Beatrix, by Honoré de Balzac

XXI

The Wickedness of a Good Woman

Playing for these terrible stakes Sabine grew thin; grief consumed her; but she never for a moment forsook the role she had imposed upon herself. Sustained by a sort of fever, her lips drove back into her throat the bitter words that pain suggested; she repressed the flashing of her glorious dark eyes, and made them soft even to humility. But her failing health soon became noticeable. The duchess, an excellent mother, though her piety was becoming more and more Portuguese, recognized a moral cause in the physically weak condition in which Sabine now took satisfaction. She knew the exact state of the relation between Beatrix and Calyste; and she took great pains to draw her daughter to her own house, partly to soothe the wounds of her heart, but more especially to drag her away from the scene of her martyrdom. Sabine, however, maintained the deepest silence for a long time about her sorrows, fearing lest some one might meddle between herself and Calyste. She declared herself happy! At the height of her misery she recovered her pride, and all her virtues.

But at last, after some months during which her sister Clotilde and her mother had caressed and petted her, she acknowledged her grief, confided her sorrows, cursed life, and declared that she saw death coming with delirious joy. She begged Clotilde, who was resolved to remain unmarried, to be a mother to her little Calyste, the finest child that any royal race could desire for heir presumptive.

One evening, as she sat with her young sister Athenais (whose marriage to the Vicomte de Grandlieu was to take place at the end of Lent), and with Clotilde and the duchess, Sabine gave utterance to the supreme cries of her heart’s anguish, excited by the pangs of a last humiliation.

“Athenais,” she said, when the Vicomte Juste de Grandlieu departed at eleven o’clock, “you are going to marry; let my example be a warning to you. Consider it a crime to display your best qualities; resist the pleasure of adorning yourself to please Juste. Be calm, dignified, cold; measure the happiness you give by that which you receive. This is shameful, but it is necessary. Look at me. I perish through my best qualities. All that I know was fine and sacred and grand within me, all my virtues, were rocks on which my happiness is wrecked. I have ceased to please because I am not thirty-six years old. In the eyes of some men youth is thought an inferiority. There is nothing to imagine on an innocent face. I laugh frankly, and that is wrong; to captivate I ought to play off the melancholy half-smile of the fallen angel, who wants to hide her yellowing teeth. A fresh complexion is monotonous; some men prefer their doll’s wax made of rouge and spermaceti and cold cream. I am straightforward; but duplicity is more pleasing. I am loyally passionate, as an honest woman may be, but I ought to be manoeuvring, tricky, hypocritical, and simulate a coldness I have not, — like any provincial actress. I am intoxicated with the happiness of having married one of the most charming men in France; I tell him, naively, how distinguished he is, how graceful his movements are, how handsome I think him; but to please him I ought to turn away my head with pretended horror, to love nothing with real love, and tell him his distinction is mere sickliness. I have the misfortune to admire all beautiful things without setting myself up for a wit by caustic and envious criticism of whatever shines from poesy and beauty. I don’t seek to make Canalis and Nathan say of me in verse and prose that my intellect is superior. I’m only a poor little artless child; I care only for Calyste. Ah! if I had scoured the world like her, if I had said as she has said, ‘I love,’ in every language of Europe, I should be consoled, I should be pitied, I should be adored for serving the regal Macedonian with cosmopolitan love! We are thanked for our tenderness if we set it in relief against our vice. And I, a noble woman, must teach myself impurity and all the tricks of prostitutes! And Calyste is the dupe of such grimaces! Oh, mother! oh, my dear Clotilde! I feel that I have got my death-blow. My pride is only a sham buckler; I am without defence against my misery; I love my husband madly, and yet to bring him back to me I must borrow the wisdom of indifference.”

“Silly girl,” whispered Clotilde, “let him think you will avenge yourself —”

“I wish to die irreproachable and without the mere semblance of doing wrong,” replied Sabine. “A woman’s vengeance should be worthy of her love.”

“My child,” said the duchess to her daughter, “a mother must of course see life more coolly than you can see it. Love is not the end, but the means, of the Family. Do not imitate that poor Baronne de Macumer. Excessive passion is unfruitful and deadly. And remember, God sends us afflictions with knowledge of our needs. Now that Athenais’ marriage is arranged, I can give all my thoughts to you. In fact, I have already talked of this delicate crisis in your life with your father and the Duc de Chaulieu, and also with d’Ajuda; we shall certainly find means to bring Calyste back to you.”

“There is always one resource with the Marquise de Rochefide,” remarked Clotilde, smiling, to her sister; “she never keeps her adorers long.”

