Manon Lescaut Chapter 3

THINKING I had now quite recovered, my father raised no objections to letting me go. We went to Paris, where the cassock took the place of the Cross of Malta and the style of Abbé des Grieux that of Chevalier. I took to my studies so diligently that in a few months I made rapid strides. By dint of working all day and half the night, I acquired such a reputation that people already began to congratulate me on the swift advancement I could not fail to get, and without my having made any move myself my name was put down on the list of livings to be awarded. Nor did I neglect the devotional side, but took part in all the religious exercises with fervent piety. Tiberge was so overjoyed with what he looked upon as his handiwork, that more than once I saw tears in his eyes when he spoke of what he called my conversion. All human resolutions are subject to change: that in itself has never surprised me, for they are born of a passion and another passion may destroy them. But when I think of the purity of the resolves which led me to Saint-Sulpice, and the deep inner peace which God poured into my soul as I carried them out, I am appalled at the ease with which I broke them. If it be true that Heaven always gives us strength equal to that of our passions, how can we explain the terrible power which can suddenly carry us far away from our duty, stripping us of all strength to resist and all feelings of remorse? I thought I was saved for ever from the weakness of love; I imagined that I should always prefer reading a page of St Augustine or a quarter of an hour’s pious meditation to all the pleasures of the senses, even those that Manon might give. And yet one accursed moment plunged me back into the abyss, and my fall was all the more irreparable because, when I found myself brought as low as I had been before, new excesses dragged me even further down.

I had been in Paris nearly a year without attempting to find out what had become of Manon. At first this had cost me a considerable effort, but I managed to conquer the temptation thanks to the unfailing advice of Tiberge and my own common sense. The later months went by so peacefully that I thought I was on the point of forgetting that lovely, fickle creature for ever. The time came for me to make my public oration in the school of theology, and I invited several distinguished people to honour me with their presence.8 This made my name known all over Paris, and it even reached the ears of my former mistress. She did not recognize it for certain under its new style of abbé, but her curiosity was aroused by a name so similar to mine, though whether it was from some lingering feeling of interest or, perhaps, compunction for her deceitful treatment of me I have never been able to decide. At all events, she came to the Sorbonne with some other ladies, was present at my discourse and doubtless recognized me at once.

I had no idea that she was there. You know that in that hall there are some private alcoves for ladies, where they can sit behind a curtain. At six o’clock I returned to Saint-Sulpice, covered with glory and complimented on all sides. A moment after I had got back I was told that a lady was asking to see me and I went straight to the parlour. God! What did I see? Manon herself. Manon, more dazzlingly beautiful than I had ever known her. She was not yet eighteen and her loveliness was then beyond description. Such gentle grace, yet at the same time such vivacity and subtle charm – she looked like the incarnation of love itself. Every line of her face was enchanting.

I stood as though petrified, and waited, trembling and not daring to look at her, hoping that she would explain the purpose of her visit. For a time she seemed as embarrassed as I was, but at length, seeing that I was not going to break my silence, she began in faltering tones and with one hand held over her eyes as though to hide her tears. She admitted that her infidelities merited my hatred, but went on to say that if it were true that I had ever cared for her, it was very unfeeling of me to have let two years go by without troubling to find out what had become of her, and still more cruel to see her now in front of me in such a pitiful condition and not say a word. As I stood listening to her the ferment within my soul was indescribable.

She sat down, but I remained standing, half turning away from her, not daring to look her straight in the eyes. Over and over again I began to say something but could not finish a sentence. At last, by dint of a supreme effort, I shouted rather than said: ‘Manon, you devil, oh you deceitful devil!’ She repeated, amid floods of tears, that she was not trying to justify her abominable behaviour. ‘What do you want, then?’ I cried. ‘I want to die,’ she answered, ‘unless you give me back your love, for without that I cannot live.’ ‘Then why don’t you ask for my life?’ I said, now weeping too, in spite of myself; ‘ask for my life, which is all I have left to give you, for you have had my love all along.’ Scarcely were these words out of my mouth before she leaped up, flung her arms round me and smothered me with caresses, calling me all those magical names which love invents in its most frenzied moments of passion. I only half responded, for I was horror-stricken at the contrast between the serenity of but a few moments ago and the wild stirrings of desire I could already feel within me. I was shuddering as you do when you find yourself alone at night on some desolate moorland, when all familiar bearings are lost and a panic fear comes over you that you can dispel only by calmly studying all the landmarks.

