A Woman of Thirty, by Honoré de Balzac

VI.

THE OLD AGE OF A GUILTY MOTHER

It was one of the earliest June days of the year 1844. A lady of fifty or thereabouts, for she looked older than her actual age, was pacing up and down one of the sunny paths in the garden of a great mansion in the Rue Plument in Paris. It was noon. The lady took two or three turns along the gently winding garden walk, careful never to lose sight of a certain row of windows, to which she seemed to give her whole attention; then she sat down on a bench, a piece of elegant semi-rusticity made of branches with the bark left on the wood. From the place where she sat she could look through the garden railings along the inner boulevards to the wonderful dome of the Invalides rising above the crests of a forest of elm-trees, and see the less striking view of her own grounds terminating in the gray stone front of one of the finest hotels in the Faubourg Saint–Germain.

Silence lay over the neighboring gardens, and the boulevards stretching away to the Invalides. Day scarcely begins at noon in that aristocratic quarter, and masters and servants are all alike asleep, or just awakening, unless some young lady takes it into her head to go for an early ride, or a gray-headed diplomatist rises betimes to redraft a protocol.

The elderly lady stirring abroad at that hour was the Marquise d’Aiglemont, the mother of Mme. de Saint–Hereen, to whom the great house belonged. The Marquise had made over the mansion and almost her whole fortune to her daughter, reserving only an annuity for herself.

The Comtesse Moina de Saint–Hereen was Mme. d’Aiglemont’s youngest child. The Marquise had made every sacrifice to marry her daughter to the eldest son of one of the greatest houses of France; and this was only what might have been expected, for the lady had lost her sons, first one and then the other. Gustave, Marquis d’Aiglemont, had died of the cholera; Abel, the second, had fallen in Algeria. Gustave had left a widow and children, but the dowager’s affection for her sons had been only moderately warm, and for the next generation it was decidedly tepid. She was always civil to her daughter-inlaw, but her feeling towards the young Marquise was the distinctly conventional affection which good taste and good manners require us to feel for our relatives. The fortunes of her dead children having been settled, she could devote her savings and her own property to her darling Moina.

Moina, beautiful and fascinating from childhood, was Mme. d’Aiglemont’s favorite; loved beyond all the others with an instinctive or involuntary love, a fatal drawing of the heart, which sometimes seems inexplicable, sometimes, and to a close observer, only too easy to explain. Her darling’s pretty face, the sound of Moina’s voice, her ways, her manner, her looks and gestures, roused all the deepest emotions that can stir a mother’s heart with trouble, rapture, or delight. The springs of the Marquise’s life, of yesterday, tomorrow, and today, lay in that young heart. Moina, with better fortune, had survived four older children. As a matter of fact, Mme. d’Aiglemont had lost her eldest daughter, a charming girl, in a most unfortunate manner, said gossip, nobody knew exactly what became of her; and then she lost a little boy of five by a dreadful accident.

The child of her affections had, however, been spared to her, and doubtless the Marquise saw the will of Heaven in that fact; for those who had died, she kept but very shadowy recollections in some far-off corner of her heart; her memories of her dead children were like the headstones on a battlefield, you can scarcely see them for the flowers that have sprung up about them since. Of course, if the world had chosen, it might have said some hard truths about the Marquise, might have taken her to task for shallowness and an overweening preference for one child at the expense of the rest; but the world of Paris is swept along by the full flood of new events, new ideas, and new fashions, and it was inevitable the Mme. d’Aiglemont should be in some sort allowed to drop out of sight. So nobody thought of blaming her for coldness or neglect which concerned no one, whereas her quick, apprehensive tenderness for Moina was found highly interesting by not a few who respected it as a sort of superstition. Besides, the Marquise scarcely went into society at all; and the few families who knew her thought of her as a kindly, gentle, indulgent woman, wholly devoted to her family. What but a curiosity, keen indeed, would seek to pry beneath the surface with which the world is quite satisfied? And what would we not pardon to old people, if only they will efface themselves like shadows, and consent to be regarded as memories and nothing more!

