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Honorine by Honore de Balzac

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" 'Seriously?'

" 'Certainly,' said she, tossing her head. 'If such a crime is
possible, I ought to know it.'

" 'In the first place, madame,' I went on, pointing to her hands,
'those pretty fingers, which are enough to show that you are not a
mere girl--were they made for toil? Then you call yourself Madame
Gobain, you, who, in my presence the other day on receiving a letter,
said to Marie: "Here, this is for you?" Marie is the real Madame
Gobain; so you conceal your name behind that of your housekeeper.--
Fear nothing, madame, from me. You have in me the most devoted friend
you will ever have: Friend, do you understand me? I give this word its
sacred and pathetic meaning, so profaned in France, where we apply it
to our enemies. And your friend, who will defend you against
everything, only wishes that you should be as happy as such a woman
ought to be. Who can tell whether the pain I have involuntarily caused
you was not a voluntary act?'

" 'Yes,' replied she with threatening audacity, 'I insist on it. Be
curious, and tell me all that you can find out about me; but,' and she
held up her finger, 'you must also tell me by what means you obtain
your information. The preservation of the small happiness I enjoy here
depends on the steps you take.'

" 'That means that you will fly----'

" 'On wings!' she cried, 'to the New World----'

" 'Where you will be at the mercy of the brutal passions you will
inspire,' said I, interrupting her. 'Is it not the very essence of
genius and beauty to shine, to attract men's gaze, to excite desires
and evil thoughts? Paris is a desert with Bedouins; Paris is the only
place in the world where those who must work for their livelihood can
hide their life. What have you to complain of? Who am I? An additional
servant--M. Gobain, that is all. If you have to fight a duel, you may
need a second.'

" 'Never mind; find out who I am. I have already said that I insist.
Now, I beg that you will,' she went on, with the grace which you
ladies have at command," said the Consul, looking at the ladies.

" 'Well, then, to-morrow, at the same hour, I will tell you what I may
have discovered,' replied I. 'But do not therefore hate me! Will you
behave like other women?'

" 'What do other women do?'

" 'They lay upon us immense sacrifices, and when we have made them,
they reproach us for it some time later as if it were an injury.'

" 'They are right if the thing required appears to be a sacrifice!'
replied she pointedly.

" 'Instead of sacrifices, say efforts and----'

" 'It would be an impertinence,' said she.

" 'Forgive me,' said I. 'I forget that woman and the Pope are

" 'Good heavens!' said she after a long pause, 'only two words would
be enough to destroy the peace so dearly bought, and which I enjoy
like a fraud----'

"She rose and paid no further heed to me.

" 'Where can I go?' she said. 'What is to become of me?--Must I leave
this quiet retreat, that I had arranged with such care to end my days

" 'To end your days!' exclaimed I with visible alarm. 'Has it never
struck you that a time would come when you could no longer work, when
competition will lower the price of flowers and articles of

" 'I have already saved a thousand crowns,' she said.

" 'Heavens! what privations such a sum must represent!' I exclaimed.

" 'Leave me,' said she, 'till to-morrow. This evening I am not myself;
I must be alone. Must I not save my strength in case of disaster? For,
if you should learn anything, others besides you would be informed,
and then--Good-night,' she added shortly, dismissing me with an
imperious gesture.

" 'The battle is to-morrow, then,' I replied with a smile, to keep up
the appearance of indifference I had given to the scene. But as I went
down the avenue I repeated the words:

" 'The battle is to-morrow.'

"Octave's anxiety was equal to Honorine's. The Count and I remained
together till two in the morning, walking to and fro by the trenches
of the Bastille, like two generals who, on the eve of a battle,
calculate all the chances, examine the ground, and perceive that the
victory must depend on an opportunity to be seized half-way through
the fight. These two divided beings would each lie awake, one in the
hope, the other in agonizing dread of reunion. The real dramas of life
are not in circumstances, but in feelings; they are played in the
heart, or, if you please, in that vast realm which we ought to call
the Spiritual World. Octave and Honorine moved and lived altogether in
the world of lofty spirits.

"I was punctual. At ten next evening I was, for the first time, shown
into a charming bedroom furnished with white and blue--the nest of
this wounded dove. The Countess looked at me, and was about to speak,
but was stricken dumb by my respectful demeanor.

" 'Madame la Comtesse,' said I with a grave smile.

"The poor woman, who had risen, dropped back into her chair and
remained there, sunk in an attitude of grief, which I should have
liked to see perpetuated by a great painter.

" 'You are,' I went on, 'the wife of the noblest and most highly
respected of men; of a man who is acknowledged to be great, but who is
far greater in his conduct to you than he is in the eyes of the world.
You and he are two lofty natures.--Where do you suppose yourself to be
living?' I asked her.

" 'In my own house,' she replied, opening her eyes with a wide stare
of astonishment.

" 'In Count Octave's,' I replied. 'You have been tricked. M.
Lenormand, the usher of the Court, is not the real owner; he is only a
screen for your husband. The delightful seclusion you enjoy is the
Count's work, the money you earn is paid by him, and his protection
extends to the most trivial details of your existence. Your husband
has saved you in the eyes of the world; he has assigned plausible
reasons for your disappearance; he professes to hope that you were not
lost in the wreck of the /Cecile/, the ship in which you sailed for
Havana to secure the fortune to be left to you by an old aunt, who
might have forgotten you; you embarked, escorted by two ladies of her
family and an old man-servant. The Count says that he has sent agents
to various spots, and received letters which give him great hopes. He
takes as many precautions to hide you from all eyes as you take
yourself. In short, he obeys you . . .'

" 'That is enough,' she said. 'I want to know but one thing more. From
whom have you obtained all these details?'

