Beatrix, by Honoré de Balzac

XII

Correspondence

When Calyste reached home, he did not leave his room until dinner time; and after dinner he went back to it. At ten o’clock his mother, uneasy at his absence, went to look for him, and found him writing in the midst of a pile of blotted and half-torn paper. He was writing to Beatrix, for distrust of Camille had come into his mind. The air and manner of the marquise during their brief interview in the garden had singularly encouraged him.

No first love-letter ever was or ever will be, as may readily be supposed, a brilliant effort of the mind. In all young men not tainted by corruption such a letter is written with gushings from the heart, too overflowing, too multifarious not to be the essence, the elixir of many other letters begun, rejected, and rewritten.

Here is the one that Calyste finally composed and which he read aloud to his poor, astonished mother. To her the old mansion seemed to have taken fire; this love of her son flamed up in it like the glare of a conflagration.

Calyste to Madame la Marquise de Rochefide.

Madame — I loved you when you were to me but a dream; judge, therefore, of the force my love acquired when I saw you. The dream was far surpassed by the reality. It is my grief and my misfortune to have nothing to say to you that you do not know already of your beauty and your charms; and yet, perhaps, they have awakened in no other heart so deep a sentiment as they have in me.

In so many ways you are beautiful; I have studied you so much while thinking of you day and night that I have penetrated the mysteries of your being, the secrets of your heart, and your delicacy, so little appreciated. Have you ever been loved, understood, adored as you deserve to be?

Let me tell you now that there is not a trait in your nature which my heart does not interpret; your pride is understood by mine; the grandeur of your glance, the grace of your bearing, the distinction of your movements — all things about your person are in harmony with the thoughts, the hopes, the desires hidden in the depths of your soul; it is because I have divined them all that I think myself worthy of your notice. If I had not become, within the last few days, another yourself, I could not speak to you of myself; this letter, indeed, relates far more to you than it does to me.

Beatrix, in order to write to you, I have silenced my youth, I have laid aside myself, I have aged my thoughts — or, rather, it is you who have aged them, by this week of dreadful sufferings caused, innocently indeed, by you.

Do not think me one of those common lovers at whom I have heard you laugh so justly. What merit is there in loving a young and beautiful and wise and noble woman. Alas! I have no merit! What can I be to you? A child, attracted by effulgence of beauty and by moral grandeur, as the insects are attracted to the light. You cannot do otherwise than tread upon the flowers of my soul; they are there at your feet, and all my happiness consists in your stepping on them.

Absolute devotion, unbounded faith, love unquenchable — all these treasures of a true and tender heart are nothing, nothing! they serve only to love with, they cannot win the love we crave. Sometimes I do not understand why a worship so ardent does not warm its idol; and when I meet your eye, so cold, so stern, I turn to ice within me. Your disdain, that is the acting force between us, not my worship. Why? You cannot hate me as much as I love you; why, then, does the weaker feeling rule the stronger? I loved Felicite with all the powers of my heart; yet I forgot her in a day, in a moment, when I saw you. She was my error; you are my truth.

You have, unknowingly, destroyed my happiness, and yet you owe me nothing in return. I loved Camille without hope, and I have no hope from you; nothing is changed but my divinity. I was a pagan; I am now a Christian, that is all —

Except this: you have taught me that to love is the greatest of all joys; the joy of being loved comes later. According to Camille, it is not loving to love for a short time only; the love that does not grow from day to day, from hour to hour, is a mere wretched passion. In order to grow, love must not see its end; and she saw the end of ours, the setting of our sun of love. When I beheld you, I understood her words, which, until then, I had disputed with all my youth, with all the ardor of my desires, with the despotic sternness of twenty years. That grand and noble Camille mingled her tears with mine, and yet she firmly rejected the love she saw must end. Therefore I am free to love you here on earth and in the heaven above us, as we love God. If you loved me, you would have no such arguments as Camille used to overthrow my love. We are both young; we could fly on equal wing across our sunny heaven, not fearing storms as that grand eagle feared them.

