Armance, by Stendhal


Tu, sei un nientc, o morte! Ma sarebbe mai dopo sceso il primo

gradino délia mia tomba, che mi verrebbe data di veder la vita come

ella è realmente?


Until that moment Armance had not seen her cousin save in his mother’s presence. That day, after the surgeon had left, Madame de Malivert thought she could detect in Octave’s eyes an unusual access of strength coupled with a wish to talk to Mademoiselle de Zohiloff. She asked her young relative to take her place for a moment by her son’s bedside, while she herself went to the next room where she was obliged to write a letter.

Octave followed his mother with his eyes; as soon as she was out of sight: “Dear Armance,” he said, “I am going to die; there are certain privileges attached to such a moment, and you will not take offence at what I am now going to say to you for the first time in my life; I die as I have lived, loving you with passion; and death is sweet to me, because it enables me to make you this confession.”

Armance was too much overcome to reply; tears welled into her eyes, and strange to relate, they were tears of happiness. “The most devoted, the tenderest friendship,” she said at length, “binds my destiny to yours.” “I hear you,” Octave replied, “I am doubly glad to die. You bestow on me your friendship, but your heart belongs to another, to that happy man who has received the promise of your hand.”

Octave’s accents were too eloquent of misery; Armance had not the heart to distress him at this supreme moment. “No, my dear cousin,” she said to him, “I can feel nothing more for you than friendship; but no one upon earth is dearer to me than you are.” “And the marriage of which you spoke to me?” said Octave. “In all my life I have allowed myself to tell but that one lie, and I implore you to forgive me. I saw no other way of opposing a plan suggested to Madame de Malivert by her extreme interest in my welfare. Never will I be her daughter, but never shall I love any one more than I love you; it is for you, cousin, to decide whether you desire my friendship at such a price.” “Were I fated to live, it would make me happy.” “I have still a condition to make,” Armance went on. “So that I may venture without constraint to enjoy the happiness of being perfectly sincere with you, promise me that, if heaven grants us your life, there shall never be any question of marriage between us.” “What a strange condition!” said Octave. “Are you prepared to swear to me again that you are not in love with any one?” “I swear to you,” Armance replied with tears in her eyes, “that never in my life have I loved any one but Octave, and that he is by far the dearest person in the world to me; but I can feel nothing stronger for him than friendship,” she added, blushing a deep red at this speech, “and I shall never be able to place any confidence in him unless he gives me his word of honour that, whatever may happen, he will never as long as he lives make any direct or indirect attempt to obtain my hand.” “I swear it,” said Octave, profoundly astonished . . . “but will Armance permit me to speak to her of my love?” “It will be the name that you will give to our friendship,” said Armance with a bewitching glance. “It is only for the last few days,” Octave went on, “that I have known that I love you. This is not to say that, for a very long time back, never have five minutes passed without the memory of Armance arising to determine whether I ought to deem myself fortunate or unfortunate; but I was blind.

“A moment after our conversation in the woods of Andilly, a pleasantry which Madame d’Aumale let fall proved to me that I love you. That night, I tasted the most cruel torments of despair, I felt that I ought to shun you, I made a vow to forget you and to go-away. Next morning, as I returned from the forest, I came upon you in the garden, and spoke to you harshly, in order that your righteous indignation at such atrocious behaviour on my part might arm me with strength to resist the sentiment that was keeping me in France. Had you addressed to me but a single one of those tender words which you have said to me at times in the past, had you looked me in the face, I should never have found the courage that I required to make me go. Do you forgive me?” “You have made me very unhappy, but I had forgiven you before the confession you have just made me.”

An hour followed during which Octave for the first time in his life tasted the happiness of speaking of his love to the beloved.

A single utterance had at once altered the whole situation between Octave and Armance; and as for a long time past every moment of the life of each had been occupied in thinking of the other, an astonishment that was full of charm made them forget the approach of death; they could not utter a word to one another without finding fresh reasons for loving one another.

