Armance, by Stendhal


But passion most dissembles, yet betrays

Even by its darkness; as the blackest sky

Foretells the heaviest tempest, it displays

Its workings through the vainly guarded eye,

And in whatever aspect it arrays

Itself,’tis still the same hypocrisy;

Coldness or anger, even disdain or hate,

Are masks it often wears, and still too late.

  DON JUAN, I, 73.

Octave remained motionless, his eyes brimming with tears, and not knowing whether he ought to rejoice or to mourn. After so long a period of waiting, he had at last been able to give battle, that battle for which he had so longed; but had he lost or won it? “If it is lost,” he told himself, “there is nothing more for me in this direction. Armance thinks me so reprehensible that she pretends to be satisfied with the first excuse that I offer her, and does not deign to enter upon an explanation with a man so little worthy of her friendship. What is the meaning of those brief words: You have all my esteem? Could anything be colder? Is that a complete return to our old intimacy? Is it a polite way of cutting short a disagreeable explanation?” The departure, so abruptly, of Armance seemed to him to be an especially evil omen.

While Octave, a prey to a profound astonishment, was seeking to recall exactly what had happened to him, trying to forecast the consequences, and trembling lest, amid his efforts to reason fairly, he should suddenly arrive at some decisive revelation which would make an end of all uncertainty by proving to him that his cousin found him unworthy of her esteem, Armance was being racked by the most intense grief. Her tears ehoked her; but they were tears of shame and no longer of happiness.

She hastened to shut herself up in her own room. “Great God,” she said to herself in the intensity of her confusion, “what on earth will Octave think after seeing me in this state? Has he understood my tears? Alas! Can I doubt it? Since when has a simple admission of friendship made a girl of my age burst into tears? Oh, God! After such humiliation how can I venture to face him again? The only thing wanting to complete the horror of my situation was to have deserved his contempt. But,” Armance said to herself, “it was something more than a simple admission; for three months I avoided speaking to him; it is a sort of reconciliation between friends who have quarrelled, and people say that one sheds tears at reconciliations of that sort; — yes, but one does not run away, one is not plunged in the most intense confusion.

“Instead of shutting myself up and crying in my bedroom, I ought to be out in the garden and to go on talking to him, happy in the simple happiness of friendship. Yes,” Armance told herself, “I ought to go back to the garden; perhaps Madame de Bonnivet has not yet returned.” As she rose, she looked at herself in the glass and saw that she was not in a fit state to let herself be seen by a man. “Ah!” she cried, letting herself sink down in despair upon a chair, “I am a poor wretch who has forfeited her honour, and in whose eyes? In Octave’s.” Her sobs and her despair prevented her from thinking.

“What!” she said to herself, after an interval, “so peaceful, so happy even, in spite of my fatal secret, half an hour ago, and now ruined! Ruined for ever, without remedy! A man of such intelligence as his must have seen the whole extent of my weakness, and it is one of the weaknesses that must be most offensive to his stern judgment.” Armance was stifled by her tears. This violent state continued for some hours; it produced a slight touch of fever which won for Armance the permission not to leave her room that evening.

The fever increased, presently an idea came to her: “I am only half despicable, for after all I did not confess in so many words my fatal secret. But after what has happened, I cannot answer for anything. I must erect an eternal barrier between Octave and myself. I must enter religion, I shall choose the order that allows most solitude, a convent situated among high mountains, with a picturesque view. There I shall never hear his name spoken. This is the voice of duty,” the unhappy Armance told herself. From that moment the sacrifice was made. She did not say it to herself, she felt (to express it in detail would have been tantamount to doubting it), she felt this truth: “From the moment when I perceived my duty, not to follow it immediately, blindly, without argument, is to act in a vulgar spirit, is to be unworthy of Octave. How often has he told me that this is the secret sign by which one can recognise a noble spirit! Ah! I will submit to your decree, my noble friend, my dear Octave!” Her fever emboldened her to utter his name in a whisper, and she found happiness in repeating it.

