Beatrix, by Honoré de Balzac

XVI

Sickness Unto Death

For several days Calyste went regularly to Les Touches. He paced round and round the lawn, where he had sometimes walked with Beatrix on his arm. He often went to Croisic to stand upon that fateful rock, or lie for hours in the bush of box; for, by studying the footholds on the sides of the fissure, he had found a means of getting up and down.

These solitary trips, his silence, his gravity, made his mother very anxious. After about two weeks, during which time this conduct, like that of a caged animal, lasted, this poor lover, caged in his despair, ceased to cross the bay; he had scarcely strength to drag himself along the road from Guerande to the spot where he had seen Beatrix watching from her window. The family, delighted at the departure of “those Parisians,” to use a term of the provinces, saw nothing fatal or diseased about the lad. The two old maids and the rector, pursuing their scheme, had kept Charlotte de Kergarouet, who nightly played off her little coquetries on Calyste, obtaining in return nothing better than advice in playing mouche. During these long evenings, Calyste sat between his mother and the little Breton girl, observed by the rector and Charlotte’s aunt, who discussed his greater or less depression as they walked home together. Their simple minds mistook the lethargic indifference of the hapless youth for submission to their plans. One evening when Calyste, wearied out, went off suddenly to bed, the players dropped their cards upon the table and looked at each other as the young man closed the door of his chamber. One and all had listened to the sound of his receding steps with anxiety.

“Something is the matter with Calyste,” said the baroness, wiping her eyes.

“Nothing is the matter,” replied Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel; “but you should marry him at once.”

“Do you believe that marriage would divert his mind?” asked the chevalier.

Charlotte looked reprovingly at Monsieur du Halga, whom she now began to think ill-mannered, depraved, immoral, without religion, and very ridiculous about his dog — opinions which her aunt, defending the old sailor, combated.

“I shall lecture Calyste tomorrow morning,” said the baron, whom the others had thought asleep. “I do not wish to go out of this world without seeing my grandson, a little pink and white Guenic with a Breton cap on his head.”

“Calyste doesn’t say a word,” said old Zephirine, “and there’s no making out what’s the matter with him. He doesn’t eat; I don’t see what he lives on. If he gets his meals at Les Touches, the devil’s kitchen doesn’t nourish him.”

“He is in love,” said the chevalier, risking that opinion very timidly.

“Come, come, old gray-beard, you’ve forgotten to put in your stake!” cried Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel. “When you begin to think of your young days you forget everything.”

“Come to breakfast tomorrow,” said old Zephirine to her friend Jacqueline; “my brother will have had a talk with his son, and we can settle the matter finally. One nail, you know, drives out another.”

“Not among Bretons,” said the chevalier.

The next day Calyste saw Charlotte, as she arrived dressed with unusual care, just after the baron had given him, in the dining-room, a discourse on matrimony, to which he could make no answer. He now knew the ignorance of his father and mother and all their friends; he had gathered the fruits of the tree of knowledge, and knew himself to be as much isolated as if he did not speak the family language. He merely requested his father to give him a few days’ grace. The old baron rubbed his hands with joy, and gave fresh life to the baroness by whispering in her ear what he called the good news.

Breakfast was gay; Charlotte, to whom the baron had given a hint, was sparkling. After the meal was over, Calyste went out upon the portico leading to the garden, followed by Charlotte; he gave her his arm and led her to the grotto. Their parents and friends were at the window, looking at them with a species of tenderness. Presently Charlotte, uneasy at her suitor’s silence, looked back and saw them, which gave her an opportunity of beginning the conversation by saying to Calyste —

“They are watching us.”

“They cannot hear us,” he replied.

“True; but they see us.”

“Let us sit down, Charlotte,” replied Calyste, gently taking her hand.

“Is it true that your banner used formerly to float from that twisted column?” asked Charlotte, with a sense that the house was already hers; how comfortable she should be there! what a happy sort of life! “You will make some changes inside the house, won’t you, Calyste?” she said.

“I shall not have time, my dear Charlotte,” said the young man, taking her hands and kissing them. “I am going now to tell you my secret. I love too well a person whom you have seen, and who loves me, to be able to make the happiness of any other woman; though I know that from our childhood you and I have been destined for each other by our friends.”

“But she is married, Calyste.”

“I shall wait,” replied the young man.

