Beatrix, by Honoré de Balzac

XIX

The First Lie of a Pious Duchess

Calyste returned to his own house about two in the morning. After waiting for him till half-past twelve, Sabine had gone to bed overwhelmed with fatigue. She slept, although she was keenly distressed by the laconic wording of her husband’s note. Still, she explained it. The true love of a woman invariably begins by explaining all things to the advantage of the man beloved. Calyste was pressed for time, she said.

The next morning the child was better; the mother’s uneasiness subsided, and Sabine came with a smiling face, and little Calyste on her arm, to present him to his father before breakfast with the pretty fooleries and senseless words which gay young mothers do and say. This little scene gave Calyste the chance to maintain a countenance. He was charming to his wife, thinking in his heart that he was a monster, and he played like a child with Monsieur le chevalier; in fact he played too well — he overdid the part; but Sabine had not reached the stage at which a woman recognizes so delicate a distinction.

At breakfast, however, she asked him suddenly:—

“What did you do yesterday?”

“Portenduere kept me to dinner,” he replied, “and after that we went to the club to play whist.”

“That’s a foolish life, my Calyste,” said Sabine. “Young noblemen in these days ought to busy themselves about recovering in the eyes of the country the ground lost by their fathers. It isn’t by smoking cigars, playing whist, idling away their leisure, and saying insolent things of parvenus who have driven them from their positions, not yet by separating themselves from the masses whose soul and intellect and providence they ought to be, that the nobility will exist. Instead of being a party, you will soon be a mere opinion, as de Marsay said. Ah! if you only knew how my ideas on this subject have enlarged since I have nursed and cradled your child! I’d like to see that grand old name of Guenic become once more historical!” Then suddenly plunging her eyes into those of Calyste, who was listening to her with a pensive air, she added: “Admit that the first note you ever wrote me was rather stiff.”

“I did not think of sending you word till I got to the club.”

“But you wrote on a woman’s note-paper; it had a perfume of feminine elegance.”

“Those club directors are such dandies!”

The Vicomte de Portenduere and his wife, formerly Mademoiselle Mirouet, had become of late very intimate with the du Guenics, so intimate that they shared their box at the Opera by equal payments. The two young women, Ursula and Sabine, had been won to this friendship by the delightful interchange of counsels, cares, and confidences apropos of their first infants.

While Calyste, a novice in falsehood, was saying to himself, “I must warn Savinien,” Sabine was thinking, “I am sure that paper bore a coronet.” This reflection passed through her mind like a flash, and Sabine scolded herself for having made it. Nevertheless, she resolved to find the paper, which in the midst of her terrors of the night before she had flung into her letter-box.

After breakfast Calyste went out, saying to his wife that he should soon return. Then he jumped into one of those little low carriages with one horse which were just beginning to supersede the inconvenient cabriolet of our ancestors. He drove in a few minutes to the vicomte’s house and begged him to do him the service, with rights of return, of fibbing in case Sabine should question the vicomtesse. Thence Calyste, urging his coachman to speed, rushed to the rue de Chartres in order to know how Beatrix had passed the rest of the night. He found that unfortunate just from her bath, fresh, embellished, and breakfasting with a very good appetite. He admired the grace with which his angel ate her boiled eggs, and he marvelled at the beauty of the gold service, a present from a monomaniac lord, for whom Conti had composed a few ballads on ideas of the lord, who afterwards published them as his own!

Calyste listened entranced to the witty speeches of his idol, whose great object was to amuse him, until she grew angry and wept when he rose to leave her. He thought he had been there only half an hour, but it was past three before he reached home. His handsome English horse, a present from the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu, was so bathed in sweat that it looked as though it had been driven through the sea. By one of those chances which all jealous women prepare for themselves, Sabine was at a window which looked on the court-yard, impatient at Calyste’s non-return, uneasy without knowing why. The condition of the horse with its foaming mouth surprised her.

“Where can he have come from?”

The question was whispered in her ear by that power which is not exactly consciousness, nor devil, nor angel; which sees, forebodes, shows us the unseen, and creates belief in mental beings, creatures born of our brains, going and coming and living in the world invisible of ideas.

“Where do you come from, dear angel?” Sabine said to Calyste, meeting him on the first landing of the staircase. “Abd-el-Kader is nearly foundered. You told me you would be gone but a moment, and I have been waiting for you these three hours.”

“Well, well,” thought Calyste, who was making progress in dissimulation, “I must get out of it by a present — Dear little mother,” he said aloud, taking her round the waist with more cajolery than he would have used if he had not been conscious of guilt, “I see that it is quite impossible to keep a secret, however innocent, from the woman who loves us —”

“Well, don’t tell secrets on the staircase,” she said, laughing. “Come in.”