Indeed, Mme. d’Aiglemont became a kind of example complacently held up by the younger generation to fathers of families, and frequently cited to mothers-inlaw. She had made over her property to Moina in her own lifetime; the young Countess’ happiness was enough for her, she only lived in her daughter. If some cautious old person or morose uncle here and there condemned the course with —“Perhaps Mme. d’Aiglemont may be sorry some day that she gave up her fortune to her daughter; she may be sure of Moina, but how can she be equally sure of her son-inlaw?”— these prophets were cried down on all sides, and from all sides a chorus of praise went up for Moina.

“It ought to be said, in justice to Mme. de Saint–Hereen, that her mother cannot feel the slightest difference,” remarked a young married woman. “Mme. d’Aiglemont is admirably well housed. She has a carriage at her disposal, and can go everywhere just as she used to do —”

“Except to the Italiens,” remarked a low voice. (This was an elderly parasite, one of those persons who show their independence — as they think — by riddling their friends with epigrams.) “Except to the Italiens. And if the dowager cares for anything on this earth but her daughter — it is music. Such a good performer she was in her time! But the Countess’ box is always full of young butterflies, and the Countess’ mother would be in the way; the young lady is talked about already as a great flirt. So the poor mother never goes to the Italiens.”

“Mme. de Saint–Hereen has delightful ‘At Homes’ for her mother,” said a rosebud. “All Paris goes to her salon.

“And no one pays any attention to the Marquise,” returned the parasite.

“The fact is that Mme. d’Aiglemont is never alone,” remarked a coxcomb, siding with the young women.

“In the morning,” the old observer continued in a discreet voice, “in the morning dear Moina is asleep. At four o’clock dear Moina drives in the Bois. In the evening dear Moina goes to a ball or to the Bouffes. — Still, it is certainly true that Mme. d’Aiglemont has the privilege of seeing her dear daughter while she dresses, and again at dinner, if dear Moina happens to dine with her mother. Not a week ago, sir,” continued the elderly person, laying his hand on the arm of the shy tutor, a new arrival in the house, “not a week ago, I saw the poor mother, solitary and sad, by her own fireside. —‘What is the matter?’ I asked. The Marquise looked up smiling, but I am quite sure that she had been crying. —‘I was thinking that it is a strange thing that I should be left alone when I have had five children,’ she said, ‘but that is our destiny! And besides, I am happy when I know that Moina is enjoying herself.’— She could say that to me, for I knew her husband when he was alive. A poor stick he was, and uncommonly lucky to have such a wife; it was certainly owing to her that he was made a peer of France, and had a place at Court under Charles X.”

Yet such mistaken ideas get about in social gossip, and such mischief is done by it, that the historian of manners is bound to exercise his discretion, and weigh the assertions so recklessly made. After all, who is to say that either mother or daughter was right or wrong? There is but One who can read and judge their hearts! And how often does He wreak His vengeance in the family circle, using throughout all time children as His instruments against their mothers, and fathers against their sons, raising up peoples against kings, and princes against peoples, sowing strife and division everywhere? And in the world of ideas, are not opinions and feelings expelled by new feelings and opinions, much as withered leaves are thrust forth by the young leaf-buds in the spring? — all in obedience to the immutable Scheme; all to some end which God alone knows. Yet, surely, all things proceed to Him, or rather, to Him all things return.

Such thoughts of religion, the natural thoughts of age, floated up now and again on the current of Mme. d’Aiglemont’s thoughts; they were always dimly present in her mind, but sometimes they shone out clearly, sometimes they were carried under, like flowers tossed on the vexed surface of a stormy sea.

She sat on a garden-seat, tired with walking, exhausted with much thinking — with the long thoughts in which a whole lifetime rises up before the mind, and is spread out like a scroll before the eyes of those who feel that Death is near.

If a poet had chanced to pass along the boulevard, he would have found an interesting picture in the face of this woman, grown old before her time. As she sat under the dotted shadow of the acacia, the shadow the acacia casts at noon, a thousand thoughts were written for all the world to see on her features, pale and cold even in the hot, bright sunlight. There was something sadder than the sense of waning life in that expressive face, some trouble that went deeper than the weariness of experience. It was a face of a type that fixes you in a moment among a host of characterless faces that fail to draw a second glance, a face to set you thinking. Among a thousand pictures in a gallery, you are strongly impressed by the sublime anguish on the face of some Madonna of Murillo’s; by some Beatrice Cenci in which Guido’s art portrays the most touching innocence against a background of horror and crime; by the awe and majesty that should encircle a king, caught once and for ever by Velasquez in the sombre face of a Philip II., and so is it with some living human faces; they are tyrannous pictures which speak to you, submit you to searching scrutiny, and give response to your inmost thoughts, nay, there are faces that set forth a whole drama, and Mme. d’Aiglemont’s stony face was one of these awful tragedies, one of such faces as Dante Alighieri saw by thousands in his vision.

