From the French of Léo Lespès.
[Léo Lespès was born at Bonchain, June the 18th, 1815—the day of Waterloo. At seventeen he was compelled to take up arms as a conscript of Fusiliers, and for eight years passed his life amidst the scenes of camps and guard-rooms. But Lespès was not born to be a soldier; nature had meant him for a man of letters As soon as he obtained his liberty, he began to write or newspapers and magazines; and from that time until his death in 1875 he lived a busy but uneventful life, as one of the most popular of authors. He was one of the chief founders of the Petit Journal, which, owing largely to the tales and articles which he wrote under the signature of "Timothy Trimm," attained at once to a gigantic circulation. During his lifetime, his brilliant little stories were the delight of thousands; but beyond the limits of his native country his fame has never been so great as it deserves.]
YOU wish me to write to you, my dear Anaïs—me, a poor blind creature whose hand moves faltering in the darkness? Are you not afraid of the sadness of my letters, written as they are in gloom? Have you no fear of the sombre thoughts which must beset the blind?
Dear Anaïs, you are happy; you can see. To see! Oh, to see! to be able to distinguish the blue sky, the sun, and all the different colours—what a joy! True, I once enjoyed this privilege, but when I was struck with blindness, I was scarcely ten years old. Now I am twenty-five. It is fifteen long years since everything around me became as black as night! In vain, dear friend, do I endeavour to recall the wonders of nature. I have forgotten all her hues. I smell the scent of the rose, I guess its shape by the touch; but its boasted colour, to which all beautiful women are compared, I have forgotten—or, rather, I cannot describe. Sometimes under this thick veil of darkness strange gleams flit. The doctors say that this is the movement of the blood, and that this may give some promise of a cure. Vain delusion! When one has lost for fifteen years the lights which beautify the earth, they are never to be found again except in heaven.
The other day I had a rare sensation. In groping in my room I put my hand upon—oh! you would never guess—upon a mirror! I sat down in front of it, and arranged my hair like a coquette. Oh! what would I have given to be able to regard myself!—to know if I was nice!—if my skin is as white as it is soft, and if I have pretty eyes under my long lashes!—Ah! they often told us at school that the devil comes in the glasses of little girls who look at themselves too long! All I can say is, if he came in mine he must have been nicely caught—my lord Satan. I couldn't have seen him!
You ask me in your kind letter, which they have just read to me, whether it is true that the failure of a banker has ruined my parents. I have heard nothing about it. No, they are rich. I am supplied with every luxury. Everywhere that my hand rests it touches silk and velvet, flowers and precious stuffs. Our table is abundant, and every day my taste is coaxed with dainties. Therefore, you see, Anaïs, that my beloved folks are happily well off.
Write to me, my darling, since you are now back from that aristocratic England, and you have some pity for the poor blind girl.
You have no idea, Anaïs, what I am going to tell you! Oh! you will laugh as if you had gone crazy. You will believe that with my sight I must have lost my reason. I have a lover!
Yes, dear; I, the girl without eyes, have a wooer as melting and as importunate as the lover of a duchess. After this, what is to be said? Love, who is as blind as blind can be, undoubtedly owed me this as one of his own kind.
How he got in amongst us I don't know; still less, what he is going to do here. All I can tell you is that he sat on my left at dinner the other day, and that he looked after me with extreme care and attention.
"This is the first time," I said, "that I have had the honour of meeting you."
"True," he answered, "but I know your parents."
"You are welcome," I replied, "since you know how to esteem them—my good angels!"
"They are not the only people," he continued, softly, "for whom I feel affection."
"Oh," I answered, thoughtlessly, "then whom else here do you like?"
"You," said he.
"Me? What do you mean?"
"That I love you."
"Me? You love me?"
At these words I blushed, and pulled my scarf over my shoulders. He sat quite silent.
"You are certainly abrupt in your announcement."
"Oh! it might be seen in my regards, my gestures, all my actions."
"That may be, but I am blind. A blind girl is not wooed as others are."