More than once Madame de Malivert had come, on tiptoe, to the door of her own room. She had remained unobserved by two creatures who had forgotten everything, even the cruel death that was waiting to part them. In the end she became afraid that Octave’s agitation might increase the peril; she went up to them and said, almost with a laugh: “Are you aware, children, that you have been chattering for more than an hour and a half, it may send up his temperature.” “Dear Mama, I can assure you,” replied Octave, “that I have not felt so well for four days.” He said to Armance: “There is one thing that worries me when my fever is very high. That poor Marquis de Crèveroche had a very fine dog which seemed to be greatly attached to him. I am afraid the poor beast may be neglected now that his master is no more. Could not Voreppe dress up as a gamekeeper and go and buy that fine sporting dog. I should like at least to be certain that it is being well treated. I hope to see it. In any case, I give it to you, my dear cousin.”

After this day of agitation, Octave fell into a deep sleep, but on the morrow the tetanus reappeared. M. Duquerrel felt it his duty to speak to the Marquis, and the whole household was plunged in despair. Notwithstanding the stiffness of his nature, Octave was beloved by the servants; they admired his firmness and sense of justice.

As for him, albeit suffering at times the most agonising torments, happier than he had ever yet been in the whole course of his life, the approaching end of that life made him judge of it at last in a rational manner which intensified his love for Armance. It was to her that he was indebted for the few happy moments which he could perceive amid that ocean of bitter sensations and misfortunes. Acting upon her advice, instead of shunning the world, he had acted, and was cured of many false judgments which had increased his misery. Octave was in constant pain, but, greatly to the astonishment of the worthy Duquerrel, he still lived, he had even some strength.

It took him a whole week to renounce the vow never to fall in love which had been the principal motive of his whole life. The approach of death obliged him first of all to forgive himself with sincerity for having violated his oath. “People die as and how they must,” he told himself, “but I am dying on the pinnacle of happiness; fortune owed me perhaps this compensation after dooming me continually to such misery.

“But I may live,” he thought, and was then more embarrassed than before. At length he arrived at the conclusion that, in the unlikely event of his surviving his injuries, the sign of weakness of character would be in his keeping the rash vow made in early youth and not in breaking it. “For after all the pledge was given solely in the interests of my own happiness and honour. Why, if I live, may I not continue to enjoy in Armance’s company the delights of that tender affection which she has sworn for me? Is it within my power not to feel the passionate love that I have for her?”

Octave was astonished to find himself alive; when at length, after a week of inward struggle, he had solved all the problems that were troubling his spirit, and had entirely resigned himself to accepting the unexpected pleasure which heaven was sending him, in twenty-four hours there was a complete change in his condition, and the most pessimistical of the doctors ventured to answer to Madame de Malivert for her son’s life. Shortly afterwards, the fever ceased, and he sank into a state of extreme weakness, barely able to speak.

On returning to life, Octave was seized with a lasting astonishment; everything was altered in his eyes. “It seems to me,” he said to Armance, “that before that accident I was mad. Every moment I dreamed of you, and managed to extract unhappiness from that charming thought. Instead of making my behaviour conform to the incidents which I encountered in life, I had made myself an a priori rule anterior to all experience.”

“There is bad philosophy,” said Armance with a laugh, “that is why my aunt was so determined to convert you. You are really mad from excess of pride, you learned gentlemen; I cannot think why we choose you, for you are far from merry. For my own part, I despise myself for not having formed a friendship with some quite inconsequent young man who talks of nothing but his tilbury.”

When he was in full possession of his faculties, Octave continued to reproach himself with having broken his word; he had fallen slightly in his own estimation. But the happiness of being able to say everything to Armance, even the remorse that he felt for loving her with passion, created, for a person who had never in his life confided in any one, a state of bliss so far exceeding anything that he had expected that he never had any serious intention of returning to his old moods and prejudices.

“When I promised myself that I would never fall in love, I was setting myself a task beyond human capacity; that is why I have always been miserable. And that violation of nature lasted for five years! I have found a heart the like of which I never had the slightest idea could exist anywhere on earth. Fortune, outwitting my folly, plants happiness in my way, I take offence at it, I almost fly into a passion! In what respect am I breaking the law of honour? Who is there that knew of my vow to reproach me with breaking it? But it is a contemptible habit, this of forgetting one’s promises; is it nothing to have to blush in one’s own sight? But this is a vicious circle; have I not furnished myself with excellent reasons for breaking that rash vow made by a boy of sixteen? The existence of a heart like Armance’s excuses everything.”

