by Honore' de Balzac
Translation by Ellen Marriage
To M. le Marquis Damaso Pareto
I have always longed to tell a simple and true story, which
should strike terror into two young lovers, and drive them to
take refuge each in the other's heart, as two children cling
together at the sight of a snake by a woodside. At the risk of
spoiling my story and of being taken for a coxcomb, I state my
intention at the outset.
I myself played a part in this almost commonplace tragedy; so if
it fails to interest you, the failure will be in part my own
fault, in part owing to historical veracity. Plenty of things in
real life are superlatively uninteresting; so that it is one-half
of art to select from realities those which contain possibilities
In 1819 I was traveling from Paris to Moulins. The state of my
finances obliged me to take an outside place. Englishmen, as you
know, regard those airy perches on the top of the coach as the
best seats; and for the first few miles I discovered abundance of
excellent reasons for justifying the opinion of our neighbors. A
young fellow, apparently in somewhat better circumstances, who
came to take the seat beside me from preference, listened to my
reasoning with inoffensive smiles. An approximate nearness of
age, a similarity in ways of thinking, a common love of fresh
air, and of the rich landscape scenery through which the coach
was lumbering along,--these things, together with an
indescribable magnetic something, drew us before long into one of
those short-lived traveller's intimacies, in which we unbend with
the more complacency because the intercourse is by its very
nature transient, and makes no implicit demands upon the future.
We had not come thirty leagues before we were talking of women
and love. Then, with all the circumspection demanded in such
matters, we proceeded naturally to the topic of our lady-loves.
Young as we both were, we still admired "the woman of a certain
age," that is to say, the woman between thirty-five and forty.
Oh! any poet who should have listened to our talk, for heaven
knows how many stages beyond Montargis, would have reaped a
harvest of flaming epithet, rapturous description, and very
tender confidences. Our bashful fears, our silent interjections,
our blushes, as we met each other's eyes, were expressive with an
eloquence, a boyish charm, which I have ceased to feel. One must
remain young, no doubt, to understand youth.
Well, we understood one another to admiration on all the
essential points of passion. We had laid it down as an axiom at
the very outset, that in theory and practice there was no such
piece of driveling nonsense in this world as a certificate of
birth; that plenty of women were younger at forty than many a
girl of twenty; and, to come to the point, that a woman is no
older than she looks.
This theory set no limits to the age of love, so we struck out,
in all good faith, into a boundless sea. At length, when we had
portrayed our mistresses as young, charming, and devoted to us,
women of rank, women of taste, intellectual and clever; when we
had endowed them with little feet, a satin, nay, a delicately
fragrant skin, then came the admission--on his part that Madame
Such-an-one was thirty-eight years old, and on mine that I
worshiped a woman of forty. Whereupon, as if released on either
side from some kind of vague fear, our confidences came thick and
fast, when we found that we were in the same confraternity of
love. It was which of us should overtop the other in sentiment.
One of us had traveled six hundred miles to see his mistress for
an hour. The other, at the risk of being shot for a wolf, had
prowled about her park to meet her one night. Out came all our
follies in fact. If it is pleasant to remember past dangers, is
it not at least as pleasant to recall past delights? We live
through the joy a second time. We told each other everything, our
perils, our great joys, our little pleasures, and even the humors
of the situation. My friend's countess had lighted a cigar for
him; mine made chocolate for me, and wrote to me every day when
we did not meet; his lady had come to spend three days with him
at the risk of ruin to her reputation; mine had done even better,
or worse, if you will have it so. Our countesses, moreover, were
adored by their husbands; these gentlemen were enslaved by the
charm possessed by every woman who loves; and, with even
supererogatory simplicity, afforded us that just sufficient spice
of danger which increases pleasure. Ah! how quickly the wind
swept away our talk and our happy laughter!
