Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
WHILST Léon, brooding in dull exile over his troubles, was mentally calculating the hours that must elapse before the expected message could be despatched, his unknown friend, also in seclusion, but in a charming estate situated on the road from Tours to Bordeaux, was freely indulging in those joyful anticipations that her audacity, coupled with her warm, eager blood, had warranted. In the independent position in which she now found herself everything was new, and everything seemed pleasant.
Born in Martinique, and reared amongst a slave population, the youthful Elinor at sixteen had never known any restraint but that of her parents’ indulgent rule; she had never felt the salutary yoke of the hard and fast laws of society. But at this period of her life her beauty, which had begun to make some stir in the place, aroused the admiration of M. de Roselis, the richest settler in the island. He came forward to ask for her hand, and his wealth so dazzled her ambitious relatives that it was granted immediately.
He was a man of some forty years, with a handsome face but a character as odious as it was contemptible. He had been the overseer of the property he now owned, and had spent his life there, and the habit of command had developed in him all those vices which invariably spring from isolation and unlimited power. Suspicious and violent, unprincipled and unscrupulous, his vanity, flattered by the possession of the handsomest girl in the colony, soon effaced in him any sentiment for her except that of a mean jealousy, which he indulged with the inflexibility of his imperious temper.
Elinor, shut up amongst her Negresses, over whom she had no control–many of them being, indeed, her own rivals–had now to endure the vilest treatment. Her proud and sensitive heart was filled with a deep-rooted resentment, and she visited on all men the hatred and contempt which were merited by the only one whom she had opportunity of judging.
Her parents died of grief at having thus sacrificed their only child, and shortly after her husband, worn out by a manner of life whose pleasures he had thoroughly exhausted, began to make preparations to remove to France. He had already arranged for the purchase of an estate in that country, when he was suddenly overtaken by death in the midst of a debauch.
Thus the beautiful Elinor de Roselis found herself at the age of twenty-five at once the richest and most independent woman in the colony, but, disgusted with a place in which she had known only sorrow, she resolved to put into execution her husband’s plans, and settle in France. One of her childhood friends, Mme. de Gernancé, who had been more fortunate than herself in marriage, was also about to remove with her family and fortune to France, so a vessel was chartered for them, and Mme. de Roselis, having once more vowed on the tomb of her parents to give no man in future a right to dispose of her person and fate went on board, her mind filled with a thousand schemes, and nursing as many fond hopes.
In the first years of her unhappy married life Mme. de Roselis had suffered keenly from her disappointment in having no children; later she found consolation in the fear lest a child of hers should inherit the vices that caused her such lasting and acute pain.
In the first flush of her recovered liberty this regret returned with fresh force; alone, without relatives, without affection, on the eve of landing on a foreign shore where she knew no one, she realized that independence is not the only requisite for happiness, and that we all need some interest in life to attach us to it. The company of her friend’s children, who were constantly with them during the voyage, riveted her thoughts to the subject, and it was their kisses and the games she played with them that first gave her the idea of the strange scheme we have seen her carry out. The long journey afforded her plenty of leisure in which to devise a way to guard against the serious inconveniences that might arise from such a proceeding; and in proportion as the idea took shape in her mind she became ever more enchanted with it, until by the time Bordeaux was reached she was completely under its spell.
Making only a short stay in that city, she quickly followed M. and Mme. de Gernancé to Paris, where they intended to spend the winter together. We have seen with what rashness and success she accomplished her object, and how her lucky star threw in her way a man like Léon de Préval, whose honesty and steadiness of character saved her from the dangers to which she was bent on exposing herself.
Admitting only her faithful black servant into her confidence, she had commissioned him to find for her in some distant suburb the little house that in the interval between the two balls she arranged to suit her purpose. The secret spring that extinguished the lamp and the secret door by which she escaped were the fruit of the careful forethought that she lavished on a scheme which assuredly could be justified by none.
As she was staying in the same hotel as her traveling companions, she was obliged to prepare them for her disappearance by telling them she intended to leave for the country on the day following the Mi-Carême. Accordingly, on the day appointed, notwithstanding her friends’ entreaties, she duly left, attended by the Negro, but she went only as far as the little house. The rest of her household having started a few hours earlier, all passed off as she had planned.
After the meeting that she had arranged with such care she remained concealed a short time in the villa. It was from thence she had written to him the letter that had caused Léon so much pain. A few days later, she left for Touraine.
Her first care on arriving was to spread a report in the district that her husband, already ill when they started, had died on the voyage; this was confirmed by her mourning dress. Soon she allowed it to be known that she was hoping shortly to possess a tardy token of their union. After some time the hope became an obvious certainty, and toward the end of the autumn Mme. de Roselis obtained her heart’s desire, and gave birth to a daughter who was brought up by her side in the chateau.
With what transports of joy she pressed her long-desired child to her bosom–the child in whom all the happiness of her life was bound up, and in whom all her tenderest feelings would be centered!
“You will love me dearly,” she said, “you will thank me for the care and love I shall lavish on you. I shall live for you only, and shall never have to fear lest desertion and insult may be the reward of my devotion. At last I have at my side a creature who is bound to me by the sweetest and closest of ties, whose innocent affection and childish joy will, I hope, suffice for my own happiness.”
It was but natural that the memory of him to whom she owed her new happiness should be present with her in the first glow of it. She thought how delighted Léon would be if he could see his child, and this brought back to her mind the promise she had made to let him know the date of its birth.
The Negro was sent to Paris to order the ring that had been described to Léon. He was told to find out at the War Office the whereabouts of his regiment, and to start immediately, at full speed, to take him this last message. He was himself to place it in the hands of M. de Préval, and to depart instantly, without giving the young officer time to ask a single question. The black carried out his instructions with as much accuracy as intelligence.