Armance, by Stendhal


Totus mundus stult.


About the time of Octave’s wound, a fresh person had arrived from Saint–Acheul to join the Marquise’s party. This was the Chevalier de Bonnivet, her husband’s third son.

Had the old order been still in existence, he would have been destined for Episcopal rank, and, albeit many things have now changed, a sort of family tradition had persuaded everybody, himself included, that he ought to belong to the Church.

This young man, who was barely twenty, was supposed to be very clever; his chief characteristic was a wisdom beyond his years. He was a little creature, very pale; he had a plump face, and, taking him all round, a somewhat priestly air.

One evening the Etoile was brought in. The single paper band that is used to wrap this newspaper happened to be displaced; it was evident that the porter had read it. “And this paper, too!” was the Chevalier de Bonnivet’s impulsive exclamation, “simply to save the cost of a second band of grey paper, folded across the other, it is not afraid of running the risk of letting the lower orders read it, as though the lower orders were intended to read! As though the lower orders were capable of distinguishing good from evil! What are we to expect of the Jacobin papers when we see the Monarchist sheets behave like this?”

This burst of spontaneous eloquence greatly enhanced the Chevalier’s reputation. It at once brought over to his side the elderly people and every one who in Andilly society had more pretensions than wit. The taciturn Baron de Bisset, whom the reader may perhaps remember, rose gravely and crossed the room to embrace the Chevalier without uttering a word. This action cast an air of solemnity over the room for some minutes and amused Madame d’Aumale. She called the Chevalier to her side, tried to make him talk, and took him to some extent under her wing.

All the young women followed in her wake. They made the Chevalier a sort of rival to Octave, who had already been wounded and was confined to the house, in Paris.

But presently they began to find that the Chevalier de Bonnivet, young as he was, gave them a sense of revulsion. He was felt to be singularly wanting in sympathy with all the things in which people are interested. The young man had a future of his own. There might be detected in him an element of deeply rooted treachery towards every one in the world.

On the day following that on which he had shone at the expense of the Etoile, the Chevalier de Bonnivet, who saw Madame d’Aumale from an early hour, opened the ball with her on the lines of Tartufe when he offers a handkerchief to Dorine so that she may cover “things which ought not to be seen.” He read her a serious lecture upon some frivolous remark which she had just made about a procession.

The young Comtesse retorted sharply, brought him repeatedly back to the charge, and was in ecstasies at his absurdity. “He is just like my husband,” she thought. “What a pity poor Octave is not here, how we should laugh!”

The Chevalier de Bonnivet was shocked more than by anvthing else by the sort of renown that clung to the Vicomte de Malivert, whose name he heard upon every tongue. Octave came to Andilly and reappeared in society. The Chevalier supposed him to be in love with Madame d’Aumalc, and, with this idea in his head, formed the plan of developing a passion for the pretty Comtesse, with whom he was most affable.

The Chevalier’s conversation was a perpetual and very clever string of allusions to the masterpieces of the great writers and poets of French and Latin literature. Madame d’Aumalc, whose knowledge was scanty, made him explain the allusions to her, and nothing amused her more. The Chevalier’s really astounding memory did him good service; he repeated without hesitation the lines of Racine or the passages from Bossuet to which he had referred, and indicated clearly and elegantly the bearing of the allusion he had intended to make upon the subject of their conversation. All this had the charm of novelty in the eyes of Madame d’Aumale.

One day the Chevalier said: “A single short article in La Pandore is enough to spoil all the pleasure that we derive from power.” This was considered very deep.

Madame d’Aumale greatly admired the Chevalier; but after a very few weeks had passed he had begun to alarm her. “You have the effect upon me,” she told him, “of a venomous animal encountered in some solitary spot in the heart of the forest. The cleverer you are, the more capable you become of doing me harm.”

Another day she said to him that she would wager that he had of his own initiative discovered the great principle: that speech was given to man to enable him to conceal his thoughts.

The Chevalier had been highly successful with the rest of society. For instance, although separated from his father for the last eight years, which he had spent at Saint–Acheul, Brig, and elsewhere, often without the Marquis’s even knowing where he was, once he had returned and was living with him, in less than two months he succeeded in acquiring a complete domination over the mind of the old man, one of the shrewdest courtiers of the time.

