The Lily of the Valley
Honore de Balzac
Part 3 out of 5
The next day when I entered the salon she was there alone. She looked
at me for a moment, held out her hand, and said, "My friend is always
too tender." Her eyes grew moist; she rose, and then she added, in a
tone of desperate entreaty, "Never write thus to me again."
Monsieur de Mortsauf was very kind. The countess had recovered her
courage and serenity; but her pallor betrayed the sufferings of the
previous night, which were calmed, but not extinguished. That evening
she said to me, as she paced among the autumn leaves which rustled
beneath our footsteps, "Sorrow is infinite; joys are limited,"--words
which betrayed her sufferings by the comparison she made with the
fleeting delights of the previous week.
"Do not slander life," I said to her. "You are ignorant of love; love
gives happiness which shines in heaven."
"Hush!" she said. "I wish to know nothing of it. The Icelander would
die in Italy. I am calm and happy beside you; I can tell you all my
thoughts; do not destroy my confidence. Why will you not combine the
virtue of the priest with the charm of a free man."
"You make me drink the hemlock!" I cried, taking her hand and laying
it on my heart, which was beating fast.
"Again!" she said, withdrawing her hand as if it pained her. "Are you
determined to deny me the sad comfort of letting my wounds be stanched
by a friendly hand? Do not add to my sufferings; you do not know them
all; those that are hidden are the worst to bear. If you were a woman
you would know the melancholy disgust that fills her soul when she
sees herself the object of attentions which atone for nothing, but are
thought to atone for all. For the next few days I shall be courted and
caressed, that I may pardon the wrong that has been done. I could then
obtain consent to any wish of mine, however unreasonable. I am
humiliated by his humility, by caresses which will cease as soon as he
imagines that I have forgotten that scene. To owe our master's good
graces to his faults--"
"His crimes!" I interrupted quickly.
"Is not that a frightful condition of existence?" she continued, with
a sad smile. "I cannot use this transient power. At such times I am
like the knights who could not strike a fallen adversary. To see in
the dust a man whom we ought to honor, to raise him only to enable him
to deal other blows, to suffer from his degradation more than he
suffers himself, to feel ourselves degraded if we profit by such
influence for even a useful end, to spend our strength, to waste the
vigor of our souls in struggles that have no grandeur, to have no
power except for a moment when a fatal crisis comes--ah, better death!
If I had no children I would let myself drift on the wretched current
of this life; but if I lose my courage, what will become of them? I
must live for them, however cruel this life may be. You talk to me of
love. Ah! my dear friend, think of the hell into which I should fling
myself if I gave that pitiless being, pitiless like all weak
creatures, the right to despise me. The purity of my conduct is my
strength. Virtue, dear friend, is holy water in which we gain fresh
strength, from which we issue renewed in the love of God."
"Listen to me, dear Henriette; I have only another week to stay here,
and I wish--"
"Ah, you mean to leave us!" she exclaimed.
"You must know what my father intends to do with me," I replied. "It
is now three months--"
"I have not counted the days," she said, with momentary self-
abandonment. Then she checked herself and cried, "Come, let us go to
She called the count and the children, sent for a shawl, and when all
were ready she, usually so calm and slow in all her movements, became
as active as a Parisian, and we started in a body to pay a visit at
Frapesle which the countess did not owe. She forced herself to talk to
Madame de Chessel, who was fortunately discursive in her answers. The
count and Monsieur de Chessel conversed on business. I was afraid the
former might boast of his carriage and horses; but he committed no
such solecisms. His neighbor questioned him about his projected
improvements at the Cassine and the Rhetoriere. I looked at the count,
wondering if he would avoid a subject of conversation so full of
painful memories to all, so cruelly mortifying to him. On the
contrary, he explained how urgent a duty it was to better the
agricultural condition of the canton, to build good houses and make
the premises salubrious; in short, he glorified himself with his
wife's ideas. I blushed as I looked at her. Such want of scruple in a
man who, on certain occasions, could be scrupulous enough, this
oblivion of the dreadful scene, this adoption of ideas against which
he had fought so violently, this confident belief in himself,
When Monsieur de Chessel said to him, "Do you expect to recover your
"More than recover it!" he exclaimed, with a confident gesture.
Such contradictions can be explained only by the word "insanity."
Henriette, celestial creature, was radiant. The count was appearing to
be a man of intelligence, a good administrator, an excellent
agriculturist; she played with her boy's curly head, joyous for him,
happy for herself. What a comedy of pain, what mockery in this drama;
I was horrified by it. Later in life, when the curtain of the world's
stage was lifted before me, how many other Mortsaufs I saw without the
loyalty and the religious faith of this man. What strange, relentless
power is it that perpetually awards an angel to a madman; to a man of
heart, of true poetic passion, a base woman; to the petty, grandeur;
to this demented brain, a beautiful, sublime being; to Juana, Captain
Diard, whose history at Bordeaux I have told you; to Madame de
Beauseant, an Ajuda; to Madame d'Aiglemont, her husband; to the
Marquis d'Espard, his wife! Long have I sought the meaning of this
enigma. I have ransacked many mysteries, I have discovered the reason
of many natural laws, the purport of some divine hieroglyphics; of the
meaning of this dark secret I know nothing. I study it as I would the
form of an Indian weapon, the symbolic construction of which is known
only to the Brahmans. In this dread mystery the spirit of Evil is too
visibly the master; I dare not lay the blame to God. Anguish
irremediable, what power finds amusement in weaving you? Can Henriette
and her mysterious philosopher be right? Does their mysticism contain
the explanation of humanity?
The autumn leaves were falling during the last few days which I passed
in the valley, days of lowering clouds, which do sometimes obscure the
heaven of Touraine, so pure, so warm at that fine season. The evening
before my departure Madame de Mortsauf took me to the terrace before
"My dear Felix," she said, after we had taken a turn in silence under
the leafless trees, "you are about to enter the world, and I wish to
go with you in thought. Those who have suffered much have lived and
known much. Do not think that solitary souls know nothing of the
world; on the contrary, they are able to judge it. Hear me: If I am to
live in and for my friend I must do what I can for his heart and for
his conscience. When the conflict rages it is hard to remember rules;
therefore let me give you a few instructions, the warnings of a mother
to her son. The day you leave us I shall give you a letter, a long
letter, in which you will find my woman's thoughts on the world, on
society, on men, on the right methods of meeting difficulty in this
great clash of human interests. Promise me not to read this letter
till you reach Paris. I ask it from a fanciful sentiment, one of those
secrets of womanhood not impossible to understand, but which we grieve
to find deciphered; leave me this covert way where as a woman I wish
to walk alone."
"Yes, I promise it," I said, kissing her hand.
"Ah," she added, "I have one more promise to ask of you; but grant it
"Yes, yes!" I cried, thinking it was surely a promise of fidelity.
"It does not concern myself," she said smiling, with some bitterness.
"Felix, do not gamble in any house, no matter whose it be; I except
"I will never play at all," I replied.
"Good," she said. "I have found a better use for your time than to
waste it on cards. The end will be that where others must sooner or
later be losers you will invariably win."
"The letter will tell you," she said, with a playful smile, which took
from her advice the serious tone which might certainly have been that
of a grandfather.
The countess talked to me for an hour, and proved the depth of her
affection by the study she had made of my nature during the last three
months. She penetrated the recesses of my heart, entering it with her
own; the tones of her voice were changeful and convincing; the words
fell from maternal lips, showing by their tone as well as by their
meaning how many ties already bound us to each other.
"If you knew," she said in conclusion, "with what anxiety I shall
follow your course, what joy I shall feel if you walk straight, what
tears I must shed if you strike against the angles! Believe that my
affection has no equal; it is involuntary and yet deliberate. Ah, I
would that I might see you happy, powerful, respected,--you who are to
me a living dream."
She made me weep, so tender and so terrible was she. Her feelings came
boldly to the surface, yet they were too pure to give the slightest
hope even to a young man thirsting for pleasure. Ignoring my tortured
flesh, she shed the rays, undeviating, incorruptible, of the divine
love, which satisfies the soul only. She rose to heights whither the
prismatic pinions of a love like mine were powerless to bear me. To
reach her a man must needs have won the white wings of the seraphim.
"In all that happens to me I will ask myself," I said, "'What would my
"Yes, I will be the star and the sanctuary both," she said, alluding
to the dreams of my childhood.
"You are my light and my religion," I cried; "you shall be my all."
"No," she answered; "I can never be the source of your pleasures."
She sighed; the smile of secret pain was on her lips, the smile of the
slave who momentarily revolts. From that day forth she was to me, not
merely my beloved, but my only love; she was not IN my heart as a
woman who takes a place, who makes it hers by devotion or by excess of
pleasure given; but she was my heart itself,--it was all hers, a
something necessary to the play of my muscles. She became to me as
Beatrice to the Florentine, as the spotless Laura to the Venetian, the
mother of great thoughts, the secret cause of resolutions which saved
me, the support of my future, the light shining in the darkness like a
lily in a wood. Yes, she inspired those high resolves which pass
through flames, which save the thing in peril; she gave me a constancy
like Coligny's to vanquish conquerors, to rise above defeat, to weary
the strongest wrestler.
The next day, having breakfasted at Frapesle and bade adieu to my kind
hosts, I went to Clochegourde. Monsieur and Madame de Mortsauf had
arranged to drive with me to Tours, whence I was to start the same
night for Paris. During the drive the countess was silent; she
pretended at first to have a headache; then she blushed at the
falsehood, and expiated it by saying that she could not see me go
without regret. The count invited me to stay with them whenever, in
the absence of the Chessels, I might long to see the valley of the
Indre once more. We parted heroically, without apparent tears, but
Jacques, who like other delicate children was quickly touched, began
to cry, while Madeleine, already a woman, pressed her mother's hand.
"Dear little one!" said the countess, kissing Jacques passionately.
When I was alone at Tours after dinner a wild, inexplicable desire
known only to young blood possessed me. I hired a horse and rode from
Tours to Pont-de-Ruan in an hour and a quarter. There, ashamed of my
folly, I dismounted, and went on foot along the road, stepping
cautiously like a spy till I reached the terrace. The countess was not
there, and I imagined her ill; I had kept the key of the little gate,
by which I now entered; she was coming down the steps of the portico
with the two children to breathe in sadly and slowly the tender
melancholy of the landscape, bathed at that moment in the setting sun.
"Mother, here is Felix," said Madeleine.
"Yes," I whispered; "it is I. I asked myself why I should stay at
Tours while I still could see you; why not indulge a desire that in a
few days more I could not gratify."
"He won't leave us again, mother," cried Jacques, jumping round me.
"Hush!" said Madeleine; "if you make such a noise the general will
"It is not right," she said. "What folly!"
The tears in her voice were the payment of what must be called a
usurious speculation of love.
"I had forgotten to return this key," I said smiling.
"Then you will never return," she said.
"Can we ever be really parted?" I asked, with a look which made her
drop her eyelids for all answer.
I left her after a few moments passed in that happy stupor of the
spirit where exaltation ends and ecstasy begins. I went with lagging
step, looking back at every minute. When, from the summit of the hill,
I saw the valley for the last time I was struck with the contrast it
presented to what it was when I first came there. Then it was verdant,
then it glowed, glowed and blossomed like my hopes and my desires.
