Armance, by Stendhal

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

II giovin cuore o non vede affatto i difetti

di chi li sta vicino o li vede immensi.

Error comune ai giovinetti che portano fuoco nell’

interna dell’ anima.

  LAMPUGNANI.

One day Octave learned in Paris that one of the men whom he saw most often and took most pleasure in seeing, one of his friends, as the word is used in society, owed the handsome fortune which he spent with such grace to what in Octave’s eyes was the basest of actions (legacy hunting). Mademoiselle de Zohiloff, to whom he made haste, immediately on his return to Andilly, to impart this painful discovery, felt that he bore it very well. He underwent no attack of misanthropy, shewed no desire to quarrel openly with the man.

Another day, he returned quite early from a country house in Picardy, where he was to have spent the evening. “How dull all that talk is!” he said to Armance. “Always hunting, the beauty of the country, Rossini’s music, the fine arts! Not only that, but they are lying when they pretend to be interested. These people are foolish enough to be frightened, they imagine they are living in a beleaguered city and forbid themselves to discuss the news of the siege. What a miserable race! And how angry it makes me to belong to it!” “Very well! Go and visit the besiegers,” said Armance; “their absurdities will help you to endure those of the army in which your birth has enrolled you.” “It is a serious question,” Octave went on. “Heaven knows what I feel when I hear in one of our drawing-rooms one of our friends give voice to some opinion that is absurd or cruel; still, I can remain honourably silent. My regret remains invisible. But if I let myself be taken to see the banker Martigny . . . ” “There you are,” said Armance, “a man so refined as he is, so clever, such a slave to his vanity, will receive you with open arms.” “Doubtless; but for my part, however moderate, however modest, however silent I try to make myself, I shall end by expressing my opinion about somebody or something. A moment later, the door of the drawing-room is flung open; the butler announces Monsieur So-and-so, manufacturer at ——— — who in stentorian tones shouts from the threshold: ‘Would you believe it, my dear Martigny, there are ultras, fools enough, stupid enough, idiotic enough to say that . . . ’ Whereupon the worthy manufacturer repeats, word for word, the little scrap of opinion which I have just announced in all modesty. What am I to do?” “Pretend not to have heard him.” “That is what I should like. I was not put into this world to correct coarse manners or wrong judgments; still less do I wish to give the man, by speaking to him, the right to shake hands with me in the street when next we meet. But in that drawing-room I have the misfortune not to be just like any one else. Would to God that I might find there the equality of which all those gentlemen make so much. For instance, what would you have me do with the title that I bear when I am announced at M. de Martigny’s?” “But it is your intention to discard the title if you can manage to do so without offending your father.” “Doubtless; but to forget the title, in giving my name to M. de Martigny’s servant, might seem, might it not, an act of cowardice? Like Rousseau, who called his dog Turc instead of Duc, because there was a Duke in the room.”

[Like Rousseau, poor Octave is fighting against phantoms. He would have passed unnoticed in any drawing-room in Paris, notwithstanding the prefix to his name. There prevails, moreover, in his sketch of a section of society which he has never seen, an absurd tone of animosity which he will correct in time. Fools are to be found in every class. If there were a class which rightly or wrongly was accused of coarseness, it would very soon be distinguished by a great prudery and solemnity of manners.]

“But there is no such hatred of titles among the Liberal bankers,” said Armance. “The other day Madame de Claix, who goes everywhere, happened to go to the ball at M. Montange’s, and you remember how she made us laugh that evening by pretending that they are so fond of titles that she had heard some one announced as ‘Madame la Colonelle.’”

“Now that the steam engine rules the world, a title is an absurdity, still I am dressed up in this title. It will crush me if I do not support it. The title attracts attention to myself. If I do not reply to the thundering voice of the manufacturer who shouts from the door that what I have just said is asinine, how they will all stare at me. That is the weak point in my nature: I cannot simply twitch my ears and laugh at them, as Madame d’Aumale would suggest.

“If I intercept their stare, all my pleasure is gone for the rest of the evening. The discussion that will then begin in my mind, as to whether they meant to insult me, is capable of destroying my peace of mind for three days.”

“But are you quite certain,” said Armance, “of this alleged coarseness of manners which you so generously attribute to the other side? Did not you see the other day that Talma’s children are boarding at the same school as the sons of a Duke?” “It is the men of forty-five, who became rich during the Revolution, who hold the ball in our drawing-rooms, not the schoolfellows of Talma’s children.” “I would wager that they have more intelligence than many of us. Who is the man who shines in the House of Peers? You yourself made that painful observation the other day.”

“Oh! If I were to give my fair cousin lessons in logic, how I should tease her! What is a man’s intelligence to me? It is his manners that may make me unhappy. The most foolish of our men, M. de —— — for instance, may be highly ridiculous, but he is never offensive. The other day I was talking at the Aumales’ of my visit to Liancourt; I was talking of the latest machinery which the worthy Duke has imported from Manchester. A man who was in the room said suddenly: ‘It’s not so, that’s not true.’ I was quite sure that he did not mean to contradict me; but his rudeness kept me silent for an hour.”

“And this man was a banker?” “He was not one of us. The amusing thing is, that I wrote to the foreman of the mills at Liancourt, and it appears that my friend who contradicted me was quite wrong.” “I don’t find that M. Montange, the young banker who comes to see Madame de Claix, has rude manners.” “His are honeyed; it is a form that rude manners take, when they are frightened.”

“I think their women very pretty,” Armance went on. “I should like to know whether their conversation is marred by that note of hatred or of dignity that is afraid of being wounded, which appears at times among us. Oh, how I wish that a good judge like my cousin could tell me what goes on in those drawing-rooms! When I see the bankers’ ladies in their boxes, at the Théâtre-Italien, I am dying with longing to hear what they say and to join in their conversation. If I catch sight of a pretty one, and some of them are charming, I long to throw my arms round her neck. All this will seem childish to you; but to you, master philosopher, who are so strong in logic, I will say this: how are you to know mankind if you see only one class? And the class that is least energetic because it is the farthest removed from any real needs!”

