Beatrix, by Honoré de Balzac

IX

A First Meeting

What young man full of abounding but restrained life and emotion would not have had the glorious idea of going to Croisic to see Madame de Rochefide land, and examine her incognito? Calyste greatly surprised his father and mother by going off in the morning without waiting for the mid-day breakfast. Heaven knows with what agility the young Breton’s feet sped along. Some unknown vigor seemed lent to him; he walked on air, gliding along by the walls of Les Touches that he might not be seen from the house. The adorable boy was ashamed of his ardor, and afraid of being laughed at; Felicite and Vignon were so perspicacious! besides, in such cases young fellows fancy that their foreheads are transparent.

He reached the shore, strengthened by a stone embankment, at the foot of which is a house where travellers can take shelter in storms of wind or rain. It is not always possible to cross the little arm of the sea which separates the landing-place of Guerande from Croisic; the weather may be bad, or the boats not ready; and during this time of waiting, it is necessary to put not only the passengers but their horses, donkeys, baggages, and merchandise under cover.

Calyste presently saw two boats coming over from Croisic, laden with baggage — trunks, packages, bags, and chests — the shape and appearance of which proved to a native of these parts that such extraordinary articles must belong to travellers of distinction. In one of the boats was a young woman in a straw bonnet with a green veil, accompanied by a man. This boat was the first to arrive. Calyste trembled until on closer view he saw they were a maid and a man-servant.

“Are you going over to Croisic, Monsieur Calyste?” said one of the boatmen; to whom he replied with a shake of the head, annoyed at being called by his name.

He was captivated by the sight of a chest covered with tarred cloth on which were painted the words, MME. LA MARQUISE DE ROCHEFIDE. The name shone before him like a talisman; he fancied there was something fateful in it. He knew in some mysterious way, which he could not doubt, that he should love that woman. Why? In the burning desert of his new and infinite desires, still vague and without an object, his fancy fastened with all its strength on the first woman that presented herself. Beatrix necessarily inherited the love which Camille had rejected.

Calyste watched the landing of the luggage, casting from time to time a glance at Croisic, from which he hoped to see another boat put out to cross to the little promontory, and show him Beatrix, already to his eyes what Beatrice was to Dante, a marble statue on which to hang his garlands and his flowers. He stood with arms folded, lost in meditation. Here is a fact worthy of remark, which, nevertheless, has never been remarked: we often subject ourselves to sentiments by our own volition — deliberately bind ourselves, and create our own fate; chance has not as much to do with it as we believe.

“I don’t see any horses,” said the maid, sitting on a trunk.

“And I don’t see any road,” said the footman.

“Horses have been here, though,” replied the woman, pointing to the proofs of their presence. “Monsieur,” she said, addressing Calyste, “is this really the way to Guerande?”

“Yes,” he replied, “are you expecting some one to meet you?”

“We were told that they would fetch us from Les Touches. If they don’t come,” she added to the footman, “I don’t know how Madame la marquise will manage to dress for dinner. You had better go and find Mademoiselle des Touches. Oh! what a land of savages!”

Calyste had a vague idea of having blundered.

“Is your mistress going to Les Touches?” he inquired.

“She is there; Mademoiselle came for her this morning at seven o’clock. Ah! here come the horses.”

Calyste started toward Guerande with the lightness and agility of a chamois, doubling like a hare that he might not return upon his tracks or meet any of the servants of Les Touches. He did, however, meet two of them on the narrow causeway of the marsh along which he went.

“Shall I go in, or shall I not?” he thought when the pines of Les Touches came in sight. He was afraid; and continued his way rather sulkily to Guerande, where he finished his excursion on the mall and continued his reflections.

“She has no idea of my agitation,” he said to himself.

His capricious thoughts were so many grapnels which fastened his heart to the marquise. He had known none of these mysterious terrors and joys in his intercourse with Camille. Such vague emotions rise like poems in the untutored soul. Warmed by the first fires of imagination, souls like his have been known to pass through all phases of preparation and to reach in silence and solitude the very heights of love, without having met the object of so many efforts.

Presently Calyste saw, coming toward him, the Chevalier du Halga and Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel, who were walking together on the mall. He heard them say his name, and he slipped aside out of sight, but not out of hearing. The chevalier and the old maid, believing themselves alone, were talking aloud.

“If Charlotte de Kergarouet comes,” said the chevalier, “keep her four or five months. How can you expect her to coquette with Calyste? She is never here long enough to undertake it. Whereas, if they see each other every day, those two children will fall in love, and you can marry them next winter. If you say two words about it to Charlotte she’ll say four to Calyste, and a girl of sixteen can certainly carry off the prize from a woman of forty.”