For the little season that a woman’s beauty is in flower it serves her admirably well in the dissimulation to which her natural weakness and our social laws condemn her. A young face and rich color, and eyes that glow with light, a gracious maze of such subtle, manifold lines and curves, flawless and perfectly traced, is a screen that hides everything that stirs the woman within. A flush tells nothing, it only heightens the coloring so brilliant already; all the fires that burn within can add little light to the flame of life in eyes which only seem the brighter for the flash of a passing pain. Nothing is so discreet as a young face, for nothing is less mobile; it has the serenity, the surface smoothness, and the freshness of a lake. There is not character in women’s faces before the age of thirty. The painter discovers nothing there but pink and white, and the smile and expression that repeat the same thought in the same way — a thought of youth and love that goes no further than youth and love. But the face of an old woman has expressed all that lay in her nature; passion has carved lines on her features; love and wifehood and motherhood, and extremes of joy and anguish, having wrung them, and left their traces in a thousand wrinkles, all of which speak a language of their own; then it is that a woman’s face becomes sublime in its horror, beautiful in its melancholy, grand in its calm. If it is permissible to carry the strange metaphor still further, it might be said that in the dried-up lake you can see the traces of all the torrents that once poured into it and made it what it is. An old face is nothing to the frivolous world; the frivolous world is shocked by the sight of the destruction of such comeliness as it can understand; a commonplace artist sees nothing there. An old face is the province of the poets among poets of those who can recognize that something which is called Beauty, apart from all the conventions underlying so many superstitions in art and taste.

Though Mme. d’Aiglemont wore a fashionable bonnet, it was easy to see that her once black hair had been bleached by cruel sorrows; yet her good taste and the gracious acquired instincts of a woman of fashion could be seen in the way she wore it, divided into two bandeaux, following the outlines of a forehead that still retained some traces of former dazzling beauty, worn and lined though it was. The contours of her face, the regularity of her features, gave some idea, faint in truth, of that beauty of which surely she had once been proud; but those traces spoke still more plainly of the anguish which had laid it waste, of sharp pain that had withered the temples, and made those hollows in her cheeks, and empurpled the eyelids, and robbed them of their lashes, and the eyes of their charm. She was in every way so noiseless; she moved with a slow, self-contained gravity that showed itself in her whole bearing, and struck a certain awe into others. Her diffident manner had changed to positive shyness, due apparently to a habit now of some years’ growth, of effacing herself in her daughter’s presence. She spoke very seldom, and in the low tones used by those who perforce must live within themselves a life of reflection and concentration. This demeanor led others to regard her with an indefinable feeling which was neither awe nor compassion, but a mysterious blending of the many ideas awakened in us by compassion and awe. Finally, there was something in her wrinkles, in the lines of her face, in the look of pain in those wan eyes of hers, that bore eloquent testimony to tears that never had fallen, tears that had been absorbed by her heart. Unhappy creatures, accustomed to raise their eyes to heaven, in mute appeal against the bitterness of their lot, would have seen at once from her eyes that she was broken in to the cruel discipline of ceaseless prayer, would have discerned the almost imperceptible symptoms of the secret bruises which destroy all the flowers of the soul, even the sentiment of motherhood.

Painters have colors for these portraits, but words, and the mental images called up by words, fail to reproduce such impressions faithfully; there are mysterious signs and tokens in the tones of the coloring and in the look of human faces, which the mind only seizes through the sense of sight; and the poet is fain to record the tale of the events which wrought the havoc to make their terrible ravages understood.

