Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
MIDNIGHT was striking, and all Paris was astir; the streets were filled with people bent on merrymaking; it was the eve of Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday).
Léon de Préval, a young cavalry officer, had just made his way into the Opera Ball. There, for over an hour, he wandered aimlessly amid the throng that seethed forward and backward, finding no one he knew, and quite failing to grasp the meaning of the stupid greetings flung at him from time to time by the women he passed. Finally, choked with dust, overcome with heat, dizzy with the ceaseless buzz of all these black-robed specters, he asked himself impatiently whether this were indeed pleasure, and turned to find the door.
At that moment two masked women came down the steps into the ballroom. Both were strikingly graceful, and both were strikingly well dressed. They were accompanied by a genial looking man without a mask. A little murmur of admiration greeted them, and a band of giddy youths fell in behind them, hurling flippant compliments and extravagant gallantries at the two masks.
Léon followed with the rest. At every step the curiosity of the crowd added to the numbers of the little procession; soon, it encountered a group of masqueraders, themselves the center of a cortège, who, coming from the opposite direction, threw such confusion into the ranks that one of the ladies, the younger looking of the two, was separated from her friends. Glancing anxiously around her in search of a protector, her eyes fell on Léon, who was following her movements with a good deal of interest, and, hastily seizing his arm, “Oh, I implore you,” she said nervously, using the familiar thou, “get us out of this and help me find my friends.”
“I am at your service, lovely Mask. Don’t be afraid; trust yourself to me, and come with me.”
And, with the lady clinging to one arm, with the other he cleared a way for her through the press, bringing her safely out at last to the cloak room; there he seated her on a bench, and volunteered to go to find her some refreshments.
“No, stay with me,” she said; “I don’t want anything. I am really ashamed to have given way to such foolish terror.”
“Ah, but I am ready to bless the cause; without it, I should not have known the happiness of being chosen by you to protect you.”
“I am willing to admit that you have rendered me a great service, and I am grateful. I will even implore you to continue to extend your protection until we can find my friends.”
“What! You want to leave me already? Ah, if only from gratitude, grant me a few minutes.”
“Well, then, as a reward, I will stay a few minutes with you.”
They sat down side by side, and the time sped swiftly while they chatted gaily, lightly together.
At last the charming Mask bethought herself once more of her missing party.
“But who are these friends of yours?” said Léon. “Is it your mother, or sister? And, perhaps, a husband?”
“A husband? No, indeed, thank God!”
“You are not married?”
“No, not now.”
“What, already a widow? How sorry I am for you!”
“Pray, why should you suppose that I am to be pitied? Are all husbands so kind? Are all men so tender? Is there, on the contrary, one who deserves to be regretted?”
“Oh, what an anathema! He is a happy fellow who succeeds in inspiring you with juster, milder feelings!”
“Toward men? Heaven forbid!”
“Then you are determined to drive to despair all the troop of admirers who, no doubt–”
“I haven’t one; I have just arrived from the other side of the world, and know nobody here.”
“Nobody, really? Then, fair Mask, I put myself down as your first, and you will see that I shall be ever the most devoted, the most constant–”
“Constant! Bon Dieu! If it is in that strain you are going to talk, I shall leave you forthwith.”
“What, does constancy–?
“Constancy is but a chain that we pretend to wear in order to impose its weight on another. Now that I am free, perfectly free, I intend to remain so; no man living could induce me to forswear myself.”
“There is no more freedom for me, I feel that, but I cannot regret it. The chain shall, however, be for me only; you cannot prevent my loving you, or hoping–”
“Ah, no, no, no, monsieur; I do not want love; I do not want promises; and least of all do I want any one to hope for anything from me.”
“But, cruel Mask, incomprehensible Mask, what then do you want? What must one do to obtain at least your pity?”
“One must neither rave nor deceive; neither exaggerate a feeling of which he is barely conscious, nor fancy it possible to induce a sensible woman to change her plans for a few romantic words, or hypocritical attentions; one must be humble, discreet, patient. I must have time to make up my mind, to find out exactly what I want, and then, perhaps–”
“Then, perhaps, what? Charming Mask, finish the sentence, let me know my fate. I will be obedient; silence, submission, patience, I promise everything.”
As he spoke Léon’s face glowed with love and hope, and he gazed eagerly into the large, black eyes, which, soft and sparkling, appeared to be studying him with calm and close scrutiny.
Entirely disregarding his impassioned tones, she went on with a thoughtful air:
“This gold braid must betoken a grade. You are in the service, no doubt?”
Confounded by her self-possession, Léon could only reply by a gesture of assent.
“In what regiment?”
“I am captain in the Sixth Horse,” he replied, a little hurt.
“You are on furlough, perhaps? Does your family live in this city?”