But ha! what am I saying? my thoughts have carried me beyond the humility of my real hopes. Believe me, believe in the submission, the patience, the mute adoration which I only ask you not to wound uselessly. I know, Beatrix, that you cannot love me without the loss of your self-esteem; therefore I ask for no return. Camille once said there was some hidden fatality in names, a propos of hers. That fatality I felt for myself on the jetty of Guerande, when I read on the shores of the ocean your name. Yes, you will pass through my life as Beatrice passed through that of Dante. My heart will be a pedestal for that white statue, cold, distant, jealous, and oppressive.

It is forbidden to you to love me; I know that. You will suffer a thousand deaths, you will be betrayed, humiliated, unhappy; but you have in you a devil’s pride, which binds you to that column you have once embraced — you are like Samson, you will perish by holding to it. But this I have not divined; my love is too blind for that; Camille has told it to me. It is not my mind that speaks to you of this, it is hers. I have no mind with which to reason when I think of you; blood gushes from my heart, and its hot wave darkens my intellect, weakens my strength, paralyzes my tongue, and bends my knees. I can only adore you, whatever you may do to me.

Camille calls your resolution obstinacy; I defend you, and I call it virtue. You are only the more beautiful because of it. I know my destiny, and the pride of a Breton can rise to the height of the woman who makes her pride a virtue.

Therefore, dear Beatrix, be kind, be consoling to me. When victims were selected, they crowned them with flowers; so do you to me; you owe me the flowers of pity, the music of my sacrifice. Am I not a proof of your grandeur? Will you not rise to the level of my disdained love — disdained in spite of its sincerity, in spite of its immortal passion?

Ask Camille how I behaved to her after the day she told me, on her return to Les Touches, that she loved Claude Vignon. I was mute; I suffered in silence. Well, for you I will show even greater strength — I will bury my feelings in my heart, if you will not drive me to despair, if you will only understand my heroism. A single word of praise from you is enough to make me bear the pains of martyrdom.

But if you persist in this cold silence, this deadly disdain, you will make me think you fear me. Ah, Beatrix, be with me what you are — charming, witty, gay, and tender. Talk to me of Conti, as Camille has talked to me of Claude. I have no other spirit in my soul, no other genius but that of love; nothing is there that can make you fear me; I will be in your presence as if I loved you not.

Can you reject so humble a prayer? — the prayer of a child who only asks that his Light shall lighten him, that his Sun may warm him.

He whom you love can be with you at all times, but I, poor Calyste! have so few days in which to see you; you will soon be freed from me. Therefore I may return to Les Touches tomorrow, may I not? You will not refuse my arm for that excursion? We shall go together to Croisic and to Batz? If you do not go I shall take it for an answer — Calyste will understand it!

There were four more pages of the same sort in close, fine writing, wherein Calyste explained the sort of threat conveyed in the last words, and related his youth and life; but the tale was chiefly told in exclamatory phrases, with many of those points and dashes of which modern literature is so prodigal when it comes to crucial passages, — as though they were planks offered to the reader’s imagination, to help him across crevasses. The rest of this artless letter was merely repetition. But if it was not likely to touch Madame de Rochefide, and would very slightly interest the admirers of strong emotions, it made the mother weep, as she said to her son, in her tender voice —

“My child, you are not happy.”

This tumultuous poem of sentiments which had arisen like a storm in Calyste’s heart, terrified the baroness; for the first time in her life she read a love-letter.

Calyste was standing in deep perplexity; how could he send that letter? He followed his mother back into the salon with the letter in his pocket and burning in his heart like fire. The Chevalier du Halga was still there, and the last deal of a lively mouche was going on. Charlotte de Kergarouet, in despair at Calyste’s indifference, was paying attention to his father as a means of promoting her marriage. Calyste wandered hither and thither like a butterfly which had flown into the room by mistake. At last, when mouche was over, he drew the Chevalier du Halga into the great salon, from which he sent away Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel’s page and Mariotte.

“What does he want of the chevalier?” said old Zephirine, addressing her friend Jacqueline.

“Calyste strikes me as half-crazy,” replied Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel. “He pays Charlotte no more attention than if she were a paludiere.”

