Beatrix/Chapter V

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Beatrix by Honore de Balzac
Chapter V: CALYSTE

Chapter V


The poor mother returned to the salon deeply distressed at finding that the whole town was aware of what she had thought was known to her alone. She sat down, trimmed the wick of the lamp by cutting it with a pair of old scissors, took up once more the worsted-work she was doing, and awaited Calyste. The baroness fondly hoped to induce her son by this means to come home earlier and spend less time with Mademoiselle des Touches. Such calculations of maternal jealousy were wasted. Day after day, Calyste's visits to Les Touches became more frequent, and every night he came in later. The night before the day of which we speak it was midnight when he returned.

The baroness, lost in maternal meditation, was setting her stitches with the rapidity of one absorbed in thought while engaged in manual labor. Whoever had seen her bending to the light of the lamp beneath the quadruply centennial hangings of that ancient room would have admired the sublimity of the picture. Fanny's skin was so transparent that it was possible to read the thoughts that crossed her brow beneath it. Piqued with a curiosity that often comes to a pure woman, she asked herself what devilish secrets these daughters of Baal possessed to so charm men as to make them forgetful of mother, family, country, and self-interests. Sometimes she longed to meet this woman and judge her soberly for herself. Her mind measured to its full extent the evils which the innovative spirit of the age—described to her as so dangerous for young souls by the rector—would have upon her only child, until then so guileless; as pure as an innocent girl, and beautiful with the same fresh beauty.

Calyste, that splendid offspring of the oldest Breton race and the noblest Irish blood, had been nurtured by his mother with the utmost care. Until the moment when the baroness made over the training of him to the rector of Guerande, she was certain that no impure word, no evil thought had sullied the ears or entered the mind of her precious son. After nursing him at her bosom, giving him her own life twice, as it were, after guiding his footsteps as a little child, the mother had put him with all his virgin innocence into the hands of the pastor, who, out of true reverence for the family, had promised to give him a thorough and Christian education. Calyste thenceforth received the instruction which the abbe himself had received at the Seminary. The baroness taught him English, and a teacher of mathematics was found, not without difficulty, among the employes at Saint-Nazaire. Calyste was therefore necessarily ignorant of modern literature, and the advance and present progress of the sciences. His education had been limited to geography and the circumspect history of a young ladies' boarding-school, the Latin and Greek of seminaries, the literature of the dead languages, and to a very restricted choice of French writers. When, at sixteen, he began what the Abbe Grimont called his philosophy, he was neither more nor less than what he was when Fanny placed him in the abbe's hands. The Church had proved as maternal as the mother. Without being over-pious or ridiculous, the idolized young lad was a fervent Catholic.

For this son, so noble, so innocent, the baroness desired to provide a happy life in obscurity. She expected to inherit some property, two or three thousand pounds sterling, from an aunt. This sum, joined to the small present fortune of the Guenics, might enable her to find a wife for Calyste, who would bring him twelve or even fifteen thousand francs a year. Charlotte de Kergarouet, with her aunt's fortune, a rich Irish girl, or any other good heiress would have suited the baroness, who seemed indifferent as to choice. She was ignorant of love, having never known it, and, like all the other persons grouped about her, she saw nothing in marriage but a means of fortune. Passion was an unknown thing to these Catholic souls, these old people exclusively concerned about salvation, God, the king, and their property. No one should be surprised, therefore, at the foreboding thoughts which accompanied the wounded feelings of the mother, who lived as much for the future interests of her son as by her love for him. If the young household would only listen to wisdom, she thought, the coming generation of the du Guenics, by enduring privations, and saving, as people do save in the provinces, would be able to buy back their estates and recover, in the end, the lustre of wealth. The baroness prayed for a long age that she might see the dawn of this prosperous era. Mademoiselle du Guenic had understood and fully adopted this hope which Mademoiselle des Touches now threatened to overthrow.

