Armance, by Stendhal

CHAPTER TWO

Melancholy mark’d him for her own,

whose ambitious heart overrates

the happiness he cannot enjoy.

  MARLOW.

[The first of these lines is taken from the Epitaph in Gray’s Elegy, in the notes to which it is not shewn as an “Imitation.” The ascription of the whole passage to Marlow (sic) is probably, therefore, one of Beyle’s fantasies. — C. K. S. M.]

The following morning, at eight o’clock, a great upheaval occurred in the household of Madame de Malivert. All the bells pealed at once. Presently the old Marquis paid a visit to his wife, who was still in bed; he himself had wasted no time in dressing. He came and embraced her with tears in his eyes, “My dear,” he said to her, “we shall see our grandchildren before we die,” and the good old man wept copious tears. “God knows,” he added, “that it is not the thought of ceasing to be a beggar that makes me like this. . . . The Bill of Indemnity is certain to pass, and you are to have two millions.” At this moment Octave, for whom the Marquis had sent, knocked at the door; his father rose and flung himself into his arms. Octave saw tears which he perhaps misinterpreted, for an almost imperceptible flush appeared on his pale cheeks. “Draw back the curtains; give me daylight!” said his mother in a tone of vivacity. “Come here, look at me,” she added, in the same tone, and, without replying to her husband, examined the imperceptible flush which was dyeing the upper part of Octave’s cheeks. She knew, from her conversations with the doctors, that a circular patch of red on the cheeks is a symptom of weak lungs; she trembled for her son’s health and gave no more thought to the two millions of the indemnity.

When Madame de Malivert was reassured, “Yes, my son,” the Marquis said at length, slightly out of patience with all this fuss, “I have just heard for certain that the Bill of Indemnity is to be introduced, and we can count upon 319 certain votes out of 420. Your mother has lost a fortune which I reckon at more than six millions, and whatever may be the sacrifices which the fear of the Jacobins may impose upon the King’s justice, we may safely count upon two millions. And so I am no longer a beggar, that is to say, you are no longer a beggar, your fortune will once again be in keeping with your birth, and I am now in a position to seek, instead of begging a bride for you.” “But, my dear,” said Madame de Malivert, “take care that your haste to believe this great news does not expose you to the petty criticisms of our cousin Madame la Duchesse d’Ancre and her friends. She already has all the millions that you promise us; don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.” “For the last five and twenty minutes,” said the old Marquis, taking out his watch, “I have been certain, yes, you may say certain, that the Bill of Indemnity will be passed.”

The Marquis must have been right, for that evening, when the impassive Octave appeared in Madame de Bonnivet’s drawing-room, he found a trace of eagerness in the welcome which he received on all sides.

There was also a trace of pride in his manner of responding to this sudden interest; so at least the old Duchesse d’Ancre remarked. Octave’s impression was one of aversion combined with scorn. He found himself greeted more warmly, because of the prospect of two millions, in Parisian society, and among the people with whom he had been on most intimate terms. His ardent spirit, as just and almost as severe towards others as towards himself, ended by extracting a profound melancholy from this sad truth. It was not that Octave’s pride stooped to resentment of the people whom chance had brought together in this drawing-room; he was filled with pity for his own lot and for that of all mankind. “I am so little loved, then,” he said to himself, “that two millions alter all the feelings that people had for me; instead of seeking to deserve their love, I ought to have tried to enrich myself by some form of trade.” As he made these gloomy reflexions, Octave happened to be seated upon a divan, facing a little chair which was occupied by Armance de Zohi-loff, his cousin, and by accident his eyes came to rest upon her. It occurred to him that she had not uttered a word to him all that evening. Armance was a niece, in reduced circumstances, of Mesdames de Bonnivet and de Malivert, of about the same age as Octave, and as these two young people were quite indifferent to one another, they were in the habit of conversing with entire frankness. For three-quarters of an hour Octave’s heart had been steeped in bitterness, an idea now struck him: “Armance pays me no compliment, she alone of the people here is untouched by this increased interest which I owe to money, she alone here has some nobility of soul.” And he found some consolation merely in looking at Armance. “So here at last is a creature worthy of respect,” he said to himself, and as the evening advanced, he saw with a pleasure equal to the grief which at first had flooded his heart that she continued to refrain from addressing him.

