Letters of Two Brides/Chapter XV
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Chapter XV: LOUISE DE CHAULIEU TO MME. DE L'ESTORADE
Ah! my love, marriage is making a philosopher of you! Your darling face must, indeed, have been jaundiced when you wrote me those terrible views of human life and the duty of women. Do you fancy you will convert me to matrimony by your programme of subterranean labors?
Alas! is this then the outcome for you of our too-instructed dreams! We left Blois all innocent, armed with the pointed shafts of meditation, and, lo! the weapons of that purely ideal experience have turned against your own breast! If I did not know you for the purest and most angelic of created beings, I declare I should say that your calculations smack of vice. What, my dear, in the interest of your country home, you submit your pleasures to a periodic thinning, as you do your timber. Oh! rather let me perish in all the violence of the heart's storms than live in the arid atmosphere of your cautious arithmetic!
As girls, we were both unusually enlightened, because of the large amount of study we gave to our chosen subjects; but, my child, philosophy without love, or disguised under a sham love, is the most hideous of conjugal hypocrisies. I should imagine that even the biggest of fools might detect now and again the owl of wisdom squatting in your bower of roses—a ghastly phantom sufficient to put to flight the most promising of passions. You make your own fate, instead of waiting, a plaything in its hands.
We are each developing in strange ways. A large dose of philosophy to a grain of love is your recipe; a large dose of love to a grain of philosophy is mine. Why, Rousseau's Julie, whom I thought so learned, is a mere beginner to you. Woman's virtue, quotha! How you have weighed up life! Alas! I make fun of you, and, after all, perhaps you are right.
In one day you have made a holocaust of your youth and become a miser before your time. Your Louis will be happy, I daresay. If he loves you, of which I make no doubt, he will never find out, that, for the sake of your family, you are acting as a courtesan does for money; and certainly men seem to find happiness with them, judging by the fortunes they squander thus. A keen-sighted husband might no doubt remain in love with you, but what sort of gratitude could he feel in the long run for a woman who had made of duplicity a sort of moral armor, as indispensable as her stays?
Love, dear, is in my eyes the first principle of all the virtues, conformed to the divine likeness. Like all other first principles, it is not a matter of arithmetic; it is the Infinite in us. I cannot but think you have been trying to justify in your own eyes the frightful position of a girl, married to a man for whom she feels nothing more than esteem. You prate of duty, and make it your rule and measure; but surely to take necessity as the spring of action is the moral theory of atheism? To follow the impulse of love and feeling is the secret law of every woman's heart. You are acting a man's part, and your Louis will have to play the woman!
Oh! my dear, your letter has plunged me into an endless train of thought. I see now that the convent can never take the place of mother to a girl. I beg of you, my grand angel with the black eyes, so pure and proud, so serious and so pretty, do not turn away from these cries, which the first reading of your letter has torn from me! I have taken comfort in the thought that, while I was lamenting, love was doubtless busy knocking down the scaffolding of reason.
It may be that I shall do worse than you without any reasoning or calculations. Passion is an element in life bound to have a logic not less pitiless than yours.
Yesterday night I placed myself at the window as I was going to bed, to look at the sky, which was wonderfully clear. The stars were like silver nails, holding up a veil of blue. In the silence of the night I could hear some one breathing, and by the half-light of the stars I saw my Spaniard, perched like a squirrel on the branches of one of the trees lining the boulevard, and doubtless lost in admiration of my windows.
The first effect of this discovery was to make me withdraw into the room, my feet and hands quite limp and nerveless; but, beneath the fear, I was conscious of a delicious undercurrent of joy. I was overpowered but happy. Not one of those clever Frenchmen, who aspire to marry me, has had the brilliant idea of spending the night in an elm-tree at the risk of being carried off by the watch. My Spaniard has, no doubt, been there for some time. Ah! he won't give me any more lessons, he wants to receive them—well, he shall have one. If only he knew what I said to myself about his superficial ugliness! Others can philosophize besides you, Renee! It was horrid, I argued, to fall in love with a handsome man. Is it not practically avowing that the senses count for three parts out of four in a passion which ought to be super-sensual?
Having got over my first alarm, I craned my neck behind the window in order to see him again—and well was I rewarded! By means of a hollow cane he blew me in through the window a letter, cunningly rolled round a leaden pellet.
Good Heavens! will he suppose I left the window open on purpose?
But what was to be done? To shut it suddenly would be to make oneself an accomplice.
I did better. I returned to my window as though I had seen nothing and heard nothing of the letter, then I said aloud:
"Come and look at the stars, Griffith."
