Beatrix/Chapter VII

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Beatrix by Honore de Balzac

Chapter VII


A few hundred yards from Guerande the soil of Brittany comes to an end; the salt-marshes and the sandy dunes begin. We descend into a desert of sand, which the sea has left for a margin between herself and earth, by a rugged road through a ravine that has never seen a carriage. This desert contains waste tracts, ponds of unequal size, round the shores of which the salt is made on muddy banks, and a little arm of the sea which separates the mainland from the island of Croisic. Geographically, Croisic is really a peninsula; but as it holds to Brittany only by the beaches which connect it with the village of Batz (barren quicksands very difficult to cross), it may be more correct to call it an island.

At the point where the road from Croisic to Guerande turns off from the main road of terra firma, stands a country-house, surrounded by a large garden, remarkable for its trimmed and twisted pine-trees, some being trained to the shape of sun-shades, others, stripped of their branches, showing their reddened trunks in spots where the bark has peeled. These trees, victims of hurricanes, growing against wind and tide (for them the saying is literally true), prepare the mind for the strange and depressing sight of the marshes and dunes, which resemble a stiffened ocean. The house, fairly well built of a species of slaty stone with granite courses, has no architecture; it presents to the eye a plain wall with windows at regular intervals. These windows have small leaded panes on the ground-floor and large panes on the upper floor. Above are the attics, which stretch the whole length of an enormously high pointed roof, with two gables and two large dormer windows on each side of it. Under the triangular point of each gable a circular window opens its cyclopic eye, westerly to the sea, easterly on Guerande. One facade of the house looks on the road to Guerande, the other on the desert at the end of which is Croisic; beyond that little town is the open sea. A brook escapes through an opening in the park wall which skirts the road to Croisic, crosses the road, and is lost in the sands beyond it.

The grayish tones of the house harmonize admirably with the scene it overlooks. The park is an oasis in the surrounding desert, at the entrance of which the traveller comes upon a mud-hut, where the custom-house officials lie in wait for him. This house without land (for the bulk of the estate is really in Guerande) derives an income from the marshes and a few outlying farms of over ten thousand francs a year. Such is the fief of Les Touches, from which the Revolution lopped its feudal rights. The paludiers, however, continue to call it "the chateau," and they would still say "seigneur" if the fief were not now in the female line. When Felicite set about restoring Les Touches, she was careful, artist that she is, not to change the desolate exterior which gives the look of a prison to the isolated structure. The sole change was at the gate, which she enlivened by two brick columns supporting an arch, beneath which carriages pass into the court-yard where she planted trees.

The arrangement of the ground-floor is that of nearly all country houses built a hundred years ago. It was, evidently, erected on the ruins of some old castle formerly perched there. A large panelled entrance-hall has been turned by Felicite into a billiard-room; from it opens an immense salon with six windows, and the dining-room. The kitchen communicates with the dining-room through an office. Camille has displayed a noble simplicity in the arrangement of this floor, carefully avoiding all splendid decoration. The salon, painted gray, is furnished in old mahogany with green silk coverings. The furniture of the dining-room comprises four great buffets, also of mahogany, chairs covered with horsehair, and superb engravings by Audran in mahogany frames. The old staircase, of wood with heavy balusters, is covered all over with a green carpet.

On the floor above are two suites of rooms separated by the staircase. Mademoiselle des Touches has taken for herself the one that looks toward the sea and the marshes, and arranged it with a small salon, a large chamber, and two cabinets, one for a dressing-room, the other for a study and writing-room. The other suite, she has made into two separate apartments for guests, each with a bedroom, an antechamber, and a cabinet. The servants have rooms in the attic. The rooms for guests are furnished with what is strictly necessary, and no more. A certain fantastic luxury has been reserved for her own apartment. In that sombre and melancholy habitation, looking out upon the sombre and melancholy landscape, she wanted the most fantastic creations of art that she could find. The little salon is hung with Gobelin tapestry, framed in marvellously carved oak. The windows are draped with the heavy silken hangings of a past age, a brocade shot with crimson and gold against green and yellow, gathered into mighty pleats and trimmed with fringes and cords and tassels worthy of a church. This salon contains a chest or cabinet worth in these days seven or eight thousand francs, a carved ebony table, a secretary with many drawers, inlaid with arabesques of ivory and bought in Venice, with other noble Gothic furniture. Here too are pictures and articles of choice workmanship bought in 1818, at a time when no one suspected the ultimate value of such treasures. Her bedroom is of the period of Louis XV. and strictly exact to it. Here we see the carved wooden bedstead painted white, with the arched head-board surmounted by Cupids scattering flowers, and the canopy above it adorned with plumes; the hangings of blue silk; the Pompadour dressing-table with its laces and mirror; together with bits of furniture of singular shape,—a "duchesse," a chaise-longue, a stiff little sofa,—with window-curtains of silk, like that of the furniture, lined with pink satin, and caught back with silken ropes, and a carpet of Savonnerie; in short, we find here all those elegant, rich, sumptuous, and dainty things in the midst of which the women of the eighteenth century lived and made love.