When we reached Pouilly, I scanned my new friend with much
interest, and truly, it was not difficult to imagine him the hero
of a very serious love affair. Picture to yourselves a young man
of middle height, but very well proportioned, a bright,
expressive face, dark hair, blue eyes, moist lips, and white and
even teeth. A certain not unbecoming pallor still overspread his
delicately cut features, and there were faint dark circles about
his eyes, as if he were recovering from an illness. Add,
furthermore, that he had white and shapely hands, of which he was
as careful as a pretty woman should be; add that he seemed to be
very well informed, and was decidedly clever, and it should not
be difficult for you to imagine that my traveling companion was
more than worthy of a countess. Indeed, many a girl might have
wished for such a husband, for he was a Vicomte with an income of
twelve or fifteen thousand livres, "to say nothing of
About a league out of Pouilly the coach was overturned. My
luckless comrade, thinking to save himself, jumped to the edge of
a newly-ploughed field, instead of following the fortunes of the
vehicle and clinging tightly to the roof, as I did. He either
miscalculated in some way, or he slipped; how it happened, I do
not know, but the coach fell over upon him, and he was crushed
We carried him into a peasant's cottage, and there, amid the
moans wrung from him by horrible sufferings, he contrived to give
me a commission--a sacred task, in that it was laid upon me by a
dying man's last wish. Poor boy, all through his agony he was
torturing himself in his young simplicity of heart with the
thought of the painful shock to his mistress when she should
suddenly read of his death in a newspaper. He begged me to go
myself to break the news to her. He bade me look for a key which
he wore on a ribbon about his neck. I found it half buried in the
flesh, but the dying boy did not utter a sound as I extricated it
as gently as possible from the wound which it had made. He had
scarcely given me the necessary directions--I was to go to his
home at La Charite-sur-Loire for his mistress' love-letters,
which he conjured me to return to her--when he grew speechless in
the middle of a sentence; but from his last gesture, I understood
that the fatal key would be my passport in his mother's house. It
troubled him that he was powerless to utter a single word to
thank me, for of my wish to serve him he had no doubt. He looked
wistfully at me for a moment, then his eyelids drooped in token
of farewell, and his head sank, and he died. His death was the
only fatal accident caused by the overturn.
"But it was partly his own fault," the coachman said to me.
At La Charite, I executed the poor fellow's dying wishes. His
mother was away from home, which in a manner was fortunate for
me. Nevertheless, I had to assuage the grief of an old woman-
servant, who staggered back at the tidings of her young master's
death, and sank half-dead into a chair when she saw the blood-
stained key. But I had another and more dreadful sorrow to think
of, the sorrow of a woman who had lost her last love; so I left
the old woman to her prosopopeia, and carried off the precious
correspondence, carefully sealed by my friend of the day.
The Countess' chateau was some eight leagues beyond Moulins, and
then there was some distance to walk across country. So it was
not exactly an easy matter to deliver my message. For divers
reasons into which I need not enter, I had barely sufficient
money to take me to Moulins. However, my youthful enthusiasm
determined to hasten thither on foot as fast as possible. Bad
news travels swiftly, and I wished to be first at the chateau. I
asked for the shortest way, and hurried through the field paths
of the Bourbonnais, bearing, as it were, a dead man on my back.
The nearer I came to the Chateau de Montpersan, the more aghast I
felt at the idea of my strange self-imposed pilgrimage. Vast
numbers of romantic fancies ran in my head. I imagined all kinds
of situations in which I might find this Comtesse de Montpersan,
or, to observe the laws of romance, this Juliette, so
passionately beloved of my traveling companion. I sketched out
ingenious answers to the questions which she might be supposed to
put to me. At every turn of a wood, in every beaten pathway, I
rehearsed a modern version of the scene in which Sosie describes
the battle to his lantern. To my shame be it said, I had thought
at first of nothing but the part that _I_ was to play, of my own
cleverness, of how I should demean myself; but now that I was in
the country, an ominous thought flashed through my soul like a
thunderbolt tearing its way through a veil of gray cloud.
What an awful piece of news it was for a woman whose whole
thoughts were full of her young lover, who was looking forward
hour by hour to a joy which no words can express, a woman who had
been at a world of pains to invent plausible pretexts to draw him
to her side. Yet, after all, it was a cruel deed of charity to be
the messenger of death! So I hurried on, splashing and bemiring
myself in the byways of the Bourbonnais.
