Beatrix, by Honoré de Balzac

XV

Conti

The inward and convulsive trembling of the marquise was more apparent than she wished it to be; a tragic drama developed at that moment in the souls of all present.

“You did not expect me so soon, I fancy,” said Conti, offering his arm to Beatrix.

The marquise could not avoid dropping Calyste’s arm and taking that of Conti. This ignoble transit, imperiously demanded, so dishonoring to the new love, overwhelmed Calyste who threw himself on the bench beside Camille, after exchanging the coldest of salutations with his rival. He was torn by conflicting emotions. Strong in the thought that Beatrix loved him, he wanted at first to fling himself upon Conti and tell him that Beatrix was his; but the violent trembling of the woman betraying how she suffered — for she had really paid the penalty of her faults in that one moment — affected him so deeply that he was dumb, struck like her with a sense of some implacable necessity.

Madame de Rochefide and Conti passed in front of the seat where Calyste had dropped beside Camille, and as she passed, the marquise looked at Camille, giving her one of those terrible glances in which women have the art of saying all things. She avoided the eyes of Calyste and turned her attention to Conti, who appeared to be jesting with her.

“What will they say to each other?” Calyste asked of Camille.

“Dear child, you don’t know as yet the terrible rights which an extinguished love still gives to a man over a woman. Beatrix could not refuse to take his arm. He is, no doubt, joking her about her new love; he must have guessed it from your attitudes and the manner in which you approached us.”

“Joking her!” cried the impetuous youth, starting up.

“Be calm,” said Camille, “or you will lose the last chances that remain to you. If he wounds her self-love, she will crush him like a worm under her foot. But he is too astute for that; he will manage her with greater cleverness. He will seem not even to suppose that the proud Madame de Rochefide could betray him; she could never be guilty of such depravity as loving a man for the sake of his beauty. He will represent you to her as a child ambitious to have a marquise in love with him, and to make himself the arbiter of the fate of two women. In short, he will fire a broadside of malicious insinuations. Beatrix will then be forced to parry with false assertions and denials, which he will simply make use of to become once more her master.”

“Ah!” cried Calyste, “he does not love her. I would leave her free. True love means a choice made anew at every moment, confirmed from day to day. The morrow justifies the past, and swells the treasury of our pleasures. Ah! why did he not stay away a little longer? A few days more and he would not have found her. What brought him back?”

“The jest of a journalist,” replied Camille. “His opera, on the success of which he counted, has fallen flat. Some journalist, probably Claude Vignon, remarked in the foyer: ‘It is hard to lose fame and mistress at the same moment,’ and the speech cut him in all his vanities. Love based on petty sentiments is always pitiless. I have questioned him; but who can fathom a nature so false and deceiving? He appeared to be weary of his troubles and his love — in short, disgusted with life. He regrets having allied himself so publicly with the marquise, and made me, in speaking of his past happiness, a melancholy poem, which was somewhat too clever to be true. I think he hoped to worm out of me the secret of your love, in the midst of the joy he expected his flatteries to cause me.”

“What else?” said Calyste, watching Beatrix and Conti, who were now coming towards them; but he listened no longer to Camille’s words.

In talking with Conti, Camille had held herself prudently on the defensive; she had betrayed neither Calyste’s secret nor that of Beatrix. The great artist was capable of treachery to every one, and Mademoiselle des Touches warned Calyste to distrust him.

“My dear friend,” she said, “this is by far the most critical moment for you. You need caution and a sort of cleverness you do not possess; I am afraid you will let yourself be tricked by the most wily man I have ever known, and I can do nothing to help you.”

The bell announced dinner. Conti offered his arm to Camille; Calyste gave his to Beatrix. Camille drew back to let the marquise pass, but the latter had found a moment in which to look at Calyste, and impress upon him, by putting her finger on her lips, the absolute necessity of discretion.

Conti was extremely gay during the dinner; perhaps this was only one way of probing Madame de Rochefide, who played her part extremely ill. If her conduct had been mere coquetry, she might have deceived even Conti; but her new love was real, and it betrayed her. The wily musician, far from adding to her embarrassment, pretended not to have perceived it. At dessert, he brought the conversation round to women, and lauded the nobility of their sentiments. Many a woman, he said, who might have been willing to abandon a man in prosperity, would sacrifice all to him in misfortune. Women had the advantage over men in constancy; nothing ever detached them from their first lover, to whom they clung as a matter of honor, unless he wounded them; they felt that a second love was unworthy of them, and so forth. His ethics were of the highest order; shedding incense on the altar where he knew that one heart at least, pierced by many a blow, was bleeding. Camille and Beatrix alone understood the bitterness of the sarcasms shot forth in the guise of eulogy. At times they both flushed scarlet, but they were forced to control themselves. When dinner was over, they took each other by the arm to return to Camille’s salon, and, as if by mutual consent, they turned aside into the great salon, where they could be alone for an instant in the darkness.

