Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
ONE morning, Léon, who had hailed with some excitement the opening of the month of November, returned from drill in low spirits and full of anxious thought. He was about to go at once to his quarters when he heard behind him the trot of a horse, and, turning his head, recognized the Negro. He uttered a cry of surprise and delight as the black rode up to him and, without dismounting, said:
“Here is something I was ordered to bring to you,” and at the same moment he placed in his hand a sealed box.
Then he set spurs to his horse and was out of sight in an instant. Léon, dumbfounded, followed him with his eyes, and but for the box he still held would have been tempted to set the sudden event down to an apparition to be attributed to his own nervous condition.
Hastily, he opened the case. It contained only the half of a gold ring, split like a French wedding ring, on which was engraved “November 22, 18–.” It was set with a very fine emerald.
“So it is a girl!” cried Léon. “I am a father–and not a line, not a word for me! She is still making sport of me! This ends everything, probably, and I shall never hear another word about her. Who ever can she be, this unget-at-able creature who does as she likes with me and seems to hold my future in her hand, who remains invisible, and yet can find me out in this distant spot, and, according to her wayward humor, seeks me or forsakes me? Wretched ball! Fatal meeting!”
He turned the matter over in his disturbed mind in a hundred different ways, but never came to any satisfactory conclusion.
A long year passed in this way. Then, with the approach of the following spring, there were rumors of a coming war; a Spanish expedition was talked of, and the officers, looking forward to promotion and glory, were thankful for the prospect of escape from inaction.
Léon was specially impatient for the signal to enter the fray, for he was sick of living with his memories, in the idleness that fostered them. What then was his surprise to receive one day a despatch from the War Office, informing him of his nomination as aide-de-camp to General de X. and ordering him to start at once for Paris, where he was to join that officer.
To Léon, who had never seen his chief, and knew no one about his person who could have exerted any influence in his behalf, this promotion was inexplicable. For some time past, however, he had been living in an atmosphere of extraordinary events; this last filled him with mingled joy and hope. Might not his unknown mistress have had a hand in the matter? If so, surely here was a clue to her name and place of residence. At all events, he was going back to Paris, and however short his stay in the capital, some lucky chance might help him in his search.
Thus he found himself once more back in the city, where he was received in the kindest way by his general, who installed him in his own house and gave him a place at his table.
At first the multiplicity of his duties prevented him from taking any of those steps which he had already proved to be more than useless, but after a little while, having won the regard of his chief and having become in some sort a favorite with him, he ventured to ask the name of the person to whom he owed this post of honor. The general informed him that the recommendation of M. de B., who was in charge of the war staff, and the record of Léon’s distinguished conduct in the last campaign, had led him to ask for the young man as his aide-de-camp.
“And that reminds me,” he continued, “you ought to go and thank him. I shall be going there one evening soon, and if you like I will take you with me.”
Although this reply was a disappointment to Léon, he gratefully accepted the offer, and a few days later the general took him in his own carriage to call upon M. de B.
They found a number of people already assembled in the drawing room when they arrived, and Mme. de B. had just arranged some card tables and resumed her place near the fire, where she was chatting with a small circle of friends, consisting of some three or four women and as many men. When Léon was introduced to her he endeavored to obtain from her the information he was so eager to get, but in vain. After some civilities the conversation again became general, and Mme. de B. begged one of the gentlemen to continue the story he had commenced. Thus Léon, his hopes frustrated, found himself obliged to listen with the rest.
A string of tales, some amusing, others strange, were told by one and another of the guests, and then Mme. de B., careful that each in turn should have an opportunity to shine, turned toward Léon and asked him, with a smile, whether in the course of his campaigns and the vicissitudes of a soldier’s life, he had not met with some adventure that would bear relating. Léon’s mind was ever engrossed with his own recent experiences, and he at once told the tale, placing it, however, to the account of a brother officer, but imparting to it the living interest that only a man who is full of his subject can command.