The study, entirely of the present day, presents, in contrast with the Louis XV. gallantries, a charming collection of mahogany furniture; it resembles a boudoir; the bookshelves are full, but the fascinating trivialities of a woman's existence encumber it; in the midst of which an inquisitive eye perceives with uneasy surprise pistols, a narghile, a riding-whip, a hammock, a rifle, a man's blouse, tobacco, pipes, a knapsack,—a bizarre combination which paints Felicite.

Every great soul, entering that room, would be struck with the peculiar beauty of the landscape which spreads its broad savanna beyond the park, the last vegetation on the continent. The melancholy squares of water, divided by little paths of white salt crust, along which the salt-makers pass (dressed in white) to rake up and gather the salt into mulons; a space which the saline exhalations prevent all birds from crossing, stifling thus the efforts of botanic nature; those sands where the eye is soothed only by one little hardy persistent plant bearing rosy flowers and the Chartreux pansy; that lake of salt water, the sandy dunes, the view of Croisic, a miniature town afloat like Venice on the sea; and, finally the mighty ocean tossing its foaming fringe upon the granite rocks as if the better to bring out their weird formations—that sight uplifts the mind although it saddens it; an effect produced at last by all that is sublime, creating a regretful yearning for things unknown and yet perceived by the soul on far-off heights. These wild and savage harmonies are for great spirits and great sorrows only.

This desert scene, where at times the sun rays, reflected by the water, by the sands, whitened the village of Batz and rippled on the roofs of Croisic with pitiless brilliancy, filled Camille's dreaming mind for days together. She seldom looked to the cool, refreshing scenes, the groves, the flowery meadows around Guerande. Her soul was struggling to endure a horrible inward anguish.

No sooner did Calyste see the vanes of the two gables shooting up beyond the furze of the roadside and the distorted heads of the pines, than the air seemed lighter; Guerande was a prison to him; his life was at Les Touches. Who will not understand the attraction it presented to a youth in his position. A love like that of Cherubin, had flung him at the feet of a person who was a great and grand thing to him before he thought of her as a woman, and it had survived the repeated and inexplicable refusals of Felicite. This sentiment, which was more the need of loving than love itself, had not escaped the terrible power of Camille for analysis; hence, possibly, her rejection,—a generosity unperceived, of course, by Calyste.

At Les Touches were displayed to the ravished eyes of the ignorant young countryman, the riches of a new world; he heard, as it were, another language, hitherto unknown to him and sonorous. He listened to the poetic sounds of the finest music, that surpassing music of the nineteenth century, in which melody and harmony blend or struggle on equal terms,—a music in which song and instrumentation have reached a hitherto unknown perfection. He saw before his eyes the works of modern painters, those of the French school, to-day the heir of Italy, Spain, and Flanders, in which talent has become so common that hearts, weary of talent, are calling aloud for genius. He read there those works of imagination, those amazing creations of modern literature which produced their full effect upon his unused heart. In short, the great Nineteenth Century appeared to him, in all its collective magnificence, its criticising spirit, its desires for renovation in all directions, and its vast efforts, nearly all of them on the scale of the giant who cradled the infancy of the century in his banners and sang to it hymns with the lullaby of cannon.

Initiated by Felicite into the grandeur of all these things, which may, perhaps, escape the eyes of those who work them, Calyste gratified at Les Touches the taste for the glorious, powerful at his age, and that artless admiration, the first love of adolescence, which is always irritated by criticism. It is so natural that flame should rise! He listened to that charming Parisian raillery, that graceful satire which revealed to him French wit and the qualities of the French mind, and awakened in him a thousand ideas, which might have slumbered forever in the soft torpor of his family life. For him, Mademoiselle des Touches was the mother of his intellect. She was so kind to him; a woman is always adorable to a man in whom she inspires love, even when she seems not to share it.