" 'Well, madame, my uncle got a place for a penniless youth as
secretary to the Commissary of police in this part of Paris. That
young man told me everything. If you leave this house this evening,
however stealthily, your husband will know where you are gone, and his
care will follow you everywhere.--How could a woman so clever as you
are believe that shopkeepers buy flowers and caps as dear as they sell
them? Ask a thousand crowns for a bouquet, and you will get it. No
mother's tenderness was ever more ingenious than your husband's! I
have learned from the porter of this house that the Count often comes
behind the fence when all are asleep, to see the glimmer of your
nightlight! Your large cashmere shawl cost six thousand francs--your
old-clothes-seller brings you, as second hand, things fresh from the
best makers. In short, you are living here like Venus in the toils of
Vulcan; but you are alone in your prison by the devices of a sublime
magnanimity, sublime for seven years past, and at every hour.'

"The Countess was trembling as a trapped swallow trembles while, as
you hold it in your hand, it strains its neck to look about it with
wild eyes. She shook with a nervous spasm, studying me with a defiant
look. Her dry eyes glittered with a light that was almost hot: still,
she was a woman! The moment came when her tears forced their way, and
she wept--not because she was touched, but because she was helpless;
they were tears of desperation. She had believed herself independent
and free; marriage weighed on her as the prison cell does on the

" 'I will go!' she cried through her tears. 'He forces me to it; I
will go where no one certainly will come after me.'

" 'What,' I said, 'you would kill yourself?--Madame, you must have
some very powerful reasons for not wishing to return to Comte Octave.'

" 'Certainly I have!'

" 'Well, then, tell them to me; tell them to my uncle. In us you will
find two devoted advisers. Though in the confessional my uncle is a
priest, he never is one in a drawing-room. We will hear you; we will
try to find a solution of the problems you may lay before us; and if
you are the dupe or the victim of some misapprehension, perhaps we can
clear the matter up. Your soul, I believe, is pure; but if you have
done wrong, your fault is fully expiated. . . . At any rate, remember
that in me you have a most sincere friend. If you should wish to evade
the Count's tyranny, I will find you the means; he shall never find

" 'Oh! there is always a convent!' said she.

" 'Yes. But the Count, as Minister of State, can procure your
rejection by every convent in the world. Even though he is powerful, I
will save you from him--; but--only when you have demonstrated to me
that you cannot and ought not to return to him. Oh! do not fear that
you would escape his power only to fall into mine,' I added, noticing
a glance of horrible suspicion, full of exaggerated dignity. 'You
shall have peace, solitude, and independence; in short, you shall be
as free and as little annoyed as if you were an ugly, cross old maid.
I myself would never be able to see you without your consent.'

" 'And how? By what means?'

" 'That is my secret. I am not deceiving you, of that you may be sure.
Prove to me that this is the only life you can lead, that it is
preferable to that of the Comtesse Octave, rich, admired, in one of
the finest houses in Paris, beloved by her husband, a happy
mother . . . and I will decide in your favor.'

" 'But,' said she, 'will there never be a man who understands me?'

" 'No. And that is why I appeal to religion to decide between us. The
Cure of the White Friars is a saint, seventy-five years of age. My
uncle is not a Grand Inquisitor, he is Saint John; but for you he will
be Fenelon--the Fenelon who said to the Duc de Bourgogne: 'Eat a calf
on a Friday by all means, monseigneur. But be a Christian.'

" 'Nay, nay, monsieur, the convent is my last hope and my only refuge.
There is none but God who can understand me. No man, not Saint
Augustine himself, the tenderest of the Fathers of the Church, could
enter into the scruples of my conscience, which are to me as the
circles of Dante's hell, whence there is no escape. Another than my
husband, a different man, however unworthy of the offering, has had
all my love. No, he has not had it, for he did not take it; I gave it
him as a mother gives her child a wonderful toy, which it breaks. For
me there never could be two loves. In some natures love can never be
on trial; it is, or it is not. When it comes, when it rises up, it is
complete.--Well, that life of eighteen months was to me a life of
eighteen years; I threw into it all the faculties of my being, which
were not impoverished by their effusiveness; they were exhausted by
that delusive intimacy in which I alone was genuine. For me the cup of
happiness is not drained, nor empty; and nothing can refill it, for it
is broken. I am out of the fray; I have no weapons left. Having thus
utterly abandoned myself, what am I?--the leavings of a feast. I had
but one name bestowed on me, Honorine, as I had but one heart. My
husband had the young girl, a worthless lover had the woman--there is
nothing left!--Then let myself be loved! that is the great idea you
mean to utter to me. Oh! but I still am something, and I rebel at the
idea of being a prostitute! Yes, by the light of the conflagration I
saw clearly; and I tell you--well, I could imagine surrendering to
another man's love, but to Octave's?--No, never.'

" 'Ah! you love him,' I said.

" 'I esteem him, respect him, venerate him; he never has done me the
smallest hurt; he is kind, he is tender; but I can never more love
him. However,' she went on, 'let us talk no more of this. Discussion
makes everything small. I will express my notions on this subject in
writing to you, for at this moment they are suffocating me; I am
feverish, my feet are standing in the ashes of my Paraclete. All that
I see, these things which I believed I had earned by my labor, now
remind me of everything I wish to forget. Ah! I must fly from hence as
I fled from my home.'

" 'Where will you go?' I asked. 'Can a woman exist unprotected? At
thirty, in all the glory of your beauty, rich in powers of which you
have no suspicion, full of tenderness to be bestowed, are you prepared
to live in the wilderness where I could hide you?--Be quite easy. The
Count, who for nine years has never allowed himself to be seen here,
will never go there without your permission. You have his sublime
devotion of nine years as a guarantee for your tranquillity. You may
therefore discuss the future in perfect confidence with my uncle and
me. My uncle has as much influence as a Minister of State. So compose
yourself; do not exaggerate your misfortune. A priest whose hair has
grown white in the exercise of his functions is not a boy; you will be
understood by him to whom every passion has been confided for nearly
fifty years now, and who weighs in his hands the ponderous heart of
kings and princes. If he is stern under his stole, in the presence of
your flowers he will be as tender as they are, and as indulgent as his
Divine Master.'

"I left the Countess at midnight; she was apparently calm, but
depressed, and had some secret purpose which no perspicacity could
guess. I found the Count a few paces off, in the Rue Saint-Maur. Drawn
by an irresistible attraction, he had quitted the spot on the
Boulevards where we had agreed to meet.