The baroness heard midnight strike, with tears; her mind conceived of many horrors during the next hour, for the clock struck one, and Calyste was still not at home.

"Will he stay there?" she thought. "It would be the first time. Poor child!"

At that moment Calyste's step resounded in the lane. The poor mother, in whose heart rejoicing drove out anxiety, flew from the house to the gate and opened it for her boy.

"Oh!" cried Calyste, in a grieved voice, "my darling mother, why did you sit up for me? I have a pass-key and the tinder-box."

"You know very well, my child, that I cannot sleep when you are out," she said, kissing him.

When the baroness reached the salon, she looked at her son to discover, if possible, from the expression of his face the events of the evening. But he caused her, as usual, an emotion that frequency never weakened,—an emotion which all loving mothers feel at sight of a human masterpiece made by them; this sentiment blues their sight and supersedes all others for the moment.

Except for the black eyes, full of energy and the heat of the sun, which he derived from his father, Calyste in other respects resembled his mother; he had her beautiful golden hair, her lovable mouth, the same curving fingers, the same soft, delicate, and purely white skin. Though slightly resembling a girl disguised as a man, his physical strength was Herculean. His muscles had the suppleness and vigor of steel springs, and the singularity of his black eyes and fair complexion was by no means without charm. His beard had not yet sprouted; this delay, it is said, is a promise of longevity. The chevalier was dressed in a short coat of black velvet like that of his mother's gown, trimmed with silver buttons, a blue foulard necktie, trousers of gray jean, and a becoming pair of gaiters. His white brow bore the signs of great fatigue, caused, to an observer's eye, by the weight of painful thoughts; but his mother, incapable of supposing that troubles could wring his heart, attributed his evident weariness to passing excitement. Calyste was as handsome as a Greek god, and handsome without conceit; in the first place, he had his mother's beauty constantly before him, and next, he cared very little for personal advantages which he found useless.

"Those beautiful pure cheeks," thought his mother, "where the rich young blood is flowing, belong to another woman! she is the mistress of that innocent brow! Ah! passion will lead to many evils; it will tarnish the look of those eyes, moist as the eyes of an infant!"

This bitter thought wrung Fanny's heart and destroyed her pleasure.

It may seem strange to those who calculate expenses that in a family of six persons compelled to live on three thousand francs a year the son should have a coat and the mother a gown of velvet; but Fanny O'Brien had aunts and rich relations in London who recalled themselves to her remembrance by many presents. Several of her sisters, married to great wealth, took enough interest in Calyste to wish to find him an heiress, knowing that he, like Fanny their exiled favorite, was noble and handsome.

"You stayed at Les Touches longer than you did last night, my dear one," said the mother at last, in an agitated tone.

"Yes, dear mother," he answered, offering no explanation.

The curtness of this answer brought clouds to his mother's brow, and she resolved to postpone the explanation till the morrow. When mothers admit the anxieties which were now torturing the baroness, they tremble before their sons; they feel instinctively the effect of the great emancipation that comes with love; they perceive what that sentiment is about to take from them; but they have, at the same time, a sense of joy in knowing that their sons are happy; conflicting feelings battle in their hearts. Though the result may be the development of their sons into superior men, true mothers do not like this forced abdication; they would rather keep their children small and still requiring protection. Perhaps that is the secret of their predilection for feeble, deformed, or weak-minded offspring.

"You are tired, dear child; go to bed," she said, repressing her tears.

A mother who does not know all that her son is doing thinks the worst; that is, if a mother loves as much and is as much beloved as Fanny. But perhaps all other mothers would have trembled now as she did. The patient care of twenty years might be rendered worthless. This human masterpiece of virtuous and noble and religious education, Calyste, might be destroyed; the happiness of his life, so long and carefully prepared for, might be forever ruined by this woman.

