Armance, by Stendhal

CHAPTER TWENTY

A fine woman! a fair woman! a sweet woman!”

“Nay, you must forget that.”

“ . . . O, the world hath not a sweeter creature.”

  OTHELLO, Act IV.

While Armance was walking by herself in a part of the woods of Andilly that was screened from every eye, Octave was in Paris occupied with preparations for his departure. He was alternating between a sort of tranquillity, which he was surprised to feel, and moments of the most poignant despair. Shall we attempt to record the different kinds of grief that marked every moment of his life? Will not the reader weary of these melancholy details?

He seemed to hear a continual sound of voices speaking close to his ear, and this strange and unexpected sensation made it impossible for him to forget his misery for an instant.

The most insignificant objects reminded him of Armance. So great was his distraction that he could not see at the head of an advertisement or on a shop sign an A or a Z without being violently compelled to think of that Armance de Zohiloff whom he had vowed to himself that he would forget. This thought fastened upon him like a destroying fire and with all that attraction of novelty, all the interest he would have felt in it, if for ages past the idea of his cousin had never occurred to his mind.

Everything conspired against him; he was helping his servant, the worthy Voreppe, to pack his pistols; the garrulous talk of the man, enchanted to be going off alone with his master and to be in charge of all the arrangements, was some distraction. Suddenly he caught sight of the words engraved in abbreviated characters on the mounting of one of the pistols: “Armance tried to fire this weapon, September 3rd, 182 —.”

He took up a map of Greece; as he unfolded it, there fell out one of the pins decorated with a tiny red flag with which Armance had marked the Turkish positions at the time of the siege of Missolonghi.

The map of Greece slipped from his hands. He stood paralysed by despair. “It is forbidden me, then, to forget!” he cried, raising his eyes to heaven. In vain did he endeavour to stiffen his resistance. Everything round about him was stamped with some memory of Armance. The abbreviated form of that beloved name, followed by some significant date, was everywhere inscribed.

Octave wandered aimlessly about his room; he kept giving orders which he instantly countermanded. “Ah! I do not know what I want,” he told himself in a Paroxysm of grief. “O heavens! What suffering can be greater than this?”

He found no relief in any position. He kept making he strangest movements. If he derived from them a certain surprise and some physical pain, for half an hour, the image of Armance ceased to tonnent him. He tried to inflict on himself a physical pain of some violence whenever his thoughts turned to Armance. Of all the remedies that he could imagine, this was the least ineffectual.

“Ah!” he said to himself at other moments, “I must never see her any more! That is a grief which outweighs all the rest. It is a whetted blade the point of which I must employ to pierce my heart.”

He sent his servant to purchase something that would be required on the journey; he needed to be rid of the man’s presence; he wished for a few moments to abandon himself to his frightful grief. Constraint seemed to envenom it more than ever.

The servant had not been out of the room for five minutes before it seemed to Octave that he would have found some relief in being able to speak to him; to have to suffer in solitude had become the keenest of torments. “And suicide is impossible!” he cried. He went and stood by the window in the hope of seeing something that would occupy his mind for a moment.

Evening came, intoxication proved powerless to help him. He had hoped to derive a little help from sleep, it only maddened him.

Alarmed by the ideas that came to him, ideas which might make him the talk of the household and indirectly compromise Armance: “it would be better,” he told himself, “to give myself leave to make an end of things,” and he turned the key in his door.

Night had fallen; standing motionless on the balcony of his window, he gazed at the sky. The slightest sound attracted his attention; but gradually, every sound ceased. This perfect silence, by leaving him entirely to himself, seemed to him to add yet more to the horror of his position. Did his extreme exhaustion procure him an instant of partial repose, the confused hum of human speech which he seemed to hear sounding in his ear made him awake with a start.

Next morning, when his door opened, the mental torment which urged him to take action was so atrocious that he felt a desire to throw his arms round the neck of the barber who was cutting his hair, and to tell the man how greatly he was to be pitied. It is by a wild shriek that the wretch who is being tortured by the surgeon’s bistouri thinks to relieve his pain.

In his least unendurable moments, Octave felt the need to make conversation with his servant. The most childish trivialities seemed to absorb his whole attention, which he applied to them with a marked assiduity.

His misery had endowed him with an exaggerated modesty. Did his memory recall to him any of those little differences of opinion which arise in society, he was invariably astonished at the positively discourteous emphasis which he had displayed; it seemed to him that his adversary had been entirely in the right and himself in the wrong.

The picture of each of the misfortunes which he had encountered in his life presented itself to him with a Painful intensity; and because he was not to see Armance again, the memory of that swarm of minor evils which a glance from her eyes would have made him forget, revived now with greater bitterness than ever before. He who had so detested boring visitors began now to long for them. A fool who came to see him was his benefactor for the space of an hour. He had to write a polite letter to a distant relative; this ladv was tempted to regard it as a declaration of love, with such sincerity and profundity did he speak of himself, so plain was it from his words that the writer stood in need of pity.

Between these painful alternatives, Octave had reached the evening of the second day after his parting with Armance; he was coming away from his saddler’s. All his preparations would at last be completed during the night, and by the following morning he would be free to start.

Ought he to return to Andilly? This was the question that he was inwardly debating. He perceived with horror that he no longer loved his mother, for she had no place in the reasons that he advanced for visiting Andilly again. He dreaded the sight of Mademoiselle de Zohiloff, all the more because at certain moments he said to himself: “But is not the whole of my conduct an act of deception?”

He dared not answer: “Yes,” whereupon the voice of the tempter said: “Is it not a sacred duty to visit my poor mother whom I promised that I would see again?” “No, wretch,” cried conscience; “that answer is a mere subterfuge; you no longer love your mother.” At this agonizing moment his eyes came to rest mechanically upon a playbill, he saw there the word Otello printed in bold characters. This word recalled to him the existence of Madame d’Aumale. “Perhaps she has come to Paris for Otello; in that event, it is my duty to speak to her once again. I must make her regard my sudden departure as the idea of a man who is suffering from boredom. I have long kept this plan from my friends; but for many months my departure has been delayed only by pecuniary difficulties of a sort of which a man cannot speak to his wealthy friends.”

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