Armance, by Stendhal


Ses maux les plus cruels sont ceux qu’il se fait lui-même.


[This quotation is presumably from the seventeenth century letter writer, Guez de Balzac, whom Beyle in Henri Brulard compares with Chateaubriand. —— C. K. R. M.]

Armance might perhaps have been taken in by these polite overtures, but she did not stop to think about the Commander; she had other grounds for anxiety.

Now that there was no longer any obstacle in the way of his marriage, Octave was given to fits of sombre ill-temper which he found difficulty in concealing; he pleaded a series of violent headaches, and would go out riding by himself in the woods of Ecoucn and Senlis. He would sometimes cover seven or eight leagues at a gallop. These symptoms appeared ominous to Armance; she remarked that at certain moments he gazed at her with eyes in which suspicion was more evident than love.

It was true that these fits of sombre ill-temper ended as often as not in transports of love and in a passionate abandonment which she had never observed in him in the days of their happiness. It was thus that she was beginning to describe, in her letters to Méry de Tersan, the time that had passed between Octave’s injury and her own fatal act of imprudence in hiding in the closet by the Commander’s room.

Since the announcement of her marriage, Armance had had the consolation of being able to open her heart to her dearest friend. Méry, brought up in a far from united family which was always being torn asunder by fresh intrigues, was quite capable of giving her sound advice.

During one of these long walks which she took with Octave in the garden of the mansion, beneath Madame de Malivert’s windows, Armance said to him one day: “There is something so extraordinary in your sadness that I, who love you and you alone in the world, have found it necessary to seek the advice of a friend before venturing to speak to you as I am going now to speak. You were happier before that cruel night when I was so imprudent, and I have no need to tell you that all my own happiness has vanished far more rapidly than yours. I have a suggestion to make to you: let us return to a state of perfect happiness and to that pleasant intimacy which was the delight of my life, after I knew that you loved me, until that fatal idea arose of our marriage. I shall take upon myself entire responsibility for so odd a change. I shall tell people that I have made a vow never to marry. They will condemn the idea, it will impair the good opinion that some of my friends are kind enough to hold of me; what do I care? Public opinion is after all important to a girl with money only so long as she thinks of marry ing; and I certainly shall never marry.” Octave’s only answer was to take her hand, while tears streamed from his eyes in abundance. “Oh, my dear angel,” he said to her, “how far superior you are to me!” The sight of these tears on the face of a man not ordinarily subject to that weakness combined with so simple a speech to destroy all Armance’s resolution.

At length she said to him with an effort: “Answer me, my friend. Accept a proposal which is going to restore my happiness. We shall continue to spend our time together just as much as before.” She saw a servant approaching them. “The luncheon bell is going to ring,” she went on in some distress, “your father will be arriving from Paris, afterwards I shall not have another opportunity of speaking to you, and if I do not speak to you I shall be unhappy and agitated all day, for I shall be a little doubtful of you.” “You! Doubtful of me!” said Octave gazing at her in a way which for a moment banished all her fears.

After walking for some minutes in silence: “No, Octave,” Armance went on, “I am not doubtful of you; if I doubted your love, I hope that God would grant me the blessing of death; but after all you have been less happy since your marriage was settled.” “I shall talk to you as I should to myself,” said Octave impetuously. “There are moments in which I am far more happy, for now at last I have the certainty that nothing in the world can separate me from you; I shall be able to see you and to talk to you at every hour of the day, but,” he went on . . . and fell into one of those moods of gloomy silence which filled Armance with despair.

The dread of hearing the luncheon bell, which was going to separate them for the rest of the day perhaps, gave her for the second time the courage to break in upon Octave’s musings: “But what, dear?” she asked him, “tell me all; that fearful but is making me a hundred times more wretched than anything you could add to it.”

“Very well!” said Octave stopping short, turning to face her and gazing fixedly at her, no longer with the gaze of a lover but so as to be able to read her thoughts, “you shall know all; death itself would be less painful to me than the story which I have to tell you, but also I love you far more than life. Do I need to swear to you, no longer as your lover” (and at that moment his eyes were indeed no longer the eyes of a lover) “but as an honourable man and as I should swear to your father, if heaven in its mercy had spared him to us, do I need to swear to you that I love you and you only in the world, as I have never loved before and shall never love again? To be parted from you would be death to me and a hundred times worse than death; but I have a fearful secret which I have never confided to any one, this secret will explain to you my fatal vagaries.”

As he stammered rather than spoke these words, Octave’s features contracted, there was a hint of madness in his eyes; one would have said he no longer saw Armance; his lips twitched convulsively. Armance, more wretched than he, leaned upon the tub of an orange tree; she shuddered on recognising that fatal orange tree by which she had fainted when Octave spoke harshly to her after the night he had spent in the forest. Octave had stopped and stood facing her as though horror-stricken and not daring to continue. His startled eyes gazed fixedly in front of him as though he beheld a vision of a monster.