Initiated now into the gloomy secrets of a family, sharing the anguish
of a Christian Niobe, sad with her sadness, my soul darkened, I saw
the valley in the tone of my own thoughts. The fields were bare, the
leaves of the poplars falling, the few that remained were rusty, the
vine-stalks were burned, the tops of the trees were tan-colored, like
the robes in which royalty once clothed itself as if to hide the
purple of its power beneath the brown of grief. Still in harmony with
my thoughts, the valley, where the yellow rays of the setting sun were
coldly dying, seemed to me a living image of my heart.
To leave a beloved woman is terrible or natural, according as the mind
takes it. For my part, I found myself suddenly in a strange land of
which I knew not the language. I was unable to lay hold of things to
which my soul no longer felt attachment. Then it was that the height
and the breadth of my love came before me; my Henriette rose in all
her majesty in this desert where I existed only through thoughts of
her. That form so worshipped made me vow to keep myself spotless
before my soul's divinity, to wear ideally the white robe of the
Levite, like Petrarch, who never entered Laura's presence unless
clothed in white. With what impatience I awaited the first night of my
return to my father's roof, when I could read the letter which I felt
of during the journey as a miser fingers the bank-bills he carries
about him. During the night I kissed the paper on which my Henriette
had manifested her will; I sought to gather the mysterious emanations
of her hand, to recover the intonations of her voice in the hush of my
being. Since then I have never read her letters except as I read that
first letter; in bed, amid total silence. I cannot understand how the
letters of our beloved can be read in any other way; yet there are
men, unworthy to be loved, who read such letters in the turmoil of the
day, laying them aside and taking them up again with odious composure.
Here, Natalie, is the voice which echoed through the silence of that
night. Behold the noble figure which stood before me and pointed to
the right path among the cross-ways at which I stood.
To Monsieur le Vicomte Felix de Vandenesse:
What happiness for me, dear friend, to gather the scattered
elements of my experience that I may arm you against the dangers
of the world, through which I pray that you pass scatheless. I
have felt the highest pleasures of maternal love as night after
night I have thought of these things. While writing this letter,
sentence by sentence, projecting my thoughts into the life you are
about to lead, I went often to my window. Looking at the towers of
Frapesle, visible in the moonlight, I said to myself, "He sleeps,
I wake for him." Delightful feelings! which recall the happiest of
my life, when I watched Jacques sleeping in his cradle and waited
till he wakened, to feed him with my milk. You are the man-child
whose soul must now be strengthened by precepts never taught in
schools, but which we women have the privilege of inculcating.
These precepts will influence your success; they prepare the way
for it, they will secure it. Am I not exercising a spiritual
motherhood in giving you a standard by which to judge the actions
of your life; a motherhood comprehended, is it not, by the child?
Dear Felix, let me, even though I may make a few mistakes, let me
give to our friendship a proof of the disinterestedness which
In yielding you to the world I am renouncing you; but I love you
too well not to sacrifice my happiness to your welfare. For the
last four months you have made me reflect deeply on the laws and
customs which regulate our epoch. The conversations I have had
with my aunt, well-known to you who have replaced her, the events
of Monsieur de Mortsauf's life, which he has told me, the tales
related by my father, to whom society and the court are familiar
in their greatest as well as in their smallest aspects, all these
have risen in my memory for the benefit of my adopted child at the
moment when he is about to be launched, well-nigh alone, among
men; about to act without adviser in a world where many are
wrecked by their own best qualities thoughtlessly displayed, while
others succeed through a judicious use of their worst.
I ask you to ponder this statement of my opinion of society as a
whole; it is concise, for to you a few words are sufficient.
I do not know whether societies are of divine origin or whether
they were invented by man. I am equally ignorant of the direction
in which they tend. What I do know certainly is the fact of their
existence. No sooner therefore do you enter society, instead of
living a life apart, than you are bound to consider its conditions
binding; a contract is signed between you. Does society in these
days gain more from a man than it returns to him? I think so; but
as to whether the individual man finds more cost than profit, or
buys too dear the advantages he obtains, concerns the legislator
only; I have nothing to say to that. In my judgment you are bound
to obey in all things the general law, without discussion, whether
it injures or benefits your personal interests. This principle may
seem to you a very simple one, but it is difficult of application;
it is like sap, which must infiltrate the smallest of the
capillary tubes to stir the tree, renew its verdure, develop its
flowers, and ripen fruit. Dear, the laws of society are not all
written in a book; manners and customs create laws, the more
important of which are often the least known. Believe me, there
are neither teachers, nor schools, nor text-books for the laws
that are now to regulate your actions, your language, your visible
life, the manner of your presentation to the world, and your quest
of fortune. Neglect those secret laws or fail to understand them,
and you stay at the foot of the social system instead of looking
down upon it. Even though this letter may seem to you diffuse,
telling you much that you have already thought, let me confide to
you a woman's ethics.
To explain society on the theory of individual happiness adroitly
won at the cost of the greater number is a monstrous doctrine,
which in its strict application leads men to believe that all they
can secretly lay hold of before the law or society or other
individuals condemn it as a wrong is honestly and fairly theirs.
Once admit that claim and the clever thief goes free; the woman
who violates her marriage vow without the knowledge of the world
is virtuous and happy; kill a man, leaving no proof for justice,
and if, like Macbeth, you win a crown you have done wisely; your
selfish interests become the higher law; the only question then is
how to evade, without witnesses or proof, the obstacles which law
and morality place between you and your self-indulgence. To those
who hold this view of society, the problem of making their
fortune, my dear friend, resolves itself into playing a game where
the stakes are millions or the galleys, political triumphs or
dishonor. Still, the green cloth is not long enough for all the
players, and a certain kind of genius is required to play the
game. I say nothing of religious beliefs, nor yet of feelings;
what concerns us now is the running-gear of the great machine of
gold and iron, and its practical results with which men's lives
are occupied. Dear child of my heart, if you share my horror at
this criminal theory of the world, society will present to your
mind, as it does to all sane minds, the opposite theory of duty.
Yes, you will see that man owes himself to man in a thousand
differing ways. To my mind, the duke and peer owe far more to the
workman and the pauper than the pauper and the workman owe to the
duke. The obligations of duty enlarge in proportion to the
benefits which society bestows on men; in accordance with the
maxim, as true in social politics as in business, that the burden
of care and vigilance is everywhere in proportion to profits. Each
man pays his debt in his own way. When our poor toiler at the
Rhetoriere comes home weary with his day's work has he not done
his duty? Assuredly he has done it better than many in the ranks
If you take this view of society, in which you are about to seek a
place in keeping with your intellect and your faculties, you must
set before you as a generating principle and mainspring, this
maxim: never permit yourself to act against either your own
conscience or the public conscience. Though my entreaty may seem
to you superfluous, yet I entreat, yes, your Henriette implores
you to ponder the meaning of that rule. It seems simple but, dear,
it means that integrity, loyalty, honor, and courtesy are the
safest and surest instruments for your success. In this selfish
world you will find many to tell you that a man cannot make his
way by sentiments, that too much respect for moral considerations
will hinder his advance. It is not so; you will see men ill-
trained, ill-taught, incapable of measuring the future, who are
rough to a child, rude to an old woman, unwilling to be irked by
some worthy old man on the ground that they can do nothing for
him; later, you will find the same men caught by the thorns which
they might have rendered pointless, and missing their triumph for
some trivial reason; whereas the man who is early trained to a
sense of duty does not meet the same obstacles; he may attain
success less rapidly, but when attained it is solid and does not
crumble like that of others.
When I show you that the application of this doctrine demands in
the first place a mastery of the science of manners, you may think
my jurisprudence has a flavor of the court and of the training I
received as a Lenoncourt. My dear friend, I do attach great
importance to that training, trifling as it seems. You will find
that the habits of the great world are as important to you as the
wide and varied knowledge that you possess. Often they take the
place of such knowledge; for some really ignorant men, born with
natural gifts and accustomed to give connection to their ideas,
have been known to attain a grandeur never reached by others far
more worthy of it. I have studied you thoroughly, Felix, wishing
to know if your education, derived wholly from schools, has
injured your nature. God knows the joy with which I find you fit
for that further education of which I speak.
The manners of many who are brought up in the traditions of the
great world are purely external; true politeness, perfect manners,
come from the heart, and from a deep sense of personal dignity.
This is why some men of noble birth are, in spite of their
training, ill-mannered, while others, among the middle classes,
have instinctive good taste and only need a few lessons to give
them excellent manners without any signs of awkward imitation.
Believe a poor woman who no longer leaves her valley when she
tells you that this dignity of tone, this courteous simplicity in
words, in gesture, in bearing, and even in the character of the
home, is a living and material poem, the charm of which is
irresistible; imagine therefore what it is when it takes its
inspiration from the heart. Politeness, dear, consists in seeming
to forget ourselves for others; with many it is social cant, laid
aside when personal self-interest shows its cloven-foot; a noble
then becomes ignoble. But--and this is what I want you to
practise, Felix--true politeness involves a Christian principle;
it is the flower of Love, it requires that we forget ourselves
really. In memory of your Henriette, for her sake, be not a
fountain without water, have the essence and the form of true
courtesy. Never fear to be the dupe and victim of this social
virtue; you will some day gather the fruit of seeds scattered
apparently to the winds.
My father used to say that one of the great offences of sham
politeness was the neglect of promises. When anything is demanded
of you that you cannot do, refuse positively and leave no
loopholes for false hopes; on the other hand, grant at once
whatever you are willing to bestow. Your prompt refusal will make
you friends as well as your prompt benefit, and your character
will stand the higher; for it is hard to say whether a promise
forgotten, a hope deceived does not make us more enemies than a
favor granted brings us friends.
Dear friend, there are certain little matters on which I may
dwell, for I know them, and it comes within my province to impart
them. Be not too confiding, nor frivolous, nor over enthusiastic,
--three rocks on which youth often strikes. Too confiding a nature
loses respect, frivolity brings contempt, and others take
advantage of excessive enthusiasm. In the first place, Felix, you
will never have more than two or three friends in the course of
your life. Your entire confidence is their right; to give it to
many is to betray your real friends. If you are more intimate with
some men than with others keep guard over yourself; be as cautious
as though you knew they would one day be your rivals, or your
enemies; the chances and changes of life require this. Maintain an
attitude which is neither cold nor hot; find the medium point at
which a man can safely hold intercourse with others without
compromising himself. Yes, believe me, the honest man is as far
from the base cowardice of Philinte as he is from the harsh virtue
of Alceste. The genius of the poet is displayed in the mind of
this true medium; certainly all minds do enjoy more the ridicule
of virtue than the sovereign contempt of easy-going selfishness
which underlies that picture of it; but all, nevertheless, are
prompted to keep themselves from either extreme.
As to frivolity, if it causes fools to proclaim you a charming
man, others who are accustomed to judge of men's capacities and
fathom character, will winnow out your tare and bring you to
disrepute, for frivolity is the resource of weak natures, and
weakness is soon appraised in a society which regards its members
as nothing more than organs--and perhaps justly, for nature
herself puts to death imperfect beings. A woman's protecting
instincts may be roused by the pleasure she feels in supporting
the weak against the strong, and in leading the intelligence of
the heart to victory over the brutality of matter; but society,
less a mother than a stepmother, adores only the children who
flatter her vanity.
