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Honore De Balzac - The Lilly Of The Valley (1836)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Among his own novels this was one of Balzac's favorites. In 1835 he wrote to Madame Hanska: "I am writing a great and beautiful work, entitled Le Lys dens la Vallee, the heroine of which is to represent terrestrial perfection as Seraphita is to represent celestial perfection." A little later he wrote: "But the Lily! If the Lily is not a breviary for women, I am nothing! In it virtue is sublime and not at all tiresome." He also called it "the poetic pendant of The Country Doctor, and in his dedication to Dr. Nacquart he wrote: "Here is one of the most highly wrought stones of the second story of a literary edifice that is being slowly and laboriously constructed." The book was published in 1836, before which time parts of it had appeared in the Revue de Paris. It was not finished in that publication, because it was the occasion of a lawsuit, which Balzac won. An account of this appeared in the first edition. Some of the characters appear in other books: the hero, Felix de Vandenesse, in tine Fate d'Eve (" A Daughter of Eve"); his brother Charles in La Femme de Trente Ans ("The Woman of Thirty"); Madeleine de Mortsauf in Memoires de Deux Jeunes Mariees (" Memoirs of Two Young Wives") and Splendeurs et Miseres (" Splendors and Miseries"); and Natalie de Manerville in Le Contrat de Mariage ("The Marriage Contract"). When writing his introduction to the Comedic Humaine, Balzac remarked: "A sure grasp of the purport of this work will make it clear that I attach to common, daily facts, hidden or patent to the eye, to the acts of individual lives and to their causes and principles, the importance which historians have hitherto ascribed to the events of public national life. The unknown struggle which goes on in a valley of the Indre between Madame de Mortsauf and her passion is perhaps as great as the most famous of battles. In one, the glory of the victor is at stake; in the other, it is heaven."

IN a letter to Madame la Comtesse Natalie de Manerville, from one who signs himself "Felix," is the following: I yield to your wish. You want my past: here it is. . . . Well, you have guessed rightly, Natalie, and it is better perhaps that you should know everything : yes, my life is over-shadowed by a phantom; it asserts itself vaguely at the least word that evokes it; it often hovers over me unbidden. I have, buried within my soul, astounding memories, like those marine growths that may be seen in calm waters, and that the surges of the storm fling in fragments on the shore. . . . I only wish my confidence might increase your tenderness twofold.

A tender, frail, sickly, and sensitive child, misunderstood and neglected by my parents, and so unhappy that I cursed my existence, I spent my early life in Tours. At fifteen I was sent to a boarding-school in Paris; and at nineteen was suddenly taken back to Tours by my parents, on account of the political troubles. I watched my mother anxiously to discover whether there were in her heart a friable spot where I could. insert some buds of affection. I flung myself desperately into my father's library, where I read all the books I did not already know. I longed for death. Great events, of which I knew nothing, were then in the air. The Duc d'Angouleme, having left Bordeaux to join Louis XVIII in Paris, was to be the recipient of an ovation. Touraine prepared for a great ball. To my amazement, in the absence of my father and brother, I was chosen to escort my mother. When I was dressed, I was so little like myself that my sister's compliments gave me courage to make my appearance before the whole of assembled Touraine.

