Armance, by Stendhal

CHAPTER THREE

As the most forward bud Is eaten by the canker ere it blow,

Even so by love the young and tender wit

Is turned to folly. . . .

. . . . So eating love

Inhabits in the finest wits of all.

  THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, Act I.

It was not only at night and when alone that Octave was seized by these fits of despair. An extreme violence, an extraordinary spitefulness, marked all his actions at such times, and doubtless, had he been merely a poor law student without family or friends, he would have been locked up as a madman. But in that rank of society he would have had no opportunity of acquiring that elegance of manners which, adding a final polish to so singular a character, made him a being apart, even in court circles. Octave was indebted to some extent for this extreme distinction to the expression of his features; it was strong and gentle, and not strong and hard, as we see in the majority of men who are conscious of their good looks. He was naturally endowed with the difficult art of communicating his thoughts, whatever they might be, without ever giving offence, or rather without ever giving unnecessary offence, and thanks to this perfect restraint in the ordinary relations of life, the idea of his being mad never suggested itself.

It was less than a year since, seeing that a young footman, alarmed by the expression on his face, appeared to bar his way, one evening as he came running out of his mother’s drawing-room, Octave in a fury had cried: “Who are you to stand up to me! If you are strong, shew your strength.” And so saying he had seized him round the body and flung him out of the window. The footman landed upon a potted oleander in the garden, without serious injury to himself. For the next two months Octave appointed himself the man’s body servant; in the end he gave him far too much money, and every day devoted several hours to his education. The whole family being anxious that this man should keep silence, presents were given him, and he found himself the object of excessive attentions which made him a nuisance who had to be sent back to his home with a pension. The reader can now understand Madame de Malivert’s anxiety.

What had alarmed her most of all at the time of this unfortunate event was that Octave’s repentance, albeit extreme, had not begun until the following day. That night, as he returned home, some one having happened to mention to him the danger the man had incurred: “He is young,” had been his comment, “why did he not defend himself? When he tried to prevent me from passing, did I not tell him to defend himself?” Madame de Malivert thought she had discovered that these furious outbursts came over her son at the very moments in which he appeared to have most completely forgotten those sombre musings which she could always discern from his expression. It was, for instance, halfway through the performance of a charade, when he had been acting merrily for an hour with several young men and five or six young persons with whom he was intimately acquainted, that he had fled from the drawing-room and hurled the servant out of the window.

Some months before the evening of the two millions, Octave had made almost as abrupt an exit from a ball that Madame de Bonnivet was giving. He had figured with remarkable grace in several country-dances and valses. His mother was delighted with his success, and he himself could not be unaware of it; a number of women for whom their beauty had earned a great celebrity in society, came up and spoke to him with the most flattering air. His hair, of the most beautiful gold, falling in heavy curls over a brow that was really superb, had particularly impressed the celebrated Madame de Claix. And in speaking of the fashions followed by the young men of Naples, where she had just been, she was paying him a marked compliment, when suddenly Octave’s face flushed a deep crimson, and he left the room at a pace the swiftness of which he sought in vain to hide. His mother, in alarm, went after him but did not find him. She waited in vain for him all night long; he appeared only the next morning, and in a strange state; he had received three sabre-cuts, which, to tell the truth, were not serious. The doctors were of opinion that this monomania was entirely moral (to use their expression), and must be due not to any physical cause, but to the influence of some singular idea. There was no warning signal of M. le Vicomte Octave’s migraines, as they were called. These outbursts had been far more common during his first year at the Ecole Polytechnique, and before he had thought of becoming a priest. His fellow-students, with whom he had frequent quarrels, thought him quite mad, and often this conception of him saved him from bodily hurt.