“And I, too,” said Charlotte, her eyes filling with tears. “You cannot long love a woman like that, who, they say, has gone off with a singer —”

“Marry, my dear Charlotte,” said Calyste, interrupting her. “With the fortune your aunt intends to give you, which is enormous for Brittany, you can choose some better man than I. You could marry a titled man. I have brought you here, not to tell you what you already knew, but to entreat you, in the name of our childish friendship, to take this rupture upon yourself, and say that you have rejected me. Say that you do not wish to marry a man whose heart is not free; and thus I shall be spared at least the sense that I have done you public wrong. You do not know, Charlotte, how heavy a burden life now is to me. I cannot bear the slightest struggle; I am weakened like a man whose vital spark is gone, whose soul has left him. If it were not for the grief I should cause my mother, I would have flung myself before now into the sea; I have not returned to the rocks at Croisic since the day that temptation became almost irresistible. Do not speak of this to any one. Good-bye, Charlotte.”

He took the young girl’s head and kissed her hair; then he left the garden by the postern-gate and fled to Les Touches, where he stayed near Camille till past midnight. On returning home, at one in the morning, he found his mother awaiting him with her worsted-work. He entered softly, clasped her hand in his, and said —

“Is Charlotte gone?”

“She goes tomorrow, with her aunt, in despair, both of them,” answered the baroness. “Come to Ireland with me, my Calyste.”

“Many a time I have thought of flying there —”

“Ah!” cried the baroness.

“With Beatrix,” he added.

Some days after Charlotte’s departure, Calyste joined the Chevalier du Halga in his daily promenade on the mall with his little dog. They sat down in the sunshine on a bench, where the young man’s eyes could wander from the vanes of Les Touches to the rocks of Croisic, against which the waves were playing and dashing their white foam. Calyste was thin and pale; his strength was diminishing, and he was conscious at times of little shudders at regular intervals, denoting fever. His eyes, surrounded by dark circles, had that singular brilliancy which a fixed idea gives to the eyes of hermits and solitary souls, or the ardor of contest to those of the strong fighters of our present civilization. The chevalier was the only person with whom he could exchange a few ideas. He had divined in that old man an apostle of his own religion; he recognized in his soul the vestiges of an eternal love.

“Have you loved many women in your life?” he asked him on the second occasion, when, as seamen say, they sailed in company along the mall.

“Only one,” replied Du Halga.

“Was she free?”

“No,” exclaimed the chevalier. “Ah! how I suffered! She was the wife of my best friend, my protector, my chief — but we loved each other so!”

“Did she love you?” said Calyste.

“Passionately,” replied the chevalier, with a fervency not usual with him.

“You were happy?”

“Until her death; she died at the age of forty-nine, during the emigration, at St. Petersburg, the climate of which killed her. She must be very cold in her coffin. I have often thought of going there to fetch her, and lay her in our dear Brittany, near to me! But she lies in my heart.”

The chevalier brushed away his tears. Calyste took his hand and pressed it.

“I care for this little dog more than for life itself,” said the old man, pointing to Thisbe. “The little darling is precisely like the one she held on her knees and stroked with her beautiful hands. I never look at Thisbe but what I see the hands of Madame l’Amirale.”

“Did you see Madame de Rochefide?” asked Calyste.

“No,” replied the chevalier. “It is sixty-eight years since I have looked at any woman with attention — except your mother, who has something of Madame l’Amirale’s complexion.”

Three days later, the chevalier said to Calyste, on the mall —

“My child, I have a hundred and forty louis laid by. When you know where Madame de Rochefide is, come and get them and follow her.”

Calyste thanked the old man, whose existence he envied. But now, from day to day, he grew morose; he seemed to love no one; all things hurt him; he was gentle and kind to his mother only. The baroness watched with ever increasing anxiety the progress of his madness; she alone was able, by force of prayer and entreaty, to make him swallow food. Toward the end of October the sick lad ceased to go even to the mall in search of the chevalier, who now came vainly to the house to tempt him out with the coaxing wisdom of an old man.

“We can talk of Madame de Rochefide,” he would say. “I’ll tell you my first adventure.”

“Your son is ill,” he said privately to the baroness, on the day he became convinced that all such efforts were useless.

Calyste replied to questions about his health that he was perfectly well; but like all young victims of melancholy, he took pleasure in the thought of death. He no longer left the house, but sat in the garden on a bench, warming himself in the pale and tepid sunshine, alone with his one thought, and avoiding all companionship.

Soon after the day when Calyste ceased to go even to Les Touches, Felicite requested the rector of Guerande to come and see her. The assiduity with which the Abbe Grimont called every morning at Les Touches, and sometimes dined there, became the great topic of the town; it was talked of all over the region, and even reached Nantes. Nevertheless, the rector never missed a single evening at the hotel du Guenic, where desolation reigned. Masters and servants were all afflicted at Calyste’s increasing weakness, though none of them thought him in danger; how could it ever enter the minds of these good people that youth might die of love? Even the chevalier had no example of such a death among his memories of life and travel. They attributed Calyste’s thinness to want of food. His mother implored him to eat. Calyste endeavored to conquer his repugnance in order to comfort her; but nourishment taken against his will served only to increase the slow fever which was now consuming the beautiful young life.