“It is dreadful to let Conti ride over me roughshod; and yet I can’t defend myself,” said Beatrix, in a low voice. “The galley-slave is always a slave to his chain-companion. I am lost; I must needs return to my galleys! And it is you, Camille, who have cast me there! Ah! you brought him back a day too soon, or a day too late. I recognize your infernal talent as author. Well, your revenge is complete, the finale perfect!”

“I may have told you that I would write to Conti, but to do it was another matter,” cried Camille. “I am incapable of such baseness. But you are unhappy, and I will forgive the suspicion.”

“What will become of Calyste?” said the marquise, with naive self-conceit.

“Then Conti carries you off, does he?” asked Camille.

“Ah! you think you triumph!” cried Beatrix.

Anger distorted her handsome face as she said those bitter words to Camille, who was trying to hide her satisfaction under a false expression of sympathy. Unfortunately, the sparkle in her eyes belied the sadness of her face, and Beatrix was learned in such deceptions. When, a few moments later, the two women were seated under a strong light on that divan where the first three weeks so many comedies had been played, and where the secret tragedy of many thwarted passions had begun, they examined each other for the last time, and felt they were forever parted by an undying hatred.

“Calyste remains to you,” said Beatrix, looking into Camille’s eyes; “but I am fixed in his heart, and no woman can ever drive me out of it.”

Camille replied, with an inimitable tone of irony that struck the marquise to the heart, in the famous words of Mazarin’s niece to Louis XIV. —

“You reign, you love, and you depart!”

Neither Camille nor Beatrix was conscious during this sharp and bitter scene of the absence of Conti and Calyste. The composer had remained at table with his rival, begging him to keep him company in finishing a bottle of champagne.

“We have something to say to each other,” added Conti, to prevent all refusal on the part of Calyste.

Placed as they both were, it was impossible for the young Breton to refuse this challenge.

“My dear friend,” said the composer, in his most caressing voice, as soon as the poor lad had drunk a couple of glasses of champagne, “we are both good fellows, and we can speak to each other frankly. I have not come here suspiciously. Beatrix loves me,”— this with a gesture of the utmost self-conceit —“but the truth is, I have ceased to love her. I am not here to carry her away with me, but to break off our relations, and to leave her the honors of the rupture. You are young; you don’t yet know how useful it is to appear to be the victim when you are really the executioner. Young men spit fire and flame; they leave a woman with noise and fury; they often despise her, and they make her hate them. But wise men do as I am doing; they get themselves dismissed, assuming a mortified air, which leaves regret in the woman’s heart and also a sense of her superiority. You don’t yet know, luckily for you, how hampered men often are in their careers by the rash promises which women are silly enough to accept when gallantry obliges us to make nooses to catch our happiness. We swear eternal faithfulness, and declare that we desire to pass our lives with them, and seem to await a husband’s death impatiently. Let him die, and there are some provincial women obtuse or silly or malicious enough to say: ‘Here am I, free at last.’ The spent ball suddenly comes to life again, and falls plumb in the midst of our finest triumphs or our most carefully planned happiness. I have seen that you love Beatrix. I leave her therefore in a position where she loses nothing of her precious majesty; she will certainly coquet with you, if only to tease and annoy that angel of a Camille Maupin. Well, my dear fellow, take her, love her, you’ll do me a great service; I want her to turn against me. I have been afraid of her pride and her virtue. Perhaps, in spite of my approval of the matter, it may take some time to effect this chassez-croissez. On such occasions the wisest plan is to take no step at all. I did, just now, as we walked about the lawn, attempt to let her see that I knew all, and was ready to congratulate her on her new happiness. Well, she was furious! At this moment I am desperately in love with the youngest and handsomest of our prima-donnas, Mademoiselle Falcon of the Grand Opera. I think of marrying her; yes, I have got as far as that. When you come to Paris you will see that I have changed a marquise for a queen.”

Calyste, whose candid face revealed his satisfaction, admitted his love for Beatrix, which was all that Conti wanted to discover. There is no man in the world, however blase or depraved he may be, whose love will not flame up again the moment he sees it threatened by a rival. He may wish to leave a woman, but he will never willingly let her leave him. When a pair of lovers get to this extremity, both the man and the woman strive for priority of action, so deep is the wound to their vanity. Questioned by the composer, Calyste related all that had happened during the last three weeks at Les Touches, delighted to find that Conti, who concealed his fury under an appearance of charming good-humor, took it all in good part.

“Come, let us go upstairs,” said the latter. “Women are so distrustful; those two will wonder how we can sit here together without tearing each other’s hair out; they are even capable of coming down to listen. I’ll serve you faithfully, my dear boy. You’ll see me rough and jealous with the marquise; I shall seem to suspect her; there’s no better way to drive a woman to betray you. You will be happy, and I shall be free. Seem to pity that angel for belonging to a man without delicacy; show her a tear — for you can weep, you are still young. I, alas! can weep no more; and that’s a great advantage lost.”