In the middle of a salon which adjoined their bedroom, she caught sight in a mirror of Calyste’s face, on which, not aware that it could be seen, he allowed his real feelings and his weariness to appear.

“Now for your secret?” she said, turning round.

“You have shown such heroism as a nurse,” he said, “that the heir presumptive of the Guenics is dearer to me than ever, and I wanted to give you a surprise, precisely like any bourgeois of the rue Saint Denis. They are finishing for you at this moment a dressing-table at which true artists have worked, and my mother and aunt Zephirine have contributed.”

Sabine clasped him in her arms, and held him tightly to her breast with her head on his neck, faint with the weight of happiness, not for the piece of furniture, but for the dispersion of her first dark doubt. It was one of those magnificent transports which can be counted, and which no love, however excessive, can prodigally spend, or life would be too soon burned out. Then, indeed, men should fall at the feet of women to adore them, for such moments are sublime, moments when the forces of the heart and intellect gush forth like the waters of sculptured nymphs from their inclining urns. Sabine burst into tears.

Suddenly as if bitten by a viper, she left Calyste, threw herself on a sofa and fainted away, for the reaction of a chill to her glowing heart came near to killing her. As she held Calyste in her arms, her nose at his cravat, abandoned to her joy, she smelt the perfume of that letter paper! Another woman’s head had lain there, whose hair and face had left that adulterous odor! She had just kissed the spot where the kisses of her rival were still warm.

“What is the matter?” asked Calyste, after he had brought Sabine back to consciousness by passing a damp cloth over her face and making her smell salts.

“Fetch the doctor and my nurse, both! Yes, my milk has turned, I feel it. They won’t come at once unless you fetch them yourself — go!”

Calyste, alarmed, rushed out. The moment Sabine heard the closing of the porte-cochere she started up like a frightened doe, and walked about the salon as if beside herself, crying out, “My God! my God! my God!”

Those two words took the place of all ideas. The crisis she had seized upon as a pretext in reality took place. The hairs of her head were like so many red-hot needles heated in the fire of a nervous fever. Her boiling blood seemed to her to mingle with her nerves and yet try to issue from all her pores. She was blind for a few moments, and cried aloud, “I am dying!”

At that terrible cry of the injured wife and mother her maid ran in. After she was laid upon her bed and recovered both sight and mind, the first act of her intelligence was to send the maid to her friend, Madame de Portenduere. Sabine felt that her ideas were whirling in her brain like straws at the will of a waterspout. “I saw,” she said later, “myriads all at once.”

She rang for the footman and in the transport of her fever she found strength to write the following letter, for she was mastered by one mad desire — to have certainty:—

To Madame la Baronne du Guenic:

Dear Mamma — When you come to Paris, as you allow us to hope you will, I shall thank you in person for the beautiful present by which you and my aunt Zephirine and Calyste wish to reward me for doing my duty. I was already well repaid by my own happiness in doing it. I can never express the pleasure you have given me in that beautiful dressing-table, but when you are with me I shall try to do so. Believe me, when I array myself before that treasure, I shall think, like the Roman matron, that my noblest jewel is our little angel, etc.

She directed the letter to Guerande and gave it to the footman to post.

When the Vicomtesse de Portenduere came, the shuddering chill of reaction had succeeded in poor Sabine this first paroxysm of madness.

“Ursula, I think I am going to die,” she said.

“What is the matter, dear?”

“Where did Savinien and Calyste go after they dined with you yesterday?”

“Dined with me?” said Ursula, to whom her husband had said nothing, not expecting such immediate inquiry. “Savinien and I dined alone together and went to the Opera without Calyste.”

“Ursula, dearest, in the name of your love for Savinien, keep silence about what you have just said to me and what I shall now tell you. You alone shall know why I die — I am betrayed! at the end of three years, at twenty-two years of age!”

Her teeth chattered, her eyes were dull and frozen, her face had taken on the greenish tinge of an old Venetian mirror.

“You! so beautiful! For whom?”

“I don’t know yet. But Calyste has told me two lies. Do not pity me, do not seem incensed, pretend ignorance and perhaps you can find out who she is through Savinien. Oh! that letter of yesterday!”

Trembling, shaking, she sprang from her bed to a piece of furniture from which she took the letter.

