open up to her these joys, the first to call forth the energies of her nature and to instruct her in the grand art of motherhood! The right of the eldest, which in the earliest times formed a part of the natural order and was lost in the origins of society, ought never, in my opinion, to have been questioned. Ah! how much a mother learns from her child! The constant protection of a helpless being forces us to so strict an alliance with virtue, that a woman never shows to full advantage except as a mother. Then alone can her character expand in the fulfilment of all life's duties and the enjoyment of all its pleasures. A woman who is not a mother is maimed and incomplete. Hasten, then, my sweetest, to fulfil your mission. Your present happiness will then be multiplied by the wealth of my delights.

23rd.

I had to tear myself from you because your godson was crying. I can hear his cry from the bottom of the garden. But I would not let this go without a word of farewell. I have just been reading over what I have said, and am horrified to see how vulgar are the feelings expressed! What I feel, every mother, alas! since the beginning must have felt, I suppose, in the same way, and put into the same words. You will laugh at me, as we do at the naive father who dilates on the beauty and cleverness of his (of course) quite exceptional offspring. But the refrain of my letter, darling, is this, and I repeat it: I am as happy now as I used to be miserable. This grange—and is it not going to be an estate, a family property?—has become my land of promise. The desert is past and over. A thousand loves, darling pet. Write to me, for now I can read without a tear the tale of your happy love. Farewell.