Here the old people turned to retrace their steps and Calyste heard no more. But remembering what his mother had told him, he saw Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel’s intention, and, in the mood in which he then was, nothing could have been more fatal. The mere idea of a girl thus imposed upon him sent him with greater ardor into his imaginary love. He had never had a fancy for Charlotte de Kergarouet, and he now felt repugnance at the very thought of her. Calyste was quite unaffected by questions of fortune; from infancy he had accustomed his life to the poverty and the restricted means of his father’s house. A young man brought up as he had been, and now partially emancipated, was likely to consider sentiments only, and all his sentiments, all his thought now belonged to the marquise. In presence of the portrait which Camille had drawn for him of her friend, what was that little Charlotte? the companion of his childhood, whom he thought of as a sister.

He did not go home till five in the afternoon. As he entered the hall his mother gave him, with a rather sad smile, the following letter from Mademoiselle des Touches:—

My dear Calyste — The beautiful marquise has come; we count on you to help us celebrate her arrival. Claude, always sarcastic, declares that you will play Bice and that she will be Dante. It is for our honor as Bretons, and yours as a du Guenic to welcome a Casteran. Come soon. Your friend, Camille Maupin.

Come as you are, without ceremony; otherwise you will put us to the blush.

Calyste gave the letter to his mother and departed.

“Who are the Casterans?” said Fanny to the baron.

“An old Norman family, allied to William the Conqueror,” he replied. “They bear on a shield tierce fessed azure, gules and sable, a horse rearing argent, shod with gold. That beautiful creature for whom the Gars was killed at Fougeres in 1800 was the daughter of a Casteran who made herself a nun, and became an abbess after the Duc de Verneuil deserted her.”

“And the Rochefides?”

“I don’t know that name. I should have to see the blazon,” he replied.

The baroness was somewhat reassured on hearing that the Marquise de Rochefide was born of a noble family, but she felt that her son was now exposed to new seductions.

Calyste as he walked along felt all sorts of violent and yet soft inward movements; his throat was tight, his heart swelled, his brain was full, a fever possessed him. He tried to walk slowly, but some superior power hurried him. This impetuosity of the several senses excited by vague expectation is known to all young men. A subtle fire flames within their breasts and darts outwardly about them, like the rays of a nimbus around the heads of divine personages in works of religious art; through it they see all Nature glorious, and woman radiant. Are they not then like those haloed saints, full of faith, hope, ardor, purity?

The young Breton found the company assembled in the little salon of Camille’s suite of rooms. It was then about six o’clock; the sun, in setting, cast through the windows its ruddy light chequered by the trees; the air was still; twilight, beloved of women, was spreading through the room.

“Here comes the future deputy of Brittany,” said Camille Maupin, smiling, as Calyste raised the tapestry portiere — “punctual as a king.”

“You recognized his step just now,” said Claude to Felicite in a low voice.

Calyste bowed low to the marquise, who returned the salutation with an inclination of her head; he did not look at her; but he took the hand Claude Vignon held out to him and pressed it.

“This is the celebrated man of whom we have talked so much, Gennaro Conti,” said Camille, not replying to Claude Vignon’s remark.

She presented to Calyste a man of medium height, thin and slender, with chestnut hair, eyes that were almost red, and a white skin, freckled here and there, whose head was so precisely the well-known head of Lord Byron (though rather better carried on his shoulders) that description is superfluous. Conti was rather proud of this resemblance.

“I am fortunate,” he said, “to meet Monsieur du Guenic during the one day that I spend at Les Touches.”

“It was for me to say that to you,” replied Calyste, with a certain ease.

“He is handsome as an angel,” said the marquise in an under tone to Felicite.

