Letters of Two Brides/Chapter XXXVI

Letters of Two Brides by Honore de Balzac
Chapter XXXVI: THE VICOMTESSE DE L'ESTORADE TO THE BARONNE DE MACUMER

Dear,—no words can express the astonishment of all our party when, at luncheon, we were told that you had both gone, and, above all, when the postilion who took you to Marseilles handed me your mad letter. Why, naughty child, it was of your happiness, and nothing else, that made the theme of those talks below the rock, on the "Louise" seat, and you had not the faintest justification for objecting to them. Ingrata! My sentence on you is that you return here at my first summons. In that horrid letter, scribbled on the inn paper, you did not tell me what would be your next stopping place; so I must address this to Chantepleurs.

Listen to me, dear sister of my heart. Know first, that my mind is set on your happiness. Your husband, dear Louise, commands respect, not only by his natural gravity and dignified expression, but also because he somehow impresses one with the splendid power revealed in his piquant plainness and in the fire of his velvet eyes; and you will understand that it was some little time before I could meet him on those easy terms which are almost necessary for intimate conversation. Further, this man has been Prime Minister, and he idolizes you; whence it follows that he must be a profound dissembler. To fish up secrets, therefore, from the rocky caverns of this diplomatic soul is a work demanding a skilful hand no less than a ready brain. Nevertheless, I succeeded at last, without rousing my victim's suspicions, in discovering many things of which you, my pet, have no conception.

You know that, between us two, my part is rather that of reason, yours of imagination: I personify sober duty, you reckless love. It has pleased fate to continue in our lives this contrast in character which was imperceptible to all except ourselves. I am a simple country vicountess, very ambitious, and making it her task to lead her family on the road to prosperity. On the other hand, Macumer, late Duc de Soria, has a name in the world, and you, a duchess by right, reign in Paris, where reigning is no easy matter even for kings. You have a considerable fortune, which will be doubled if Macumer carries out his projects for developing his great estates in Sardinia, the resources of which are matter of common talk at Marseilles. Deny, if you can, that if either has the right to be jealous, it is not you. But, thank God, we have both hearts generous enough to place our friendship beyond reach of such vulgar pettiness.

I know you, dear; I know that, ere now, you are ashamed of having fled. But don't suppose that your flight will save you from a single word of discourse which I had prepared for your benefit to-day beneath the rock. Read carefully then, I beg of you, what I say, for it concerns you even more closely than Macumer, though he also enters largely into my sermon.

Firstly, my dear, you do not love him. Before two years are over, you will be sick of adoration. You will never look on Felipe as a husband; to you he will always be the lover whom you can play with, for that is how all women treat their lovers. You do not look up to him, or reverence, or worship him as a woman should the god of her idolatry. You see, I have made a study of love, my sweet, and more than once have I taken soundings in the depth of my own heart. Now, as the result of a careful diagnosis of your case, I can say with confidence, this is not love.

Yes, dear Queen of Paris, you cannot escape the destiny of all queens. The day will come when you long to be treated as a light-o'-love, to be mastered and swept off your feet by a strong man, one who will not prostrate himself in adoration before you, but will seize your arm roughly in a fit of jealousy. Macumer loves you too fondly ever to be able either to resist you or find fault with you. A single glance from you, a single coaxing word, would melt his sternest resolution. Sooner or later, you will learn to scorn this excessive devotion. He spoils you, alas! just as I used to spoil you at the convent, for you are a most bewitching woman, and there is no escaping your siren-like charms.

Worse than all, you are candid, and it often happens that our happiness depends on certain social hypocrisies to which you will never stoop. For instance, society will not tolerate a frank display of the wife's power over her husband. The convention is that a man must no more show himself the lover of his wife, however passionately he adores her, than a married woman may play the part of a mistress. This rule you both disregard.

In the first place, my child, from what you have yourself told me, it is clear that the one unpardonable sin in society is to be happy. If happiness exists, no one must know of it. But this is a small point. What seems to me important is that the perfect equality which reigns between lovers ought never to appear in the case of husband and wife, under pain of undermining the whole fabric of society and entailing terrible disasters. If it is painful to see a man whom nature has made a nonentity, how much worse is the spectacle of a man of parts brought to that position? Before very long you will have reduced Macumer to the mere shadow of a man. He will cease to have a will and character of his own, and become mere clay in your hands. You will have so completely moulded him to your likeness, that your household will consist of only one person instead of two, and that one necessarily imperfect. You will regret it bitterly; but when at last you deign to open your eyes, the evil will be past cure. Do what we will, women do not, and never will, possess the qualities which are characteristic of men, and these qualities are absolutely indispensable to family life. Already Macumer, blinded though he is, has a dim foreshadowing of this future; he feels himself less a man through his love. His visit to Sardinia is a proof to me that he hopes by this temporary separation to succeed in recovering his old self.