Before very long I reached a great chestnut avenue with a pile of
buildings at the further end--the Chateau of Montpersan stood out
against the sky like a mass of brown cloud, with sharp, fantastic
outlines. All the doors of the chateau stood open. This in itself
disconcerted me, and routed all my plans; but I went in boldly,
and in a moment found myself between a couple of dogs, barking as
your true country-bred animal can bark. The sound brought out a
hurrying servant-maid; who, when informed that I wished to speak
to Mme. la Comtesse, waved a hand towards the masses of trees in
the English park which wound about the chateau with "Madame is
"Many thanks," said I ironically. I might have wandered for a
couple of hours in the park with her "out there" to guide me.
In the meantime, a pretty little girl, with curling hair, dressed
in a white frock, a rose-colored sash, and a broad frill at the
throat, had overheard or guessed the question and its answer. She
gave me a glance and vanished, calling in shrill, childish tones:
"Mother, here is a gentleman who wishes to speak to you!"
And, along the winding alleys, I followed the skipping and
dancing white frill, a sort of will-o'-the-wisp, that showed me
the way among the trees.
I must make a full confession. I stopped behind the last shrub in
the avenue, pulled up my collar, rubbed my shabby hat and my
trousers with the cuffs of my sleeves, dusted my coat with the
sleeves themselves, and gave them a final cleansing rub one
against the other. I buttoned my coat carefully so as to exhibit
the inner, always the least worn, side of the cloth, and finally
had turned down the tops of my trousers over my boots,
artistically cleaned in the grass. Thanks to this Gascon toilet,
I could hope that the lady would not take me for the local rate
collector; but now when my thoughts travel back to that episode
of my youth, I sometimes laugh at my own expense.
Suddenly, just as I was composing myself, at a turning in the
green walk, among a wilderness of flowers lighted up by a hot ray
of sunlight, I saw Juliette--Juliette and her husband. The pretty
little girl held her mother by the hand, and it was easy to see
that the lady had quickened her pace somewhat at the child's
ambiguous phrase. Taken aback by the sight of a total stranger,
who bowed with a tolerably awkward air, she looked at me with a
coolly courteous expression and an adorable pout, in which I, who
knew her secret, could read the full extent of her
disappointment. I sought, but sought in vain, to remember any of
the elegant phrases so laboriously prepared.
This momentary hesitation gave the lady's husband time to come
forward. Thoughts by the myriad flitted through my brain. To give
myself a countenance, I got out a few sufficiently feeble
inquiries, asking whether the persons present were really M. le
Comte and Mme. la Comtesse de Montpersan. These imbecilities gave
me time to form my own conclusions at a glance, and, with a
perspicacity rare at that age, to analyze the husband and wife
whose solitude was about to be so rudely disturbed.
The husband seemed to be a specimen of a certain type of
nobleman, the fairest ornaments of the provinces of our day. He
wore big shoes with stout soles to them. I put the shoes first
advisedly, for they made an even deeper impression upon me than a
seedy black coat, a pair of threadbare trousers, a flabby cravat,
or a crumpled shirt collar. There was a touch of the magistrate
in the man, a good deal more of the Councillor of the Prefecture,
all the self-importance of the mayor of the arrondissement, the
local autocrat, and the soured temper of the unsuccessful
candidate who has never been returned since the year 1816. As to
countenance--a wizened, wrinkled, sunburned face, and long, sleek
locks of scanty gray hair; as to character--an incredible mixture
of homely sense and sheer silliness; of a rich man's overbearing
ways, and a total lack of manners; just the kind of husband who
is almost entirely led by his wife, yet imagines himself to be
the master; apt to domineer in trifles, and to let more important
things slip past unheeded--there you have the man!
