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Honore De Balzac - A Woman Of Thirty (1832)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

(Une Femme de Trente Ans)

This work is composed of six separate stories: I. Early Mistakes; II. Hidden Griefs; III. At Thirty Years; IV. The Finger of God; V. Two Meetings; and VI. The Old Age of a Guilty Mother. At first, the names of the characters were different in these disconnected tales, which appeared in various periodicals at various times. In 1842, Balzac changed the names of the individuals, so that all the adventures should be given to the same set of characters. One heroine, Julie d'Aiglemont, links the stories. In 1834, Balzac told Madame Hanska that Souffrances Inconnues ("Hidden Griefs"), the second story of this group, cost him four months of work. He dated this novel 1828-1844. It belongs to the Scenes de la Vie Privee of the Comedie Humaine.


ONE Sunday morning, early in April, 1813, a luxurious cabriolet, drawn by two spirited horses, stopped in the Rue de Rivoli and a prematurely aged duke assisted his youthful daughter Julie to alight. Before setting out upon the disastrous campaign in which Napoleon was to lose first Bessieres and then Duroc, afterward winning the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen, only to see himself deserted by Austria, Saxony, Bavaria, and Bernadotte, and meeting defeat on the sanguinary field of Leipsic, he was holding a brilliant review of the flower of his troops in the courtyard of the Tuileries. Though they were somewhat late in arriving, an advantageous position for seeing the review was secured for the Duke and his daughter by the Count d'Aiglemont, a young and dashing colonel of cavalry. Julie's manifest interest in the latter betrayed to her father the secret of her love. The latter warned her against a man who was a spendthrift and without ability, who was created to eat and digest four meals a day, to sleep, to fall in love with the first woman at hand, and to fight. He said : "You are still too young, too fragile, too delicate for the cares and rubs of married life. D'Aiglemont's relatives have spoiled him just as your mother and I have spoiled you. What hope is there that you two could agree, with two imperious wills diametrically opposed? You will be either the tyrant or the victim, and either alternative means for a wife an equal sum of misfortune."

Nearly a year later, a caleche was rolling along the high-road from Amboise to Tours. During a halt to repair some slight mishap to the harness, Colonel d'Aiglemont woke his wife, Julie, to admire the fine view of the Loire. She complied with supreme indifference. Evidently she had had her way with her father, to her misfortune. An English aristocrat, who, with all the other English in France, was detained by Napoleon by way of reprisals for the violation of the Treaty of Amiens, was passing at the moment and was struck by the beauty of the youthful bride. When the carriage proceeded, he had the temerity to turn his horse and follow. On reaching Tours, Colonel d'Aiglemont left his wife in the care of his aunt, the Marquise de Listomere-Landon. He was on his way to the South with despatches for Sault from the Emperor. The old Marquise took a fancy to the young wife, and saw that Julie was not happy. She discovered that the girl was disenchanted and that the full extent of Victor's emptiness had been revealed.

The persistent Englishman attracted attention by passing the house every day, trying to catch a glimpse of Julie.

Victor sent his wife news of the downfall of the Empire and the capitulation of Paris. He had gone over to the Bourbons, and begged her to join him at Orleans, sending an old soldier as escort. All the way she heard the wheels of a carriage following hers; and at Blois she found that the occupant was the Englishman, Arthur Grenville. At Orleans she was stopped and put under guard by the Prussians. After two hours, however, she received a passport, with apologies from the General, in whose company was Arthur Grenville, now wearing a British uniform.

Julie reached Paris without further adventure, and found that her husband had become a general; but she soon suffered irreparable loss in the death of her good friend the Marquise.

After the Hundred Days, Victor was appointed lieutenant-general, and for the second time became a marquis; but his ambition was to become a peer of France. At court, thanks to his purely external qualifications, he was in favor and accepted at his own valuation. At home, however, he was more modest : he felt that his young wife was his superior, and out of this respect grew an influence which Julie was unwillingly forced to wield. She became her husband's adviser, the director of his actions and fortunes. Her instinct told her that it was far better to obey a man of talent than to lead a fool. However, she suffered much in silence. Physical weakness condemned her to the sofa, as a rule; but, occasionally she went into society, where her fragile beauty and magnificent voice always attracted attention.