“Dear friend,” said Armance, “I was more unhappy when you spoke cruelly to me by this same orange tree months ago; at that time I doubted your love. What am I saying?” she corrected herself with passion. “On that fatal day I was certain that you did not love me. Ah! my friend, how far happier I am today!”

The accent of truth with which Armance uttered these last words seemed to moderate the bitter, angry grief to which Octave was a prey. Armance, forgetful of her customary reserve, clasped his hand passionately and urged him to speak; her face came for a moment so close to his that he could feel her warm breath. This sensation moved him to tenderness; speech became easy to him.

“Yes, dear friend,” he said to her, gazing at length into her eyes, “I adore you, you need not doubt my love; but what is the man who adores you? He is a monster.”

With these words, Octave’s tenderness seemed to forsake him; all at once he flew into a fury, tore himself irom the arms of Armance who tried in vain to hold him back, and took to his heels. Armance remained motionless. At that instant the bell rang for luncheon. More dead than alive, she had only to shew her face before Madame de Malivert to obtain leave not to remain at table. Octave’s servant came in a moment later to say that a sudden engagement had obliged his master to set off at a gallop for Paris.

The party at luncheon was silent and chilly; the only happy person was the Commander. Struck by this simultaneous absence of both the voung people, he detected tears of anxiety in his sister’s eyes; he felt a momentary jov. It seemed to him that the affair of the marriage was no longer going quite so well: “marriages have been broken off later than this,” he said to himself, and the intensity of his preoccupation prevented him from making himself agreeable to Mesdames d’Aumale and de Bonnivet. The arrival of the Marquis, who had come from Paris, notwithstanding a threatening of gout, and shewed great annoyance at not finding Octave whom he had warned of his coming, increased the Commander’s joy. “The moment is auspicious,” he told himself, “for making the voice of reason heard.” As soon as luncheon was over, Mesdames d’Aumale and de Bonnivet went upstairs to their rooms; Madame de Malivert disappeared into Armance’s room, and the Commander was animated, that is to say happy, for an hour and a quarter, which he employed in trying to shake his brother-inlaw’s determination in the matter of Octave’s marriage.

There was a strong vein of honesty underlying everything that the old Marquis said in reply. “The indemnity belongs to your sister,” he said; “I myself am a pauper. It is this indemnity which makes it possible for us to think of establishing Octave in life; your sister is more anxious than he, I think, for this marriage with Armance, who, for that matter, has some fortune of her own; in all this I can do nothing, as a man of honour, but express my opinion; it would be impossible for me to speak with authority; I should have the air of wishing to deprive my wife of the pleasure of spending the rest of her life with her dearest friend.”

Madame de Malivert had found Armance greatly agitated but scarcely communicative. Urged by the call of affection, Armance spoke in the vaguest terms of a trifling quarrel, such as occurs at times between people who are most fervently in love. “I am sure that Octave is to blame,” said Madame de Malivert as she rose to go, “otherwise you would tell me all;” and she left Armance to herself. This was doing her a great service. It soon became plain to her that Octave had committed some serious crime, the dread consequences of which he might perhaps have exaggerated, and that as a man of honour he would not allow her to unite her destiny with that of one who was perhaps a murderer, without letting her know the whole truth.

Dare we say that this explanation of Octave’s eccentricity restored his cousin to a sort of tranquillity? She went down to the garden, half hoping to find him there. She felt herself at that moment entirely rid of the profound jealousy which Madame d’Aumale had inspired in her; she did not, it is true, admit to herself that this might account for the state of blissful emotion in which she found herself. She felt herself transported by the most tender and most generous pity.

“If we have to leave France,” she said to herself, “and go into banishment far away, were it even in America, well, away we shall go,” she said to herself with joy, “and the sooner the better.” And her imagination began to wander, picturing a life of complete solitude on a desert island, ideas too romantic and, what is more, too familiar on the pages of novels to be recorded here. Neither on that day nor on the next did Octave put in an appearance: only on the evening of the second day Armance received a letter dated from Paris. Never had she been so happy. The most burning, the most abandoned passion glowed in this letter. “Ah! If he had been here at the moment when he wrote, he would have told me all.” Octave let it be understood that he was detained in Paris because he was ashamed to tell her his secret. “It is not at every moment,” the letter went on, “that I shall have the courage to utter that fatal word, even to you, for it may destroy the sentiments which you deign to feel for me and which are everything to me. Do not press me upon this subject, dear friend.” Armance made haste to reply to him by a servant who was waiting. “Your greatest crime,” she told him, “is your remaining away from us,” and she was no less surprised than joyful when, half an hour after writing to him, she saw Octave appear, he having come out to await her answer at Labarre near Andilly.