"What do I care about the want of sight?" said he, with a delightful accent of sincerity; "what matters it to me if your eyes are closed to the light? Is not your figure charming, your foot as tiny as a fairy's, your step superb, your tresses long and silky, your skin of alabaster, your complexion carmine, and your hand the colour of the lily?"
He had finished his description before his words ceased sounding in my ears. So then, I had, according to him, a beautiful figure, a fairy foot, a snowy skin, a complexion like a rose, and fair and silky hair. Oh, Anaïs, dear Anaïs, to other girls such a lover, who describes all your perfections, is nothing but a suitor; but to a blind girl he is more than a lover, he is a mirror.
I began again: "Am I really as pretty as all that?"
"I am still far from the reality."
"And what would you have me do?"
"I want you to be my wife."
I laughed aloud at this idea.
"Do you mean it?" I cried. "A marriage between the blind and the seeing, between the day and the night? Why, I should have to put my orange blossoms on by groping! No! no! my parents are rich: a single life has no terrors for me; single I will remain, and take the service of Diana, as they say—and so much the worse for her if she is waited on amiss!"
He went away without saying a word more. It is all the same: he has taught me that I am nice! I don't know how it is that I catch myself loving him a little, Mr. Mirror mine!
Oh, dear Anaïs, what news I have to tell you! What sad and unexpected things befall us in this life! As I tell you what has happened to me, the tears are falling from my darkened eyes.
Several days after my conversation with the stranger whom I call my mirror, I was walking in the garden, leaning on my mother's arm, when she was suddenly and loudly called for. It seemed to me that the maid, in haste to find my mother, betrayed some agitation in her voice.
"What is the matter, mother?" I asked her, troubled without knowing why.
"Nothing, love; some visitor, no doubt. In our position we owe something to society."
"In that case," I said, embracing her, "I will not keep you any longer. Go and do the honours of the drawing-room."
She pressed two icy lips upon my forehead. Then I heard her footsteps on the gravel path receding in the distance.
She had hardly left me when I thought I heard the voices of two neighbours—two workmen—who were chatting together, thinking they were alone. You know, Anaïs, when God deprives us of one of our faculties, he seems, in order to console us, to make the others keener: the blind man has his hearing sharper than his whose gaze can traverse space. I did not lose a word of their remarks, although they spoke in a low tone. And this is what they said:
"Poor things! how sad! The brokers in again!"
"And the girl has not the least suspicion. She never guesses that they take advantage of her loss of sight to make her happy."
"What do you mean?"
"There isn't any doubt about it. All that her hand touches is of mahogany or velvet; only the velvet has grown shabby and the mahogany has lost its lustre. At table she enjoys the most delicious dishes without dreaming, in her innocence, that the domestic misery is kept concealed from her, and that alongside of that very table her father and mother seldom have anything except dry bread."
Oh, Anaïs, you can understand my agony! They have practised on me for my happiness; they have made me live in luxury amidst my darkness—and me alone. Oh! marvellous devotion. All the wealth which a most grateful heart can offer cannot pay this everlasting debt.
I have not told anyone that I have guessed this sad yet charming secret. My mother would be overwhelmed to learn that all her trouble to conceal her poverty from me has been useless. I still affect a firm belief in the flourishing condition of our house. But I am determined to save it.
M. de Sauves, as my lover is called, came to see me—and may Heaven forgive me!—I set myself to play the coquette with him.
So I said: "Have you still the same esteem for me?"
"Yes," said he. "I love you because you are beautiful with the noblest beauty, which is pure and modest."
"And my figure?"
"As exquisite and graceful as a vine."
"Ah! and my forehead?"
"Large, and smooth as the ivory which it outshines."
"Really?" And I began to laugh.
"What makes you so merry?"
"An idea—that you are my mirror. I see myself reflected in your words."
"Dearest, I would that it might be so always."
"Would you agree, then——?"
"To be your faithful mirror, to reflect your qualities, your virtues. Consent to be my wife. I have some fortune; you shall want for nothing, and I will strive with all my power to make you happy."
