Armance, by Stendhal


In case the noise made by the servants in moving about their attic quarters should disturb Octave, Madame de Bonnivet transferred them to a peasant’s house near at hand. It was in what one might call material considerations of this sort that the Marquise’s genius triumphed; she brought an exquisite grace to bear upon what she was doing, and was most skilful in employing her wealth to enhance her reputation for cleverness.

The core of her little world was composed of people who for the last forty years had never done anything that was not strictly conventional, the people who set the fashions and are then surprised at them. These declared that, since Madame de Bonnivet was deliberately sacrificing the prospect of a visit to her estates in the country, and was going instead to spend the autumn at Andilly, in order to keep her dear friend Madame de Malivert company, it was the bounden duty of every one with a heart in his bosom to go out and share her solitude.

So popular was this solitude that the Marquise was obliged to take rooms in the little village down the hill in order to accommodate all the friends who came crowding to see her. She put in wallpapers and beds. Soon half the houses in the village had been decorated under her guidance and were occupied. It became the correct thing to come out from Paris and keep this admirable Marquise, who was looking after that poor Madame de Malivert, company, and Andilly was as thronged with fashion throughout the month of September as any watering-place. This new fashion threatened even to invade the Court. “If we had a score of clever women like Madame de Bonnivet,” some one was heard to say, “we might risk going to live at Versailles.” And M. de Bonnivet’s Blue Riband appeared certain.

Never had Octave been so happy. The Duchesse d’Ancre felt this happiness to be quite natural. “Octave,” she said, “may well regard himself as being in a sense the centre of all this movement to Andilly: in the mornings every one sends to inquire after his health; what could be more flattering at his age? That young man is extremely fortunate,” the Duchesse went on to say. “He is getting to know the whole of Paris, and it will make him more impertinent than ever.” This, however, was not the true reason for Octave’s happiness.

He saw that beloved mother, to whom he had given so much cause for anxiety, perfectly happy. She was overjoyed at the brilliant manner in which her son was making his entry into society. Since his triumph, she had begun not to conceal from herself that this kind of distinction was too original and too little copied from recognised types not to need the support of the all-powerful influence of fashion. Failing that reinforcement, it would have passed unnoticed.

One of the things that gave Madame de Malivert great pleasure about this time was a conversation that she had with the famous Prince de R—— — who came to spend a night at Andilly.

This most outspoken of courtiers, whose word moreover was law in society, appeared to be taking notice of Octave. “Have you observed, as I have, Madame,” he said to Madame de Malivert, “that your son never utters a syllable of that rehearsed wit which is the curse of our age? He scorns to appear in a drawing-room armed with his tablets, and his wit varies with the feelings that may be aroused in him. That is why the fools are sometimes so cross with him and withhold their support. When any one succeeds in interesting the Vicomte de Malivert, his wit appears to spring at once from his heart or from his character, and that character seems to me to be one of the strongest. Don’t you agree with me, Madame, that character is an organ which has grown obsolete among the men of today? Your son seems to me to be destined to play an exceptional part. He is bound to enjoy the very highest reputation among his contemporaries: he is the most solid, and the most obviously solid man that I know. I should like to see him enter the peerage early in life, or to see you get him made Maître des Requêtes.” “But,” put in Madame de Malivert, almost breathless with the pleasure she felt at the praise of so good a judge, “Octave’s success is anything but general.”

“All the better,” M. de R———— went on with a smile; “it will take the imbeciles of this country three or four years, perhaps, to understand Octave, and you will be able, before any jealousy appears, to push him almost to his proper place; I ask one thing only: restrain your son from appearing in print, he is too well born for that sort of thing.”

The Vicomte de Malivert had still a long way to go before he should be worthy of the brilliant horoscope that had been drawn for him; he had still many prejudices to overcome. His distaste for his fellow men was deeply rooted in his heart; were they prosperous, they filled him with revulsion; wretched, the sight of them was more burdensome still. It was only rarely that he had been able to attempt to cure himself of this distaste by a course of good actions. Had he succeeded in this, his unbounded ambition would have thrust him into their midst and into places where fame is purchased with the most costly sacrifices.

