Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
WHEN he once more opened his eyes Léon found himself in bed with a surgeon seated beside him. His wound had been redressed, and everything done for him that kindness could suggest. His servant, whom he tried to question, was eager to tell him, in a few words, what had happened, but the surgeon interrupted him and ordered silence and rest.
To Mme. de Roselis, who was anxiously awaiting news of the sick man, it was a shock to learn that he was extremely weak from loss of blood and that, in the event of fever setting in, he could hardly be expected to resist it. Perfect quiet was ordered. It was decided that the ladies must not go into his room, but should content themselves with seeing that he had everything he needed.
Next morning, Elinor rang her bell before dawn, and was terrified to learn that fever had set in during the night, to be followed by delirium. It was only then, in the surprise she felt at her own despair, that she realized how dear Léon had become to her, and she now admitted to herself that she could never be happy without him. Of her pride and futile prejudices nothing remained; her whole being was engrossed by the thought of his danger. Mme. de Gernancé was so afraid her agitation would betray her that she took great trouble throughout the day to keep her out of the patient’s room; but the next night, when her household was in bed, and she was once more alone and sleepless in the solemn silence which intensifies suffering and renders fear unbearable, Elinor, unable any longer to wrestle with her anxiety, rose and slipped out into the corridor to listen at the door of Léon’s room and find out how he was. He was still evidently delirious, and the distressed accents of his trembling voice came brokenly to her ear. Forgetting everything but her grief, she opened the door softly and went in.
The nurse had fallen asleep. By the dim light of the lamp she recognized the pleasant features that were so deeply graven on her memory; but the eyes were now fixed, the face bright with fever; his labored breathing could scarcely lift the sheet that seemed to weigh all too heavily on his chest. Elinor dropped into an arm-chair that was close to the door and hid her face and her tears in her two hands.
The slight noise she made roused Léon from his momentary stupor.
“Is that she?” he said. “Will she come? I am going to die. Let me see her at last. Tell her I am dying. But where is she to be found? I have lost her–lost her forever.”
He paused, and then began again.
“My daughter–bring her to me. Can they refuse to let me see my child when I am dying? Poor little thing! Don’t try to find your father. You have none. He was not able even to give you his blessing in his last moments.”
This was too much for Elinor, and she burst out sobbing.
Léon started and turned his head slightly, but his eyes, still fixed, saw nothing.
“Where is this mysterious hiding place? What do I see on the sofa? It is you, you whom I adore, you whom I sought. I hold you in my arms. But your mask–take off your mask, do take it off. What! You still want to run away? No, no, you shall not escape me again.”
As he spoke, he made an effort to raise himself.
“Léon,” cried Elinor, rushing to the bedside, “Léon, stop!”
He looked up at her, startled, uncertain; then, after an instant’s silence, he began again more calmly:
“It is too much. Lift my head. Ah! if I could but sleep!”
By this time the nurse, roused by Elinor’s cry, had come forward to support him, but he turned from her, and let his head drop on Elinor’s bosom. By degrees, a more tranquil sleep seemed to steal over his senses.
A little later Mme. de Gernancé joined them, looking anxiously for her friend. She too had risen before daybreak and, not finding Elinor in her own apartments, had hastened to the sick room, where the spectacle before her eyes arrested her at the door. Léon was asleep, supported on Elinor’s shoulder, while she, seated motionless on the edge of the bed with her head bent over her lover’s, was vainly endeavoring to check the tears that streamed from her eyes.
Mme. de Gernancé hastened up to the bed.
“What are you doing here, Elinor?” she said in a low whisper. “How imprudent you are!”
“Leave me alone,” her friend rejoined. “Nothing will induce me to leave this bed until this unfortunate man is either dead or saved. I don’t care who knows that I love him and that I am his; it is a just punishment for my offenses. If only he might live! Nothing else matters.”
Fear of disturbing the patient kept them both silent after that, and Léon’s sleep continued as calm as it was sound.
He had slept several hours when, half opening his eyes, and making an effort to lift the heavy lids, his first glance fell on the trembling Elinor, who was trying gently to put him back on the pillows.
He closed his eyes again. Then, once more opening them, “Where am I?” he said in a weak voice.
Then, seeing that he was almost in the arms of a woman who did not look like a nurse, he made a movement to try to help her to set down her burden. His eyes, wild no longer, but filled with surprise and doubt, followed Elinor behind the curtain, where she was attempting to conceal herself.
“Is it a dream?” he said, speaking with difficulty. “I seem to have seen that face before. Ah, madame, am I to believe–”
“He has recognized me,” she said to herself in a fright and blushing crimson.
“Once, I think, at Mme. de B.’s house, but once is sufficient. One could never forget you,” and his large languid eyes were still riveted on her.
“Be quiet! Be quiet! No more talking. You are ordered the strictest silence. Keep still, and do not even think. Hope and sleep.”
The doctor arrived shortly. He declared that the long sleep had done the patient a world of good, that the fever had gone down, and if the temperature now remained steady through the coming night he might be considered to be saved.
Elinor listened, holding her breath, and drinking in the reassuring words. Her joy, too great to be repressed, brought back a charming color to her pale, wet cheeks.
When night fell she insisted on taking her place in a corner of Léon’s room, to await the dreaded attack of fever. It did not come, however, and the night proved a good one. The following day the doctor announced that there was no longer any danger, but he thought it his duty to warm Mme. de Roselis that convalescence would probably be slow, and that it would be dangerous to move the patient until the wound was thoroughly healed.
Elinor, making a great effort to show only a cool compassion, trembled with joy at the prospect of the long days to come, when, in sweet intimacy, she would be able to devote herself to Léon and restore him to happiness as she had already restored him to life.
It was not long before he was able to express his gratitude to the kind chatelaine, whom, as he believed, he had seen but once before, but whose beauty, indulgence, and sensitiveness had made the deepest impression on him.
The two friends hardly left his room. They amused him, read to him, played soft music to him. It was the story over again of Bayard nursed by the two sisters; nay, it was more. Elinor, ever watchful, seemed to guess and forestall his every want; she always knew how to find for him the easiest position, and she surrounded him with those thousand and one little attentions which add to your comfort without attracting your attention.
It was then that Léon told them how, wounded severely in a hot fight in Spain, and left on the field of battle, he had been dragged from the jaws of death by a woman, who, touched by his youth and condition, had taken him home with her and nursed him tenderly. He was recovering when a troop of guerillas arrived at the place and he was forced to flee from his benefactress’ house in order to escape from their hands. After many narrow escapes he had finally reached Bayonne, where he had been too restless to stay long enough to be entirely cured, and the fatigues of the journey had brought about the accident to which he owed her generous hospitality. This was his story, and it explained to Elinor the uncertainty that had for so long hung about his fate.