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That Which is Only A Venial Sin by Honore de Balzac

 

The Sunday following the arrival of Rene at the manor of Roche-Corbon, Blanche went out hunting without her goodman, and when she was in the forest near Les Carneaux, saw a monk who appeared to be pushing a girl about more than was necessary, and spurred on her horse, saying to her people, “Ho there! Don't let him kill her.” But when the seneschal's lady arrived close to them, she turned her horse's head quickly and the sight she beheld prevented her from hunting. She came back pensive, and then the lantern of her intelligence opened, and received a bright light, which made a thousand things clear, such as church and other pictures, fables, and lays of the troubadours, or the domestic arrangements of birds; suddenly she discovered the sweet mystery of love written in all languages, even in that of the Carps'. Is it not silly thus to seal this science from maidens? Soon Blanche went to bed, and soon said she to the seneschal—

“Bruyn, you have deceived me, you ought to behave as the monk of the Carneaux behaved to the girl.”

Old Bruyn suspected the adventure, and saw well that his evil hour was at hand. He regarded Blanche with too much fire in his eyes for the same ardour to be lower down, and answered her softly—

“Alas! sweetheart, in taking you for my wife I had more love than strength, and I have taken advantage of your clemency and virtue. The great sorrow of my life is to feel all my capability in my heart only. This sorrow hastens my death little by little, so that you will soon be free. Wait for my departure from this world. That is the sole request that he makes of you, he who is your master, and who could command you, but who wishes only to be your prime minister and slave. Do not betray the honour of my white hairs! Under these circumstances there have been lords who have slain their wives.

“Alas! you will not kill me?” said she.

“No,” replied the old man, “I love thee too much, little one; why, thou art the flower of my old age, the joy of my soul. Thou art my well-beloved daughter; the sight of thee does good to mine eyes, and from thee I could endure anything, be it a sorrow or a joy, provided that thou does not curse too much the poor Bruyn who has made thee a great lady, rich and honoured. Wilt thou not be a lovely widow? And thy happiness will soften the pangs of death.”

And he found in his dried-up eyes still one tear which trickled quite warm down his fir-cone coloured face, and fell upon the hand of Blanche, who, grieved to behold this great love of her old spouse who would put himself under the ground to please her, said laughingly—

“There! there! don't cry, I will wait.”

Thereupon the seneschal kissed her hands and regaled her with little endearments, saying with a voice quivering with emotion—

“If you knew, Blanche my darling, how I devour thee in thy sleep with caresses, now here, now there!” And the old ape patted her with his two hands, which were nothing but bones. And he continued, “I dared not waken the cat that would have strangled my happiness, since at this occupation of love I only embraced with my heart.”

“Ah!” replied she, “you can fondle me thus even when my eyes are open; that has not the least effect upon me.”

At these words the poor seneschal, taking the little dagger which was on the table by the bed, gave it to her, saying with passion—

“My darling, kill me, or let me believe that you love me a little!”

“Yes, yes,” said she, quite frightened, “I will try to love you much.”

Behold how this young maidenhood made itself master of this old man and subdued him, for in the name of the sweet face of Venus, Blanche, endowed with the natural artfulness of women, made her old Bruyn come and go like a miller's mule.

“My good Bruyn, I want this! Bruyn, I want that—go on Bruyn!” Bruyn! Bruyn! And always Bruyn in such a way that Bruyn was more worn-out by the clemency of his wife than he would have been by her unkindness. She turned his brain wishing that everything should be in scarlet, making him turn everything topsy-turvy at the least movement of her eyebrow, and when she was sad the seneschal distracted, would say to everything from his judicial seat, “Hang him!” Another would have died like a fly at this conflict with the maid's innocence, but Bruyn was of such an iron nature that it was difficult to finish him off. One evening that Blanche had turned the house upside-down, upset the men and the beasts, and would by her aggravating humour have made the eternal father desperate—he who has such an infinite treasure of patience since he endures us—she said to the seneschal while getting into bed, “My good Bruyn, I have low down fancies, that bite and prick me; thence they rise into my heart, inflame my brain, incite me therein to evil deeds, and in the night I dream of the monk of the Carneaux.”

“My dear,” replied the seneschal, “these are devilries and temptations against which the monks and nuns know how to defend themselves. If you will gain salvation, go and confess to the worthy Abbot of Marmoustiers, our neighbour; he will advise you well and will holily direct you in the good way.”

“Tomorrow I will go,” said she.

And indeed directly it was day, she trotted off to the monastery of the good brethren, who marvelled to see among them so pretty a lady; committed more than one sin through her in the evening; and for the present led her with great ceremony to their reverend abbot.

Blanche found the said good man in a private garden near the high rock under a flower arcade, and remained stricken with respect at the countenance of the holy man, although she was accustomed not to think much of grey hairs.

“God preserve you, Madame; what can you have to seek of one so near death, you so young?”

“Your precious advice,” said she, saluting him with a courtesy; “and if it will please you to guide so undutiful a sheep, I shall be well content to have so wise a confessor.”

“My daughter,” answered the monk, with whom old Bruyn had arranged this hypocrisy and the part to play, “if I had not the chills of a hundred winters upon this unthatched head, I should not dare to listen to your sins, but say on; if you enter paradise, it will be through me.”

