Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man: the nobleness of life
Is to love thus.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, Act I.
One evening after a day of stifling heat, they were strolling quietly amid the handsome groves of chestnuts that crown the heights of Andilly. Sometimes during the day these woods are spoiled by the intrusion of strangers. On this charming night, bathed in the calm light of a summer moon, these deserted slopes were an enchantment to the eye. They assumed a certain grandeur, the dark shadows cast by a brilliant moon eliminated their details. A soft breeze was playing among the trees, and completed the charms of this delicious evening. >From some caprice or other, Madame d’Aumale was determined, on this occasion, to keep Octave by her side; she reminded him coaxingly and without the slightest regard for her male escort, that it was in these woods that she had seen him for the first time: “You were disguised as a magician, and never was a first meeting more prophetic,” she went on, “for you have never bored me, and there is no other man of whom I can say that.”
Armance, who was walking with them, could not help feeling that these memories were very affectionate. Nothing could be so pleasant as to hear this brilliant Comtesse, so gay as a rule, deigning to speak in serious tones of the great interests of life and of the courses that one must follow to find any happiness here below. Octave withdrew from Madame d’Aumale’s group, and, finding himself presently alone with Armance some little way from the rest of the party, began to relate to her in the fullest detail the whole of the episode of his life in which Madame d’Aumale had been involved. “I sought that brilliant connexion,” he told her, “in order not to offend Madame de Bonnivet, who, but for some such precaution, might easily have finished by banishing me from her society.” So tender a confidence as this was made without any mention of love, but it was exactly attuned to Armance’s jealousy.
When Armance was able to hope that her voice would not betray the extreme distress in which this confession had plunged her: “I believe, my dear cousin,” she said to him, “I believe, as I am bound to believe, everything that you tell me; your word to me is as the Gospel. I observe, however, that you have never until now waited, before taking me into your confidence about any of your enterprises, until it was so far advanced.” “To that, I have my answer ready. Mademoiselle Méry de Tersan and you take the liberty sometimes of laughing at my success: one evening, for instance, two months ago, you almost accused me of fatuity. I might easily, even then, have confessed to you the decided feeling that I have for Madame d’Aumale; but I should have had to be treated kindly by her in your presence. Before I had succeeded, your malicious wit would not have failed to deride my feeble efforts. To-day, the presence of Mademoiselle de Tersan is the only thing lacking to complete my happiness.”
There was in the profound and almost tender accents with which Octave uttered these vain words, such an incapacity to love the somewhat bold charms of the pretty woman of whom he was speaking, and so passionate a devotion to the friend in whom he was confiding that she had not the courage to resist the happiness of seeing herself so dearly loved. She leaned upon Octave’s arm, and listened to him as though in an ecstasy. All that her prudence could obtain of her was to refrain from speaking; the sound of her voice would have revealed to her companion the whole extent of the passion by which she was torn. The gentle rustle of the leaves, stirred by the night breeze, seemed to lend a fresh charm to their silence.
Octave gazed into Armance’s open eyes which were fastened on his own. Suddenly they became aware of a certain sound which for some minutes had reached their ears without attracting their attention. Madame d’Aumale, surprised at Octave’s absence, and feeling the need of his company, was calling to him at the top of her voice. “Some one is calling you,” said Armance, and the broken accents in which she uttered these simple words would have enlightened any one but Octave as to the passion that she felt for himself. But he was so astonished by what — was going on in his heart, so disturbed by Armance’s shapely arm, barely veiled by a light gauze, which he was pressing to his bosom, that he could pay no attention to anything. He was beside himself, he was tasting the pleasures of the most blissful love, and almost admitted as much to himself. He looked at Armance’s hat, which was charming, he gazed into her eyes. Never had Octave found himself in a position so fatal to his vows to refrain from love. He had meant to speak lightly to Armance, as usual, and his light speech had suddenly taken a grave and unexpected turn. He felt himself led away, he was incapable of reason, he was raised to the pinnacle of happiness. It was one of those rapid instants which chance accords now and again, in compensation for so many hardships, to natures that are created to feel with energy. Life becomes pressing in the heart, love makes us forget everything that is not divine like itself, and we live more fully in a few moments than in long periods.
They could still hear from time to time Madame d’Aumale’s voice calling: “Octave!” and the sound of that voice succeeded in destroying all poor Armance’s prudence. Octave felt that it was time to let go the fair arm that he was pressing gently to his bosom; he must part from Armance; on leaving her he could hardly refrain from taking her hand and pressing it to his lips. Had he permitted himself this token of love, Armance was so disturbed at the moment, that she would have let him see and would perhaps have admitted all that she felt for him.
They rejoined the rest of the party. Octave walked a little way ahead. As soon as Madame d’Aumale caught sight of him, she said to him with a trace of vexation, not loud enough for Armance to hear: “I am surprised to see you so soon, how could you leave Armance for me? You are in love with that pretty cousin, do not attempt to deny it; I know.” The last words were uttered in a loud voice in contrast to her previous tone.
Octave had not yet recovered from the intoxication that had overpowered him; he still saw Armance’s beautiful arm pressed to his bosom. Madame d’Aumale’s speech fell on him like a thunderbolt, for it came with the force of truth. He felt the shock of its impact. That frivolous voice seemed to him a pronouncement of fate, falling on him from the clouds. The sound of it seemed to him extraordinary. This startling speech, by revealing to Octave the true state of his heart, dashed him from a pinnacle of bliss into a frightful, hopeless misery.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00