Ormond, by Maria Edgeworth

Chapter 29.

There was a picture of Dagote’s which was at this moment an object of fashionable curiosity in Paris. It was a representation of one of the many charitable actions of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, “then Dauphiness — at that time full of life, and splendour, and joy, adorning and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in;” and yet diffusing life, and hope, and joy, in that lower sphere, to which the radiance of the great and happy seldom reaches. The Dauphiness was at that time the pride of France, and the darling of Paris; not only worshipped by the court, but loved by the people. While she was Dauphiness, and during the commencement of her reign, every thing, even disastrous accidents, and the rigour of the season, served to give her fresh opportunity of winning the affection and exciting the enthusiasm of the people. When, during the festivities on her marriage, hundreds were crushed to death by the fall of a temporary building, the sensibility of the Dauphiness, the eagerness with which she sent all her money to the lieutenant de police for the families of those who had perished, conciliated the people, and turned even the evil presage to good. Again, during a severe frost, her munificence to the suffering poor excited such gratitude, that the people erected to her honour a vast pyramid of snow — Frail memorial! —“These marks of respect were almost as transitory as the snowy pyramid.”

Ormond went with Mademoiselle O’Faley one morning to see the picture of the Dauphiness; and he had now an opportunity of seeing a display of French sensibility, that eagerness to feel and to excite a sensation; that desire to produce an effect, to have a scene; that half real, half theatric enthusiasm, by which the French character is peculiarly distinguished from the English. He was perfectly astonished by the quantity of exclamations he heard at the sight of this picture; the lifting up of hands and eyes, the transports, the ecstasies, the tears — the actual tears that he saw streaming in despite of rouge. It was real! and it was not real feeling! Of one thing he was clear — that this superfluity of feeling or exaggeration of expression completely silenced him, and made him cold indeed: like one unskilled or dumb he seemed to stand.

“But are you of marble?” cried Mademoiselle —“where is your sensibilité then?”

“I hope it is safe at the bottom of my heart,” said Ormond; “but when it is called for, I cannot always find it — especially on these public occasions.”

“Ah! but what good all the sensibilité in the world do at the bottom of your heart, where nobody see it? It is on these public occasions too, you must always contrive and find it quick at Paris, or after all you will seem but an Englishman.”

“I must be content to seem and to be what I am,” said Ormond, in a tone of playful but determined resignation.

“Bon!” said a voice near him. Mademoiselle went off in impatience to find some better auditor — she did not hear the “Bon.”

Ormond turned, and saw near him a gentleman, whom he had often met at some of the first houses in Paris — the Abbé Morellet, then respected as the most reasonable of all the wits of France, and who has since, through all the trying scenes of the revolution, through the varieties of unprincipled change, preserved unaltered the integrity and frankness of his character; retaining even to his eighty-seventh year all his characteristic warmth of heart and clearness of understanding —le doyen de la littérature Françoise— the love, respect, and admiration, of every honest heart in France. May he live to receive among all the other tributes, which his countrymen pay publicly and privately to his merit, this record of the impression his kindness left on grateful English hearts!

Our young hero had often desired to be acquainted with the Abbé; but the Abbé had really hitherto passed him over as a mere young man of fashion, a mere Milord Anglois, one of the ephemeral race, who appear in Parisian society, vanish, and leave no trace behind. But now he did him the honour to enter into conversation with him. The Abbé peculiarly disliked all affectation of sentiment and exaggeration: they were revolting to his good sense, good taste, and feeling. Ormond won directly his good opinion and good-will, by having insisted upon it to Mademoiselle, that he would not for the sake of fashion or effect pretend to feel more than he really did.

“Bah!” said the Abbé, “hear all those women now and all those men — they do not know what they are saying — they make me sick. And, besides, I am afraid these flattering courtiers will do no good to our young Dauphiness, on whom so much of the future happiness or misery of France will depend. Her heart is excellent, and they tell me she announces a strong character; but what head of a young beauty and a young Queen will be able to withstand perpetual flattery? They will lead her wrong, and then will be the first to desert her — trust me, I know Paris. All this might change as quickly as the turn of a weathercock; but I will not trouble you with forebodings perhaps never to be realized. You see Paris, Monsieur, at a fortunate time,” continued he; “society is now more agreeable, has more freedom, more life and variety, than at any other period that I can remember.”

Ormond replied by a just compliment to the men of letters, who at this period added so much to the brilliancy and pleasure of Parisian society.

“But you have seen nothing of our men of literature, have you?” said the Abbé.

“Much less than I wish. I meet them frequently in society, but as, unluckily, I have no pretensions to their notice, I can only catch a little of their conversation, when I am fortunate enough to be near them.”

