Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
MEANTIME, poor little Léonie was the only person who had a right to feel aggrieved by the arrival of the new guest, for she was carefully excluded from his room, where her high spirits might have appeared too boisterous. Elinor had a feeling of shame about showing her to Léon, as if she feared that he might guess his own interest in her; but the child, having been accustomed to be always with her mother, was constantly running after her.
Finding the sick man’s door ajar, one day, she softly pushed it, and put her pretty head through to look in. Her eyes, both timid and inquisitive, fell on the stranger whom she had never yet seen.
Léon was the first to catch sight of her. He called out in surprise.
“Where does that beautiful baby come from?” he exclaimed.
She had already fled, but her mother, with beating heart and flushed cheeks, called her back, took her in her arms, and placed her on Léon’s knees.
He was conscious of a sudden rush of memory, and in an inexplicable tide of feeling he gazed fondly at her, covered her with caresses, and then inquired her age in a voice that betrayed great emotion.
Elinor, confused and now convinced that he had guessed the truth, added a year.
“I should have taken her to be younger,” said Léon, with a sign and fell into a muse.
The little girl, having forgotten her fears, now refused to leave the lap of her new friend; nor could he bear to set her down.
“But I must part you,” said Elinor, smiling; “when I see you so distressed, I regret having brought her in.”
“Ah, madame, if you knew of what she reminds me!”
“But if I may take you to be the hero of an interesting anecdote that I have by no means forgotten, I can easily guess–”
“Well, yes, madame, it was I, and though she has betrayed and cast me off, after apparently choosing me, I have remained in spite of myself faithful to her memory, ever regretting a shadow, and pursuing a vain chimera, unable to die, or to live happy any longer.”
Elinor could hardly keep back her tears.
“Then,” she said timidly, “you love her still?”
“I scarcely know if I do, if I am weak enough to love her still; but our meetings, the moments spent in her presence, her grace, even her capriciousness,–all are graven on my memory. She has bruised my soul, and taken the glamour from life for me.”
“Oh,” cried Elinor in a heartbroken voice, “such constancy deserves reward. You may be sure that the day will come when she will return, humbled in her turn, softened, to heal the wounds she has caused and to win your pardon.”
“Never! For three years that proud, unfeeling woman has never condescended to send me as much as a word of remembrance. She has probably gone back to her own land, to India, America, or where not. She has triumphed, and must be laughing at my credulity, and I should like to forget her. Lately I have almost thought it might be possible, and perhaps, indeed,” he added, in an altered voice, “I shall succeed only too soon.”
“You will forget her, Léon?”
The words had been spoken in a voice of such tender reproach that Léon gazed at her. He saw that her eyes were full of tears.
“Ah, madame,” he said, after a moment’s pause, “your sympathy is very dear to me! If only she had your nature, your responsive sensitiveness, I should be a happy man today. My own child, perhaps as pretty as yours, would be now sitting on my knee.”
Then, turning on Elinor his still languid eyes:
“And her mother–close beside me–loving–”
“These recollections only sadden you, and do you no good at all” said Elinor, shaking all over, and picking up her child. “Decidedly, I shall have to part you.”
“Forgive me, madame; I have been dreaming. But why wake me so soon?”
Not daring to listen to another word, Elinor fled with her child to tell Mme. de Gernancé all that had passed between them.
From that day, little Léonie was as assiduous as her mother in her attentions to the convalescent. He continually asked for her, and became passionately attached to her.
The child, for her part, called him her friend, heaped kisses on him, and insisted on being always between him and her mother. Her artless affection for them both gave rise to many an embarrassing scene that was fraught with pleasure for Elinor, but left Léon ever more depressed and pensive.
Meantime, he was growing visibly stronger; his wound was making progress; time, which passes so swiftly in the happy days of a budding friendship, had brought winter back again with the month of December.
Mme. de Gernancé had for some time talked of leaving them; she now declared she could no longer postpone her departure. Then, all at once, in a voice that showed the effort the words cost him, Léon begged permission to accompany her.
Greatly surprised at so sudden a decision, Mme. de Roselis opposed the plan.
“Ah, madame,” he answered quickly, “pray let me go; I have but too long reveled in a happiness that is full of danger, since it is not for me. Let me flee from you and your child, from the spell of your kind care, and these happy days that fly so fast. Let me return to the solitude that must ever be my lot.”
“But at least, wait till we can ask the doctor if you are fit to–”
“There are dangers from which the doctor with his science is powerless to preserve me. My destiny is to flee all that is lovable, all that might captivate and charm. I cannot get away from this place too soon–”
“Well, my dear,” said Elinor, turning to her friend, “I must then trust my wounded knight to your care. You will answer to me for his safety, at all events.”
A little taken aback, perhaps, at her letting him go so easily, Léon went out to give the necessary orders for his departure. Elinor followed him with her eyes, a smile on her face.
“Well, perhaps you will be kind enough to explain this new comedy to me,” said Mme. de Gernancé in much vexation. “it is clear that he is running away because he is afraid he might love you. Then what are you waiting for? Why not reveal yourself, and end this folly that has lasted already far too long? Can you find any pleasure in this new way of tormenting him?”
“Ah, dear, how fascinating it is to be your own rival, to win him twice under such different guises! He is true to me even in his inconstancy; he has so much delicacy and honor that he runs from me so as not to betray me. He loved me once; he loves no one but me. How happy I am!”
“But Léon, poor Léon! When are you going to begin to think about his happiness? Say what you have to say to him, Elinor, and let us all go to Paris together, where you can make a marriage that will, I suppose, have no terrors for you.
“No, I have a plan in my head. You go with him, and I will follow you very shortly.”
“Elinor, Elinor, still romantic, still imagining wild schemes!”
“Dear friend only this once. It shall be the very last time, I swear!”
At that moment, Léon returned. He seemed disturbed and excited. Everything was being got ready for his journey.
Mme. de Gernancé, displeased with her friend, but forced to yield to her, went off to make her own preparations. But when the time came to say good-bye, every one broke down; Elinor, in tears, handed her patient over to Mme. de Gernancé, who promised to take him home with her and to look after him carefully; Léon, white and grave, stood beside the carriage, thanking her over and over again in impassioned tones. He constantly left and then returned to the child, who cried aloud when she saw her friend going away.
Mme. de Gernancé came close to Elinor.
“There is still time,” she said in a whisper.
Wavering for a moment, Mme. de Roselis at last replied:
“No, there is only one way in which I can make that difficult confession.”
Then Mme. de Gernancé drew Léon away, took her seat in the carriage with him, and the horses started at once, bearing both out of sight.