Manon Lescaut Chapter 1

MY PRESENCE and the polite attentions of M. de T. soon dispelled the last traces of Manon’s gloom. ‘Dearest love,’ I said as I came in, ‘let us forget the past and its terrors, let us start a new and happier life than ever. After all, Love is a kind master who gives us more pleasure than all the ills changing fortune could inflict.’ Supper was a really festive affair.

With Manon and my hundred pistoles I was prouder and happier than the richest tax-collector in Paris with all his piles of treasure. Wealth should be reckoned by our means to satisfy our desires, and not one of mine was left unfulfilled. Even the future gave me few qualms; I was almost sure that my father would make no difficulty about giving me enough to live on decently in Paris, for as I was now in my twentieth year I should soon have a right to demand my share of my mother’s property.14 I did not hide from Manon that my capital consisted of only a hundred pistoles. It was enough to live on in a small way while waiting for the happier turn of fortune which, I felt, was bound to come either through my own rights of succession or through gaming.

And so for the first few weeks my only concern was to get the most enjoyment I could out of the situation. It was as much my sense of honour as a lingering respect for the police that made me put off from day to day renewing my old relationship with the fraternity at the Hôtel de Transylvanie. I restricted my activities to playing in a few less notorious haunts, where good luck spared me the humiliation of having to resort to sharping. I spent part of each afternoon in town, returning to Chaillot for supper, as often as not with M. de T. whose friendship for us grew more intimate every day.

Manon found ways of combating boredom. With the coming of spring some of the young ladies had returned to the district, and she struck up an acquaintance with them. They divided their time between little excursions and trivial feminine occupations, and defrayed the cost of the carriage by arranging gambling parties with strictly limited stakes. They used to go and take the air in the Bois de Boulogne, and when I came home in the evenings it was to find Manon happier and more devoted to me than ever.

Yet a few clouds did arise which looked like threatening the stability of my happiness. But they were soon completely dispelled, and Manon’s merry humour made the upshot so comical that I can still find wistful pleasure in recollecting an episode typical of her affection and fanciful wit.

One day I was drawn aside by the one and only servant in our establishment, who said, with much embarrassment, that he had an important secret to acquaint me with. I encouraged him to speak freely, and after some beating about the bush he gave me to understand that a foreign gentleman seemed to have developed a passion for Mademoiselle Manon. I felt a cold shudder run through all my veins. ‘Does she return it?’ I broke in, more sharply than was prudent if I wanted to find out. The violence of my tone unnerved him, and he answered that he had not been able to see into things as deeply as that. He did say, however, that for some days past he had noticed that this stranger was assiduous in his visits to the Bois de Boulogne, and that he had made a habit of leaving his carriage and walking alone among the trees, apparently looking out for a chance to see or meet Mademoiselle. My servant had therefore decided to strike up an acquaintance with the gentleman’s servants so as to find out his name. To the best of their knowledge he was an Italian prince, and they suspected that he was up to some amorous intrigue. He added nervously that he had not been able to find out anything else because at that moment the prince had emerged from the wood, come up to him without ceremony and asked him his name, and, as if he guessed he belonged to us, had congratulated him on being in the service of the most charming person in the world.

I impatiently waited for the rest of the tale and he ended up with lame excuses due, I imagined, to my ill-advised display of agitation. In vain did I urge him to go on and keep nothing back; he protested that that was all he knew, and that as what he had told me had happened only the day before he had not seen the prince’s servants again. I set his mind at rest, not only by praising him but by giving him a handsome tip into the bargain, and without letting him see that I mistrusted Manon in any way, asked him in a calmer tone to keep an eye on all the stranger’s movements.

But all the same his embarrassment left me in agonies of doubt, for it might have made him hold back part of the truth. But when I had thought it over a little I recovered from my panic and regretted having betrayed my weakness in this way. It was no crime on Manon’s part that people fell in love with her, and everything seemed to point to her being unaware of the conquest she had made. What sort of a life was I going to lead if I was capable of harbouring jealousy so readily? The next day I went back to Paris without having formed any plan beyond that of increasing my wealth as quickly as possible by playing for higher stakes, so as to be in a position to leave Chaillot at the first sign of trouble. I learned nothing disquieting that evening. The stranger had reappeared in the Bois, and on the strength of what had happened the day before he had again come up to my man and talked about his love, but in terms which did not suggest he had any understanding with Manon. He had questioned him on all sorts of details and finally tried to win him over by lavish promises, and, taking out a letter which he had ready prepared, he had vainly tried to make him accept some gold pieces if he would deliver it to his mistress.