“Yes,” said the Abbé, with his peculiar look and tone of good-natured irony, “between the pretty things you are saying and hearing from — Fear nothing, I am not going to name any one, but — every pretty woman in company. I grant you it must be difficult to hear reason in such a situation — as difficult almost as in the midst of the din of all the passions at the faro-table. I observe, however, that you play with astonishing coolness — there is something still — wanting. Excuse me — but you interest me, monsieur; the determination not to play at all —

“Beyond a certain sum I have resolved never to play,” said Ormond.

“Ah! but the appetite grows — l’appetit vient en mangeant — the danger is in acquiring the taste — excuse me if I speak too freely.”

“Not at all — you cannot oblige me more. But there is no danger of my acquiring a taste for play, because I am determined to lose.”

“Bon!” said the Abbé; “that is the most singular determination I ever heard: explain that to me, then, Monsieur.”

“I have determined to lose a certain sum — suppose five hundred guineas. I have won and lost backwards and forwards, and have been longer about it than you would conceive to be probable; but it is not lost yet. The moment it is, I shall stop short. By this means I have acquired all the advantages of yielding to the fashionable madness, without risking my future happiness.”

The Abbé was pleased with the idea, and with the frankness and firmness of our young hero.

“Really, Monsieur,” said he, “you must have a strong head — you, le bel Irlandois — to have prevented it from being turned with all the flattery you have received in Paris. There is nothing which gets into the head — worse still, into the heart — so soon, so dangerously, as the flattery of pretty women. And yet I declare you seem wonderfully sober, considering.”

“Ne jurez pas,” said Ormond; “but at least in one respect I have not quite lost my senses; I know the value and feel the want of a safe, good guide in Paris: if I dared to ask such a favour, I should, since he has expressed some interest for me, beg to be permitted to cultivate the acquaintance of M. l’Abbé Morellet.”

“Ah ça — now my head will turn, for no head can stand the dose of flattery that happens to suit the taste. I am particularly flattered by the idea of being a safe, good friend; and frankly, if I can be of any service to you, I will. Is there any thing I can do for you?”

Ormond thanked him, and told him that it was his great ambition to become acquainted with the celebrated men of literature in Paris — he said he should feel extremely obliged if M. Morellet would take occasion to introduce him to any of them they might meet in society.

“We must do better for you,” said the abbé—“we must show you our men of letters.” He concluded by begging Ormond to name a day when he could do him the honour to breakfast with him. “I will promise you Marmontel, at least; for he is just going to be married to my niece, and of him we shall be secure: as to the rest I will promise nothing, but do as much as I can.”

The men of letters about this period in Paris, as the Abbé explained to Ormond, began to feel their own power and consequence, and had assumed a tone of independence, as yet tempered with due respect for rank. Many of them lived or were connected with men of rank, by places about the court, by secretaryships and pensions, obtained through court influence. Some were attached by early friendship to certain great families; had apartments to themselves in their hotels, where they received what friends they pleased; and, in short, lived as if they were at home. Their company was much sought for by the great; and they enjoyed good houses, good tables, carriages, all the conveniences of life, and all the luxuries of the rich, without the trouble of an establishment. Their mornings were their own, usually employed in study; and the rest of the day they gave themselves to society. The most agreeable period of French literary society was, perhaps, while this state of things lasted.

The Abbé Morellet’s breakfast was very agreeable; and Ormond saw at his house what had been promised him, many of the literary men at Paris. Voltaire was not then in France; and Rousseau, who was always quarrelling with somebody, and generally with every body, could not be prevailed upon to go to this breakfast. Ormond was assured that he lost nothing by not seeing him, or by not hearing his conversation, for that it was by no means equal to his writings; his temper was so susceptible and wayward, that he was not fit for society — neither capable of enjoying, nor of adding to its pleasures. Ormond heard, perhaps, more of Rousseau and Voltaire, and learnt more of their characters, by the anecdotes that were related, and the bon-mots that were repeated, than he could have done if they had been present. There was great variety of different characters and talents at this breakfast; and the Abbé amused himself by making his young friend guess who the people were, before he told their names. It was happy for Ormond that he was acquainted with some of their writings (this he owed to Lady Annaly’s well-chosen present of French books). He was fortunate in his first guess — Marivaux’s conversation was so like the style of his writings, so full of hair-breadth distinctions, subtle exceptions, and metaphysical refinement and digressions, that Ormond soon guessed him, and was applauded for his quickness. Marmontel he discovered, by his being the only man in the room who had not mentioned to him any of “Les Contes Moraux.” But there was one person who set all his skill at defiance: he pronounced that he was no author — that he was l’ami de la maison: he was so indeed wherever he went — but he was both a man of literature, and a man of deep science — no less a person than the great D’Alembert. Ormond thought D’Alembert and Marmontel were the two most agreeable men in company. D’Alembert was simple, open-hearted, unpresuming, and cheerful in society. Far from being subject to that absence of mind with which profound mathematicians are sometimes reproached, D’Alembert was present to every thing that was going forward — every trifle he enjoyed with the zest of youth, and the playfulness of childhood. Ormond confessed that he should never have guessed that he was a great mathematician and profound calculator.

