It is old and plain . . .
It is silly sooth
And dallies with the
innocence of love.
TWELFTH NIGHT, Act II.
On his twentieth birthday, Octave had just left the École Polytechnique. His father, the Marquis de Malivert, wished to keep his only son in Paris. As soon as Octave understood that this was the constant desire of a father whom he respected, and of his mother whom he loved with an almost passionate love, he abandoned his intention of entering the Artillery. He would have liked to spend a few years in a regiment, and then resign his commission until the next war, in which he was equally ready to serve as Lieutenant or with the rank of Colonel. This is typical of the eccentricities which made him odious to the common run of humanity.
Plenty of brains, a tall figure, refined manners, the handsomest great dark eyes in the world, would have assured Octave a place among the most distinguished young men in society, had not a certain sombre air, imprinted in those gentle eyes, led people to pity rather than to envy him. He would have created a sensation had he been in the habit of talking; but Octave desired nothing, nothing appeared to cause him either pain or pleasure. Frequently ill in his childhood, ever since vital energy had assumed control of his organism he had always been observed to submit without hesitation to what seemed to him to be prescribed by duty; but it might have been thought that, if Duty had not made her voice heard, he would not have had, in himself, sufficient impulse to make him act. Perhaps some singular principle, deeply impressed upon his youthful heart, and incompatible with the events of real life, as he saw them develop round about him, led him to portray to himself in too sombre colours both his own future and his relations with his fellow men. Whatever the cause of his profound melancholy, Octave seemed to have turned misanthrope before his time. Commander de Soubirane, his uncle, said one day in his presence that the boy’s nature alarmed him. “Why should I appear other than what I am?” was Octave’s cold reply. “Your nephew will always keep to the line of reason.” “But never rise above or fall below it,” retorted the Commander with his Provençal vivacity; “from which I conclude that if you are not the Messiah expected by the Hebrews, you are Lucifer in person, come back to this world on purpose to worry me. What the devil are you? I can’t make you out; you are duty incarnate.” “How happy I should be never to fail in my duty!” said Octave; “how I wish I could render up my soul pure to my Creator, as I received it from Him!” “A miracle!” exclaimed the Commander; “in the last twelvemonth, this is the first wish I have seen spring from a heart frozen stiff with purity.” And in order not to spoil the effect of this utterance, the Commander hastily left the room.
Octave looked tenderly at his mother; she knew whether his heart was indeed frozen. It might be said of Madame de Malivert that she had remained young although approaching her fiftieth birthday. It was not only that she was still beautiful; she had, together with an exceptionally sharp intellect, retained a keen and active sympathv with her friends’ interests, including the joys and sorrows of young men. She entered naturally into their reasons for hope or fear; and soon seemed to be hoping or fearing herself. This kind of character has lost its charm now that public opinion seems to have made it almost obligatory upon women of a certain age who are not religious; but there was never the least trace of affectation in Madame de Malivert.
Her servants had observed for some time past that she was in the habit of driving out in a hackney carriage; and often, when she came home, she was not alone. Saint–Jean, an inquisitive old footman, who had accompanied his employers during the emigration, tried to discover who a certain man was whom Madame de Malivert had more than once brought home with her. On the first occasion, Saint–Jean lost sight of the stranger in the crowd; at his second attempt, his curiosity was more successful; he saw the person whom he was following pass into the Charity Hospital, where he learned from the porter that the stranger was none other than the famous Doctor Duquerrel. Madame de Malivert’s household discovered that their mistress was bringing to the house in turn all the most eminent doctors in Paris, and almost always she found an excuse for letting them see her son.
Struck by the eccentricities which she remarked in Octave, she feared lest his lungs might be affected; but she believed that, were she unfortunately to have been right in her diagnosis, naming that cruel malady would be tantamount to hastening its advance. Doctors, who were men of intelligence, assured Madame de Malivert that her son was suffering from no malady beyond that sort of dissatisfied and critical melancholy characteristic of the young men of his generation and position; but they warned her that she herself ought to pay the closest attention to her lungs. These dread tidings were divulged to the household by a régime which had to be enforced; and M. de Malivert, from whom a vain attempt was made to conceal the name of the malady, foresaw the possibility of being left alone in his old age.