In 1817 a daughter was born, and for two years maternal cares made life less hard; but she and her husband necessarily lived apart, and in 1819 she found that as an object of interest she had ,passed out of his life. One evening, in 1820, the Marquis asked her to attend a concert at Madame de Serizy's. Julie consented, and triumphed over all the other beautiful and fashionable women in the Countess' own salon. There she saw Lord Grenville again. To the compliments of his friends, the Marquis complained bitterly of his wife's ill-health, and the Englishman, who had studied medicine, offered to cure her. A few days later the offer was accepted. Madame d'Aiglemont welcomed the hope of a speedy cure, and no longer opposed her husband, who pressed her to accept the young doctor's offer. Yet she declined to trust herself with Lord Grenville, knowing that he cherished for herself a tender interest, until after some further study; but at least she felt certain that he had sufficient generosity to bear his enforced aloofness from her in silence.

One evening in August, 1821, the two were climbing the paths in the crags above the Chateau of Montcontour, near which they had first met seven years before. Julie was now a new creature: her face glowed with health; she was radiant with smiles and she felt the joy of living. After gazing at the lovely view of the Loire, Julie told Arthur that all the pleasure she had she owed to him: he had restored to her more than health. She recognized the delicacy of his conduct, but it was out of her power to make any response. In return for his devotion, she required only a sacrifice of him: he must leave France. She was likely to die young and to know no happiness; but, with loathing in her voice, she added: "Henceforth I belong to him no longer."

During the drive to Blois, the General, who had freshly fallen in love with his wife, whose youth and beauty had been restored, pressed to her side like a lover. She repelled his advances, saying: "Have you not, as it is, found consolations which duty and the honor of both and (stronger still) which Nature forbids to me? Stay," she added, "you carelessly left three letters from Madame de Serizy in a drawer; here they are. My silence about this matter should make it plain to you that in me you have a wife who has plenty of indulgence and does not exact from you the sacrifices prescribed by the law. But I have thought enough to see that the roles of husband and wife are quite different, and that the wife alone is predestined to misfortune."

Two years later, the General and Madame d'Aiglemont, who had gone their separate ways, meeting more frequently abroad in society than at home, chanced to dine with a friend. The General announced his intention of going boar-hunting for a few days. He had hardly departed when Lord Grenville called. They had not met since the farewell at the Loire. In utter desperation, he had called to see Julie for the last time, and the accidental dropping of a pistol from his pocket showed his intentions. Julie was deaf to his entreaties, in the midst of which the General suddenly returned. In her embarrassment, she shut Arthur into her dressing-room. The General, however, was not suspicious. A few days later, he asked a friend to accompany him to attend Lord Grenville's funeral. The friend asked: "Is it really known how he came by his death?"

"His man says that he spent a whole night sitting on some-body's window-sill to save one woman's character, and it has been infernally cold lately."

"Such devotion would be highly creditable to one of us old stagers; but Lord Grenville was a youngster, and—an Englishman. Englishmen never could do anything like anybody else."

"Pooh!" returned D'Aiglemont, "these heroic exploits all depend upon the woman in the case, and it certainly was not for one that I know that poor Arthur came by his death."


The Marquis was a great gambler. His lordship, the papers said, was in Spain with the Duc d'Angouleme, and beyond a doubt her ladyship had come to the lonely Chateau of Saint-Lange, on the skirts of Fontainebleau, to retrench after a run of ill-luck—so ran the local gossip. She lived in seclusion with her little daughter, between whom and herself was an ever-growing antipathy. Helene was the offspring of a union abhorred by her mother. The man the Marquise had really loved had been young and generous; in obedience to the laws of the world, she had refused herself to his love and he had died "to save a woman's honor." To whom could she speak of her misery? Her tears would be an offense against her husband, the origin of the tragedy. By all laws, written and unwritten, she was bound to silence. A woman would have enjoyed the story; a man would have schemed for his own benefit.

Such grief as hers can weep freely only in solitude and loneliness: she must die, or kill something within her—perhaps her own conscience.

The village cure was persistent in calling upon the recluse to offer the consolations of religion, and at length succeeded in obtaining an interview. To him, finally, she bared her heart. She told him: "My poor little Helene is her father's child, the offspring of duty and of chance. In me she finds nothing but the affection of instinct, the woman's natural compassion for the child of her womb. Socially speaking, I am above reproach. Have I not sacrificed my life and my happiness to my child? Her cries go to my heart; if she were to fall into the water, I should spring to save her, but she is not in my heart.