Once only, when a provincial, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, was paying Octave an ill-turned compliment with regard to the two millions which he was going to vote him (these were the man’s own words), Octave caught a glance from Armance directed at himself. Her expression was one that it was impossible to misinterpret; so at least Octave’s judgment, more severe than could well be imagined, decided; this glance was intended to study him, and (what gave him a perceptible feeling of pleasure) seemed to expect to be obliged to despise him. The Deputy who was preparing to vote millions received no quarter from Octave; the young Vicomte’s scorn was all too visible even to a provincial. “They are all the same,” said the Deputy from the ———— Department to Commander de Soubirane whom he joined a moment later. “Ah, you fine noblemen of the Court, if we could vote our own indemnities without passing yours, you should not touch a penny, begad, until you had given us guarantees. We have no wish now, as in the old days, to see you colonels at three and twenty and ourselves captains at forty. Of the 319 Deputies who are on the right side, 212 of us belong to that provincial nobility which was sacrificed in the past. . . . ” The Commander, highly flattered at hearing such a complaint addressed to himself, began to make excuses for the people of quality. This conversation, which M. de Soubirane in his self-importance called political, lasted for the rest of the evening, and, notwithstanding the most piercing north wind, took place in the bay of a window, the position prescribed for talking politics.

The Commander deserted his post for a minute only, after begging the Deputy to excuse him and to wait for him there. “I must go and ask my nephew what he has done with my carriage,” and he went and whispered to Octave: “Talk, people are remarking on your silence; pride is the last thing you should shew at this change of fortune. Remember that these two millions are a restitution and nothing more. Keep your pride till the King gives you a Blue Riband.” And the Commander returned to his window, running like a boy, and muttering to himself: “Ah! At half-past eleven, the carriage.”

Octave began to talk, and if he did not arrive at the ease and sprightliness which make for complete success, his astonishing good looks and the intense earnestness of his manner made a number of the women present attach an uncommon value to what he said to them. It is true that the noble simplicity with which he uttered his words spoiled the effect of several piquant sallies; it was only after a moment or two that his hearers felt surprise. His proud nature never allowed him to utter in an emphatic tone what he thought effective. His was one of those minds which their natural pride places in the position of a girl who appears without rouge in a drawing-room where the use of rouge is general; for the first few minutes her pallor makes her appear sad. If Octave met with success, it was because the place of the nimble wit and excitement which he often lacked was filled that evening by a sentiment of the bitterest irony.

This semblance of malice led the women of a certain age to pardon him the simplicity of his manners, and the fools whom he frightened made haste to applaud him. Octave, delicately expressing all the contempt that was devouring him, was tasting the only happiness that society could give him, when the Duchesse d’Ancre came up to the divan upon which he was seated and said, not to him but for his benefit, and in the lowest of tones, to her dearest friend Madame de la Ronze: “Look at that little fool Armance, she has actually taken it into her head to be jealous of the fortune that has fallen from the clouds at M. de Malivert’s feet. Lord! How ill envy becomes a woman!” Her friend guessed the Duchesse’s meaning, and caught the fixed stare of Octave who, while appearing to see nothing but the venerable face of the Bishop of ———— who was talking to him at the moment, had heard all. In less than three minutes, Mademoiselle de Zohiloff’s silence was explained, and she herself proved guilty, in Octave’s mind, of all the base feelings of which she had been accused. “Great God,” he said to himself, “there is no exception, then, to the baseness of feeling of all this set! And what grounds have I for supposing that other sets are in any way different? If people dare to flaunt such a worship of money in one of the most exclusive drawing-rooms in France, among people, none of whom can open the History of France without coming upon a hero of his own name, what can it be like among the wretched merchants, who are millionaires today, but whose fathers only yesterday were behind the counter? God, how vile men are!”

Octave fled from Madame de Bonnivet’s drawing-room; the fashionable world filled him with horror. He left the family carriage for his uncle the Commander and returned home on foot. It was raining in torrents; the rain delighted him. Soon he had ceased to notice the regular tempest that was meanwhile flooding Paris. “The one resource against this general degradation,” he thought, “would be to find a noble soul, not yet debased by the sham wisdom of the Duchesse d’Ancre and all her kind, to cling to her forever, to see no one but her, to live with her and solely for her and for her happiness. I should love her passionately. . . . I should love her! Wretch that I am!” At this moment a carriage turning at a gallop from the Rue de Poitiers into the Rue de Bourbon almost ran over Octave. The back wheel struck him violently in the chest and tore his waistcoat: he stood rooted to the ground; the vision of death had cooled his blood.

