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Letters of Two Brides

XIII. MME. DE L'ESTORADE TO MLLE. DE CHAULIEU LA CRAMPADE, February.

My dear Louise,—I was bound to wait some time before writing to you; but now I know, or rather I have learned, many things which, for the sake of your future happiness, I must tell you. The difference between a girl and a married woman is so vast, that the girl can no more comprehend it than the married woman can go back to girlhood again.

I chose to marry Louis de l'Estorade rather than return to the convent; that at least is plain. So soon as I realized that the convent was the only alternative to marrying Louis, I had, as girls say, to "submit," and my submission once made, the next thing was to examine the situation and try to make the best of it.

The serious nature of what I was undertaking filled me at first with terror. Marriage is a matter concerning the whole of life, whilst love aims only at pleasure. On the other hand, marriage will remain when pleasures have vanished, and it is the source of interests far more precious than those of the man and woman entering on the alliance. Might it not therefore be that the only requisite for a happy marriage was friendship—a friendship which, for the sake of these advantages, would shut its eyes to many of the imperfections of humanity? Now there was no obstacle to the existence of friendship between myself and Louis de l'Estorade. Having renounced all idea of finding in marriage those transports of love on which our minds used so often, and with such perilous rapture, to dwell, I found a gentle calm settling over me. "If debarred from love, why not seek for happiness?" I said to myself. "Moreover, I am loved, and the love offered me I shall accept. My married life will be no slavery, but rather a perpetual reign. What is there to say against such a situation for a woman who wishes to remain absolute mistress of herself?"

The important point of separating marriage from marital rights was settled in a conversation between Louis and me, in the course of which he gave proof of an excellent temper and a tender heart. Darling, my desire was to prolong that fair season of hope which, never culminating in satisfaction, leaves to the soul its virginity. To grant nothing to duty or the law, to be guided entirely by one's own will, retaining perfect independence—what could be more attractive, more honorable?

A contract of this kind, directly opposed to the legal contract, and even to the sacrament itself, could be concluded only between Louis and me. This difficulty, the first which has arisen, is the only one which has delayed the completion of our marriage. Although, at first, I may have made up my mind to accept anything rather than return to the convent, it is only in human nature, having got an inch, to ask for an ell, and you and I, sweet love, are of those who would have it all.

I watched Louis out of the corner of my eye, and put it to myself, "Has suffering had a softening or a hardening effect on him?" By dint of close study, I arrived at the conclusion that his love amounted to a passion. Once transformed into an idol, whose slightest frown would turn him white and trembling, I realized that I might venture anything. I drew him aside in the most natural manner on solitary walks, during which I discreetly sounded his feelings. I made him talk, and got him to expound to me his ideas and plans for our future. My questions betrayed so many preconceived notions, and went so straight for the weak points in this terrible dual existence, that Louis has since confessed to me the alarm it caused him to find in me so little of the ignorant maiden.

Then I listened to what he had to say in reply. He got mixed up in his arguments, as people do when handicapped by fear; and before long it became clear that chance had given me for adversary one who was the less fitted for the contest because he was conscious of what you magniloquently call my "greatness of soul." Broken by sufferings and misfortune, he looked on himself as a sort of wreck, and three fears in especial haunted him.

First, we are aged respectively thirty-seven and seventeen; and he could not contemplate without quaking the twenty years that divide us. In the next place, he shares our views on the subject of my beauty, and it is cruel for him to see how the hardships of his life have robbed him of youth. Finally, he felt the superiority of my womanhood over his manhood. The consciousness of these three obvious drawbacks made him distrustful of himself; he doubted his power to make me happy, and guessed that he had been chosen as the lesser of two evils.

One evening he tentatively suggested that I only married him to escape the convent.

"I cannot deny it," was my grave reply.

My dear, it touched me to the heart to see the two great tears which stood in his eyes. Never before had I experienced the shock of emotion which a man can impart to us.

"Louis," I went on, as kindly as I could, "it rests entirely with you whether this marriage of convenience becomes one to which I can give my whole heart. The favor I am about to ask from you will demand unselfishness on your part, far nobler than the servitude to which a man's love, when sincere, is supposed to reduce him. The question is, Can you rise to the height of friendship such as I understand it?

"Life gives us but one friend, and I wish to be yours. Friendship is the bond between a pair of kindred souls, united in their strength, and yet independent. Let us be friends and comrades to bear jointly the burden of life. Leave me absolutely free. I would put no hindrance in the way of your inspiring me with a love similar to your own; but I am determined to be yours only of my own free gift. Create in me the wish to give up my freedom, and at once I lay it at your feet.

"Infuse with passion, then, if you will, this friendship, and let the voice of love disturb its calm. On my part I will do what I can to bring my feelings into accord with yours. One thing, above all, I would beg of you. Spare me the annoyances to which the strangeness of our mutual position might give rise to our relations with others. I am neither whimsical nor prudish, and should be sorry to get that reputation; but I feel sure that I can trust to your honor when I ask you to keep up the outward appearance of wedded life."