Then the seneschal's wife set forth the small fry of her stock in hand, and when she was purged of her little iniquities, she came to the postscript of her confession.

“Ah! my father!” said she, “I must confess to you that I am daily exercised by the desire to have a child. Is it wrong?”

“No,” said the abbot.

But she went on, “It is by nature commanded to my husband not to draw from his wealth to bring about his poverty, as the old women say by the way.”

“Then,” replied the priest, “you must live virtuously and abstain from all thoughts of this kind.”

“But I have heard it professed by the Lady of Jallanges, that it was not a sin when from it one derived neither profit nor pleasure.”

“There always is pleasure,” said the abbot, “but don't count upon the child as a profit. Now fix this in your understanding, that it will always be a mortal sin before God and a crime before men to bring forth a child through the embraces of a man to whom one is not ecclesiastically married. Thus those women who offend against the holy laws of marriage, suffer great penalties in the other world, are in the power of horrible monsters with sharp and tearing claws, who thrust them into flaming furnaces in remembrance of the fact that here below they have warmed their hearts a little more than was lawful.”

Thereupon Blanche scratched her ear, and having thought to herself for a little while, she said to the priest, “How then did the Virgin Mary?”

“Ah!” replied abbot, “that it is a mystery.”

“And what is a mystery?”

“A thing that cannot be explained, and which one ought to believe without enquiring into it.”

“Well then,” said she, “cannot I perform a mystery?”

“This one,” said the Abbot, “only happened once, because it was the Son of God.”

“Alas! my father, is it then the will of God that I should die, or that from wise and sound comprehension my brain should be turned? Of this there is a great danger. Now in me something moves and excites me, and I am no longer in my senses. I care for nothing, and to find a man I would leap the walls, dash over the fields without shame and tear my things into tatters, only to see that which so much excited the monk of the Carneaux; and during these passions which work and prick my mind and body, there is neither God, devil, nor husband. I spring, I run, I smash up the wash-tubs, the pots, the farm implements, a fowl-house, the household things, and everything, in a way that I cannot describe. But I dare not confess to you all my misdeeds, because speaking of them makes my mouth water, and the thing with which God curses me makes me itch dreadfully. If this folly bites and pricks me, and slays my virtue, will God, who has placed this great love in my body, condemn me to perdition?”

At this question it was the priest who scratched his ear, quite dumbfounded by the lamentations, profound wisdom, controversies and intelligence that this virginity secreted.

“My daughter,” said he, “God has distinguished us from the beasts and made us a paradise to gain, and for this given us reason, which is a rudder to steer us against tempests and our ambitious desires, and there is a means of easing the imaginations of one's brain by fasting, excessive labours, and other virtues; and instead of frisking and fretting like a child let loose from school, you should pray to the virgin, sleep on a hard board, attend to your household duties, and never be idle.”

“Ah! my father, when I am at church in my seat, I see neither the priest nor the altar, only the infant Jesus, who brings the thing into my head. But to finish, if my head is turned and my mind wanders, I am in the lime-twigs of love.”

“If thus you were,” said the abbot, imprudently, “you would be in the position of Saint Lidoire, who in a deep sleep one day, one leg here and one leg there, through the great heat and scantily attired, was approached by a young man full of mischief, who dexterously seduced her, and as of this trick the saint was thoroughly ignorant, and much surprised at being brought to bed, thinking that her unusual size was a serious malady, she did penance for it as a venial sin, as she had no pleasure in this wicked business, according to the statement of the wicked man, who said upon the scaffold where he was executed, that the saint had in nowise stirred.”

“Oh, my father,” said she, “be sure that I should not stir more than she did!”

With this statement she went away prettily and gracefully, smiling and thinking how she could commit a venial sin. On her return from the great monastery, she saw in the courtyard of her castle the little Jallanges, who under the superintendence of an old groom was turning and wheeling about on a fine horse, bending with the movements of the animal, dismounting and mounting again with vaults and leaps most gracefully, and with lissome thighs, so pretty, so dextrous, so upright as to be indescribable, so much so, that he would have made the Queen Lucrece long for him, she who killed herself from having been contaminated against her will.

“Ah!” said Blanche, “if only this page were fifteen, I would go to sleep comfortably very near to him.”

Then, in spite of the too great youth of this charming servitor, during the collation and supper, she eyed frequently the black hair, the white skin, the grace of Rene, above all his eyes, where was an abundance of limpid warmth and a great fire of life, which he was afraid to shoot out—child that he was.

Now in the evening, as the seneschal's wife sat thoughtfully in her chair in the corner of the fireplace, old Bruyn interrogated her as to her trouble.

“I am thinking.” said she, “that you must have fought the battles of love very early, to be thus completely broken up.”

“Oh!” smiled he, smiling like all old men questioned upon their amorous remembrances, “at the age of thirteen and a half I had overcome the scruples of my mother's waiting woman.”

Blanche wished to hear nothing more, but believed the page Rene should be equally advanced, and she was quite joyous and practised little allurements on the good man, and wallowed silently in her desire, like a cake which is being floured.

 
 
 

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