We sat down together, I took her hands in mine and looked at her with despair in my eyes. ‘Oh, Manon,’ I said, ‘I never expected my love to be repaid with such black ingratitude. It was not hard for you to deceive a man you had so completely under your spell, who thought himself supremely happy if he could but please and obey. Tell me, have you found any other man so loving and devoted? No, I do not think so; nature has not made many of my temper. Will you at least say whether you have missed me sometimes? How much trust can I put in this sudden fit of kindness that has sent you back today to console me? It is easy enough to see that you are lovelier than ever, but, in the name of all I have suffered for you, tell me, Manon, will you be truer this time?’

She expressed her penitence in such pathetic terms, and swore to be true with so many oaths and protestations, that she touched my heart and stirred me to the depths of my being. ‘Dearest Manon,’ I said, in a profane mixture of amorous and theological language, ‘you are too adorable for a mortal creature. I can feel my heart being carried aloft in a triumph of ecstasy. All the talk about liberty here at Saint-Sulpice is sheer nonsense. I am going to throw away my career and good name for you – yes I know I am, I can read it in your eyes – but what sacrifices will not be fully repaid by your love? Fortune’s favours have no charms for me, honour and glory are mere will o’ the wisps; all my clerical ambitions were vain imaginings; all possessions, except what I hope to share with you, are worthless because they carry no weight in my heart against one glance from your eyes.’

And yet, although I promised to forgive and forget all her frailties, I felt I must know all about how she had been seduced by M. de B. I learned that he had seen her at the window, desired her passionately, and wooed her in true farmer-general style, that is to say by stating in a letter that payment would be in proportion to favours received. She had yielded first of all with no other object than to get out of him some large sum that would keep us both comfortably. Then he had held out in front of her such dazzling promises that she had given in little by little, and (she said) I could tell how bitterly she regretted doing so by the grief I had seen on her face just before our separation. In spite of the luxury with which he had surrounded her she had never tasted any real pleasure with him, not only because he had none of my delicacy and refinement of manner, but because, in the midst of all the amusements he constantly lavished on her, in her heart of hearts she had never ceased to have a haunting memory of my love and a growing sense of guilt for her unfaithfulness. She told me about Tiberge and how his visit had embarrassed her. ‘I could have stood up better to a stab in the heart,’ she said, ‘and I turned my back on him because I could not face him even for one moment.’

She went on to tell me how she had found out that I was in Paris and about my change of condition and examination at the Sorbonne. I gathered that during my public disputation she had had the greatest difficulty in withholding not only her tears but even audible sobs and groans, so deeply had she been moved. She had stayed behind until last so that nobody should see her emotion, and then, acting on a sudden irresistible impulse, she had come straight to the seminary with a mind to die there if I refused to forgive her.

What heart of stone would not have been softened by such a touching proof of bitter remorse? For my part I felt at that moment that I would have given up all the bishoprics in Christendom for Manon. I asked her what steps we ought to take next, and she said that first and foremost we must get out of the seminary and think things out in some safer place. I fell in with all her wishes without question. She drove in her carriage to the corner of the street and waited there, while I slipped out and joined her a minute later without having been noticed by the doorkeeper. We began by going to a wardrobe dealer’s, where I resumed the braided coat and sword, Manon paying for everything as I had not a penny (for fear of anything happening to prevent my getting out of Saint-Sulpice, she had not allowed me to go back to my room even for a moment to get my money). In any case my fortune was very modest, while thanks to the liberality of M. de B. she was rich enough to think nothing of what she was making me leave behind. While we were still in the shop we had a conference about what we should do next.