During the last days of October the cherished child of the house could no longer mount the stairs to his chamber, and his bed was placed in the lower hall, where he was surrounded at all hours by his family. They sent at last for the Guerande physician, who broke the fever with quinine and reduced it in a few days, ordering Calyste to take exercise, and find something to amuse him. The baron, on this, came out of his apathy and recovered a little of his old strength; he grew younger as his son seemed to age. With Calyste, Gasselin, and his two fine dogs, he started for the forest, and for some days all three hunted. Calyste obeyed his father and went where he was told, from forest to forest, visiting friends and acquaintances in the neighboring chateaus. But the youth had no spirit or gaiety; nothing brought a smile to his face; his livid and contracted features betrayed an utterly passive being. The baron, worn out at last by fatigue consequent on this spasm of exertion, was forced to return home, bringing Calyste in a state of exhaustion almost equal to his own. For several days after their return both father and son were so dangerously ill that the family were forced to send, at the request of the Guerande physician himself, for two of the best doctors in Nantes.

The baron had received a fatal shock on realizing the change now so visible in Calyste. With that lucidity of mind which nature gives to the dying, he trembled at the thought that his race was about to perish. He said no word, but he clasped his hands and prayed to God as he sat in his chair, from which his weakness now prevented him from rising. The father’s face was turned toward the bed where the son lay, and he looked at him almost incessantly. At the least motion Calyste made, a singular commotion stirred within him, as if the flame of his own life were flickering. The baroness no longer left the room where Zephirine sat knitting in the chimney-corner in horrible uneasiness. Demands were made upon the old woman for wood, father and son both suffering from the cold, and for supplies and provisions, so that, finally, not being agile enough to supply these wants, she had given her precious keys to Mariotte. But she insisted on knowing everything; she questioned Mariotte and her sister-inlaw incessantly, asking in a low voice to be told, over and over again, the state of her brother and nephew. One night, when father and son were dozing, Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel told her that she must resign herself to the death of her brother, whose pallid face was now the color of wax. The old woman dropped her knitting, fumbled in her pocket for a while, and at length drew out an old chaplet of black wood, on which she began to pray with a fervor which gave to her old and withered face a splendor so vigorous that the other old woman imitated her friend, and then all present, on a sign from the rector, joining in the spiritual uplifting of Mademoiselle de Guenic.

“Alas! I prayed to God,” said the baroness, remembering her prayer after reading the fatal letter written by Calyste, “and he did not hear me.”

“Perhaps it would be well,” said the rector, “if we begged Mademoiselle des Touches to come and see Calyste.”

“She!” cried old Zephirine, “the author of all our misery! she who has turned him from his family, who has taken him from us, led him to read impious books, taught him an heretical language! Let her be accursed, and may God never pardon her! She has destroyed the du Guenics!”

“She may perhaps restore them,” said the rector, in a gentle voice. “Mademoiselle des Touches is a saintly woman; I am her surety for that. She has none but good intentions to Calyste. May she only be enabled to carry them out.”

“Let me know the day when she sets foot in this house, that I may get out of it,” cried the old woman passionately. “She has killed both father and son. Do you think I don’t hear death in Calyste’s voice? he is so feeble now that he has barely strength to whisper.”

It was at this moment that the three doctors arrived. They plied Calyste with questions; but as for his father, the examination was short; they were surprised that he still lived on. The Guerande doctor calmly told the baroness that as to Calyste, it would probably be best to take him to Paris and consult the most experienced physicians, for it would cost over a hundred louis to bring one down.

“People die of something, but not of love,” said Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel.

“Alas! whatever be the cause, Calyste is dying,” said the baroness. “I see all the symptoms of consumption, that most horrible disease of my country, about him.”

“Calyste dying!” said the baron, opening his eyes, from which rolled two large tears which slowly made their way, delayed by wrinkles, along his cheeks — the only tears he had probably ever shed in his life. Suddenly he rose to his feet, walked the few steps to his son’s bedside, took his hand, and looked earnestly at him.

“What is it you want, father?” said Calyste.

“That you should live!” cried the baron.

“I cannot live without Beatrix,” replied Calyste.

The old man dropped into a chair.

“Oh! where could we get a hundred louis to bring doctors from Paris? There is still time,” cried the baroness.

“A hundred louis!” cried Zephirine; “will that save him?”