Marmontel was distinguished for combining in his conversation, as in his character, two qualities for which there are no precise English words, naïveté and finesse. Whoever is acquainted with Marmontel’s writings must have a perfect knowledge of what is meant by both.

It was fortunate for our young hero that Marmontel was, at this time, no longer the dissipated man he had been during too great a period of his life. He had now returned to his early tastes for simple pleasures and domestic virtues — had formed that attachment which afterwards made the happiness of his life: he was just going to be married to the amiable Mdlle. Montigny, a niece of the Abbé Morellet. She and her excellent mother lived with him; and Ormond was most agreeably surprised and touched at the unexpected sight of an amiable, united, happy family, when he had expected only a meeting of literati.

The sight of this domestic happiness reminded him of the Annalys — brought the image of Florence to his mind. If she had been but sincere, how he should have preferred her to all he had seen!

It came upon him just at the right moment. It contrasted with all the dissipation he had seen, and it struck him the more strongly, because it could not possibly have been prepared as a moral lesson to make an impression. He saw the real, natural course of things — he heard in a few hours the result of the experience of a man of great vivacity, great talents, who had led a life of pleasure, and who had had opportunities of seeing and feeling all that it could possibly afford, at the period of the greatest luxury and dissipation ever known in France. No evidence could be stronger than Marmontel’s in favour of virtue and of domestic life, nor could any one express it with more grace and persuasive eloquence.

It did Ormond infinite good. He required such a lesson at this juncture, and he was capable of taking it — it recalled him to his better self.

The good Abbé seemed to see something of what in Ormond’s mind, and became still more interested about him.

“Ah, ça,” said he to Marmontel, as soon as Ormond was gone, “that young man is worth something: I thought he was only le bel Irlandois, but I find he is much more. We must do what we can for him, and not let him leave Paris, as so many do, having seen only the worst part of our society.”

Marmontel, who had also been pleased with him, was willing, he said, to do any thing in his power; but he could scarcely hope that they had the means of withdrawing from the double attraction of the faro-table and coquetry, a young man of that age and figure.

“Fear nothing, or rather hope every thing,” said the Abbé: “his head and his heart are more in our favour, trust me, than his age and his figure are against us. To begin, my good Marmontel, did not you see how much he was struck and edified by your reformation?”

“Ah! if there was another Mdlle. de Montigny for him, I should fear nothing, or rather hope every thing,” said Marmontel “but where shall he find such another in all Paris?”

“In his own country, perhaps, all in good time,” said the Abbé.

“In his own country? — True,” cried Marmontel, “now you recall it to my mind, how eager he grew in disputing with Marivaux upon the distinction between aimable and amiable. His description of an amiable woman, according to the English taste, was, I recollect, made con amore; and there was a sigh at the close which came from the heart, and which showed the heart was in England or Ireland.”

“Wherever his heart is, c’est bien placé,” said the Abbé. “I like him — we must get him into good company — he is worthy to be acquainted with your amiable and aimable Madame de Beauveau and Madame de Seran.”

“True,” said Marmontel; “and for the honour of Paris, we must convince him that he has taken up false notions, and that there is such a thing as conjugal fidelity and domestic happiness here.”

“Bon. That is peculiarly incumbent on the author of Les Contes Moraux,” said the Abbé.

It happened, fortunately for our hero, that Madame de Connal was, about this time, engaged to pass a fortnight at the country house of Madame de Clairville. During her absence, the good Abbé had time to put in execution all his benevolent intentions, and introduced his young friend to some of the really good company of Paris. He pointed out to him at Madame Geoffrin’s, Madame de Tencin’s, Madame du Detfand’s, and Madame Trudaine’s, the difference between the society at the house of a rich farmer general — or at the house of one connected with the court, and with people in place and political power — and the society of mixed rank and literature. The mere passing pictures of these things, to one who was not to live in Paris, might not, perhaps, except as a matter of curiosity, be of much value; but his judicious friend led Ormond from these to make comparisons and deductions which were of use to him all his life afterwards.

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Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 14:02