If I Must Have a Master, My Master Should Be a Great Man

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


By this time it was about midnight. One of her servants, waiting with
her pelisse, went down to order her carriage. On her way home she fell
naturally enough to musing over M. de Montriveau’s prediction. Arrived
in her own courtyard, as she supposed, she entered a vestibule almost
like that of her own hotel, and suddenly saw that the staircase was
different. She was in a strange house. Turning to call her servants, she
was attacked by several men, who rapidly flung a handkerchief over her
mouth, bound her hand and foot, and carried her off. She shrieked aloud.

“Madame, our orders are to kill you if you scream,” a voice said in her

So great was the Duchess’s terror, that she could never recollect how
nor by whom she was transported. When she came to herself, she was lying
on a couch in a bachelor’s lodging, her hands and feet tied with silken
cords. In spite of herself, she shrieked aloud as she looked round and
met Armand de Montriveau’s eyes. He was sitting in his dressing-gown,
quietly smoking a cigar in his armchair.

“Do not cry out, Mme la Duchesse,” he said, coolly taking the cigar out
of his mouth; “I have a headache. Besides, I will untie you. But listen
attentively to what I have the honour to say to you.”

Very carefully he untied the knots that bound her feet.

“What would be the use of calling out? Nobody can hear your cries.
You are too well bred to make any unnecessary fuss. If you do not stay
quietly, if you insist upon a struggle with me, I shall tie your
hands and feet again. All things considered, I think that you have
self-respect enough to stay on this sofa as if you were lying on your
own at home; cold as ever, if you will. You have made me shed many tears
on this couch, tears that I hid from all other eyes.”

While Montriveau was speaking, the Duchess glanced about her; it was
a woman’s glance, a stolen look that saw all things and seemed to see
nothing. She was much pleased with the room. It was rather like a
monk’s cell. The man’s character and thoughts seemed to pervade it. No
decoration of any kind broke the grey painted surface of the walls.
A green carpet covered the floor. A black sofa, a table littered with
papers, two big easy-chairs, a chest of drawers with an alarum clock by
way of ornament, a very low bedstead with a coverlet flung over it–a
red cloth with a black key border–all these things made part of a
whole that told of a life reduced to its simplest terms. A triple
candle-sconce of Egyptian design on the chimney-piece recalled the
vast spaces of the desert and Montriveau’s long wanderings; a huge
sphinx-claw stood out beneath the folds of stuff at the bed-foot;
and just beyond, a green curtain with a black and scarlet border was
suspended by large rings from a spear handle above a door near one
corner of the room. The other door by which the band had entered was
likewise curtained, but the drapery hung from an ordinary curtain-rod.
As the Duchess finally noted that the pattern was the same on both, she
saw that the door at the bed-foot stood open; gleams of ruddy light
from the room beyond flickered below the fringed border. Naturally, the
ominous light roused her curiosity; she fancied she could distinguish
strange shapes in the shadows; but as it did not occur to her at the
time that danger could come from that quarter, she tried to gratify a
more ardent curiosity.

“Monsieur, if it is not indiscreet, may I ask what you mean to do with
me?” The insolence and irony of the tone stung through the words. The
Duchess quite believed that she read extravagant love in Montriveau’s
speech. He had carried her off; was not that in itself an acknowledgment
of her power?

“Nothing whatever, madame,” he returned, gracefully puffing the last
whiff of cigar smoke. “You will remain here for a short time. First
of all, I should like to explain to you what you are, and what I am. I
cannot put my thoughts into words whilst you are twisting on the sofa
in your boudoir; and besides, in your own house you take offence at the
slightest hint, you ring the bell, make an outcry, and turn your lover
out at the door as if he were the basest of wretches. Here my mind is
unfettered. Here nobody can turn me out. Here you shall be my victim for
a few seconds, and you are going to be so exceedingly kind as to listen
to me. You need fear nothing. I did not carry you off to insult you, nor
yet to take by force what you refused to grant of your own will to my
unworthiness. I could not stoop so low. You possibly think of outrage;
for myself, I have no such thoughts.”