M. de Bonnivet had always been afraid of seeing the French Restoration end like the English; but for the last year or so this fear had made a regular miser of him. Society was therefore greatly astonished to see him give thirty thousand francs to his son the Chevalier, as a contribution to the foundation of certain houses of Jesuits.

Every evening, at Andilly, the Chevalier used to recite prayers, together with the forty or fifty servants in attendance upon the people who were staying in the mansion or in the peasants’ houses that had been secured for the Marquise’s friends. These prayers were followed by a short exhortation, improvised and very well expressed.

The elderly women began to make their way to the orangery, where these evening exercises were held. The Chevalier had it decorated with charming flowers, constantly renewed, for which he sent to Paris. Soon this pious and severe exhortation began to arouse a general interest; it was in marked contrast to the frivolous manner in which the rest of the evening was spent.

Commander de Soubirane declared himself one of the warmest supporters of this method of leading back to good principles all the subordinates who of necessity surround important persons and who, he would add, shewed such cruelty the moment the reign of terror began. This was a favourite expression with the Commander, who went about everywhere announcing that within ten years, unless we re-established the Knights of Malta and the Jesuits, we should have a second Robespierre.

Madame de Bonnivet had not failed to send to her son-inlaw’s pious exercises those of her own people whom she could trust. She was greatly astonished to learn that he made doles of money to the servants who came to confide to him in private that they were in want.

The list of promotions in the Order of the Holy Spirit being apparently delayed, Madame de Bonnivet announced that her architect had written to her from Poitou that he had managed to collect a sufficient number of workmen. She made her preparations for the journey, as did Armance. She was none too well pleased when the Chevalier de Bonnivet announced his intention of accompanying her to Bonnivet, in order, he said, to see once more the old castle, the cradle of his race.

The Chevalier saw quite well that his presence annoyed his mother-inlaw; all the more reason for him to accompany her on this expedition. He hoped to impress Armance by recalling the glories of his ancestors; for he had noticed that Armance was friends with the Vicomte de Malivert, and intended to take her from him. These projects, long under consideration, became apparent only at the moment of their execution.

No less successful with the young people than with the more serious element of society, before leaving An-dilly, the Chevalier de Bonnivet had managed artfully to fill Octave with jealousy. After the departure of Armance, Octave even began to think that this Chevalier de Bonnivet, who boasted an esteem and a respect for her that were unbounded, might well be that mysterious suitor whom an old friend of her mother had found for her.

On taking leave of one another, Armance and her cousin were alike tormented by dark suspicions. Armance felt that she was leaving Octave with Madame d’Aumale; but she did not think that she could allow herself to write to him.

During this cruel separation, Octave could do nothing but address to Madame Bonnivet two or three letters, quite charming but couched in a singular tone. Had any one who was a stranger to their society seen these letters, he would have thought that Octave was madly in love with Madame de Bonnivet and dared not confess his love to her.

In the course of this month of absence, Mademoiselle de Zohiloff, whose good sense was no longer troubled by the bliss of being under the same roof as her friend and of seeing him thrice daily, made some severe reflexions. Albeit her behaviour had been perfectly proper, she could not blind herself to the fact that it must be easy to read the exnression in her eyes when she looked at her cousin.

The promiscuity of travel was the cause of her overhearing a conversation among Madame de Bonnivet’s maids which drew many tears from her eyes. These women, like every one who is connected with persons of importance, seeing nothing anywhere but pecuniary interests, set down to this motive the appearance of passion which Armance was assuming, they said, in order to become Vicomtesse de Malivert; no small matter to a penniless girl of such obscure birth.

The idea of her being slandered to such a degree had never occurred to Armance. “I am a ruined girl,” she said to herself; “my feeling for Octave has passed beyond suspicion, and even that is not the worst of my supposed offences. I live under the same roof as he, and it is not possible for him to marry me. . . . ” From that instant, the thought of the slanders that were being uttered against her, resisting every argument that Armance could advance, poisoned her life.