As to ardent enthusiasm, that first sublime mistake of youth,
which finds true happiness in using its powers, and begins by
being its own dupe before it is the dupe of others, keep it within
the region of the heart's communion, keep it for woman and for
God. Do not hawk its treasures in the bazaars of society or of
politics, where trumpery will be offered in exchange for them.
Believe the voice which commands you to be noble in all things
when it also prays you not to expend your forces uselessly.
Unhappily, men will rate you according to your usefulness, and not
according to your worth. To use an image which I think will strike
your poetic mind, let a cipher be what it may, immeasurable in
size, written in gold, or written in pencil, it is only a cipher
after all. A man of our times has said, "No zeal, above all, no
zeal!" The lesson may be sad, but it is true, and it saves the
soul from wasting its bloom. Hide your pure sentiments, or put
them in regions inaccessible, where their blossoms may be
passionately admired, where the artist may dream amorously of his
master-piece. But duties, my friend, are not sentiments. To do
what we ought is by no means to do what we like. A man who would
give his life enthusiastically for a woman must be ready to die
coldly for his country.
One of the most important rules in the science of manners is that
of almost absolute silence about ourselves. Play a little comedy
for your own instruction; talk of yourself to acquaintances, tell
them about your sufferings, your pleasures, your business, and you
will see how indifference succeeds pretended interest; then
annoyance follows, and if the mistress of the house does not find
some civil way of stopping you the company will disappear under
various pretexts adroitly seized. Would you, on the other hand,
gather sympathies about you and be spoken of as amiable and witty,
and a true friend? talk to others of themselves, find a way to
bring them forward, and brows will clear, lips will smile, and
after you leave the room all present will praise you. Your
conscience and the voice of your own heart will show you the line
where the cowardice of flattery begins and the courtesy of
One word more about a young man's demeanor in public. My dear
friend, youth is always inclined to a rapidity of judgment which
does it honor, but also injury. This was why the old system of
education obliged young people to keep silence and study life in a
probationary period beside their elders. Formerly, as you know,
nobility, like art, had its apprentices, its pages, devoted body
and soul to the masters who maintained them. To-day youth is
forced in a hot-house; it is trained to judge of thoughts,
actions, and writings with biting severity; it slashes with a
blade that has not been fleshed. Do not make this mistake. Such
judgments will seem like censures to many about you, who would
sooner pardon an open rebuke than a secret wound. Young people are
pitiless because they know nothing of life and its difficulties.
The old critic is kind and considerate, the young critic is
implacable; the one knows nothing, the other knows all. Moreover,
at the bottom of all human actions there is a labyrinth of
determining reasons on which God reserves for himself the final
judgment. Be severe therefore to none but yourself.
Your future is before you; but no one in the world can make his
way unaided. Therefore, make use of my father's house; its doors
are open to you; the connections that you will create for yourself
under his roof will serve you in a hundred ways. But do not yield
an inch of ground to my mother; she will crush any one who gives
up to her, but she will admire the courage of whoever resists her.
She is like iron, which if beaten, can be fused with iron, but
when cold will break everything less hard than itself. Cultivate
my mother; for if she thinks well of you she will introduce you
into certain houses where you can acquire the fatal science of the
world, the art of listening, speaking, answering, presenting
yourself to the company and taking leave of it; the precise use of
language, the something--how shall I explain it?--which is no more
superiority than the coat is the man, but without which the
highest talent in the world will never be admitted within those
I know you well enough to be quite sure I indulge no illusion when
I imagine that I see you as I wish you to be; simple in manners,
gentle in tone, proud without conceit, respectful to the old,
courteous without servility, above all, discreet. Use your wit but
never display it for the amusement of others; for be sure that if
your brilliancy annoys an inferior man, he will retire from the
field and say of you in a tone of contempt, "He is very amusing."
Let your superiority be leonine. Moreover, do not be always
seeking to please others. I advise a certain coldness in your
relations with men, which may even amount to indifference; this
will not anger others, for all persons esteem those who slight
them; and it will win you the favor of women, who will respect you
for the little consequence that you attach to men. Never remain in
company with those who have lost their reputation, even though
they may not have deserved to do so; for society holds us
responsible for our friendships as well as for our enmities. In
this matter let your judgments be slowly and maturely weighed, but
see that they are irrevocable. When the men whom you have repulsed
justify the repulsion, your esteem and regard will be all the more
sought after; you have inspired the tacit respect which raises a
man among his peers. I behold you now armed with a youth that
pleases, grace which attracts, and wisdom with which to preserve
your conquests. All that I have now told you can be summed up in
two words, two old-fashioned words, "Noblesse oblige."
Now apply these precepts to the management of life. You will hear
many persons say that strategy is the chief element of success;
that the best way to press through the crowd is to set some men
against other men and so take their places. That was a good system
for the Middle Ages, when princes had to destroy their rivals by
pitting one against the other; but in these days, all things being
done in open day, I am afraid it would do you ill-service. No, you
must meet your competitors face to face, be they loyal and true
men, or traitorous enemies whose weapons are calumny, evil-
speaking, and fraud. But remember this, you have no more powerful
auxiliaries than these men themselves; they are their own enemies;
fight them with honest weapons, and sooner or later they are
condemned. As to the first of them, loyal men and true, your
straightforwardness will obtain their respect, and the differences
between you once settled (for all things can be settled), these
men will serve you. Do not be afraid of making enemies; woe to him
who has none in the world you are about to enter; but try to give
no handle for ridicule or disparagement. I say TRY, for in Paris a
man cannot always belong solely to himself; he is sometimes at the
mercy of circumstances; you will not always be able to avoid the
mud in the gutter nor the tile that falls from the roof. The moral
world has gutters where persons of no reputation endeavor to
splash the mud in which they live upon men of honor. But you can
always compel respect by showing that you are, under all
circumstances, immovable in your principles. In the conflict of
opinions, in the midst of quarrels and cross-purposes, go straight
to the point, keep resolutely to the question; never fight except
for the essential thing, and put your whole strength into that.
You know how Monsieur de Mortsauf hates Napoleon, how he curses
him and pursues him as justice does a criminal; demanding
punishment day and night for the death of the Duc d'Enghien, the
only death, the only misfortune, that ever brought the tears to
his eyes; well, he nevertheless admired him as the greatest of
captains, and has often explained to me his strategy. May not the
same tactics be applied to the war of human interests; they would
economize time as heretofore they economized men and space. Think
this over, for as a woman I am liable to be mistaken on such
points which my sex judges only by instinct and sentiment. One
point, however, I may insist on; all trickery, all deception, is
certain to be discovered and to result in doing harm; whereas
every situation presents less danger if a man plants himself
firmly on his own truthfulness. If I may cite my own case, I can
tell you that, obliged as I am by Monsieur de Mortsauf's condition
to avoid litigation and to bring to an immediate settlement all
difficulties which arise in the management of Clochegourde, and
which would otherwise cause him an excitement under which his mind
would succumb, I have invariably settled matters promptly by
taking hold of the knot of the difficulty and saying to our
opponents: "We will either untie it or cut it!"
It will often happen that you do a service to others and find
yourself ill-rewarded; I beg you not to imitate those who complain
of men and declare them to be all ungrateful. That is putting
themselves on a pedestal indeed! and surely it is somewhat silly
to admit their lack of knowledge of the world. But you, I trust,
will not do good as a usurer lends his money; you will do it--will
you not?--for good's sake. Noblesse oblige. Nevertheless, do not
bestow such services as to force others to ingratitude, for if you
do, they will become your most implacable enemies; obligations
sometimes lead to despair, like the despair of ruin itself, which
is capable of very desperate efforts. As for yourself, accept as
little as you can from others. Be no man's vassal; and bring
yourself out of your own difficulties.
You see, dear friend, I am advising you only on the lesser points
of life. In the world of politics things wear a different aspect;
the rules which are to guide your individual steps give way before
the national interests. If you reach that sphere where great men
revolve you will be, like God himself, the sole arbiter of your
determinations. You will no longer be a man, but law, the living
law; no longer an individual, you are then the Nation incarnate.
But remember this, though you judge, you will yourself be judged;
hereafter you will be summoned before the ages, and you know
history well enough to be fully informed as to what deeds and what
sentiments have led to true grandeur.
I now come to a serious matter, your conduct towards women.
Wherever you visit make it a principle not to fritter yourself
away in a petty round of gallantry. A man of the last century who
had great social success never paid attention to more than one
woman of an evening, choosing the one who seemed the most
neglected. That man, my dear child, controlled his epoch. He
wisely reckoned that by a given time all women would speak well of
him. Many young men waste their most precious possession, namely,
the time necessary to create connections which contribute more
than all else to social success. Your springtime is short,
endeavor to make the most of it. Cultivate influential women.
Influential women are old women; they will teach you the
intermarriages and the secrets of all the families of the great
world; they will show you the cross-roads which will bring you
soonest to your goal. They will be fond of you. The bestowal of
protection is their last form of love--when they are not devout.
They will do you innumerable good services; sing your praises and
make you desirable to society. Avoid young women. Do not think I
say this from personal self-interest. The woman of fifty will do
all for you, the woman of twenty will do nothing; she wants your
whole life while the other asks only a few attentions. Laugh with
the young women, meet them for pastime merely; they are incapable
of serious thought. Young women, dear friend, are selfish, vain,
petty, ignorant of true friendship; they love no one but
themselves; they would sacrifice you to an evening's success.
Besides, they all want absolute devotion, and your present
situation requires that devotion be shown to you; two
irreconcilable needs! None of these young women would enter into
your interests; they would think of themselves and not of you;
they would injure you more by their emptiness and frivolity than
they could serve you by their love; they will waste your time
unscrupulously, hinder your advance to fortune, and end by
destroying your future with the best grace possible. If you
complain, the silliest of them will make you think that her glove
is more precious than fortune, and that nothing is so glorious as
to be her slave. They will all tell you that they bestow
happiness, and thus lull you to forget your nobler destiny.
Believe me, the happiness they give is transitory; your great
career will endure. You know not with what perfidious cleverness
they contrive to satisfy their caprices, nor the art with which
they will convert your passing fancy into a love which ought to be
eternal. The day when they abandon you they will tell you that the
words, "I no longer love you," are a full justification of their
conduct, just as the words, "I love," justified their winning you;
they will declare that love is involuntary and not to be coerced.
Absurd! Believe me, dear, true love is eternal, infinite, always
like unto itself; it is equable, pure, without violent
demonstration; white hair often covers the head but the heart that
holds it is ever young. No such love is found among the women of
the world; all are playing comedy; this one will interest you by
her misfortunes; she seems the gentlest and least exacting of her
sex, but when once she is necessary to you, you will feel the
tyranny of weakness and will do her will; you may wish to be a
diplomat, to go and come, and study men and interests,--no, you
must stay in Paris, or at her country-place, sewn to her
petticoat, and the more devotion you show the more ungrateful and
exacting she will be. Another will attract you by her
submissiveness; she will be your attendant, follow you
romantically about, compromise herself to keep you, and be the
millstone about your neck. You will drown yourself some day, but
the woman will come to the surface.
The least manoeuvring of these women of the world have many nets.
