Armance, by Stendhal

CHAPTER SIX

Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition;

By that sin fell the angels, how can man then,

The image of his Maker, hope to win by’t?

  KING HENRY VIII, Act III.

One evening, after the tables had been arranged and the great ladies arrived for whom Madame de Bonnivet put herself out, she talked to

Octave with an unusual interest: “I do not understand your nature,” she repeated for the hundredth time. “If you will swear to me,” he replied, “never to betray my secret, I will confide in you; and no one else has ever known it.” “What! Not even Madame de Malivert?” “My respect for her forbids me to distress her.” Madame de Bonnivet, in spite of all the idealism of her faith, was by no means insensible of the charm of knowing the great secret of one of the men who, in her eyes, came nearest to perfection; besides, this secret had never been confided to any one.

Upon Octave’s requesting an eternal discretion, Madame de Bonnivet left the drawing-room and after a while returned, wearing upon the gold chain of her watch a singular ornament: this was a sort of cross of iron made at Kônigsberg; she held it in her left hand and said to Octave in a low and solemn tone: “You ask me for eternal secrecy; in all circumstances, towards every one in the world. With no mental reservation or Jesuitical pretermission, I declare to you by Jehovah, yes, I will keep your secret.”

“Very well, Madame,” said Octave, amused by this little ceremony and by the sacramental air of his noble cousin, “what often clouds my soul with darkness, what I have never confided to any one, is this horrible misfortune: I have no conscience. I find in myself no trace of what you call the intimate sense, no instinctive revulsion from crime. If I abhor vice, it is quite vulgarly by force of reason and because I find it harmful. And what proves to me that there is absolutely nothing divine or instinctive in my nature, is that I can always recall all the elements of the reasoning by dint of which I find vice to be horrible.” “Ah, how I pity you, my dear cousin! You distress me,” said Madame de Bonnivet in a tone that revealed the keenest pleasure; “yours is precisely what we call the rebellious nature.”

At this moment, her interest in Octave was plain to the eyes of several malicious watchers; for they were being watched. Her gestures shed all their affectation and became passionate and genuine; her eyes darted a mild flame as she listened to this handsome young man; still more, when she commiserated him. Madame de Bonnivet’s good friends, who were watching her from a distance, indulged in the most rash judgments, whereas she was merely transported by the pleasure of having at last found a rebellious nature. Octave promised her a memorable victory if she succeeded in awakening in him conscience and the intimate sense. A celebrated Doctor of the last century, summoned to the bedside of a great nobleman, his friend, after examining the symptoms of the disease, slowly and in silence, exclaimed in a sudden transport of joy: “Ah! Monsieur le Marquis, it is a disease that has been lost for centuries! Vitreous phlegm! A superb disease, absolutely fatal. Ah! I have discovered it, I have discovered it!” Such was the joy of Madame de Bonnivet; it was in a sense the joy of an artist.

Since she had been engaged in spreading the new Protestantism, which is to take the place of Christianity, the latter being now a thing of the past, and, as we know, on the point of undergoing its fourth metamorphosis, she had heard mention of rebellious natures; they form the solitary objection to the system of German mysticism, founded upon the existence of the intimate consciousness of good and evil. She now had the good fortune to have discovered one; she alone in the world knew his secret. And this rebellious nature was perfect; for his moral conduct being strictly honourable, no suspicion of personal interest could taint the purity of his diabolism,.

I shall not repeat any of the sound reasons which Madame de Bonnivet advanced that evening to Octave to persuade him that he had an intimate sense. The reader has not, perhaps, the good fortune to be seated within a few feet of a charming cousin who despises him with all her heart and whose friendship he is burning to reconquer. This intimate sense, as its name implies, cannot manifest itself by any outward sign; but nothing could be simpler or easier to understand, said Madame de Bonnivet; “you are a rebellious nature,” etc., etc. “Do you not see, do you not feel, that, apart from space and time, there is nothing real here below?”

Throughout the course of these sound arguments, a jov that was really almost diabolical sparkled in the glance of the Vicomte de Malivert; and Madame de Bonnivet, who for that matter was a most perspicacious woman, exclaimed: “Ah, my dear Octave, rebellion is evident in your eyes.” It must be admitted that those great dark eyes, which as a rule shewed such discouragement, and whose darting flames escaped through the curls of the most beautiful golden hair in the world, were quite touching at that moment. They had that charm better felt perhaps in France than anywhere else: they revealed a soul which has been thought frozen for years past and which all of a sudden becomes animated, but for you, and for you alone. The electrical effect produced in Madame de Bonnivet by this instant of perfect beauty and the natural tone full of feeling which it imparted to her accents made her truly seductive. At that moment, she would have gone to the scaffold to assure the triumph of her new religion; generosity and devotion shone in her eyes. What a triumph for the malice that was watching her.

And these two people, the most remarkable in the room, in which, all unconsciously, they were providing a spectacle, had no thought of their own pleasure; nothing was farther from their minds. This is what would have seemed perfectly incredible to Madame la Duchesse d’Ancre and her neighbours, the most refined women in France. Thus it is that matters of sentiment are judged in society.

Armance had remained perfectly consistent in her attitude towards her cousin. Several months had passed without her addressing a word to him upon personal matters. Often she did not speak to him throughout an evening, and Octave was beginning to note the days upon which she had deigned to be aware of his presence.