" 'What a night my poor child will go through!' he exclaimed, when I
had finished my account of the scene that had just taken place.
'Supposing I were to go to her!' he added; 'supposing she were to see
me suddenly?'

" 'At this moment she is capable of throwing herself out of the
window,' I replied. 'The Countess is one of those Lucretias who could
not survive any violence, even if it were done by a man into whose
arms she could throw herself.'

" 'You are young,' he answered; 'you do not know that in a soul tossed
by such dreadful alternatives the will is like waters of a lake lashed
by a tempest; the wind changes every instant, and the waves are driven
now to one shore, now to the other. During this night the chances are
quite as great that on seeing me Honorine might rush into my arms as
that she would throw herself out of the window.'

" 'And you would accept the equal chances,' said I.

" 'Well, come,' said he, 'I have at home, to enable me to wait till
to-morrow, a dose of opium which Desplein prepared for me to send me
to sleep without any risk!'

"Next day at noon Gobain brought me a letter, telling me that the
Countess had gone to bed at six, worn out with fatigue, and that,
having taken a soothing draught prepared by the chemist, she had now
fallen asleep.

"This is her letter, of which I kept a copy--for you, mademoiselle,"
said the Consul, addressing Camille, "know all the resources of art,
the tricks of style, and the efforts made in their compositions by
writers who do not lack skill; but you will acknowledge that
literature could never find such language in its assumed pathos; there
is nothing so terrible as truth. Here is the letter written by this
woman, or rather by this anguish:--


" 'I know all your uncle would say to me; he is not better informed
than my own conscience. Conscience is the interpreter of God to man. I
know that if I am not reconciled to Octave, I shall be damned; that is
the sentence of religious law. Civil law condemns me to obey, cost
what it may. If my husband does not reject me, the world will regard
me as pure, as virtuous, whatever I may have done. Yes, that much is
sublime in marriage; society ratifies the husband's forgiveness; but
it forgets that the forgiveness must be accepted. Legally,
religiously, and from the world's point of view I ought to go back to
Octave. Keeping only to the human aspect of the question, is it not
cruel to refuse him happiness, to deprive him of children, to wipe his
name out of the Golden Book and the list of peers? My sufferings, my
repugnance, my feelings, all my egoism--for I know that I am an egoist
--ought to be sacrificed to the family. I shall be a mother; the
caresses of my child will wipe away many tears! I shall be very happy;
I certainly shall be much looked up to. I shall ride, haughty and
wealthy, in a handsome carriage! I shall have servants and a fine
house, and be the queen of as many parties as there are weeks in the
year. The world will receive me handsomely. I shall not have to climb
up again to the heaven of aristocracy, I shall never have come down
from it. So God, the law, society are all in accord.

" ' "What are you rebelling against?" I am asked from the height of
heaven, from the pulpit, from the judge's bench, and from the throne,
whose august intervention may at need be invoked by the Count. Your
uncle, indeed, at need, would speak to me of a certain celestial grace
which will flood my heart when I know the pleasure of doing my duty.

" 'God, the law, the world, and Octave all wish me to live, no doubt.
Well, if there is no other difficulty, my reply cuts the knot: I will
not live. I will become white and innocent again; for I will lie in my
shroud, white with the blameless pallor of death. This is not in the
least "mulish obstinacy." That mulish obstinacy of which you jestingly
accused me is in a woman the result of confidence, of a vision of the
future. Though my husband, sublimely generous, may forget all, I shall
not forget. Does forgetfulness depend on our will? When a widow
re-marries, love makes a girl of her; she marries a man she loves. But
I cannot love the Count. It all lies in that, do not you see?

" 'Every time my eyes met his I should see my sin in them, even when
his were full of love. The greatness of his generosity would be the
measure of the greatness of my crime. My eyes, always uneasy, would be
for ever reading an invisible condemnation. My heart would be full of
confused and struggling memories; marriage can never move me to the
cruel rapture, the mortal delirium of passion. I should kill my
husband by my coldness, by comparisons which he would guess, though
hidden in the depths of my conscience. Oh! on the day when I should
read a trace of involuntary, even of suppressed reproach in a furrow
on his brow, in a saddened look, in some imperceptible gesture,
nothing could hold me: I should be lying with a fractured skull on the
pavement, and find that less hard than my husband. It might be my own
over-susceptibility that would lead me to this horrible but welcome
death; I might die the victim of an impatient mood in Octave caused by
some matter of business, or be deceived by some unjust suspicion.
Alas! I might even mistake some proof of love for a sign of contempt!

" 'What torture on both sides! Octave would be always doubting me, I
doubting him. I, quite involuntarily, should give him a rival wholly
unworthy of him, a man whom I despise, but with whom I have known
raptures branded on me with fire, which are my shame, but which I
cannot forget.

" 'Have I shown you enough of my heart? No one, monsieur, can convince
me that love may be renewed, for I neither can nor will accept love
from any one. A young bride is like a plucked flower; but a guilty
wife is like a flower that had been walked over. You, who are a
florist, you know whether it is ever possible to restore the broken
stem, to revive the faded colors, to make the sap flow again in the
tender vessels of which the whole vegetative function lies in their
perfect rigidity. If some botanist should attempt the operation, could
his genius smooth out the folds of the bruised corolla? If he could
remake a flower, he would be God! God alone can remake me! I am
drinking the bitter cup of expiation; but as I drink it I painfully
spell out this sentence: Expiation is not annihilation.