Dazzled by the lights, the crimson hangings, the gilt ornaments, the dresses and diamonds, pushed and hustled, too shy and awkward to ask anyone to dance with me, I took refuge at the extreme end of a vacant bench. A woman, misled by my delicate looks, took me for a boy half-asleep, and seated herself by me with the light movement of a bird settling on its nest. I was at once aware of a feminine fragrance which flashed upon my soul as Oriental poetry has flashed upon it since. I was more dazzled by her than I had been by the ball. My eyes were suddenly fascinated by the white, rounded shoulders. Looking round to make sure that no one saw me, I kissed those shoulders, rubbing my cheek against them. The lady gave a piercing cry, turned sharply around and said, "Monsieur!" I was petrified by a look fired with righteous anger. She rose and walked away with the dignity of a queen. I went home and to bed, an altered creature. A new soul, a soul with iridescent wings, had burst its chrysalis within me. My favorite star, drop-ping from the blue waste, had become Woman, while preserving its light, its sparkle, and its brilliancy. Suddenly, knowing nothing of love, I had fallen in love. As I thought that my chosen lady dwelt in Touraine, I inhaled the air with rapture; I saw a blue in the sky which I have never since perceived else-where. Though mentally in ecstasy, I seemed to be ill; my mother, alarmed and remorseful, decided that I should spend a few days at Frapesle, a chateau on the Indre, between Montvazon and Azay-le-Rideau, with a friend of hers. I knew not my fair one's name; but as I passed through the emerald valley of the Indre, I thought if this woman, the flower of her sex, inhabits a spot on earth, it must be this! My heart had not deceived me: it was there that she dwelt; the first chateau I could see was her home! Her cambric dress was the white spot I could see among some vines under a pleached alley. She was the Lily of the Valley, where she grew for heaven, filling it with her virtues. My host, Monsieur de Chessel, afterward told me that this chateau was Clochegourde, and belonged to the Comte de Mortsauf, a representative of an old Touraine family. "Does she often go to Tours?" I asked. "She went there lately on the occasion when the Duc d'Angouleme passed through," he replied. He offered to take me to Clochegourde.

As I mounted the winding road to Clochegourde, my heart throbbed in anticipation of the secret events which were about to transform it once for all. A servant told us that Monsieur le Comte had gone to Azay; but that Madame la Comtesse was at home. She appeared at the drawing-room door, and our eyes met. Which of us reddened most deeply, I do not know. She returned to her seat in front of an embroidery-frame, counted two or three stitches, and then raised her proud yet gentle head to ask M. de Chessel to what happy chance she owed the pleasure of his visit. M. de Chessel told her that my parents had brought me home to Tours when the war threatened Paris, and as I was exhausted by my studies, they had sent me to Frapesle to rest and amuse myself. We remained at Clochegourde to dinner.

Felix now described the house, the beautiful view, the two frail children, Madeleine and Jacques, and the Count, who, though only five-and-forty, appeared to be sixty. He was nearly bald, his face looked like that of a white wolf with a blood-stained muzzle. Yet, for all this, he had the air of a gentleman. His lack of vitality had been transmitted to his children, and their health was the one thought of their devoted mother. Monsieur de Mortsauf's strength had been undermined by suffering. A devoted adherent of the Bourbons, he had served in the army, been exiled, and seen days of abject misery and illness. He was now suffering from a disease which had developed a capricious temper and hypochondria. His gentle wife, fully appreciating his condition, endeavored to clothe this ruin with the ivy of her gracious nature. Felix soon understood the situation. He grew deeper and deeper in love, and became a constant visitor at the chateau. He attempted also to entertain the querulous Count, by taking long walks with him and playing backgammon. One evening, after Felix had beaten the Count, and the latter, swept by a terrible gust of passion, poured forth a perfect storm of abuse, Felix walked alone on the terrace. He was soon joined by Madame de Mortsauf, who begged him to forget the scene; but she told him that his sympathetic friendship was a support to her. Felix tried to apologize for his behavior at the ball; but she would not talk about this episode. He told her, however, how love had come into his heart through her, and told her the story of his unhappy childhood. She exclaimed that her childhood also had been a time of great unhappiness, and confided to Felix the sorrows of her married life.

"I have entered into your sorrows and I am one with your soul," said Felix. "I am yours without reserve and will be just what you wish me to be." She checked him by a gesture, saying: "I consent to the compact if you will never strain the ties that bind us." She added: "Monsieur de Mortsauf calls me Blanche. The one person I loved best, my adorable aunt, used to call me Henriette. I will be Henriette again for you."