“God! Why was I not crushed out of existence?” he said, looking up to heaven. Nor did the rain that was falling in torrents make him bow his head; this cold rain did him good. It was only some minutes later that he proceeded on his way. He ran upstairs to his own room, changed his clothes, and inquired whether his mother were visible. But as she did not expect him she had gone early to bed. Left to his own company, he found everything tedious, even the sombre Alfieri, one of whose tragedies he attempted to read. For a long time he paced the floor of his vast and low apartment. Finally, “Why not make an end of it all?” he asked himself; “why this obstinate resistance to the fate that is crushing me? It is all very well my forming what are apparently the most reasonable plans of conduct, my life is nothing but a succession of griefs and bitter feelings. This month is no better than the last; this year is no better than last year. Why this obstinate determination to go on living? Can I be wanting in firmness? What is death?” he asked himself, opening his case of pistols and examining them. “A very small matter, when all is said; only a fool would be concerned about it. My mother, my poor mother, is dying of consumption; a little time, and I must follow her. I may even precede her if life is too bitter a grief for me. Were it possible to ask such a favour, she would grant it. . . . The Commander, my father himself do not care for me; they value the name I bear; they cherish in me an excuse for ambition. It is a very minor duty that binds me to them. . . . ” This word duty came like a thunderbolt to Octave. “A minor duty!” he cried, coming to a halt, “a duty of little importance! . . . Is it of little importance, if it is the only duty I have left? If I do not overcome the difficulties that chance presents to me here and now, what right have I to assume that I am certain of conquering all those that it may one day present to me? What! I have the pride to imagine myself superior to every danger, to every sort of evil that may attack a man, and yet I beg the grief that presents itself to choose a form that will suit me, that is to say, to diminish its force by half. What pettiness! And I thought myself so strong! I was nothing but a presumptuous fool.”

>From seeing things in this new light to making a vow to overcome the grief of living took only a moment. Soon the disgust which Octave felt at everything became less violent, and he felt himself to be not such a wretched creature. His heart, weighed down and disorganised to some extent by so prolonged an absence of all happiness, regained a little life and courage with the happiness of self-esteem. Ideas of another sort presented themselves. The lowness of the ceiling of his room displeased him intensely; he felt envious of the magnificent saloon of the Hôtel de Bonnivet. “It is at least twenty feet high,” he said to himself, “how freely I should breathe in it! Ah!” he exclaimed with the glad surprise of a child, “there is a use for these millions. I shall have a magnificent saloon like the one in the Hôtel de Bonnivet; and only I shall set foot in it. Once a month, at the most, yes, on the first day of the month, a servant to dust it, but in my presence; he must not try to read my thoughts from my selection of books, nor to pry into what I write down for my soul’s guidance in its moments of folly. . . . I shall carry the key always on my watch-chain, a tiny, invisible key of steel, smaller than the key of a portfolio. I shall choose for my saloon three mirrors, each seven feet high. I have always liked that sombre and splendid form of decoration. What is the size of the largest mirrors they make at Saint–Gobain?” And the man who, for the last three-quarters of an hour, had been thinking of ending his life, sprang at once upon a chair to look on his shelves for the price-list of the Saint–Gobain mirrors. He spent an hour in writing out an estimate of the cost of his saloon. He felt that he was behaving like a child; but went on writing all the more rapidly and seriously. This task performed, and the estimate checked, which brought up to 57,350 francs the cost of raising the ceiling of his bedroom and installing a saloon in its place. “If this be not counting one’s chickens,” he said to himself with a laugh, “I should like to know what is. . . . Oh, well! I am a miserable wretch!” he went on, striding up and down the room. “Yes, I am a miserable wretch; but I will be stronger than my misery. I shall measure my strength against it, and I shall be the master. Brutus sacrificed his children; that was the difficulty that faced him; as for me, I shall continue to live.” He wrote down on a little tablet concealed in the secret drawer of his desk: “December l4th, 182 —. Pleasing effect of two m. — Increase of friendliness. — Envy on the part of Ar. — To make an end. — I will be the master. — Saint–Gobain mirrors.”

This bitter reflexion was written down in Greek characters. Next he picked out on his piano a whole act of Don Giovanni, and those sombre chords of Mozart restored peace to his soul.

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