There were moments in which she fancied that she had forgotten even her love for Octave. “Marriage is not intended for a girl in my position. I shall not marry him;” she thought; “and I shall have to live far more apart from him. If he forgets me, as is highly probable, I shall go and end my days in a convent; that will be a very proper asylum, and greatly to be desired, for the rest of my existence. I shall think of him, I shall hear of his triumphs. People in society will be able to recall many examples of lives similar to that which I shall be leading.”

These precautions were sound; but the thought, terrible for a girl, that she might, with some appearance of justice, be exposed to the slander of a whole household, and that the household in which Octave was living, cast a shadow over Armance’s life which nothing could dissipate. Did she endeavour to escape from the memory of her misdeeds, for this was the name she gave to the sort of life she had led at Andilly, she would begin to think of Madame d’Aumale, whose attractions she would unconsciously exaggerate. Chevalier de Bonnivet’s company made her regard as even more irremediable than they actually are all the harm that society can do us when we have offended it. Towards the end of her stay at the old Château de Bonnivet, Armance spent every night in weeping. Her aunt noticed this melancholy, and did not conceal from the girl how angry it made her.

It was during her stay in Poitou that Armance learned of an event which affected her but little. She had three uncles in the Russian service; these young men perished by suicide during the troubles in that country. Their death was kept secret; but finally, after many months, some letters which the police had not succeeded in intercepting were delivered to Mademoiselle de Zohiloff. She had succeeded to a comfortable fortune, which would make her a suitable match for Octave.

This event was not calculated to appease the anger of Madame de Bonnivet, to whom Armance was necessary. The poor girl had to listen to some very sharp comments on the preference that she shewed for Madame de Malivert’s drawing-room. Great ladies are no more spiteful than the average rich woman; but one acquires in their societv a greater susceptibiltv, and feels more profoundly and, if I may venture to use the expression, more irremediably, their unpleasant remarks.

Armance supposed that nothing was wanting to complete her misery, when the Chevalier de Bonnivet informed her, one morning, with the indifferent air which people assume in repeating a piece of news which is already stale, that Octave was again far from well, and that the wound in his arm had opened and was causing anxiety. Since Armance had left him, Octave, who had become hard to please, was often bored with his mother’s drawing-room. He was guilty of acts of imprudence when shooting, which had serious consequences. He had had the idea of using a little gun, very light, which he fired with his left hand; his success with this weapon encouraged him.

One day, as he was going after a winged partridge, he jumped a ditch and hit his arm against a tree, which brought back his fever. During this fever and the state of weakness that followed it, the artificial happiness, so to speak, which he had enjoyed in the company of Armance, seemed to have become as unsubstantial as a dream.

Mademoiselle de Zohiloff returned at length to Paris, and the following day, at Andilly, the lovers met once more; but they were very sad, and this sorrow was of the worst possible kind: it sprang from a mutual doubt. Armance did not know what tone to adopt with her cousin; and they barely spoke to one another the first day.

While Madame de Bonnivet was indulging in the pleasure of building gothic towers in Poitou and imagining that she was reconstructing the twelfth century, Madame d’Aumale had taken decisive action to ensure the great triumph which came at last to crown the long-nourished ambition of M. de Bonnivet. She was the heroine of Andilly. In order not to have to part with so valuable a friend, during her own absence, Madame del Bonnivet had made the Comtesse d’Aumale agree to occupy a little apartment in the highest part of the mansion, close to Octave’s room. And Madame d’Aumale seemed to every one to be perfectly well aware that it was in a sense for her sake that Octave had received the wound which was causing his fever. It was in extremely bad taste to remind people of the affair, which had cost the Marquis de Crêveroche his life; Madame d’Aumale could not, however, refrain from making frequent allusions to it: the fact is that the way of the world is to natural delicacy pretty much what science is to the mind. Her character, entirely on the surface and not at all romantic, was impressed first and foremost by realities. Armance had not been more than a few hours at Andilly before this constant recurrence to the same topics, by a mind that as a rule was so frivolous, struck her forcibly.

