Armance, by Stendhal

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Somewhat light as air.

There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,

Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body.

O! These encounterers, so glib of tongue,

That give a coasting welcome ere it comes.

  TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, Act IV.

[The first half-line, which is not in Troilus and Cressida, is perhaps a reminiscence of Othello: “Trifles light as air.”— C. K. S. M.]

There were few pleasant drawing-rooms pertaining to that section of society which three times in the year pays its respects to the King in which Octave was not warmly welcomed. He observed the celebrity of Madame la Comtesse d’Aumale. She was the most brilliant and perhaps the cleverest coquette of the day. An ill-humoured foreigner has said that the women of high society in France have a cleverness akin to that of an old Ambassador. It was a childish simplicity that shone in the manners of Madame d’Aumale. The artlessness of her repartees and the wild gaiety of her actions, always inspired by the circumstances of the moment, were the despair of her rivals. She had caprices of a marvellous unexpectedness, and how is any one to imitate a caprice?

The natural and unexpected were by no means the most brilliant element in Octave’s behaviour. He was compact of mystery. Never any sign of thoughtlessness in him, unless occasionally in his conversations with Armance. But he needed to be certain that he would not be interrupted unexpectedly. No one could reproach him with falseness; he would have scorned to tell a lie, but he never went straight towards his goal. Octave took into his service a footman who had come from Madame d’Aumale; this man, an old soldier, was ambitious and cunning. Octave used to make him ride with him on long excursions of seven or eight leagues which he made through the forests round Paris, and there were moments of evident boredom in which the man was allowed to talk. It was barely a matter of weeks before Octave had the most definite information as to Madame d’Aumale’s conduct. This young woman, who had compromised herself deeply by an unbounded thoughtlessness, was really entitled to all the esteem which certain people no longer gave her.

Octave calculated, pencil in hand, the amount of time and trouble which Madame d’Aumale’s society would require of him, and hoped, without undue effort, to be able before long to pass as a lover of this brilliant woman. He arranged matters so well that it was Madame de Bonnivet herself who, in the course of a party that she was giving at her country house at Andilly, presented him to Madame d’Aumale, and the manner of the presentation was picturesque and impressive for the giddy young Comtesse.

With the object of enlivening a stroll that the party were taking, by night, among the charming woods that crown the height» of Andilly, Octave suddenly appeared disguised as a magician, and was seen in a glare of Bengal lights, cunningly concealed behind the trunks of forest trees. Octave was looking his best that evening, and Madame de Bonnivet, quite unconsciously, spoke of him with a sort of exaltation. Less than a month after this first encounter, people began to say that the Vicomte had succeeded M. de R———— and all the rest of them in the post of intimate friend to Madame d’Aumale.

This most frivolous of women, of whom neither she herself nor any one else could ever say what she would be doing in a quarter of an hour, had noticed that a drawing-room clock, when it struck twelve, sent home the majority of the bores in the room, people of regular habits; and so entertained from midnight until two o’clock. Octave was always the last to leave Madame de Bonnivet’s drawing-room, and would kill his horses to hasten his arrival at Madame d’Aumale’s, in the Chaussée d’Antin. There he found a woman who thanked heaven for her exalted birth and her fortune, solely because of the privilege they conferred on her, to do at every minute of the day whatever she might be inspired to do by the caprice of the moment.

In the country, at midnight, when every one went up to bed, did Madame d’Aumale remark, as she crossed the hall, a fine night and a pleasing moon, she would take the arm of the young man who, that evening, seemed to her to be the most amusing, and go roaming through the woods. Should some fool offer to accompany her on her stroll, she would beg him without ceremony to choose another path; but next day, should her companion overnight have proved boring, she did not speak to him again. It must be confessed that in the presence of so lively an intelligence, employed in the service of so unbalanced a head, it was very difficult not to seem a trifle dull.

This was what made Octave’s fortune; the amusing element of his nature was completely invisible to the people who before taking action always think of a. model to be copied and of the conventions. No one, on the other hand, could be more conscious of this than the prettiest woman in Paris, always in pursuit of some novel idea which might enable her to pass the evening in an exciting way. Octave accompanied Madame d’Aumale everywhere, as for instance to the Italian theatre.

During the two or three final performances given by Madame Pasta, to which the cult of fashion had brought the whole of Paris, he took the trouble to converse aloud with the young Comtesse, and in such a way as to spoil the whole of the show. Madame d’Aumale, amused by what he was saying to her, was delighted by the simple air with which he displayed his impertinence.

Nothing could have seemed in worse taste to Octave; but he was beginning to acquire a mastery of foolish conduct. The twofold attention which, when he took some ridiculous liberty, he gave unconsciously to the impertinence that he was committing and to the sober conduct for which he substituted it, kindled a certain fire in his eyes which, amused Madame d’Aumale. Octave took pleasure in hearing it said on all sides that he was madly in love with the Comtesse, and in never saying anything to this young and charming woman, with whom he spent all his time, that in the remotest degree suggested love.

Madame de Malivert, astonished at her son’s conduct, went now and again to the drawing-rooms in which he was to be seen in the train of Madame d’Aumale. One evening, as she left Madame de Bonnivet’s, she asked her to let her have Armance for the whole of the next day. “I have a number of papers to arrange, and I need the eyes of my Armance.”

On the following morning, at eleven o’clock, before luncheon, as had been arranged, Madame de Malivert’s carriage went to fetch Armance: The ladies took luncheon by themselves. When Madame de Malivert’s maid was leaving them, “remember,” her mistress told her, “that I am at home to nobody, neither to Octave nor to M. de Malivert.” She carried her precautions so far as to bolt the door of her outer room herself.

When she was comfortably settled in her bergère, with Armance on her little chair facing her: “My child,” she said to her, “I am going to speak to you of a matter which I have long ago decided. But unfortunately my most firm desire is not enough to bring about a result which would be the joy of my life. You have but a hundred louis a year, that is all that my enemies can say against the passionate desire that I fee! to make you marry my son.” So saying, Madame de Malivert threw herself into Armance’s arms. This was the happiest moment in the poor girl’s life; tears of joy bathed her cheeks.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30