Without waiting for her sister-inlaw’s reply, the old maid ran her hands through the placket-holes of her gown, unfastened the petticoat beneath it, which gave forth a heavy sound as it dropped to the floor. She knew so well the places where she had sewn in her louis that she now ripped them out with the rapidity of magic. The gold pieces rang as they fell, one by one, into her lap. The old Pen–Hoel gazed at this performance in stupefied amazement.

“But they’ll see you!” she whispered in her friend’s ear.

“Thirty-seven,” answered Zephirine, continuing to count.

“Every one will know how much you have.”

“Forty-two.”

“Double louis! all new! How did you get them, you who can’t see clearly?”

“I felt them. Here’s one hundred and four louis,” cried Zephirine. “Is that enough?”

“What is all this?” asked the Chevalier du Halga, who now came in, unable to understand the attitude of his old blind friend, holding out her petticoat which was full of gold coins.

Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel explained.

“I knew it,” said the chevalier, “and I have come to bring a hundred and forty louis which I have been holding at Calyste’s disposition, as he knows very well.”

The chevalier drew the rouleaux from his pocket and showed them. Mariotte, seeing such wealth, sent Gasselin to lock the doors.

“Gold will not give him health,” said the baroness, weeping.

“But it can take him to Paris, where he can find her. Come, Calyste.”

“Yes,” cried Calyste, springing up, “I will go.”

“He will live,” said the baron, in a shaking voice; “and I can die — send for the rector!”

The words cast terror on all present. Calyste, seeing the mortal paleness on his father’s face, for the old man was exhausted by the cruel emotions of the scene, came to his father’s side. The rector, after hearing the report of the doctors, had gone to Mademoiselle des Touches, intending to bring her back with him to Calyste, for in proportion as the worthy man had formerly detested her, he now admired her, and protected her as a shepherd protects the most precious of his flock.

When the news of the baron’s approaching end became known in Guerande, a crowd gathered in the street and lane; the peasants, the paludiers, and the servants knelt in the court-yard while the rector administered the last sacraments to the old Breton warrior. The whole town was agitated by the news that the father was dying beside his half-dying son. The probable extinction of this old Breton race was felt to be a public calamity.

The solemn ceremony affected Calyste deeply. His filial sorrow silenced for a moment the anguish of his love. During the last hour of the glorious old defender of the monarchy, he knelt beside him, watching the coming on of death. The old man died in his chair in presence of the assembled family.

“I die faithful to God and his religion,” he said. “My God! as the reward of my efforts grant that Calyste may live!”

“I shall live, father; and I will obey you,” said the young man.

“If you wish to make my death as happy as Fanny has made my life, swear to me to marry.”

“I promise it, father.”

It was a touching sight to see Calyste, or rather his shadow, leaning on the arm of the old Chevalier du Halga — a spectre leading a shade — and following the baron’s coffin as chief mourner. The church and the little square were crowded with the country people coming in to the funeral from a circuit of thirty miles.

But the baroness and Zephirine soon saw that, in spite of his intention to obey his father’s wishes, Calyste was falling back into a condition of fatal stupor. On the day when the family put on their mourning, the baroness took her son to a bench in the garden and questioned him closely. Calyste answered gently and submissively, but his answers only proved to her the despair of his soul.

“Mother,” he said, “there is no life in me. What I eat does not feed me; the air that enters my lungs does not refresh me; the sun feels cold; it seems to you to light that front of the house, and show you the old carvings bathed in its beams, but to me it is all a blur, a mist. If Beatrix were here, it would be dazzling. There is but one only thing left in this world that keeps its shape and color to my eyes — this flower, this foliage,” he added, drawing from his breast the withered bunch the marquise had given him at Croisic.

The baroness dared not say more. Her son’s answer seemed to her more indicative of madness than his silence of grief. She saw no hope, no light in the darkness that surrounded them.

The baron’s last hours and death had prevented the rector from bringing Mademoiselle des Touches to Calyste, as he seemed bent on doing, for reasons which he did not reveal. But on this day, while mother and son still sat on the garden bench, Calyste quivered all over on perceiving Felicite through the opposite windows of the court-yard and garden. She reminded him of Beatrix, and his life revived. It was therefore to Camille that the poor stricken mother owed the first motion of joy that lightened her mourning.

“Well, Calyste,” said Mademoiselle des Touches, when they met, “I want you to go to Paris with me. We will find Beatrix,” she added in a low voice.

The pale, thin face of the youth flushed red, and a smile brightened his features.

“Let us go,” he said.

“We shall save him,” said Mademoiselle des Touches to the mother, who pressed her hands and wept for joy.

A week after the baron’s funeral, Mademoiselle des Touches, the Baronne du Guenic and Calyste started for Paris, leaving the household in charge of old Zephirine.

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