But the Countess! Ah, how sharp and startling the contrast
between husband and wife! The Countess was a little woman, with a
flat, graceful figure and enchanting shape; so fragile, so dainty
was she, that you would have feared to break some bone if you so
much as touched her. She wore a white muslin dress, a rose-
colored sash, and rose-colored ribbons in the pretty cap on her
head; her chemisette was moulded so deliciously by her shoulders
and the loveliest rounded contours, that the sight of her
awakened an irresistible desire of possession in the depths of
the heart. Her eyes were bright and dark and expressive, her
movements graceful, her foot charming. An experienced man of
pleasure would not have given her more than thirty years, her
forehead was so girlish. She had all the most transient delicate
detail of youth in her face. In character she seemed to me to
resemble the Comtesse de Lignolles and the Marquise de B----, two
feminine types always fresh in the memory of any young man who
has read Louvet's romance.
In a moment I saw how things stood, and took a diplomatic course
that would have done credit to an old ambassador. For once, and
perhaps for the only time in my life, I used tact, and knew in
what the special skill of courtiers and men of the world
I have had so many battles to fight since those heedless days,
that they have left me no time to distil all the least actions of
daily life, and to do everything so that it falls in with those
rules of etiquette and good taste which wither the most generous
"M. le Comte," I said with an air of mystery, "I should like a
few words with you," and I fell back a pace or two.
He followed my example. Juliette left us together, going away
unconcernedly, like a wife who knew that she can learn her
husband's secrets as soon as she chooses to know them.
I told the Count briefly of the death of my traveling companion.
The effect produced by my news convinced me that his affection
for his young collaborator was cordial enough, and this
emboldened me to make reply as I did.
"My wife will be in despair," cried he; "I shall be obliged to
break the news of this unhappy event with great caution."
"Monsieur," said I, "I addressed myself to you in the first
instance, as in duty bound. I could not, without first informing
you, deliver a message to Mme. la Comtesse, a message intrusted
to me by an entire stranger; but this commission is a sort of
sacred trust, a secret of which I have no power to dispose. From
the high idea of your character which he gave me, I felt sure
that you would not oppose me in the fulfilment of a dying
request. Mme. la Comtesse will be at liberty to break the silence
which is imposed upon me."
At this eulogy, the Count swung his head very amiably, responded
with a tolerably involved compliment, and finally left me a free
field. We returned to the house. The bell rang, and I was invited
to dinner. As we came up to the house, a grave and silent couple,
Juliette stole a glance at us. Not a little surprised to find her
husband contriving some frivolous excuse for leaving us together,
she stopped short, giving me a glance--such a glance as women
only can give you. In that look of hers there was the pardonable
curiosity of the mistress of the house confronted with a guest
dropped down upon her from the skies and innumerable doubts,
certainly warranted by the state of my clothes, by my youth and
my expression, all singularly at variance; there was all the
disdain of the adored mistress, in whose eyes all men save one
are as nothing; there were involuntary tremors and alarms; and,
above all, the thought that it was tiresome to have an unexpected
guest just now, when, no doubt, she had been scheming to enjoy
full solitude for her love. This mute eloquence I understood in
her eyes, and all the pity and compassion in me made answer in a
sad smile. I thought of her, as I had seen her for one moment, in
the pride of her beauty; standing in the sunny afternoon in the
narrow alley with the flowers on either hand; and as that fair
wonderful picture rose before my eyes, I could not repress a
"Alas, madame, I have just made a very arduous journey----,
undertaken solely on your account."
"Oh! it is on behalf of one who calls you Juliette that I am
come," I continued. Her face grew white.
"You will not see him to-day."
"Is he ill?" she asked, and her voice sank lower.
"Yes. But for pity's sake, control yourself. . . . He intrusted
me with secrets that concern you, and you may be sure that never
messenger could be more discreet nor more devoted than I."
"What is the matter with him?"
"How if he loved you no longer?"
"Oh! that is impossible!" she cried, and a faint smile, nothing
less than frank, broke over her face. Then all at once a kind of
shudder ran through her, and she reddened, and she gave me a
wild, swift glance as she asked:
"Is he alive?"
