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"The countess, in her blue cashmere gown, was reclining on a sofa, with her feet on a cushion. She wore an Oriental turban such as painters assign to early Hebrews; its strangeness added an indescribable coquettish grace to her attractions. A transitory charm seemed to have laid its spell on her face; it might have furnished the argument that at every instant we become new and unparalleled beings, without any resemblance to the US of the future or of the past. I had never yet seen her so radiant.
" 'Do you know that you have piqued my curiosity?' she said, laughing.
" 'I will not disappoint it,' I said quietly, as I seated myself near to her and took the hand that she surrendered to me. 'You have a very beautiful voice!'
" 'You have never heard me sing!' she exclaimed, starting involuntarily with surprise.
" 'I will prove that it is quite otherwise, whenever it is necessary. Is your delightful singing still to remain a mystery? Have no fear, I do not wish to penetrate it.'
"We spent about an hour in familiar talk. While I adopted the attitude and manner of a man to whom Foedora must refuse nothing, I showed her all a lover's deference. Acting in this way, I received a favor--I was allowed to kiss her hand. She daintily drew off the glove, and my whole soul was dissolved and poured forth in that kiss. I was steeped in the bliss of an illusion in which I tried to believe.
"Foedora lent herself most unexpectedly to my caress and my flatteries. Do not accuse me of faint-heartedness; if I had gone a step beyond these fraternal compliments, the claws would have been out of the sheath and into me. We remained perfectly silent for nearly ten minutes. I was admiring her, investing her with the charms she had not. She was mine just then, and mine only,--this enchanting being was mine, as was permissible, in my imagination; my longing wrapped her round and held her close; in my soul I wedded her. The countess was subdued and fascinated by my magnetic influence. Ever since I have regretted that this subjugation was not absolute; but just then I yearned for her soul, her heart alone, and for nothing else. I longed for an ideal and perfect happiness, a fair illusion that cannot last for very long. At last I spoke, feeling that the last hours of my frenzy were at hand.
" 'Hear me, madame. I love you, and you know it; I have said so a hundred times; you must have understood me. I would not take upon me the airs of a coxcomb, nor would I flatter you, nor urge myself upon you like a fool; I would not owe your love to such arts as these! so I have been misunderstood. What sufferings have I not endured for your sake! For these, however, you were not to blame; but in a few minutes you shall decide for yourself. There are two kinds of poverty, madame. One kind openly walks the street in rags, an unconscious imitator of Diogenes, on a scanty diet, reducing life to its simplest terms; he is happier, maybe, than the rich; he has fewer cares at any rate, and accepts such portions of the world as stronger spirits refuse. Then there is poverty in splendor, a Spanish pauper, concealing the life of a beggar by his title, his bravery, and his pride; poverty that wears a white waistcoat and yellow kid gloves, a beggar with a carriage, whose whole career will be wrecked for lack of a halfpenny. Poverty of the first kind belongs to the populace; the second kind is that of blacklegs, of kings, and of men of talent. I am neither a man of the people, nor a king, nor a swindler; possibly I have no talent either, I am an exception. With the name I bear I must die sooner than beg. Set your mind at rest, madame,' I said; 'to-day I have abundance, I possess sufficient of the clay for my needs'; for the hard look passed over her face which we wear whenever a well-dressed beggar takes us by surprise. 'Do you remember the day when you wished to go to the Gymnase without me, never believing that I should be there?' I went on.
" 'I had laid out my last five-franc piece that I might see you there. --Do you recollect our walk in the Jardin des Plantes? The hire of your cab took everything I had.'
"I told her about my sacrifices, and described the life I led; heated not with wine, as I am to-day, but by the generous enthusiasm of my heart, my passion overflowed in burning words; I have forgotten how the feelings within me blazed forth; neither memory nor skill of mine could possibly reproduce it. It was no colorless chronicle of blighted affections; my love was strengthened by fair hopes; and such words came to me, by love's inspiration, that each had power to set forth a whole life--like echoes of the cries of a soul in torment. In such tones the last prayers ascend from dying men on the battlefield. I stopped, for she was weeping. GRAND DIEU! I had reaped an actor's reward, the success of a counterfeit passion displayed at the cost of five francs paid at the theatre door. I had drawn tears from her.
" 'If I had known----' she said.
" 'Do not finish the sentence,' I broke in. 'Even now I love you well enough to murder you----'
"She reached for the bell-pull. I burst into a roar of laughter.
" 'Do not call any one,' I said. 'I shall leave you to finish your life in peace. It would be a blundering kind of hatred that would murder you! You need not fear violence of any kind; I have spent a whole night at the foot of your bed without----'
" 'Monsieur----' she said, blushing; but after that first impulse of modesty that even the most hardened women must surely own, she flung a scornful glance at me, and said:
" 'You must have been very cold.'