Griffith was sleeping as only old maids can. But the Moor, hearing me, slid down, and vanished with ghostly rapidity.
He must have been dying of fright, and so was I, for I did not hear him go away; apparently he remained at the foot of the elm. After a good quarter of an hour, during which I lost myself in contemplation of the heavens, and battled with the waves of curiosity, I closed my widow and sat down on the bed to unfold the delicate bit of paper, with the tender touch of a worker amongst the ancient manuscripts at Naples. It felt redhot to my fingers. "What a horrible power this man has over me!" I said to myself.
All at once I held out the paper to the candle—I would burn it without reading a word. Then a thought stayed me, "What can he have to say that he writes so secretly?" Well, dear, I did burn it, reflecting that, though any other girl in the world would have devoured the letter, it was not fitting that I—Armande-Louise-Marie de Chaulieu—should read it.
The next day, at the Italian opera, he was at his post. But I feel sure that, ex-prime minister of a constitutional government though he is, he could not discover the slightest agitation of mind in any movement of mine. I might have seen nothing and received nothing the evening before. This was most satisfactory to me, but he looked very sad. Poor man! in Spain it is so natural for love to come in at the window!
During the interval, it seems, he came and walked in the passages. This I learned from the chief secretary of the Spanish embassy, who also told the story of a noble action of his.
As Duc de Soria he was to marry one of the richest heiresses in Spain, the young princess Marie Heredia, whose wealth would have mitigated the bitterness of exile. But it seems that Marie, disappointing the wishes of the fathers, who had betrothed them in their earliest childhood, loved the younger son of the house of Soria, to whom my Felipe, gave her up. Allowing himself to be despoiled by the King of Spain.
"He would perform this piece of heroism quite simply," I said to the young man.
"You know him then?" was his ingenuous reply.
My mother smiled.
"What will become of him, for he is condemned to death?" I asked.
"Though dead to Spain, he can live in Sardinia."
"Ah! then Spain is the country of tombs as well as castles?" I said, trying to carry it off as a joke.
"There is everything in Spain, even Spaniards of the old school," my mother replied.
"The Baron de Macumer obtained a passport, not without difficulty, from the King of Sardinia," the young diplomatist went on. "He has now become a Sardinian subject, and he possesses a magnificent estate in the island with full feudal rights. He has a palace at Sassari. If Ferdinand VII. were to die, Macumer would probably go in for diplomacy, and the Court of Turin would make him ambassador. Though young, he is—"
"Ah! he is young?"
"Certainly, mademoiselle . . . though young, he is one of the most distinguished men in Spain."
I scanned the house meanwhile through my opera-glass, and seemed to lend an inattentive ear to the secretary; but, between ourselves, I was wretched at having burnt his letter. In what terms would a man like that express his love? For he does love me. To be loved, adored in secret; to know that in this house, where all the great men of Paris were collected, there was one entirely devoted to me, unknown to everybody! Ah! Renee, now I understand the life of Paris, its balls, and its gaieties. It all flashed on me in the true light. When we love, we must have society, were it only to sacrifice it to our love. I felt a different creature—and such a happy one! My vanity, pride, self-love,—all were flattered. Heaven knows what glances I cast upon the audience!
"Little rogue!" the Duchess whispered in my ear with a smile.
Yes, Renee, my wily mother had deciphered the hidden joy in my bearing, and I could only haul down my flag before such feminine strategy. Those two words taught me more of worldly wisdom than I have been able to pick up in a year—for we are in March now. Alas! no more Italian opera in another month. How will life be possible without that heavenly music, when one's heart is full of love?
When I got home, my dear, with determination worthy of a Chaulieu, I opened my window to watch a shower of rain. Oh! if men knew the magic spell that a heroic action throws over us, they would indeed rise to greatness! a poltroon would turn hero! What I had learned about my Spaniard drove me into a very fever. I felt certain that he was there, ready to aim another letter at me.
I was right, and this time I burnt nothing. Here, then, is the first love-letter I have received, madame logician: each to her kind:—
"Louise, it is not for your peerless beauty I love you, nor for
your gifted mind, your noble feeling, the wondrous charm of all
you say and do, nor yet for your pride, your queenly scorn of
baser mortals—a pride blent in you with charity, for what angel
could be more tender?—Louise, I love you because, for the sake of
a poor exile, you have unbent this lofty majesty, because by a
gesture, a glance, you have brought consolation to a man so far
beneath you that the utmost he could hope for was your pity, the
pity of a generous heart. You are the one woman whose eyes have
shone with a tenderer light when bent on me.
