Armance, by Stendhal

CHAPTER FOUR

Half a dupe, half duping, The first deceived

perhaps by her deceit And fair words, as all

these philosophers. Philosophers they say?

Mark this, Diego, The devil can cite scripture

for his purpose. Oh, what a goodly outside

falsehood hath!

  MASSINGER.

[This motto is printed in the French editions as prose. The last two lines are taken from The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene III, where Antonio says: “Mark you this, Bassanio, The devil,” etc. The ascription to Massinger need not be taken too seriously. Compare Scarlet and Black, Chapter XLVI. — C. K. S. M.]

This fatuous invasion by the Commander almost plunged Octave back in his misanthropy of overnight. His disgust with the rest of mankind had risen to a climax when his servant appeared carrying a stout volume very carefully wrapped in English tissue paper. The seal it bore had been beautifully engraved, but the blazon itself was somewhat repellent: sable, two bones in saltire. Octave, whose taste was perfect, admired the accuracy of outline of this pair of tibias and the perfection of the engraver’s skill. “It is the School of Pikler,” he said to himself; “this must be one of my cousin, the devout Madame de C———‘s follies.” This suspicion proved unfounded when he saw inside the parcel a magnificent copy of the Bible, bound by Thouvenin. “Devout Catholics do not give one the Bible,” said Octave as he opened the accompanying letter; but he sought in vain for the signature; there was none, and he tossed the letter unread into the grate. A moment later, his servant, old Saint–Jacques, entered the room with an air of cunning. “Who sent me this parcel?” said Octave. “It is a mystery, they are trying to keep it secret from M. le Vicomte; but it was simply old Perrin who left it with the porter and made off like a pickpocket.” “And who is old Perrin?” “One of Madame la Marquise de Bonnivet’s servants whom she pretended to dismiss and now uses for secret errands.” “Do you mean that people suspect Madame de Bonnivet of a love-affair?” “Good heavens, no, Sir. The secret errands are for the new religion. It is a Bible, perhaps, that Madame la Marquise has sent to Monsieur as a great secret. Monsieur perhaps recognized the writing of Madame Rouvier, Madame la Marquise’s confidential maid.” Octave looked in the grate and made the man give him back the letter which had fallen behind the fire and was not burned. He saw with surprise that the writer knew quite well that he read Helvetius, Bentham, Bayle and other bad books. “The most spotless virtue would not be safe,” he said to himself; “as soon as people form a sect, they stoop to the use of intrigue and employ spies. It is evidently since the Bill of Indemnity was introduced that I have become worthy that people should take an interest in my salvation and the influence that I may one day wield.”

Throughout that day, the conversation of the Marquis de Malivert, the Commander and two or three trusted friends who were invited to dine Was an almost incessant allusion, in distinctly bad taste, to Octave’s marriage and to his new position. Being still affected by the spiritual crisis through which he had passed during the night, he was less frigid than usual. His mother thought him paler, and he made it his duty, if not to be gay, at least to appear to be occupying himself only with ideas that gave rise to pleasing pictures; he set himself to the task with so much energy that he succeeded in taking in every one in the room. Nothing could deter him, not even the Commander’s pleasantries touching the prodigious effect produced by two millions on the mind of a philosopher. Octave took advantage of his feigned bewilderment to say that, were he a Prince, he would not marry before he was twenty-six, this being the age at which his father had married. “It is evident that the fellow is nourishing the secret ambition of becoming a Bishop or a Cardinal,” said the Commander as soon as Octave had left the room; “his birth and sound doctrine will carry him to the Hat.” This speech, which made Madame de Malivert smile, caused the Marquis great uneasiness. “You may say what you please,” he replied to his wife’s smile, “my son’s only intimate relations are with churchmen or young scholars of the same way of thinking, and, a thing that is quite unknown in my family, he shews a marked dislike for officers of his own age.” “There is something strange about that young man,” M. de Soubirane went on. At this reflexion it was Madame de Malîvert’s turn to sigh.

Octave, overcome by the boredom with which the obligation to talk had filled him, left this group of old people and went at an early hour to the Gymnase: he could not endure the wit of M. Scribe’s amusing plays. “Still,” he told himself, “nothing else has had so genuine a success, and to despise a thing without knowing it is an absurdity too common in our society for me to acquire any credit by avoiding it.” It was in vain that he prolonged the experiment through two of the most charming sketches given at the Theatre de Madame. The wittiest and most amusing lines seemed to him to be tainted with vulgarity, and the handing over of the key in the second act of Le Mariage de Raison drove him from the theatre. He entered a restaurant and, faithful to the mystery which enveloped all his actions, called for candles and a plate of soup: when the soup was put before him, he locked the door, read with interest two newspapers which he had bought outside, burned them with the greatest care in the grate, paid his bill and left. He went home and changed his clothes, and found himself almost eager that evening to put in an appearance at Madame de Bonnivet’s. “How can I be certain,” he wondered, “that that wicked Duchesse d’Ancre was not slandering Mademoiselle de Zohiloff? My uncle is convinced that my head has been turned by those two millions.” This idea, which had been suggested to Octave by something of no importance that he had read in one of his newspapers, restored his happiness. He thought still of Armance, but as of his only friend, or rather the only person who was almost a friend to him.