Presently Armance was picturing herself as a nun. There were moments in which she was astonished at the mundane ornaments which decorated her little room. “That fine engraving of the Sistine Madonna which Madame de Malivert gave me, I too must give it away,” she said to herself; “it was chosen by Octave, he preferred it to the Marriage of the Madonna, Raphael’s first painting. Even then I remember that I argued with him over the soundness of his choice, solely that I might have the pleasure of hearing him defend it. Was I in love with him then without knowing it? Have I always loved him? Ah! I must tear that dishonourable passion from my heart.” And the unhappy Armance, trying to forget her cousin, found his memory blended with all the events of her life, even the most insignificant. She was alone, she had sent her maid away, to be able to weep without constraint. She rang the bell and had her engravings carried into the next room. Soon the little room was stripped bare and adorned only with its pretty wallpaper of a lapis-lazuli blue. “Is a nun allowed,” she wondered, “to have a wallpaper in her cell?” She pondered for long over this difficulty; her spirit needed to form an exact idea of the state to which she would be reduced in her cell; her uncertainty in this matter surpassed all other evils, for it was her imagination that was engaged in portraving them. “No,” she said to herself at length, “papers cannot be allowed, they were not invented in the days of the foundresses of the religious orders; these orders come from Italy; Prince Touboskin told us that a white wall, washed every year with lime, is the only ornament of many beautiful monasteries. Ah!” she went on in her delirium, “I ought perhaps to go and take the veil in Italy; I should make my health an excuse.

“Oh, no. Let me at least not leave Octave’s native land, let me at least always hear his tongue spoken.” At this moment Méry de Tersan entered the room; the bareness of the walls caught her eye; she turned pale as she approached her friend. Armance, exalted by her fever and by a certain virtuous enthusiasm which was also another way of being in love with Octave, sought to bind her by a confidence. “I wish to become a nun,” she said to Méry. “What! Has the sereness of a certain person’s heart gone so far as to wound your delicacy?” “Oh, Lord, no, I have no fault to find with Madame de Bonnivet; she is as fond of me as she can be of a penniless girl who has no position in society. Indeed, she is loving to me when things vex her, and could not be kinder to any one than she is to me. I should be unjust, and be shewing a spirit worthy of my position, if I reproached her in the slightest degree.” One of the final phrases of this reply drew tears from Méry, who was rich and had the noble sentiments that distinguish her illustrious family. Without conversing save by their tears and the pressure of one another’s hand, the friends spent a great part of the evening together. Finally, Armance told Méry all her reasons for retiring to a convent, with one exception: what was to become socially of a penniless girl, who after all could not be given in marriage to a small shopkeeper round the corner? What fate was in store for her? In a convent one is bound only by the rule. If there are not those distractions which we owe to the arts and to the intelligence of people in society, distractions which she enjoyed with Madame de Bonnivet, there is never either the absolute necessity of attracting one person in particular, with humiliation if one does not succeed. Armance would have died of shame sooner than utter the name of Octave. “This is the climax of my misery,” she thought, weeping and throwing herself into Méry’s arms. “I cannot ask advice even of the most devoted, the most virtuous friendship.”

While Armance was weeping in her room, Octave, yielding to an impulse which, for all his philosophy, he was far from explaining to himself, knowing that throughout the evening he would not set eyes on Mademoiselle de Zohiloff, engaged in talk with the women whom as a rule he neglected for the religious argument’s of Madame de Bonnivet. For many months now Octave had found himself pursued by advances which were extremely polite and all the more irritating in consequence. He had become misanthropical and soured; soured like Alceste, on the subject of marriageable daughters. As soon as any one spoke to him of a woman in society whom he did not know, his first remark was: “Has she a daughter to marry?” Latterly, indeed, his prudence had taught him not to be satisfied with an initial reply in the negative. “Madame So-and-So has no daughter to marry,” he would say, “but are you sure there isn’t some niece or other?”