The face spoke of cold and steady storm, an inward conflict between a mother’s long-suffering and the limitations of our nature, for our human affections are bounded by our humanity, and the infinite has no place in finite creatures. Sorrow endured in silence had at last produced an indefinable morbid something in this woman. Doubtless mental anguish had reacted on the physical frame, and some disease, perhaps an aneurism, was undermining Julie’s life. Deep-seated grief lies to all appearance very quietly in the depths where it is conceived, yet, so still and apparently dormant as it is, it ceaselessly corrodes the soul, like the terrible acid which eats away crystal.

Two tears made their way down the Marquise’s cheeks; she rose to her feet as if some thought more poignant than any that preceded it had cut her to the quick. She had doubtless come to a conclusion as to Moina’s future; and now, foreseeing clearly all the troubles in store for her child, the sorrows of her own unhappy life had begun to weigh once more upon her. The key of her position must be sought in her daughter’s situation.

The Comte de Saint–Hereen had been away for nearly six months on a political mission. The Countess, whether from sheer giddiness, or in obedience to the countless instincts of woman’s coquetry, or to essay its power — with all the vanity of a frivolous fine lady, all the capricious waywardness of a child — was amusing herself, during her husband’s absence, by playing with the passion of a clever but heartless man, distracted (so he said) with love, the love that combines readily with every petty social ambition of a self-conceited coxcomb. Mme. d’Aiglemont, whose long experience had given her a knowledge of life, and taught her to judge of men and to dread the world, watched the course of this flirtation, and saw that it could only end in one way, if her daughter should fall into the hands of an utterly unscrupulous intriguer. How could it be other than a terrible thought for her that her daughter listened willingly to this roue? Her darling stood on the brink of a precipice, she felt horribly sure of it, yet dared not hold her back. She was afraid of the Countess. She knew too that Moina would not listen to her wise warnings; she knew that she had no influence over that nature — iron for her, silken-soft for all others. Her mother’s tenderness might have led her to sympathize with the troubles of a passion called forth by the nobler qualities of a lover, but this was no passion — it was coquetry, and the Marquise despised Alfred de Vandenesse, knowing that he had entered upon this flirtation with Moina as if it were a game of chess.

But if Alfred de Vandenesse made her shudder with disgust, she was obliged — unhappy mother! — to conceal the strongest reason for her loathing in the deepest recesses of her heart. She was on terms of intimate friendship with the Marquis de Vandenesse, the young man’s father; and this friendship, a respectable one in the eyes of the world, excused the son’s constant presence in the house, he professing an old attachment, dating from childhood, for Mme. de Saint–Hereen. More than this, in vain did Mme. d’Aiglemont nerve herself to come between Moina and Alfred de Vandenesse with a terrible word, knowing beforehand that she should not succeed; knowing that the strong reason which ought to separate them would carry no weight; that she should humiliate herself vainly in her daughter’s eyes. Alfred was too corrupt; Moina too clever to believe the revelation; the young Countess would turn it off and treat it as a piece of maternal strategy. Mme. d’Aiglemont had built her prison walls with her own hands; she had immured herself only to see Moina’s happiness ruined thence before she died; she was to look on helplessly at the ruin of the young life which had been her pride and joy and comfort, a life a thousand times dearer to her than her own. What words can describe anguish so hideous beyond belief, such unfathomed depths of pain?

She waited for Moina to rise, with the impatience and sickening dread of a doomed man, who longs to have done with life, and turns cold at the thought of the headsman. She had braced herself for a last effort, but perhaps the prospect of the certain failure of the attempt was less dreadful to her than the fear of receiving yet again one of those thrusts that went to her very heart — before that fear her courage ebbed away. Her mother’s love had come to this. To love her child, to be afraid of her, to shrink from the thought of the stab, yet to go forward. So great is a mother’s affection in a loving nature, that before it can fade away into indifference the mother herself must die or find support in some great power without her, in religion or another love. Since the Marquise rose that morning, her fatal memory had called up before her some of those things, so slight to all appearance, that make landmarks in a life. Sometimes, indeed, a whole tragedy grows out of a single gesture; the tone in which a few words were spoken rends a whole life in two; a glance into indifferent eyes is the deathblow of the gladdest love; and, unhappily, such gestures and such words were only too familiar to Mme. d’Aiglemont — she had met so many glances that wound the soul. No, there was nothing in those memories to bid her hope. On the contrary, everything went to show that Alfred had destroyed her hold on her daughter’s heart, that the thought of her was now associated with duty — not with gladness. In ways innumerable, in things that were mere trifles in themselves, the Countess’ detestable conduct rose up before her mother; and the Marquise, it may be, looked on Moina’s undutifulness as a punishment, and found excuses for her daughter in the will of Heaven, that so she still might adore the hand that smote her.