“No; my people belong to a distant part of the country. They are far from rich, but they are honorable and highly respected. I only came up with my regiment, and, like you, lovely Mask, have been but a few days in the capital; like you, too, I know no one here; like you, I am free, with no attachments and no ties. Fate seems to have brought me here to lose at one blow my heart, my liberty, and my peace of mind.”
“And find in return, of course, nothing but a hard-hearted, ungrateful woman! These are the conventional things that we all say. Now, I am going to do justice to Chance, that is at times kind to us, and I am inclined to believe that it has been so this time in bringing us two together. It may be that I shall have it to thank for the one blessing that was lacking in my life.”
“Adorable and mysterious lady, if only I could fall at your feet, and there swear that henceforth Léon de Préval, grateful and humble, will do all in his power to merit so sweet an avowal!”
“An avowal!” she said. “You call that an avowal? Did one ever see anything to equal the presumption of these men?”
“But how can one help believing a little in what one so fondly hopes? May I not know who is the fascinating creature that takes a pleasure in teasing me? May I not raise the mask that hides the features–”
“Which perhaps are not so very plain!”
“If only I might see them for a moment, if I might but read there!”
“Can’t you read all you need to know in my eyes?”
“They are bewitching, but suppose a sweet smile went with them?”
She rose from her seat, and in a colder, more serious manner she said:
“No, you will never see me, never know me, and never will you learn anything about me.”
Léon stood as though petrified.
“Did one ever hear of such inconceivable caprice? It is useless, madame, for me to trouble you any longer. I see you are anxious to rejoin your friends. We must look for them.”
She interrupted him, not noticing his anger.
“Léon de Préval, that’s your name, isn’t it,” she said dreamily, “captain of the Sixth Horse? Do you expect to stay long in the city?”
“What can that matter to you, cruel one, since you do not mean to see me ever again?”
“But what makes you think I don’t mean to see you again? How little it takes to throw these wiseacres off their balance! I am, on the contrary, so determined to see you again that–”
“Mon Dieu, my dear, what ever has become of you?” cried a woman’s voice behind them. “We have been hunting for you these two hours past.”
It was the friend and escort of the pretty Mask. Thus suddenly brought together again, each in turn ran quickly over the incidents of the night.
“I am worn out with fatigue, and bored to death,” said the lady who had just arrived upon the scene. “For pity’s sake, let us go home.”
“With all my heart. There is nothing to keep me here any longer.”
“What, so soon?” exclaimed Léon. “At least, you will not forbid me to accompany you to your carriage?”
This favor was granted, and the pair followed the others out of the hall.
“Be merciful,” said Léon, “and finish the charming sentence you had begun when we were so annoyingly interrupted. We were talking of meeting again. But when? Where? And how? Think that in a minute more I shall have lost everything but the remembrance of you. Will you not leave me a little hope?”
“Ah, then he has got over his fit of temper?”
“Do not play with me now. I am about to lose you. How shall I be able to–”
“Well, there is just the possibility that I may come to the Mi-Carême ball here.”
“Three weeks to wait! Ye gods, three centuries!”
“Yes, three weeks, perhaps, and perhaps never.”
“I shall be dead by that time, dead with impatience and worry.”
“That will entirely upset my plans.”
But they had reached the door. A carriage had just drawn up, but in the darkness it was impossible to distinguish either its color or its coat of arms. A black servant was holding the door open.
“May I not at least cherish the hope that you will be sorry for my sufferings?”
“Indeed, I fancy you are going to occupy my mind considerably.”
As she finished speaking, she sprang lightly into the carriage, and the horses dashed rapidly off.
Léon stood and gazed after that coach which was carrying away from him his new conquest, and, caring no more for the ball, he made his way homeward, his brain in confusion, his heart a little troubled; his mind ran upon his adventure, and he reproached himself bitterly for not having found some means of carrying it a little farther.
“Who can she be,” he said to himself, “so attractive and so odd? She cannot be a demi-mondaine, with that noble bearing, at once modest and proud, and with such unmistakable ease of manner. What can she want? And why should she alternately encourage and repel me? She talked of her plans, and wanted to know all sorts of details about me; our meeting might prove a happy thing for her–yet I am never to see her again, and must never know who she is– Was she only playing with me? If I thought that, what a revenge I would take! But pray, how and on whom? She may not come to the next ball; I may have lost all trace of her forever. I should be sorry, for I am convinced that she is charming. What a soft sensuousness there is in her pretty, flexible figure! What beautiful eyes she has, and what an expressive voice! And such a graceful, witty way of talking! These three weeks are going to be endless. I had better spend them in looking for and finding her. It might be as well to get some sleep in the first place!”
But there was no sleep for Léon that night. At an early hour he rose and began at once his search.