She announced her intention of making a clean break with M. de B. This was calculated to make me appreciate the full value of what she was prepared to give up for me. ‘I am willing to leave him all his furniture,’ she said; ‘the things are his anyway, but it is only right that I should take the jewellery and close on sixty thousand francs I have got out of him in these two years. I haven’t given him any hold over me, and so we can stay in Paris without any danger and take a nice house where we shall live happily ever after.’

I pointed out that even if there were no danger for her in Paris there was a great deal for me, for I was bound to be recognized sooner or later and would always run the risk of repeating the experience I had already had. But she gave me to understand that she would be reluctant to leave Paris, and I was so afraid of upsetting her that there were no risks I was not willing to scorn so long as she were pleased. However, we found a compromise, which was to rent a house in some village on the outskirts from which it would be easy to go into town for business or pleasure whenever we wanted. We decided on Chaillot, which is not far out. Manon went straight home and I made for the little gate of the Tuileries garden, where I was to wait for her.

She came back an hour later in a cab, with her maid and some trunks containing her clothes and valuables. We were soon at Chaillot, where we put up for the first night at a hotel in order to have time to look for a house or, failing that, a convenient flat. We found something to our liking the very next day.

At first I thought that my happiness was built on unshakable foundations. Manon was sweetness and kindness itself, and the many thoughtful little attentions with which she surrounded me seemed more than a reward for all my troubles. As by now we had both had a little experience of life, we gave some thought to our financial position. Our capital of sixty thousand francs was not likely to last for a long lifetime, but neither were we inclined to cut down our expenditure too drastically. Economy was not Manon’s outstanding quality any more than it was mine. This was the plan I suggested: ‘Sixty thousand francs,’ I said, ‘might keep us going for ten years.9 If we stay at Chaillot we can manage on two thousand écus a year. We shall be able to live a respectable but simple life, and our main outgoings will be on theatres and the upkeep of a carriage. We must work it out systematically: you are fond of the Opera; we can go twice a week, and as for gaming, we must control it so that our losses never exceed two pistoles. It is most unlikely that ten years will not bring about some change in my family; my father is old and may die, and then I shall have some property and we shall be at the end of all our anxieties.’

If only we had had the wisdom to keep to it closely, this arrangement would certainly not have been the silliest one I had made in my life. But our resolutions lasted little more than a month. Manon was pleasure-mad and I was mad on her. Some new reason for spending money arose at every moment, and far from regretting the sums she squandered I was the first to buy her anything she fancied. Even our home at Chaillot began to get on her nerves, for with the approach of winter everybody went back to town and the country was deserted. She suggested taking a house in Paris again. I did not agree, but in order to give her some satisfaction I said that we might take furnished rooms there. It would be somewhere to spend the night when we stayed late at the assembly-rooms where we went several evenings a week – her pretext for wanting to leave Chaillot was the difficulty of getting home late at night. So now we had two homes, one in town and the other in the country, and this change promptly led to the final breakdown of our affairs, because it was directly responsible for two adventures which brought disaster.

