He withdrew rapidly to the shelter of a lime alley to be able to read it without interruption. He saw from the opening lines that this letter was intended for Mademoiselle Méry de Tersan (it was the letter composed by the Commander). But the opening lines had so disturbed him that he went on, and read: “I do not know how to reply to your reproaches. You are right, my kind friend, I am mad to complain. This arrangement is, from every point of view, far better than anything a poor girl, who has woken up to find herself rich, and has no family to establish and protect her, could expect. He is a man of parts and of the highest virtue: perhaps he has too much virtue for me. Shall I confess it to you? The times have indeed changed; what would have been the height of bliss for me a few months ago is no more now than a duty; has heaven withheld from me the power to love constantly? I am completing an arrangement that is reasonable and advantageous, as I repeat to myself incessantly, but my heart no longer knows those sweet transports that I used to feel at the sight of the most perfect man, in my eyes, to be found anywhere upon earth, the one being worthy to be loved. I see today that his mood is inconstant, or rather why accuse him? It is not he that has changed; my whole misfortune is that there is inconstancy in my heart. I am about to contract a marriage that is advantageous, honourable, in every sense; but, dear Méry, I blush to confess it to you; I am no longer marrying the person whom I loved above all; I find him serious and at times barely entertaining, and it is with him that I am going to spend my life! Probably in some lonely manor house in the depths of the country where we shall promote the spread of pupil-teaching and vaccination. Perhaps, dear friend, I shall look back with regret upon Madame de Bonnivet’s drawing-room; who would have said so six months ago? This strange fickleness in my character is what distresses me most. Is not Octave the most remarkable young man we have seen this winter? But I have had so miserable a girlhood! I should like an amusing husband. Farewell. The day after tomorrow I am to be allowed to go to Paris; at eleven I shall be at your door.”
Octave stood horror-stricken. All at once he awoke as though from a dream and ran to retrieve the letter which he had just left in the tub of the orange tree: he tore it up furiously, and put the fragments in his pocket.
“I needed,” he said to himself coldly, “the wildest and profoundest passion if I was to be pardoned for my fatal secret. In defiance of all reason, in defiance of every vow I had made to myself throughout my life, I thought I had met with a creature above the rest of humanity. To deserve such an exception, I should have had to be pleasant and gay, and those are the qualities that I lack. I have been mistaken; there is nothing left for me but to die.
“It would doubtless be an offence against the laws of honour not to make a confession, were I involving for all time the destiny of Mademoiselle de Zohiloff. But I can leave her free within a month. She will be a young widow, rich, very beautiful, no doubt greatly sought after; and the name of Malivert will be of greater use to her in finding an amusing husband than the still unfamiliar name of Zohiloff.”
It was in this frame of mind that Octave entered his mother’s room, where he found Armance who was talking of him and longing for his return; soon she was as pale and almost as unhappy as himself, and yet he had just said to his mother that he could not endure the delays that kept postponing the date of his marriage. “There are plenty of people who would be glad to mar my happiness,” he had gone on to say; “I am certain of it. Why do we need all these preparations? Armance is richer than I am, and it is not likely that she will ever want for clothes or jewels. I venture to hope that before the end of the second year of our marriage she will be gay, happy, enjoying all the pleasures of Paris, and that she will never repent of the step she is now about to take. I am sure that she will never be buried in the country in an old manor house.”
There was something so strange in the sound of Octave’s words, so little in keeping with the aspiration that they expressed, that almost simultaneously Armance and Madame de Malivert felt their eyes fill with tears. Armance could barely find strength to reply: “Ah, dear friend, how cruel you are!”
Greatly vexed that he had not managed to assume an air of happiness, Octave left the room abruptly. His determination to end his marriage by death imparted a certain harshness and cruelty to his manner.
Having deplored with Armance what she called her son’s madness, Madame de Malivert came to the conclusion that solitude was of no avail’to a character that was naturally sombre. “Do you love him still in spite of this defect from which he is the first to suffer?” said Madame de Malivert; “consult your heart, my child, I have no wish to make you unhappy, everything may yet be broken off.” “Oh, Mama, I believe that I love him even more than ever, now that I no longer think him so perfect.” “Very well, my pet,” replied Madame de Malivert, “I shall have you married in a week from now. Until then, be indulgent to him, he loves you, you cannot doubt that. You know what he feels about his duty to his family, and yet you saw his fury when he thought you were being made the butt of my brother’s wicked tongue. Be kind and good, my dear child, with this creature who is being made wretched by some odd prejudice against marriage.” Armance, to whom these words spoken at random presented so true a meaning, increased her attentions and tender devotion to Octave.
