Armance, by Stendhal


On her white breast a sparkling

Cross she wore,

Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore.


[Beyle quotes this motto in French, and attributes it to Schiller. — C. K. S. M.]

A instinctive movement impelled him towards the house. He felt confusedly that to reason with himself was the greatest misfortune possible; but he had seen where his duty lay, and hoped to find the necessary courage to perform such actions as fell to his lot, whatever they might be. He found an excuse for his return to the house, which was prompted by his horror of loneliness, in the idea that some servant might arrive from Paris and report that he had not been seen in the Rue Saint–Dominique, which might lead to the discovery of his foolish conduct, and cause his mother some uneasiness.

Octave was still some way from the house: “Ah,” he said to himself as he walked home through the woods, “only yesterday there were boys here shooting; if a careless boy, firing at a bird from behind a hedge, were to kill me, I should have no complaint to make. Heavens! How delightful it would be to receive a bullet in this burning brain! How I should thank him before I died, if I had time!”

We can see that there was a trace of madness in Octave’s attitude this morning. The romantic hope of being killed by a boy made him slacken his step, and his mind, with a slight weakness of which he was barely conscious, refused to consider whether he were justified in so doing. At length he arrived at the house by the garden gate, and twenty yards from that gate, at a turn in a path, saw Armance. He stood rooted to the ground, the blood froze in his veins, he had not expected to come upon her so soon. As soon as she caught sight of him, Armance hastened towards him smiling; she had all the airy grace of a bird; never had she seemed to him so pretty; she was thinking of what he had said to her overnight about his intimacy with Madame d’Aumale.

“So I am beholding ner for the last time!” Octave said to himself, and gazed at her hungrily. Armance’s wide-brimmed straw hat, her light and supple form, the long ringlets that dangled over her cheeks in charming contrast to a gaze so penetrating and at the same time so gentle, he sought to engrave all these upon his heart. But her smiling glances, as Armance approached him, soon lost all their joy. She felt there was something sinister in Octave’s manner. She noticed that his clothes were wringing wet.

She said to him in a voice tremulons with emotion: “What is the matter, cousin?” As she uttered this simple speech, she could hardly restrain her tears, so strange was the expression she discerned in his gaze.

“Mademoiselle,” he replied with a glacial air, “you will permit me to be not unduly sensible of an interest which attaches itself to me so as to deprive me of all freedom. It is true, I have come from Paris; and my clothes are wet: if this explanation does not satisfy your curiosity, I shall go into details. . . . ” Here Octave’s cruelty came to a standstill in spite of himself.

Armance, whose features had assumed a deathly pallor, seemed to be making vain efforts to withdraw; she was shaking visibly, and seemed to be on the point of falling. He stepped forward to offer her his arm; Armance gazed at him with lifeless eyes, which moreover seemed incapable of receiving any idea.

Octave seized her hand none too gently, placed it beneath his arm and strode towards the house. But he felt that his strength too was failing; on the point of falling himself, he yet had the courage to say to her: “I am going away, I have to start on a long voyage to America; I shall write; I rely upon you to comfort my mother; tell her that I shall certainly return. As for you, Mademoiselle, people have said that I am in love with you; I am far from making any such pretension. Indeed, the old ties of friendship that bound us should have been sufficient, to my mind, to resist the birth of love. We know each other too well to feel for each other that sort of sentiment, which always implies a certain amount of illusion.”

At that moment Armance found herself incapable of walking; she raised her drooping eyes and looked at Octave; her pale and trembling lips seemed to be trying to speak. She attempted to lean upon the tub of an orange tree, but had not the strength to support herself; she slipped to the ground by the side of the orange tree, completely unconscious.

Without offering her any assistance, Octave stood motionless and gazed at her; she was in a dead faint, her lovely eyes were still half open, the lines of that charming mouth retained an expression of profound grief. All the rare perfection of her delicate body was revealed beneath a simple morning gown. Octave noticed a small cross of diamonds which Armance was wearing that day for the first time.

He was so weak as to take her hand. All his philosophy had evaporated. He saw that the tub of the orange tree concealed her from the curiosity of the people in the house; he fell on his knees by her side: “Pardon me, O my dear angel,” he said in a low murmur, covering her frozen hand with kisses, “never have I loved thee more!”

Armance stirred slightly; Octave rose to his feet, almost with a convulsive effort: soon Armance was able to walk, and he escorted her to the house without venturing to look at her. He reproached himself bitterly for the shameful weakness into which he had let himself be drawn; had Armance noticed it, all the deliberate crueltv of his words became useless. She hastily took leave of him on entering the house.

