Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
ALONE again, Elinor found her solitude unbearable; the happiness she had lately tasted could henceforth alone satisfy her heart. Her one thought now was to hasten to rejoin her friend and the man whom she already regarded as her husband.
A week after their departure found her with her little daughter back in her town house. Mme. de Gernancé was the only person who had been informed of her arrival.
After a long talk, in which she explained to her friend the way–a trifle romantic withal–in which she intended to make herself known to Léon, she succeeded in inducing her friend to help her carry out the scheme that pleased her fancy, and the pair separated, having arranged all the details agreed upon.
The season of the Opera Balls had opened, and Mme. de Gernancé invited Léon one night to accompany her to one. He declined at first, with a hot haste she had not anticipated; the scene of the adventure that was to have such an influence upon his life had become hateful to him, and he had sworn never to set foot there again. But Mme. de Gernancé insisted; she asked him only to lend her his arm until she could find a stranger who had promised to come, and whom she wanted to puzzle.
Léon, unable to refuse anything to Mme. de Roselis’ friend, at last consented, though with inward repugnance, and they set off together.
His entrance into the ballroom was a painful moment for him; a tumult of memories surged up in his mind.
Mme. de Gernancé made a few turns round the hall with him, and then, pretending to have discovered the person she was seeking, she set him at liberty and said good-bye. Scarcely had she left his arm when a voice, in spite of the slight affectation of manner inseparable from a masked ball, made his every pulse leap, uttered close beside him the words:
“Ah ha, I have caught you, faithless one! It is not for me you are looking, this time, at the Opera ball!”
He turned and saw before him– Who was it? His unknown lady herself. The white domino, the mask, even the diamond buckle that fastened her belt which he had noticed on that other occasion,–all were there.
“It is she!” he exclaimed, seizing her arm and slipping it beneath his own. “Have I found you again? Is it you I am looking at, is it you I hold? By what inconceivable miracle–”
“Is it really so astonishing? You know my talent for miracles.”
“It is true. It is the only thing I do know about you.”
“But what is past is nothing; there is much more to come. Now that you have fallen again in my power, you may expect the most extraordinary consequences. Your fate is sealed, your destiny is about to be fulfilled.”
But while she talked a growing disappointment damped the sudden joy that Léon had experienced at the first sight of her. He was bitterly wounded by the light, imperious tone she had adopted after those three years of total forgetfulness, added to her other wrongs. All the hard thoughts he had harbored of her in the long interval crowded back now upon his mind.
He stopped short.
“Well, madame,” he said coldly, “what is it you want of me? What fresh scheme are you devising? What new way of taking me in?”
“Oh, what a change three years can work in a man! Is this the tender, gentle, attentive Léon, who in this very room so fervently vowed to be wholly constant and submissive?”
“Ah, if I am changed, whose is the fault, cruel one? Is it not your own? For you devoted to my undoing all the charm that has most power over the heart of man, and having betrayed my faith, you cast me off, without remorse as without pity. Did you not take a pleasure in teaching me the value of what you cheated me out of, and then leave me for three years to my regrets, to forget you as best I could?”
“Léon, you are too severe. Here I am with you again. I have come back to atone for the wrong I did you, and restore to you all you pined for.”
“Ah, how can I put any faith in your words now? Perhaps, in a minute or two, you will once more disappear from my view, leaving no trace behind you but the pain you cause me. You are possibly already contriving some fresh ruse–”
Here she interrupted him, saying in a softened voice:
“No, no more ruses, no more secrets. Ah, Léon, I too have suffered. But let us forget the folly and pain that are over now. You may know and claim your wife now.”
“You did not want to be my wife–”
“True, but I was wrong; now I have come back to surrender to your love.”
“Once you disdained it–a pure and lasting love that filled my heart for you. What new caprice prompts you now to claim it? Are you sure it still exists for you? Was I to foster an insane passion for an invisible woman who had forsaken me? What makes you suppose me unchanged? Why should I not in my turn reject a chain once hateful to yourself? Why should not I too now cherish my independence? To me its cost is less than it is to you.”
These terrible words smote Elinor to the core. All the gaiety and fond hope that she had brought with her to the ball were gone now. She admitted the justice of the unexpected reproaches with which he had met her advances, and in her humiliation, her courage and her strength both deserted her.
Léon saw that she could scarcely stand, and he led her to a bench away from the crowd, seating himself beside her. Fortunately, the pain she was enduring found relief in tears.
“Ah, forgive me,” said Léon, touched at the spectacle of her genuine grief, “forgive me, O you whom I cannot understand. I am angry now with myself for my misplaced harshness! Only, having received so many marks of your indifference, could I expect to find you vulnerable?”
Then he pressed her to drop her mask, and allow him to see her home. At first she was tempted to comply, and to reveal the face that would instantly have disarmed him; but she dreaded a scene that might attract all eyes to them, and a wish to put him to one more proof restrained her. Drawing her hood down over her eyes, and disguising her voice more carefully than ever, she said sadly:
“No, why take me home? The hour is late, and you have taught me circumspection. Why remove my mask? Of what use to know a woman you can no longer love? I can see why you are so cold. I know where you spent your convalescence, and whose hands nursed you.”
“Well, then, madame,” said Léon, seriously, “you know also that my gratitude could not possibly be too warm, or my admiration too high. Yes, I do not deny it. In three months of the most endearing intimacy, tended by a woman whose beauty was the least of her charms, a woman sympathetic and reasonable, who unites the dignity proper to her sex with that kindness of heart that is an ornament the more–could I fail to appreciate so many lovable qualities? Could I ever forget her?”
Elinor, beside herself with joy at his words, felt that if she stayed another moment she would betray herself in spite of her efforts. She rose at once.
“Be happy then,” she said. “Your happiness will be mine. I say no more about myself. I ask nothing; you are free. But would you care to see your daughter?”
“Would I, indeed! You cannot doubt it!”
“Then come and lunch with me tomorrow and you shall.”
She gave him her address, but without adding her name.
“My people will know,” she said. “They will show you in.”
She left, deeply affected by what had passed.
“What would have become of me,” she said to herself in terror, “what should I have done, if I had never had the opportunity of winning his esteem and his love in another aspect?