All these things passed through her memory that morning, and each recollection wounded her afresh so sorely, that with a very little additional pain her brimming cup of bitterness must have overflowed. A cold look might kill her.

The little details of domestic life are difficult to paint; but one or two perhaps will suffice to give an idea of the rest.

The Marquise d’Aiglemont, for instance, had grown rather deaf, but she could never induce Moina to raise her voice for her. Once, with the naivete of suffering, she had begged Moina to repeat some remark which she had failed to catch, and Moina obeyed, but with so bad a grace, the Mme. d’Aiglemont had never permitted herself to make her modest request again. Ever since that day when Moina was talking or retailing a piece of news, her mother was careful to come near to listen; but this infirmity of deafness appeared to put the Countess out of patience, and she would grumble thoughtlessly about it. This instance is one from among very many that must have gone to the mother’s heart; and yet nearly all of them might have escaped a close observer, they consisted in faint shades of manner invisible to any but a woman’s eyes. Take another example. Mme. d’Aiglemont happened to say one day that the Princesse de Cadignan had called upon her. “Did she come to see you!” Moina exclaimed. That was all, but the Countess’ voice and manner expressed surprise and well-bred contempt in semitones. Any heart, still young and sensitive, might well have applauded the philanthropy of savage tribes who kill off their old people when they grow too feeble to cling to a strongly shaken bough. Mme. d’Aiglemont rose smiling, and went away to weep alone.

Well-bred people, and women especially, only betray their feelings by imperceptible touches; but those who can look back over their own experience on such bruises as this mother’s heart received, know also how the heart-strings vibrate to these light touches. Overcome by her memories, Mme. d’Aiglemont recollected one of those microscopically small things, so stinging and so painful was it that never till this moment had she felt all the heartless contempt that lurked beneath smiles.

At the sound of shutters thrown back at her daughter’s windows, she dried her tears, and hastened up the pathway by the railings. As she went, it struck her that the gardener had been unusually careful to rake the sand along the walk which had been neglected for some little time. As she stood under her daughter’s windows, the shutters were hastily closed.

“Moina, is it you?” she asked.

No answer.

The Marquise went on into the house.

“Mme. la Comtesse is in the little drawing-room,” said the maid, when the Marquise asked whether Mme. de Saint–Hereen had finished dressing.

Mme. d’Aiglemont hurried to the little drawing-room; her heart was too full, her brain too busy to notice matters so slight; but there on the sofa sat the Countess in her loose morning-gown, her hair in disorder under the cap tossed carelessly on he head, her feet thrust into slippers. The key of her bedroom hung at her girdle. Her face, aglow with color, bore traces of almost stormy thought.

“What makes people come in!” she cried, crossly. “Oh! it is you, mother,” she interrupted herself, with a preoccupied look.

“Yes, child; it is your mother ——”

Something in her tone turned those words into an outpouring of the heart, the cry of some deep inward feeling, only to be described by the word “holy.” So thoroughly in truth had she rehabilitated the sacred character of a mother, that her daughter was impressed, and turned towards her, with something of awe, uneasiness, and remorse in her manner. The room was the furthest of a suite, and safe from indiscreet intrusion, for no one could enter it without giving warning of approach through the previous apartments. The Marquise closed the door.

“It is my duty, my child, to warn you in one of the most serious crises in the lives of us women; you have perhaps reached it unconsciously, and I am come to speak to you as a friend rather than as a mother. When you married, you acquired freedom of action; you are only accountable to your husband now; but I asserted my authority so little (perhaps I was wrong), that I think I have a right to expect you to listen to me, for once at least, in a critical position when you must need counsel. Bear in mind, Moina that you are married to a man of high ability, a man of whom you may well be proud, a man who —”

“I know what you are going to say, mother!” Moina broke in pettishly. “I am to be lectured about Alfred —”

“Moina,” the Marquise said gravely, as she struggled with her tears, “you would not guess at once if you did not feel —”

“What?” asked Moina, almost haughtily. “Why, really, mother —”

Mme. d’Aiglemont summoned up all her strength. “Moina,” she said, “you must attend carefully to this that I ought to tell you —”

“I am attending,” returned the Countess, folding her arms, and affecting insolent submission. “Permit me, mother, to ring for Pauline,” she added with incredible self-possession; “I will send her away first.”