The silliest triumph because too foolish to excite distrust. The
one to be feared least may be the woman of gallantry whom you love
without exactly knowing why; she will leave you for no motive and
go back to you out of vanity. All these women will injure you,
either in the present or the future. Every young woman who enters
society and lives a life of pleasure and of gratified vanity is
semi-corrupt and will corrupt you. Among them you will not find
the chaste and tranquil being in whom you may forever reign. Ah!
she who loves you will love solitude; the festivals of her heart
will be your glances; she will live upon your words. May she be
all the world to you, for you will be all in all to her. Love her
well; give her neither griefs nor rivals; do not rouse her
jealousy. To be loved, dear, to be comprehended, is the greatest
of all joys; I pray that you may taste it! But run no risk of
injuring the flower of your soul; be sure, be very sure of the
heart in which you place your affections. That woman will never be
her own self; she will never think of herself, but of you. She
will never oppose you, she will have no interests of her own; for
you she will see a danger where you can see none and where she
would be oblivious of her own. If she suffers it will be in
silence; she will have no personal vanity, but deep reverence for
whatever in her has won your love. Respond to such a love by
surpassing it. If you are fortunate enough to find that which I,
your poor friend, must ever be without, I mean a love mutually
inspired, mutually felt, remember that in a valley lives a mother
whose heart is so filled with the feelings you have put there that
you can never sound its depths. Yes, I bear you an affection which
you will never know to its full extent; before it could show
itself for what it is you would have to lose your mind and
intellect, and then you would be unable to comprehend the length
and breadth of my devotion.
Shall I be misunderstood in bidding you avoid young women (all
more or less artful, satirical, vain, frivolous, and extravagant)
and attach yourself to influential women, to those imposing
dowagers full of excellent good-sense, like my aunt, who will help
your career, defend you from attacks, and say for you the things
that you cannot say for yourself? Am I not, on the contrary,
generous in bidding you reserve your love for the coming angel
with the guileless heart? If the motto Noblesse oblige sums up the
advice I gave you just now, my further advice on your relations to
women is based upon that other motto of chivalry, "Serve all, love
Your educational knowledge is immense; your heart, saved by early
suffering, is without a stain; all is noble, all is well with you.
Now, Felix, WILL! Your future lies in that one word, that word of
great men. My child, you will obey your Henriette, will you not?
You will permit her to tell you from time to time the thoughts
that are in her mind of you and of your relations to the world? I
have an eye in my soul which sees the future for you as for my
children; suffer me to use that faculty for your benefit; it is a
faculty, a mysterious gift bestowed by my lonely life; far from
its growing weaker, I find it strengthened and exalted by solitude
I ask you in return to bestow a happiness on me; I desire to see
you becoming more and more important among men, without one single
success that shall bring a line of shame upon my brow; I desire
that you may quickly bring your fortunes to the level of your
noble name, and be able to tell me I have contributed to your
advancement by something better than a wish. This secret
co-operation in your future is the only pleasure I can allow
myself. For it, I will wait and hope.
I do not say farewell. We are separated; you cannot put my hand to
your lips, but you must surely know the place you hold in the
heart of your
As I read this letter I felt the maternal heart beating beneath my
fingers which held the paper while I was still cold from the harsh
greeting of my own mother. I understood why the countess had forbidden
me to open it in Touraine; no doubt she feared that I would fall at
her feet and wet them with my tears.
I now made the acquaintance of my brother Charles, who up to this time
had been a stranger to me. But in all our intercourse he showed a
haughtiness which kept us apart and prevented brotherly affection.
Kindly feelings depend on similarity of soul, and there was no point
of touch between us. He preached to me dogmatically those social
trifles which head or heart can see without instruction; he seemed to
mistrust me. If I had not had the inward support of my great love he
would have made me awkward and stupid by affecting to believe that I
knew nothing of life. He presented me in society under the expectation
that my dulness would be a foil to his qualities. Had I not remembered
the sorrows of my childhood I might have taken his protecting vanity
for brotherly affection; but inward solitude produces the same effects
as outward solitude; silence within our souls enables us to hear the
faintest sound; the habit of taking refuge within ourselves develops a
perception which discerns every quality of the affections about us.
Before I knew Madame de Mortsauf a hard look grieved me, a rough word
wounded me to the heart; I bewailed these things without as yet
knowing anything of a life of tenderness; whereas now, since my return
from Clochegourde, I could make comparisons which perfected my
instinctive perceptions. All deductions derived only from sufferings
endured are incomplete. Happiness has a light to cast. I now allowed
myself the more willingly to be kept under the heel of primogeniture
because I was not my brother's dupe.
I always went alone to the Duchesse de Lenoncourt's, where Henriette's
name was never mentioned; no one, except the good old duke, who was
simplicity itself, ever spoke of her to me; but by the way he welcomed
me I guessed that his daughter had privately commended me to his care.
At the moment when I was beginning to overcome the foolish wonder and
shyness which besets a young man at his first entrance into the great
world, and to realize the pleasures it could give through the
resources it offers to ambition, just, too, as I was beginning to make
use of Henriette's maxims, admiring their wisdom, the events of the
20th of March took place.
My brother followed the court to Ghent; I, by Henriette's advice (for
I kept up a correspondence with her, active on my side only), went
there also with the Duc de Lenoncourt. The natural kindness of the old
duke turned to a hearty and sincere protection as soon as he saw me
attached, body and soul, to the Bourbons. He himself presented me to
his Majesty. Courtiers are not numerous when misfortunes are rife; but
youth is gifted with ingenuous admiration and uncalculating fidelity.
The king had the faculty of judging men; a devotion which might have
passed unobserved in Paris counted for much at Ghent, and I had the
happiness of pleasing Louis XVIII.
A letter from Madame de Mortsauf to her father, brought with
despatches by an emissary of the Vendeens, enclosed a note to me by
which I learned that Jacques was ill. Monsieur de Mortsauf, in despair
at his son's ill-health, and also at the news of a second emigration,
added a few words which enabled me to guess the situation of my dear
one. Worried by him, no doubt, when she passed all her time at
Jacques' bedside, allowed no rest either day or night, superior to
annoyance, yet unable always to control herself when her whole soul
was given to the care of her child, Henriette needed the support of a
friendship which might lighten the burden of her life, were it only by
diverting her husband's mind. Though I was now most impatient to rival
the career of my brother, who had lately been sent to the Congress of
Vienna, and was anxious at any risk to justify Henriette's appeal and
become a man myself, freed from all vassalage, nevertheless my
ambition, my desire for independence, the great interest I had in not
leaving the king, all were of no account before the vision of Madame
de Mortsauf's sad face. I resolved to leave the court at Ghent and
serve my true sovereign. God rewarded me. The emissary sent by the
Vendeens was unable to return. The king wanted a messenger who would
faithfully carry back his instructions. The Duc de Lenoncourt knew
that the king would never forget the man who undertook so perilous an
enterprise; he asked for the mission without consulting me, and I
gladly accepted it, happy indeed to be able to return to Clochegourde
employed in the good cause.
After an audience with the king I returned to France, where, both in
Paris and in Vendee, I was fortunate enough to carry out his Majesty's
instructions. Towards the end of May, being tracked by the Bonapartist
authorities to whom I was denounced, I was obliged to fly from place
to place in the character of a man endeavoring to get back to his
estate. I went on foot from park to park, from wood to wood, across
the whole of upper Vendee, the Bocage and Poitou, changing my
direction as danger threatened.
I reached Saumur, from Saumur I went to Chinon, and from Chinon I
reached, in a single night, the woods of Nueil, where I met the count
on horseback; he took me up behind him and we reached Clochegourde
without passing any one who recognized me.
"Jacques is better," were the first words he said to me.
I explained to him my position of diplomatic postman, hunted like a
wild beast, and the brave gentleman in his quality of royalist claimed
the danger over Chessel of receiving me. As we came in sight of
Clochegourde the past eight months rolled away like a dream. When we
entered the salon the count said: "Guess whom I bring you?--Felix!"
"Is it possible!" she said, with pendant arms and a bewildered face.
I showed myself and we both remained motionless; she in her armchair,
I on the threshold of the door; looking at each other with that hunger
of the soul which endeavors to make up in a single glance for the lost
months. Then, recovering from a surprise which left her heart
unveiled, she rose and I went up to her.
"I have prayed for your safety," she said, giving me her hand to kiss.
She asked news of her father; then she guessed my weariness and went
to prepare my room, while the count gave me something to eat, for I
was dying of hunger. My room was the one above hers, her aunt's room;
she requested the count to take me there, after setting her foot on
the first step of the staircase, deliberating no doubt whether to
accompany me; I turned my head, she blushed, bade me sleep well, and
went away. When I came down to dinner I heard for the first time of
the disasters at Waterloo, the flight of Napoleon, the march of the
Allies to Paris, and the probable return of the Bourbons. These events
were all in all to the count; to us they were nothing. What think you
was the great event I was to learn, after kissing the children?--for I
will not dwell on the alarm I felt at seeing the countess pale and
shrunken; I knew the injury I might do by showing it and was careful
to express only joy at seeing her. But the great event for us was told
in the words, "You shall have ice to-day!" She had often fretted the
year before that the water was not cold enough for me, who, never
drinking anything else, liked it iced. God knows how many entreaties
it had cost her to get an ice-house built. You know better than any
one that a word, a look, an inflection of the voice, a trifling
attention, suffices for love; love's noblest privilege is to prove
itself by love. Well, her words, her look, her pleasure, showed me her
feelings, as I had formerly shown her mine by that first game of
backgammon. These ingenuous proofs of her affection were many; on the
seventh day after my arrival she recovered her freshness, she sparkled
with health and youth and happiness; my lily expanded in beauty just
as the treasures of my heart increased. Only in petty minds or in
common hearts can absence lessen love or efface the features or
diminish the beauty of our dear one. To ardent imaginations, to all
beings through whose veins enthusiasm passes like a crimson tide, and
in whom passion takes the form of constancy, absence has the same
effect as the sufferings of the early Christians, which strengthened
their faith and made God visible to them. In hearts that abound in
love are there not incessant longings for a desired object, to which
the glowing fire of our dreams gives higher value and a deeper tint?
Are we not conscious of instigations which give to the beloved
features the beauty of the ideal by inspiring them with thought? The
past, dwelt on in all its details becomes magnified; the future teems
with hope. When two hearts filled with these electric clouds meet each
other, their interview is like the welcome storm which revives the
earth and stimulates it with the swift lightnings of the thunderbolt.
How many tender pleasures came to me when I found these thoughts and
these sensations reciprocal! With what glad eyes I followed the
development of happiness in Henriette! A woman who renews her life
from that of her beloved gives, perhaps, a greater proof of feeling
than she who dies killed by a doubt, withered on her stock for want of
sap; I know not which of the two is the more touching.
The revival of Madame de Mortsauf was wholly natural, like the effects
of the month of May upon the meadows, or those of the sun and of the
brook upon the drooping flowers. Henriette, like our dear valley of
love, had had her winter; she revived like the valley in the
springtime. Before dinner we went down to the beloved terrace. There,
with one hand stroking the head of her son, who walked feebly beside
her, silent, as though he were breeding an illness, she told me of her
nights beside his pillow.
For three months, she said, she had lived wholly within herself,
inhabiting, as it were, a dark palace; afraid to enter sumptuous rooms
where the light shone, where festivals were given, to her denied, at
the door of which she stood, one glance turned upon her child, another
to a dim and distant figure; one ear listening for moans, another for
a voice. She told me poems, born of solitude, such as no poet ever
sang; but all ingenuously, without one vestige of love, one trace of
voluptuous thought, one echo of a poesy orientally soothing as the
rose of Frangistan. When the count joined us she continued in the same
tone, like a woman secure within herself, able to look proudly at her
husband and kiss the forehead of her son without a blush. She had
prayed much; she had clasped her hands for nights together over her
child, refusing to let him die.