" 'In my little house, alone, I eat my bread soaked in tears; but no
one sees me eat nor sees me weep. If I go back to Octave, I must give
up my tears--they would offend him. Oh! monsieur, how many virtues
must a woman tread under foot, not to give herself, but to restore
herself to a betrayed husband? Who could count them? God alone; for He
alone can know and encourage the horrible refinements at which the
angels must turn pale. Nay, I will go further. A woman has courage in
the presence of her husband if he knows nothing; she shows a sort of
fierce strength in her hypocrisy; she deceives him to secure him
double happiness. But common knowledge is surely degrading. Supposing
I could exchange humiliation for ecstasy? Would not Octave at last
feel that my consent was sheer depravity? Marriage is based on esteem,
on sacrifices on both sides; but neither Octave nor I could esteem
each other the day after our reunion. He would have disgraced me by a
love like that of an old man for a courtesan, and I should for ever
feel the shame of being a chattel instead of a lady. I should
represent pleasure, and not virtue, in his house. These are the bitter
fruits of such a sin. I have made myself a bed where I can only toss
on burning coals, a sleepless pillow.

" 'Here, when I suffer, I bless my sufferings; I say to God, "I thank
Thee!" But in my husband's house I should be full of terror, tasting
joys to which I have no right.

" 'All this, monsieur, is not argument; it is the feeling of a soul
made vast and hollow by seven years of suffering. Finally, must I make
a horrible confession? I shall always feel at my bosom the lips of a
child conceived in rapture and joy, and in the belief in happiness, of
a child I nursed for seven months, that I shall bear in my womb all
the days of my life. If other children should draw their nourishment
from me, they would drink in tears mingling with the milk, and turning
it sour. I seem a light thing, you regard me as a child--Ah yes! I
have a child's memory, the memory which returns to us on the verge of
the tomb. So, you see, there is not a situation in that beautiful life
to which the world and my husband's love want to recall me, which is
not a false position, which does not cover a snare or reveal a
precipice down which I must fall, torn by pitiless rocks. For five
years now I have been wandering in the sandy desert of the future
without finding a place convenient to repent in, because my soul is
possessed by true repentance.

" 'Religion has its answers ready to all this, and I know them by
heart. This suffering, these difficulties, are my punishment, she
says, and God will give me strength to endure them. This, monsieur, is
an argument to certain pious souls gifted with an energy which I have
not. I have made my choice between this hell, where God does not
forbid my blessing Him, and the hell that awaits me under Count
Octave's roof.

" 'One word more. If I were still a girl, with the experience I now
have, my husband is the man I should choose; but that is the very
reason of my refusal. I could not bear to blush before that man. What!
I should be always on my knees, he always standing upright; and if we
were to exchange positions, I should scorn him! I will not be better
treated by him in consequence of my sin. The angel who might venture
under such circumstances on certain liberties which are permissible
when both are equally blameless, is not on earth; he dwells in heaven!
Octave is full of delicate feeling, I know; but even in his soul
(which, however generous, is a man's soul after all) there is no
guarantee for the new life I should lead with him.

" 'Come then, and tell me where I may find the solitude, the peace,
the silence, so kindly to irreparable woes, which you promised me.'

"After making this copy of the letter to preserve it complete, I went
to the Rue Payenne. Anxiety had conquered the power of opium. Octave
was walking up and down his garden like a madman.

" 'Answer that!' said I, giving him his wife's letter. 'Try to
reassure the modesty of experience. It is rather more difficult than
conquering the modesty of ignorance, which curiosity helps to betray.'

" 'She is mine!' cried the Count, whose face expressed joy as he went
on reading the letter.

"He signed to me with his hand to leave him to himself. I understood
that extreme happiness and extreme pain obey the same laws; I went in
to receive Madame de Courteville and Amelie, who were to dine with the
Count that day. However handsome Mademoiselle de Courteville might be,
I felt, on seeing her once more, that love has three aspects, and that
the women who can inspire us with perfect love are very rare. As I
involuntarily compared Amelie with Honorine, I found the erring wife
more attractive than the pure girl. To Honorine's heart fidelity had
not been a duty, but the inevitable; while Amelie would serenely
pronounce the most solemn promises without knowing their purport or to
what they bound her. The crushed, the dead woman, so to speak, the
sinner to be reinstated, seemed to me sublime; she incited the special
generosities of a man's nature; she demanded all the treasures of the
heart, all the resources of strength; she filled his life and gave the
zest of a conflict to happiness; whereas Amelie, chaste and confiding,
would settle down into the sphere of peaceful motherhood, where the
commonplace must be its poetry, and where my mind would find no
struggle and no victory.

"Of the plains of Champagne and the snowy, storm-beaten but sublime
Alps, what young man would choose the chalky, monotonous level? No;
such comparisons are fatal and wrong on the threshold of the Mairie.
Alas! only the experience of life can teach us that marriage excludes
passion, that a family cannot have its foundation on the tempests of
love. After having dreamed of impossible love, with its infinite
caprices, after having tasted the tormenting delights of the ideal, I
saw before me modest reality. Pity me, for what could be expected! At
five-and-twenty I did not trust myself; but I took a manful

"I went back to the Count to announce the arrival of his relations,
and I saw him grown young again in the reflected light of hope.

" 'What ails you, Maurice?' said he, struck by my changed expression.

" 'Monsieur le Comte----'

" 'No longer Octave? You, to whom I shall owe my life, my

" 'My dear Octave, if you should succeed in bringing the Countess back
to her duty, I have studied her well'--(he looked at me as Othello
must have looked at Iago when Iago first contrived to insinuate a
suspicion into the Moor's mind)--'she must never see me again; she
must never know that Maurice was your secretary. Never mention my name
to her, or all will be undone. . . . You have got me an appointment as
Maitre des Requetes--well, get me instead some diplomatic post abroad,
a consulship, and do not think of my marrying Amelie.--Oh! do not be
uneasy,' I added, seeing him draw himself up, 'I will play my part to
the end.'

" 'Poor boy!' said he, taking my hand, which he pressed, while he kept
back the tears that were starting to his eyes.

" 'You gave me the gloves,' I said, laughing, 'but I have not put them
on; that is all.'

"We then agreed as to what I was to do that evening at Honorine's
house, whither I presently returned. It was now August; the day had
been hot and stormy, but the storm hung overhead, the sky was like
copper; the scent of the flowers was heavy, I felt as if I were in an
oven, and caught myself wishing that the Countess might have set out
for the Indies; but she was sitting on a wooden bench shaped like a
sofa, under an arbor, in a loose dress of white muslin fastened with
blue bows, her hair unadorned in waving bands over her cheeks, her
feet on a small wooden stool, and showing a little way beyond her
skirt. She did not rise; she showed me with her hand to the seat by
her side, saying:

" 'Now, is not life at a deadlock for me?'