"And because you let fall this glance—a mere grain of dust, yet a
grace surpassing any bestowed on me when I stood at the summit of
a subject's ambition—I long to tell you, Louise, how dear you are
to me, and that my love is for yourself alone, without a thought
beyond, a love that far more than fulfils the conditions laid down
by you for an ideal passion.
"Know, then, idol of my highest heaven, that there is in the world
an offshoot of the Saracen race, whose life is in your hands, who
will receive your orders as a slave, and deem it an honor to
execute them. I have given myself to you absolutely and for the
mere joy of giving, for a single glance of your eye, for a touch
of the hand which one day you offered to your Spanish master. I am
but your servitor, Louise; I claim no more.
"No, I dare not think that I could ever be loved; but perchance my
devotion may win for me toleration. Since that morning when you
smiled upon me with generous girlish impulse, divining the misery
of my lonely and rejected heart, you reign there alone. You are
the absolute ruler of my life, the queen of my thoughts, the god
of my heart; I find you in the sunshine of my home, the fragrance
of my flowers, the balm of the air I breathe, the pulsing of my
blood, the light that visits me in sleep.
"One thought alone troubled this happiness—your ignorance. All
unknown to you was this boundless devotion, the trusty arm, the
blind slave, the silent tool, the wealth—for henceforth all I
possess is mine only as a trust—which lay at your disposal;
unknown to you, the heart waiting to receive your confidence, and
yearning to replace all that your life (I know it well) has lacked
—the liberal ancestress, so ready to meet your needs, a father to
whom you could look for protection in every difficulty, a friend,
a brother. The secret of your isolation is no secret to me! If I
am bold, it is because I long that you should know how much is
"Take all, Louise, and is so doing bestow on me the one life
possible for me in this world—the life of devotion. In placing
the yoke on my neck, you run no risk; I ask nothing but the joy of
knowing myself yours. Needless even to say you will never love me;
it cannot be otherwise. I must love you from afar, without hope,
without reward beyond my own love.
"In my anxiety to know whether you will accept me as your servant,
I have racked my brain to find some way in which you may
communicate with me without any danger of compromising yourself.
Injury to your self-respect there can be none in sanctioning a
devotion which has been yours for many days without your
knowledge. Let this, then, be the token. At the opera this
evening, if you carry in your hand a bouquet consisting of one red
and one white camellia—emblem of a man's blood at the service of
the purity he worships—that will be my answer. I ask no more;
thenceforth, at any moment, ten years hence or to-morrow, whatever
you demand shall be done, so far as it is possible for man to do
it, by your happy servant,
P. S.—You must admit, dear, that great lords know how to love! See the spring of the African lion! What restrained fire! What loyalty! What sincerity! How high a soul in low estate! I felt quite small and dazed as I said to myself, "What shall I do?"
It is the mark of a great man that he puts to flight all ordinary calculations. He is at once sublime and touching, childlike and of the race of giants. In a single letter Henarez has outstripped volumes from Lovelace or Saint-Preux. Here is true love, no beating about the bush. Love may be or it may not, but where it is, it ought to reveal itself in its immensity.
Here am I, shorn of all my little arts! To refuse or accept! That is the alternative boldly presented me, without the ghost of an opening for a middle course. No fencing allowed! This is no longer Paris; we are in the heart of Spain or the far East. It is the voice of Abencerrage, and it is the scimitar, the horse, and the head of Abencerrage which he offers, prostrate before a Catholic Eve! Shall I accept this last descendant of the Moors? Read again and again his Hispano-Saracenic letter, Renee dear, and you will see how love makes a clean sweep of all the Judaic bargains of your philosophy.
Renee, your letter lies heavy on my heart; you have vulgarized life for me. What need have I for finessing? Am I not mistress for all time of this lion whose roar dies out in plaintive and adoring sighs? Ah! how he must have raged in his lair of the Rue Hillerin-Bertin! I know where he lives, I have his card: F., Baron de Macumer.
He has made it impossible for me to reply. All I can do is to fling two camellias in his face. What fiendish arts does love possess—pure, honest, simple-minded love! Here is the most tremendous crisis of a woman's heart resolved into an easy, simple action. Oh, Asia! I have read the Arabian Nights, here is their very essence: two flowers, and the question is settled. We clear the fourteen volumes of Clarissa Harlowe with a bouquet. I writhe before this letter, like a thread in the fire. To take, or not to take, my two camellias. Yes or No, kill or give life! At last a voice cries to me, "Test him!" And I will test him.