At the time of which we are speaking, Octave was far from any thought of a brilliant destiny for himself. Madame de Malivert had had the good sense not to speak to him of the singular future which M. le Prince de R———— predicted for him; it was only with Armance that she ventured to indulge in the blissful discussion of this prophecy.

Armance possessed in a supreme degree the art of banishing from Octave’s mind all the annoyances that society caused him. Now that he ventured to confess these to her, she was more and more astonished at the revelation of his singular character. There were still days upon which he would draw the most sinister conclusions from the most casual utterances. There was much talk of him at Andilly. “You are tasting the immediate fruits of celebrity,” Armance told him; “people are saying all sorts of foolish things about you. Do you expect a fool, simply because he has the honour to be speaking about you, to find witty things to say?” This was a severe test for a man inclined to take offence.

Armance insisted upon his making her a full and immediate report of all the speeches offensive to himself that he might hear uttered in society. She had no difficulty in proving to him that they had been uttered without any reference to himself, or that they contained only that amount of malice which every one feels towards every one else.

Octave’s self-esteem had nothing now to keep secret from Armance, and these two young hearts had arrived at that unbounded confidence which is perhaps the most charming thing about love. They could not discuss anything under the sun without secretly comparing the charm of their present taste of mutual confidence with the constraint by which they had been bound a few months earlier when they spoke of the same subjects. And this constraint itself, the memory of which was so strong, and in spite of which they were already, at this period, so happy, was a proof of the old and lasting nature of their friendship.

Next day, on reaching Andilly, Octave was not without some hope that Armance would come there also; he announced that he was ill and kept the house. A few davs later, Armance did indeed arrive with Madame de Bonnivet. Octave so arranged that his first outing might take place precisely at seven o’clock in the morning. Armance met him in the garden, where he led her up to an orange tree planted beneath his mother’s windows. There, some months earlier, Armance, her heart wrung by the strange words that he was addressing to her, had fallen to the ground in a momentary faint. She recognised the spot, smiled, and leaned against the tub of the orange tree, shutting her eyes. But for the absence of pallor, she was almost as beautiful as upon the day when she had fainted for love of him. Octave felt keenly aware of the change in their relations. He recognised the little diamond cross which Armance had received from Russia and which was a relic of her mother. As a rule it was hidden, it was now brought to light by the movement which Armance made. Octave for a moment lost his senses; he seized her hand, as upon the day when she had fainted, and his lips ventured to brush her cheek. Armance drew herself up quickly and blushed a deep red. She reproached herself bitterly for this flirtation. “Do you wish to make me angry?” she asked him. “Do you wish to force me never to leave the house without a maid?”

A breach that lasted for some days was the immediate result of Octave’s indiscretion. But between two people who felt a perfect attachment to one another, occasions for quarrelling were rare: whatever Octave might have occasion to do, before considering whether it would be agreeable to himself, he would seek to discover whether Armance would be able to see in it a fresh proof of his devotion.

In the evening, when they were at opposite ends of the immense drawing-room in which Madame de Bonni-vet assembled all the most remarkable and influential people in the Paris of the day, if Octave had to answer a question, he would make use of some word which Armance had just employed, and she could see that the pleasure of repeating this word made him oblivious of the interest he might otherwise have felt in what he was saying. Without any deliberate intention, there grew up thus for the two of them, amid the most delightful and animated society, not so much a habit of private conversation as a sort of echo which, without expressing anything distinctly, seemed to speak of a perfect friendship and an unbounded affection.

May we venture to reproach with a trace of stiffness the extreme politeness which the present generation thinks itself to have inherited from that blissful eighteenth century when there was nothing to hate?

In the midst of this advanced civilisation which for every one of our actions, however trivial it may be, insists upon furnishing us with a pattern which we must copy or state our case against it, this sentiment of sincere and unbounded devotion comes very near to creating perfect happiness.

