Beatrix, by Honoré de Balzac

XX

A Short Treatise on Certainty: But Not from Pascal’s Point of View

When a woman returns to ordinary life after the nursing of her first child she reappears in the world embellished and charming. This phase of maternity, while it rejuvenates the women of a certain age, gives to young women a splendor of freshness, a gay activity, a brio of mere existence — if it is permissible to apply to the body a word which Italy has discovered for the mind. In trying to return to the charming habits of the honeymoon, Sabine discovered that her husband was not the former Calyste. Again she observed him, unhappy girl, instead of resting securely in her happiness. She sought for the fatal perfume, and smelt it. This time she no longer confided in her friend, nor in the mother who had so charitably deceived her. She wanted certainty, and Certainty made no long tarrying. Certainty is never wanting, it is like the sun; and presently shades are asked for to keep it out. It is, in matters of the heart, a repetition of the fable of the woodman calling upon Death — we soon ask Certainty to leave us blind.

One morning, about two weeks after the first crisis, Sabine received this terrible letter:—

Guerande.

To Madame la Baronne du Guenic:

My dear Daughter — Your aunt Zephirine and I are lost in conjectures about the dressing-table of which you tell us in your letter. I have written to Calyste about it, and I beg you to excuse our ignorance. You can never doubt our hearts, I am sure. We are piling up riches for you here. Thanks to the advice of Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel on the management of your property, you will find yourself within a few years in possession of a considerable capital without losing any of your income.

Your letter, dear child as dearly loved as if I had borne you in my bosom and fed you with my milk, surprised me by its brevity, and above all by your silence about my dearest little Calyste. You told me nothing of the great Calyste either; but then, I know that he is happy, etc.

Sabine wrote across this letter these words, “Noble Brittany does not always lie.” She then laid the paper on Calyste’s desk.

Calyste found the letter and read it. Seeing Sabine’s sentence and recognizing her handwriting he flung the letter into the fire, determined to pretend that he had never received it. Sabine spent a whole week in an agony the secrets of which are known only to angelic or solitary souls whom the wing of the bad angel has never overshadowed. Calyste’s silence terrified her.

“I, who ought to be all gentleness, all pleasure to him, I have displeased him, wounded him! My virtue has made itself hateful. I have no doubt humiliated my idol,” she said to herself. These thoughts plowed furrows in her heart. She wanted to ask pardon for her fault, but Certainty let loose upon her other proofs. Grown bold and insolent, Beatrix wrote to Calyste at his own home; Madame du Guenic received the letter, and gave it to her husband without opening it, but she said to him, in a changed voice and with death in her soul: “My friend, that letter is from the Jockey Club; I recognize both the paper and the perfume.”

Calyste colored, and put the letter into his pocket.

“Why don’t you read it?”

“I know what it is about.”

The young wife sat down. No longer did fever burn her, she wept no more; but madness such as, in feeble beings, gives birth to miracles of crime, madness which lays hands on arsenic for themselves or for their rivals, possessed her. At this moment little Calyste was brought in, and she took him in her arms to dance him. The child, just awakened, sought the breast beneath the gown.

“He remembers — he, at any rate,” she said in a low voice.

Calyste went to his own room to read his letter. When he was no longer present the poor young woman burst into tears, and wept as women weep when they are all alone.

Pain, as well as pleasure, has its initiation. The first crisis, like that in which poor Sabine nearly succumbed, returns no more than the first fruits of other things return. It is the first wedge struck in the torture of the heart; all others are expected, the shock to the nerves is known, the capital of our forces has been already drawn upon for vigorous resistance. So Sabine, sure of her betrayal, spent three hours with her son in her arms beside the fire in a way that surprised herself, when Gasselin, turned into a footman, came to say:—

“Madame is served.”

“Let monsieur know.”

“Monsieur does not dine at home, Madame la baronne.”

Who knows what torture there is for a young woman of twenty-three in finding herself alone in the great dining-room of an old mansion, served by silent servants, under circumstances like these?

“Order the carriage,” she said suddenly; “I shall go to the Opera.”

She dressed superbly; she wanted to exhibit herself alone and smiling like a happy woman. In the midst of her remorse for the addition she had made to Madame de Rochefide’s letter she had resolved to conquer, to win back Calyste by loving kindness, by the virtues of a wife, by the gentleness of the paschal lamb. She wished, also, to deceive all Paris. She loved — loved as courtesans and as angels love, with pride, with humility. But the opera chanced to be “Otello.” When Rubini sang Il mio cor si divide, she rushed away. Music is sometimes mightier than actor or poet, the two most powerful of all natures, combined. Savinien de Portenduere accompanied Sabine to the peristyle and put her in the carriage without being able to understand this sudden flight.