At the present time Felicite was giving him music-lessons. To him the grand apartments on the lower floor, and her private rooms above, so coquettish, so artistic, were vivified, were animated by a light, a spirit, a supernatural atmosphere, strange and undefinable. The modern world with its poesy was sharply contrasted with the dull and patriarchal world of Guerande, in the two systems brought face to face before him. On one side all the thousand developments of Art, on the other the sameness of uncivilized Brittany. No one will therefore ask why the poor lad, bored like his mother with the pleasures of mouche, quivered as he approached the house, and rang the bell, and crossed the court-yard. Such emotions, we may remark, do not assail a mature man, trained to the ups and downs of life, whom nothing surprises, being prepared for all.

As the door opened, Calyste, hearing the sound of the piano, supposed that Camille was in the salon; but when he entered the billiard-hall he no longer heard it. Camille, he thought, must be playing on a small upright piano brought by Conti from England and placed by her in her own little salon. He began to run up the stairs, where the thick carpet smothered the sound of his steps; but he went more slowly as he neared the top, perceiving something unusual and extraordinary about the music. Felicite was playing for herself only; she was communing with her own being.

Instead of entering the room, the young man sat down upon a Gothic seat covered with green velvet, which stood on the landing beneath a window artistically framed in carved woods stained and varnished. Nothing was ever more mysteriously melancholy than Camille's improvisation; it seemed like the cry of a soul de profundis to God—from the depths of a grave! The heart of the young lover recognized the cry of despairing love, the prayer of a hidden plaint, the groan of repressed affliction. Camille had varied, modified, and lengthened the introduction to the cavatina: "Mercy for thee, mercy for me!" which is nearly the whole of the fourth act of "Robert le Diable." She now suddenly sang the words in a heart-rending manner, and then as suddenly interrupted herself. Calyste entered, and saw the reason. Poor Camille Maupin! poor Felicite! She turned to him a face bathed with tears, took out her handkerchief and dried them, and said, simply, without affectation, "Good-morning." She was beautiful as she sat there in her morning gown. On her head was one of those red chenille nets, much worn in those days, through which the coils of her black hair shone, escaping here and there. A short upper garment made like a Greek peplum gave to view a pair of cambric trousers with embroidered frills, and the prettiest of Turkish slippers, red and gold.

"What is the matter?" cried Calyste.

"He has not returned," she replied, going to a window and looking out upon the sands, the sea and the marshes.

This answer explained all. Camille was awaiting Claude Vignon.

"You are anxious about him?" asked Calyste.

"Yes," she answered, with a sadness the lad was too ignorant to analyze.

He started to leave the room.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"To find him," he replied.

"Dear child!" she said, taking his hand and drawing him toward her with one of those moist glances which are to a youthful soul the best of recompenses. "You are distracted! Where could you find him on that wide shore?"

"I will find him."

"Your mother would be in mortal terror. Stay. Besides, I choose it," she said, making him sit down upon the sofa. "Don't pity me. The tears you see are the tears a woman likes to shed. We have a faculty that is not in man,—that of abandoning ourselves to our nervous nature and driving our feelings to an extreme. By imagining certain situations and encouraging the imagination we end in tears, and sometimes in serious states of illness or disorder. The fancies of women are not the action of the mind; they are of the heart. You have come just in time; solitude is bad for me. I am not the dupe of his professed desire to go to Croisic and see the rocks and the dunes and the salt-marshes without me. He meant to leave us alone together; he is jealous, or, rather, he pretends jealousy, and you are young, you are handsome."

"Why not have told me this before? What must I do? must I stay away?" asked Calyste, with difficulty restraining his tears, one of which rolled down his cheek and touched Felicite deeply.