As soon as Madame de Malivert was visible, Octave asked if he might see her and threw himself into her arms. “Dear Mama, give me leave to travel, it is the one course open to me if I am to avoid an abhorrent marriage without failing in the respect I owe to my father.” Madame de Malivert, greatly astonished, tried in vain to extract from her son any more positive information as to this alleged marriage.

“What!” she said to him, “neither the young lady’s name, nor who are her family, I am to know nothing? But this is madness.” Soon Madame de Malivert no longer dared to employ that word, which, seemed to her to be too true. All that she could extract from her son, who seemed determined to start that day, was that he would not go to America. The goal of his journey was a matter of indifference to Octave, he had thought only of the pain of departure.

As he was talking to his mother, and trying, in order not to alarm her, to moderate his feelings, a plausible reason for his action suddenly occurred to him: “Dear Mama, a man who bears the name of Malivert and who has the misfortune to have done nothing in the first twenty years of his life, ought to begin by going on the Crusade like our ancestors. I beg you to allow me to go to Greece. If you wish, I shall tell my father that I am going to Naples; from there, quite by chance, curiosity will lead me on to Greece, and what more natural than that a gentleman should visit that country sword in hand? By announcing my itinerary in this way I shall strip it of any air of pretension. . . . ”

This plan caused Madame de Malivert the greatest uneasiness; but there was a certain nobility in it and it was in accordance with her idea of duty. After a conversation lasting for two hours, which was a momentary respite for Octave, he obtained his mother’s consent. Clasped in the arms of that tenderest of friends, he enjoyed for a brief moment the bliss of being able to weep freely. He agreed to conditions which he would have refused when he entered the room. He promised her that, if she wished it, twelve months from the day of his landing in Greece, he would come and spend a fortnight with her.

“But, dear Mama, to spare me the annoyance of seeing my return announced in the newspaper, consent to receive my visit at your place, Malivert, in Dauphiné.” Everything was arranged as he wished, and loving tears sealed the terms of this sudden departure.

On leaving his mother’s presence, after performing his duty with regard to Armance, Octave found himself sufficiently calm to pay a visit to the Marquis. “Father,” he said when he had embraced him, “allow your son to ask you a question: what was the first action of Enguerrand de Malivert, who flourished in 1147, under Louis the Young?”

The Marquis threw open his desk and drew from it a handsome roll of parchment which always lay ready to his hand: it was the pedigree of his family. He saw with intense pleasure that his son’s memory had not failed him. “My dear boy,” said the old man as he took off his spectacles, “Enguerrand de Malivert started in 1147 on the Crusade with his King.” “He was then nineteen, was he not?” Octave went on. “Nineteen exactly,” said the Marquis, with growing pleasure in the respect which the young Vicomte shewed for the family tree.

When Octave had given his father’s pleasure time to develop and to establish itself firmly in his heart, “Father,” he said to him in a firm tone, “noblesse oblige. I am now twenty, I have spent time enough with my books. I have come to ask your blessing, and your leave to travel in Italy and Sicily. I shall not conceal from you, but it is to you alone that I am making this admission, that from Sicily I shall be tempted to proceed to Greece; I shall try to take part in a battle and shall return to you, a little more worthy perhaps of the fine name that you have handed down to me.”

The Marquis, gallant as he was, had not at all the spirit of his ancestors in the days of Louis the Young; he was a father and a loving father of the nineteenth century. He was left speechless by Octave’s sudden resolve; he would gladly have had a son who was less heroic. Nevertheless, this son’s austere air, and the firm resolve indicated by his manner made an impression upon him. Strength of character had never been one of his qualities and he dared not refuse a consent that was asked of him with an air of indifference to his possible refusal.

“You pierce me to the heart,” said the worthy old man as he returned to his desk; and without waiting for his son to ask for it, with a trembling hand he wrote out a draft for a considerable sum upon a notary who held funds in his name. “Take this,” he said to Octave, “and pray God it be not the last money that I shall give you!”

The bell rang for luncheon. Fortunately Mesdames d’Aumale and de Bonnivet had gone to Paris; and the members of this sad family were not obliged to conceal their grief with meaningless words.

Octave, somewhat fortified by the consciousness that he had done his duty, found courage to continue. He had thought of starting before luncheon; he felt that it was better to behave as though nothing had happened. The servants might talk. He took his seat at the small luncheon-table, facing Armance.

“It is the last time in my life that I shall see her,” he told himself. Armance managed fortunately to burn herself quite seriously while making tea. This accident would have furnished an excuse for her distress, if any one in that small room had been in a fit state to observe it. M. de Malivert’s voice was tremulous; for the first time in his life, he could think of nothing pleasant to say. He was wondering whether some pretext compatible with the solemn words “Noblesse oblige!” which his son had so aptly quoted, might not furnish him with the means of delaying his son’s departure.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00