Manon had a brother in the Lifeguards. Unfortunately for us his lodgings in Paris were in the same street as ours. One morning he saw his sister at the window, recognized her and made straight for our rooms. He was a coarse, unprincipled scoundrel. He burst into our room swearing horribly, and as he knew something of his sister’s way of life he spared her neither insults nor foul names. I had gone out a moment before, which was perhaps as well for him or for me, as I was not prepared to put up with insults. I came back just after he had gone, and I could tell by the state Manon was in that something very untoward had happened. She described the distressing scene she had just gone through and her brother’s brutal threats. I was so enraged that I would have rushed off there and then to take revenge had I not been held back by her tears, and, moreover, while we were still talking about him, he came back into the room unannounced. If I had known him I would not have received him as civilly as I did, but having greeted us with an ingratiating smile he plunged straight into an apology to Manon for his fit of temper. He had had a mistaken impression, so he said, that she was living an irregular life, and this had made him angry, but he had inquired of one of our servants who I was and had heard such glowing accounts of me that he wanted to be on good terms with us. It was somewhat strange and disconcerting to hear that he had had this information from one of my lackeys, but I accepted the compliment with a fairly good grace in order to please Manon. She seemed delighted to see her brother in such a conciliatory mood, and we asked him to stay to dinner. In a very short time he made himself so much at home that, when he heard us mention returning to Chaillot, he insisted on going with us. We had to give him a seat in our carriage. It was like an official entry into possession. He soon developed such an affection for us that he made our home his own and took over control of all our belongings. He called me his brother, and, using as an excuse the freedom that exists between brothers, he considered himself entitled to bring all his friends to our Chaillot home and entertain them at our expense. He fitted himself out with sumptuous clothes and had the bills sent to us. He even pledged our name to pay his debts. I shut my eyes to this barefaced exploitation so as not to displease Manon, and even pretended not to notice that from time to time he was relieving her of large sums in cash. True, being a born gambler, he had the good faith to give her a share in any bit of good luck that came his way, but our own resources were by now too slender to cope for any length of time with such extravagant outgoings. I was on the point of having a very clear explanation with him so as to put an end to his importunities, when a disastrous accident saved me this trouble by inflicting another one on us which ruined us beyond all hope of recovery.

One night we had slept in Paris, as we often did. In the morning our servant, who on these occasions stayed alone at Chaillot, came and told me that fire had broken out in my house during the night and had been extinguished only with great difficulty. I asked her whether the furniture had been damaged, and she said that there had been such confusion, owing to the crowds of folk who had come offering help, that she could not be sure of anything. I trembled for our money which was kept in a little coffer, and went off to Chaillot with all speed. No need to hurry: it had already gone.

At that moment I understood how you can love money without necessarily being a miser. The loss nearly drove me out of my mind. In a flash I could see all the fresh evils I should be exposed to, and poverty was far from being the worst. I knew my Manon; experience had already taught me all too clearly that, however attached to me she might be when things went well, it was no use counting on her in hard times. She was too fond of wealth and pleasure to give them up for me. I knew that once again I should lose her and everything I loved, and this certain knowledge so tortured me that for some time I played with the thought of putting an end to all my woes by death.

However, I kept enough presence of mind to think out first of all whether I had any resources left, and a comforting idea came to my mind, which was that I might not find it impossible to conceal our loss from Manon while by skill or good fortune I found enough to keep her from want. I consoled myself by recalling that I had calculated that twenty thousand écus would keep us for ten years. Now, I thought, supposing the ten years had gone by without any of the family changes I had hoped for. What should I have done? I am not at all sure, but what is there to prevent my doing now whatever I should have done in those circumstances? How many people are there in Paris at this moment who have neither my wits nor my natural advantages, but who manage to make a living by their talents, such as they are? Thereupon I fell to musing on the ups and downs of life and came to the conclusion that Providence had arranged things pretty wisely, for the majority of the rich are fools – that much is clear to anybody with some slight knowledge of the world. Which proves the ultimate justice of things, for, if they had brains as well as riches, they would be too happy and the rest of men too wretched. The poor are vouchsafed qualities of mind and body to raise them out of their poverty. Some get a share of the wealth of the great by pandering to their pleasures and swindling them. Others try to teach them to be useful citizens – usually, it is true, without success – but that is not the object of divine wisdom; they draw a dividend from their labours by living at the expense of those they instruct, and, from whatever angle you look at it, the stupidity of the rich and great is an excellent source of revenue for the poor and humble.

These reflections put a little heart back in me and cleared my mind. I decided to begin by consulting Lescaut, Manon’s brother. He knew his Paris inside out, and it had been all too clearly borne in on me that his main source of income could be neither his property nor his army pay. All I had left was about twenty pistoles that fortunately I had in my pocket. I showed him my purse, described my mishap and my fears, and asked him if there was any choice open to me apart from dying of hunger or taking my own life. He answered that suicide was the last resort of fools, and, as for dying of hunger, plenty of clever people found themselves in that predicament if they were not prepared to use their wits. It was up to me to find out what I was capable of, and I could count on his advice and help in anything I undertook.