Remembering that the Chevalier du Halga had the reputation of having navigated in his youth the waters of gallantry, it came into Calyste’s head to consult him.

“What is the best way to send a letter secretly to one’s mistress,” he said to the old gentleman in a whisper.

“Well, you can slip it into the hand of her maid with a louis or two underneath it; for sooner or later the maid will find out the secret, and it is just as well to let her into it at once,” replied the chevalier, on whose face was the gleam of a smile. “But, on the whole, it is best to give the letter yourself.”

“A louis or two!” exclaimed Calyste.

He snatched up his hat and ran to Les Touches, where he appeared like an apparition in the little salon, guided thither by the voices of Camille and Beatrix. They were sitting on the sofa together, apparently on the best of terms. Calyste, with the headlong impulse of love, flung himself heedlessly on the sofa beside the marquise, took her hand, and slipped the letter within it. He did this so rapidly that Felicite, watchful as she was, did not perceive it. Calyste’s heart was tingling with an emotion half sweet, half painful, as he felt the hand of Beatrix press his own, and saw her, without interrupting her words, or seeming in the least disconcerted, slip the letter into her glove.

“You fling yourself on a woman’s dress without mercy,” she said, laughing.

“Calyste is a boy who is wanting in common-sense,” said Felicite, not sparing him an open rebuke.

Calyste rose, took Camille’s hand, and kissed it. Then he went to the piano and ran his finger-nail over the notes, making them all sound at once, like a rapid scale. This exuberance of joy surprised Camille, and made her thoughtful; she signed to Calyste to come to her.

“What is the matter with you?” she whispered in his ear.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“There is something between them,” thought Mademoiselle des Touches.

The marquise was impenetrable. Camille tried to make Calyste talk, hoping that his artless mind would betray itself; but the youth excused himself on the ground that his mother expected him, and he left Les Touches at eleven o’clock — not, however, without having faced the fire of a piercing glance from Camille, to whom that excuse was made for the first time.

After the agitations of a wakeful night filled with visions of Beatrix, and after going a score of times through the chief street of Guerande for the purpose of meeting the answer to his letter, which did not come, Calyste finally received the following reply, which the marquise’s waiting-woman, entering the hotel du Guenic, presented to him. He carried it to the garden, and there, in the grotto, he read as follows:—

Madame de Rochefide to Calyste.

You are a noble child, but you are only a child. You are bound to Camille, who adores you. You would not find in me either the perfections that distinguish her or the happiness that she can give you. Whatever you may think, she is young and I am old; her heart is full of treasures, mine is empty; she has for you a devotion you ill appreciate; she is unselfish; she lives only for you and in you. I, on the other hand, am full of doubts; I should drag you down to a wearisome life, without grandeur of any kind, — a life ruined by my own conduct. Camille is free; she can go and come as she will; I am a slave.

You forget that I love and am beloved. The situation in which I have placed myself forbids my accepting homage. That a man should love me, or say he loves me, is an insult. To turn to another would be to place myself at the level of the lowest of my sex.

You, who are young and full of delicacy, how can you oblige me to say these things, which rend my heart as they issue from it?

I preferred the scandal of an irreparable deed to the shame of constant deception; my own loss of station to a loss of honesty. In the eyes of many persons whose esteem I value, I am still worthy; but if I permitted another man to love me, I should fall indeed. The world is indulgent to those whose constancy covers, as with a mantle, the irregularity of their happiness; but it is pitiless to vice.

You see I feel neither disdain nor anger; I am answering your letter frankly and with simplicity. You are young; you are ignorant of the world; you are carried away by fancy; you are incapable, like all whose lives are pure, of making the reflections which evil suggests. But I will go still further.

Were I destined to be the most humiliated of women, were I forced to hide fearful sorrows, were I betrayed, abandoned — which, thank God, is wholly impossible — no one in this world would see me more. Yes, I believe I should find courage to kill a man who, seeing me in that situation, should talk to me of love.