Anyhow, such is the force of habit, Octave found perfect happiness only with his cousin. He needed her presence.

An uncertainty crept in now and again to trouble Armance’s happiness. She felt that Octave had not taken her completely into his confidence as to the motives that had led him to avoid her society and to leave France after the night he had spent in the woods of Andilly. She considered it beneath her dignity to ask questions, but she did say to him one day, indeed with a distinct air of severity: “If you wish me to give way to the inclination which I feel in myself to become your great friend, you must give me assurances against the fear of being abandoned at any moment, at the prompting of some odd fancy that may have entered your head. Promise me that you will never leave the place in which I am with you, Paris or Andilly or wherever it may be, without telling me all your reasons.” Octave promised.

On the sixtieth day after his injury, he was able to rise, and the Marquise, who felt keenly the absence of Mademoiselle de Zohiloff, reclaimed her from Madame de Malivert, who was almost pleased to see her go.

People are less self-conscious in the intimacy of family life and during the anxiety of a great sorrow. The dazzling varnish of an extreme politeness is then less in evidence, and the true qualities of the heart regain their proper proportions. The want of fortune of this young relative and her foreign name, which M. de Soubirane was always careful to mispronounce, had led the Commander, and even M. de Malivert himself at times, to address her almost as they would have addressed a paid companion.

Madame de Malivert was trembling lest Octave should perceive this. The respect which sealed his lips with regard to his father, would have made him all the more insolent towards M. de Soubirane, and the Commander’s easily irritated vanity would not have failed to take its revenge in some discreditable anecdote which he would put in circulation at Mademoiselle de Zohiloff’s expense.

These rumours might come to Octave’s ears, and, knowing the violence of his nature, Madame de Malivert anticipated the most painful scenes, the most impossible, perhaps, to conceal. Fortunately nothing of all that her somewhat vivid imagination had pictured did occur. Octave had noticed nothing. Armance had turned the tables on M. de Soubirane with a few veiled epigrams on the ferocity of the war which, in recent years, the Knights of Malta had waged upon the Turks, while the Russian officers, with names unknown in history, were taking Ismailoff.

Madame de Malivert, thinking in anticipation of her daughter-inlaw’s interests, and of the immense disadvantage of entering society without either a fortune or a name, imparted to a few intimate friends confidences intended to discredit beforehand anything that wounded vanity might inspire in M. de Soubirane. These extreme precautions had perhaps not been out of place; but the Commander, who had been gambling on ‘Change since his sister’s indemnity, and gambling on certainties, lost quite a considerable sum, which made him forget all the niceties of his hatred.

After Armance’s departure, Octave, who saw her now only in Madame de Bonnivet’s presence, began to nourish dark thoughts; his mind dwelt once again upon his old vow. As the wound in his arm gave him constant pain, and even fever at times, the doctors suggested sending him to take the waters at Bareges; but M. Duquerrel, who was intelligent enough not to prescribe the same treatment for all his patients, declared that any air that was at all keen would suffice for his patient’s convalescence, and ordered him to spend the autumn on the slopes of Andilly.

This was a spot dear to Octave; by the following day he had removed there. Not that he had any hope of finding Armance there; Madame de Bonnivet had long been speaking of an expedition into the heart of Poitou. She was having restored at great expense the ancient castle in which Admiral de Bonnivet had had the honour, in times past, to entertain François I, and Mademoiselle de Zohiloff was to accompany her.

But the Marquise had had secret information of an approaching list of promotion to the Order of the Holy Spirit. The late King had promised the Blue Riband to M. de Bonnivet. Consequently, the Poitevin architect soon wrote to say that Madame’s presence would be superfluous at that moment, since they were short of workmen, and, a few days after Octave’s arrival, Madame de Bonnivet came and settled at Andilly.

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