“D’Ajuda, my darling,” continued the duchess, “was Monsieur de Rochefide’s brother-inlaw. If our dear confessor approves of certain little manoeuvres to which we must have recourse to carry out a plan which I have proposed to your father, I can guarantee to you the recovery of Calyste. My conscience is repugnant to the use of such means, and I must first submit them to the judgment of the Abbe Brossette. We shall not wait, my child, till you are in extremis before coming to your relief. Keep a good heart! Your grief to-night is so bitter that my secret escapes me; but it is impossible for me not to give you a little hope.”

“Will it make Calyste unhappy?” asked Sabine, looking anxiously at the duchess.

“Oh, heavens! shall I ever be as silly as that!” cried Athenais, naively.

“Ah, little girl, you know nothing of the precipices down which our virtue flings us when led by love,” replied Sabine, making a sort of moral revelation, so distraught was she by her woe.

The speech was uttered with such incisive bitterness that the duchess, enlightened by the tone and accent and look of her daughter, felt certain there was some hidden trouble.

“My dears, it is midnight; come, go to bed,” she said to Clotilde and Athenais, whose eyes were shining.

“In spite of my thirty-five years I appear to be de trop,” said Clotilde, laughing. While Athenais kissed her mother, Clotilde leaned over Sabine and said in her ear: “You will tell what it is? I’ll dine with you tomorrow. If my mother’s conscience won’t let her act, I— I myself will get Calyste out of the hands of the infidels.”

“Well, Sabine,” said the duchess, taking her daughter into her bedroom, “tell me, what new trouble is there, my child?”

“Mamma, I am lost!”

“But how?”

“I wanted to get the better of that horrible woman — I conquered for a time — I am pregnant again — and Calyste loves her so that I foresee a total abandonment. When she hears of it she will be furious. Ah! I suffer such tortures that I cannot endure them long. I know when he is going to her, I know it by his joy; and his peevishness tells me as plainly when he leaves her. He no longer troubles himself to conceal his feelings; I have become intolerable to him. She has an influence over him as unhealthy as she is herself in soul and body. You’ll see! she will exact from him, as the price of forgiveness, my public desertion, a rupture like her own; she will take him away from me to Switzerland or Italy. He is beginning now to say it is ridiculous that he knows nothing of Europe. I can guess what those words mean, flung out in advance. If Calyste is not cured of her in three months I don’t know what he may become; but as for me, I will kill myself.”

“But your soul, my unhappy child? Suicide is a mortal sin.”

“Don’t you understand? She may give him a child. And if Calyste loved the child of that woman more than mine — Oh! that’s the end of my patience and all my resignation.”

She fell into a chair. She had given vent to the deepest thought in her heart; she had no longer a hidden grief; and secret sorrow is like that iron rod that sculptors put within the structure of their clay, — it supports, it is a force.

“Come, go home, dear sufferer. In view of such misery the abbe will surely give me absolution for the venial sins which the deceits of the world compel us to commit. Leave me now, my daughter,” she said, going to her prie-Dieu. “I must pray to our Lord and the Blessed Virgin for you, with special supplication. Good-bye, my dear Sabine; above all things, do not neglect your religious duties if you wish us to succeed.”

“And if we do triumph, mother, we shall only save the family. Calyste has killed within me the holy fervor of love — killed it by sickening me with all things. What a honey-moon was mine, in which I was made to feel on that first day the bitterness of a retrospective adultery!”

The next day, about two in the afternoon, one of the vicars of the faubourg Saint–Germain appointed to a vacant bishopric in 1840 (an office refused by him for the third time), the Abbe Brossette, one of the most distinguished priests in Paris, crossed the court-yard of the hotel de Grandlieu, with a step which we must needs call the ecclesiastical step, so significant is it of caution, mystery, calmness, gravity, and dignity. He was a thin little man about fifty years of age, with a face as white as that of an old woman, chilled by priestly austerities, and hollowed by all the sufferings which he espoused. Two black eyes, ardent with faith yet softened by an expression more mysterious than mystical, animated that truly apostolical face. He was smiling as he mounted the steps of the portico, so little did he believe in the enormity of the cases about which his penitent sent for him; but as the hand of the duchess was an open palm for charity, she was worth the time which her innocent confessions stole from the more serious miseries of the parish.

When the vicar was announced the duchess rose, and made a few steps toward him in the salon — a distinction she granted only to cardinals, bishops, simple priests, duchesses older then herself, and persons of royal blood.

“My dear abbe,” she said, pointing to a chair and speaking in a low voice, “I need the authority of your experience before I throw myself into a rather wicked intrigue, although it is one which must result in great good; and I desire to know from you whether I shall make hindrances to my own salvation in the course I propose to follow.”