When he had finished, a lively discussion of this singular fad of independence followed. The ladies judged with just severity the inexcusable imprudence that had led a woman so lightly to expose herself, and they blamed her for having sacrificed her principles to a mistaken taste for freedom. The men held that her action was a sign of character and imagination, and that she had lived her romance with as much wit as decision, and they set her down as a charming woman. They all wished they had been in the shoes of that officer, but all declared they would not have allowed themselves to be so easily shaken off, for no vows would have induced them to refrain from unmasking and subjugating the beautiful fugitive.
“Indeed,” said a lady of a certain age, with some dryness, “one need hardly have been so scrupulous with a person who had so little respect for herself.”
“I admit,” said a very pretty woman seated in the corner of the fireplace, “that it is impossible to justify her conduct. Still, one may suppose that her aversion for a second marriage rested on some powerful and secret motive. The passion of maternity seems to have done the rest, and which of us, when fondling the child who smiles up at us, but can find in our heart some excuse for an error prompted by this feeling?”
“But you must at least admit that it was very hard upon this poor officer?”
“Why, what harm has she done to him?” asked the pretty lady in a careless tone.
“What harm!” cried Léon with some heat. “Is it then nothing for him to be ever pursued by the memory of a charming woman whom he loves for her grace and spirit, the possession of whom caused him such exquisite pleasure, and who now obstinately conceals herself from his sight and his affection–a woman who, apparently, only aroused his passion to forsake him at once, and who only preserves just such relations with him as may keep alive a desire that she never means to gratify? He is a husband and a father, and yet may not know the objects of the most natural of sentiments; he does not even know their whereabouts, though he is followed, found, and disposed of at will. Obligations are forced on him while he, less fortunate than the lowest of men, will never enjoy the reward of that domestic happiness which is open to all except himself.”
“Oh, admit there is some exaggeration in all this. What is to prevent him from marrying?”
“But how can he, madame? Even supposing time should at length wear out the deep impression made on him by his transient happiness, can he be said to belong to himself now? As long as she he loves is free, can he cease to be so too? If that odd aversion for a natural tie should pass away, and he could some day obtain the hand he has so long desired, how would he console himself if in the meantime he had disposed of his own?”
“You certainly attribute to your friend very great delicacy of feeling,” said the lady, fixing on Léon a glance in which there was both softness and interest.
He was touched, and went on with increasing fervor:
“And then this ring divided between his child and him, is not that too a chain that must hold him forever? No matter in what position he may be placed, his affection and fatherly care may one day be claimed–he belongs henceforth to some one, though no one belongs to him! And as a finishing touch to a unique situation, he can only hope to find his child by losing its mother! The first sight of that beloved object will tell him that one dearer yet is no more; and it is only at the price of a husband’s happiness that he can hope for that of a father!”
As he pronounced the last words Léon’s voice broke; a tear gathered in his eyes.
“My word, my dear Préval,” said the general, smiling, “you have given us so pathetic a picture of the young man’s situation that one is tempted to think you are drawing it from life.”
Mme. de B., seeing Léon’s emotion and embarrassment, hastened to change the subject. He remained standing against the chimney piece, near the pleasant-looking woman.
There was a moment’s silence.
“You have roused a good deal of interest in your friend,” she said gently. “Impossible to depict his feelings with greater eloquence.”
“At least, madame, the picture is a true one, but the campaign now about to begin will distract his mind from his troubles, and the hope of putting a glorious end to a life that offers no prospect of happiness–”
“What are you thinking of, monsieur?” said the lovely lady. “If you have any influence over him you ought to use it to turn his mind from so terrible an idea; and tell him it is his duty to preserve his life for that child.”
“But why should he recognize duties that can bring him no recompense? How can he owe his life to those who have spoiled it for him? But,” he added with a melancholy smile, “a bullet settles very many questions.”
At that moment the general called to him, and they took their leave amid cordial wishes from their friends for future glory and a safe return.
“That is a very interesting young man,” said Mme. de B. when the general and his aide-de-camp had left; “he has a charming face and a fine mind. It would be a great pity if he perished in Spain.”