At these words I thought of my poor parents, whom my marriage would relieve of an enormous burden.
"If I consent to marry you," I answered, "your self-love, as a man, would suffer. I could not see you."
"Alas!" he cried, "I owe you a confession."
"Go on," I said.
"I am a graceless child of nature. I have neither charm of countenance, nor dignity of carriage. To crown my misfortune, a scourge, nowadays made powerless by the art of vaccination, has mercilessly scarred my features. In marrying a blind girl, therefore, I show that I am selfish and without humility."
I held out my hand to him.
"I don't know whether you are too hard on yourself, but I believe you to be good and true. Take me, then, such as I am. Nothing, at any rate, will turn my thoughts from yours. Your love will be an oasis in the desert of my night."
Am I doing right, or wrong? I know not, dear Anaïs, but I am going to my parents' rescue. Perhaps, in my groping, I have found the right way.
I thank you for your kind friendliness, for the compliments and congratulations with which your letter is filled.
Yes, I have been married for two months, and I am the happiest of women. I have nothing to desire; idolised by my husband, and adored by my parents, who have not left me, I do not regret my infirmity, since Edmond sees for both of us.
The day I was married, my mirror—as I call him—reflected complacently my bridal pomp. Thanks to it, I knew that my veil was nicely made, and that my wreath of orange-blossoms was not all on one side. What could a Venetian mirror have done more?"
In the evening we walk out together in the gardens, and he makes me admire the flowers by their perfume, the birds by their song, the fruit by its taste and its soft touch. Sometimes we go to the theatre, and there, too, he reproduces, by his wit, all that my closed eyes cannot see. Oh! what does his ugliness matter to me? I no longer know what is beautiful, or what is ugly, but I do know what is kind and loving.
Farewell, then, dear Anais, rejoice in my happiness.
I am a mother, Anaïs, the mother of a little girl, and I can't see her! They say she looks sweet enough to eat. They make out that she is a living miniature of me, and I can't admire her! Oh, how mighty is a mother's love! I have borne without a murmur not to look upon the blue of heaven, the glamour of the flowers, the features of my husband, of my parents, of those who love me; but it seems that I cannot bear with resignation not to see my child! Oh, if the black band which covers my sight would fall for a minute, a second only; if I could look at her as one looks at the vanishing lightning, I should be happy—I should be proud for the remainder of my life!
Edmond this time cannot be my mirror. It is in vain that he tells me that my cherub has fair curly hair, great wayward eyes, and a vermilion smile. What good is that to me? I cannot see my little darling when she stretches out her arms to me!
My husband is an angel. Do you know what he is doing? He has had me cared for during the past year without my knowing it. He wishes to restore the light to me, and the doctor is—himself!—he who for my sake has adopted a profession from which his sensibility recoils.
"Angel of my life," he said to me yesterday, "do you know what I hope?"
"Is it possible?"
"Yes; those lotions which I made you use under the pretext that they would beautify the skin, were really preparations for an operation of a very different importance."
"For the cure of cataract."
"Will not your hand tremble?"
"No; my hand will, be sure, for my heart will be devoted."
"Oh!" said I, embracing him, "you are not a man, you are a ministering angel."
"Ah!" he said, "kiss me once more, dearest. Let me enjoy these last few moments of illusion."
"What do you mean, dear?"
"That soon, with the help of God, you will regain your sight."
"Then you will see me as I am—small, insignificant, and ugly."
At these words it seemed to me as if a flash shot through my darkness: it was my imagination which was kindling like a torch.
"Edmond, dearest," I said rising, "if you do not trust my love, if you think that, whatever your face may be, I am not your willing slave, leave me in my nothingness, in my eternal night."
He answered nothing, but pressed my hand.
The operation, my mother told me, might be attempted in a month.
I called to mind the details which I had asked about my husband. Mamma had told me that he was marked by small-pox; papa maintains that his hair is very thin: Nicette, our servant, will have it that he is old.