Great God! What a terrible phrase! I was too young to bear that
tone in her voice; I made no reply, only looked at the unhappy
woman in helpless bewilderment.
"Monsieur, monsieur, give me an answer!" she cried.
"Is it true? Oh! tell me the truth; I can hear the truth. Tell me
the truth! Any pain would be less keen than this suspense."
I answered by two tears wrung from me by that strange tone of
hers. She leaned against a tree with a faint, sharp cry.
"Madame, here comes your husband!"
"Have I a husband?" and with those words she fled away out of
"Well," cried the Count, "dinner is growing cold.--Come,
Thereupon I followed the master of the house into the dining-
room. Dinner was served with all the luxury which we have learned
to expect in Paris. There were five covers laid, three for the
Count and Countess and their little daughter; my own, which
should have been HIS; and another for the canon of Saint-Denis,
who said grace, and then asked:
"Why, where can our dear Countess be?"
"Oh! she will be here directly," said the Count. He had hastily
helped us to the soup, and was dispatching an ample plateful with
"Oh! nephew," exclaimed the canon, "if your wife were here, you
would behave more rationally."
"Papa will make himself ill!" said the child with a mischievous
Just after this extraordinary gastronomical episode, as the Count
was eagerly helping himself to a slice of venison, a housemaid
came in with, "We cannot find madame anywhere, sir!"
I sprang up at the words with a dread in my mind, my fears
written so plainly in my face, that the old canon came out after
me into the garden. The Count, for the sake of appearances, came
as far as the threshold.
"Don't go, don't go!" called he. "Don't trouble yourselves in the
least," but he did not offer to accompany us.
We three--the canon, the housemaid, and I--hurried through the
garden walks and over the bowling-green in the park, shouting,
listening for an answer, growing more uneasy every moment. As we
hurried along, I told the story of the fatal accident, and
discovered how strongly the maid was attached to her mistress,
for she took my secret dread far more seriously than the canon.
We went along by the pools of water; all over the park we went;
but we neither found the Countess nor any sign that she had
passed that way. At last we turned back, and under the walls of
some outbuildings I heard a smothered, wailing cry, so stifled
that it was scarcely audible. The sound seemed to come from a
place that might have been a granary. I went in at all risks, and
there we found Juliette. With the instinct of despair, she had
buried herself deep in the hay, hiding her face in it to deaden
those dreadful cries--pudency even stronger than grief. She was
sobbing and crying like a child, but there was a more poignant,
more piteous sound in the sobs. There was nothing left in the
world for her. The maid pulled the hay from her, her mistress
submitting with the supine listlessness of a dying animal. The
maid could find nothing to say but "There! madame; there,
"What is the matter with her? What is it, niece?" the old canon
kept on exclaiming.
At last, with the girl's help, I carried Juliette to her room,
gave orders that she was not to be disturbed, and that every one
must be told that the Countess was suffering from a sick
headache. Then we came down to the dining-room, the canon and I.
Some little time had passed since we left the dinner-table; I had
scarcely given a thought to the Count since we left him under the
peristyle; his indifference had surprised me, but my amazement
increased when we came back and found him seated philosophically
at table. He had eaten pretty nearly all the dinner, to the huge
delight of his little daughter; the child was smiling at her
father's flagrant infraction of the Countess' rules. The man's
odd indifference was explained to me by a mild altercation which
at once arose with the canon. The Count was suffering from some
serious complaint. I cannot remember now what it was, but his
medical advisers had put him on a very severe regimen, and the
ferocious hunger familiar to convalescents, sheer animal
appetite, had overpowered all human sensibilities. In that little
space I had seen frank and undisguised human nature under two
very different aspects, in such a sort that there was a certain
grotesque element in the very midst of a most terrible tragedy.
The evening that followed was dreary. I was tired. The canon
racked his brains to discover a reason for his niece's tears. The
lady's husband silently digested his dinner; content, apparently,
with the Countess' rather vague explanation, sent through the
maid, putting forward some feminine ailment as her excuse. We all
went early to bed.