Being careful not to appear disconcerted by Mademoiselle de Zohiloff’s hatred, Octave was no longer remarkable in society for his invincible silence nor for the singular and perfectly noble air with which, in the past, those fine eyes of his had seemed to shew their boredom. He talked freely and without the least regard for the absurdities into which he might be led. In this way he became, unconsciously, one of the most fashionable of the male visitors to the drawing-rooms which in a sense were dependent upon Madame de Bonnivet’s. He was indebted to the perfect want of interest with which he approached everything for a real superiority over his rivals; he arrived without pretensions among a crowd of people who were devoured by them. His fame, descending from the drawing-room of the illustrious Marquise de Bonnivet into social spheres in which that lady was envied, had placed him without the least effort in a most agreeable position. Without having as yet done anything, he saw himself, from his first entry into society, classed as a being apart. There was nothing about him, not even the disdainful silence with which he was at once inspired by the presence of people whom he thought incapable of understanding exalted feelings, that was not accepted as a striking singularity. Mademoiselle de Zohiloff observed this success and was amazed by it. In the last three months, Octave was no longer the same man. It was not surprising that his conversation, so brilliant to every one else, had a secret charm for Armance; the sole object of that conversation was to give her pleasure.

Towards midwinter, Armance thought that Octave was going to make a brilliant marriage, and it was easy to estimate the social position to which a few months had sufficed to raise the young Vicomte de Malivert. There appeared now and again in Madame de Bonnivet’s drawing-room a very great nobleman indeed who had all his life been on the watch for things or people that were going to become the fashion. His mania was to attach himself to these, and to this strange idea he was indebted for a considerable social success; a man of the commonest mould, he had raised himself far above his level. This great nobleman, as servile towards Ministers as any clerk, was on the best of terms with them, and he had a grand-daughter, his sole heir, to whose husband he would be able to convey the highest honours and the greatest benefits that it is in the power of the Monarchy to bestow. All this winter he had appeared to have his eye upon Octave, but no one as yet dreamed of the heights to which the young Vicomte was to rise. M. le Duc de ———— was giving a great stag-hunt in his forests in Normandy. To be admitted to these parties was a distinction; and for the last thirty years he had not issued an invitation for which skilful commentators could not divine a reason.

Suddenly, and without a word of warning, he wrote a charming note to the Vicomte de Malivert, inviting him to come and hunt with him.

It was decided in Octave’s family circle, perfectly acquainted with the ways and character of the old Duc de —— — that if his visit to the Château de Ranville should prove a success, they would one day see him a Duke and a Peer of France. He set off loaded with good advice by the Commander and the rest of the household; he had the honour to see a stag and four excellent hounds fling themselves into the Seine from a rock one hundred feet high, and on the third day he was back in Paris.

“You are evidently mad,” Madame de Bonnivet said to him before Armance. “Does the young lady displease you?” “I scarcely examined her,” he replied with great coolness, “she seems to me quite pleasant; but when the hour struck at which I-always come here I felt my soul plunged in darkness.”

The religious discussions waxed warmer than ever after this fine piece of philosophy. Octave seemed to Madame de Bonnivet an astonishing creature. At length, the instinct of the conventions, if I dare venture upon such an expression, or certain intercepted smiles gave the fair Marquise to understand that a drawing-room in which one hundred persons assemble every evening is not precisely the most appropriate place in the world in which to investigate rebellion. She told Octave one evening to come to the house next day at noon, after breakfast. This was an invitation for which Octave had long been waiting.

The day following was one of the most brilliant of the month of April. The presence of spring in the air was revealed by a delicious breeze and gusts of warmth. Madame de Bonnivet decided to transport her theological conference into the garden. She was confident of finding in the always novel spectacle of nature some striking argument in support of one of the fundamental ideas of her philosophy: “What is really beautiful must always be true.” The Marquise had indeed been talking extremely well and for a considerable time, when a maid came in search of her to remind her to pay her respects to a foreign Princess. This was an engagement which she had made a week earlier; but the interest of the new religion, of which it was hoped that Octave would one day be the Saint Paul, had banished every other thought from her mind. As the Marquise felt herself in the mood for discussion, she asked Octave to wait for her. “Armance will keep you company,” she added.

As soon as Madame de Bonnivet had left them: “Do you know, cousin, what my conscience tells me?” Octave went on at once without the least timidity, for timidity is begotten of the love that knows itself and makes pretensions; “It tells me that for the last three months you have been despising me as a vulgar fellow whose head has been absolutely turned by the hope of an increase of fortune. I have long sought to justify myself to you, not by vain words but by actions. I can think of none that would be decisive; I, too, can have recourse only to your intimate sense, Well, this is what has happened to me. While I am talking, look in my eyes and see whether I am lying.” And Octave began to relate to his young kinswoman, with great wealth of detail and with the most perfect simplicity, the whole sequence of sentiments and endeavours of which the reader has been informed. He did not forget the speech addressed by Armance to her friend Méry de Tersan, which he had overheard when going to fetch the Chinese chessmen. “Those words determined the course of my life; from that moment I have thought of nothing but how to regain your esteem.” This memory touched Armance deeply, and silent tears began to trickle down her cheeks.

She did not once interrupt Octave; when he had finished speaking, she still remained silent for a long time. “You think me guilty!” said Octave, extremely touched by this silence. She did not answer. “I have forfeited your esteem,” he cried, and the tears trembled on his eyelids. “Tell me of any single action in the world by which I can reconquer the place I once held in your heart, and in an instant it will be performed.” These last words, uttered with a restrained and deep-rooted energy, were too much for Armance’s courage to endure; it was no longer possible for her to pretend, her tears overpowered her, and she wept openly. She was afraid lest Octave might go on and say something that would increase her discomfiture, and make her lose what little self-control she still retained. Above all, she was afraid to speak. She made haste to offer him her hand; and making an effort to speak, and to speak only as a friend: “You have all my esteem,” she told him. She was greatly relieved to see a maid approaching in the distance; the necessity of concealing her tears from the girl furnished her with an excuse for leaving the garden.

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