"Ah! love sets me dreaming of a motherhood far greater and more complete. In a vanished dream I held in my arms a child conceived in desire before it was begotten, the exquisite flower of life that blossoms in the soul before it sees the light. of day. I am Helene's mother only in the sense that I brought her forth. When she needs me no longer, there will be an end of my motherhood; with the extinction of the cause, the effects will cease. . . . Oh, when Helene speaks to me, I wish that her voice were different; when she looks into my face I wish that she had other eyes. She constantly keeps me in mind of all that should have been and is not. I cannot bear to have her near me. I smile at her, I try to make up to her for the real affection of which she is defrauded. I am wretched, Monsieur, too wretched to live. And I am supposed to be a pattern wife. And I have committed no sins. And I am respected! I have fought down forbidden love which sprang up all unawares within me; but if I have kept the letter of the law, have I kept it in my heart? There has never been but one here," she said, laying her right hand on her breast, "one and no other; and my child feels it. Certain looks and tones and gestures mold a child's nature, and my poor little one feels no thrill of love in the arm I put about her, no tremor comes into my voice, no softness into my eyes when I speak to her or take her up. She looks at me, and I cannot endure the reproach in her eyes. There are times when I shudder to think that some day she may be my judge and condemn her mother unheard. Heaven grant that hate may not grow up between us! Ah! God in heaven, rather let the tomb open for me, rather let me end my days here at Saint-Lange! I want to go back to the world where I shall find my other soul and become wholly a mother."

On seeing a meeting between mother and child, the priest was able to fathom the depths that lie between the motherhood of the flesh and the motherhood of the heart. He said : "You are right, Madame, it would be better for you if you were dead."

In October the Marquise left the old chateau. In the life of leisure at Saint-Lange, she had gradually recovered from her grief, and grown fair and fresh. As she drove through the village and met the old cure, she bowed coldly in response to his farewell greeting. She did not wish to see him again : he had judged this poor Diana of Ephesus only too well.

Charles de Vandenesse was a man of about thirty, who was considered by his friends to have a brilliant career before him. Just before he was about to depart to Italy on a diplomatic mission, he attended a ball given by Madame Firmiani to thank her for introductions to important friends in Naples. In her rooms he met the beautiful Marquise d'Aiglemont, who had now reached her thirtieth year. He was irresistibly attracted by her personal and intellectual charms and, after calling at her house, indefinitely postponed his departure. Their acquaintanceship soon ripened into passionate love. The Marquise struggled against her feelings for some months, saying to her-self: "I will be faithful to him who died for me"; but the day came when she capitulated.

General d'Aiglemont came in at the very moment of the confession of love.

"The ministry has gone out," he said; "your uncle will be in the new cabinet, so you stand an uncommonly good chance of an embassy, Vandenesse."

Charles and Julie looked at each other and blushed. "I do not care to leave Paris now," Charles said.

"We know why," said the General, with a knowing Iook: "You do not like to leave your uncle, because you don't want to lose your chanoe of succeeding to the title."

The Marquise took refuge in her room, and passed the pitiless verdict upon her husband: "His stupidity is really beyond anything."


On a beautiful summer morning, Charles Vandenesse and Julie d'Aiglemont were strolling along the boulevard leading to the Jardin des Planks, accompanied by a little brown-eyed maid and a fair-skinned, toddling boy. The girl was sullen; but the others were ideally happy. Helene refused to play with her little brother and was sharply reproved by her mother. Charles danoed the baby in his arms and showered kisses upon him. A delicately fair woman radiant with smiles, a child of love, a young man with the irresistible charm of youth and a cloudless sky, left nothing wanting in nature to complete a picture of perfect harmony. At nine o'clock Charles tenderly embraced his companion, jumped into his waiting tilbury and drove away. While Julie was gazing lovingly after him, the little boy ran down to the bridge and asked his sister why she did not come to say good-by. She gave him an angry push and he fell into the muddy river. Helene's horrified shrieks did not succeed in summoning assistance in time to save the child. Had Helene avenged her father? Her jealousy surely was the sword of God.


The General had made a large fortune under the Restoration; and, as his duties would not allow him to live far from the court, he had taken a charming house at Versailles, where he lived, with his wife, his beautiful daughter, Helene, now seventeen, and three other children, Gustave, Abel, and Moina.

One night, while the servants were absent celebrating the wedding of one of their number, the General himself answered the gate at the loud rapping of a stranger, who demanded shelter and protection for two hours. Extraordinary as the request was, the General conducted him to an upper room and there left him. In a few minutes, there was another knocking at the gate, and gendarmes inquired of the General whether anything had been seen of a fugitive murderer. The General respected his promise of protection to the stranger, and the officers departed. On the expiration of the two hours, the General denounced the blood-stained criminal. The word "murderer" seemed to mark an epoch in Helene's life; there was not a trace of surprise in her face. She looked as if she had been waiting for this-for him. Those vast thoughts of hers had found a meaning. The punishment reserved by Heaven for her sins toward little Charles gained out before her. In her own eyes she was as great a criminal as this murderer; she confronted him with her quiet gaze: she was his fellow, his sister. It seemed to her that in this accident God's command had been made manifests she determined to throw in her lot with the murderer and wipe away the blood with her devotion. A terrible scene was terminated with the departure of the pair.