You now know my mind to its depths. Perhaps I ought to thank you for having written to me. After receiving your letter, and, above all, after making you this reply, I could be at my ease with you in Camille’s house, I could act out my natural self, and be what you ask of me; but I hardly need speak to you of the bitter ridicule that would overwhelm me if my eyes or my manner ceased to express the sentiments of which you complain. A second robbery from Camille would be a proof of her want of power which no woman could twice forgive. Even if I loved you, if I were blind to all else, if I forgot all else, I should still see Camille! Her love for you is a barrier too high to be o’erleaped by any power, even by the wings of an angel; none but a devil would fail to recoil before such treachery. In this, my dear Calyste, are many motives which delicate and noble women keep to themselves, of which you men know nothing; nor could you understand them, even though you were all as like our sex as you yourself appear to be at this moment.

My child, you have a mother who has shown you what you ought to be in life. She is pure and spotless; she fulfils her destiny nobly; what I have heard of her has filled my eyes with tears, and in the depths of my heart I envy her. I, too, might have been what she is! Calyste, that is the woman your wife should be, and such should be her life. I will never send you back, in jest, as I have done, to that little Charlotte, who would weary you to death; but I do commend you to some divine young girl who is worthy of your love.

If I were yours, your life would be blighted. You would have given me your whole existence, and I— you see, I am frank — I should have taken it; I should have gone with you, Heaven knows where, far from the world! But I should have made you most unhappy; for I am jealous. I see lions lurking in the path, and monsters in drops of water. I am made wretched by trifles that most women put up with; inexorable thoughts — from my heart, not yours — would poison our existence and destroy my life. If a man, after ten years’ happiness, were not as respectful and as delicate as he was to me at first, I should resent the change; it would abase me in my own eyes! Such a lover could not believe in the Amadis and the Cyrus of my dreams. To-day true love is but a dream, not a reality. I see in yours only the joy of a desire the end of which is, as yet, unperceived by you.

For myself, I am not forty years old; I have not bent my pride beneath the yoke of experience — in short, I am a woman too young to be anything but odious. I will not answer for my temper; my grace and charm are all external. Perhaps I have not yet suffered enough to have the indulgent manners and the absolute tenderness which come to us from cruel disappointments. Happiness has its insolence, and I, I fear, am insolent. Camille will be always your devoted slave; I should be an unreasonable tyrant. Besides, Camille was brought to you by your guardian angel, at the turning point of your life, to show you the career you ought to follow — a career in which you cannot fail.

I know Felicite! her tenderness is inexhaustible; she may ignore the graces of our sex, but she possesses that fruitful strength, that genius for constancy, that noble intrepidity which makes us willing to accept the rest. She will marry you to some young girl, no matter what she suffers. She will find you a free Beatrix — if it is a Beatrix indeed who answers to your desires in a wife, and to your dreams; she will smooth all the difficulties in your way. The sale of a single acre of her ground in Paris would free your property in Brittany; she will make you her heir; are you not already her son by adoption?

Alas! what could I do for your happiness? Nothing. Do not betray that infinite love which contents itself with the duties of motherhood. Ah! I think her very fortunate, my Camille! She can well afford to forgive your feeling for poor Beatrix; women of her age are indulgent to such fancies. When they are sure of being loved, they will pardon a passing infidelity; in fact, it is often one of their keenest pleasures to triumph over a younger rival. Camille is above such women, and that remark does not refer to her; but I make it to ease your mind.

I have studied Camille closely; she is, to my eyes, one of the greatest women of our age. She has mind and she has goodness — two qualities almost irreconcilable in woman; she is generous and simple — two other grandeurs seldom found together in our sex. I have seen in the depths of her soul such treasures that the beautiful line of Dante on eternal happiness, which I heard her interpreting to you the other day, “Senza brama sicura ricchezza,” seems as if made for her. She has talked to me of her career; she has related her life, showing me how love, that object of our prayers, our dreams, has ever eluded her. I replied that she seemed to me an instance of the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of uniting in one person two great glories.

You, Calyste, are one of the angelic souls whose mate it seems impossible to find; but Camille will obtain for you, even if she dies in doing so, the hand of some young girl with whom you can make a happy home.

For myself, I hold out to you a friendly hand, and I count, not on your heart, but on your mind, to make you in future a brother to me, as I shall be a sister to you; and I desire that this letter may terminate a correspondence which, between Les Touches and Guerande, is rather absurd.

