Manon Lescaut Chapter 1

I MUST take you back to the time when I first met the Chevalier des Grieux. It was about six months before I left for Spain.2 At that time I lived alone and seldom stirred abroad, but now and again I went on short journeys if my daughter wanted something attended to, and I made these as brief as I could. I once had to go to Rouen where she had asked me to see a case through the Law Courts relating to some land left by my maternal grandfather which I wished to hand over to her. On my way back I slept the first night at Evreux, and reached Pacy,3 about five or six leagues further on, in time for dinner. As I came into the little town I was surprised to see all the people rushing out of their houses and gathering in a crowd outside a shabby-looking inn in front of which two covered wagons were standing. The two wagons had evidently only just arrived, for the horses were still panting and steaming in the shafts. I stopped a moment to find out the cause of the uproar, but I could get no sense out of the gaping crowd, who ignored my questions and kept on fighting their way towards the inn. But just then there appeared in the doorway a soldier, complete with bandolier and musket, and I beckoned him and asked him what all the excitement was about. ‘Oh, it’s nothing, Sir,’ he said, ‘just a dozen streetwalkers that my friends and I are taking to Havre to be shipped off to America. Some of them aren’t bad looking, either, and I suppose that’s what these yokels want to see.’ I might have left it at that and gone on my way if I had not been pulled up by the cries of an old woman who emerged from the inn wringing her hands and shouting that it was a wicked shame and enough to give anyone the horrors. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘Oh, come and see, Sir! I tell you, it’s enough to break your heart!’ My curiosity was now thoroughly aroused, and I dismounted, left my horse with my man and forced my way through the crowd. It was certainly a pathetic sight that met my eyes: amongst the twelve women who were chained together by the waist in two rows of six was one whose face and bearing were so out of keeping with her present situation that in any other setting I would have taken her for a lady of the gentlest birth. She was in abject misery and her clothes were filthy, but all that had so little effect on her beauty that I felt nothing but pity and respect for her. She was trying to turn away as much as the chains would allow, so as to hide her face from us onlookers, and this effort at concealment was so natural that it seemed to come from feelings of modesty. The six guards escorting this party of outcasts were also in the room, and I took the one in charge aside and asked him to tell me something about this lovely girl. But he could give me nothing but a few bare facts. ‘We picked her up from the Hôpital on police orders. I don’t expect she was put in there for her good behaviour. I have questioned her more than once on the road but can’t get a word out of her. But although I haven’t got orders to treat her any better than the others, I seem to do little things for her because she looks a cut above them, somehow. There’s a young fellow over there,’ he added, ‘who might be able to tell you more than I can about what has brought her down to this. He has followed her all the way from Paris. Crying nearly all the time, too. He must be her brother, or else a lover.’

I turned towards the corner and saw a young man sitting there, apparently unconscious of everything around him. I have never seen a more arresting picture of grief. His clothes were very plain, but a mere glance is all you need to gauge a man’s birth and upbringing. As I went over to him he stood up, and I could see in his eyes, face and every movement such gentle refinement that I instinctively felt kindly disposed towards him. I sat down by his side. ‘Please excuse my troubling you,’ I said, ‘but could you satisfy my curiosity? I should like to know that charming person over there. She does not look as if she were made for the sorry plight she is in.’ He answered quite civilly that he could not tell me who she was without giving away his own identity, and that he had the strongest reasons for wishing to remain unknown. ‘But what I can tell you,’ he went on, pointing to the guards, ‘and those wretches know it all too well, is that I love her so passionately that she has made me the most unhappy man alive. I used every possible means in Paris to get her set free – petitions, intrigues, violence – nothing worked. And so I made up my mind to follow her, if need be to the ends of the earth. I shall embark with her and go to America. But,’ he continued, returning to the subject of the guards, ‘can you imagine anyone more inhuman than those foul creatures? They won’t let me go near her. I had planned to attack them some leagues out from Paris, with the promised help of four men to whom I handed out a large sum. When it came to the fighting, they left me in the lurch and decamped with my money, and so, seeing that I could not succeed by force, I laid down my arms. Then I asked those guards to let me follow them, offering a handsome reward, of course. Their greed made them consent, but every time I have had permission to speak to her I have had to pay. My purse was soon empty, and now that I haven’t a penny left the devils shove me back roughly whenever I take a step in her direction. Only a minute ago I made up my mind to brave their threats and go up to her, and they had the effrontery to raise the butts of their rifles at me. Now I shall have to sell the poor old horse that I have ridden up to now, so as to meet their demands and be able to finish the journey on foot.’

