Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
BUT who shall describe his anxiety and distress as the days went by, then a week, a second and a third, with still no news from the stranger? Still she took no trouble to soothe his impatience.
His mind dwelt painfully on the incident.
“What!” he said, “is it possible that my loyalty and honor were invoked merely to satisfy the passing caprice of an unprincipled and immoral woman? No, no I am unjust to her and ungrateful too. I could feel her heart beating with fear. O my beloved lady why hide from my love? Why lift me to a pinnacle of bliss only to dash me to earth again directly after? The memory of the moments we spent together entirely absorbs me; is it possible they have no power over you?”
In this apostrophe to his mysterious belle Léon was interrupted by the arrival of a letter which seemed nicely timed to reply to it. He recognized at once the handwriting of the conditions, and opened the envelope with a hand that shook with pleasure. This is what he read:
“How many illusions I am destroying! What tender hopes will now be blighted! What prestige dwindle away! You think yourself the victor, but instead you are under orders. Your vanity must have been stirred at the thought of the irresistible influence you wielded over a weak woman but it is you who have to obey her will. You are of course waiting impatiently to see and know her, to establish your empire over her by fresh transports on your side and fresh weaknesses on hers–and that moment will never come. All is over between her and you.
“Nevertheless, the loyalty and delicacy of your behavior deserve some recognition from me. I don’t think I can better prove my gratitude than by confiding to you those plans you were so curious to hear, and explaining the conduct which must have seemed strange at least in your eyes, if not imprudent, though, thanks to you, I believe I shall never have cause to regret it.
“An unequal match which brought me only misery, humiliation, injustice, and violence has left in me an invincible repugnance for a tie that weighs heavily on the weak, upholds the strong and sanctions injustice. When therefore I found myself at the age of twenty-five free, wealthy, and my own mistress, I vowed to remain so always, but I very soon discovered that I was purchasing my independence at the price of nature’s sweetest solace. When I looked around me I found not a creature who needed my care and tenderness, not one to love me and tell me so. I was continually haunted by sorrow for my childless condition, and by degrees this became a real grief. I was born beneath a fierce sky, and my blood is hot, my passions strong. What more can I say? I gradually came to form the singular plan by which I might know the joys of maternity without submitting to a hated yoke. Still, do not think me a strong-minded woman, and do not imagine that I scorn as prejudices those laws which I know to be useful to society. No, I have the greatest respect for them, and if, for this time alone, I have dared to set them aside, believe me, it is for this once only, because special circumstances made it possible for me to save at the same time appearances and reputation.
“My plan, formed in the first instance in fear and trembling, soon occupied all my waking thought. I will confess that there was a romantic glamour about it that lent it an additional charm in my eyes. Soon it grew to be a passion. You know how I succeeded in putting it in execution, and to you I shall owe the sole blessing that my life lacked. At first I meant to leave you in ignorance of the truth, and forget you entirely. Now I have changed my mind and have come to think that I owe you some explanation. Moreover, if my hopes are fulfilled, I may die before the object of my affection is old enough to take care of itself. It will inherit all my fortune, but I think I ought not to deprive it of its natural protector.
“No matter then where duty may call you, when the time comes you will receive from me a split ring on which there will be engraved the date of a birth; the setting will inform you of the sex, a diamond signifying a son, an emerald a daughter. The second half of this ring will be given to the child in the event of my death, with all the clues necessary for finding you out. When the second half is placed in your hand the fact of its matching your own will prove the right of the bearer to your protection, and my personal regard for you makes me very sure it will not be asked in vain.
“Adieu, monsieur, adieu, Léon; farewell forever! Take no steps to discover me; they would be in vain, since in a few days I shall be far away. Forget a fantastic creature whom you do not and must not know; forget the dream of a single night that cannot return. Be happy; this is my one wish for you, and if I learn that it has been realized, I shall be happy too.”
“Happy!” cried Léon, flinging the letter down angrily. “I am to be happy when she coldly informs me I am never to see her again; when her insulting confidences just reveal the value of the prize that is lost to me, never to be regained! But let her not think to escape me altogether; she is mine; she herself formed the tie between us. Could she have done it only to sever it immediately? Wherever she goes I shall follow her, and everywhere I shall insist on my claims being heard. She cannot shirk them.”
Then, after a moment’s reflection, he added: “Alas! I am forgetting that she is going away. She is probably returning to her own land, and the wide seas will divide us. Unhappy man that I am, why did I ever go to the ball! Why was I such a fool as to accept her artful conditions?”
The suddenness of the blow thus inflicted on his fondest hopes took such effect on Léon that for several days he was ill. As soon as he was able to go out again he started his search with more energy than ever, but, being himself a stranger in the city, there were few means open to him, and he soon found himself reduced to a state of passive regret, which is perhaps the worst of all evils. During this period of his life his temper took on a tinge of melancholy which never entirely deserted him.
Brought up by an honorable family who had instilled good principles into the lad, Léon had never indulged in the usual license of barracks; his professional studies, and a succession of fatiguing and glorious campaigns, had left him little leisure to form any lasting liaison. Though of an affectionate disposition, he had never loved, and this, the first serious impression made upon him, was so much the deeper in consequence. And now Chance had thrown in his way an attractive woman, rendered still more piquant by the mystery with which she had surrounded herself, and she had vanished like a shadow. On the very eve, perhaps, of becoming a father, he was yet never to be allowed to press to his heart the child of his love; united by the tenderest and strongest of ties to persons visible only to his imagination, he was doomed never to know them in the flesh.
Thoughts such as these left him no peace; yet, after reading her letter over and over again, he fancied he could detect in it some faint promise for the future.
All hope of finding his unknown mistress was not yet lost; this enigmatic ring that she promised him, and that was to announce the most passionately longed-for of events, constituted in itself a kind of correspondence. Besides, since an arrangement was to be made by which the child should at any time be able to find its father, it was evident that his fate and existence must continue to interest the mother, and the thought that the invisible stranger would be watching over his fortunes took hold of his imagination and afforded him some consolation.
But a fresh grief awaited him; orders were given for his regiment to go into garrison in a small town of the north of France, and Léon, forced to accompany his men, was plunged anew into the depths of despair. He felt that in leaving Paris he lost all chance of discovering traces of her he sought, and that, once buried in the distant provinces, he might easily be forgotten; even the message he was awaiting with such impatience would perhaps never reach him there. Still he had no alternative but to leave, and residence in the little town, with no society and no resource but solitary country walks, did not contribute greatly to relieve Léon’s melancholy mood.