" 'Life as you have made it, I replied. 'But not the life I propose to
make for you; for, if you choose, you may be very happy. . . .'

" 'How?' said she; her whole person was a question.

" 'Your letter is in the Count's hands.'

"Honorine started like a frightened doe, sprang to a few paces off,
walked down the garden, turned about, remained standing for some
minutes, and finally went in to sit alone in the drawing-room, where I
joined her, after giving her time to get accustomed to the pain of
this poniard thrust.

" 'You--a friend? Say rather a traitor! A spy, perhaps, sent by my

"Instinct in women is as strong as the perspicacity of great men.

" 'You wanted an answer to your letter, did you not? And there was but
one man in the world who could write it. You must read the reply, my
dear Countess; and if after reading it you still find that your life
is a deadlock, the spy will prove himself a friend; I will place you
in a convent whence the Count's power cannot drag you. But, before
going there, let us consider the other side of the question. There is
a law, alike divine and human, which even hatred affects to obey, and
which commands us not to condemn the accused without hearing his
defence. Till now you have passed condemnation, as children do, with
your ears stopped. The devotion of seven years has its claims. So you
must read the answer your husband will send you. I have forwarded to
him, through my uncle, a copy of your letter, and my uncle asked him
what his reply would be if his wife wrote him a letter in such terms.
Thus you are not compromised. He will himself bring the Count's
answer. In the presence of that saintly man, and in mine, out of
respect for your own dignity, you must read it, or you will be no
better than a wilful, passionate child. You must make this sacrifice
to the world, to the law, and to God.'

"As she saw in this concession no attack on her womanly resolve, she
consented. All the labor or four or five months had been building up
to this moment. But do not the Pyramids end in a point on which a bird
may perch? The Count had set all his hopes on this supreme instant,
and he had reached it.

"In all my life I remember nothing more formidable than my uncle's
entrance into that little Pompadour drawing-room, at ten that evening.
The fine head, with its silver hair thrown into relief by the entirely
black dress, and the divinely calm face, had a magical effect on the
Comtesse Honorine; she had the feeling of cool balm on her wounds, and
beamed in the reflection of that virtue which gave light without
knowing it.

" 'Monsieur the Cure of the White Friars,' said old Gobain.

" 'Are you come, uncle, with a message of happiness and peace?' said

" 'Happiness and peace are always to be found in obedience to the
precepts of the Church,' replied my uncle, and he handed the Countess
the following letter:--


" 'If you had but done me the favor of trusting me, if you had read
the letter I wrote to you five years since, you would have spared
yourself five years of useless labor, and of privations which have
grieved me deeply. In it I proposed an arrangement of which the
stipulations will relieve all your fears, and make our domestic life
possible. I have much to reproach myself with, and in seven years of
sorrow I have discovered all my errors. I misunderstood marriage. I
failed to scent danger when it threatened you. An angel was in the
house. The Lord bid me guard it well! The Lord has punished me for my
audacious confidence.

" 'You cannot give yourself a single lash without striking me. Have
mercy on me, my dear Honorine. I so fully appreciated your
susceptibilities that I would not bring you back to the old house in
the Rue Payenne, where I can live without you, but which I could not
bear to see again with you. I am decorating, with great pleasure,
another house, in the Faubourg Saint-Honore, to which, in hope, I
conduct not a wife whom I owe to her ignorance of life, and secured to
me by law, but a sister who will allow me to press on her brow such a
kiss as a father gives the daughter he blesses every day.

" 'Will you bereave me of the right I have conquered from your despair
--that of watching more closely over your needs, your pleasures, your
life even? Women have one heart always on their side, always abounding
in excuses--their mother's; you never knew any mother but my mother,
who would have brought you back to me. But how is it that you never
guessed that I had for you the heart of a mother, both of my mother
and of your own? Yes, dear, my affection is neither mean nor grasping;
it is one of those which will never let any annoyance last long enough
to pucker the brow of the child it worships. What can you think of the
companion of your childhood, Honorine, if you believe him capable of
accepting kisses given in trembling, of living between delight and
anxiety? Do not fear that you will be exposed to the laments of a
suppliant passion; I would not want you back until I felt certain of
my own strength to leave you in perfect freedom.

" 'Your solitary pride has exaggerated the difficulties. You may, if
you will, look on at the life of a brother, or of a father, without
either suffering or joy; but you will find neither mockery nor
indifference, nor have any doubt as to his intentions. The warmth of
the atmosphere in which you live will be always equable and genial,
without tempests, without a possible squall. If, later, when you feel
secure that you are as much at home as in your own little house, you
desire to try some other elements of happiness, pleasures, or
amusements, you can expand their circle at your will. The tenderness
of a mother knows neither contempt nor pity. What is it? Love without
desire. Well, in me admiration shall hide every sentiment in which you
might see an offence.

" 'Thus, living side by side, we may both be magnanimous. In you the
kindness of a sister, the affectionate thoughtfulness of a friend,
will satisfy the ambition of him who wishes to be your life's
companion; and you may measure his tenderness by the care he will take
to conceal it. Neither you nor I will be jealous of the past, for we
may each acknowledge that the other has sense enough to look only
straight forward.

" 'Thus you will be at home in your new house exactly as you are in
the Rue Saint-Maur; unapproachable, alone, occupied as you please,
living by your own law; but having in addition the legitimate
protection, of which you are now exacting the most chivalrous labors
of love, with the consideration which lends so much lustre to a woman,
and the fortune which will allow of your doing many good works.
Honorine, when you long for an unnecessary absolution, you have only
to ask for it; it will not be forced upon you by the Church or by the
Law; it will wait on your pride, on your own impulsion. My wife might
indeed have to fear all the things you dread; but not my friend and
sister, towards whom I am bound to show every form and refinement of
politeness. To see you happy is enough happiness for me; I have proved
this for the seven years past. The guarantee for this, Honorine, is to
be seen in all the flowers made by you, carefully preserved, and
watered by my tears. Like the /quipos/, the tally cords of the
Peruvians, they are the record of our sorrows.