The next day Calyste slept till mid-day, for his mother would not have him wakened. Mariotte served the spoiled child's breakfast in his bed. The inflexible and semi-conventual rules which regulated the hours for meals yielded to the caprices of the chevalier. If it became desirable to extract from Mademoiselle du Guenic her array of keys in order to obtain some necessary article of food outside of the meal hours, there was no other means of doing it than to make the pretext of its serving some fancy of Calyste.

About one o'clock the baron, his wife, and Mademoiselle were seated in the salon, for they dined at three o'clock. The baroness was again reading the "Quotidienne" to her husband, who was always more awake before the dinner hour. As she finished a paragraph she heard the steps of her son on the upper floor, and she dropped the paper, saying:—

"Calyste must be going to dine again at Les Touches; he has dressed himself."

"He amuses himself, the dear boy," said the old sister, taking a silver whistle from her pocket and whistling once.

Mariotte came through the tower and appeared at the door of communication which was hidden by a silken curtain like the other doors of the room.

"What is it?" she said; "anything wanted?"

"The chevalier dines at Les Touches; don't cook the fish."

"But we are not sure as yet," said the baroness.

"You seem annoyed, sister; I know it by the tone of your voice."

"Monsieur Grimont has heard some very grave charges against Mademoiselle des Touches, who for the last year has so changed our dear Calyste."

"Changed him, how?" asked the baron.

"He reads all sorts of books."

"Ah! ah!" exclaimed the baron, "so that's why he has given up hunting and riding."

"Her morals are very reprehensible, and she has taken a man's name," added Madame du Guenic.

"A war name, I suppose," said the old man. "I was called 'l'Intime,' the Comte de Fontaine 'Grand-Jacques,' the Marquis de Montauran the 'Gars.' I was the friend of Ferdinand, who never submitted, any more than I did. Ah! those were the good times; people shot each other, but what of that? we amused ourselves all the same, here and there."

This war memory, pushing aside paternal anxiety, saddened Fanny for a moment. The rector's revelations, the want of confidence shown to her by Calyste, had kept her from sleeping.

"Suppose Monsieur le chevalier does love Mademoiselle des Touches, where's the harm?" said Mariotte. "She has thirty thousand francs a year and she is very handsome."

"What is that you say, Mariotte?" exclaimed the old baron. "A Guenic marry a des Touches! The des Touches were not even grooms in the days when du Guesclin considered our alliance a signal honor."

"A woman who takes a man's name,—Camille Maupin!" said the baroness.

"The Maupins are an old family," said the baron; "they bear: gules, three—" He stopped. "But she cannot be a Maupin and a des Touches both," he added.

"She is called Maupin on the stage."

"A des Touches could hardly be an actress," said the old man. "Really, Fanny, if I did not know you, I should think you were out of your head."

"She writes plays, and books," continued the baroness.

"Books?" said the baron, looking at his wife with an air of as much surprise as though she were telling of a miracle. "I have heard that Mademoiselle Scudery and Madame de Sevigne wrote books, but it was not the best thing they did."

"Are you going to dine at Les Touches, monsieur?" said Mariotte, when Calyste entered.

"Probably," replied the young man.

Mariotte was not inquisitive; she was part of the family; and she left the room without waiting to hear what the baroness would say to her son.

"Are you going again to Les Touches, my Calyste?" The baroness emphasized the my. "Les Touches is not a respectable or decent house. Its mistress leads an irregular life; she will corrupt our Calyste. Already Camille Maupin has made him read many books; he has had adventures—You knew all that, my naughty child, and you never said one word to your best friends!"

"The chevalier is discreet," said his father,—"a virtue of the olden time."

"Too discreet," said the jealous mother, observing the red flush on her son's forehead.