He flung his cigar coolly into the fire.

“The smoke is unpleasant to you, no doubt, madame?” he said, and rising
at once, he took a chafing-dish from the hearth, burnt perfumes, and
purified the air. The Duchess’s astonishment was only equaled by her
humiliation. She was in this man’s power; and he would not abuse his
power. The eyes in which love had once blazed like flame were now quiet
and steady as stars. She trembled. Her dread of Armand was increased by
a nightmare sensation of restlessness and utter inability to move; she
felt as if she were turned to stone. She lay passive in the grip of
fear. She thought she saw the light behind the curtains grow to a blaze,
as if blown up by a pair of bellows; in another moment the gleams of
flame grew brighter, and she fancied that three masked figures suddenly
flashed out; but the terrible vision disappeared so swiftly that she
took it for an optical delusion.

“Madame,” Armand continued with cold contempt, “one minute, just one
minute is enough for me, and you shall feel it afterwards at every
moment throughout your lifetime, the one eternity over which I have
power. I am not God. Listen carefully to me,” he continued, pausing to
add solemnity to his words. “Love will always come at your call. You
have boundless power over men: but remember that once you called love,
and love came to you; love as pure and true-hearted as may be on earth,
and as reverent as it was passionate; fond as a devoted woman’s, as a
mother’s love; a love so great indeed, that it was past the bounds of
reason. You played with it, and you committed a crime. Every woman has a right to refuse herself to love which she feels she cannot share; and if a man loves and cannot win love in return, he is not to be pitied,
he has no right to complain. But with a semblance of love to attract
an unfortunate creature cut off from all affection; to teach him to
understand happiness to the full, only to snatch it from him; to rob him
of his future of felicity; to slay his happiness not merely today,
but as long as his life lasts, by poisoning every hour of it and every
thought–this I call a fearful crime!”


“I cannot allow you to answer me yet. So listen to me still. In any case
I have rights over you; but I only choose to exercise one–the right of
the judge over the criminal, so that I may arouse your conscience. If
you had no conscience left, I should not reproach you at all; but you
are so young! You must feel some life still in your heart; or so I like
to believe. While I think of you as depraved enough to do a wrong which
the law does not punish, I do not think you so degraded that you cannot
comprehend the full meaning of my words. I resume.”

As he spoke the Duchess heard the smothered sound of a pair of bellows.
Those mysterious figures which she had just seen were blowing up the
fire, no doubt; the glow shone through the curtain. But Montriveau’s
lurid face was turned upon her; she could not choose but wait with a
fast-beating heart and eyes fixed in a stare. However curious she felt,
the heat in Armand’s words interested her even more than the crackling
of the mysterious flames.

“Madame,” he went on after a pause, “if some poor wretch commits a
murder in Paris, it is the executioner’s duty, you know, to lay hands on
him and stretch him on the plank, where murderers pay for their crimes
with their heads. Then the newspapers inform everyone, rich and poor, so
that the former are assured that they may sleep in peace, and the latter
are warned that they must be on the watch if they would live. Well, you
that are religious, and even a little of a bigot, may have masses said
for such a man’s soul. You both belong to the same family, but yours is
the elder branch; and the elder branch may occupy high places in peace
and live happily and without cares. Want or anger may drive your brother
the convict to take a man’s life; you have taken more, you have taken
the joy out of a man’s life, you have killed all that was best in his
life–his dearest beliefs. The murderer simply lay in wait for his
victim, and killed him reluctantly, and in fear of the scaffold; but
you …! You heaped up every sin that weakness can commit against
strength that suspected no evil; you tamed a passive victim, the better
to gnaw his heart out; you lured him with caresses; you left nothing
undone that could set him dreaming, imagining, longing for the bliss of
love. You asked innumerable sacrifices of him, only to refuse to make
any in return. He should see the light indeed before you put out his
eyes! It is wonderful how you found the heart to do it! Such villainies
demand a display of resource quite above the comprehension of those
bourgeoises whom you laugh at and despise. They can give and forgive;
they know how to love and suffer. The grandeur of their devotion dwarfs
us. Rising higher in the social scale, one finds just as much mud as at
the lower end; but with this difference, at the upper end it is hard and
gilded over.