He seemed quite calm while he was telling me all this, but by the time he had finished there were tears in his eyes. The whole story struck me as one of the strangest and saddest I had ever heard. ‘I don’t want to press you to tell me your private business,’ I said, ‘but if I can help you in any way please take this as an offer.’ ‘I cannot see the faintest glimmer of hope,’ he answered with a sigh. ‘I have got to go through with it to the end. No, I shall go to America; at any rate I shall be free there with the woman I love. I have written to a friend of mine who will send me some help at Havre. The only trouble is to get that far and to find what alleviation I can on the way for this poor creature’s sufferings.’ As he spoke these words he glanced sorrowfully at his beloved. ‘Look here,’ I said, ‘do let me put an end to your worries by giving you some money. I am sorry I cannot help you in any other way.’ I managed to give him four louis without the guards noticing, for I was certain that they would put up their prices if they knew he had such a sum. It even occurred to me to strike a bargain with them so as to get permission for the young man to talk uninterruptedly to his love all the way to Havre. I beckoned again to the man in charge, who came over, and when I made the suggestion he seemed quite shamefaced, for all his brazen greed. ‘You see, Sir,’ he managed to stammer out, ‘it isn’t as though we refuse to let him talk to his girl, but he wants to be with her all the time, and that is a nuisance that ought to be paid for. It’s only fair.’ ‘Well, how much do you want for not noticing it?’ He had the effrontery to ask for two louis, but I handed them over without demur. ‘But,’ I said, ‘mind you don’t try on any tricks. I am going to give this gentleman my address so that he can let me know. And don’t forget that I shall be in a position to have the matter followed up.’ The affair cost me six louis altogether, but I could see that the young man deserved all my generosity, and his gratitude and the good grace with which he thanked me showed, if I needed any more showing, that he was a born gentleman. Before going out I had a word or two with the girl, and she sounded so charming and modest that I found myself making many a reflection on the inscrutable nature of woman.

I went back to my life of retirement and heard no more of this incident. Nearly two years went by, and I had forgotten it altogether, when a chance meeting led to my learning the whole story. On my way back from London with my pupil the Marquis of X, I had just reached Calais. We put up at the Golden Lion, if I remember rightly, and for various reasons we had to stay there all that day and the following night. During the afternoon I was walking along a street when I thought I recognized the young man I had seen at Pacy. He looked very shabby, and much paler than when I had first seen him, and seemed to have just arrived in the town, for he was carrying an old portmanteau. But I at once remembered his face, which was too strikingly handsome to be easily forgotten. I said to the Marquis that we must go over and speak to him. When he recognized me he seized my hand and kissed it with unspeakable joy, saying how glad he was to have another chance of expressing his undying gratitude. I asked him where he had just come from and he answered that he had landed from Havre, where he had returned from America shortly before. ‘You don’t look too well off,’ I said. ‘Go along to the Golden Lion. That is where I am staying. I will join you there in a few minutes.’ I hastened back there, full of impatience to hear the detailed story of his misfortunes and his journey to America. I treated him to every kindness and ordered everything to be done for his comfort. He needed no persuasion to tell me the story of his life. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘you have been so good to me that I should reproach myself with ingratitude if I kept anything back from you. I am prepared to acquaint you not only with my misfortunes and sufferings but also with my follies and shameful weakness. You will no doubt blame my behaviour but I am sure you will not be able to help pitying me.’

At this point I must make it clear that I wrote down his story almost immediately after hearing it; consequently this narrative is perfectly accurate and faithful. By faithful I mean that it even reproduces comments and emotional digressions which the young fellow put in with the most natural ease of manner. This is his tale, and I shall add nothing to his own words, from beginning to end.