"My dear mother," said Calyste, kneeling down beside the baroness, "I didn't think it necessary to publish my defeat. Mademoiselle des Touches, or, if you choose to call her so, Camille Maupin, rejected my love more than eighteen months ago, during her last stay at Les Touches. She laughed at me, gently; saying she might very well be my mother; that a woman of forty committed a sort of crime against nature in loving a minor, and that she herself was incapable of such depravity. She made a thousand little jokes, which hurt me—for she is witty as an angel; but when she saw me weep hot tears she tried to comfort me, and offered me her friendship in the noblest manner. She has more heart than even talent; she is as generous as you are yourself. I am now her child. On her return here lately, hearing from her that she loves another, I have resigned myself. Do not repeat the calumnies that have been said of her. Camille is an artist, she has genius, she leads one of those exceptional existences which cannot be judged like ordinary lives."

"My child," said the religious Fanny, "nothing can excuse a woman for not conducting herself as the Church requires. She fails in her duty to God and to society by abjuring the gentle tenets of her sex. A woman commits a sin in even going to a theatre; but to write the impieties that actors repeat, to roam about the world, first with an enemy to the Pope, and then with a musician, ah! Calyste, you can never persuade me that such acts are deeds of faith, hope, or charity. Her fortune was given her by God to do good, and what good does she do with hers?"

Calyste sprang up suddenly, and looked at his mother.

"Mother," he said, "Camille is my friend; I cannot hear her spoken of in this way; I would give my very life for her."

"Your life!" said the baroness, looking at her son, with startled eyes. "Your life is our life, the life of all of us."

"My nephew has just said many things I do not understand," said the old woman, turning toward him.

"Where did he learn them?" said the mother; "at Les Touches."

"Yes, my darling mother; she found me ignorant as a carp, and she has taught me."

"You knew the essential things when you learned the duties taught us by religion," replied the baroness. "Ah! this woman is fated to destroy your noble and sacred beliefs."

The old maid rose, and solemnly stretched forth her hands toward her brother, who was dozing in his chair.

"Calyste," she said, in a voice that came from her heart, "your father has never opened books, he speaks Breton, he fought for God and for the king. Educated people did the evil, educated noblemen deserted their land,—be educated if you choose!"

So saying, she sat down and began to knit with a rapidity which betrayed her inward emotion.

"My angel," said the mother, weeping, "I foresee some evil coming down upon you in that house."

"Who is making Fanny weep?" cried the old man, waking with a start at the sound of his wife's voice. He looked round upon his sister, his son, and the baroness. "What is the matter?" he asked.

"Nothing, my friend," replied his wife.

"Mamma," said Calyste, whispering in his mother's ear, "it is impossible for me to explain myself just now; but to-night you and I will talk of this. When you know all, you will bless Mademoiselle des Touches."

"Mothers do not like to curse," replied the baroness. "I could not curse a woman who truly loved my Calyste."

The young man bade adieu to his father and went out. The baron and his wife rose to see him pass through the court-yard, open the gate, and disappear. The baroness did not again take up the newspaper; she was too agitated. In this tranquil, untroubled life such a discussion was the equivalent of a quarrel in other homes. Though somewhat calmed, her motherly uneasiness was not dispersed. Whither would such a friendship, which might claim the life of Calyste and destroy it, lead her boy? Bless Mademoiselle des Touches? how could that be? These questions were as momentous to her simple soul as the fury of revolutions to a statesman. Camille Maupin was Revolution itself in that calm and placid home.

"I fear that woman will ruin him," she said, picking up the paper.

"My dear Fanny," said the old baron, with a jaunty air, "you are too much of an angel to understand these things. Mademoiselle des Touches is, they say, as black as a crow, as strong as a Turk, and forty years old. Our dear Calyste was certain to fall in love with her. Of course he will tell certain honorable little lies to conceal his happiness. Let him alone to amuse himself with his first illusions."

"If it had been any other woman—" began the baroness.

"But, my dear Fanny, if the woman were a saint she would not accept your son." The baroness again picked up the paper. "I will go and see her myself," added the baron, "and tell you all about her."

This speech has no savor at the present moment. But after reading the biography of Camille Maupin you can then imagine the old baron entering the lists against that illustrious woman.