Armance, by Stendhal

CHAPTER NINE

Now, peace be here,

Poor house, that keep’st thyself!

  CYMBELINE, Act III.

[Beyle ascribes this motto, which he quotes in French, to Burns, thinking possibly of various phrases in the lines To a Field House. In Henri Brulard he again quotes the passage, as from Cymbeline, but gives the speech to Imogen instead of Belarius. — C. K. S. M.]

On the evening before this, after a terrible day of — which we can at the most form a feeble idea by thinking of the state of a poor wretch wholly devoid of courage who is preparing to undergo a surgical operation that often proves fatal, an idea had occurred to Armance: “I am on sufficiently intimate terms with Octave to tell him that an old friend of my family is thinking of marrying me. If my tears betrayed me, this confession will re-establish me in his esteem. My approaching marriage and the anxiety it must be causing me, will make him set my tears down to some allusion a trifle too direct to the position in which I am placed. If he takes any interest in me, alas! he will be cured of it, but at least I can still be his friend; I shall not be banished to a convent and condemned never to set eyes on him again, never once even, for the rest of my life.”

Armance realised, during the days that followed, that Octave was seeking to discover who the favoured suitor might be, “It will have to be some one whom he knows,” she said to herself with a sigh; “my painful duty extends to that also. It is only on those terms that I may still be permitted to see him.”

She thought of the Baron de Risset, who had been a leader in the Vendée, a heroic character, who appeared not infrequently in Madame de Bonnivet’s drawing-room, but only to remain silent.

The very next evening, Armance spoke to the Baron of the Memoirs of Madame de Rochejaquelein. She knew that he was jealous of their success; he spoke of them very critically and at great length. “Is Mademoiselle de Zohiloff in love with a nephew of the Baron,” Octave asked himself, “or can it be possible that the old General’s gallant deeds have made her forget his fifty-five years?” It was in vain that Octave tried to draw the taciturn Baron, who was more silent and suspicious than ever now that he saw himself made the object of these singular attentions.

Some pieces of politeness unduly marked, addressed to Octave by a mother of marriageable daughters, aroused his misanthropy and made him say to his cousin, who was praising the young ladies in question, that even although they had a more eloquent sponsor, he had, thank God, forbidden himself all exclusive admiration until he should reach the age of six and twenty. This unexpected utterance came like a bolt from the blue to Armance; never in all her life had she felt so happy. Ten times perhaps since his change of fortune, Octave had spoken in her hearing of the time at which he would think of marrying. From the surprise which her cousin’s words caused her, she realised that she had forgotten all about it.

This moment of happiness was exquisite. Wholly absorbed the day before in the intense pain that is caused by a great sacrifice which must be made to duty, Armance had entirely forgotten this admirable source of comfort. It was forgetfulness of this sort which made her be accused of want of intelligence by those people in society whom the emotions of their hearts leave with the leisure to think of everything. As Octave was just twenty, Armance might hope to be his best friend for six years still, and to be so without remorse. “And who knows,” she said to herself, “but I may have the good fortune to die before the end of those six years?”

A new mode of existence began for Octave. Authorised by the confidence which Armance placed in him, he ventured to consult her as to the petty incidents of his life. Almost every evening he had the happiness of being able to talk to her without being actually overheard by the people near them. He observed with delight that his confidences, however trivial they might be, were never burdensome. To give courage to her diffidence, Armance too spoke to him of her troubles, and a very singular intimacy sprang up between them.

The most blissful love has its storms; one may even say that it lives as much by its terrors as by its felicities. Neither storms nor any uneasiness ever disturbed the friendship of Armance and Octave. He felt that he had no claim upon his cousin; there was nothing that he could have complained of.

Far from exaggerating the gravity of their relations, these delicate natures had never uttered a word on the subject; the word friendship even had never been spoken by either since the confession of her proposed marriage, made by the tomb of Abelard. As, though they met continually, they were rarely able to converse without being overheard, they had always in their brief moments of entire freedom so many things to learn, so many facts to communicate rapidly to one another, that all vain delicacy was banished from their speech.

It must be admitted that Octave would have had difficulty in finding grounds for complaint. All the sentiments that the most exalted, the tenderest, the purest love can bring to life in a woman’s heart, Armance felt for him. The hope of death, in which the whole prospect of that love terminated, gave indeed to her speech something heavenly and resigned, quite in keeping with Octave’s character.

The tranquil and perfect happiness with which Armance’s gentle affection filled him, was felt by him so keenly that he hoped to change his own nature.