"I went," she said, "to the gate of the sanctuary and asked his life
She had had visions, and she told them to me; but when she said, in
that angelic voice of hers, these exquisite words, "While I slept my
heart watched," the count harshly interrupted her.
"That is to say, you were half crazy," he cried.
She was silent, as deeply hurt as though it were a first wound;
forgetting that for thirteen years this man had lost no chance to
shoot his arrows into her heart. Like a soaring bird struck on the
wing by vulgar shot, she sank into a dull depression; then she roused
"How is it, monsieur," she said, "that no word of mine ever finds
favor in your sight? Have you no indulgence for my weakness,--no
comprehension of me as a woman?"
She stopped short. Already she regretted the murmur, and measured the
future by the past; how could she expect comprehension? Had she not
drawn upon herself some virulent attack? The blue veins of her temples
throbbed; she shed no tears, but the color of her eyes faded. Then she
looked down, that she might not see her pain reflected on my face, her
feelings guessed, her soul wooed by my soul; above all, not see the
sympathy of young love, ready like a faithful dog to spring at the
throat of whoever threatened his mistress, without regard to the
assailant's strength or quality. At such cruel moments the count's air
of superiority was supreme. He thought he had triumphed over his wife,
and he pursued her with a hail of phrases which repeated the one idea,
and were like the blows of an axe which fell with unvarying sound.
"Always the same?" I said, when the count left us to follow the
huntsman who came to speak to him.
"Always," answered Jacques.
"Always excellent, my son," she said, endeavoring to withdraw Monsieur
de Mortsauf from the judgment of his children. "You see only the
present, you know nothing of the past; therefore you cannot criticise
your father without doing him injustice. But even if you had the pain
of seeing that your father was to blame, family honor requires you to
bury such secrets in silence."
"How have the changes at the Cassine and the Rhetoriere answered?" I
asked, to divert her mind from bitter thoughts.
"Beyond my expectations," she replied. "As soon as the buildings were
finished we found two excellent farmers ready to hire them; one at
four thousand five hundred francs, taxes paid; the other at five
thousand; both leases for fifteen years. We have already planted three
thousand young trees on the new farms. Manette's cousin is delighted
to get the Rabelaye; Martineau has taken the Baude. All OUR efforts
have been crowned with success. Clochegourde, without the reserved
land which we call the home-farm, and without the timber and
vineyards, brings in nineteen thousand francs a year, and the
plantations are becoming valuable. I am battling to let the home-farm
to Martineau, the keeper, whose eldest son can now take his place. He
offers three thousand francs if Monsieur de Mortsauf will build him a
farm-house at the Commanderie. We might then clear the approach to
Clochegourde, finish the proposed avenue to the main road, and have
only the woodland and the vineyards to take care of ourselves. If the
king returns, OUR pension will be restored; WE shall consent after
clashing a little with OUR wife's common-sense. Jacques' fortune will
then be permanently secured. That result obtained, I shall leave
monsieur to lay by as much as he likes for Madeleine, though the king
will of course dower her, according to custom. My conscience is easy;
I have all but accomplished my task. And you?" she said.
I explained to her the mission on which the king had sent me, and
showed her how her wise counsel had borne fruit. Was she endowed with
second sight thus to foretell events?
"Did I not write it to you?" she answered. "For you and for my
children alone I possess a remarkable faculty, of which I have spoken
only to my confessor, Monsieur de la Berge; he explains it by divine
intervention. Often, after deep meditation induced by fears about the
health of my children, my eyes close to the things of earth and see
into another region; if Jacques and Madeleine there appear to me as
two luminous figures they are sure to have good health for a certain
period of time; if wrapped in mist they are equally sure to fall ill
soon after. As for you, I not only see you brilliantly illuminated,
but I hear a voice which explains to me without words, by some mental
communication, what you ought to do. Does any law forbid me to use
this wonderful gift for my children and for you?" she asked, falling
into a reverie. Then, after a pause, she added, "Perhaps God wills to
take the place of their father."
"Let me believe that my obedience is due to none but you," I cried.
She gave me one of her exquisitely gracious smiles, which so exalted
my heart that I should not have felt a death-blow if given at that
"As soon as the king returns to Paris, go there; leave Clochegourde,"
she said. "It may be degrading to beg for places and favors, but it
would be ridiculous to be out of the way of receiving them. Great
changes will soon take place. The king needs capable and trustworthy
men; don't fail him. It is well for you to enter young into the
affairs of the nation and learn your way; for statesmen, like actors,
have a routine business to acquire, which genius does not reveal, it
must be learnt. My father heard the Duc de Choiseul say this. Think of
me," she said, after a pause; "let me enjoy the pleasures of
superiority in a soul that is all my own; for are you not my son?"
"Your son?" I said, sullenly.
"Yes, my son!" she cried, mocking me; "is not that a good place in my
The bell rang for dinner; she took my arm and leaned contentedly upon
"You have grown," she said, as we went up the steps. When we reached
the portico she shook my arm a little, as if my looks were
importunate; for though her eyes were lowered she knew that I saw only
her. Then she said, with a charming air of pretended impatience, full
of grace and coquetry, "Come, why don't you look at our dear valley?"
She turned, held her white silk sun-shade over our heads and drew
Jacques closely to her side. The motion of her head as she looked
towards the Indre, the punt, the meadows, showed me that in my absence
she had come to many an understanding with those misty horizons and
their vaporous outline. Nature was a mantle which sheltered her
thoughts. She now knew what the nightingale was sighing the livelong
night, what the songster of the sedges hymned with his plaintive note.
At eight o'clock that evening I was witness of a scene which touched
me deeply, and which I had never yet witnessed, for in my former
visits I had played backgammon with the count while his wife took the
children into the dining-room before their bedtime. The bell rang
twice, and all the servants of the household entered the room.
"You are now our guest and must submit to convent rule," said the
countess, leading me by the hand with that air of innocent gaiety
which distinguishes women who are naturally pious.
The count followed. Masters, children, and servants knelt down, all
taking their regular places. It was Madeleine's turn to read the
prayers. The dear child said them in her childish voice, the ingenuous
tones of which rose clear in the harmonious silence of the country,
and gave to the words the candor of holy innocence, the grace of
angels. It was the most affecting prayer I ever heard. Nature replied
to the child's voice with the myriad murmurs of the coming night, like
the low accompaniment of an organ lightly touched, Madeleine was on
the right of the countess, Jacques on her left. The graceful curly
heads, between which rose the smooth braids of the mother, and above
all three the perfectly white hair and yellow cranium of the father,
made a picture which repeated, in some sort, the ideas aroused by the
melody of the prayer. As if to fulfil all conditions of the unity
which marks the sublime, this calm and collected group were bathed in
the fading light of the setting sun; its red tints coloring the room,
impelling the soul--be it poetic or superstitious--to believe that the
fires of heaven were visiting these faithful servants of God as they
knelt there without distinction of rank, in the equality which heaven
demands. Thinking back to the days of the patriarchs my mind still
further magnified this scene, so grand in its simplicity.
The children said good-night, the servants bowed, the countess went
away holding a child by each hand, and I returned to the salon with
"We provide you with salvation there, and hell here," he said,
pointing to the backgammon-board.
The countess returned in half an hour, and brought her frame near the
"This is for you," she said, unrolling the canvas; "but for the last
three months it has languished. Between that rose and this heartsease
my poor child was ill."
"Come, come," said Monsieur de Mortsauf, "don't talk of that any more.
Six--five, emissary of the king!"
When alone in my room I hushed my breathing that I might hear her
passing to and fro in hers. She was calm and pure, but I was lashed
with maddening ideas. "Why should she not be mine?" I thought;
"perhaps she is, like me, in this whirlwind of agitation." At one
o'clock, I went down, walking noiselessly, and lay before her door.
With my ear pressed to a chink I could hear her equable, gentle
breathing, like that of a child. When chilled to the bone I went back
to bed and slept tranquilly till morning. I know not what prenatal
influence, what nature within me, causes the delight I take in going
to the brink of precipices, sounding the gulf of evil, seeking to know
its depths, feeling its icy chill, and retreating in deep emotion.
That hour of night passed on the threshold of her door where I wept
with rage,--though she never knew that on the morrow her foot had trod
upon my tears and kisses, on her virtue first destroyed and then
respected, cursed and adored,--that hour, foolish in the eyes of many,
was nevertheless an inspiration of the same mysterious impulse which
impels the soldier. Many have told me they have played their lives
upon it, flinging themselves before a battery to know if they could
escape the shot, happy in thus galloping into the abyss of
probabilities, and smoking like Jean Bart upon the gunpowder.
The next day I went to gather flowers and made two bouquets. The count
admired them, though generally nothing of the kind appealed to him.
The clever saying of Champcenetz, "He builds dungeons in Spain,"
seemed to have been made for him.
I spent several days at Clochegourde, going but seldom to Frapesle,
where, however, I dined three times. The French army now occupied
Tours. Though my presence was health and strength to Madame de
Mortsauf, she implored me to make my way to Chateauroux, and so round
by Issoudun and Orleans to Paris with what haste I could. I tried to
resist; but she commanded me, saying that my guardian angel spoke. I
obeyed. Our farewell was, this time, dim with tears; she feared the
allurements of the life I was about to live. Is it not a serious thing
to enter the maelstrom of interests, passions, and pleasures which
make Paris a dangerous ocean for chaste love and purity of conscience?
I promised to write to her every night, relating the events and
thoughts of the day, even the most trivial. When I gave the promise
she laid her head on my shoulder and said: "Leave nothing out;
everything will interest me."
She gave me letters for the duke and duchess, which I delivered the
second day after my return.
"You are in luck," said the duke; "dine here to-day, and go with me
this evening to the Chateau; your fortune is made. The king spoke of
you this morning, and said, 'He is young, capable, and trustworthy.'
His Majesty added that he wished he knew whether you were living or
dead, and in what part of France events had thrown you after you had
executed your mission so ably."
That night I was appointed master of petitions to the council of
State, and I also received a private and permanent place in the
employment of Louis XVIII. himself,--a confidential position, not
highly distinguished, but without any risks, a position which put me
at the very heart of the government and has been the source of all my
subsequent prosperity. Madame de Mortsauf had judged rightly. I now
owed everything to her; power and wealth, happiness and knowledge; she
guided and encouraged me, purified my heart, and gave to my will that
unity of purpose without which the powers of youth are wasted. Later I
had a colleague; we each served six months. We were allowed to supply
each other's place if necessary; we had rooms at the Chateau, a
carriage, and large allowances for travelling when absent on missions.
Strange position! We were the secret disciples of a monarch in a
policy to which even his enemies have since done signal justice; alone
with us he gave judgment on all things, foreign and domestic, yet we
had no legitimate influence; often we were consulted like Laforet by
Moliere, and made to feel that the hesitations of long experience were
confirmed or removed by the vigorous perceptions of youth.
In other respects my future was secured in a manner to satisfy
ambition. Beside my salary as master of petitions, paid by the budget
of the council of State, the king gave me a thousand francs a month
from his privy purse, and often himself added more to it. Though the
king knew well that no young man of twenty-three could long bear up
under the labors with which he loaded me, my colleague, now a peer of
France, was not appointed till August, 1817. The choice was a
difficult one; our functions demanded so many capabilities that the
king was long in coming to a decision. He did me the honor to ask
which of the young men among whom he was hesitating I should like for
an associate. Among them was one who had been my school-fellow at
Lepitre's; I did not select him. His Majesty asked why.