While Armance was being racked by delirium, Octave, who was seeking distraction from the uncertainty in which the incident of the afternoon had plunged him, not only talked to all the women who had nieces, but even tackled several of those redoubtable mothers who have as many as three daughters. Perhaps this display of courage had been rendered easy to him by the sight of the little chair on which Armance generally sat, near Madame de Bonnivet’s armchair; it had just been taken by one of the young ladies de Claix, whose fine German shoulders, benefiting by the lowness of Armance’s little seat, took the opportunity to display all their freshness. “What a difference!” thought or rather felt Octave; “how ashamed my cousin would be of what constitutes the triumph of Mademoiselle de Claix! For her, it is no more than permissible coquetry; it is not even a fault; of this, too, one can say: Noblesse oblige.” Octave set to work to pay court to Mademoiselle de Claix. It would have required some personal motive for trying to understand him or greater familiarity with the habitual simplicity of his expression to detect all the bitterness and scorn that underlay his pretended gaiety. His listeners were kind enough to discover wit in what he said to them; to himself the remarks that received most applause seemed quite commonplace and sometimes even tainted with vulgarity.

As he had not once stopped to talk to Madame de Bonnivet during the evening, when she passed by him she scolded him in a whisper, and Octave apologised for his desertion of her in a speech which the Marquise thought charming. She was highly pleased with the intelligence of her future proselyte, and the self-possessed air which he assumed in society.

She sang his praises with the artless candour of innocence (if the word candour does not blush to see itself employed with reference to a woman who could adopt such charming poses in her bergère and whose eyes were so picturesque when raised to heaven). It must be confessed that at times, when she gazed fixedly at a gilded ornament on the ceiling of her drawing-room, she would actually say to herself: “There, in that empty space, in that air, there is a Spirit who hears me, magnetises my soul and imparts to it the singular and really quite spontaneous sentiments which I express at times with such eloquence.” That evening, Madame de Bonnivet, highly pleased with Octave and with the thought of the position to which her disciple might one day rise, said to Madame de Claix: “Indeed, the only thing wanting to the young Vicomte was the assurance that is given by wealth. Even if I were not in love with that excellent Law of Indemnity, because it is so fair to our poor emigres, I should love it for the new spirit it has given my cousin.” Madame d’Ancre shot a glance at Madame de Claix and Madame la Comtesse de la Ronze; and as Madame de Bonnivet left these ladies, in order to greet a young Duchesse who was entering the room: “It seems to me to be all quite clear,” she said to Madame de Claix. “All too clear,” the latter replied: “we shall be having a scandal; only a little more friendliness on the part of the astounding Octave, and our dear Marquise will be unable to resist the temptation to take us altogether into her confidence.”

“That is always the way,” went on Madame d’Ancre, “that I have seen these people of pronounced virtue end, who go in for laying down the law about religion. Ah! my dear Mai’quise, blessed is the woman who just listens meekly to her parish priest and offers the holy bread!” “It is certainly better than having Bibles bound by Thouvenin,” put in Madame de Claix. But all Octave’s feigned friendliness had vanished in the twinkling of an eye. He had just caught sight of Méry, who had come down from Armance’s bedroom because her mother had sent for her carriage, and Méry’s face was woebegone. She left so hurriedly that Octave had no opportunity of speaking to her. He himself left immediately after her. It would have been impossible for him from that moment to address a word to any one. The distressed air of Mademoiselle de Tersan told him that something out of the common was happening; perhaps Mademoiselle de Zohiloff was about to leave Paris to escape him. What is truly remarkable is that our philosopher had not the slightest idea that he was genuinely in love with Armance. He had bound himself by the strongest vows to resist that passion, and as what he lacked was penetration rather than character, he would probably have kept his vows.

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