What shall I do the while? where bide? how live?
Or in my life what comfort, when I am
Dead to him?
CYMBELINE, Act III.
Armance was far from being under any such illusion. It was now a long time since to see Octave had become her one interest in life. When an unexpected turn of fortune had altered her young kinsman’s position in society, how her heart had been torn by inward conflicts! What excuses had she not invented for the sudden change that had become apparent in Octave’s behaviour! She asked herself incessantly: “Has he a vulgar soul?”
When at length she had succeeded in proving to herself that Octave was capable of feeling other forms of happiness than those arising from money and vanity, a fresh cause of distress seized her attention. “I should be doubly scorned,” she said to herself, “were any one to suspect my feelings for him; I, the most penniless of all the girls who come to Madame de Bon-nivet’s drawing-room.” This utter misery which threatened her from every side, and which ought to have set her to curing herself of her passion, had no effect, but, by inducing in her a profound melancholy, that of abandoning her more blindly than ever to the sole pleasure that remained to her in the world, the pleasure of thinking of Octave.
Every day she saw him for some hours, and the petty incidents of each day affected her mental attitude towards her cousin; how could she possibly be cured? It was from fear of betraying herself and not from scorn that she had taken such good care never to have any intimate conversation with him.
On the day following the explanation in the garden, Octave called twice at the Hôtel de Bonnivet, but Armance did not appear. This strange absence greatly increased his uneasiness as to the favourable or disastrous effect of the step he had ventured to take. That evening, he read his sentence in his cousin’s absence and had not the heart to seek distraction in the sound of vain words; he could not bring himself to speak to any one.
Whenever the door of the drawing-room opened, he felt that he was about to die of hope and fear combined; at length one o’clock struck, and it was time to go. As he left the Hôtel de Bonnivet, the hall, the street-front, the black marble lintel of the door, the crumbling wall of the garden, all these things, common enough in themselves, seemed to him to wear a new and special aspect, derived from Armance’s anger. Their familiar forms became precious to Octave, owing to the melancholy which they inspired in him. Dare I say that they rapidly acquired in his eyes a sort of tender nobility? He shuddered when next day he detected a resemblance between the old wall of his father’s garden, crowned with a few yellow wall-flowers in blossom, and the enclosing wall of the Hôtel de Bonnivet.
On the third day after his venturing to speak to his cousin, he called upon the Marquise, firmly convinced that he had been for ever relegated to the category of mere acquaintance. What was his dismay on, catching sight of Armance at the piano? She greeted him in a friendly fashion. He thought her pale and greatly altered. And yet — and this astonished him greatly and almost restored a glimpse of hope — he thought he could detect in her eyes a certain trace of happiness.
The weather was perfect, and Madame de Bonnivet wished to take advantage of one of the most beautiful mornings of spring to make some long excursion. “Will you be one of us, cousin?” she said to Octave. “Yes, Madame, if it is not to be the Bois de Boulogne, nor the Bois de Mousseaux.” Octave knew that Armance disliked both places. “The King’s Garden, if we go by the boulevard; will that find favour in your sight?” “It is more than a year since I was last there.” “I have never seen the baby elephant,” said Armance, jumping for joy, as she went to put on her hat. They set off gaily. Octave was almost beside himself; Madame de Bonnivet drove along the boulevard in an open carriage with her good-looking Octave, This was how the men of their circle who saw them spoke of them. Those whose livers were out of order gave utterance to melancholy reflexions as to the frivolity of great ladies, who were reverting to the ways of the Court of Louis XV. “In the serious events towards which we are marching,” these poor creatures went on to say, “it is a great mistake to let the Third Estate and the working classes have the advantage of regularity of morals and decent behaviour. The Jesuits are perfectly right to make a point of severity.”
Armance said that her aunt’s bookseller had just sent three volumes entitled History of ——— . “Do you recommend the book?” the Marquise asked Octave. “It is so blatantly praised in the newspapers that I am distrustful of it.” “You will find it very well written, all the same,” Octave told her; “the author knows how to tell a story and he has not yet sold himself to any party.” “But is it amusing?” said Armance. “Plaguily dull,” replied Octave. The talk turned to historical certainty, then to monuments. “Did you not tell me, the other day,” said Madame de Bonnivet, “that there is nothing certain except ancient monuments?” “Yes, for the history of the Romans and Greeks, who were rich people and built monuments; but the libraries contain thousands of manuscripts dealing with the middle ages, and it is only from pure laziness on the part of our so-called scholars that we do not make use of them.” “But those manuscripts are written in such vile Latin,” Madame de Bonnivet went on. “Barely intelligible perhaps to our scholars, but not so bad. You would be highly pleased with the Letters of Heloise to Abelard.” “Their tomb used to be, I have heard, in the Musée Français,“said Armance,“what has become of it?” “It has been set up in Père-Lachaise.” “Let us go and look at it,” said Madame de Bonnivet, and a few minutes later they arrived in that English garden, the only garden of real beauty as a site that exists in Paris. They visited the tomb of Abelard, the obelisk erected to Masséna; they looked for the grave of Labédoyère. Octave saw the spot where rests the young B—— — and made her an oblation of tears.
Their conversation was serious, grave, but touching in its intensity. Their true feelings came boldly to the surface. As a matter of fact, they touched only upon subjects that were hardly likely to compromise them, but the heavenly charm of candour was none the less keenly felt by the party, when they saw advancing upon them a group the presiding deity of which was the clever Comtesse de G———. She came to the place in search of inspiration, she informed Madame de Bonnivet.
At this speech, our friends could barely help smiling; never had the commonness and affectation that underlay the words seemed to them so shocking. Madame de G—— — like all vulgar French people, exaggerated her impressions in order to create an effect, and the people whose conversation she was interrupting modified their sentiments slightly when they expressed them, not from insincerity but from a sort of instinctive modesty which is unknown among common people, however intelligent they may be.
After a few words of general conversation, as the path was extremely narrow, Octave and Armance found themselves left in the rear.
“You were unwell the day before yesterday,” said Octave; “indeed, your friend Méry’s pallor, when she came down from your room, made me afraid that you must be feeling very ill.”
“I was not ill at all,” said Armance in a tone the lightness of which was a trifle marked, “and the interest which your old friendship takes in all that concerns me, to speak like Madame de G—— — makes it my duty to tell you the cause of my little disturbance. •For some time past there has been a question of my marriage; the day before yesterday, it was on the point of being broken off, and that is why I was a little upset in the garden. But I beg of you absolute secrecy,” said Armance in alarm as Madame de Bonnivet began to move towards them. “I rely upon eternal secrecy, even from your mother, and especially from my aunt.” This avowal greatly astonished Octave; Madame de Bonnivet having again withdrawn: “Will you permit me to ask one question,” he went on. “Is it purely a marriage of convenience?”
Armance, to whose cheeks the fresh air and exercise had brought the most vivid colours, suddenly turned pale. When forming her heroic project overnight, she had not foreseen this very simple question. Octave saw that he had been indiscreet, and was trying to think of some way of turning the conversation with a jest, when Armance said to him, making an effort to subdue her grief: “I hope that the person in question will deserve your friendship; he has all mine. But, if you please, let us not say any more about this arrangement, which is still perhaps far from complete.” Shortly afterwards, they returned to the carriage, and Octave, who could think of nothing more to say, asked to be set down at the Gymnase.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00