You never scruple to use the power which his love has placed in your hand. Your position of vantage may be read in a gesture, a look, a tone. Oh! darling, how truly are you the mad wanton your mother called you! You do not question, I fancy, that I am greatly Louis' superior. Well, I would ask you, have you ever heard me contradict him? Am I not always, in the presence of others, the wife who respects in him the authority of the family? Hypocrisy! you will say. Well, listen to me. It is true that if I want to give him any advice which I think may be of use to him, I wait for the quiet and seclusion of our bedroom to explain what I think and wish; but, I assure you, sweetheart, that even there I never arrogate to myself the place of mentor. If I did not remain in private the same submissive wife that I appear to others, he would lose confidence in himself. Dear, the good we do to others is spoilt unless we efface ourselves so completely that those we help have no sense of inferiority. There is a wonderful sweetness in these hidden sacrifices, and what a triumph for me in your unsuspecting praises of Louis! There can be no doubt also that the happiness, the comfort, the hope of the last two years have restored what misfortune, hardship, solitude, and despondency has robbed him of.

This, then, is the sum-total of my observations. At the present moment you love in Felipe, not your husband, but yourself. There is truth in your father's words; concealed by the spring-flowers of your passion lies all the great lady's selfishness. Ah! my child, how I must love you to speak such bitter truths!

Let me tell you, if you will promise never to breathe a word of this to the Baron, the end of our talk. We had been singing your praises in every key, for he soon discovered that I loved you like a fondly-cherished sister, and having insensibly brought him to a confidential mood, I ventured to say:

"Louise has never yet had to struggle with life. She has been the spoilt child of fortune, and she might yet have to pay for this were you not there to act the part of father as well as lover."

"Ah! but is it possible? . . ." He broke off abruptly, like a man who sees himself on the edge of a precipice. But the exclamation was enough for me. No doubt, if you had stayed, he would have spoken more freely later.

My sweet, think of the day awaiting you when your husband's strength will be exhausted, when pleasure will have turned to satiety, and he sees himself, I will not say degraded, but shorn of his proper dignity before you. The stings of conscience will then waken a sort of remorse in him, all the more painful for you, because you will feel yourself responsible, and you will end by despising the man whom you have not accustomed yourself to respect. Remember, too, that scorn with a woman is only the earliest phase of hatred. You are too noble and generous, I know, ever to forget the sacrifices which Felipe has made for you; but what further sacrifices will be left for him to make when he has, so to speak, served up himself at the first banquet? Woe to the man, as to the woman, who has left no desire unsatisfied! All is over then. To our shame or our glory—the point is too nice for me to decide—it is of love alone that women are insatiable.

Oh! Louise, change yet, while there is still time. If you would only adopt the same course with Macumer that I have done with l'Estorade, you might rouse the sleeping lion in your husband, who is made of the stuff of heroes. One might almost say that you grudge him his greatness. Would you feel no pride in using your power for other ends than your own gratification, in awakening the genius of a gifted man, as I in raising to a higher level one of merely common parts?

Had you remained with us, I should still have written this letter, for in talking you might have cut me short or got the better of me with your sharp tongue. But I know that you will read this thoughtfully and weigh my warnings. Dear heart, you have everything in life to make you happy, do not spoil your chances; return to Paris, I entreat you, as soon as Macumer comes back. The engrossing claims of society, of which I complained, are necessary for both of you; otherwise you would spend your life in mutual self-absorption. A married woman ought not to be too lavish of herself. The mother of a family, who never gives her household an opportunity of missing her, runs the risk of palling on them. If I have several children, as I trust for my own sake I may, I assure you I shall make a point of reserving to myself certain hours which shall be held sacred; even to one's children one's presence should not be a matter of daily bread.

Farewell, my dear jealous soul! Do you know that many women would be highly flattered at having roused this passing pang in you? Alas! I can only mourn, for what is not mother in me is your dear friend. A thousand loves. Make what excuse you will for leaving; if you are not sure of Macumer, I am of Louis.