Standing between the sofa and the two ladies, Calyste heard the words confusedly. He seated himself in an arm-chair and looked furtively toward the marquise. In the soft half-light he saw, reclining on a divan, as if a sculptor had placed it there, a white and serpentine shape which thrilled him. Without being aware of it, Felicite had done her friend a service; the marquise was much superior to the unflattered portrait Camille had drawn of her the night before. Was it to do honor to the guest that Beatrix had wound into her hair those tufts of blue-bells that gave value to the pale tints of her creped curls, so arranged as to fall around her face and play upon the cheeks? The circle of her eyes, which showed fatigue, was of the purest mother-of-pearl, her skin was as dazzling as the eyes, and beneath its whiteness, delicate as the satiny lining of an egg, life abounded in the beautiful blue veins. The delicacy of the features was extreme; the forehead seemed diaphanous. The head, so sweet and fragrant, admirably joined to a long neck of exquisite moulding, lent itself to many and most diverse expressions. The waist, which could be spanned by the hands, had a charming willowy ease; the bare shoulders sparkled in the twilight like a white camellia. The throat, visible to the eye though covered with a transparent fichu, allowed the graceful outlines of the bosom to be seen with charming roguishness. A gown of white muslin, strewn with blue flowers, made with very large sleeves, a pointed body and no belt, shoes with strings crossed on the instep over Scotch thread stockings, showed a charming knowledge of the art of dress. Ear-rings of silver filagree, miracles of Genoese jewelry, destined no doubt to become the fashion, were in perfect harmony with the delightful flow of the soft curls starred with blue-bells.

Calyste’s eager eye took in these beauties at a glance, and carved them on his soul. The fair Beatrix and the dark Felicite might have sat for those contrasting portraits in “keepsakes” which English designers and engravers seek so persistently. Here were the force and the feebleness of womanhood in full development, a perfect antithesis. These two women could never be rivals; each had her own empire. Here was the delicate campanula, or the lily, beside the scarlet poppy; a turquoise near a ruby. In a moment, as it were — at first sight, as the saying is — Calyste was seized with a love which crowned the secret work of his hopes, his fears, his uncertainties. Mademoiselle des Touches had awakened his nature; Beatrix inflamed both his heart and thoughts. The young Breton suddenly felt within him a power to conquer all things, and yield to nothing that stood in his way. He looked at Conti with an envious, gloomy, savage rivalry he had never felt for Claude Vignon. He employed all his strength to control himself; but the inward tempest went down as soon as the eyes of Beatrix turned to him, and her soft voice sounded in his ear. Dinner was announced.

“Calyste, give your arm to the marquise,” said Mademoiselle des Touches, taking Conti with her right hand, and Claude Vignon with her left, and drawing back to let the marquise pass.

The descent of that ancient staircase was to Calyste like the moment of going into battle for the first time. His heart failed him, he had nothing to say; a slight sweat pearled upon his forehead and wet his back; his arm trembled so much that as they reached the lowest step the marquise said to him: “Is anything the matter?”

“Oh!” he replied, in a muffled tone, “I have never seen any woman so beautiful as you, except my mother, and I am not master of my emotions.”

“But you have Camille Maupin before your eyes.”

“Ah! what a difference!” said Calyste, ingenuously.

“Calyste,” whispered Felicite, who was just behind him, “did I not tell you that you would forget me as if I had never existed? Sit there,” she said aloud, “beside the marquise, on her right, and you, Claude, on her left. As for you, Gennaro, I retain you by me; we will keep a mutual eye on their coquetries.”

The peculiar accept which Camille gave to the last word struck Claude Vignon’s ear, and he cast that sly but half-abstracted look upon Camille which always denoted in him the closest observation. He never ceased to examine Mademoiselle des Touches throughout the dinner.

“Coquetries!” replied the marquis, taking off her gloves, and showing her beautiful hands; “the opportunity is good, with a poet,” and she motioned to Claude, “on one side, and poesy the other.”

At these words Conti turned and gave Calyste a look that was full of flattery.

By artificial light, Beatrix seemed more beautiful than before. The white gleam of the candles laid a satiny lustre on her forehead, lighted the spangles of her eyes, and ran through her swaying curls, touching them here and there into gold. She threw back the thin gauze scarf she was wearing and disclosed her neck. Calyste then saw its beautiful nape, white as milk, and hollowed near the head, until its lines were lost toward the shoulders with soft and flowing symmetry. This neck, so dissimilar to that of Camille, was the sign of a totally different character in Beatrix.

Calyste found much trouble in pretending to eat; nervous motions within him deprived him of appetite. Like other young men, his nature was in the throes and convulsions which precede love, and carve it indelibly on the soul. At his age, the ardor of the heart, restrained by moral ardor, leads to an inward conflict, which explains the long and respectful hesitations, the tender debatings, the absence of all calculation, characteristic of young men whose hearts and lives are pure. Studying, though furtively, so as not to attract the notice of Conti, the various details which made the marquise so purely beautiful, Calyste became, before long, oppressed by a sense of her majesty; he felt himself dwarfed by the hauteur of certain of her glances, by the imposing expression of a face that was wholly aristocratic, by a sort of pride which women know how to express in slight motions, turns of the head, and slow gestures, effects less plastic and less studied than we think. The false situation in which Beatrix had placed herself compelled her to watch her own behavior, and to keep herself imposing without being ridiculously so. Women of the great world know how to succeed in this, which proves a fatal reef to vulgar women.