Beatrix de Casteran.

The baroness, stirred to the depths of her soul by the strange exhibitions and the rapid changes of her boy’s emotions, could no longer sit quietly at her work in the ancient hall. After looking at Calyste from time to time, she finally rose and came to him in a manner that was humble, and yet bold; she wanted him to grant a favor which she felt she had a right to demand.

“Well,” she said, trembling, and looking at the letter, but not directly asking for it.

Calyste read it aloud to her. And these two noble souls, so simple, so guileless, saw nothing in that wily and treacherous epistle of the malice or the snares which the marquise had written into it.

“She is a noble woman, a grand woman!” said the baroness, with moistened eyes. “I will pray to God for her. I did not know that a woman could abandon her husband and child, and yet preserve a soul so virtuous. She is indeed worthy of pardon.”

“Have I not every reason to adore her?” cried Calyste.

“But where will this love lead you?” said the baroness. “Ah, my child, how dangerous are women with noble sentiments! There is less to fear in those who are bad! Marry Charlotte de Kergarouet and release two-thirds of the estate. By selling a few farms, Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel can bestow that grand result upon you in the marriage contract, and she will also help you, with her experience, to make the most of your property. You will be able to leave your children a great name, and a fine estate.”

“Forget Beatrix!” said Calyste, in a muffled voice, with his eyes on the ground.

He left the baroness, and went up to his own room to write an answer to the marquise.

Madame du Guenic, whose heart retained every word of Madame de Rochefide’s letter, felt the need of some help in comprehending it more clearly, and also the grounds of Calyste’s hope. At this hour the Chevalier du Halga was always to be seen taking his dog for a walk on the mall. The baroness, certain of finding him there, put on her bonnet and shawl and went out.

The sight of the Baronne du Guenic walking in Guerande elsewhere than to church, or on the two pretty roads selected as promenades on fete days, accompanied by the baron and Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel, was an event so remarkable that two hours later, throughout the whole town, people accosted each other with the remark —

“Madame du Guenic went out today; did you meet her?”

As soon as this amazing news reached the ears of Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel, she said to her niece —

“Something very extraordinary is happening at the du Guenics.”

“Calyste is madly in love with that beautiful Marquise de Rochefide,” said Charlotte. “I ought to leave Guerande and return to Nantes.”

The Chevalier du Halga, much surprised at being sought by the baroness, released the chain of his little dog, aware that he could not divide himself between the two interests.

“Chevalier,” began the baroness, “you used to practise gallantry?”

Here the Chevalier du Halga straightened himself up with an air that was not a little vain. Madame du Guenic, without naming her son or the marquise, repeated, as nearly as possible, the love-letter, and asked the chevalier to explain to her the meaning of such an answer. Du Halga snuffed the air and stroked his chin; he listened attentively; he made grimaces; and finally, he looked fixedly at the baroness with a knowing air, as he said —

“When thoroughbred horses want to leap a barrier, they go up to reconnoitre it, and smell it over. Calyste is a lucky dog!”

“Oh, hush!” she cried.

“I’m mute. Ah! in the olden time I knew all about it,” said the old chevalier, striking an attitude. “The weather was fine, the breeze nor’east. Tudieu! how the ‘Belle–Poule’ kept close to the wind that day when — Oh!” he cried, interrupting himself, “we shall have a change of weather; my ears are buzzing, and I feel the pain in my ribs! You know, don’t you, that the battle of the ‘Belle–Poule’ was so famous that women wore head-dresses ‘a la Belle–Poule.’ Madame de Kergarouet was the first to come to the opera in that head-dress, and I said to her: ‘Madame, you are dressed for conquest.’ The speech was repeated from box to box all through the house.”

The baroness listened pleasantly to the old hero, who, faithful to the laws of gallantry, escorted her to the alley of her house, neglecting Thisbe. The secret of Thisbe’s existence had once escaped him. Thisbe was the granddaughter of a delightful Thisbe, the pet of Madame l’Amirale de Kergarouet, first wife of the Comte de Kergarouet, the chevalier’s commanding officer. The present Thisbe was eighteen years old.