Armance never found herself alone with her cousin save in the garden, beneath the windows of the mansion, the ground floor of which was occupied, or in Madame de Malivert’s bedroom and in her presence. But this room was very large, and often the frail state of Madame de Malivert’s health obliged her to lie down for a little; she would then ask her children (for thus it was that she always spoke of them) to go over to the bay of the window overlooking the garden, so as not to disturb her rest with the sound of their voices. This tranquil, entirely intimate life in the morning hours gave place in the evening to the life of the highest society.

In addition to the people staying in the village, many carriages would come out from Paris, returning after supper. These cloudless days passed rapidly. It never occurred to either of these two young hearts to admit that they were enjoying one of the rarest forms of happiness that is to be met with here below; on the contrary they supposed that they had still many unsatisfied desires. Having no experience of life, they did not see that these fortunate moments could only be of very brief duration. At most, this happiness, wholly sentimental and deriving nothing from vanity or ambition, might have survived in the bosom of some poor family who never saw any strangers. But they were living in society, they were but twenty years old, they were spending all their time together, and, what was the height of imprudence, they let it be guessed that they were happy, and had an air of caring singularly little what society might think. It was bound to have its revenge.

Armance gave no thought to this peril. The only thing that troubled her from time to time was the necessity of renewing her private vow never to accept her cousin’s hand, whatever might happen. Madame de Malivert, for her part, was quite calm; she had not the least doubt that her son’s present way of life was bringing about an event for which she passionately longed.

Notwithstanding the happy days with which Armance was filling the life of Octave, in her absence there were darker moments in which he pondered the destiny in store for him, and he arrived at the following conclusion: “The most favourable impression of myself reigns in Armance’s heart. I might confess to her the strangest things about myself, and, so far from despising me, or taking a horror of me, she would pity me.”

Octave told his friend that in his boyhood he had had a passion for stealing. Armance was appalled by the terrible details into which his imagination was pleased to enter as to the lamentable consequences of this strange weakness. This admission overturned her whole existence; she sank into a profound abstraction for which she was scolded; but, before a week had passed since this strange confession, she was pitying Octave and more tender to him, were that possible, than ever before. “He needs my consolation,” she told herself, “to make him pardon himself.”

Octave, assured by this experience of the unbounded devotion of her whom he loved, and no longer having to conceal his dark thoughts, became far more affable in society; before the confession of his love, induced by the approach of death, he had been an extremely witty and remarkable, rather than an affable young man; he appealed especially to serious people. These thought they could detect in him the every-day side of a man destined to do great things. The idea of duty was too much in evidence in his manner, and went the length at times of giving him an English expression. His misanthropy was interpreted as pride and ill-humour by the older element of society, and shunned the effort to conquer it. Had he been a peer at this date, he would have won a reputation.

It is the want of the hard school of misfortune that often mars the perfection of the young men who were created to be the most charming. In a day, Octave had been formed by the lessons of that terrible master. It may be said that, at the period of which we are speaking, nothing was wanting to the personal beauty of the young Vicomte, or to the brilliant existence which he enjoyed in society. His praises were sung there without ceasing by Mesdames d’Aumale and de Bonnivet and by the older men.

Madame d’Aumale was justified in saying that he was the most attractive man she had ever met, “for he never bores one,” was her foolish explanation. “Until I knew him, I had never even dreamed of such a recommendation, and the great thing, after all, is to be amused.” “And I,” thought Armance as she listened to this artless speech, “I refuse this man who is so welcome everywhere else the permission to clasp my hand; it is a duty,” she went on, with a sigh, “and never shall I fail to observe it.” There were evenings on which Octave indulged in the supreme happiness of not talking, and of watching the spectacle of Armance, as presented before his eyes. These moments did not pass unobserved, either by Madame d’Aumale, vexed that any one should neglect to provide her with amusement, or by Armance, delighted to see the man she adored occupied exclusively with herself.

The list of promotions in the Order of the Holy Spirit appeared to have been delayed; it was a question of Madame de Bonnivet’s departure for the old castle situated in the heart of Poitou, which had given its name to the family. A new personage was to join the expedition, namely, M. le Chevalier de Bonnivet, the youngest of the sons that the Marquis had had by a former marriage.

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