‘That all sounds rather vague, Monsieur Lescaut,’ I said. ‘My troubles require a more immediate remedy. For instance, what do you expect me to say to Manon?’

‘Manon! why worry about her? Surely with her you have always got the means to end your worries whenever you like? A girl like her ought to be able to keep all three of us.’ This outrageous suggestion brought a sharp reply to my lips, but he gave me no time to make it, going on to the effect that he could guarantee a thousand écus to share out between us before the day was out. If I would be advised by him, he knew of a noble lord who was so liberal where his pleasures were concerned that he felt sure he would think nothing of a thousand écus for the favours of a girl like Manon.

At last I managed to stop him. ‘I thought better of you. I imagined that the motives behind your friendship were quite the reverse of those you are showing me now.’ He impudently admitted that he had always thought the same way himself, but that once his sister had broken the laws of her sex – albeit with the man he liked best in the world – he had only made his peace with her in the hope of making a bit out of her misconduct.

It was easy to see that so far he had been using us for his own ends, but I needed his help so desperately that I stifled any anger I felt and answered laughingly that his suggestion was a last resource that we must not use unless all else failed. Was there any other way open to me?

He next proposed that I should make capital out of my own youth and good looks, and make up to some elderly party who was free with her money. I did not fancy this method either, for it would have meant infidelity to Manon. I mentioned gambling as the easiest way and one more in keeping with my position. He said yes, there certainly was gambling, but that that would have to be gone into very carefully: just plain gambling, with the ordinary chances, was the surest way to ruin. To attempt to practise the little tricks that a skilled player uses to help on his luck was much too risky if you were alone and unsupported. There was a third way, and that was to go into a syndicate, but he was afraid that confederates would think me too young and green to have the skill necessary for joint operations. All the same he promised to put in a word for me, and, to my surprise, he offered to give me some money if I found myself short. The only favour I asked of him, in the circumstances, was to say nothing to Manon about my loss or our conversation.

When I left him I was even less happy in my mind than before, and I was already uneasy about having let him into my secret. He had done nothing for me that I could not have done just as well for myself without having confided in him, and I was mortally afraid he would break his promise to say nothing to Manon. What I had heard of his sentiments gave me grounds for fearing that he would decide to make something out of her (to use his own expression), by taking her out of my hands, or at any rate advising her to leave me and take some richer lover who might prove luckier. The thought plunged me once again into the same nagging despair that I had been in that morning. More than once I was on the point of sending my father a letter full of feigned contrition in the hope of extracting money from him, but I remembered each time that with all his kindness he had shut me up for six months for my first escapade, and I was sure that he would deal much more harshly with me after the sensation my flight from Saint-Sulpice must have caused. Out of this welter of ideas one finally emerged which suddenly brought some sort of calm back to my mind, and I was surprised not to have thought of it before. Why not fall back on my friend Tiberge, in whom I was always sure to find the same unstinting affection? The confidence with which we go to people of tried and tested probity is the best tribute to virtue I know. We feel that no risk is being run. If they are not always in a position to offer practical help, they can at least be relied on for kindness and understanding. As a flower needs only the soft warmth of the sun to make it open out, so the human heart, so tightly closed against all other men, naturally opens in such people’s presence.

I interpreted this timely recollection of Tiberge as a sign of heavenly intervention, and I resolved to find a way of seeing him that very day. I went straight back home and wrote him a note suggesting a suitable meeting-place and enjoining absolute secrecy as the most important thing he could do for me in my present circumstances. Fortunately my joy at the prospect of seeing him again smoothed away from my face the traces of worry Manon could not have failed to notice. I referred to our Chaillot mishap as a mere bagatelle not to be taken at all seriously, and, as she enjoyed being in Paris better than anywhere else in the world, she was not sorry to hear me say that we had better stay there until the slight damage caused at Chaillot by the fire had been put right. An hour later I had word from Tiberge promising to keep the appointment. Although I felt a little ashamed at showing myself to a friend whose very presence was a reproach to my excesses, I went there with all speed, keeping my courage up by my knowledge of his kindness of heart and my concern for Manon’s interests.