She rang the bell.

“My dear child, Pauline cannot possibly hear —”

“Mamma,” interrupted the Countess, with a gravity which must have struck her mother as something unusual, “I must —”

She stopped short, for the woman was in the room.

“Pauline, go yourself to Baudran’s, and ask why my hat has not yet been sent.”

Then the Countess reseated herself and scrutinized her mother. The Marquise, with a swelling heart and dry eyes, in painful agitation, which none but a mother can fully understand, began to open Moina’s eyes to the risk that she was running. But either the Countess felt hurt and indignant at her mother’s suspicions of a son of the Marquis de Vandenesse, or she was seized with a sudden fit of inexplicable levity caused by the inexperience of youth. She took advantage of a pause.

“Mamma, I thought you were only jealous of the father —” she said, with a forced laugh.

Mme. d’Aiglemont shut her eyes and bent her head at the words, with a very faint, almost inaudible sigh. She looked up and out into space, as if she felt the common overmastering impulse to appeal to God at the great crises of our lives; then she looked at her daughter, and her eyes were full of awful majesty and the expression of profound sorrow.

“My child,” she said, and her voice was hardly recognizable, “you have been less merciful to your mother than he against whom she sinned; less merciful than perhaps God Himself will be!”

Mme. d’Aiglemont rose; at the door she turned; but she saw nothing but surprise in her daughter’s face. She went out. Scarcely had she reached the garden when her strength failed her. There was a violent pain at her heart, and she sank down on a bench. As her eyes wandered over the path, she saw fresh marks on the path, a man’s footprints were distinctly recognizable. It was too late, then, beyond a doubt. Now she began to understand the reason for that order given to Pauline, and with these torturing thoughts came a revelation more hateful than any that had gone before it. She drew her own inferences — the son of the Marquis de Vandenesse had destroyed all feeling of respect for her in her daughter’s mind. The physical pain grew worse; by degrees she lost consciousness, and sat like one asleep upon the garden-seat.

The Countess de Saint–Hereen, left to herself, thought that her mother had given her a somewhat shrewd home-thrust, but a kiss and a few attentions that evening would make all right again.

A shrill cry came from the garden. She leaned carelessly out, as Pauline, not yet departed on her errand, called out for help, holding the Marquise in her arms.

“Do not frighten my daughter!” those were the last words the mother uttered.

Moina saw them carry in a pale and lifeless form that struggled for breath, and arms moving restlessly as in protest or effort to speak; and overcome by the sight, Moina followed in silence, and helped to undress her mother and lay her on her bed. The burden of her fault was greater than she could bear. In that supreme hour she learned to know her mother — too late, she could make no reparation now. She would have them leave her alone with her mother; and when there was no one else in the room, when she felt that the hand which had always been so tender for her was now grown cold to her touch, she broke out into weeping. Her tears aroused the Marquise; she could still look at her darling Moina; and at the sound of sobbing, that seemed as if it must rend the delicate, disheveled breast, could smile back at her daughter. That smile taught the unnatural child that forgiveness is always to be found in the great deep of a mother’s heart.

Servants on horseback had been dispatched at once for the physician and surgeon and for Mme. d’Aiglemont’s grandchildren. Mme. d’Aiglemont the younger and her little sons arrived with the medical men, a sufficiently impressive, silent, and anxious little group, which the servants of the house came to join. The young Marquise, hearing no sound, tapped gently at the door. That signal, doubtless, roused Moina from her grief, for she flung open the doors and stood before them. No words could have spoken more plainly than that disheveled figure looking out with haggard eyes upon the assembled family. Before that living picture of Remorse the rest were dumb. It was easy to see that the Marquise’s feet were stretched out stark and stiff with the agony of death; and Moina, leaning against the door-frame, looking into their faces, spoke in a hollow voice:

“I have lost my mother!”

PARIS, 1828–1844.

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