" 'If this secret compact does not suit you, my child, I have begged
the saintly man who takes charge of this letter not to say a word in
my behalf. I will not owe your return to the terrors threatened by the
Church, nor to the bidding of the Law. I will not accept the simple
and quiet happiness that I ask from any one but yourself. If you
persist in condemning me to the lonely life, bereft even of a
fraternal smile, which I have led for nine years, if you remain in
your solitude and show no sign, my will yields to yours. Understand me
perfectly: you shall be no more troubled that you have been until this
day. I will get rid of the crazy fellow who has meddled in your
concerns, and has perhaps caused you some annoyance . . .'

" 'Monsieur,' said Honorine, folding up the letter, which she placed
in her bosom, and looking at my uncle, 'thank you very much. I will
avail myself of Monsieur le Comte's permission to remain here----'

" 'Ah!' I exclaimed.

"This exclamation made my uncle look at me uneasily, and won from the
Countess a mischievous glance, which enlightened me as to her motives.

"Honorine had wanted to ascertain whether I were an actor, a bird
snarer; and I had the melancholy satisfaction of deceiving her by my
exclamation, which was one of those cries from the heart which women
understand so well.

" 'Ah, Maurice,' said she, 'you know how to love.'

"The light that flashed in my eyes was another reply which would have
dissipated the Countess' uneasiness if she still had any. Thus the
Count found me useful to the very last.

"Honorine then took out the Count's letter again to finish reading it.
My uncle signed to me, and I rose.

" 'Let us leave the Countess,' said he.

" 'You are going already Maurice?' she said, without looking at me.

"She rose, and still reading, followed us to the door. On the
threshold she took my hand, pressed it very affectionately, and said,
'We shall meet again . . .'

" 'No,' I replied, wringing her hand, so that she cried out. 'You love
your husband. I leave to-morrow.'

"And I rushed away, leaving my uncle, to whom she said:

" 'Why, what is the matter with your nephew?'

"The good Abbe completed my work by pointing to his head and heart, as
much as to say, 'He is mad, madame; you must forgive him!' and with
all the more truth, because he really thought it.

"Six days after, I set out with an appointment as vice-consul in
Spain, in a large commercial town, where I could quickly qualify to
rise in the career of a consul, to which I now restricted my ambition.
After I had established myself there, I received this letter from the


" 'If I were happy, I should not write to you, but I have entered on a
new life of suffering. I have grown young again in my desires, with
all the impatience of a man of forty, and the prudence of a
diplomatist, who has learned to moderate his passion. When you left I
had not yet been admitted to the /pavillon/ in the Rue Saint-Maur, but
a letter had promised me that I should have permission--the mild and
melancholy letter of a woman who dreaded the agitations of a meeting.
After waiting for more than a month, I made bold to call, and desired
Gobain to inquire whether I could be received. I sat down in a chair
in the avenue near the lodge, my head buried in my hands, and there I
remained for almost an hour.

" ' "Madame had to dress," said Gobain, to hide Honorine's hesitancy
under a pride of appearance which was flattering to me.

" 'During a long quarter of an hour we both of us were possessed by an
involuntary nervous trembling as great as that which seizes a speaker
on the platform, and we spoke to each other sacred phrases, like those
of persons taken by surprise who "make believe" a conversation.

" ' "You see, Honorine," said I, my eyes full of tears, "the ice is
broken, and I am so tremulous with happiness that you must forgive the
incoherency of my language. It will be so for a long time yet."

" ' "There is no crime in being in love with your wife," said she with
a forced smile.

" ' "Do me the favor," said I, "no longer to work as you do. I have
heard from Madame Gobain that for three weeks you have been living on
your savings; you have sixty thousand francs a year of your own, and
if you cannot give me back your heart, at least do not abandon your
fortune to me."

" ' "I have long known your kindness," said she.

" ' "Though you should prefer to remain here," said I, "and to
preserve your independence; though the most ardent love should find no
favor in your eyes, still, do not toil."

" 'I gave her three certificates for twelve thousand francs a year
each; she took them, opened them languidly, and after reading them
through she gave me only a look as my reward. She fully understood
that I was not offering her money, but freedom.

" ' "I am conquered," said she, holding out her hand, which I kissed.
"Come and see me as often as you like."

" 'So she had done herself a violence in receiving me. Next day I
found her armed with affected high spirits, and it took two months of
habit before I saw her in her true character. But then it was like a
delicious May, a springtime of love that gave me ineffable bliss; she
was no longer afraid; she was studying me. Alas! when I proposed that
she should go to England to return ostensibly to me, to our home, that
she should resume her rank and live in our new residence, she was
seized with alarm.

" ' "Why not live always as we are?" she said.

" 'I submitted without saying a word.

" ' "Is she making an experiment?" I asked myself as I left her. On my
way from my own house to the Rue Saint-Maur thoughts of love had
swelled in my heart, and I had said to myself, like a young man, "This
evening she will yield."

" 'All my real or affected force was blown to the winds by a smile, by
a command from those proud, calm eyes, untouched by passion. I
remembered the terrible words you once quoted to me, "Lucretia's
dagger wrote in letters of blood the watchword of woman's charter--
Liberty!" and they froze me. I felt imperatively how necessary to me
was Honorine's consent, and how impossible it was to wring it from
her. Could she guess the storms that distracted me when I left as when
I came?

" 'At last I painted my situation in a letter to her, giving up the
attempt to speak of it. Honorine made no answer, and she was so sad
that I made as though I had not written. I was deeply grieved by the
idea that I could have distressed her; she read my heart and forgave
me. And this was how. Three days ago she received me, for the first
time, in her own blue-and-white room. It was bright with flowers,
dressed, and lighted up. Honorine was in a dress that made her
bewitching. Her hair framed that face that you know in its light
curls; and in it were some sprays of Cape heath; she wore a white
muslin gown, a white sash with long floating ends. You know what she
is in such simplicity, but that day she was a bride, the Honorine of
long past days. My joy was chilled at once, for her face was terribly
grave; there were fires beneath the ice.

