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The Magic Skin
Honore de Balzac
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"And what became of Pauline?"
"Pauline? Ah! Do you sometimes spend a pleasant winter evening by your own fireside,
and give yourself up luxuriously to memories of love or youth, while you watch the glow
of the fire where the logs of oak are burning? Here, the fire outlines a sort of chessboard
in red squares, there it has a sheen like velvet; little blue flames start up and flicker and
play about in the glowing depths of the brasier. A mysterious artist comes and adapts that
flame to his own ends; by a secret of his own he draws a visionary face in the midst of
those flaming violet and crimson hues, a face with unimaginable delicate outlines, a
fleeting apparition which no chance will ever bring back again. It is a woman's face, her
hair is blown back by the wind, her features speak of a rapture of delight; she breathes
fire in the midst of the fire. She smiles, she dies, you will never see her any more.
Farewell, flower of the flame! Farewell, essence incomplete and unforeseen, come too
early or too late to make the spark of some glorious diamond."
"You do not see, then? I will begin again. Make way! make way! She comes, she is here,
the queen of illusions, a woman fleeting as a kiss, a woman bright as lightning, issuing in
a blaze like lightning from the sky, a being uncreated, of spirit and love alone. She has
wrapped her shadowy form in flame, or perhaps the flame betokens that she exists but for
a moment. The pure outlines of her shape tell you that she comes from heaven. Is she not
radiant as an angel? Can you not hear the beating of her wings in space? She sinks down
beside you more lightly than a bird, and you are entranced by her awful eyes; there is a
magical power in her light breathing that draws your lips to hers; she flies and you
follow; you feel the earth beneath you no longer. If you could but once touch that form of
snow with your eager, deluded hands, once twine the golden hair round your fingers,
place one kiss on those shining eyes! There is an intoxicating vapor around, and the spell
of a siren music is upon you. Every nerve in you is quivering; you are filled with pain and
longing. O joy for which there is no name! You have touched the woman's lips, and you
are awakened at once by a horrible pang. Oh! ah! yes, you have struck your head against
the corner of the bedpost, you have been clasping its brown mahogany sides, and chilly
gilt ornaments; embracing a piece of metal, a brazen Cupid."
"But how about Pauline, sir?"
"What, again? Listen. One lovely morning at Tours a young man, who held the hand of a
pretty woman in his, went on board the Ville d'Angers. Thus united they both looked and
wondered long at a white form that rose elusively out of the mists above the broad waters
of the Loire, like some child of the sun and the river, or some freak of air and cloud. This
translucent form was a sylph or a naiad by turns; she hovered in the air like a word that
haunts the memory, which seeks in vain to grasp it; she glided among the islands, she
nodded her head here and there among the tall poplar trees; then she grew to a giant's