"You are an angel!" she cried. Then she gaily sang the "Stay! stay!" of Matilde in "Guillaume Tell," taking all gravity from that magnificent answer of the princess to her subject. "He only wants to make me think he loves me better than he really does," she said. "He knows how much I desire his happiness," she went on, looking attentively at Calyste. "Perhaps he feels humiliated to be inferior to me there. Perhaps he has suspicions about you and means to surprise us. But even if his only crime is to take his pleasure without me, and not to associate me with the ideas this new place gives him, is not that enough? Ah! I am no more loved by that great brain than I was by the musician, by the poet, by the soldier! Sterne is right; names signify much; mine is a bitter sarcasm. I shall die without finding in any man the love which fills my heart, the poesy that I have in my soul—"

She stopped, her arms pendant, her head lying back on the cushions, her eyes, stupid with thought, fixed on a pattern of the carpet. The pain of great minds has something grandiose and imposing about it; it reveals a vast extent of soul which the thought of the spectator extends still further. Such souls share the privileges of royalty whose affections belong to a people and so affect a world.

"Why did you reject my—" said Calyste; but he could not end his sentence. Camille's beautiful hand laid upon his eloquently interrupted him.

"Nature changed her laws in granting me a dozen years of youth beyond my due," she said. "I rejected your love from egotism. Sooner or later the difference in our ages must have parted us. I am thirteen years older than he, and even that is too much."

"You will be beautiful at sixty," cried Calyste, heroically.

"God grant it," she answered, smiling. "Besides, dear child, I want to love. In spite of his cold heart, his lack of imagination, his cowardly indifference, and the envy which consumes him, I believe there is greatness behind those tatters; I hope to galvanize that heart, to save him from himself, to attach him to me. Alas! alas! I have a clear-seeing mind, but a blind heart."

She was terrible in her knowledge of herself. She suffered and analyzed her feelings as Cuvier and Dupuytren explained to friends the fatal advance of their disease and the progress that death was making in their bodies. Camille Maupin knew the passion within her as those men of science knew their own anatomy.

"I have brought him here to judge him, and he is already bored," she continued. "He pines for Paris, I tell him; the nostalgia of criticism is on him; he has no author to pluck, no system to undermine, no poet to drive to despair, and he dares not commit some debauch in this house which might lift for a moment the burden of his ennui. Alas! my love is not real enough, perhaps, to soothe his brain; I don't intoxicate him! Make him drunk at dinner to-night and I shall know if I am right. I will say I am ill, and stay in my own room."

Calyste turned scarlet from his neck to his forehead; even his ears were on fire.

"Oh! forgive me," she cried. "How can I heedlessly deprave your girlish innocence! Forgive me, Calyste—" She paused. "There are some superb, consistent natures who say at a certain age: 'If I had my life to live over again, I would do the same things.' I who do not think myself weak, I say, 'I would be a woman like your mother, Calyste.' To have a Calyste, oh! what happiness! I could be a humble and submissive woman—And yet, I have done no harm except to myself. But alas! dear child, a woman cannot stand alone in society except it be in what is called a primitive state. Affections which are not in harmony with social or with natural laws, affections that are not obligatory, in short, escape us. Suffering for suffering, as well be useful where we can. What care I for those children of my cousin Faucombe? I have not seen them these twenty years, and they are married to merchants. You are my son, who have never cost me the miseries of motherhood; I shall leave you my fortune and make you happy—at least, so far as money can do so, dear treasure of beauty and grace that nothing should ever change or blast."

"You would not take my love," said Calyste, "and I shall return your fortune to your heirs."

"Child!" answered Camille, in a guttural voice, letting the tears roll down her cheeks. "Will nothing save me from myself?" she added, presently.

"You said you had a history to tell me, and a letter to—" said the generous youth, wishing to divert her thoughts from her grief; but she did not let him finish.

"You are right to remind me of that. I will be an honest woman before all else. I will sacrifice no one—Yes, it was too late, yesterday, but to-day we have time," she said, in a cheerful tone. "I will keep my promise; and while I tell you that history I will sit by the window and watch the road to the marshes."

Calyste arranged a great Gothic chair for her near the window, and opened one of the sashes. Camille Maupin, who shared the oriental taste of her illustrious sister-author, took a magnificent Persian narghile, given to her by an ambassador. She filled the nipple with patchouli, cleaned the bochettino, perfumed the goose-quill, which she attached to the mouthpiece and used only once, set fire to the yellow leaves, placing the vase with its long neck enamelled in blue and gold at some distance from her, and rang the bell for tea.

"Will you have cigarettes?—Ah! I am always forgetting that you do not smoke. Purity such as yours is so rare! The hand of Eve herself, fresh from the hand of her Maker, is alone innocent enough to stroke your cheek."

Calyste colored; sitting down on a stool at Camille's feet, he did not see the deep emotion that seemed for a moment to overcome her.