" ' "Octave," she said, "I will return as your wife when you will. But
understand clearly that this submission has its dangers. I can be

" 'I made a movement.

" ' "Yes," she went on, "I understand: resignation offends you, and
you want what I cannot give--Love. Religion and pity led me to
renounce my vow of solitude; you are here!" She paused.

" ' "At first," she went on, "you asked no more. Now you demand your
wife. Well, here I give you Honorine, such as she is, without
deceiving you as to what she will be.--What shall I be? A mother? I
hope it. Believe me, I hope it eagerly. Try to change me; you have my
consent; but if I should die, my dear, do not curse my memory, and do
not set down to obstinacy what I should call the worship of the Ideal,
if it were not more natural to call the indefinable feeling which must
kill me the worship of the Divine! The future will be nothing to me;
it will be your concern; consult your own mind."

" 'And she sat down in the calm attitude you used to admire, and
watched me turning pale with the pain she had inflicted. My blood ran
cold. On seeing the effect of her words she took both my hands, and,
holding them in her own, she said:

" ' "Octave, I do love you, but not in the way you wish to be loved. I
love your soul. . . . Still, understand that I love you enough to die
in your service like an Eastern slave, and without a regret. It will
be my expiation."

" 'She did more; she knelt before me on a cushion, and in a spirit of
sublime charity she said:

" ' "And perhaps I shall not die!"

" 'For two months now I have been struggling with myself. What shall I
do? My heart is too full; I therefore seek a friend, and send out this
cry, "What shall I do?" '

"I did not answer this letter. Two months later the newspapers
announced the return on board an English vessel of the Comtesse
Octave, restored to her family after adventures by land and sea,
invented with sufficient probability to arouse no contradiction.

"When I moved to Genoa I received a formal announcement of the happy
event of the birth of a son to the Count and Countess. I held that
letter in my hand for two hours, sitting on this terrace--on this
bench. Two months after, urged by Octave, by M. de Grandville, and
Monsieur de Serizy, my kind friends, and broken by the death of my
uncle, I agreed to take a wife.

"Six months after the revolution of July I received this letter, which
concludes the story of this couple:--

" 'MONSIEUR MAURICE,--I am dying though I am a mother--perhaps because
I am a mother. I have played my part as a wife well; I have deceived
my husband. I have had happiness not less genuine than the tears shed
by actresses on the stage. I am dying for society, for the family, for
marriage, as the early Christians died for God! I know not of what I
am dying, and I am honestly trying to find out, for I am not perverse;
but I am bent on explaining my malady to you--you who brought that
heavenly physician your uncle, at whose word I surrendered. He was my
director; I nursed him in his last illness, and he showed me the way
to heaven, bidding me persevere in my duty.

" 'And I have done my duty.

" 'I do not blame those who forget. I admire them as strong and
necessary natures; but I have the malady of memory! I have not been
able twice to feel that love of the heart which identifies a woman
with the man she loves. To the last moment, as you know, I cried to
your heart, in the confessional, and to my husband, "Have mercy!" But
there was no mercy. Well, and I am dying, dying with stupendous
courage. No courtesan was ever more gay than I. My poor Octave is
happy; I let his love feed on the illusions of my heart. I throw all
my powers into this terrible masquerade; the actress is applauded,
feasted, smothered in flowers; but the invisible rival comes every day
to seek its prey--a fragment of my life. I am rent and I smile. I
smile on two children, but it is the elder, the dead one, that will
triumph! I told you so before. The dead child calls me, and I am going
to him.

" 'The intimacy of marriage without love is a position in which my
soul feels degraded every hour. I can never weep or give myself up to
dreams but when I am alone. The exigencies of society, the care of my
child, and that of Octave's happiness never leave me a moment to
refresh myself, to renew my strength, as I could in my solitude. The
incessant need for watchfulness startles my heart with constant
alarms. I have not succeeded in implanting in my soul the sharp-eared
vigilance that lies with facility, and has the eyes of a lynx. It is
not the lip of one I love that drinks my tears and kisses them; my
burning eyes are cooled with water, and not with tender lips. It is my
soul that acts a part, and that perhaps is why I am dying! I lock up
my griefs with so much care that nothing is to be seen of it; it must
eat into something, and it has attacked my life.

" 'I said to the doctors, who discovered my secret, "Make me die of
some plausible complaint, or I shall drag my husband with me."

" 'So it is quite understood by M. Desplein, Bianchon, and myself that
I am dying of the softening of some bone which science has fully
described. Octave believes that I adore him, do you understand? So I
am afraid lest he should follow me. I now write to beg you in that
case to be the little Count's guardian. You will find with this a
codicil in which I have expressed my wish; but do not produce it
excepting in case of need, for perhaps I am fatuously vain. My
devotion may perhaps leave Octave inconsolable but willing to live.--
Poor Octave! I wish him a better wife than I am, for he deserves to be
well loved.

" 'Since my spiritual spy is married, I bid him remember what the
florist of the Rue Saint-Maur hereby bequeaths to him as a lesson: May
your wife soon be a mother! Fling her into the vulgarest materialism
of household life; hinder her from cherishing in her heart the
mysterious flower of the Ideal--of that heavenly perfection in which I
believed, that enchanted blossom with glorious colors, and whose
perfume disgusts us with reality. I am a Saint-Theresa who has not
been suffered to live on ecstasy in the depths of a convent, with the
Holy Infant, and a spotless winged angel to come and go as she wished.

" 'You saw me happy among my beloved flowers. I did not tell you all:
I saw love budding under your affected madness, and I concealed from
you my thoughts, my poetry; I did not admit you to my kingdom of
beauty. Well, well; you will love my child for love of me if he should
one day lose his poor father. Keep my secrets as the grave will keep
them. Do not mourn for me; I have been dead this many a day, if Saint
Bernard was right in saying that where there is no more love there is
no more life.' "

"And the Countess died," said the Consul, putting away the letters and
locking the pocket-book.