Since he had made peace with his cousin, he had never again relapsed into moments of despair, as when he regretted that he had not been killed by the carriage which turned at a gallop into the Rue de Bourbon. He said to his mother: “I am beginning to think that I shall no longer have those fits of rage which made you fear for my reason.”

Octave was happier, and became more intelligent. He was astonished to notice in society many things which had never before struck him, though they had long been before his eyes. The world seemed to him less hateful, and, above all, less intent upon doing him harm. He told himself that, except among the class of pious or plain women, everybody thought far more about himself, and far less about doing harm to his neighbour, than he had supposed at a time when he imagined a world which he did not yet know.

He realised that an incessant frivolity makes any consecutive reasoning impossible; he discovered at last that this world, which, in his insensate pride, he had believed to be arranged in a manner hostile to himself, was simply nothing more than ill arranged. “But,” he said to Armance, “such as it is, one must take it or leave it. One must either end everything swiftly and without delay with a few drops of prussic acid, or else take life gaily.” In speaking thus, Octave was trying to convince himself far more than he was expressing a conviction. His heart was beguiled by the happiness that he owed to Armance.

His confidences were not always free from peril for the girl. When Octave’s reflexions took on a sombre hue; when he was made wretched by the prospect of isolation in time to come, Armance had the greatest difficulty in concealing from him how wretched it would have made her to imagine that she might ever for an instant in her life be parted from him.

“When a man is without friends at my age,” Octave said to her one evening, “can he still hope to acquire Does one love according to plan?” Armance, who felt that her tears were about to betray her, was obliged to leave him abruptly. “I see,” she said to him, “that my aunt wishes to speak to me.”

Octave, his face pressed to the window, continued by himself the course of his sombre reflexions. “It does not do to scowl at the world,” he said to himself at length. “It is so spiteful that it would not deign to notice that a young man, shut up under lock and key on a second floor in the Rue Saint–Dominique, hates it with passion. Alas! One creature alone would notice that I was missing from my place, and her friendship would be distressed”; and he began to gaze across the room at Armance; she was sitting on her little chair beside the Marquise, and seemed to him at that moment ravishingly beautiful. All Octave’s happiness, which he imagined to be so solid and so well assured, depended nevertheless upon the one little word friendship which he had just uttered. It is difficult to escape from the prevailing disease of one’s generation: Octave imagined himself to be philosophical and profound.

Suddenly Mademoiselle de Zohiloff came towards him with an air of uneasiness and almost of anger: “My aunt has just been told,” she said to him, “a strange slander at your expense. A serious person, who has never before shewn himself your enemy, came and told her that often at midnight, when you leave this house, you go and end the evening in strange places which are nothing more than gambling rooms.

“And that is not all; in these places, in which the most degrading tone prevails, you distinguish yourself by excesses which astonish their oldest frequenters. Not only are you seen surrounded by women the mere sight of whom is a scandal; but you talk, you hold the ball in their conversation. She went so far as to say that you shine in those places, and by pleasantries, the bad taste of which passes all belief. The people who take an interest in you, for there are such to be found even in those houses, did you the honour at first to take your utterances for acquired wit. ‘The Vicomte de Malivert is young,’ they said to themselves; ‘he must have heard these pleasantries used at some vulgar gathering to stimulate attention and make pleasure sparkle in the eyes of a few coarse men.’ But your friends have observed with pain that you take the trouble to invent your most revolting speeches for the occasion. In short, the incredible scandal of your alleged conduct seems to have earned you an unfortunate celebrity among the young men of the worst tone that are to be found in Paris.

“The person who slanders you,” continued Armance, whom Octave’s obstinate silence was beginning somewhat to disconcert, “ended by giving details which only my aunt’s astonishment prevented her from contradicting.”

Octave observed with delight that Armance’s voice began to tremble during this long speech. “Everything that you have been told is true,” he said to her at length, “but it shall never happen again. I will not appear any more in those places in which your friend ought never to have been seen.”

Armance’s astonishment and distress were intense. For an instant she felt a sentiment akin to contempt. But next day, when she saw Octave again, her attitude towards what is fitting in the conduct of a young man had quite altered. She found in her cousin’s noble confession, and still more in that simple promise made to herself, a reason for loving him all the more. Armance thought that she was being sufficiently severe with herself when she made a vow to leave Paris and never to see Octave again, should he reappear in those houses that were so unworthy of him.

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