The baroness ran up to Calyste’s room. He was absent; she saw a letter, not sealed, but addressed to Madame de Rochefide, lying on the table. An invincible curiosity compelled the anxious mother to read it. This act of indiscretion was cruelly punished. The letter revealed to her the depths of the gulf into which his passion was hurling Calyste.

Calyste to Madame la Marquise de Rochefide.

What care I for the race of the du Guenics in these days, Beatrix? what is their name to me? My name is Beatrix; the happiness of Beatrix is my happiness; her life is my life, and all my fortune is in her heart. Our estates have been mortgaged these two hundred years, and so they may remain for two hundred more; our farmers have charge of them; no one can take them from us. To see you, to love you — that is my property, my object, my religion!

You talk to me of marrying! the very thought convulses my heart. Is there another Beatrix? I will marry no one but you; I will wait for you twenty years, if need be. I am young, and you will be ever beautiful. My mother is a saint. I do not blame her, but she has never loved. I know now what she has lost, and what sacrifices she has made. You have taught me, Beatrix, to love her better; she is in my heart with you, and no other can ever be there; she is your only rival — is not this to say that you reign in that heart supreme? Therefore your arguments have no force upon my mind.

As for Camille, you need only say the word, or give me a mere sign, and I will ask her to tell you herself that I do not love her. She is the mother of my intellect; nothing more, nothing less. From the moment that I first saw you she became to me a sister, a friend, a comrade, what you will of that kind; but we have no rights other than those of friendship upon each other. I took her for a woman until I saw you. You have proved to me that Camille is a man; she swims, hunts, smokes, drinks, rides on horseback, writes and analyzes hearts and books; she has no weaknesses; she marches on in all her strength; her motions even have no resemblance to your graceful movements, to your step, airy as the flight of a bird. Neither has she your voice of love, your tender eyes, your gracious manner; she is Camille Maupin; there is nothing of the woman about her, whereas in you are all the things of womanhood that I love. It has seemed to me, from the first moment when I saw you, that you were mine.

You will laugh at that fancy, but it has grown and is growing. It seems to me unnatural, anomalous that we should be apart. You are my soul, my life; I cannot live where you are not!

Let me love you! Let us fly! let us go into some country where you know no one, where only God and I can reach your heart! My mother, who loves you, might some day follow us. Ireland is full of castles; my mother’s family will lend us one. Ah, Beatrix, let us go! A boat, a few sailors, and we are there, before any one can know we have fled this world you fear so much.

You have never been loved. I feel it as I re-read your letter, in which I fancy I can see that if the reasons you bring forward did not exist, you would let yourself be loved by me. Beatrix, a sacred love wipes out the past. Yes, I love you so truly that I could wish you doubly shamed if so my love might prove itself by holding you a saint!

You call my love an insult. Oh, Beatrix, you do not think it so! The love of noble youth — and you have called me that — would honor a queen. Therefore, tomorrow let us walk as lovers, hand in hand, among the rocks and beside the sea; your step upon the sands of my old Brittany will bless them anew to me! Give me this day of happiness; and that passing alms, unremembered, alas! by you, will be eternal riches to your

Calyste.

The baroness let fall the letter, without reading all of it. She knelt upon a chair, and made a mental prayer to God to save her Calyste’s reason, to put his madness, his error far away from him; to lead him from the path in which she now beheld him.

“What are you doing, mother?” said Calyste, entering the room.

“I am praying to God for you,” she answered, simply, turning her tearful eyes upon him. “I have committed the sin of reading that letter. My Calyste is mad!”

“A sweet madness!” said the young man, kissing her.

“I wish I could see that woman,” she sighed.

“Mamma,” said Calyste, “we shall take a boat tomorrow and cross to Croisic. If you are on the jetty you can see her.”

So saying, he sealed his letter and departed for Les Touches.

That which, above all, terrified the baroness was to see a sentiment attaining, by the force of its own instinct, to the clear-sightedness of practised experience. Calyste’s letter to Beatrix was such as the Chevalier du Halga, with his knowledge of the world, might have dictated.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31