"Is the Count still living?" asked the Ambassador, "for since the
revolution of July he has disappeared from the political stage."

"Do you remember, Monsieur de Lora," said the Consul-General, "having
seen me going to the steamboat with----"

"A white-haired man! an old man?" said the painter.

"An old man of forty-five, going in search of health and amusement in
Southern Italy. That old man was my poor friend, my patron, passing
through Genoa to take leave of me and place his will in my hands. He
appoints me his son's guardian. I had no occasion to tell him of
Honorine's wishes."

"Does he suspect himself of murder?" said Mademoiselle des Touches to
the Baron de l'Hostal.

"He suspects the truth," replied the Consul, "and that is what is
killing him. I remained on board the steam packet that was to take him
to Naples till it was out of the roadstead; a small boat brought me
back. We sat for some little time taking leave of each other--for
ever, I fear. God only knows how much we love the confidant of our
love when she who inspired it is no more.

" 'That man,' said Octave, 'holds a charm and wears an aureole.' the
Count went to the prow and looked down on the Mediterranean. It
happened to be fine, and, moved no doubt by the spectacle, he spoke
these last words: 'Ought we not, in the interests of human nature, to
inquire what is the irresistible power which leads us to sacrifice an
exquisite creature to the most fugitive of all pleasures, and in spite
of our reason? In my conscience I heard cries. Honorine was not alone
in her anguish. And yet I would have it! . . . I am consumed by
remorse. In the Rue Payenne I was dying of the joys I had not; now I
shall die in Italy of the joys I have had. . . . Wherein lay the
discord between two natures, equally noble, I dare assert?' "

For some minutes profound silence reigned on the terrace.

Then the Consul, turning to the two women, asked, "Was she virtuous?"

Mademoiselle des Touches rose, took the Consul's arm, went a few steps
away, and said to him:

"Are not men wrong too when they come to us and make a young girl a
wife while cherishing at the bottom of their heart some angelic image,
and comparing us to those unknown rivals, to perfections often
borrowed from a remembrance, and always finding us wanting?"

"Mademoiselle, you would be right if marriage were based on passion;
and that was the mistake of those two, who will soon be no more.
Marriage with heart-deep love on both sides would be Paradise."

Mademoiselle des Touches turned from the Consul, and was immediately
joined by Claude Vignon, who said in her ear:

"A bit of a coxcomb is M. de l'Hostal."

"No," replied she, whispering to Claude these words: "for he has not
yet guessed that Honorine would have loved him.--Oh!" she exclaimed,
seeing the Consul's wife approaching, "his wife was listening! Unhappy

Eleven was striking by all the clocks, and the guests went home on
foot along the seashore.

"Still, that is not life," said Mademoiselle des Touches. "That woman
was one of the rarest, and perhaps the most extraordinary exceptions
in intellect--a pearl! Life is made up of various incidents, of pain
and pleasure alternately. The Paradise of Dante, that sublime
expression of the ideal, that perpetual blue, is to be found only in
the soul; to ask it of the facts of life is a luxury against which
nature protests every hour. To such souls as those the six feet of a
cell, and the kneeling chair are all they need."

"You are right," said Leon de Lora; "but good-for-nothing as I may be,
I cannot help admiring a woman who is capable, as that one was, of
living by the side of a studio, under a painter's roof, and never
coming down, nor seeing the world, nor dipping her feet in the street

"Such a thing has been known--for a few months," said Claude Vignon,
with deep irony.

"Comtesse Honorine is not unique of her kind," replied the Ambassador
to Mademoiselle des Touches. "A man, nay, and a politician, a bitter
writer, was the object of such a passion; and the pistol shot which
killed him hit not him alone; the woman who loved lived like a nun
ever after."

"Then there are yet some great souls in this age!" said Camille
Maupin, and she stood for some minutes pensively leaning on the
balustrade of the quay.


The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.

Bauvan, Comte Octave de
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life

Bianchon, Horace
Father Goriot
The Atheist's Mass
Cesar Birotteau
The Commission in Lunacy
Lost Illusions
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
A Bachelor's Establishment
The Secrets of a Princess
The Government Clerks
A Study of Woman
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
The Seamy Side of History
The Magic Skin
A Second Home
A Prince of Bohemia
Letters of Two Brides
The Muse of the Department
The Imaginary Mistress
The Middle Classes
Cousin Betty
The Country Parson
In addition, M. Bianchon narrated the following:
Another Study of Woman
La Grande Breteche

The Atheist's Mass
Cousin Pons
Lost Illusions
The Thirteen
The Government Clerks
A Bachelor's Establishment
The Seamy Side of History
Modeste Mignon
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life

Fontanon, Abbe
A Second Home
The Government Clerks
The Member for Arcis

Gaudissart, Felix
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
Cousin Pons
Cesar Birotteau
Gaudissart the Great

Gaudron, Abbe
The Government Clerks
A Start in Life

Granville, Vicomte de (later Comte)
The Gondreville Mystery
A Second Home
Farewell (Adieu)
Cesar Birotteau
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
A Daughter of Eve
Cousin Pons

Lora, Leon de
The Unconscious Humorists
A Bachelor's Establishment
A Start in Life
Pierre Grassou
Cousin Betty

Loraux, Abbe
A Start in Life
A Bachelor's Establishment
Cesar Birotteau

Popinot, Jean-Jules
Cesar Birotteau
The Commission in Lunacy
The Seamy Side of History
The Middle Classes

Serizy, Comte Hugret de
A Start in Life
A Bachelor's Establishment
Modeste Mignon
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life

Touches, Mademoiselle Felicite des
Lost Illusions
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
A Bachelor's Establishment
Another Study of Woman
A Daughter of Eve
The Muse of the Department

Vignon, Claude
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
A Daughter of Eve
Cousin Betty
The Unconscious Humorists

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