Calyste and Conti went up to Camille’s salon. The composer, begged by his young rival to sing, gave them that greatest of musical masterpieces viewed as execution, the famous “Pria che spunti l’aurora,” which Rubini himself never attempted without trembling, and which had often been Conti’s triumph. Never was his singing more extraordinary than on this occasion, when so many feelings were contending in his breast. Calyste was in ecstasy. As Conti sang the first words of the cavatina, he looked intently at the marquise, giving to those words a cruel signification which was fully understood. Camille, who accompanied him, guessed the order thus conveyed, which bowed the head of the luckless Beatrix. She looked at Calyste, and felt sure that the youth had fallen into some trap in spite of her advice. This conviction became certainty when the evidently happy Breton came up to bid Beatrix good-night, kissing her hand, and pressing it with a little air of happy confidence.

By the time Calyste had reached Guerande, the servants were packing Conti’s travelling-carriage, and “by dawn,” as the song had said, the composer was carrying Beatrix away with Camille’s horses to the first relay. The morning twilight enabled Madame de Rochefide to see Guerande, its towers, whitened by the dawn, shining out upon the still dark sky. Melancholy thoughts possessed her; she was leaving there one of the sweetest flowers of all her life — a pure love, such as a young girl dreams of; the only true love she had ever known or was ever to conceive of. The woman of the world obeyed the laws of the world; she sacrificed love to their demands just as many women sacrifice it to religion or to duty. Sometimes mere pride can rise in acts as high as virtue. Read thus, this history is that of many women.

The next morning Calyste went to Les Touches about mid-day. When he reached the spot from which, the day before, he had seen Beatrix watching for him at the window, he saw Camille, who instantly ran down to him. She met him at the foot of the staircase and told the cruel truth in one word —

“Gone!”

“Beatrix?” asked Calyste, thunderstruck.

“You have been duped by Conti; you told me nothing, and I could do nothing for you.”

She led the poor fellow to her little salon, where he flung himself on the divan where he had so often seen the marquise, and burst into tears. Felicite smoked her hookah and said nothing, knowing well that no words or thoughts are capable of arresting the first anguish of such pain, which is always deaf and dumb. Calyste, unable even to think, much less to choose a course, sat there all day in a state of complete torpidity. Just before dinner was served, Camille tried to say a few words, after begging him, very earnestly, to listen to her.

“Friend,” she said, “you caused me the bitterest suffering, and I had not, like you, a beautiful young life before me in which to heal myself. For me, life has no longer any spring, nor my soul a love. So, to find consolation, I have had to look above. Here, in this room, the day before Beatrix came here, I drew you her portrait; I did not do her injustice, or you might have thought me jealous. I wanted you to know her as she is, for that would have kept you safe. Listen now to the full truth. Madame de Rochefide is wholly unworthy of you. The scandal of her fall was not necessary; she did the thing deliberately in order to play a part in the eyes of society. She is one of those women who prefer the celebrity of a scandal to tranquil happiness; they fly in the face of society to obtain the fatal alms of a rebuke; they desire to be talked about at any cost. Beatrix was eaten up with vanity. Her fortune and her wit had not given her the feminine royalty that she craved; they had not enabled her to reign supreme over a salon. She then bethought herself of seeking the celebrity of the Duchesse de Langeais and the Vicomtesse de Beauseant. But the world, after all, is just; it gives the homage of its interest to real feelings only. Beatrix playing comedy was judged to be a second-rate actress. There was no reason whatever for her flight; the sword of Damocles was not suspended over her head; she is neither sincere, nor loving, nor tender; if she were, would she have gone away with Conti this morning?”

Camille talked long and eloquently; but this last effort to open Calyste’s eyes was useless, and she said no more when he expressed to her by a gesture his absolute belief in Beatrix.

She forced him to come down into the dining-room and sit there while she dined; though he himself was unable to swallow food. It is only during extreme youth that these contractions of the bodily functions occur. Later, the organs have acquired, as it were, fixed habits, and are hardened. The reaction of the mental and moral system upon the physical is not enough to produce a mortal illness unless the physical system retains its primitive purity. A man resists the violent grief that kills a youth, less by the greater weakness of his affection than by the greater strength of his organs.

Therefore Mademoiselle des Touches was greatly alarmed by the calm, resigned attitude which Calyste took after his burst of tears had subsided. Before he left her, he asked permission to go into Beatrix’s bedroom, where he had seen her on the night of her illness, and there he laid his head on the pillow where hers had lain.

“I am committing follies,” he said, grasping Camille’s hand, and bidding her good-night in deep dejection.

He returned home, found the usual company at mouche, and passed the remainder of the evening sitting beside his mother. The rector, the Chevalier du Halga, and Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel all knew of Madame de Rochefide’s departure, and were rejoicing in it. Calyste would now return to them; and all three watched him cautiously. No one in that old manor-house was capable of imagining the result of a first love, the love of youth in a heart so simple and so true as that of Calyste.

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