The days that followed were days of unbroken happiness. The illusions induced by the passion that was animating Armance were so strange that presently she found herself quite accustomed to the idea of being in love with a murderer. It seemed to her that it must at the very least be murder, this crime of which Octave hesitated to admit himself guilty. Her cousin spoke too carefully to exaggerate his ideas, and he had used these very words: “I am a monster.”

In the first love letter that she had ever written to him or to any one, she had promised him that she would not ask him questions; this vow was sacred in her eyes. Octave’s letter to her in reply she treasured. She had read it a score of times, she formed the habit of writing every evening to the man who was to be her husband; and as it would have made her blush to speak his name to her maid, she concealed her first letter in the tub of that orange tree which Octave had good reason to know.

She informed him of this in a word one morning as they were sitting down to luncheon. He left the room with the excuse that he had to give an order, and Armance had the indescribable pleasure, when he returned a quarter of an hour later, of reading in his eyes the expression of the keenest happiness and tenderest gratitude.

A day or two after this, Armancc found the courage to write to him: “I believe you to be guilty of some great crime; it shall be our lifelong duty to atone for it, if atonement be possible; but the strange thing is that I am perhaps even more tenderly devoted to you than before this confidence.

“I feel how much this avowal must have cost you, it is the first great sacrifice that you have ever made for me, and, let me tell you, it is only from that moment that I have been cured of an ugly sentiment which I too scarcely dared confess to you. I imagine the worst. And so it seems to me that you need not make me a more detailed confession before a certain ceremony is performed. You will not have deceived me, I swear to you. God pardons the penitent, and I am sure that you are exaggerating your offence; were it as grave as it can be, I, who have seen your anxieties, forgive you. You will make me a full confession in a year from now, perhaps you will then be less afraid of me. . . . I cannot, however, promise to love you more dearly.”

A number of letters written in this strain of angelic goodness had almost made Octave decide to confide in writing to his mistress the secret that she was entitled to learn; but the shame, the embarrassment of writing such a letter still held him back.

He went to Paris to consult M. Dolier, the relative who had acted as his second. He knew that M. Dolier was a man of honour, endowed with a straightforward mind and not clever enough to compound with his duty or to indulge in illusions. Octave asked him whether he was absolutely bound to confide in Mademoiselle de Zohiloff a fatal secret, which he would not have hesitated to disclose, before his marriage, to her father or guardian. He went so far as to shew M. Dolier the part of Armance’s letter which we have quoted above.

“You can have no excuse for not speaking,” was the gallant officer’s reply, “it is your bounden duty. You must not take advantage of Mademoiselle de Zohiloff’s generosity. It would be unworthy of you to deceive any one, and it would be even more beneath the noble Octave to deceive a poor orphan who has perhaps no friend but himself among all the men of her family.”

Octave had told himself all this a thousand times, but it acquired an entirely new force when it issued from the lips of a firm and honourable man.

Octave thought he heard the voice of destiny speaking.

He took his leave of M. Dolier vowing that he would write the fatal letter in the first café that he should find on his right hand after leaving his cousin’s house; he kept his word. He wrote a letter of ten lines and addressed it to Mademoiselle de Zohiloff, at the Château de —— — by Andilly.

On leaving the café, he looked about him for a letterbox; as luck would have it, there was none to be seen. Presently a remnant of that awkward feeling which urged him to postpone such a confession as long as Possible, succeeded in persuading him that a letter of such importance ought not to be entrusted to the post, that it was better that he should place it himself in the tub of the orange tree in the garden at Andilly. Octave had not the intelligence to see in the idea of this postponement a lingering illusion of a passion that was barely conquered.

The essential thing, in his situation, was for him not to give way an inch to the repugnance which M. Dolier’s stern advice had helped him to overcome. He mounted his horse to carry his letter to Andilly.

Since the morning on which the Commander had had a suspicion of some misunderstanding between the lovers, the natural frivolity of his character had given way to an almost incessant desire to do them an injury.

He had taken as confidant the Chevalier de Bonnivet. All the time that the Commander had formerly employed in dreaming of speculations on ‘Change and in jotting down figures in a pocket-book, he now devoted to seeking a way in which to break off his nephew’s engagement.

His proposals at first were none too reasonable; the Chevalier de Bonnivet regularised his plan of attack. He suggested to him that he should have Armance followed, and, by spending a few louis, the Commander made spies of all the servants in the house. They told him that Octave and Armance were corresponding, and that they concealed their letters in the tub of an orange tree bearing a certain number.

Such imprudence appeared incredible to the Chevalier de Bonnivet. He left the Commander to think over it. Seeing at the end of a week that M. de Soubirane had progressed farther than the obvious idea of reading the amorous expressions of a pair of lovers, he skilfully reminded him that, among a score of different foibles, he had had, for six months, a passion for autograph letters; the Commander had employed at that time a very clever copyist. This idea penetrated that thick skull but produced no effect. It had the company there, however, of a burning hatred.