“Yes, to find baseness in perfection, you must look for a noble bringing
up, a great name, a fair woman, a duchess. You cannot fall lower than
the lowest unless you are set high above the rest of the world.–I
express my thoughts badly; the wounds you dealt me are too painful as
yet, but do not think that I complain. My words are not the expression
of any hope for myself; there is no trace of bitterness in them. Know
this, madame, for a certainty–I forgive you. My forgiveness is so
complete that you need not feel in the least sorry that you came hither
to find it against your will…. But you might take advantage of other
hearts as child-like as my own, and it is my duty to spare them anguish.
So you have inspired the thought of justice. Expiate your sin here
on earth; God may perhaps forgive you; I wish that He may, but He is
inexorable, and will strike.”

The broken-spirited, broken-hearted woman looked up, her eyes filled
with tears.

“Why do you cry? Be true to your nature. You could look on indifferently
at the torture of a heart as you broke it. That will do, madame, do not
cry. I cannot bear it any longer. Other men will tell you that you have
given them life; as for myself, I tell you, with rapture, that you have
given me blank extinction. Perhaps you guess that I am not my own, that
I am bound to live for my friends, that from this time forth I must
endure the cold chill of death, as well as the burden of life? Is it
possible that there can be so much kindness in you? Are you like the
desert tigress that licks the wounds she has inflicted?”

The Duchess burst out sobbing.

“Pray spare your tears, madame. If I believed in them at all, it would
merely set me on my guard. Is this another of your artifices? or is it
not? You have used so many with me; how can one think that there is any
truth in you? Nothing that you do or say has any power now to move me.
That is all I have to say.”

Mme de Langeais rose to her feet, with a great dignity and humility in
her bearing.

“You are right to treat me very hardly,” she said, holding out a hand to
the man who did not take it; “you have not spoken hardly enough; and I
deserve this punishment.”

I punish you, madame! A man must love still, to punish, must he not?
From me you must expect no feeling, nothing resembling it. If I chose, I
might be accuser and judge in my cause, and pronounce and carry out the
sentence. But I am about to fulfil a duty, not a desire of vengeance of
any kind. The cruelest revenge of all, I think, is scorn of revenge when
it is in our power to take it. Perhaps I shall be the minister of your
pleasures; who knows? Perhaps from this time forth, as you gracefully
wear the tokens of disgrace by which society marks out the criminal, you
may perforce learn something of the convict’s sense of honour. And then,
you will love!”

The Duchess sat listening; her meekness was unfeigned; it was no
coquettish device. When she spoke at last, it was after a silence.

“Armand,” she began, “it seems to me that when I resisted love, I was
obeying all the instincts of woman’s modesty; I should not have looked
for such reproaches from you. I was weak; you have turned all my
weaknesses against me, and made so many crimes of them. How could you
fail to understand that the curiosity of love might have carried me
further than I ought to go; and that next morning I might be angry
with myself, and wretched because I had gone too far? Alas! I sinned in
ignorance. I was as sincere in my wrongdoing, I swear to you, as in
my remorse. There was far more love for you in my severity than in my
concessions. And besides, of what do you complain? I gave you my heart;
that was not enough; you demanded, brutally, that I should give my

“Brutally?” repeated Montriveau. But to himself he said, “If I once
allow her to dispute over words, I am lost.”

