Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
THE whole of the first week was spent in searching the streets, shops, theaters, and pastry-cooks’; in following up every woman who seemed to bear the faintest resemblance to the stranger; committing a thousand blunders, and many impertinences, with no other result than to prove to himself the utter uselessness of his attempt. The second week found him thoroughly disheartened, and in the course of the third he began to wonder how much longer he was going to act as a puppet in the hands of a coquette who was perhaps only concealing herself from his eyes in order to enjoy the sight of his discomfiture. Then one day a missive was left at his door containing these words:
“M. de Préval will of course remember that he is expected on Thursday at the Opera Ball at one A.M., under the clock.”
As he read, his hopes were fired anew. On the day appointed, midnight had scarcely struck when Léon took up his position beneath the clock, consumed with amorous impatience and keen curiosity.
A long hour had slipped away when, at length, the white domino flitted by. She bowed slightly, and, slackening her pace to allow her companions to pass on before her, she accepted the arm that Léon had sprung up to offer her. Delighted to meet her again, beside himself with hope and happiness, he gently pressed her round arm to his side, and described in eloquent terms all the sufferings of the last few days, his vain search, his fears, his impatience. Quietly she listened, then suddenly interrupted him.
“Well, I fared better than you,” she said, “for I found out at once all I wanted to know about you.”
“Yes, indeed; I found all you had told me was strictly true, but I learned in addition that you are popular with your comrades, and that your superior officers think highly of you. They say, moreover, that you are capable of acting honestly by women, and might even be trusted to keep any promise extorted from you.”
“That would be merely my duty; do please let us talk about my happiness. Have you really been thinking about me? Is it possible you were sufficiently interested in me to hope I might be worthy your regard, and to try to find out–”
“But I had to, if I meant to carry out my plans!”
“Ah, those plans of yours! I hope I am now going to hear what they are. Kind Mask, go on; do, I beseech you, trust the fortunate mortal whose heart already beats for you alone, and who is only waiting a word from you to give himself to you forever.”
“I should be very sorry!” she exclaimed hastily.
For a few moments Léon was silenced.
“Oh,” he said at last, “do not play this cruel game with me any longer. Why tease me with alternate kindness and coldness? This is the last of these balls, but do not think to escape me again. I shall dog your footsteps and follow you until you promise to meet me again, and give me an opportunity to lay my heart and my hopes at your feet, and hear from you what these plans can be.”
“Oh, no, no; I must first be quite sure of your reasonableness and prudence. There are certain conditions I shall have to impose, and your word of honor duly signed and sealed, must be my guarantee of their fulfilment.”
“My word of honor! My signature!” said Léon, considerably astonished at her cold-blooded precautions and also at the solemnity she seemed to attach to a treaty made at the Opera Ball.
He looked down at his companion. She was clearly embarrassed and meditative; her bosom heaved with obvious agitation; and he almost fancied he could detect a blush beneath her mask. She on her side was abstractedly watching him, and seemed perplexed and doubtful.
Convinced that the moment had come when with a little pressure she would give way, Léon went on eagerly:
“Charming but inexplicable creature! Well, then, I consent to whatever you ask, and I will renew the vow I made at the last ball to be obedient, docile, and discreet. I accept your conditions beforehand, if you in return will leave me the joy of hoping to meet you again and holding finally in my arms her–”
“It must be so,” she murmured absently, apparently replying rather to some thought in her own mind than to what he was saying.
But Léon noticed only her words, and they completely turned his head.
“Oh, how glad I am!” he cried. “Let us go away, dear, unknown Lady. Perfect my happiness by coming away with me out of this tiresome crowd. Let us go where I can tear off this odious mask and take your commands. Then in greater freedom than is possible here, let me pay love’s debt.”
As he spoke he drew her gently forward; but suddenly she paused, withdrew her arm, and regaining the haughty carriage that seemed natural to her she said in a calm cold voice:
“You are strangely mistaken, M. de Préval. Your rash transports and vain declarations offend and hurt me. Believe me, I am not what you dare to think, and I am entitled to more consideration, greater respect, and more prudence from you. I am going to overlook this offense, however, because I admit that my own odd behavior might well have misled you; but you must do all I tell you. Tomorrow you shall hear from me and I will then let you know exactly what conditions I mean to make. Till then, be patient and resign yourself.”
As she spoke, she moved away into the crowd, intending to give him the slip, but he dashed after her in pursuit.
“No,” he cried, “I am not going to leave you. You shall not run away like this. Cruel creature, you touch my heart, set my imagination on fire and then forsake me.”
“Take me to my carriage,” she said, and in her voice there rang a note of command.
He grasped the hand she offered, and again poured forth his lamentations and prayers, but all to no effect.
The faithful Negro was standing at the door. The stranger quickly entered her carriage, saying to Léon, “Good-bye, till tomorrow. You may rely on my promise.”
“At least permit me to see you home,” he said, his foot on the step.
“Close the door, and drive home,” she said energetically.
Her order was instantly obeyed, and once again Léon saw his hopes vanish with her who had inspired them.