Great changes suddenly took place. On the restoration of the Bourbons, the Count was promoted to Major-General, and received the Cross of St. Louis and a pension of four thousand francs. The Countess's father, the Duc de Lenoncourt-Givry, was made a peer, with an appointment at court, and his wife's property was restored. Thus, Madame de Mortsauf became a great heiress.

Felix and the Countess discussed the future—the future of her children, and his future. The Countess, who noticed little Madeleine's hand in his, offered it to him.

"Madeleine!" he cried. "Never!"

These two words left them silent and greatly agitated. Felix's own narrative continued:

"I was ere long one of the family. But if I had the delights of being thus naturalized in a family where I made relationships after my own heart, I also paid the penalties. The Count's intolerable temper grew worse and worse, and his de-light in domineering over his sensitive wife increased daily. She turned to me more and more for sympathy."

When Felix left for Paris, he carried with him a loving letter from the Countess full of advice; and through her influence, Felix found favor with Louis XVIII. Eight months later, he again visited Clochegourde. He spent several days at the chateau and returned to Paris.

On a leave of absence, Felix hastened to Clochegourde. Henriette had had a vision of the future, in which Felix had turned his back upon her. Felix vowed his undying love. Madame de Mortsauf grew daily more unhappy in her married life, and cast her burdens upon the sympathetic Felix. The Count had a terrible illness and was tenderly nursed by his wife and Felix; but upon recovery he became even more tyrannical. The King summoned Felix back to Paris.

"At this juncture," says Felix, "I met in the rooms of the Elysee one of those superb English ladies who are almost queens. She was a beauty and a wit, and married to a distinguished British peer. She had become the idol of Parisian society. My acquaintance with Lady Dudley was notorious; and my obstinacy increased her passion. . . . Protected as I was by my passion for Henriette, still I was not at an age to be insensible to the threefold attractions of pride, devotion, and beauty, that said: `If I were loved as Madame de Mortsauf is, I would sacrifice everything to you.' One evening, after a party, where she had shone with such beauty that she was sure of having captivated me, I found her in my rooms. Lady Arabella was the mistress of my body; Madame de Mortsauf was the wife of my soul. Being a traitor, I became a cheat. I wrote to Madame de Mortsauf as if I were still the boy in the ill-made coat she was so fond of; but I own her gift of second-sight appalled me, when I thought of the disaster any indiscretion might bring on the charming castle of my hopes. My letters remained unanswered. I was in mortal anxiety and wanted to set out for Clochegourde. Arabella spoke as a matter of course of going with me to Touraine. She agreed to remain in the country near Tours, unknown, disguised, never to go out by daylight, and to meet me at night."

Felix was received coldly by Madame de Mortsauf, who knew all. In the six years that had passed, Madeleine, now fifteen, was restored to health and growing beautiful like her mother; Jacques was still fragile. The Countess was now Madame de Mortsauf to Felix and not Henriette, as of yore. "If I have been mistaken in my life, it is she who is right—she!" added Madame de Mortsauf, as she begged Felix to be faithful to Arabella. A long conversation on the terrace proved too great a strain upon the Countess.

The next week, when she had recovered from a fit of illness, Felix begged to be restored to her heart.

One day, while driving with Felix, Madame de Mortsauf directed the coachman to the Landes de Charlemagne. She was determined to see Lady Dudley, who was waiting for Felix there.

As they journeyed on, Lady Arabella, a magnificent horse-woman, dashed by, and pulled up. Recognizing her rival, she dashed away again. After Felix had left her at Clochegourde, Henriette insisted that he should return to Lady Dudley. He did so, reaching Saint-Cyr, where she was lodging, at midnight. Felix tried to make Arabella understand Henriette's nature; but it was impossible. She persuaded Felix to return to Clochegourde. Felix found the Countess pale and grief-stricken. He was in an awkward situation. "I could not be at Clochegourde by day and at Saint-Cyr by night. Arabella had counted on my sense of delicacy and Madame de Mortsauf's magnanimity."