They had no sooner gone than the General realized how his daughter had been goaded into the action she had taken. He cursed his weakness and summoned assistance from every direction to overtake the fugitives, but in vain. He loaded his wife with reproaches.

That terrible Christmas night, when the murderer stole Helene, as it were, was like a warning sent by fate. The Marquis was ruined by the failure of his stockbroker; he borrowed money on his wife's property, and lost it trying to retrieve his fortunes. Driven to desperation, he left France. His family heard little of him for six years, when the Marquis wrote that he was coming home. So one fine morning a Spanish brig, with several French merchants on board, was almost within sight of Bordeaux. Among the passengers was the Marquis, who was wealthy once more. The joyful anticipations of all were dashed by the approach of a privateer, which rapidly over-hauled them. Treachery on board made resistance useless; the brig was looted and the passengers were thrown overboard. As the Marquis was dragged to the rail, there was mutual recognition between him and the captain of the privateer. It was the murderer, with whom Helene had gone away. The Marquis's life was saved. He was taken on board the privateer, where he found his daughter queen of the vessel, happy and contented, with children about her and surrounded with the luxury of a sultana. She declared that happiness was no word to express such bliss as hers. In her husband's heart she had found an infinite love, and every member of his crew was her slave.

The Marquis was sent ashore in a boat, with lavish gifts for his wife and children; but the privations he had undergone had so undermined his health that he died in 1833.

Shortly after his death, the Marquise, to satisfy one of the capricious whims of Moina, took her to a watering-place in the Pyrenees. A child's cries kept Moina awake one night. The next morning, on inquiry, the Marquise learned from the land-lady that the latter had taken in a starving woman and child, out of charity. A kindly instinct prompted the Marquise to visit the sufferers; and in the mother she recognized her eldest daughter, whose babe had just drawn its last breath. Moina came in and saw her mother holding Helene's ice-cold hand. The widowed woman, who had escaped shipwreck with only one of her children, cried : "All this is your work. If you had but been for me all that "

"Your sister," said Madame d'Aiglemont, in tears to MoIna, " doubtless meant to tell you that a girl will never find happiness in a romantic life, in living as nobody else does, and, above all things, far away from her mother."


In June, 1844, a lady about fifty years old was strolling in the grounds of one of the finest mansions in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. It was the Marquise d'Aiglemont, the mother of the Comtesse Moina de Saint-Hereen, to whom she had made over the mansion and almost her whole fortune, reserving only an annuity for herself. MoIna was her only surviving child: Gustave had died of cholera and Abel had fallen in Algeria. Moina, beautiful and fascinating from childhood, was her mother's favorite. The springs of the Marquise's life lay in that young heart. The spoiled child naturally rewarded her mother with rank ingratitude. She seemed to take pleasure in humiliating her before the guests who called or were being entertained. The Marquise d'Aiglemont bore all this uncomplainingly; but in the absence of the Comte de Saint-Hereen for six months on a political mission, the Comtesse had been amusing herself with a flirtation with the shallow Alfred de Vandenesse, and would pay no attention to her mother's warnings. But if Alfred made her shudder with disgust, the unhappy mother was obliged to conceal the strongest reason for her loathing in the deepest recesses of her heart. Alfred was too corrupt and Moina too clever to believe such a revelation of a tie of blood : the young Comtesse would only turn it off as a piece of maternal strategy. Madame d'Aiglemont had built her prison-walls with her own hands; she had immured herself only to see Moina's happiness ruined thence before she died; she was to look on helplessly at the ruin of the young life which had been her pride and joy. What words can describe anguish so hideous beyond belief, such unfathomed depths of pain?

Moina was late rising that morning and met her mother's representations of the dangers she was running with cool insolence. Her final words were, with a forced laugh: "Mamma, I thought you were only jealous of the father!"

With eyes full of awful majesty and profound sorrow, Madame d'Aiglemont replied in a hardly recognizable voice: "You have been less merciful to your mother than he against whom she sinned; less merciful, perhaps, than God Himself will be."

She staggered out into the garden and fell. Her last words were : " Do not frighten my daughter!"

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