Never, dear, have I seen a man so happy as my proposal made Louis. The blaze of joy which kindled in his eyes dried up the tears.

"Do not fancy," I concluded, "that I ask this from any wish to be eccentric. It is the great desire I have for your respect which prompts my request. If you owe the crown of your love merely to the legal and religious ceremony, what gratitude could you feel to me later for a gift in which my goodwill counted for nothing? If during the time that I remained indifferent to you (yielding only a passive obedience, such as my mother has just been urging on me) a child were born to us, do you suppose that I could feel towards it as I would towards one born of our common love? A passionate love may not be necessary in marriage, but, at least, you will admit that there should be no repugnance. Our position will not be without its dangers; in a country life, such as ours will be, ought we not to bear in mind the evanescent nature of passion? Is it not simple prudence to make provision beforehand against the calamities incident to change of feeling?"

He was greatly astonished to find me at once so reasonable and so apt at reasoning; but he made me a solemn promise, after which I took his hand and pressed it affectionately.

We were married at the end of the week. Secure of my freedom, I was able to throw myself gaily into the petty details which always accompany a ceremony of the kind, and to be my natural self. Perhaps I may have been taken for an old bird, as they say at Blois. A young girl, delighted with the novel and hopeful situation she had contrived to make for herself, and may have passed for a strong-minded female.

Dear, the difficulties which would beset my life had appeared to me clearly as in a vision, and I was sincerely anxious to make the happiness of the man I married. Now, in the solitude of a life like ours, marriage soon becomes intolerable unless the woman is the presiding spirit. A woman in such a case needs the charm of a mistress, combined with the solid qualities of a wife. To introduce an element of uncertainty into pleasure is to prolong illusion, and render lasting those selfish satisfactions which all creatures hold, and should shroud a woman in expectancy, crown her sovereign, and invest her with an exhaustless power, a redundancy of life, that makes everything blossom around her. The more she is mistress of herself, the more certainly will the love and happiness she creates be fit to weather the storms of life.

But, above all, I have insisted on the greatest secrecy in regard to our domestic arrangements. A husband who submits to his wife's yoke is justly held an object of ridicule. A woman's influence ought to be entirely concealed. The charm of all we do lies in its unobtrusiveness. If I have made it my task to raise a drooping courage and restore their natural brightness to gifts which I have dimly descried, it must all seem to spring from Louis himself.

Such is the mission to which I dedicate myself, a mission surely not ignoble, and which might well satisfy a woman's ambition. Why, I could glory in this secret which shall fill my life with interest, in this task towards which my every energy shall be bent, while it remains concealed from all but God and you.

I am very nearly happy now, but should I be so without a friendly heart in which to pour the confession? For how make a confidant of him? My happiness would wound him, and has to be concealed. He is sensitive as a woman, like all men who have suffered much.

For three months we remained as we were before marriage. As you may imagine, during this time I made a close study of many small personal matters, which have more to do with love than is generally supposed. In spite of my coldness, Louis grew bolder, and his nature expanded. I saw on his face a new expression, a look of youth. The greater refinement which I introduced into the house was reflected in his person. Insensibly I became accustomed to his presence, and made another self of him. By dint of constant watching I discovered how his mind and countenance harmonize. "The animal that we call a husband," to quote your words, disappeared, and one balmy evening I discovered in his stead a lover, whose words thrilled me and on whose arm I leant with pleasure beyond words. In short, to be open with you, as I would be with God, before whom concealment is impossible, the perfect loyalty with which he had kept his oath may have piqued me, and I felt a fluttering of curiosity in my heart. Bitterly ashamed, I struggled with myself. Alas! when pride is the only motive for resistance, excuses for capitulation are soon found.

We celebrated our union in secret, and secret it must remain between us. When you are married you will approve this reserve. Enough that nothing was lacking either of satisfaction for the most fastidious sentiment, or of that unexpectedness which brings, in a sense, its own sanction. Every witchery of imagination, of passion, of reluctance overcome, of the ideal passing into reality, played its part.

Yet, in spite of all this enchantment, I once more stood out for my complete independence. I can't tell you all my reasons for this. To you alone shall I confide even as much as this. I believe that women, whether passionately loved or not, lose much in their relation with their husbands by not concealing their feelings about marriage and the way they look at it.

My one joy, and it is supreme, springs from the certainty of having brought new life to my husband before I have borne him any children. Louis has regained his youth, strength, and spirits. He is not the same man. With magic touch I have effaced the very memory of his sufferings. It is a complete metamorphosis. Louis is really very attractive now. Feeling sure of my affection, he throws off his reserve and displays unsuspected gifts.

To be the unceasing spring of happiness for a man who knows it and adds gratitude to love, ah! dear one, this is a conviction which fortifies the soul, even more than the most passionate love can do. The force thus developed—at once impetuous and enduring, simple and diversified—brings forth ultimately the family, that noble product of womanhood, which I realize now in all its animating beauty.