The expression of Felicite’s eyes made Beatrix aware of the inward adoration she inspired in the youth beside her, and also that it would be most unworthy on her part to encourage it. She therefore took occasion now and then to give him a few repressive glances, which fell upon his heart like an avalanche of snow. The unfortunate young fellow turned on Felicite a look in which she could read the tears he was suppressing by superhuman efforts. She asked him in a friendly tone why he was eating nothing. The question piqued him, and he began to force himself to eat and to take part in the conversation.

But whatever he did, Madame de Rochefide paid little attention to him. Mademoiselle des Touches having started the topic of her journey to Italy she related, very wittily, many of its incidents, which made Claude Vignon, Conti, and Felicite laugh.

“Ah!” thought Calyste, “how far such a woman is from me! Will she ever deign to notice me?”

Mademoiselle des Touches was struck with the expression she now saw on Calyste’s face, and tried to console him with a look of sympathy. Claude Vignon intercepted that look. From that moment the great critic expanded into gaiety that overflowed in sarcasm. He maintained to Beatrix that love existed only by desire; that most women deceived themselves in loving; that they loved for reasons unknown to men and to themselves; that they wanted to deceive themselves, and that the best among them were artful.

“Keep to books, and don’t criticise our lives,” said Camille, glancing at him imperiously.

The dinner ceased to be gay. Claude Vignon’s sarcasm had made the two women pensive. Calyste was conscious of pain in the midst of the happiness he found in looking at Beatrix. Conti looked into the eyes of the marquise to guess her thoughts. When dinner was over Mademoiselle des Touches took Calyste’s arm, gave the other two men to the marquise, and let them pass before her, that she might be alone with the young Breton for a moment.

“My dear Calyste,” she said, “you are acting in a manner that embarrasses the marquise; she may be delighted with your admiration, but she cannot accept it. Pray control yourself.”

“She was hard to me, she will never care for me,” said Calyste, “and if she does not I shall die.”

“Die! you! My dear Calyste, you are a child. Would you have died for me?”

“You have made yourself my friend,” he answered.

After the talk that follows coffee, Vignon asked Conti to sing something. Mademoiselle des Touches sat down to the piano. Together she and Gennaro sang the Dunque il mio bene tu mia sarai, the last duet of Zingarelli’s “Romeo e Giulietta,” one of the most pathetic pages of modern music. The passage Di tanti palpiti expresses love in all its grandeur. Calyste, sitting in the same arm-chair in which Felicite had told him the history of the marquise, listened in rapt devotion. Beatrix and Vignon were on either side of the piano. Conti’s sublime voice knew well how to blend with that of Felicite. Both had often sung this piece; they knew its resources, and they put their whole marvellous gift into bringing them out. The music was at this moment what its creator intended, a poem of divine melancholy, the farewell of two swans to life. When it was over, all present were under the influence of feelings such as cannot express themselves by vulgar applause.

“Ah! music is the first of arts!” exclaimed the marquise.

“Camille thinks youth and beauty the first of poesies,” said Claude Vignon.

Mademoiselle des Touches looked at Claude with vague uneasiness. Beatrix, not seeing Calyste, turned her head as if to know what effect the music had produced upon him, less by way of interest in him than for the gratification of Conti; she saw a white face bathed in tears. At the sight, and as if some sudden pain had seized her, she turned back quickly and looked at Gennaro. Not only had Music arisen before the eyes of Calyste, touching him with her divine wand until he stood in presence of Creation from which she rent the veil, but he was dumfounded by Conti’s genius. In spite of what Camille had told him of the musician’s character, he now believed in the beauty of the soul, in the heart that expressed such love. How could he, Calyste, rival such as an artist? What woman could ever cease to adore such genius? That voice entered the soul like another soul. The poor lad was overwhelmed by poesy, and his own despair. He felt himself of no account. This ingenuous admission of his nothingness could be read upon his face mingled with his admiration. He did not observe the gesture with which Beatrix, attracted to Calyste by the contagion of a true feeling, called Felicite’s attention to him.

“Oh! the adorable heart!” cried Camille. “Conti, you will never obtain applause of one-half the value of that child’s homage. Let us sing this trio. Beatrix, my dear, come.”

When the marquise, Camille, and Conti had arranged themselves at the piano, Calyste rose softly, without attracting their attention, and flung himself on one of the sofas in the bedroom, the door of which stood open, where he sat with his head in his hands, plunged in meditation.

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