Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
SHE sat one evening in a corner of the park, watching the child at play and musing idly on the man whose image Léonie always called up before her mind.
Presently there reached her ear confused voices, coming from the servants, who seemed to be searching for her.
“Madame must be somewhere in the park with her daughter,” she heard one say.
“With her daughter!” exclaimed a voice that she recognized as Mme. de Gernancé’s.
At the same moment that lady came in sight, and the two friends fell into each other’s arms.
“Dear Elinor,” said her visitor affectionately, “my anxiety about you gave me no peace. Your letters have been so few and far between, and were so sad, that I felt I must come and see for myself how you really were. I have come to share and, if possible, enliven your solitude for a little time.”
But while her friend was uttering her earnest thanks for this mark of friendship, Mme. de Gernancé had fixed her eyes on the child in much surprise and curiosity, for she saw that she was treated by the servants as the daughter of the house, and in her baby talk she constantly called out to her mother.
When they had gone back to the house Mme. de Roselis said, smiling:
“I see your astonishment, and I can guess your curiosity. Yes, dear friend, I have been keeping a secret from you, a secret that I could not bring myself to confide in you. But now, tomorrow, you shall hear all about it, and my story will at the same time explain my sadness.”
Notwithstanding the fatigue of her journey, Mme. de Gernancé scarcely slept that night, so great was her anxiety to hear the explanation of what was a mystery to her.
She was up early in the morning, and hastened to find Elinor, and together the two wandered out into the park to have their talk alone. Mme. de Roselis walked in silence by her friend’s side, a little shy of making this confidence that she had promised.
At last, hesitating slightly, she thus began:
“It is too late now, dear friend, to attempt to hide from you a secret that I have always wanted to tell you, and which I only delayed because I knew you would not approve. However, since I must confess, the baby who has so excited your curiosity is my daughter. I had so longed for a child, but I could not bear to place my neck a second time under the yoke that had weighed so heavy on me before.”
Mme. de Gernancé could not refrain from showing the surprise she felt; but without giving her time to speak, Elinor went on to tell her about the rash scheme she had formed on the voyage, and the means she had adopted for carrying it out.
She came at last to the birth of the child, but here she was interrupted impetuously by her friend.
“What precautions and prudence to bestow on an act of sheer madness! How much you risked! How could you compromise in such a way your reputation, and indeed your very life! And why all these sacrifices? Just to grasp an imperfect happiness you are obliged to hide, and dare not show! So this is to what your excessive caution has brought you! Carried away by your imagination, you have hugged a chimera which led you to refuse the real blessings of life in favor of the hollow satisfaction of following a caprice! Oh, take my advice, lose no time in recalling the father of that dear child. Do not any longer deprive yourself of the pleasures of natural affection and the sweetest of home ties.”
“Ah, it is no longer in my power,” exclaimed Mme. de Roselis. “Listen a moment, and you shall see how I have been punished for the error you so severely condemn.”
Then she reminded her of the young aide-de-camp who had been so much talked about at Mme. de B.’s, and who had been so keenly regretted by everybody.
“What!” cried Mme. de Gernancé, “was it he? Oh, what have you done, Elinor? How I pity you! Now you see how your folly has destroyed your peace of mind and happiness, and by a punishment that you richly deserve, it is not even possible for you to make any amends. Henceforth you will be a wife without a right to bear the name, and a mother, though you scarcely dare to have it known. You will spend your life blushing for the most natural and honorable of feelings, and you, so beautiful, so brilliant, so richly gifted by nature and fortune, have by your own perverse act deprived yourself of the happiness the meanest of women is entitled to enjoy, the happiness of having husband and child, the sweetest of all! But there is more in it even than that. I can read your heart; it is useless for your pride to try to conceal the fact from your friend and from yourself. Your heart is no longer in your own keeping; you love, you have given it–”
At this, Mme. de Roselis hid her face in her hands; the tears flowed from her eyes.
“Dear Elinor,” said Mme. de Gernancé kindly, drawing nearer to her and taking her in her arms, “when I see you weep, I realize I love you too well to be your judge. Don’t grieve any more for an evil that may be remedied. Let us hope that Léon is still alive, and that all may yet be condoned.”
But at that word Elinor’s tears ceased.
“Condoned!” she said proudly. “No, my dear, I do not think I should easily consent to what you call condoning it. I have done wrong, it is true, but not from weakness. I did it on purpose, after long consideration of the troubles I had borne. It is true I grieve over the fate of a man who does interest me, and whose life I have disturbed and perhaps shortened. I cannot be happy again until I know he is not dead; but as for giving up my independence, and by this change of mind letting people think I had been either weak or inconsequent this I shall never consent to.”
Mme. de Gernancé saw that it was not the moment to attack either the prejudices or the pride of her friend; from that moment, however, Léon became their one subject of conversation, and by thus constantly talking about him, Elinor unconsciously strengthened the inclination she already felt for him.
For her part Mme. de Gernancé would draw an attractive picture of the happiness she herself enjoyed, and which she assured her friend might easily be hers as well. Elinor, now touched, and somewhat shaken in her resolution, would smile at her friend’s advice, and anon, returning to her cherished chimera of liberty, would wax indignant at the suggestion that she should give it up, after the sacrifices she had made in its name. Still, on one point the two friends were ever agreed, and that was in wishing that Léon might return.
Elinor and Mme. de Gernancé were one day together, discussing their favorite subject, when a messenger came to tell them that the servant of a traveler, who was passing along the high road, was imploring help for his master, who, ill and in great pain, had just fainted away in his carriage.
Mme. de Roselis at once gave orders that everything possible should be done for him, and urged by compassion, so natural to women, went herself, accompanied by her friend, to see the sick man. He had been lifted out of the carriage and was lying on the grass, pale, unconscious, and covered with blood; his frightened servant was declaring that the wound had opened and his master was lost.
It was at this moment that Mme. de Roselis arrived on the scene; but scarcely had her eyes fallen on the inanimate form before her when she screamed, and, hiding her face on her friend’s shoulder, she said, in a stifled voice:
“It is he! He is going to die before my very eyes!”
“In Heaven’s name,” replied Mme. de Gernancé in a whisper, “take courage! Don’t betray yourself!”
Those few words were enough to bring Elinor to her senses; feeling the danger of the situation, she summoned all her strength and ordered the interesting invalid to be carried, still fainting, into the chateau.