Madame du Guenic now entered a phase of suffering which is peculiar to the aristocracy. Envious, poor, and miserable beings — when you see on the arms of such women golden serpents with diamond heads, necklaces clasped around their necks, say to yourselves that those vipers sting, those slender bonds burn to the quick through the delicate flesh. All such luxury is dearly bought. In situations like that of Sabine, women curse the pleasures of wealth; they look no longer at the gilding of their salons; the silk of the divans is jute in their eyes, exotic flowers are nettles, perfumes poison, the choicest cookery scrapes their throat like barley-bread, and life becomes as bitter as the Dead Sea.

Two or three examples may serve to show this reaction of luxury upon happiness; so that all those women who have endured it may behold their own experience.

Fully aware now of this terrible rivalry, Sabine studied her husband when he left the house, that she might divine, if possible, the future of his day. With what restrained fury does a woman fling herself upon the red-hot spikes of that savage martyrdom! What delirious joy if she could think he did not go to the rue de Chartres! Calyste returned, and then the study of his forehead, his hair, his eyes, his countenance, his demeanor, gave a horrible interest to mere nothings, to observations pursued even to matters of toilet, in which a woman loses her self-respect and dignity. These fatal investigations, concealed in the depths of her heart, turn sour and rot the delicate roots from which should spring to bloom the azure flowers of sacred confidence, the golden petals of the One only love, with all the perfumes of memory.

One day Calyste looked about him discontentedly; he had stayed at home! Sabine made herself caressing and humble, gay and sparkling.

“You are vexed with me, Calyste; am I not a good wife? What is there here that displeases you?” she asked.

“These rooms are so cold and bare,” he replied; “you don’t understand arranging things.”

“Tell me what is wanting.”

“Flowers.”

“Ah!” she thought to herself, “Madame de Rochefide likes flowers.”

Two days later, the rooms of the hotel du Guenic had assumed another aspect. No one in Paris could flatter himself to have more exquisite flowers than those that now adorned them.

Some time later Calyste, one evening after dinner, complained of the cold. He twisted about in his chair, declaring there was a draught, and seemed to be looking for something. Sabine could not at first imagine what this new fancy signified, she, whose house possessed a calorifere which heated the staircases, antechambers, and passages. At last, after three days’ meditation, she came to the conclusion that her rival probably sat surrounded by a screen to obtain the half-lights favorable to faded faces; so Sabine had a screen, but hers was of glass and of Israelitish splendor.

“From what quarter will the next storm come?” she said to herself.

These indirect comparisons with his mistress were not yet at an end. When Calyste dined at home he ate his dinner in a way to drive Sabine frantic; he would motion to the servants to take away his plates after pecking at two or three mouthfuls.

“Wasn’t it good?” Sabine would ask, in despair at seeing all the pains she had taken in conference with her cook thrown away.

“I don’t say that, my angel,” replied Calyste, without anger; “I am not hungry, that is all.”

A woman consumed by a legitimate passion, who struggles thus, falls at last into a fury of desire to get the better of her rival, and often goes too far, even in the most secret regions of married life. So cruel, burning, and incessant a combat in the obvious and, as we may call them, exterior matters of a household must needs become more intense and desperate in the things of the heart. Sabine studied her attitudes, her toilets; she took heed about herself in all the infinitely little trifles of love.

The cooking trouble lasted nearly a month. Sabine, assisted by Mariotte and Gasselin, invented various little vaudeville schemes to ascertain the dishes which Madame de Rochefide served to Calyste. Gasselin was substituted for Calyste’s groom, who had fallen conveniently ill. This enabled Gasselin to consort with Madame de Rochefide’s cook, and before long, Sabine gave Calyste the same fare, only better; but still he made difficulties.

“What is wanting now?” she said.

“Oh, nothing,” he answered, looking round the table for something he did not find.

“Ah!” exclaimed Sabine, as she woke the next morning, “Calyste wanted some of those Indian sauces they serve in England in cruets. Madame de Rochefide accustoms him to all sorts of condiments.”

She bought the English cruets and the spiced sauces; but it soon became impossible for her to make such discoveries in all the preparations invented by her rival.

This period lasted some months; which is not surprising when we remember the sort of attraction presented by such a struggle. It is life. And that is preferable, with its wounds and its anguish, to the gloomy darkness of disgust, to the poison of contempt, to the void of abdication, to that death of the heart which is called indifference. But all Sabine’s courage abandoned her one evening when she appeared in a toilet such as women are inspired to wear in the hope of eclipsing a rival, and about which Calyste said, laughing:—

“In spite of all you can do, Sabine, you’ll never be anything but a handsome Andalusian.”

“Alas!” she said, dropping on a sofa, “I may never make myself a blonde, but I know if this continues I shall soon be thirty-five years old.”

She refused to go to the Opera as she intended, and chose to stay at home the whole evening. But once alone she pulled the flowers from her hair and stamped upon them; she tore off the gown and scarf and trampled them underfoot, like a goat caught in the tangle of its tether, which struggles till death comes. Then she went to bed.

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