"The king," I replied, "chooses men who are equally faithful, but
whose capabilities differ. I choose the one whom I think the most
able, certain that I shall always be able to get on with him."
My judgment coincided with that of the king, who was pleased with the
sacrifice I had made. He said on this occasion, "You are to be the
chief"; and he related these circumstances to my colleague, who
became, in return for the service I had done him, my good friend. The
consideration shown to me by the Duc de Lenoncourt set the tone of
that which I met with in society. To have it said, "The king takes an
interest in the young man; that young man has a future, the king likes
him," would have served me in place of talents; and it now gave to the
kindly welcome accorded to youth a certain respect that is only given
to power. In the salon of the Duchesse de Lenoncourt and also at the
house of my sister who had just married the Marquis de Listomere, son
of the old lady in the Ile St. Louis, I gradually came to know the
influential personages of the Faubourg St. Germain.
Henriette herself put me at the heart of the circle then called "le
Petit Chateau" by the help of her great-aunt, the Princesse de
Blamont-Chauvry, to whom she wrote so warmly in my behalf that the
princess immediately sent for me. I cultivated her and contrived to
please her, and she became, not my protectress but a friend, in whose
kindness there was something maternal. The old lady took pains to make
me intimate with her daughter Madame d'Espard, with the Duchesse de
Langeais, the Vicomtesse de Beauseant, and the Duchesse de
Maufrigneuse, women who held the sceptre of fashion, and who were all
the more gracious to me because I made no pretensions and was always
ready to be useful and agreeable to them. My brother Charles, far from
avoiding me, now began to lean upon me; but my rapid success roused a
secret jealousy in his mind which in after years caused me great
vexation. My father and mother, surprised by a triumph so unexpected,
felt their vanity flattered, and received me at last as a son. But
their feeling was too artificial, I might say false, to let their
present treatment have much influence upon a sore heart. Affectations
stained with selfishness win little sympathy; the heart abhors
calculations and profits of all kinds.
I wrote regularly to Henriette, who answered by two letters a month.
Her spirit hovered over me, her thoughts traversed space and made the
atmosphere around me pure. No woman could captivate me. The king
noticed my reserve, and as, in this respect, he belonged to the school
of Louis XV., he called me, in jest, Mademoiselle de Vandenesse; but
my conduct pleased him. I am convinced that the habit of patience I
acquired in my childhood and practised at Clochegourde had much to do
in my winning the favor of the king, who was always most kind to me.
He no doubt took a fancy to read my letters, for he soon gave up his
notion of my life as that of a young girl. One day when the duke was
on duty, and I was writing at the king's dictation, the latter
suddenly remarked, in that fine, silvery voice of his, to which he
could give, when he chose, the biting tone of epigram:--
"So that poor devil of a Mortsauf persists in living?"
"Yes," replied the duke.
"Madame de Mortsauf is an angel, whom I should like to see at my
court," continued the king; "but if I cannot manage it, my chancellor
here," turning to me, "may be more fortunate. You are to have six
months' leave; I have decided on giving you the young man we spoke of
yesterday as colleague. Amuse yourself at Clochegourde, friend Cato!"
and he laughed as he had himself wheeled out of the room.
I flew like a swallow to Touraine. For the first time I was to show
myself to my beloved, not merely a little less insignificant, but
actually in the guise of an elegant young man, whose manners had been
formed in the best salons, his education finished by gracious women;
who had found at last a compensation for all his sufferings, and had
put to use the experience given to him by the purest angel to whom
heaven had ever committed the care of a child. You know how my mother
had equipped me for my three months' visit at Frapesle. When I reached
Clochegourde after fulfilling my mission in Vendee, I was dressed like
a huntsman; I wore a jacket with white and red buttons, striped
trousers, leathern gaiters and shoes. Tramping through underbrush had
so injured my clothes that the count was obliged to lend me linen. On
the present occasion, two years' residence in Paris, constant
intercourse with the king, the habits of a life at ease, my completed
growth, a youthful countenance, which derived a lustre from the
placidity of the soul within magnetically united with the pure soul
that beamed on me from Clochegourde,--all these things combined had
transformed me. I was self-possessed without conceit, inwardly pleased
to find myself, in spite of my years, at the summit of affairs; above
all, I had the consciousness of being secretly the support and comfort
of the dearest woman on earth, and her unuttered hope. Perhaps I felt
a flutter of vanity as the postilions cracked their whips along the
new avenue leading from the main road to Clochegourde and through an
iron gate I had never seen before, which opened into a circular
enclosure recently constructed. I had not written to the countess of
my coming, wishing to surprise her. For this I found myself doubly in
fault: first, she was overwhelmed with the excitement of a pleasure
long desired, but supposed to be impossible; and secondly, she proved
to me that all such deliberate surprises are in bad taste.
When Henriette saw a young man in him who had hitherto seemed but a
child to her, she lowered her eyes with a sort of tragic slowness. She
allowed me to take and kiss her hand without betraying her inward
pleasure, which I nevertheless felt in her sensitive shiver. When she
raised her face to look at me again, I saw that she was pale.
"Well, you don't forget your old friends?" said Monsieur de Mortsauf,
who had neither changed nor aged.
The children sprang upon me. I saw them behind the grave face of the
Abbe Dominis, Jacques' tutor.
"No," I replied, "and in future I am to have six months' leave, which
will always be spent here--Why, what is the matter?" I said to the
countess, putting my arm round her waist and holding her up in
presence of them all.
"Oh, don't!" she said, springing away from me; "it is nothing."
I read her mind, and answered to its secret thought by saying, "Am I
not allowed to be your faithful slave?"
She took my arm, left the count, the children, and the abbe, and led
me to a distance on the lawn, though still within sight of the others;
then, when sure that her voice could not be heard by them, she spoke.
"Felix, my dear friend," she said, "forgive my fears; I have but one
thread by which to guide me in the labyrinth of life, and I dread to
see it broken. Tell me that I am more than ever Henriette to you, that
you will never abandon me, that nothing shall prevail against me, that
you will ever be my devoted friend. I have suddenly had a glimpse into
my future, and you were not there, as hitherto, your eyes shining and
fixed upon me--"
"Henriette! idol whose worship is like that of the Divine,--lily,
flower of my life, how is it that you do not know, you who are my
conscience, that my being is so fused with yours that my soul is here
when my body is in Paris? Must I tell you that I have come in
seventeen hours, that each turn of the wheels gathered thoughts and
desires in my breast, which burst forth like a tempest when I saw
"Yes, tell me! tell me!" she cried; "I am so sure of myself that I can
hear you without wrong. God does not will my death. He sends you to me
as he sends his breath to his creatures; as he pours the rain of his
clouds upon a parched earth,--tell me! tell me! Do you love me
"As a virgin Mary, hidden behind her veil, beneath her white crown."
"As a virgin visible."
"As a sister?"
"As a sister too dearly loved."
"With chivalry and without hope?"
"With chivalry and with hope."
"As if you were still twenty years of age, and wearing that absurd
"Oh better far! I love you thus, and I also love you"--she looked at
me with keen apprehension--"as you loved your aunt."
"I am happy! You dispel my terrors," she said, returning towards the
family, who were surprised at our private conference. "Be still a
child at Clochegourde--for you are one still. It may be your policy to
be a man with the king, but here, let me tell you, monsieur, your best
policy is to remain a child. As a child you shall be loved. I can
resist a man, but to a child I can refuse nothing, nothing! He can ask
for nothing I will not give him.--Our secrets are all told," she said,
looking at the count with a mischievous air, in which her girlish,
natural self reappeared. "I leave you now; I must go and dress."
Never for three years had I heard her voice so richly happy. For the
first time I heard those swallow cries, the infantile notes of which I
told you. I had brought Jacques a hunting outfit, and for Madeleine a
work-box--which her mother afterwards used. The joy of the two
children, delighted to show their presents to each other, seemed to
annoy the count, always dissatisfied when attention was withdrawn from
himself. I made a sign to Madeleine and followed her father, who
wanted to talk to me of his ailments.
"My poor Felix," he said, "you see how happy and well they all are. I
am the shadow on the picture; all their ills are transferred to me,
and I bless God that it is so. Formerly I did not know what was the
matter with me; now I know. The orifice of my stomach is affected; I
can digest nothing."
"How do you come to be as wise as the professor of a medical school?"
I asked, laughing. "Is your doctor indiscreet enough to tell you such
"God forbid I should consult a doctor," he cried, showing the aversion
most imaginary invalids feel for the medical profession.
I now listened to much crazy talk, in the course of which he made the
most absurd confidences,--complained of his wife, of the servants, of
the children, of life, evidently pleased to repeat his daily speeches
to a friend who, not having heard them daily, might be alarmed, and
who at any rate was forced to listen out of politeness. He must have
been satisfied, for I paid him the utmost attention, trying to
penetrate his inconceivable nature, and to guess what new tortures he
had been inflicting on his wife, of which she had not written to me.
Henriette presently put an end to the monologue by appearing in the
portico. The count saw her, shook his head, and said to me: "You
listen to me, Felix; but here no one pities me."
He went away, as if aware of the constraint he imposed on my
intercourse with Henriette, or perhaps from a really chivalrous
consideration for her, knowing he could give her pleasure by leaving
us alone. His character exhibited contradictions that were often
inexplicable; he was jealous, like all weak beings, but his confidence
in his wife's sanctity was boundless. It may have been the sufferings
of his own self-esteem, wounded by the superiority of that lofty
virtue, which made him so eager to oppose every wish of the poor
woman, whom he braved as children brave their masters or their
Jacques was taking his lessons, and Madeleine was being dressed; I had
therefore a whole hour to walk with the countess alone on the terrace.
"Dear angel!" I said, "the chains are heavier, the sands hotter, the
thorns grow apace."
"Hush!" she said, guessing the thoughts my conversation with the count
had suggested. "You are here, and all is forgotten! I don't suffer; I
have never suffered."
She made a few light steps as if to shake her dress and give to the
breeze its ruches of snowy tulle, its floating sleeves and fresh
ribbons, the laces of her pelerine, and the flowing curls of her
coiffure a la Sevigne; I saw her for the first time a young girl,--gay
with her natural gaiety, ready to frolic like a child. I knew then the
meaning of tears of happiness; I knew the joy a man feels in bringing
happiness to another.
"Sweet human flower, wooed by my thought, kissed by my soul, oh my
lily!" I cried, "untouched, untouchable upon thy stem, white, proud,
fragrant, and solitary--"
"Enough, enough," she said, smiling. "Speak to me of yourself; tell me
Then, beneath the swaying arch of quivering leaves, we had a long
conversation, filled with interminable parentheses, subjects taken,
dropped, and retaken, in which I told her my life and my occupations;
I even described my apartment in Paris, for she wished to know
everything; and (happiness then unappreciated) I had nothing to
conceal. Knowing thus my soul and all the details of a daily life full
of incessant toil, learning the full extent of my functions, which to
any one not sternly upright offered opportunities for deception and
dishonest gains, but which I had exercised with such rigid honor that
the king, I told her, called me Mademoiselle de Vandenesse, she seized
my hand and kissed it, and dropped a tear, a tear of joy, upon it.