“And the class that has most affectation, because it thinks that people are watching it. You must admit that it is amusing to see a philosopher supply his adversary with arguments,” said Octave, laughing. “Would you believe that yesterday, at the Saint–Imiers’, M. le Marquis de —— — who, the other day, in this house, made such fun of the little newspapers, and pretended not to know of their existence, was in the seventh heaven, because l’Aurore had printed a vulgar joke about his enemy, M. le Comte de —— — who has just been made a Privy Councillor? He had the paper in his pocket.”“It is one of the drawbacks of our position, to have to listen to fools telling the most ridiculous lies and not be able to say: ‘A fine disguise, I know you.’” “We are obliged to deny ourselves the best jokes, because they might make the other side laugh if they heard them.”

“I know the bankers,” said Armance, “only from our silvery Montange and that charming comedy Le Roman; but I doubt whether, as far as the worship of money is concerned, they are any worse than some of our own people. You know that it is a hard task to maintain the perfection of a whole class. I shall say no more of the pleasure it would give me to know more about their ladies. But, as the old Duc de ———— said at Petersburg, when he had the Journal de l’Empire sent to him at such expense, and at the risk of offending the Tsar Alexander: ‘Ought one not to read what the other side has to say?’” “I will go a great deal farther, but in confidence, as Talma says so perfectly in Polyeucte: You and I, in our hearts, do not, certainly, wish to live among these people; but on many questions we think as they do.” “And it is sad at our age,” Armance put in, “to have to resign ourselves to being for the rest of our lives on the defeated side.”

“We are like the priests of the heathen idols, at the time when the Christian religion was beginning to triumph. We still persecute today, we still have the police and the budget on our side, but tomorrow, perhaps, we shall be persecuted by public opinion.” “You do us a great honour when you compare us to those worthy priests of paganism. I see something even more false in our position, yours and mine. We belong to our party only to share its misfortunes.” “That is all too true, we see its absurdities without daring to laugh at them, and its advantages are a burden to us. How does the antiquity of my name help me? It would be a nuisance to me to derive any benefit from that advantage.”

“The conversation of the young men of your sort makes you sometimes want to shrug your shoulders, and, afraid of yielding to the temptation, you are always in a hurry to speak of Mademoiselle de Claix’s beautiful album or of Madame Pasta’s singing. On the other hand, your title and the manners, which are slightly rough perhaps, of the people who think like you on most questions prevent you from seeing them.”

“Ah, how I should love to command a gun or a steam engine! How glad I should be to be a chemist employed in some factory; for rude manners are nothing to me, one grows accustomed to them in a week.” “Apart from the fact that you are by no means so certain that they are so rude,” said Armance. “Were they ten times more so,” replied Octave, “there is the excitement of trying a foreign language; but one would have to be called M. Martin or M. Lenoir.” “Could you not find a man of sense who had made a tour of discovery in the Liberal drawing-rooms?” “Many of my friends go there to dance, they say that the ices there are perfect, and that is all. One fine day I may venture there myself, for there is nothing so foolish as to think for a vear on end of a danger which perhaps does not exist.”

In the end, Armance extracted the admission that he had thought of a way of appearing in those circles in which it is wealth that confers precedence and not birth: “Well, yes, I have found a way,” said Octave; “but the remedy would be worse than the disease, for it would cost me several months of my life, which I should have to spend away from Paris.”

“What is your way?” said Armance, growing suddenly quite serious. “I should go to London, I should see there, naturally, all the most distinguished elements of society. How can one go to England and not be introduced to the Marquess of Lansdowne, Mr. Brougham, Lord Holland? These gentlemen will talk to me of our famous men in France; they will be surprised to hear that I do not know them; I shall express deep regret; and, on my return, I shall have myself introduced to all the most popular people in France. My action, if they do me the honour to mention it at the Duchesse d’Ancre’s, will not seem in the least an abandonment of the ideas which they may suppose to be inseparable from my name: it would be simply the quite natural desire to know the superior people of the age in which we live. I shall never forgive myself for not having met General Foy.” Armance remained silent.

“Is it not humiliating,” Octave went on, “that all our supporters, even the monarchist writers whose duty it is to preach every morning in the newspaper the advantages of birth and religion, are furnished us by that class which has every advantage, except that of birth?” “Ah, if M. de Soubirane were to hear you!” “Do not attack me upon the greatest of all my misfortunes, that of being obliged to lie all day long. . . . ”

The tone of perfect intimacy allows endless parentheses, which give pleasure because they are a proof of an unbounded confidence, but may easily bore a third person. It is enough for us to have shewn that the brilliant position of the Vicomte de Malivert was far from being a source of unmixed pleasure to him.

It is not without danger that we have been faithful chroniclers. The intrusion of politics into so simple a narrative may have the effect of a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. Moreover, Octave is no philosopher, and has characterised most unfairly the two shades of opinion which, in his day, bisect society. How scandalous that Octave does not reason like a sage of fifty.

[We are not sufficiently grateful to the Villèle Ministry. The Three Per Cents, the Law of Primogeniture, the Press Laws have brought about a fusion of parties. The inevitable relations between the Peers and the Deputies began this reconciliation which Octave could not have foreseen, and fortunately the ideas of this proud and timid young man are even less true today than they were a few months ago; but this is how he was bound to see things, given his character. Must we leave unfinished the sketch of an eccentric character because he is unfair to every one? It is precisely this unfairness that is his misfortune.]

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