“Madame la duchesse,” replied the abbe, “do not mix up spiritual things with worldly things; they are usually irreconcilable. In the first place, what is this matter?”

“You know that my daughter Sabine is dying of grief; Monsieur du Guenic has left her for Madame de Rochefide.”

“It is very dreadful, very serious; but you know what our dear Saint Francois de Sales says on that subject. Remember too how Madame Guyon complained of the lack of mysticism in the proofs of conjugal love; she would have been very willing to see her husband with a Madame de Rochefide.”

“Sabine is only too gentle; she is almost too completely a Christian wife; but she has not the slightest taste for mysticism.”

“Poor young woman!” said the abbe, maliciously. “What method will you take to remedy the evil?”

“I have committed the sin, my dear director, of thinking how to launch upon Madame de Rochefide a little man, very self-willed and full of the worst qualities, who will certainly induce her to dismiss my son-inlaw.”

“My daughter,” replied the abbe, stroking his chin, “we are not now in the confessional; I am not obliged to make myself your judge. From the world’s point of view, I admit that the result would be decisive —”

“The means seem to me odious,” she said.

“Why? No doubt the duty of a Christian woman is to withdraw a sinning woman from an evil path, rather than push her along it; but when a woman has advanced upon that path as far as Madame de Rochefide, it is not the hand of man, but that of God, which recalls such a sinner; she needs a thunderbolt.”

“Father,” replied the duchess, “I thank you for your indulgence; but the thought has occurred to me that my son-inlaw is brave and a Breton. He was heroic at the time of the rash affair of that poor MADAME. Now, if the young fellow who undertook to make Madame de Rochefide love him were to quarrel with Calyste, and a duel should ensue —”

“You have thought wisely, Madame la duchesse; and it only proves that in crooked paths you will always find rocks of stumbling.”

“I have discovered a means, my dear abbe, to do a great good; to withdraw Madame de Rochefide from the fatal path in which she now is; to restore Calyste to his wife, and possibly to save from hell a poor distracted creature.”

“In that case, why consult me?” asked the vicar, smiling.

“Ah!” replied the duchess, “Because I must permit myself some rather nasty actions —”

“You don’t mean to rob anybody?”

“On the contrary, I shall apparently have to spend a great deal of money.”

“You will not calumniate, or —”

“Oh! oh!”

“— injure your neighbor?”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Come, tell me your plan,” said the abbe, now becoming curious.

“Suppose, instead of driving out one nail by another — this is what I thought at my prie-Dieu after imploring the Blessed Virgin to enlighten me — I were to free Calyste by persuading Monsieur de Rochefide to take back his wife? Instead of lending a hand to evil for the sake of doing good to my daughter, I should do one great good by another almost as great —”

The vicar looked at the Portuguese lady, and was pensive.

“That is evidently an idea that came to you from afar,” he said, “so far that —”

“I have thanked the Virgin for it,” replied the good and humble duchess; “and I have made a vow — not counting a novena — to give twelve hundred francs to some poor family if I succeed. But when I communicated my plan to Monsieur de Grandlieu he began to laugh, and said: ‘Upon my honor, at your time of life I think you women have a devil of your own.’”

“Monsieur le duc made as a husband the same reply I was about to make when you interrupted me,” said the abbe, who could not restrain a smile.

“Ah! Father, if you approve of the idea, will you also approve of the means of execution? It is necessary to do to a certain Madame Schontz (a Beatrix of the quartier Saint–Georges) what I proposed to do to Madame de Rochefide.”

“I am certain that you will not do any real wrong,” said the vicar, cleverly, not wishing to hear any more, having found the result so desirable. “You can consult me later if you find your conscience muttering,” he added. “But why, instead of giving that person in the rue Saint–Georges a fresh occasion for scandal, don’t you give her a husband?”

“Ah! my dear director, now you have rectified the only bad thing I had in my plan. You are worthy of being an archbishop, and I hope I shall not die till I have had the opportunity of calling you Your Eminence.”

“I see only one difficulty in all this,” said the abbe.

“What is that?”

“Suppose Madame de Rochefide chooses to keep your son-inlaw after she goes back to her husband?”

“That’s my affair,” replied the duchess; “when one doesn’t often intrigue, one does so —”

“Badly, very badly,” said the abbe. “Habit is necessary for everything. Try to employ some of those scamps who live by intrigue, and don’t show your own hand.”

“Ah! monsieur l’abbe, if I make use of the means of hell, will Heaven help me?”

“You are not at confession,” repeated the abbe. “Save your child.”

The worthy duchess, delighted with her vicar, accompanied him to the door of the salon.

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