Love in a Mask by Honoré de Balzac
THE impatience with which Léon waited for the morrow may be more easily imagined than described. How often did he run up to his rooms to see if the letter had yet arrived! How delighted he was when at last it was handed to him! But what was his astonishment to read these words:
“Here are the conditions on which he may have what he so persistently demanded:
“1. M. de Préval must be in his rooms at midnight tomorrow; a trustworthy man whom he has already seen once will call for him with a hired carriage which will convey him to his destination, only M. de Préval must allow his eyes to be blindfolded.
“2. He must refrain from questioning his guide, and must not attempt to bribe him (this would be quite useless), but he must quietly follow instructions.
“3. He must promise to make no noise, and no scandal; he must not make a fuss about the darkness, and must not attempt to induce the person who will be waiting for him to break the silence she has determined to keep.
“4. Finally, when his guide returns to fetch him, he must follow him out to the carriage and thence homeward, with the same precautions, and afterward, without making vain attempts to discover what is to be done with him, he must patiently await the enlightenment that is faithfully promised to him.
“5. If M. de Préval accepts these conditions he can write on the foot of this sheet that he will keep them, add his signature, and leave it in an envelope at his door to wait till called for.”
When he had read through this extraordinary document Léon, astonished beyond measure, was torn by a thousand conflicting feelings.
How was he to reconcile the elaborate precautions of this strange compact with the enlightenment that was promised? How could he make this appointment agree with the air of lofty distinction and reserve of the stranger?
He told himself over and over again that it would be the height of folly and imprudence to sign such a treaty, and embark on such a wild-goose chase. And yet, as the graceful image of the pretty Mask rose before his mind’s eye, and their animated talk at the ball recurred again to his memory, the contrast between her pride and her weakness, the piquancy of the situation, his now strongly aroused curiosity, and his vanity at stake, all combined to make up an irresistible temptation. For a moment he even fancied there might be a spice of danger in trusting himself to some unknown man to be led to an unknown place, his hands tied by his promise, and his person exposed defenseless to all risks. But this prospect added savor to the rest.
“No, indeed,” he cried, “I shall not draw back now; the precious reward offered is well worth a little folly.”
And, seizing a pen, this wise Cato wrote like any harebrained youth:
“I accept all the conditions imposed, and undertake on my word of honor to fulfil them scrupulously. I only ask permission to wear my sword.
“LÉON DE PRÉVAL.”
In the course of the evening some one called for his answer, and on the following day he received another note, containing these few words:
“He may wear his sword, but M. de Préval has nothing to fear for either his honor or his safety.”
Never was day so long.
For two hours Léon, ready dressed, had been walking up and down his room when the sound of a carriage drawing up to the door brought his heart into his mouth. Seizing his sword, he ran rapidly downstairs, and found the black servant standing there. The man motioned him to get into the carriage, and then, in his bad French, respectfully asked permission to bandage his eyes.
Léon made no resistance.
After driving a short time the Negro ordered the coachman to stop, and helped Léon to step out on to the pavement. Together they walked a few yards, and then entered a house where they mounted a short staircase. Léon could perceive that he was being led through some large rooms until they reached one that was filled with sweet scents. At this moment his bandage was removed, and, glancing eagerly round, he found himself in a dark apartment, at the end of which was an open door that revealed an elegant boudoir dimly lighted by an alabaster lamp.
The Negro standing beside him with a dark lantern in his hand pointed to the boudoir and in a low tone uttered the words: “Honor and silence.” He then disappeared.
Léon laid aside his sword, and entered swiftly. A woman, his unknown friend, dressed in a simple négligé, her head wrapped in a veil, was half reclining on a sofa.
Léon threw himself at her feet.
“I am a happy man!” he cried. “But what? Are you still hiding your face from me? For pity’s sake make no more mystery; throw off your veil.”
As he spoke he lifted his impatient hand. No obstacle was interposed but at the same instant the lamp went out.
We dare not throw light on the darkness that Léon respected. We will not infringe the order of silence; we will only say that his highest hopes were surpassed by the reality, and in the pleasure of that meeting he had no desire to break his word.
Time passed quickly, and the night was far advanced when a slight sound was heard in the apartment; a secret door had been opened, the stranger disappeared, and Léon found himself alone. The Negro stood again before him, and respectfully requested him to replace the bandage over his eyes and follow him.
“No,” he replied, both pained and vexed, “I will not go until I have seen her–until I have obtained–”
A woman’s voice interrupted him, whispering close beside him, “Honor and silence.”
Léon rushed toward the voice to find only a wall; he groped along it and came upon a small door fastened on the other side, through whose cracks he could distinguish a light that receded rapidly and then disappeared.
“Cruel,” he said, not daring to speak aloud, “stop one moment, only one word–”
“Honor and silence,” said the Negro firmly.
“Yes,” Léon replied sadly. “I am bound to honor, I promised, I submit. I can only hope that others will be as faithful to their word as I am to mine.”
The bandage was replaced, and Léon followed his guide out to the carriage. Soon he was at home again, where, alone with his memories, alternately delicious and sad, happy and anxious, he, now madly in love, wondered if indeed the whole thing were not a dream, and fell asleep in the hope of prolonging it.