He was far from imagining himself to be in love, he had a horror of that sentiment. He had sworn to himself a thousand times in the last four years that he would never love. This obligation to refrain from love was the mainspring of his whole conduct and the chief occupation of his life. This evening, his soul strengthened by virtue and misery, and become merely virtue and strength, felt simply the fear of having too lightly condemned a friend.

On reaching Madame de Bonnivet’s drawing-room, Octave did not once look at Armance; but throughout the evening his eyes did not miss a single one of her movements. He began, upon entering the room, by paying marked attention to the Duchesse d’Ancre; he spoke to her with a deference so profound that the lady had the pleasure of supposing him to be converted to the respect due to her rank. “Now that he has the prospect of becoming rich, this philosopher is one of us,” she murmured to Madame de la Ronze.

Octave wished to make certain of the extent of this woman’s perversity; if he found that she was really wicked, that would be to some extent an admission that Mademoiselle de Zohiloff was innocent. He observed that the feeling of hatred alone retained some animation in the withered heart of Madame d’Ancre; whereas, on the other hand, only things that were generous and noble inspired her with revulsion. One would have said that she felt the need to be avenged on them. Ignoble and base sentiments, but ignobility clothed in the most elegant expressions, had alone the privilege of making the Duchesse’s little eyes sparkle.

Octave was thinking of how to free himself from the interest with which she was listening to him when he heard Madame de Bonnivet call for her chessmen. These were a little masterpiece of carved ivory which M. l’Abbé Dubois had brought from Canton. Octave seized the opportunity to leave Madame d’Ancre, and asked his cousin to entrust him with the key of the desk in which her fear of her servants’ clumsiness made her keep these magnificent chessmen. Armance was no longer in the room; she had gone out a few moments earlier with Méry de Tersan, her bosom friend; had not Octave asked for the key of the desk, the absence of Mademoiselle de Zohiloff would have given rise to unfavourable comment, and on her return she might perhaps have had to endure several hostile glances, perfectly restrained, but distinctly harsh. Armance was penniless; she was only eighteen, and Madame de Bonnivet was thirty and more; she was still quite a beautiful woman, but Armance, too, was beautiful.

The two friends had stopped by the chimneypiece of a large boudoir that opened out of the drawing-room. Armance had wished to shew Méry a portrait of Lord Byron a proof of which Mr. Phillips, the English painter, had recently sent to her aunt. Octave could hear quite distinctly as he passed along the passage by the door of the boudoir: “What can you expect? He is like all the rest! A soul that I thought so noble overpowered by the prospect of two millions!” The accent in which these flattering words, that I thought so noble, were uttered, fell on Octave like a bolt from the blue; he stood rooted to the ground. When he moved on, his tread was so light that the sharpest ear could not have caught it. As he passed again by the boudoir with the chessmen in his hand, he stopped for a moment; immediately he blushed at his indiscretion and returned to the drawing-room. The words which he had just overheard were by no means decisive in a world in which envy is capable of assuming every imaginable form; but the accent of candour and honesty in which they had been uttered echoed in his heart. That was not the tone of envy.

Having handed the Chinese chessmen to his cousin, Octave felt that he needed time for reflexion; he took up a position in a corner of the room behind a whist-table, and there his imagination repeated to him a score of times the sound of the words he had just overheard. This profound and delicious meditation had long absorbed him, when the voice of Armance came to his ear. He had not yet thought what means to employ to regain his cousin’s esteem; he was still lost in ecstatic enjoyment of the bliss of having forfeited it. As he rejoined the group that surrounded Madame de Bonni-vet, and came away from the remote corner occupied by the tranquil whist-players, Armance noticed the expression in his eyes; they rested upon her with that sort of tenderness and weariness which, after intense joys, makes the eyes seem almost incapable of unduly rapid movements.

Octave was not to find happiness a second time that evening; he could not address a single word to Armance. “Nothing could be harder than to justify myself,” he said to himself while pretending to be listening to the exhortations of the Duchesse d’Ancre who, being with him the last to leave the drawing-room, insisted upon taking him home. The night was cold and dry with a brilliant moon; on reaching home, Octave called for his horse and rode for some miles along the new boulevard. On his return, about three o’clock in the morning, without knowing what he was doing or why, he passed before the Hôtel de Bonnivet,

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