“See,” she said, lying down again, “the coronet of a marquise! Find out if Madame de Rochefide has returned to Paris. Am I to have a heart in which to weep and moan? Oh, dearest! — to see one’s beliefs, one’s poesy, idol, virtue, happiness, all, all in pieces, withered, lost! No God in the sky! no love upon earth! no life in my heart! no anything! I don’t know if there’s daylight; I doubt the sun. I’ve such anguish in my soul I scarcely feel the horrible sufferings in my body. Happily, the baby is weaned; my milk would have poisoned him.”

At that idea the tears began to flow from Sabine’s eyes which had hitherto been dry.

Pretty Madame de Portenduere, holding in her hand the fatal letter, the perfume of which Sabine again inhaled, was at first stupefied by this true sorrow, shocked by this agony of love, without as yet understanding it, in spite of Sabine’s incoherent attempts to relate the facts. Suddenly Ursula was illuminated by one of those ideas which come to none but sincere friends.

“I must save her!” she thought to herself. “Trust me, Sabine,” she cried. “Wait for my return; I will find out the truth.”

“Ah! in my grave I’ll love you,” exclaimed Sabine.

The viscountess went straight to the Duchesse de Grandlieu, pledged her to secrecy, and then explained to her fully her daughter’s situation.

“Madame,” she said as she ended, “do you not think with me, that in order to avoid some fatal illness — perhaps, I don’t know, even madness — we had better confide the whole truth to the doctor, and invent some tale to clear that hateful Calyste and make him seem for the time being innocent?”

“My dear child,” said the duchess, who was chilled to the heart by this confidence, “friendship has given you for the moment the experience of a woman of my age. I know how Sabine loves her husband; you are right, she might become insane.”

“Or lose her beauty, which would be worse,” said the viscountess.

“Let us go to her!” cried the duchess.

Fortunately they arrived a few moments before the famous accoucheur, Dommanget, the only one of the two men of science whom Calyste had been able to find.

“Ursula has told me everything,” said the duchess to her daughter, “and you are mistaken. In the first place, Madame de Rochefide is not in Paris. As for what your husband did yesterday, my dear, I can tell you that he lost a great deal of money at cards, so that he does not even know how to pay for your dressing-table.”

“But that?” said Sabine, holding out to her mother the fatal letter.

“That!” said the duchess, laughing; “why, that is written on the Jockey Club paper; everybody writes nowadays on coroneted paper; even our stewards will soon be titled.”

The prudent mother threw the unlucky paper into the fire as she spoke.

When Calyste and Dommanget arrived, the duchess, who had given instructions to the servants, was at once informed. She left Sabine to the care of Madame de Portenduere and stopped the accoucheur and Calyste in the salon.

“Sabine’s life is at stake, monsieur,” she said to Calyste; “you have betrayed her for Madame de Rochefide.”

Calyste blushed, like a girl still respectable, detected in a fault.

“And,” continued the duchess, “as you do not know how to deceive, you have behaved in such a clumsy manner that Sabine has guessed the truth. But I have for the present repaired your blunder. You do not wish the death of my daughter, I am sure — All this, Monsieur Dommanget, will put you on the track of her real illness and its cause. As for you, Calyste, an old woman like me understands your error, though she does not pardon it. Such pardons can only be brought by a lifetime of after happiness. If you wish me to esteem you, you must, in the first place, save my daughter; next, you must forget Madame de Rochefide; she is only worth having once. Learn to lie; have the courage of a criminal, and his impudence. I have just told a lie myself, and I shall have to do hard penance for that mortal sin.”

She then told the two men the lies she had invented. The clever physician sitting at the bedside of his patient studied in her symptoms the means of repairing the ill, while he ordered measures the success of which depended on great rapidity of execution. Calyste sitting at the foot of the bed strove to put into his glance an expression of tenderness.

“So it was play which put those black circles round your eyes?” Sabine said to him in a feeble voice.

The words made the doctor, the mother, and the viscountess tremble, and they all three looked at one another covertly. Calyste turned as red as a cherry.

“That’s what comes of nursing a child,” said Dommanget brutally, but cleverly. “Husbands are lonely when separated from their wives, and they go to the club and play. But you needn’t worry over the thirty thousand francs which Monsieur le baron lost last night —”

“Thirty thousand francs!” cried Ursula, in a silly tone.

“Yes, I know it,” replied Dommanget. “They told me this morning at the house of the young Duchesse Berthe de Maufrigneuse that it was Monsieur de Trailles who won that money from you,” he added, turning to Calyste. “Why do you play with such men? Frankly, monsieur le baron, I can well believe you are ashamed of it.”