" 'Do you think that I set such value on your beauty, madame,' I answered, guessing the thoughts that moved her. 'Your beautiful face is for me a promise of a soul yet more beautiful. Madame, those to whom a woman is merely a woman can always purchase odalisques fit for the seraglio, and achieve their happiness at a small cost. But I aspired to something higher; I wanted the life of close communion of heart and heart with you that have no heart. I know that now. If you were to belong to another, I could kill him. And yet, no; for you would love him, and his death might hurt you perhaps. What agony this is!' I cried.
" 'If it is any comfort to you,' she retorted cheerfully, 'I can assure you that I shall never belong to any one----'
" 'So you offer an affront to God Himself,' I interrupted; 'and you will be punished for it. Some day you will lie upon your sofa suffering unheard-of ills, unable to endure the light or the slightest sound, condemned to live as it were in the tomb. Then, when you seek the causes of those lingering and avenging torments, you will remember the woes that you distributed so lavishly upon your way. You have sown curses, and hatred will be your reward. We are the real judges, the executioners of a justice that reigns here below, which overrules the justice of man and the laws of God.'
" 'No doubt it is very culpable in me not to love you,' she said, laughing. 'Am I to blame? No. I do not love you; you are a man, that is sufficient. I am happy by myself; why should I give up my way of living, a selfish way, if you will, for the caprices of a master? Marriage is a sacrament by virtue of which each imparts nothing but vexations to the other. Children, moreover, worry me. Did I not faithfully warn you about my nature? Why are you not satisfied to have my friendship? I wish I could make you amends for all the troubles I have caused you, through not guessing the value of your poor five-franc pieces. I appreciate the extent of your sacrifices; but your devotion and delicate tact can be repaid by love alone, and I care so little for you, that this scene has a disagreeable effect upon me.'
" 'I am fully aware of my absurdity,' I said, unable to restrain my tears. 'Pardon me,' I went on, 'it was a delight to hear those cruel words you have just uttered, so well I love you. O, if I could testify my love with every drop of blood in me!'
" 'Men always repeat these classic formulas to us, more or less effectively,' she answered, still smiling. 'But it appears very difficult to die at our feet, for I see corpses of that kind about everywhere. It is twelve o'clock. Allow me to go to bed.'
" 'And in two hours' time you will cry to yourself, AH, MON DIEU!'
" 'Like the day before yesterday! Yes,' she said, 'I was thinking of my stockbroker; I had forgotten to tell him to convert my five per cent stock into threes, and the three per cents had fallen during the day.'
"I looked at her, and my eyes glittered with anger. Sometimes a crime may be a whole romance; I understood that just then. She was so accustomed, no doubt, to the most impassioned declarations of this kind, that my words and my tears were forgotten already.
" 'Would you marry a peer of France?' I demanded abruptly.
" 'If he were a duke, I might.'
"I seized my hat and made her a bow.
" 'Permit me to accompany you to the door,' she said, cutting irony in her tones, in the poise of her head, and in her gesture.
" 'I shall never see you again.'
" 'I hope not,' and she insolently inclined her head.
" 'You wish to be a duchess?' I cried, excited by a sort of madness that her insolence roused in me. 'You are wild for honors and titles? Well, only let me love you; bid my pen write and my voice speak for you alone; be the inmost soul of my life, my guiding star! Then, only accept me for your husband as a minister, a peer of France, a duke. I will make of myself whatever you would have me be!'
" 'You made good use of the time you spent with the advocate,' she said smiling. 'There is a fervency about your pleadings.'
" 'The present is yours,' I cried, 'but the future is mine! I only lose a woman; you are losing a name and a family. Time is big with my revenge; time will spoil your beauty, and yours will be a solitary death; and glory waits for me!'
" 'Thanks for your peroration!' she said, repressing a yawn; the wish that she might never see me again was expressed in her whole bearing.
"That remark silenced me. I flung at her a glance full of hatred, and hurried away.
"Foedora must be forgotten; I must cure myself of my infatuation, and betake myself once more to my lonely studies, or die. So I set myself tremendous tasks; I determined to complete my labors. For fifteen days I never left my garret, spending whole nights in pallid thought. I worked with difficulty, and by fits and starts, despite my courage and the stimulation of despair. The music had fled. I could not exorcise the brilliant mocking image of Foedora. Something morbid brooded over every thought, a vague longing as dreadful as remorse. I imitated the anchorites of the Thebaid. If I did not pray as they did, I lived a life in the desert like theirs, hewing out my ideas as they were wont to hew their rocks. I could at need have girdled my waist with spikes, that physical suffering might quell mental anguish.
"One evening Pauline found her way into my room.
" 'You are killing yourself,' she said imploringly; 'you should go out and see your friends----'
" 'Pauline, you were a true prophet; Foedora is killing me, I want to die. My life is intolerable.'
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de BalzacBottom Content goes here. Wikipedia content requires these links..... Wikipedia content is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.