“Yes. You came to me as if I were one of those women. You showed none
of the respect, none of the attentions of love. Had I not reason to
reflect? Very well, I reflected. The unseemliness of your conduct is not
inexcusable; love lay at the source of it; let me think so, and
justify you to myself.–Well, Armand, this evening, even while you were
prophesying evil, I felt convinced that there was happiness in store for
us both. Yes, I put my faith in the noble, proud nature so often tested
and proved.” She bent lower. “And I was yours wholly,” she murmured in
his ear. “I felt a longing that I cannot express to give happiness to a
man so violently tried by adversity. If I must have a master, my master
should be a great man. As I felt conscious of my height, the less I
cared to descend. I felt I could trust you, I saw a whole lifetime of
love, while you were pointing to death…. Strength and kindness always
go together. My friend, you are so strong, you will not be unkind to
a helpless woman who loves you. If I was wrong, is there no way of
obtaining forgiveness? No way of making reparation? Repentance is the
charm of love; I should like to be very charming for you. How could I,
alone among women, fail to know a woman’s doubts and fears, the timidity
that it is so natural to feel when you bind yourself for life, and
know how easily a man snaps such ties? The bourgeoises, with whom you
compared me just now, give themselves, but they struggle first. Very
well–I struggled; but here I am!–Ah! God, he does not hear me!” she
broke off, and wringing her hands, she cried out “But I love you! I am
yours!” and fell at Armand’s feet.

“Yours! yours! my one and only master!”

Armand tried to raise her.

“Madame, it is too late! Antoinette cannot save the Duchesse de
Langeais. I cannot believe in either. Today you may give yourself;
tomorrow, you may refuse. No power in earth or heaven can insure me the
sweet constancy of love. All love’s pledges lay in the past; and now
nothing of that past exists.”

The light behind the curtain blazed up so brightly, that the Duchess
could not help turning her head; this time she distinctly saw the three
masked figures.

“Armand,” she said, “I would not wish to think ill of you. Why are those
men there? What are you going to do to me?”

“Those men will be as silent as I myself with regard to the thing which
is about to be done. Think of them simply as my hands and my heart. One
of them is a surgeon—-”

“A surgeon! Armand, my friend, of all things, suspense is the hardest
to bear. Just speak; tell me if you wish for my life; I will give it to
you, you shall not take it—-”

“Then you did not understand me? Did I not speak just now of justice?
To put an end to your misapprehensions,” continued he, taking up a small
steel object from the table, “I will now explain what I have decided
with regard to you.”

He held out a Lorraine cross, fastened to the tip of a steel rod.

“Two of my friends at this very moment are heating another cross, made
on this pattern, red-hot. We are going to stamp it upon your forehead,
here between the eyes, so that there will be no possibility of hiding
the mark with diamonds, and so avoiding people’s questions. In short,
you shall bear on your forehead the brand of infamy which your brothers
the convicts wear on their shoulders. The pain is a mere trifle, but I
feared a nervous crisis of some kind, of resistance—-”

“Resistance?” she cried, clapping her hands for joy. “Oh no, no! I would
have the whole world here to see. Ah, my Armand, brand her quickly,
this creature of yours; brand her with your mark as a poor little trifle
belonging to you. You asked for pledges of my love; here they are all in
one. Ah! for me there is nothing but mercy and forgiveness and eternal
happiness in this revenge of yours. When you have marked this woman with
your mark, when you set your crimson brand on her, your slave in soul,
you can never afterwards abandon her, you will be mine for evermore?
When you cut me off from my kind, you make yourself responsible for my
happiness, or you prove yourself base; and I know that you are noble and
great! Why, when a woman loves, the brand of love is burnt into her
soul by her own will.–Come in, gentlemen! come in and brand her,
this Duchesse de Langeais. She is M. de Montriveau’s forever! Ah! come
quickly, all of you, my forehead burns hotter than your fire!”

Armand turned his head sharply away lest he should see the Duchess
kneeling, quivering with the throbbings of her heart. He said some word,
and his three friends vanished.

— Honore de Balzac, as translated by Ellen Marriage

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to If I Must Have a Master, My Master Should Be a Great Man

  1. JV says:

    They don’t write them like that anymore.


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