Extremely rich and extravagant before the Revolution, the Marquis de Malivert, who had not set foot again in France until 1814, in the train of his monarch, found himself reduced by the confiscations to an income of twenty or thirty thousand livres. He thought himself a beggar. The sole occupation of a mind that had never been any too powerful was now to seek a bride for Octave. But, being still more faithful to his code of honour than to the obsession that was tormenting him, the old Marquis de Malivert never failed to begin the overtures that he made in society with these words: “I can offer a good name, a certain pedigree from the Crusade of Louis the Young, and I know of but thirteen families in Paris that can hold up their heads and say that; but otherwise, I see myself reduced to starvation, to begging my bread; I am a pauper.”
This view of life in an elderly man is not calculated to give rise to that meek and philosophic resignation which makes old age cheerful; and but for the outbursts of Commander de Soubirane, a slightly mad and distinctly malicious Southerner, the house in which Octave lived would have been conspicuous, even in the Faubourg Saint–Germain, for its gloom. Madame de Malivert, whom nothing could distract from her anxiety as to her son’s health, not even the thought of her own peril, took advantage of the delicate state in which she found herself to cultivate the society of two famous doctors. She sought to win their friendship. As these gentlemen were, one the leader, the other one of the most fervent adherents, of two rival sects, their discussions, albeit of a subject so gloomy to any one who is not animated by an interest in science and in the solution of the problem that faces him, were sometimes amusing to Madame de Malivert, who had not lost a keen and curious mind. She led them on to talk, and thanks to them, now and again at least, voices were raised in the drawing-room, so nobly furnished and yet so sombre, of the Hôtel de Malivert.
Its hangings of green velvet, surcharged with gilded ornaments, seemed to have been put there on purpose to absorb all the light that might come in through two huge windows, the original panes of which had been replaced by plate glass. These windows gave upon a deserted garden, divided into irregular compartments by box hedges. A row of limes, trimmed regularly three times in the year, bounded its farther end, and their motionless shapes seemed a living image of the private lives of the family. The young Vicomte’s bedroom, which stood above the drawing-room and had been sacrificed to the beauty of that essential apartment, was barely the height of a half-landing. This room was the bane of Octave’s life, and a score of times, in his parents’ hearing, he had sung its praises. He lived in dread lest some involuntary exclamation should betray him and reveal how intolerable this room and the whole house were to him.
He keenly regretted his little cell at the Ecole Polytechnique. His time there had been precious to him because it offered him the semblance of the retirement and calm of a monastery. For a long time Octave had had thoughts of withdrawing from the world and of consecrating his life to God. This idea had alarmed his family, especially the Marquis, who saw in the project the fulfilment of all his fears of the abandonment which he dreaded in his old age. But in seeking a closer knowledge of the truths of religion, Octave had been led to study the writers who for the last two centuries have tried to explain the nature of human thought and will, and his ideas had changed considerably; his father’s had not changed at all. The Marquis, who had a horror of books and lawyers, was aghast to see this young man shew a passion for reading; he was constantly afraid of some scandal or other, and this was one of his principal reasons for wishing an early marriage for Octave.
While they were basking in the fine days of late autumn, which, in Paris, is like spring, Madame de Malivert said to her son: “You ought to go out riding.” Octave saw nothing in this suggestion but an additional expense, and as his father’s incessant lamentations made him suppose the family fortune to be far more reduced than it actually was, he held out for a long time. “What is the use, dear Mama,” was his invariable reply; “I am quite a tolerable horseman, but riding gives me no pleasure.” Madame de Malivert added to the stable a superb English horse, the youth and beauty of which formed a strange contrast to the pair of old Norman horses which for the last twelve years had sufficed for the needs of the household. Octave was embarrassed by this present; the neixt two days he spent in thanking his mother for it; but on the third, happening to be alone with her, when their conversation turned to the English horse: “I love you too well to thank you again,” he said, taking Madame de Malivert’s hand and pressing it to his lips. “Is your son, for once in his life, to be wanting in sincerity towards the person he loves most in the world? This horse is worth 4,000 francs; you are not rich enough to be able to spend so much money without feeling the want of it.”