Armance arrived there very sad and greatly discouraged; she felt for the second time in her life the assault of a sentiment that is terrifying, especially when it coincides in a single heart with an exquisite sense of the proprieties. Armance imagined that she had serious fault to find with herself in this respect. “I must keep a strict watch over myself,” she said to herself as she turned away her gaze, which was resting on Octave, to examine the brilliant Comtesse d’Aumale. And each separate charm of the Comtesse was for Armance the occasion of an excessive act of humility. “How could Octave fail to give her the preference?” she said to herself; “I myself feel that she is adorable.”

Such painful sentiments, combined with the remorse which Armance was feeling, wrongly no doubt, but none the less painfully for that, made her far from affable to Octave. On the morning after her arrival, she did not come down betimes to the garden; this had been her habit in the past, and she knew very well that Octave was waiting for her there.

In the course of the day, Octave spoke to her two or three times. An extreme shyness which seized her, with the thought that everybody was watching them, paralysed her, and she barely answered him.

That day, at dinner, mention was made of the fortune which chance had just brought to Armance; and she observed that the news seemed to give little pleasure to Octave, who did not say a single word to her about it. The word that was not uttered, had her cousin addressed it to her, would not have given birth in her heart to a pleasure equivalent to one hundredth part of the grief which his silence caused her.

Octave was not listening; he was thinking of the singular manner that Armance had adopted towards him since her return. “No doubt she no longer cares for me,” he was saying to himself, “or she has made some definite engagement with the Chevalier de Bonnivet.” Octave’s indifference to the news of Armance’s fortune opened for the poor girl a fountain of sorrows both new and deep. For the first time, she thought long and earnestly of this inheritance which had come to her from the North, and which, had Octave loved her, would have made her a more or less suitable match for him.

Octave, to obtain an excuse for writing her a page, had sent to her, in Poitou, a short poem about Greece which had just been published by Lady Nelcombe, a young Englishwoman who was a friend of Madame de Bonnivet. In the whole of France there were but two copies of this poem, which was greatly discussed. Had the copy which had made the journey to Poitou appeared in the drawing-room, a score of indiscreet attempts would have been made to intercept it; Octave begged his cousin to have it sent to his room. Armance, greatly intimidated, could not summon up courage to entrust such a mission to her maid. She went up to the second floor of the mansion and placed the little English poem on the handle of Octave’s door, so that he could not enter his room without noticing it.

Octave was greatly troubled; he saw that Armance was definitely reluctant to speak to him. Feeling himself by no means in the humour to speak to her, he left the drawing-room before ten o’clock. He was agitated by a thousand sinister thoughts. Madame d’Aumale was soon bored with the drawing-room: they were talking politics, and in a depressing tone; she pleaded a headache, and by half-past ten had retired to her own apartment. Probably Octave and Madame d’Aumale were taking a stroll together; this idea, which occurred to every one, made Armance turn pale. Whereupon she reproached herself with her very grief as an impropriety which made her less worthy of her cousin’s esteem.

Next morning, at an early hour, Armance was with Madame de Malivert, who needed a particular hat. Her maid had gone to the village; Armance hurried to the room in which the hat was; she was obliged to pass by the door of Octave’s room. She stood as though thunderstruck on catching sight of the little English poem balanced upon the handle of the door, exactly as she had left it overnight. It was evident that Octave had not gone to his own room.

This was the absolute truth. He had gone out shooting, notwithstanding the recent accident to his arm; and, so as to be able to rise betimes and unobserved, had spent the night in the game-keeper’s cottage. He intended to return to the house at eleven, when the bell rang for luncheon, and thus to escape the reproaches which would have been heaped on him for his imprudence.

On returning to Madame de Malivert’s room, Armance found herself obliged to say that she was unwell. From that moment she was a different person. “I am bearing a fit punishment,” she told herself, “for the false position in which I have placed myself, and which is so improper in a young person. I have come to the stage of sufferings which I cannot admit even to myself.”

When she saw Octave again, Armance had not the courage to put to him any question as to the accident which had prevented him from seeing the little English poem; she would have felt that she was wanting in everything that she owed to herself. This third day was even more sombre than those that had gone before.

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