The Chevalier hesitated long before risking himself with such a man. The sterility of his associate’s mind was discouraging. Moreover, at the first check, he might confess everything. Fortunately, the Chevalier remembered a vulgar novel in which the villain has the lovers’ handwriting copied and fabricates forged letters. The Commander read scarcely anything, but had at one time worshipped fine bindings. The Chevalier decided to make a final attempt; should this prove unsuccessful, he would abandon the Commander to all the aridity of his own methods. One of Thouvenin’s men, lavishly paid, worked day and night and clothed in a superb binding the novel in which the trick of forging letters occurred. The Chevalier took this sumptuous book, brought it out to Andilly and stained with coffee the page on which the substitution of the forged letters was described.

“I am in despair,” he said one morning to the Commander as he entered his room. “Madame de —— — who is mad about her books, as you know, has had this miserable novel bound in the most beautiful style. I was ass enough to pick it up in her house, and have stained one of the pages. Now you have collected or invented the most astounding secrets for doing everything, could not you shew me how to forge a new page?” The Chevalier, having discoursed at great length and used the expressions most akin to the idea that he wished to suggest, left the volume in the Commander’s room.

He mentioned it to him at least ten times before it occurred to M. de Soubirane to hatch a quarrel between the lovers by means of forged letters.

He was so proud of this idea that at first he was inclined to exaggerate its importance; he spoke of it in this light to the Chevalier, who was horrified at so immoral an action and left that evening for Paris. A couple of days later the Commander, in the course of conversation with him, returned to his idea. “To substitute a forged letter would be atrocious,” cried the Chevalier. “Is your love for your nephew so strong that the end justifies the means?”

But the reader is doubtless no less tired than ourselves of these sordid details; details in which we see the cankered fruit of the new generation competing with the frivolity of the old.

The Commander, still full of pity for the Chevalier’s innocence, proved to him that, in an almost hopeless cause, the most certain way to be defeated was to attempt nothing.

M. de Soubirane boldly rescued from his sister’s hearth a number of scraps of Armance’s handwriting, and easily obtained from his penman copies which it was hard to distinguish from their originals. He had already begun to base his hopes of a breach of Octave’s engagement upon the most definite anticipations of the intrigues of the coming winter, the distractions of the ballroom, the advantageous offers which he would be able to have made to the family. The Chevalier de Bonnivet was filled with admiration for his character. “Why is not this man a Minister,” he said to himself, “the highest offices would be mine. But with this cursed Charter, public debates, the liberty of the press, never could such a man become a Minister, however noble his birth.” Finally, after he had waited patiently for a fortnight, it occurred to the Commander to compose a letter from Armance to Méry de Tersan, her dearest friend. The Chevalier was for the second time on the point of throwing up the sponge. M. de Soubirane had spent two days in drafting a model letter sparkling with wit and overloaded with delicate fancies, a reminiscence of the letters he himself used to write in 1789.

“Our generation is more serious than that,” the Chevalier told him, “you should aim at being pedantic, grave, boring. . . . Your letter is charming; the Chevalier de Laclos would not have disowned it, but it will not take in any one today.” “Always today, today!” retorted the Commander, “your Laclos was nothing but a fool. I do not know why all you young men model yourselves on him. His characters drivel like barbers,” etc., etc.

The Chevalier was enchanted with the Commander’s hatred for Laclos; he put up a stout defence of the author of Les liaisons dangereuses, was completely routed, and finally obtained a model letter, not nearly emphatic or German enough for his purpose, but still quite reasonable. The model letter drafted after so stormy a discussion was presented by the Commander to his copier of autographs who, thinking that it was merely a question of epistolary gallantry, raised only the objections necessary to secure ample payment for himself, and produced a lifelike imitation of Mademoiselle de Zohiloff’s hand. Armance was supposed to be writing her friend Méry de Tersan a long letter about her approaching marriage to Octave.

As he returned to Andilly with the letter written according to M. Dolier’s suggestions, the predominant thought in Octave’s mind throughout his ride had been that he must make Armance promise not to read his letter until they had parted for the night. Octave intended to leave the following morning at daybreak; he was quite certain that Armance would write in reply. He hoped thus somewhat to diminish the awkwardness of a first meeting after such a confession. He had made up his mind to this course only because he discerned an element of heroism in Armance’s attitude. For a long time past he had never surprised her at any moment in her life when she was not dominated by the happiness or grief arising from the sentiment that united them. Octave had no doubt that she felt a violent passion for himself. Arriving at Andilly he sprang from the saddle, ran to the garden and there, as he was hiding his letter beneath some leaves in the corner of the orange-tree tub, found one from Armance.

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