This sudden transposition of our roles, this homage, coupled with the
thought--swiftly expressed but as swiftly comprehended--"Here is the
master I have sought, here is my dream embodied!" all that there was
of avowal in the action, grand in its humility, where love betrayed
itself in a region forbidden to the senses,--this whirlwind of
celestial things fell on my heart and crushed it. I felt myself too
small; I wished to die at her feet.
"Ah!" I said, "you surpass us in all things. Can you doubt me?--for
you did doubt me just now, Henriette."
"Not now," she answered, looking at me with ineffable tenderness,
which, for a moment, veiled the light of her eyes. "But seeing you so
changed, so handsome, I said to myself, 'Our plans for Madeleine will
be defeated by some woman who will guess the treasures in his heart;
she will steal our Felix, and destroy all happiness here.'"
"Always Madeleine!" I replied. "Is it Madeleine to whom I am
We fell into a silence which Monsieur de Mortsauf inconveniently
interrupted. I was forced to keep up a conversation bristling with
difficulties, in which my honest replies as to the king's policy
jarred with the count's ideas, and he forced me to explain again and
again the king's intentions. In spite of all my questions as to his
horses, his agricultural affairs, whether he was satisfied with his
five farms, whether he meant to cut the timber of the old avenue, he
returned to the subject of politics with the pestering faculty of an
old maid and the persistency of a child. Minds like his prefer to dash
themselves against the light; they return again and again and hum
about it without ever getting into it, like those big flies which
weary our ears as they buzz upon the glass.
Henriette was silent. To stop the conversation, in which I feared my
young blood might take fire, I answered in monosyllables, mostly
acquiescent, avoiding discussion; but Monsieur de Mortsauf had too
much sense not to perceive the meaning of my politeness. Presently he
was angry at being always in the right; he grew refractory, his
eyebrows and the wrinkles of his forehead worked, his yellow eyes
blazed, his rufous nose grew redder, as it did on the day I first
witnessed an attack of madness. Henriette gave me a supplicating look,
making me understand that she could not employ on my behalf an
authority to which she had recourse to protect her children. I at once
answered the count seriously, taking up the political question, and
managing his peevish spirit with the utmost care.
"Poor dear! poor dear!" she murmured two or three times; the words
reaching my ear like a gentle breeze. When she could intervene with
success she said, interrupting us, "Let me tell you, gentlemen, that
you are very dull company."
Recalled by this conversation to his chivalrous sense of what was due
to a woman, the count ceased to talk politics, and as we bored him in
our turn by commonplace matters, he presently left us to continue our
walk, declaring that it made his head spin to go round and round on
the same path.
My sad conjectures were true. The soft landscape, the warm atmosphere,
the cloudless skies, the soothing poetry of this valley, which for
fifteen years had calmed the stinging fancies of that diseased mind,
were now impotent. At a period of life when the asperities of other
men are softened and their angles smoothed, the disposition of this
man became more and more aggressive. For the last few months he had
taken a habit of contradicting for the sake of contradiction, without
reason, without even trying to justify his opinions; he insisted on
knowing the why and the wherefore of everything; grew restless under a
delay or an omission; meddled with every item of the household
affairs, and compelled his wife and the servants to render him the
most minute and fatiguing account of all that was done; never allowing
them the slightest freedom of action. Formerly he did not lose his
temper except for some special reason; now his irritation was
constant. Perhaps the care of his farms, the interests of agriculture,
an active out-door life had formerly soothed his atrabilious temper by
giving it a field for its uneasiness, and by furnishing employment for
his activity. Possibly the loss of such occupation had allowed his
malady to prey upon itself; no longer exercised on matters without, it
was showing itself in more fixed ideas; the moral being was laying
hold of the physical being. He had lately become his own doctor; he
studied medical books, fancied he had the diseases he read of, and
took the most extraordinary and unheard of precautions about his
health,--precautions never the same, impossible to foresee, and
consequently impossible to satisfy. Sometimes he wanted no noise;
then, when the countess had succeeded in establishing absolute
silence, he would declare he was in a tomb, and blame her for not
finding some medium between incessant noise and the stillness of La
Trappe. Sometimes he affected a perfect indifference for all earthly
things. Then the whole household breathed freely; the children played;
family affairs went on without criticism. Suddenly he would cry out
lamentably, "They want to kill me!--My dear," he would say to his
wife, increasing the injustice of his words by the aggravating tones
of his sharp voice, "if it concerned your children you would know very
well what was the matter with them."
He dressed and re-dressed himself incessantly, watching every change
of temperature, and doing nothing without consulting the barometer.
Notwithstanding his wife's attentions, he found no food to suit him,
his stomach being, he said, impaired, and digestion so painful as to
keep him awake all night. In spite of this he ate, drank, digested,
and slept, in a manner to satisfy any doctor. His capricious will
exhausted the patience of the servants, accustomed to the beaten track
of domestic service and unable to conform to the requirements of his
conflicting orders. Sometimes he bade them keep all the windows open,
declaring that his health required a current of fresh air; a few days
later the fresh air, being too hot or too damp, as the case might be,
became intolerable; then he scolded, quarrelled with the servants, and
in order to justify himself, denied his former orders. This defect of
memory, or this bad faith, call it which you will, always carried the
day against his wife in the arguments by which she tried to pit him
against himself. Life at Clochegourde had become so intolerable that
the Abbe Dominis, a man of great learning, took refuge in the study of
scientific problems, and withdrew into the shelter of pretended
abstraction. The countess had no longer any hope of hiding the secret
of these insane furies within the circle of her own home; the servants
had witnessed scenes of exasperation without exciting cause, in which
the premature old man passed the bounds of reason. They were, however,
so devoted to the countess that nothing so far had transpired outside;
but she dreaded daily some public outburst of a frenzy no longer
controlled by respect for opinion.
Later I learned the dreadful details of the count's treatment of his
wife. Instead of supporting her when the children were ill, he
assailed her with dark predictions and made her responsible for all
future illnesses, because she refused to let the children take the
crazy doses which he prescribed. When she went to walk with them the
count would predict a storm in the face of a clear sky; if by chance
the prediction proved true, the satisfaction he felt made him quite
indifferent to any harm to the children. If one of them was ailing,
the count gave his whole mind to fastening the cause of the illness
upon the system of nursing adopted by his wife, whom he carped at for
every trifling detail, always ending with the cruel words, "If your
children fall ill again you have only yourself to thank for it."
He behaved in the same way in the management of the household, seeing
the worst side of everything, and making himself, as his old coachman
said, "the devil's own advocate." The countess arranged that Jacques
and Madeleine should take their meals alone at different hours from
the family, so as to save them from the count's outbursts and draw all
the storms upon herself. In this way the children now saw but little
of their father. By one of the hallucinations peculiar to selfish
persons, the count had not the slightest idea of the misery he caused.
In the confidential communication he made to me on my arrival he
particularly dwelt on his goodness to his family. He wielded the
flail, beat, bruised, and broke everything about him as a monkey might
have done. Then, having half-destroyed his prey, he denied having
touched it. I now understood the lines on Henriette's forehead,--fine
lines, traced as it were with the edge of a razor, which I had noticed
the moment I saw her. There is a pudicity in noble minds which
withholds them from speaking of their personal sufferings; proudly
they hide the extent of their woes from hearts that love them, feeling
a merciful joy in doing so. Therefore in spite of my urgency, I did
not immediately obtain the truth from Henriette. She feared to grieve
me; she made brief admissions, and then blushed for them; but I soon
perceived myself the increase of trouble which the count's present
want of regular occupation had brought upon the household.
"Henriette," I said, after I had been there some days, "don't you
think you have made a mistake in so arranging the estate that the
count has no longer anything to do?"
"Dear," she said, smiling, "my situation is critical enough to take
all my attention; believe me, I have considered all my resources, and
they are now exhausted. It is true that the bickerings are getting
worse and worse. As Monsieur de Mortsauf and I are always together, I
cannot lessen them by diverting his attention in other directions; in
fact the pain would be the same to me in any case. I did think of
advising him to start a nursery for silk-worms at Clochegourde, where
we have many mulberry-trees, remains of the old industry of Touraine.
But I reflected that he would still be the same tyrant at home, and I
should have many more annoyances through the enterprise. You will
learn, my dear observer, that in youth a man's ill qualities are
restrained by society, checked in their swing by the play of passions,
subdued under the fear of public opinion; later, a middle-aged man,
living in solitude, shows his native defects, which are all the more
terrible because so long repressed. Human weaknesses are essentially
base; they allow of neither peace nor truce; what you yield to them
to-day they exact to-morrow, and always; they fasten on concessions
and compel more of them. Power, on the other hand, is merciful; it
conforms to evidence, it is just and it is peaceable. But the passions
born of weakness are implacable. Monsieur de Mortsauf takes an
absolute pleasure in getting the better of me; and he who would
deceive no one else, deceives me with delight."
One morning as we left the breakfast table, about a month after my
arrival, the countess took me by the arm, darted through an iron gate
which led into the vineyard, and dragged me hastily among the vines.
"He will kill me!" she cried. "And I want to live--for my children's
sake. But oh! not a day's respite! Always to walk among thorns! to
come near falling every instant! every instant to have to summon all
my strength to keep my balance! No human being can long endure such
strain upon the system. If I were certain of the ground I ought to
take, if my resistance could be a settled thing, then my mind might
concentrate upon it--but no, every day the attacks change character
and leave me without defence; my sorrows are not one, they are
manifold. Ah! my friend--" she cried, leaning her head upon my
shoulder, and not continuing her confidence. "What will become of me?
Oh, what shall I do?" she said presently, struggling with thoughts she
did not express. "How can I resist? He will kill me! No, I will kill
myself--but that would be a crime! Escape? yes, but my children!
Separate from him? how, after fifteen years of marriage, how could I
ever tell my parents that I will not live with him? for if my father
and mother came here he would be calm, polite, intelligent, judicious.
Besides, can married women look to fathers or mothers? Do they not
belong body and soul to their husbands? I could live tranquil if not
happy--I have found strength in my chaste solitude, I admit it; but if
I am deprived of this negative happiness I too shall become insane. My
resistance is based on powerful reasons which are not personal to
myself. It is a crime to give birth to poor creatures condemned to
endless suffering. Yet my position raises serious questions, so
serious that I dare not decide them alone; I cannot be judge and party
both. To-morrow I will go to Tours and consult my new confessor, the
Abbe Birotteau--for my dear and virtuous Abbe de la Berge is dead,"
she said, interrupting herself. "Though he was severe, I miss and
shall always miss his apostolic power. His successor is an angel of
goodness, who pities but does not reprimand. Still, all courage draws
fresh life from the heart of religion; what soul is not strengthened
by the voice of the Holy Spirit? My God," she said, drying her tears
and raising her eyes to heaven, "for what sin am I thus punished?--I
believe, yes, Felix, I believe it, we must pass through a fiery
furnace before we reach the saints, the just made perfect of the upper
spheres. Must I keep silence? Am I forbidden, oh, my God, to cry to
the heart of a friend? Do I love him too well?" She pressed me to her
heart as though she feared to lose me. "Who will solve my doubts? My
conscience does not reproach me. The stars shine from above on men;
may not the soul, the human star, shed its light upon a friend, if we
go to him with pure thoughts?"