To be marked by the small-pox is to be the victim of an accident. To be bald is a sign of intellectual power: so said Lavater. But to be old—that is a pity. And then, if, unfortunately, in the course of nature, he were to die before me, I should have less time to love him.
In fact, Anaïs, if you remember the stories in the fairy book which we read together, you with eyes and voice, I in heart and spirit, you will admit that I am rather in the interesting situation of "The Beauty and the Beast," without having the resource of the transformation miracle. Meanwhile, pray for me; for, with God's help, who knows whether I shall not soon be able to read your precious letters!
Oh, my friend, don't look at the end of this letter before you have read the beginning. Take your share of my griefs, my vicissitudes, and my joys, by following their natural course.
The operation took place a fortnight ago. A trembling hand was placed upon my eyes. I uttered two piercing cries; then I seemed to see day, light, colour, sun. Then instantaneously a bandage was replaced upon my burning forehead. I was cured! only a little patience and a little courage were required. Edmond had restored me to the sweetness of life.
But, must I confess it? I did a foolish thing—I disobeyed my doctor—he will not know it: besides, there is no danger in my rashness now. They had brought me my little one to kiss. Nicette was holding her in her lap. The child said in her soft voice, "Mamma!" I could resist no longer. I tore off the bandage
"My child! oh, how lovely she is!" I cried out. "I see her! oh, I see her!"
Nicette quickly put the bandage on again. But I was no longer lonely in the darkness. This cherub face, restored by memory, from that moment lighted up my night.
Yesterday my mother came to dress me. We were long over my toilette. I had on a beautiful silk dress, a lace collar, my hair dressed à la Marie Stuart. When my arrangements were complete, my mother said to me:—
"Take off the bandage."
I obeyed, and though only a twilight prevailed in the room, I thought that I had never seen anything so beautiful. I pressed to my heart my mother, my father, and my child.
"You have seen," said my father, "everybody but yourself."
"And my husband," I cried out, "where is my husband?"
"He is hiding," said my mother.
Then I remembered his ugliness, his attire, his thin hair, and his scarred face.
"Poor dear Edmond," I said, "let him come to me. He is more beautiful than Adonis."
"While we are waiting for your lord and master," mamma answered, "admire yourself; look in the glass. You may admire yourself for a long time without blame, if you are to make up for lost time."
I obeyed; a little from vanity, a little from curiosity. What if I was ugly? What if my plainness, like my poverty, had been concealed from me? They led me to my pier-glass. I uttered a cry of joy. With my slender figure, my complexion like a rose, my eyes a little dazed, and like two shimmering sapphires, I was charming. Nevertheless, I could not look at myself quite at my ease, for the glass was trembling without cessation, and my image reflected on its brilliant surface seemed as if it danced for joy.
I looked behind the glass to see what made it tremble.
A young man came out—a fine young man, with large black eyes and striking figure, whose coat was adorned by the rosette of the Legion of Honour. I blushed to think that I had been so foolish in in the presence of a stranger.
"Just look," said my mother to me, without taking any notice of him, "how fair you are; like a white rose."
"Mamma!" I cried.
"Only look at these white arms," and she pulled my sleeves above the elbow without the smallest scruple.
"But, mamma," I said, "what are you thinking of, before a stranger!"
"A stranger? it is a mirror."
"I don't mean the glass, but this young gentleman who was behind it, like a lover in a comedy."
"Eh! goose," cried my father, "you need not be so bashful. It is your husband."
"Edmond!" I cried out, and made a step forward to embrace him.
Then I fell back. He was so beautiful! I was so happy! Blind, I had loved in confidence. What made my heart beat now was a new love, swollen by the generosity of this truly noble man, who had ordered everyone to say that he was ugly, in order to console me for my blindness.
"A YOUNG MAN CAME OUT."
Edmond fell at my knees. Mamma put me in his arms, as she wiped away her tears.
"How lovely you are," said my husband to me, in an ecstasy.
"Flatterer!" I answered, looking down at him.
"No, when I alone was your mirror I always told you so—and see! my colleague, here, whom you have just consulted, is of the same opinion, and declares that I am right!"