Seeing his mother-inlaw, a pious duchess, the young viscountess, a happy woman, and the old accoucheur, a confirmed egotist, all three lying like a dealer in bric-a-brac, the kind and feeling Calyste understood the greatness of the danger, and two heavy tears rolled from his eyes and completely deceived Sabine.

“Monsieur,” she said, sitting up in bed and looking angrily at Dommanget, “Monsieur du Guenic can lose thirty, fifty, a hundred thousand francs if it pleases him, without any one having a right to think it wrong or read him a lesson. It is far better that Monsieur de Trailles should win his money than that we should win Monsieur de Trailles’.”

Calyste rose, took his wife round the neck, kissed her on both cheeks and whispered:—

“Sabine, you are an angel!”

Two days later the young wife was thought to be out of danger, and the next day Calyste was at Madame de Rochefide’s making a merit of his infamy.

“Beatrix,” he said, “you owe me happiness. I have sacrificed my poor little wife to you; she has discovered all. That fatal paper on which you made me write, bore your name and your coronet, which I never noticed — I saw but you! Fortunately the ‘B’ was by chance effaced. But the perfume you left upon me and the lies in which I involved myself like a fool have betrayed my happiness. Sabine nearly died of it; her milk went to the head; erysipelas set in, and possibly she may bear the marks for the rest of her days.”

As Beatrix listened to this tirade her face was due North, icy enough to freeze the Seine had she looked at it.

“So much the better,” she said; “perhaps it will whiten her for you.”

And Beatrix, now become as hard as her bones, sharp as her voice, harsh as her complexion, continued a series of atrocious sarcasms in the same tone. There is no greater blunder than for a man to talk of his wife, if she is virtuous, to his mistress, unless it be to talk of his mistress, if she is beautiful, to his wife. But Calyste had not received that species of Parisian education which we must call the politeness of the passions. He knew neither how to lie to his wife, nor how to tell his mistress the truth — two apprenticeships a man in his position must make in order to manage women. He was therefore compelled to employ all the power of passion to obtain from Beatrix a pardon which she forced him to solicit for two hours; a pardon refused by an injured angel who raised her eyes to the ceiling that she might not see the guilty man, and who put forth reasons sacred to marquises in a voice quivering with tears which were furtively wiped with the lace of her handkerchief.

“To speak to me of your wife on the very day after my fall!” she cried. “Why did you not tell me she is a pearl of virtue? I know she thinks you handsome; pure depravity! I, I love your soul! for let me tell you, my friend, you are ugly compared to many shepherds on the Campagna of Rome,” etc., etc.

Such speeches may surprise the reader, but they were part of a system profoundly meditated by Beatrix in this her third incarnation — for at each passion a woman becomes another being and advances one step more into profligacy, the only word which properly renders the effect of the experience given by such adventures. Now, the Marquise de Rochefide had sat in judgment on herself before the mirror. Clever women are never deceived about themselves; they count their wrinkles, they assist at the birth of their crow’s-feet, they know themselves by heart, and even own it by the greatness of their efforts at preservation. Therefore to struggle successfully against a splendid young woman, to carry away from her six triumphs a week, Beatrix had recourse to the knowledge and the science of courtesans. Without acknowledging to herself the baseness of this plan, led away to the employment of such means by a Turkish passion for Calyste’s beauty, she had resolved to make him think himself unpleasant, ugly, ill-made, and to behave as if she hated him. No system is more fruitful with men of a conquering nature. To such natures the presence of repugnance to be vanquished is the renewal of the triumph of the first day on all succeeding days. And it is something even better. It is flattery in the guise of dislike. A man then says to himself, “I am irresistible,” or “My love is all-powerful because it conquers her repugnance.” If you deny this principle, divined by all coquettes and courtesans throughout all social zones, you may as well reject all seekers after knowledge, all delvers into secrets, repulsed through years in their duel with hidden causes. Beatrix added to the use of contempt as a moral piston, a constant comparison of her own poetic, comfortable home with the hotel du Guenic. All deserted wives who abandon themselves in despair, neglect also their surroundings, so discouraged are they. On this, Madame de Rochefide counted, and presently began an underhand attack on the luxury of the faubourg Saint–Germain, which she characterized as stupid.

The scene of reconciliation, in which Beatrix made Calyste swear and reswear hatred to the wife, who, she said, was playing comedy, took place in a perfect bower where she played off her graces amid ravishing flowers, and rare plants of the costliest luxury. The science of nothings, the trifles of the day, she carried to excess. Fallen into a mortifying position through Conti’s desertion, Beatrix was determined to have, at any rate, the fame which unprincipled conduct gives. The misfortune of the poor young wife, a rich and beautiful Grandlieu, should be her pedestal.

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