BOOK TWO : Chapter 28 - Manon Lescaut
Now once he was fully convinced of the foolishness and idiocy of the prior, he succeeded quite straightforwardly by calling black white, and white black.
The Russian instructions laid down categorically that one must never contradict in speech the person with whom one corresponded. One must never depart, upon any account, from an attitude of the most ecstatic admiration; the letters were all based upon this supposition.
One evening, at the Opera, in Madame de Fervaques’s box, Julien praised to the skies the ballet in Manon Lescaut.† His sole reason for doing so was that he found it insipid.
† Trans. footnote: Composed by Halevy upon a libretto by Scribe, and performed in 1830.]
The Marechale said that this ballet was greatly inferior to abbe Prevost’s novel.
‘What!’ thought Julien, with surprise and amusement, ‘a person of such extreme virtue praise a novel!’ Madame de Fervaques used to profess, two or three times weekly, the most utter scorn for the writers, who, by means of those vulgar works, sought to corrupt a younger generation only too prone to the errors of the senses.
‘In that immoral and pernicious class, Manon Lescaut,’ the Marechale went on, ‘occupies, they say, one of the first places. The frailties and well-merited sufferings of a thoroughly criminal heart are, they say, described in it with a truth that is almost profound; which did not prevent your Bonaparte from declaring on Saint Helena that it was a novel written for servants.’
This speech restored all its activity to Julien’s spirit. ‘People have been trying to damage me with the Marechale; they have told her of my enthusiasm for Napoleon. This intelligence has stung her sufficiently for her to yield to the temptation to let me feel her resentment.’ This discovery kept him amused for the rest of the evening and made him amusing. As he was bidding the Marechale good night in the vestibule of the Opera: ‘Bear in mind, Sir,’ she said to him, ‘that people must not love Napoleon when they love me; they may, at the most, accept him as a necessity imposed by Providence. Anyhow, the man had not a soul pliant enough to feel great works of art.’
‘When they love me!’ Julien repeated to himself; ‘either that means nothing at all, or it means everything. There is one of the secrets of language that are hidden from us poor provincials.’ And he thought incessantly of Madame de Renal as he copied an immensely long letter intended for the Marechale.
‘How is it,’ she asked him the following evening, with an air of indifference which seemed to him unconvincing, ‘that you speak to me of London and Richmond in a letter which you wrote last night, it appears, after leaving the Opera?’
Julien was greatly embarrassed; he had copied the letter line for line, without thinking of what he was writing, and apparently had forgotten to substitute for the words London and Richmond, which occurred in the original, Paris and Saint–Cloud. He began two or three excuses, but found it impossible to finish any of them; he felt himself on the point of giving way to an outburst of helpless laughter. At length, in his search for the right words, he arrived at the following idea: ‘Exalted by the discussion of the most sublime, the highest interests of the human soul, my own, in writing to you, must have become distracted.
‘I am creating an impression,’ he said to himself, ‘therefore I can spare myself the tedium of the rest of the evening.’ He left the Hotel de Fervaques in hot haste. That evening, as he looked over the original text of the letter which he had copied the night before, he very soon came to the fatal passage where the young Russian spoke of London and Richmond. Julien was quite surprised to find this letter almost tender.
It was the contrast between the apparent frivolity of his talk and the sublime and almost apocalyptic profundity of his letters that had marked him out. The length of his sentences was especially pleasing to the Marechale; this was not the cursory style brought into fashion by Voltaire, that most immoral of men! Although our hero did everything in the world to banish any suggestion of common sense from his conversation, it had still an anti-monarchical and impious colour which did not escape the notice of Madame de Fervaques. Surrounded by persons who were eminently moral, but who often had not one idea in an evening, this lady was profoundly impressed by everything that bore a semblance of novelty; but, at the same time, she felt that she owed it to herself to be shocked by it. She called this defect, ‘retaining the imprint of the frivolity of the age’.
But such drawing-rooms are worth visiting only when one has a favour to ask. All the boredom of this life without interests which Julien was leading is doubtless shared by the reader. These are the barren moorlands on our journey.
Throughout the time usurped in Julien’s life by the Fervaques episode, Mademoiselle de La Mole had to make a constant effort not to think of him. Her heart was exposed to violent combats: sometimes she flattered herself that she was despising this gloomy young man; but, in spite of her efforts, his conversation captivated her. What astonished her most of all was his complete insincerity; he never uttered a word to the Marechale which was not a lie, or at least a shocking travesty of his point of view, which Mathilde knew so perfectly upon almost every subject. This Machiavellism impressed her. ‘What profundity!’ she said to herself; ‘how different from the emphatic blockheads or the common rascals, like M. Tanbeau, who speak the same language!’
Nevertheless, Julien passed some fearful days. It was to perform the most arduous of his duties that he appeared each evening in the Marechale’s drawing-room. His efforts to play a part ended by sapping all his spiritual strength. Often, at night, as he crossed the vast courtyard of the Hotel de Fervaques, it was only by force of character and reason that he succeeded in keeping himself from sinking into despair.
‘I conquered despair at the Seminary,’ he said to himself: ‘and yet what an appalling prospect I had before me then! I stood to make my fortune or to fail; in either case, I saw myself obliged to spend my whole life in the intimate society of all that is most contemptible and disgusting under heaven. The following spring, when only eleven short months had passed, I was perhaps the happiest of all the young men of my age.’
But often enough all these fine arguments proved futile when faced with the frightful reality. Every day he saw Mathilde at luncheon and at dinner. From the frequent letters which M. de La Mole dictated to him, he knew her to be on the eve of marrying M. de Croisenois. Already that amiable young man was calling twice daily at the Hotel de La Mole: the jealous eye of an abandoned lover did not miss a single one of his actions.
When he thought he had noticed that Mademoiselle de La Mole was treating her suitor kindly, on returning to his room, Julien could not help casting a loving glance at his pistols.
‘Ah, how much wiser I should be,’ he said to himself, ‘to remove the marks from my linen, and retire to some lonely forest, twenty leagues from Paris, there to end this accursed existence! A stranger to the countryside, my death would remain unknown for a fortnight, and who would think of me after a fortnight had passed?’
This reasoning was extremely sound. But next day, a glimpse of Mathilde’s arm, seen between her sleeve and her glove, was enough to plunge our young philosopher in cruel memories, which, at the same time, made him cling to life. ‘Very well!’ he would then say to himself, ‘I shall follow out this Russian policy to the end. How is it going to end?
‘As for the Marechale, certainly, after I have copied these fifty-three letters, I shall write no more.
‘As for Mathilde, these six weeks of such painful play-acting, will either fail altogether to appease her anger, or will win me a moment of reconciliation. Great God! I should die of joy!’ And he was unable to pursue the idea farther.
When, after a long spell of meditation, he succeeded in recovering the use of his reason: ‘Then,’ he said to himself, ‘I should obtain a day’s happiness, after which would begin again her severities, founded, alas, upon the scant power that I have to please her, and I should be left without any further resource, I should be ruined, lost for ever . . .
‘What guarantee can she give me, with her character? Alas, my scant merit is responsible for everything. I must be wanting in elegance in my manners, my way of speaking must be heavy and monotonous. Great God! Why am I myself?’