Two days went by without further incident. The third was more stormy. It was rather late when I reached home, and I was told that during her walk Manon had left her friends for a moment: she had made a sign to the stranger, who had been following her at no great distance, and when he had come up to her she had given him a letter which he had received with every appearance of rapture. She had run off at once, only giving him time to express his joy by printing loving kisses on her handwriting. But she had seemed unusually gay for the rest of the day, and this mood had persisted since her return home. I think I shuddered at each word. ‘Are you quite sure,’ I said sadly to my man, ‘that your eyes have not deceived you?’ He called on Heaven to witness to his good faith. I do not know to what lengths my tortured heart might have led me, but just then Manon, who had heard me arrive, came out to meet me, looking impatient and scolding me for my slowness. Without waiting for me to speak she smothered me with kisses, and when we were alone she reproached me quite bitterly for the habit I was getting into of coming home so late. Seeing me silent she went on to say that I had not spent a whole day with her for three weeks: she could not endure such long absences and asked me to spare her at least one day now and then. She wanted me to stay with her the very next day from morning till night. ‘I shall be there, make no mistake,’ I answered sharply. She appeared not to notice my ill humour, but in an outburst of seemingly overwhelming joy she described in full and very amusing detail all that had happened to her that day. ‘What a strange woman she is, and what does this prelude betoken?’ I thought, remembering the circumstances of our first separation. And yet I was struck by something genuine in her joy and caresses, some inner harmony with the outward appearances.

I could not help feeling gloomy during supper, but it was easy to ascribe that to losses sustained at cards. It had occurred to me that it was most fortunate that the idea of my not leaving Chaillot next day came from her, for it gave me time to think things out. My being at home removed all sorts of fears for the morrow, and if I noticed nothing to make me bring my discoveries out into the open, I had already decided to move the day after that to a part of Paris where there would be no Italian princes to deal with. While this scheme ensured my having a peaceful night’s sleep, it did not take away my nagging anxiety about a possible new infidelity.

When I woke up Manon informed me that by spending the day at home she did not mean that she wanted me to look slovenly, and she proposed to dress my hair with her own hands. I had a very fine head of hair and she had often amused herself in this way. But this time she took more care over the task than I had ever known her take before. To satisfy her, I had to sit in front of her dressing-table and submit to every little device she could think of for my embellishment. As she worked she frequently turned my face towards her, put her hands on my shoulders and scrutinized me with hungry eyes; then, expressing her satisfaction with a kiss or two, she would turn me round again and go on.

This dalliance kept us busy until dinner-time. She had seemed so genuinely interested in it, and her gaiety smacked so little of artifice, that I was quite unable to make such apparent devotion tally with any intent to deceive me in so foul a manner. More than once I was tempted to open my heart to her and unburden myself of a load that was beginning to weigh me down, but each moment I flattered myself that the initiative would come from her, and promised myself the delights of a triumph.

We went back into her boudoir, where she began to tie up my hair, and I was indulgently submitting to her every wish when it was announced that the Prince of ***** was asking to see her. This name filled me with fury. ‘What!’ I cried, pushing her away from me, ‘Who? What prince?’ She made no answer. ‘Show him up,’ she coolly said to the servant, and then, turning to me: ‘Darling mine, I adore you,’ she said in her most bewitching tones. ‘I ask you for a moment’s indulgence. One moment, only one moment, and then I shall love you a thousand times more, and be grateful all my life.’

I was dumbfounded with surprise and indignation. She repeated her entreaties while I cast round for words with which to throw them back at her with scorn. But hearing the ante-room door open, she grasped my floating hair in one hand, seized her mirror in the other, and exerting all her strength hauled me in that state across the room, pushed the door open with her knee, and presented the stranger, whom the noise had rooted to the middle of the floor, with a sight that must have caused him no little astonishment. I saw a well groomed but exceedingly ugly man.

In spite of his bewilderment, he did not fail to make a deep bow. Manon gave him no time to open his mouth, but thrusting her mirror in his face said: ‘Look, Sir. Have a good look at yourself and give me a fair answer. You ask for my love. Here is the man I love and whom I have vowed to love all my life. Compare for yourself. If you think you can compete with him for my heart, pray tell me on what grounds, for I declare that in the eyes of your humble servant all the princes in Italy are not worth one of the hairs I am holding in my hand.’

All through this crazy speech, which had clearly been thought out in advance, I vainly struggled to get free and, taking pity on a man of such position, I was moved to make amends for this petty outrage by saying something civil to him. But he quickly recovered himself, and I gave up my idea on hearing his reply, which struck me as rather crude: ‘Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle,’ he said, with a forced smile, ‘I certainly have had my eyes opened, and I see you are far less of a novice than I had supposed.’

He took himself off at once without giving her another look, muttering that the women of France were no better than those of Italy. And on this occasion there was nothing to make me want to give him a better impression of the fair sex.15

Manon let go of my hair, flung herself into an armchair and the room re-echoed with her peals of laughter. I will not deny that I was touched to the heart by a sacrifice which I could ascribe only to love. All the same, the joke seemed to me a trifle overdone, and I criticized her for it. She told me that my rival, having pestered her for several days in the Bois de Boulogne, and having conveyed his feelings by grimacings, had made up his mind to send a formal declaration, together with his name and a full list of his titles, in a letter he had had delivered by the coachman who drove her and her friends. He had promised her a brilliant fortune and eternal adoration away over the mountains. She had come back to Chaillot intending to tell me the whole story, but, thinking we might get some fun out of it, she had not been able to resist the vision her imagination had conjured up. And so she had sent the Italian prince a flattering reply, giving him free permission to come and see her, and had given herself a second pleasure by making me participate in her plan without having the slightest suspicion. I did not say a word about the information that had reached me through other channels, and in the ecstasy of triumphant love I approved of everything.