The old father has ceased to be a miser. He gives blindly whatever I wish for. The servants are content; it seems as though the bliss of Louis had let a flood of sunshine into the household, where love has made me queen. Even the old man would not be a blot upon my pretty home, and has brought himself into line with all my improvements; to please me he has adopted the dress, and with the dress, the manners of the day.

We have English horses, a coupe, a barouche, and a tilbury. The livery of our servants is simple but in good taste. Of course we are looked on as spendthrifts. I apply all my intellect (I am speaking quite seriously) to managing my household with economy, and obtaining for it the maximum of pleasure with the minimum of cost.

I have already convinced Louis of the necessity of getting roads made, in order that he may earn the reputation of a man interested in the welfare of his district. I insist too on his studying a great deal. Before long I hope to see him a member of the Council General of the Department, through the influence of my family and his mother's. I have told him plainly that I am ambitious, and that I was very well pleased his father should continue to look after the estate and practise economies, because I wished him to devote himself exclusively to politics. If we had children, I should like to see them all prosperous and with good State appointments. Under penalty, therefore, of forfeiting my esteem and affection, he must get himself chosen deputy for the department at the coming elections; my family would support his candidature, and we should then have the delight of spending all our winters in Paris. Ah! my love, by the ardor with which he embraced my plans, I can gauge the depth of his affection.

To conclude here is a letter he wrote me yesterday from Marseilles, where he had gone to spend a few hours:

"MY SWEET RENEE,—When you gave me permission to love you, I began
to believe in happiness; now, I see it unfolding endlessly before
me. The past is merely a dim memory, a shadowy background, without
which my present bliss would show less radiant. When I am with
you, love so transports me that I am powerless to express the
depth of my affection; I can but worship and admire. Only at a
distance does the power of speech return. You are supremely
beautiful, Renee, and your beauty is of the statuesque and regal
type, on which time leaves but little impression. No doubt the
love of husband and wife depends less on outward beauty than on
graces of character, which are yours also in perfection; still,
let me say that the certainty of having your unchanging beauty, on
which to feast my eyes, gives me a joy that grows with every
glance. There is a grace and dignity in the lines of your face,
expressive of the noble soul within, and breathing of purity
beneath the vivid coloring. The brilliance of your dark eyes, the
bold sweep of your forehead, declare a spirit of no common
elevation, sound and trustworthy in every relation, and well
braced to meet the storms of life, should such arise. The keynote
of your character is its freedom from all pettiness. You do not
need to be told all this; but I write it because I would have you
know that I appreciate the treasure I possess. Your favors to me,
however slight, will always make my happiness in the far-distant
future as now; for I am sensible how much dignity there is in our
promise to respect each other's liberty. Our own impulse shall
with us alone dictate the expression of feeling. We shall be free
even in our fetters. I shall have the more pride in wooing you
again now that I know the reward you place on victory. You cannot
speak, breathe, act, or think, without adding to the admiration I
feel for your charm both of body and mind. There is in you a rare
combination of the ideal, the practical, and the bewitching which
satisfies alike judgment, a husband's pride, desire, and hope, and
which extends the boundaries of love beyond those of life itself.
Oh! my loved one, may the genius of love remain faithful to me,
and the future be full of those delights by means of which you
have glorified all that surrounds me! I long for the day which
shall make you a mother, that I may see you content with the
fulness of your life, may hear you, in the sweet voice I love and
with the thoughts, bless the love which has refreshed my soul and
given new vigor to my powers, the love which is my pride, and
whence I have drawn, as from a magic fountain, fresh life. Yes, I
shall be all that you would have me. I shall take a leading part
in the public life of the district, and on you shall fall the rays
of a glory which will owe its existence to the desire of pleasing
you."

So much for my pupil, dear! Do you suppose he could have written like this before? A year hence his style will have still further improved. Louis is now in his first transport; what I look forward to is the uniform and continuous sensation of content which ought to be the fruit of a happy marriage, when a man and woman, in perfect trust and mutual knowledge, have solved the problem of giving variety to the infinite. This is the task set before every true wife; the answer begins to dawn on me, and I shall not rest till I have made it mine.

You see that he fancies himself—vanity of men!—the chosen of my heart, just as though there were no legal bonds. Nevertheless, I have not yet got beyond that external attraction which gives us strength to put up with a good deal. Yet Louis is lovable; his temper is wonderfully even, and he performs, as a matter of course, acts on which most men would plume themselves. In short, if I do not love him, I shall find no difficulty in being good to him.

So here are my black hair and my black eyes—whose lashes act, according to you, like Venetian blinds—my commanding air, and my whole person, raised to the rank of sovereign power! Ten years hence, dear, why should we not both be laughing and gay in your Paris, whence I shall carry you off now and again to my beautiful oasis in Provence?

Oh! Louise, don't spoil the splendid future which awaits us both! Don't do the mad things with which you threaten me. My husband is a young man, prematurely old; why don't you marry some young-hearted graybeard in the Chamber of Peers? There lies your vocation.


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