The following day, at dawn, Octave came to Paris, and spent a very considerable sum, almost two-thirds of what he had at his disposal, in buying costly jewelry which he included among the wedding presents.
He called upon his father’s lawyer and made him insert in the marriage contract certain clauses extremely advantageous to the bride to be, which, in the event of her widowhood, assured her the most ample independence.
It was with business of this sort that Octave occupied the ten days that elapsed between the discovery of Armance’s supposed letter and his marriage. These days were for Octave more tranquil than he could have dared to hope. What makes misery so cruel to tender hearts is a little rav of hope which sometimes lingers.
Octave had no hope. His course was decided, and for a stout heart, however hard the part he may have to play, it dispenses him from reflecting upon his fate, and asks no more of him than the courage to perform it scrupulously; which is a small matter.
What most impressed Octave, when the necessary preparations and business of all sorts left him to himself, was a prolonged astonishment: What! So Mademoiselle de Zohiloflf no longer meant anything to him! He was so far accustomed to believe firmly in the eternity of his love and of their intimate relation, that at every moment he kept forgetting that all was changed, he was incapable of imagining life without Armance. Almost every morning, he was obliged when he awoke to remind himself of his misery. It was a cruel moment. But presently the thought of death came to console him and to restore calm to his heart. At the same time, towards the end of this interval of ten days, Armance’s extreme tenderness caused him some moments of weakness. During their solitary walks, thinking herself authorised by the imminence of their marriage, Armance allowed herself on more than one occasion to take Octave’s hand, which was beautifully shaped, and to raise it to her lips. This increase of tender attentions of which Octave was quite well aware, and, in spite of himself, extremely sensible, often made keen and poignant a grief which he believed himself to have overcome.
He pictured to himself what those caresses would have been coming from a person who really loved him, coining from Armance as, on her own admission, in the fatal letter to Méry, she had still been two months since. “And my want of friendliness and gaiety has been able to kill her love,” said Octave bitterly to himself. “Alas! It was the art of making myself welcome in society that I ought to have studied instead of abandoning myself to all those useless sciences! What good have they done me? What good have I had from my success with Madame d’Aumale? She would have loved me had I wished it. I was not made to please those whom I respect. Evidently a wretched shyness makes me sad, wanting in friendliness, just when I am passionately anxious to please.
“Armance has always alarmed me. I have never approached her without feeling that I was appearing before the ruler of my destiny. I ought to have derived from my experience, and from what I could see going on round about me, a more accurate idea of the effect produced by a pleasant man who seeks to interest a girl of twenty. . . .
“But all that is useless now,” said Octave, breaking off with a melancholy sigh: “my life is ended. Vixi et quem, dederat fortuna sortem peregi.”
[When dying, abandoned by Aeneas, Dido exclaims: “I have lived and have run the course which fortune appointed for me.” [Octave shows a certain indifference here to the laws of prosody. Virgil’s line (Aeneid IV, 653), runs: Vixi et quem dederat cursum fortuna peregi. — C. K. S. M.]
In certain moments of sombre humour, Octave went so far as to interpret Armance’s tender manner, so little in keeping with the extreme reserve which was so natural to her, as the performance of a disagreeable duty which she had set herself. Nothing then could be comparable to his rudeness, which really had almost the appearance of insanity.
Less wretched at other moments, he allowed himself to be touched by the seductive grace of this girl who was to be his bride. It would indeed have been difficult to imagine anything more touching or more noble than the caressing ways of a girl who was ordinarily so reserved, doing violence to the habits of a lifetime in the attempt to restore a little calm to the man whom she loved. She believed him to be the victim of remorse and yet felt a violent passion for him. Now that the main occupation of Armance’s life was no longer to conceal her love and to reproach herself for it, Octave had become dearer to her than ever.
One day, on a walk in the direction of the woods of Ecouen, carried away herself by the tender words which she was venturing to utter, Armance went so far as to say to him, and at the moment she meant what she was saying: “I sometimes think of committing a crime equal to yours so as to deserve that you shall no longer fear me.” Octave, charmed by the accents of true passion, and understanding all that was in her mind, stopped short to gaze fixedly at her, and in another moment might have given her the letter containing his confession, the fragments of which he still carried on his person. As he thrust his hand into the pocket of his coat, he felt the finer paper of the false letter addressed to Méry de Tersan, and his good intention froze.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00