Madame de Malivert opened the drawer of a writing desk. “Here is my will,” she said; “I have left you my diamonds, but upon the express condition that as long as the money you receive from the sale of them shall last, you shall have a horse which you are to ride now and again by my order. I have sold two of the diamonds secretly to give myself the pleasure of seeing you on a fine horse in my lifetime. One of the greatest sacrifices your father has imposed on me has been his making me promise not to part with these ornaments which become me so ill. He has some political expectation, which to my mind rests upon a very slender basis, and he would think himself twice as poor and twice as decayed on the day when his wife no longer had her diamonds.”
A profound melancholy appeared on Octave’s brow, and he replaced in the drawer of the desk that document the name of which reminded him of so painful, perhaps so imminent an event. He took his mother’s hand again, and held it in both his own, a display of feeling which he rarely allowed himself. “Your father’s plans,” Madame de Malivert went on, “depend upon that Bill of Indemnity of which we have been hearing for the last three years.” “I hope with all my heart that it may be rejected,” said Octave. “And why,” his mother Went on, delighted to see him shew animation at anything and give her this proof of his esteem and affection, “why should you wish to see it rejected?” “In the first place, because, not being comprehensive, it seems to me to be scarcely just; secondly, because it will mean my marrying. I have the misfortune to have a peculiar nature, I did not create myself so; all that I have been able to do has been to know myself. Except at those moments when I have the happiness of being alone with you, my one pleasure in life consists in living in complete isolation, where not a living soul has the right to address me.” “Dear Octave, this singular taste is the result of your inordinate passion for learning; your studies make me tremble; you will end like Goethe’s Faust. Are you prepared to swear to me, as you did on Sunday, that your reading is not confined to very bad books?” “I read the books that you have indicated to me, dear Mama, at the same time as those which are called bad books.” “Ah! There is something mysterious and sombre about you which makes me shudder; heaven only knows what you derive from all this reading!” “Dear Mama, I cannot refuse to believe in the truth of what seems to me to be true. How could an all-powerful and good Being punish me for placing my faith in the evidence of the organs with which He Himself has furnished me?” “Ah! I am alwavs afraid of angering that terrible Being,” said Madame de Malivert with tears in her eyes; “He may take you out of reach of my love. There are days when after reading Bourdaloue I am frozen with terror. I find in the Bible that that all-powerful Being is pitiless in His vengeance, and you are doubtless offending Him when you read the philosophers of the eighteenth century. I confess to you, the day before yesterday, I came out of Saint–Thomas d’Aquin in a state bordering on despair. Though the anger of the All–Powerful with impious books were but the tenth part of what M. l’Abbé Fay ———— preaches, I might still be afraid of losing you. There is an abominable journal which M. l’Abbé Fay ———— durst not even name in his sermon, and which you read every day, I am sure.” “Yes, Mama, I do read it, but I am faithful to the promise I gave you; immediately afterwards I read the paper whose doctrine is diametrically opposed to it.”
“Dear Octave, it is the violence of your passions that alarms me, and above all the course that they are secretly tracing in your heart. If I saw in you any of the tastes natural at your age, to provide a diversion from your singular ideas, I should be less alarmed. But you read impious books, and presently you will begin to doubt the very existence of God. Why reflect upon these terrible subjects? Do you recall your passion for chemistry? For eighteen months you refused to see anybody, you estranged by your absence our nearest relatives; you failed in the most essential duties.” “My interest in chemistry,” replied Octave, “was not a passion, it was a duty that I set myself; and heaven knows,” he added with a sigh, “whether I should not have done better, by remaining faithful to that plan and making myself a man of learning withdrawn from the world, by following the example of Newton!”