Confined to his bed by the slight injuries of which we have spoken, he had said to his mother, quite simply, as he said everything: “I was furious, I picked a quarrel with some soldiers who were staring at me and laughing, I fought with them, and got no more than I deserve,” after which he had changed the subject. With Armance de Zohiloff, his cousin, he had entered into greater detail. “I am subject to moments of misery and fury which are not madness,” he said to her one evening, “but which will make me be thought mad in society as I was at the Ecole Polytechnique. It is unfortunate, that is all; but what I cannot face is the fear of finding myself suddenly burdened with some cause for everlasting regret, as nearly happened at the time of poor Pierre’s accident.” “You made a noble reparation for that, you gave him not only a pension but your time, and if he had had the least spark of decent feeling in him you would have made his fortune. What more could you do?” “Nothing, I dare say, once the accident had happened, or I should be a monster not to have done it. But that is not all, these fits of despondency which every one takes for madness, seem to make me a creature apart. I see the poorest, the most limited, the most wretched, outwardly, of the young men of my generation each blessed with one or two lifelong friends who share his joys and sorrows. In the evening I see them go out and take the air together, and they tell one another everything that interests them; I and I only find myself isolated, without a friend in the world. I have not, nor shall I ever have any one to whom I can freely confide what is in my mind. What outlet should I have for my feelings if I had any of the sort that wring the heart! Am I then fated to live always without friends, and with barely an acquaintance! Am I an evil-doer?” he added, with a sigh. “Certainly not, but you furnish the people who do not like you with pretexts,” Armance said to him in the free, severe tone of friendship, and trying to hide the all too real pity which his grief inspired in her. “For instance, you who are so perfectly polite towards everybody, why did you not shew yourself the day before yesterday at Madame de Claix’s ball?”

“Because it was her foolish compliments at the ball six months ago that put me to the shame of being worsted by two young peasants armed with sabres.”

“That is all very well,” Mademoiselle de Zohiloff retorted; “but pray observe that you always find reasons to excuse yourself from going into society. You must not go on to complain of the isolation in which you live.” “Ah, it is friends that I need, and not society. Is it among the drawing-rooms that I shall find a friend?” “Yes, since you did not succeed in finding one at the École Polytechnique.” “You are right,” Octave replied after a long silence; “I see your point of view for the moment, and tomorrow, when it is a question of acting, I shall act in a manner the opposite of that which seems reasonable to me today, and entirely from pride! Ah, if heaven had made me the son of a linen-draper, I should have worked in the counting-house from the age of sixteen; instead of which all my occupations have been mere luxury; I should-be less proud and more happy. . . . Ah! how I detest myself! . . . ”

These complaints, albeit apparently selfish, interested Armance; Octave’s eyes expressed such possibilities of love, and were at times so tender!

She, without clearly explaining it to herself, felt that Octave was the victim of that sort of unreasoning sensibility which makes men wretched and worthy to be loved. A passionate imagination led him to exaggerate the happiness which he could not enjoy. Had he received from heaven a dry, cold, reasoning heart, had he been born at Geneva; then, with all the other advantages which he did possess, he might have been quite happy. All that he lacked was an ordinary nature.

It was only in the company of his cousin that Octave ventured now and again to express his thoughts aloud. We see now why he had been so painfully affected on discovering that this charming cousin’s sentiments had changed with his change of fortune.

On the morning after the day on which Octave had longed for death, he was awakened with a start at seven o’clock by his uncle the Commander, who entered his room making as much noise as possible. The man was never free from affectation. Octave’s anger at this noise lasted for barely a few seconds; a sense of duty recurred to him, and he greeted M. de Soubirane in the light and pleasant tone which seemed best suited to his mood.

This vulgar soul who, before or after good birth, could think of nothing in the world but money, explained at length to the noble Octave that he must not go altogether out of his mind with joy when he passed from an income of twenty-five thousand livres to the prospect of one hundred thousand. This philosophical and almost Christian discourse ended with the advice to speculate on ‘Change as soon as he should have secured a twentieth part of his two millions. The Marquis would not fail to place part of this increased fortune at Octave’s disposal; but he was on no account to operate on ‘Change save by the Commander’s advice; the latter knew Madame la Comtesse de —— — and they could speculate in the Funds with certainty. These last words made Octave start. “Yes, my boy,” said the Commander, who mistook this movement for a sign of doubt, “with certainty. I have rather neglected the Comtesse since her absurd behaviour with M. le Prince de S———; still, we are more or less related, and I shall leave you now to go and find our friend in common, the Duc de —— — who will bring us together again.”

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