In the evening, when Felix took leave of the family on the terrace, the Countess asked him to walk down the avenue with her. "Good-by, my friend," she said, throwing her arms around his neck with her head on his heart; "we shall see each other no more. God has given me the melancholy power of looking into the future." A very tender scene followed, in which Felix told Henriette she was his best beloved—his only love.

On his return to Paris, Felix devoted himself to Lady Dud-ley; but he was not happy; and after a time Arabella's love became intolerable.

Hearing that Madame de Mortsauf was dying, Felix got leave from the King to visit Clochegourde.

The Abbe Birotteau, one of those men whom God has marked for His own by clothing them in gentleness and simplicity, and endowing them with patience and mercy, drew Felix aside: "Monsieur," he said, "you must know that I have done all that was humanly possible to prevent this meeting between you. The salvation of that saint required it. I thought only of her, not of you. Now that you are going once more to her, whose door ought to be held against you by angels, I must inform you that I intend to be present to protect her against you, and perhaps against herself! Respect her feeble state." They reached the door of her room, and the anxious priest opened it. Felix then saw Henriette, dressed in white, reclining on her little sofa in front of the fireplace; on the chimney-shelf were two vases filled with flowers; there were more flowers on a table in front of a window. Her haggard face, under a voluminous lace scarf, had the greenish pallor of magnolia flowers when they first open, and looked like the first outline of a portrait of a head we love sketched in chalk on yellow-white canvas.

"You will bring me health as you used to do, Felix," said she, "and my valley will be good to me again. My dear, prove to me that I am not to die, and to die disappointed. They think that I suffer most from thirst. Oh, yes, I am very thirsty, my dear. It hurts me dreadfully to see the waters of the Indre; but my heart suffers a more burning thirst. I thirsted for you," she said in a smothered voice, taking Felix's hands in her burning hands, and drawing him toward her to whisper in his ear: "My agony was that I could not see you. Did you not bid me live?—I will live! I will ride—I, too, will know everything—Paris, festivities, pleasures!"

This dreadful outcry made their ears tingle—the old priest's and Felix's; the tones of that beautiful voice represented the struggles of a whole life, the anguish of a true love always balked.

The Countess stood up with an impatient effort, like a child that wants a toy. When the confessor saw his penitent in this mood, the poor man fell on his knees, clasped his hands and began to pray. "Yes, I will live," she cried, making Felix stand, too, and leaning on him; "live on realities and not on lies. My whole life has been one of lies; I have been counting them over these last days. Is it possible that I should die, I, who have not lived?"

"The next day but one," writes Felix, "on a cool autumn morning, we followed the Countess to her last home. Madeleine's hostility closed Clochegourde to me. I determined to rush into politics and science, by the tortuous paths of ambition, to cut woman out of my life entirely, and be a statesman —cold, passionless, faithful to the saint I had loved. My thoughts went far away out of sight, while my eyes were fixed on the glorious background of golden oaks, with their somber heads and feet of bronze. I asked myself whether Henriette's virtue had not been mere ignorance, whether I were really guilty of her death. I struggled against the burden of remorse. At last, one limpid autumn day, under one of heaven's latest smiles, so lovely in Touraine, I read the letter which, by her instructions, I was not to open before her death—and I read the whole confession of her love for me, which began with my kisses at the ball given to the Duc d'Angouleme. She also begged me to marry Madeleine. `Farewell, dear son of my heart,' she added, `I am going to the home of rest, a victim of duty, and—which makes me shudder—I cannot go without a regret ! God knows better than I can whether I have obeyed His holy laws in the spirit. I have often stumbled, no doubt, but I never fell, and the most pressing cause of my sorrows lay in the temptations that surrounded me.'

"Henriette's letter showed me one bright star of hope. To live at Clochegourde with Madeleine and devote my life to her was a lot to satisfy all the ideas that tossed my soul. I went to Clochegourde to call on the Count. I told the Count I wished to speak to Madeleine, and he went to fetch her. She stopped me with a gesture, `Monsieur,' she said, in a voice tremulous with agitation, `I, too, know all your mind. I would rather drown myself in the Indre than marry you. If my mother's name can still influence you, in her name I beg you never to come to Clochegourde while I am here. The mere sight of you gives me such distress as I cannot describe, and I shall never get over it.'