That evening Octave remained with his mother until one o’clock. In vain had she urged him to go out to some social gathering, or at least to the play. “I stay where I feel most happy,” said Octave. “There are moments when I believe you, and those are when I am with you,” was his delighted mother’s answer; “but if for two days on end I have seen you only with other people, my better judgment prevails. It is impossible that such solitude can be good for a boy of your age. I have diamonds here worth 74,000 francs lying idle, and likely to remain so for long, since you shew no intention of marrying; and indeed you are very young, twenty and five days!” here Madame de Malivert rose from her couch to kiss her son. “I have a good mind to sell these useless diamonds, I shall invest what I receive for them, and the interest I shall employ in increasing my expenditure; I should fix a day, and, on the plea of my feeble health, I should be at home to those people only to whom you had no objection.” “Alas, dear Mama, the sight of all my fellow créatures depresses me equally; I care for no one in the world but you. . . . ”
When her son had left her, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, Madame de Malivert, troubled by sinister forebodings, was unable to sleep. She tried in vain to forget how dear Octave was to her, and to judge him as she would have judged a stranger. Invariably, instead of following a line of reason, her mind went astray among romantic suppositions as to her son’s future; the Commanderas saying recurred to her. “Certainly,” she said, “I feel in him something superhuman; he lives like a creature apart, separated from the rest of mankind.” Then reverting to more reasonable ideas, Madame de Malivert could not conceive her son’s having the liveliest or at least the most exalted passions, and at the same time such an absence of inclination for everything that was real in life. One would have said that his passions had their source elsewhere and rested upon nothing that exists here below. Everything about Octave, even his noble features, alarmed his mother; his fine and tender eyes filled her with terror. They seemed at times to be gazing into heaven and reflecting the bliss that they saw there. A moment later, one read in them the torments of the damned.
One feels a modest reluctance to question a person whose happiness appears so fragile, and his mother often gazed at him without venturing to address him. In his calmer moments, Octave’s eyes seemed to be dreaming of an absent happiness; you would have called him a tender heart kept at a great distance from the sole object of its affections. Octave was sincere in his answers to the questions with which his mother plied him, and yet she could not solve the mystery of that profound and often agitated distraction. From his fifteenth year, Octave had been like this, and Madame de Malivert had never thought seriously of any secret passion. Was not Octave master of himself and of his fortune?
She constantly observed that the realities of life, so far from being a source of emotion to her son, had no other effect than to make him lose patience, as though they came to distract him and to tear him in an aggravating fashion from his beloved musings. Apart from the misfortune of this manner of life which seemed to alienate him from his whole environment, Madame de Malivert could not fail to recognise in Octave a strong and upright mind, spirited and honourable. But this mind knew very well the justice of its claim to independence and liberty, and his noble qualities formed a strange alliance with a profundity of dissimulation incredible in a boy of his age. This cruel reality destroyed in an instant all the dreams of happiness which had brought calm to Madame de Malivert’s imagination.
Nothing was more irritating to her son, one might say, more odious, for he was incapable of loving or hating by halves, than the society of his uncle the Commander, and yet every one in the household believed that he liked nothing better than to be M. de Soubirane’s adversary at chess, or to saunter with him on the boulevard. This was a favourite expression with the Commander, who for all his sixty years had still quite as many pretensions as in 1789; only the fatuity of argument and profundity had taken the place of the affectations of youth, which have at least the excuse of charm and gaiety. This instance of so ready a dissimulation frightened Madame de Malivert. “I have questioned my son as to the pleasure he finds in his uncle’s company, and he has told me the truth; but,” she said to herself, “who knows whether some strange design may not be lurking in that singular heart? And if I never put any questions to him about the matter, it will never occur to him to speak to me of it. I am a simple woman,” Madame de Malivert told herself, “my vision extends only to a few trivial duties within my range. How could I ever dare to think myself capable of giving advice to so strong and singular a creature? I have no friend to consult, endowed with a sufficiently superior judgment; besides, how can I betray Octave’s confidence; have I not promised him absolute secrecy?”
When these melancholy reflexions had disturbed her until daybreak, Madame de Malivert concluded, as was her custom, that she ought to employ such influence as she had over her son to make him go frequently to visit Madame la Marquise de Bonnivet. This was her intimate friend and cousin, a woman of the highest position, in whose drawing-room were constantly to be found all the most distinguished elements of society. “My business,” Madame de Malivert told herself, “is to pay court to the persons of merit whom I meet at Madame de Bonnivet’s, and so find out what they think of Octave.” People went to this house to seek the pleasure of being numbered among Madame de Bonnivet’s friends, and the support of her husband, a practised courtier burdened with years and honours, and almost as much prized by his master as was that delightful Admiral de Bonnivet, his ancestor, who made François I do so many foolish things and punished himself for them so nobly.
[At the battle of Pavia, towards nightfall, seeing that all was lost, the Admiral cried: “Never shall it be said that I survived such a disaster”; and charging with raised visor into the midst of the enemy, had the consolation of killing a number of them before he himself fell pierced by many wounds (February 24, 1525).]
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54