I listened to this dreadful cry in silence, holding her moist hand in
mine that was still more moist. I pressed it with a force to which
Henriette replied with an equal pressure.
"Where are you?" cried the count, who came towards us, bareheaded.
Ever since my return he had insisted on sharing our interviews,--
either because he wanted amusement, or feared the countess would tell
me her sorrows and complain to me, or because he was jealous of a
pleasure he did not share.
"How he follows me!" she cried, in a tone of despair. "Let us go into
the orchard, we shall escape him. We can stoop as we run by the hedge,
and he will not see us."
We made the hedge a rampart and reached the enclosure, where we were
soon at a good distance from the count in an alley of almond-trees.
"Dear Henriette," I then said to her, pressing her arm against my
heart and stopping to contemplate her in her sorrow, "you have guided
me with true knowledge along the perilous ways of the great world; let
me in return give you some advice which may help you to end this duel
without witnesses, in which you must inevitably be worsted, for you
are fighting with unequal weapons. You must not struggle any longer
with a madman--"
"Hush!" she said, dashing aside the tears that rolled from her eyes.
"Listen to me, dear," I continued. "After a single hour's talk with
the count, which I force myself to endure for love of you, my thoughts
are bewildered, my head heavy; he makes me doubtful of my own
intellect; the same ideas repeated over and over again seem to burn
themselves on my brain. Well-defined monomanias are not communicated;
but when the madness consists in a distorted way of looking at
everything, and when it lurks under all discussions, then it can and
does injure the minds of those who live with it. Your patience is
sublime, but will it not end in disordering you? For your sake, for
that of your children, change your system with the count. Your
adorable kindness has made him selfish; you have treated him as a
mother treats the child she spoils; but now, if you want to live--and
you do want it," I said, looking at her, "use the control you have
over him. You know what it is; he loves you and he fears you; make him
fear you more; oppose his erratic will with your firm will. Extend
your power over him, confine his madness to a moral sphere just as we
lock maniacs in a cell."
"Dear child," she said, smiling bitterly, "a woman without a heart
might do it. But I am a mother; I should make a poor jailer. Yes, I
can suffer, but I cannot make others suffer. Never!" she said, "never!
not even to obtain some great and honorable result. Besides, I should
have to lie in my heart, disguise my voice, lower my head, degrade my
gesture--do not ask of me such falsehoods. I can stand between
Monsieur de Mortsauf and his children, I willingly receive his blows
that they may not fall on others; I can do all that, and will do it to
conciliate conflicting interests, but I can do no more."
"Let me worship thee, O saint, thrice holy!" I exclaimed, kneeling at
her feet and kissing her robe, with which I wiped my tears. "But if he
kills you?" I cried.
She turned pale and said, lifting her eyes to heaven:
"God's will be done!"
"Do you know that the king said to your father, 'So that devil of a
Mortsauf is still living'?"
"A jest on the lips of the king," she said, "is a crime when repeated
In spite of our precautions the count had tracked us; he now arrived,
bathed in perspiration, and sat down under a walnut-tree where the
countess had stopped to give me that rebuke. I began to talk about the
vintage; the count was silent, taking no notice of the dampness under
the tree. After a few insignificant remarks, interspersed with pauses
that were very significant, he complained of nausea and headache; but
he spoke gently, and did not appeal to our pity, or describe his
sufferings in his usual exaggerated way. We paid no attention to him.
When we reached the house, he said he felt worse and should go to bed;
which he did, quite naturally and with much less complaint than usual.
We took advantage of the respite and went down to our dear terrace
accompanied by Madeleine.
"Let us get that boat and go upon the river," said the countess after
we had made a few turns. "We might go and look at the fishing which is
going on to-day."
We went out by the little gate, found the punt, jumped into it and
were presently paddling up the Loire. Like three children amused with
trifles, we looked at the sedges along the banks and the blue and
green dragon-flies; the countess wondered perhaps that she was able to
enjoy such peaceful pleasures in the midst of her poignant griefs; but
Nature's calm, indifferent to our struggles, has a magic gift of
consolation. The tumults of a love full of restrained desires
harmonize with the wash of the water; the flowers that the hand of man
has never wilted are the voice of his secret dreams; the voluptuous
swaying of the boat vaguely responds to the thoughts that are floating
in his soul. We felt the languid influence of this double poesy.
Words, tuned to the diapason of nature, disclosed mysterious graces;
looks were impassioned rays sharing the light shed broadcast by the
sun on the glowing meadows. The river was a path along which we flew.
Our spirit, no longer kept down by the measured tread of our
footsteps, took possession of the universe. The abounding joy of a
child at liberty, graceful in its motions, enticing in its play, is
the living expression of two freed souls, delighting themselves by
becoming ideally the wondrous being dreamed of by Plato and known to
all whose youth has been filled with a blessed love. To describe to
you that hour, not in its indescribable details but in its essence, I
must say to you that we loved each other in all the creations animate
and inanimate which surrounded us; we felt without us the happiness
our own hearts craved; it so penetrated our being that the countess
took off her gloves and let her hands float in the water as if to cool
an inward ardor. Her eyes spoke; but her mouth, opening like a rose to
the breeze, gave voice to no desire. You know the harmony of deep
tones mingling perfectly with high ones? Ever, when I hear it now, it
recalls to me the harmony of our two souls in this one hour, which
never came again.
"Where do you fish?" I asked, "if you can only do so from the banks
"Near Pont-de-Ruan," she replied. "Ah! we now own the river from Pont-
de-Ruan to Clochegourde; Monsieur de Mortsauf has lately bought forty
acres of the meadow lands with the savings of two years and the
arrearage of his pension. Does that surprise you?"
"Surprise me?" I cried; "I would that all the valley were yours." She
answered me with a smile. Presently we came below the bridge to a
place where the Indre widens and where the fishing was going on.
"Well, Martineau?" she said.
"Ah, Madame la comtesse, such bad luck! We have fished up from the
mill the last three hours, and have taken nothing."
We landed near them to watch the drawing in of the last net, and all
three of us sat down in the shade of a "bouillard," a sort of poplar
with a white bark, which grows on the banks of the Danube and the
Loire (probably on those of other large rivers), and sheds, in the
spring of the year, a white and silky fluff, the covering of its
flower. The countess had recovered her august serenity; she half
regretted the unveiling of her griefs, and mourned that she had cried
aloud like Job, instead of weeping like the Magdalen,--a Magdalen
without loves, or galas, or prodigalities, but not without beauty and
fragrance. The net came in at her feet full of fish; tench, barbels,
pike, perch, and an enormous carp, which floundered about on the
"Madame brings luck!" exclaimed the keeper.
All the laborers opened their eyes as they looked with admiration at
the woman whose fairy wand seemed to have touched the nets. Just then
the huntsman was seen urging his horse over the meadows at a full
gallop. Fear took possession of her. Jacques was not with us, and the
mother's first thought, as Virgil so poetically says, is to press her
children to her breast when danger threatens.
"Jacques! Where is Jacques? What has happened to my boy?"
She did not love me! If she had loved me I should have seen upon her
face when confronted with my sufferings that expression of a lioness
"Madame la comtesse, Monsieur le comte is worse."
She breathed more freely and started to run towards Clochegourde,
followed by me and by Madeleine.
"Follow me slowly," she said, looking back; "don't let the dear child
overheat herself. You see how it is; Monsieur de Mortsauf took that
walk in the sun which put him into a perspiration, and sitting under
the walnut-tree may be the cause of a great misfortune."
The words, said in the midst of her agitation, showed plainly the
purity of her soul. The death of the count a misfortune! She reached
Clochegourde with great rapidity, passing through a gap in the wall
and crossing the fields. I returned slowly. Henriette's words lighted
my mind, but as the lightning falls and blasts the gathered harvest.
On the river I had fancied I was her chosen one; now I felt bitterly
the sincerity of her words. The lover who is not everything is
nothing. I loved with the desire of a love that knows what it seeks;
which feeds in advance on coming transports, and is content with the
pleasures of the soul because it mingles with them others which the
future keeps in store. If Henriette loved, it was certain that she
knew neither the pleasures of love nor its tumults. She lived by
feelings only, like a saint with God. I was the object on which her
thoughts fastened as bees swarm upon the branch of a flowering tree.
In my mad jealousy I reproached myself that I had dared nothing, that
I had not tightened the bonds of a tenderness which seemed to me at
that moment more subtile than real, by the chains of positive
The count's illness, caused perhaps by a chill under the walnut-tree,
became alarming in a few hours. I went to Tours for a famous doctor
named Origet, but was unable to find him until evening. He spent that
night and the next day at Clochegourde. We had sent the huntsman in
quest of leeches, but the doctor, thinking the case urgent, wished to
bleed the count immediately, but had brought no lancet with him. I at
once started for Azay in the midst of a storm, roused a surgeon,
Monsieur Deslandes, and compelled him to come with the utmost celerity
to Clochegourde. Ten minutes later and the count would have died; the
bleeding saved him. But in spite of this preliminary success the
doctor predicted an inflammatory fever of the worst kind. The countess
was overcome by the fear that she was the secret cause of this crisis.
Two weak to thank me for my exertions, she merely gave me a few
smiles, the equivalent of the kiss she had once laid upon my hand.
Fain would I have seen in those haggard smiles the remorse of illicit
love; but no, they were only the act of contrition of an innocent
repentance, painful to see in one so pure, the expression of admiring
tenderness for me whom she regarded as noble while reproaching herself
for an imaginary wrong. Surely she loved as Laura loved Petrarch, and
not as Francesca da Rimini loved Paolo,--a terrible discovery for him
who had dreamed the union of the two loves.
The countess half lay, her body bent forwards, her arms hanging, in a
soiled armchair in a room that was like the lair of a wild boar. The
next evening before the doctor departed he said to the countess, who
had sat up the night before, that she must get a nurse, as the illness
would be a long one.
"A nurse!" she said; "no, no! We will take care of him," she added,
looking at me; "we owe it to ourselves to save him."
The doctor gave us both an observing look full of astonishment. The
words were of a nature to make him suspect an atonement. He promised
to come twice a week, left directions for the treatment with Monsieur
Deslandes, and pointed out the threatening symptoms that might oblige
us to send for him. I asked the countess to let me sit up the
alternate nights and then, not without difficulty, I persuaded her to
go to bed on the third night. When the house was still and the count
sleeping I heard a groan from Henriette's room. My anxiety was so keen
that I went to her. She was kneeling before the crucifix bathed in
tears. "My God!" she cried; "if this be the cost of a murmur, I will
never complain again."
"You have left him!" she said on seeing me.
"I heard you moaning, and I was frightened."
"Oh, I!" she said; "I am well."
Wishing to be certain that Monsieur de Mortsauf was asleep she came
down with me; by the light of the lamp we looked at him. The count was
weakened by the loss of blood and was more drowsy than asleep; his
hands picked the counterpane and tried to draw it over him.
"They say the dying do that," she whispered. "Ah! if he were to die of
this illness, that I have caused, never will I marry again, I swear
it," she said, stretching her hand over his head with a solemn
"I have done all I could to save him," I said.
"Oh, you!" she said, "you are good; it is I who am guilty."
She stooped to that discolored brow, wiped the perspiration from it
and laid a kiss there solemnly; but I saw, not without joy, that she
did it as an expiation.
"Blanche, I am thirsty," said the count in a feeble voice.
Back to Full Books