"I came away heart-broken; and set out for Paris along the right bank of the Indre--the road by which I had come down the valley for the first time. Then my heart had been full of desires; now I felt it a desert. I was still quite young—nine-and-twenty---and my heart was crushed.

"Lady Dudley was far from my mind, when I found that I had unconsciously entered her courtyard. Her butler showed me as I was, in traveling-dress, into a drawing-room, where she sat, splendidly dressed, with a party of five visitors.

"Arabella assumed a lofty air. She looked at me from head to foot, as she might have looked at some country squire just introduced. As to our intimacy, our eternal passion, her vows that she must die if I ever ceased to love her—all the phantasmagoria of Armida—it had vanished like a dream. I had never held her hand, I was a stranger, she did not know me.

"From that day I have never seen her excepting in company, where we exchange friendly bows, with sometimes a repartee.

"I threw myself into hard work, I took up science, literature, and politics. On the accession of Charles X, who abolished the post I had filled under the late King, I made diplomacy my career. From that hour, I vowed never to pay any attention to a woman, however beautiful, witty, or affectionate she might be. However, all my resolutions have come to nothing—you know how and why.

"Dearest Natalie, in relating my whole life without re-serve, in confessing to you feelings in which you had no part, I may, perhaps, have vexed some tender spot of your jealous and sensitive heart. But what would infuriate a vulgar woman, will be to you, I am sure, a fresh reason for loving me... . Tomorrow I shall know whether I have made a mistake in loving you."

Natalie de Manerville wrote an answer to the Comte Felix de Vandenesse, in which she said: "You received, as you tell me, a letter from poor Madame de Mortsauf, which has been of some use in guiding you through the world, a letter to which you owe your high fortunes. Allow me to finish your education. I implore you to divest yourself of an odious habit. Do not imitate certain widows who are always talking of their first husband and throwing the virtues of the dear departed in the teeth of the second. I, dear Count, am a Frenchwoman; I should wish to marry the whole of the man I love; now, I really cannot marry Madame de Mortsauf. After reading your narrative with the attention it deserves—and you know what interest I feel in you—it strikes me that you must have bored Lady Dudley very considerably by holding up to her Madame de Mortsauf's perfections, while deeply wounding the Countess by expatiating on the various resources of English love-making. You have now failed in tact toward me, a poor creature who can boast of no merit but that of having attracted your liking; you have implied that I do not love you as much as either Henriette or Arabella. I confess my deficiencies. I know them; but why make me feel them so cruelly?

"Shall I tell you whom I pity?—the fourth woman you may love. She will inevitably be required to hold her own against three predecessors; so, in your interest as much as in hers, I must warn you against the perils of your memory. I renounce the laborious honor of loving you. I should require too many Catholic or Anglican virtues, and I have no taste for fighting ghosts. . Why, my dear Count, you began by loving an adorable woman, a perfect mistress, who undertook to make your fortune, who procured you a peerage, who loved you to distraction—and you made her die of grief! Why, nothing can be more monstrous. . . . You met Lady Dudley too soon to appreciate her, and the evil you say of her seems to me to be the revenge of your wounded vanity; you under-stood Madame de Mortsauf too late; you punished each for not being the other; what then would become of me, being neither the one nor the other? . . . If you want to live in the world and mingle on equal terms with women, conceal with care all you have told me; they do not care to strew the flowers of their affections on stones, or lavish their caresses to heal a wounded heart. Every woman will at once discern the shallowness of your heart, and you will constantly be more unhappy. Very few will be frank enough to tell you what I have told you, or good-natured enough to dismiss you without rancor and offer you their friendship, as she now does who still remains your sincere friend, Natalie de Manerville."



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