As I passed the door of the Countess' room on the way to my
night's lodging, I asked the servant timidly for news of her. She
heard my voice, and would have me come in, and tried to talk, but
in vain--she could not utter a sound. She bent her head, and I
withdrew. In spite of the painful agitation, which I had felt to
the full as youth can feel, I fell asleep, tired out with my
It was late in the night when I was awakened by the grating sound
of curtain rings drawn sharply over the metal rods. There sat the
Countess at the foot of my bed. The light from a lamp set on my
table fell full upon her face.
"Is it really true, monsieur, quite true?" she asked. "I do not
know how I can live after that awful blow which struck me down a
little while since; but just now I feel calm. I want to know
"What calm!" I said to myself as I saw the ghastly pallor of her
face contrasting with her brown hair, and heard the guttural
tones of her voice. The havoc wrought in her drawn features
filled me with dumb amazement.
Those few hours had bleached her; she had lost a woman's last
glow of autumn color. Her eyes were red and swollen, nothing of
their beauty remained, nothing looked out of them save her bitter
and exceeding grief; it was as if a gray cloud covered the place
through which the sun had shone.
I gave her the story of the accident in a few words, without
laying too much stress on some too harrowing details. I told her
about our first day's journey, and how it had been filled with
recollections of her and of love. And she listened eagerly,
without shedding a tear, leaning her face towards me, as some
zealous doctor might lean to watch any change in a patient's
face. When she seemed to me to have opened her whole heart to
pain, to be deliberately plunging herself into misery with the
first delirious frenzy of despair, I caught at my opportunity,
and told her of the fears that troubled the poor dying man, told
her how and why it was that he had given me this fatal message.
Then her tears were dried by the fires that burned in the dark
depths within her. She grew even paler. When I drew the letters
from beneath my pillow and held them out to her, she took them
mechanically; then, trembling from head to foot, she said in a
"And _I_ burned all his letters!--I have nothing of him left!--
She struck her hand against her forehead.
"Madame----" I began.
She glanced at me in the convulsion of grief.
"I cut this from his head, this lock of his hair."
And I gave her that last imperishable token that had been a very
part of him she loved. Ah! if you had felt, as I felt then, her
burning tears falling on your hands, you would know what
gratitude is, when it follows so closely upon the benefit. Her
eyes shone with a feverish glitter, a faint ray of happiness
gleamed out of her terrible suffering, as she grasped my hands in
hers, and said, in a choking voice:
"Ah! you love! May you be happy always. May you never lose her
whom you love."
She broke off, and fled away with her treasure.
Next morning, this night-scene among my dreams seemed like a
dream; to make sure of the piteous truth, I was obliged to look
fruitlessly under my pillow for the packet of letters. There is
no need to tell you how the next day went. I spent several hours
of it with the Juliette whom my poor comrade had so praised to
me. In her lightest words, her gestures, in all that she did and
said, I saw proofs of the nobleness of soul, the delicacy of
feeling which made her what she was, one of those beloved,
loving, and self-sacrificing natures so rarely found upon this
In the evening the Comte de Montpersan came himself as far as
Moulins with me. There he spoke with a kind of embarrassment:
"Monsieur, if it is not abusing your good-nature, and acting very
inconsiderately towards a stranger to whom we are already under
obligations, would you have the goodness, as you are going to
Paris, to remit a sum of money to M. de ---- (I forget the name),
in the Rue du Sentier; I owe him an amount, and he asked me to
send it as soon as possible."
"Willingly," said I. And in the innocence of my heart, I took
charge of a rouleau of twenty-five louis d'or, which paid the
expenses of my journey back to Paris; and only when, on my
arrival, I went to the address indicated to repay the amount to
M. de Montpersan's correspondent, did I understand the ingenious
delicacy with which Juliette had obliged me. Was not all the
genius of a loving woman revealed in such a way of lending, in
her reticence with regard to a poverty easily guessed?
And what rapture to have this adventure to tell to a woman who
clung to you more closely in dread, saying, "Oh, my dear, not you!
YOU must not die!"