Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
FROM that moment Mme. de Roselis (for she, of course, it was) lost the tranquil ease and proud indifference she had flattered herself she would be able to preserve. She now measured the gravity and danger of her act by the severity with which the women had judged it, while the light comments of the men revealed to her the magnitude of the debt she owed to Léon’s rare delicacy of conduct.
This consideration increased her regard for him. By degrees the idea that she had injured a man who worshiped her and whom she could not help liking, the peril and glory that hung around him lending him the glamour that women love, and, finally, the element of anxiety about him,–the food on which both love and memory thrive,–all these things helped to waken in her heart a feeling that was new to her.
She was seized with a longing to see her daughter again, and regain her solitude, and her one thought was to get away as quickly as possible.
While paying her farewell visit to Mme. de B. she heard that General X. and his pleasant young aide-de-camp were on their way to Spain, where hostilities had already begun. Her heart smote her. She cut her call short; an almost painful restlessness impelled her homewards to hasten the preparations for departure.
What a difference there was between her present state of mind and that in which she had arrived at the beginning of the winter, when on Mme. de Gernancé’s pressing invitation she had agreed to spend that season in Paris. Cheerful, contented, in the flower of her youth, looking forward to every kind of enjoyment, such was Mme. de Roselis then, and it may be imagined with what favor the beautiful and wealthy widow was received in a society where happiness constitutes a great merit. Mme. de B. was one of the first persons to whom Elinor was introduced. M. de Gernancé was an intimate friend of that lady’s husband and when the first rumors of war had begun to circulate in the city the idea had struck Elinor to utilize this friendship to procure a better and less dangerous post for Léon. She had given M. de Gernancé to understand that the young man had been recommended to her by his family, and she only requested that her name might not be mentioned in the transaction.
Her intervention was crowned with success, and then by a coincidence the meeting between the two had taken place and the whole course of her life was suddenly changed.
Mme. de Roselis then wended her way back to Touraine, worried, anxious, vexed with herself for the folly that had brought about such unlooked for results. Her lively imagination painted as imminent all the most terrible disasters that could possibly befall, and her heart melted at the contemplation of misfortunes that she was inventing for herself. She left her black servant in Paris to collect and forward all the news that came in from Spain, for she was beginning to take a keen interest in the events that were passing there.
At the sight of her daughter she felt her dearer to her than ever; she detected a likeness hitherto unnoticed, and new kisses, fonder than the first, were the result of this discovery.
More lonely now than she had ever been, Mme. de Roselis spent the summer watching the daily progress of her darling babe; every month it grew in beauty and in intelligence. Elinor was charmed; yet frequently she would have been glad to find at her side some one who could share her maternal enthusiasm.
“It is sad, after all,” she said to herself, “to have nobody with me who can enter into my happiness and share it with me. I suppose,” she went on, with a sigh that her pride promptly stifled, “only a father could take pleasure in these childish things. And even so, who knows, but afterwards, a despotic lord and master might hinder my plans for bringing her up, and his rigid strictness– Ah, but Léon would never be despotic. He has a very gentle expression and a tender smile. He would make a good father.”
Then she remembered that he was far away, and exposed to all the dangers of war; that he sought death, was perhaps already dead.
And Mme. de Roselis wrote for tidings from Spain, only regaining her cheerful and proud mien when she learned that M. de Préval was in such or such a town, and in good health.
As winter approached, her friends, unable to conceive what was the attraction that kept her away alone, wrote urging her to come up to town and stay with them again. But she could not make up her mind as yet to leave her little Léonie again, for she loved her more passionately every day, and, not caring to inform Mme. de Gernancé of the child’s existence, she made various excuses for postponing her departure.
It was not until January that she finally went up to Paris. But all the brilliant gaiety and pleasant parties that had so delighted her the previous year now failed to interest her at all; they seemed tedious and insipid. She returned home worn out, and discontented; felt lonely when she got there, and began to wonder whether the independence that she worshiped was not too frequently purchased at the price of an empty heart and the dullness it involves.
Wearied by the persistent attentions of a crowd of triflers, who were encouraged by her position, she told herself that she would have done better to attach to her side one who would have rid her of the rest; that in society an attractive and beautiful woman needs a protector who will compel all others to respect her; and imperceptibly, the memory of Léon became less indifferent to her.
Then, suddenly, there came tidings of fierce fighting in Spain.
In great alarm Elinor, filled with the gloomiest presentiments, hastened to call on Mme. de B. She found her friends already occupied with the subject that filled her thoughts, but what was her emotion when, after mentioning the names of several officers who had perished in the engagement, Mme. de B., turning to her, said:
“Do you remember, madame, that nice young aide-de-camp of General X.’s who told us that strange story? Well, he has disappeared since the battle. He is not to be found among either the living or the dead.”
Elinor’s only reply was a cry of surprise. Fortunately for her, all those present broke into an eager discussion of the news. She listened in silence to conjectures each more dismal than the last, and then hastily took her leave. She knew at last that, notwithstanding all her precautions, a man had the power to disturb her happiness and influence the course of her life.
She remained in Paris a month longer, hoping always to obtain reliable information, but as no news came to throw light on the darkness hanging over the fate of Léon, she decided to return to Touraine.
In vain Mme. de Gernancé, who could not understand her low spirits, tried to dissuade her from leaving them, fearing, in her uneasiness about her friend’s health, lest loneliness might be prejudicial to her. Elinor departed, carrying with her the anxiety and regret that she could not shake off. The sight of her child only increased her sorrow.
“She has only me now,” she said. “He who might one day have taken my place is gone.”
She watched the post impatiently, but nearly two months passed, and still no news came of Léon’s fate.