Manon Lescaut Chapter 4

I HAD asked him to be in the garden of the Palais-Royal. He was there first. As soon as he saw me he came forward with outstretched arms and embraced me long and tenderly. He was so deeply moved that I could feel his tears on my cheek. I told him how embarrassed I was at seeing him and how full of a keen sense of my ingratitude, and implored him to tell me first of all whether I could still look upon him as my friend after I had so richly deserved to lose all his respect and affection. He answered in the kindest way that nothing could possibly make him give up such a title, that my very misfortunes and, if he might say so, my sins and excesses had only served to redouble his friendship. But, he added, what he was feeling was the kind of love, mingled with bitter grief, that one feels while helplessly witnessing a dear friend moving speedily towards his doom.

We sat down on a seat.

‘My dear Tiberge,’ I said with a deep sigh, ‘how boundless your pity must be if, as you assure me, it is equal to my woes. I am ashamed to let you see them as they really are, for I admit that they spring from a source that is anything but noble. But the outcome of it all is so deplorable that you could not fail to be touched even if you did not love me as you do.’

He asked me, as a proof of friendship, to tell him frankly everything that had happened since I left Saint-Sulpice. I did so, and far from toning down the truth in any way or minimizing my misdeeds so as to make them sound more excusable, I talked about my passion with all the vehemence it inspired in me. I represented it as one of those peculiar blows, against which virtue is defenceless and wisdom cannot be forearmed, which Destiny aims at some poor wretch when she is bent on his destruction. I painted a vivid picture of the depths of anxiety, fear and despair I had been in two hours before seeing him, and into which I would assuredly fall back again if my friends abandoned me as heartlessly as Fortune had. In short, I so worked on poor Tiberge’s feelings that he was as overcome by compassion as I was by self-pity. He was unwearying in his tender exhortations to cheer up and take heart, but all the time he was assuming that I would have to break with Manon. So I let him see quite clearly that it was this very separation that I looked upon as the greatest of all my misfortunes, and that I was prepared to suffer not only the most abject misery but even the cruellest of deaths before I would accept a remedy more unbearable than all the other ills put together.

‘Let us be quite clear, then,’ he said; ‘what sort of help can I give you if you reject everything I suggest?’ I dared not say outright that what I really wanted was his money. But at length he realized this, said that he thought he saw what was in my mind, and then hesitated for some time, obviously wondering what to do. After a pause he said: ‘Don’t put down my stopping to think this out to any cooling of my friendship or for my desire to help. But think what a quandary you are putting me in! I have either to refuse the only help you are willing to accept, or violate my sense of duty by giving it to you. For shall I not be sharing in your debaucheries if I enable you to persist in them?’ He paused again for thought and then went on, ‘But perhaps poverty has upset the balance of your mind and not left you free to choose the right path; you cannot appreciate wisdom and truth unless your mind is at peace. I will find a way to let you have some money, but,’ he embraced me once again as he said this, ‘you must let me make one stipulation. It is that you will let me know where you are living and allow me at least to do what I can to bring you back to virtue. I know you really want to live the good life. It is only the violence of your passions that is holding you back.’ I fell in with all his wishes freely and sincerely, and asked him to try to understand the unhappy fate which was making me respond so grudgingly to the advice of such a good friend. He took me at once to a banker he knew, who advanced me a hundred pistoles against a promissory note signed by him. I have already said that Tiberge was not rich, and the last thing he had was ready money. His living was worth a thousand écus, but as that was his first year he had so far received nothing in cash and was making me this loan out of his expectations.

I appreciated the full value of his generosity and was touched by it to the point of deploring the blind passion which was driving me on to dishonour my obligations. For those few minutes virtue found enough strength to rise up within me and combat my infatuation, and in that moment of illumination at least I perceived the fetters of shame and degradation that were binding me. The contest, however, was but a skirmish, and short-lived at that. The mere sight of Manon would have sufficed to make me leap down from Heaven itself, and indeed, when I found myself with her again I wondered how I could for a single moment have been ashamed of such a natural feeling for so bewitching a creature.

Manon had a most extraordinary character. No woman was ever less attached to money for its own sake, and yet she could not for a moment endure the risk of being without it. She had to have pleasures and amusements, but she would never have wanted a sou if enjoyment could have been had free of charge. So long as the day could be spent in pleasure she never troubled her head where the money came from; and so as she was not particularly addicted to gambling, nor dazzled by the mere display of wealth, it was the easiest thing in the world to satisfy her by supplying from day to day the sort of amusements she liked. But this ceaseless round of pleasures was so essential to her being, that without it there was no relying on what she might feel or do. Although she loved me tenderly, and I was the only one, as she was the first to admit, with whom she could taste the full pleasure of love, yet I was almost sure her love would never stand firm against certain kinds of anxiety. Had I had even a modest fortune she would have preferred me to anyone in the world, but I had not the slightest doubt that she would throw me over for some new B. the moment I had nothing to offer her but constancy and fidelity.

With all this in mind I resolved to limit my personal expenditure so rigorously that I could always provide for hers, and to give up a multitude of necessities rather than deprive her even of superfluities. What worried me more than anything else was the upkeep of a carriage, for I could not see how to maintain horses and a coachman. I mentioned my perplexity to M. Lescaut (from whom I had not concealed my having had a hundred pistoles from a friend); and once again he said that if I wanted to try my hand at gaming he did not think it impossible that, provided I were willing to invest a hundred francs or so and treat his friends to a dinner, I might be admitted on his recommendation to the fraternity.10 I swallowed the distaste I had for swindling, and let myself be carried along by cruel necessity.

That very evening M. Lescaut introduced me as a relation of his, explaining that I was all the more likely to succeed because I was in urgent need of a stroke of good luck. But to make it clear that my poverty was not as abject as all that, he announced that I wished to entertain them to supper. The invitation was accepted and I feasted them royally. For a considerable time the conversation ran along the lines of my handsome appearance and natural gifts. It was asserted that great things might be hoped from me because there was something about my face which suggested the honest man, and nobody would think of expecting anything crooked from me. In fine, a vote of thanks was passed to M. Lescaut for having brought along such a promising novice to the brotherhood, and one of their number was detailed to give me a few days of necessary instruction. The principal scene of my exploits was to be the Hôtel de Transylvanie, where there was a faro table in one room and various card and dice games in the gallery. This institution was run for the benefit of the Prince of R., who was then living at Clagny, and most of his officers belonged to our circle.11 I must confess to my shame that in a very short time I assimilated all my instructor’s lessons. I became particularly adept at turning a card over, and at palming. With the help of a long pair of cuffs I could whisk a card away nimbly enough to deceive the sharpest eye and neatly ruin many an honest player. This amazing skill built up my fortune so rapidly that in a few weeks I found myself possessed of a considerable sum over and above what I shared out loyally with my associates. Gone were all my fears about telling Manon of our loss at Chaillot, and to console her when I broke the sad news, I took a furnished house where we installed ourselves with every appearance of wealth and security.

All through this period Tiberge was regular in his visits and untiring in his moralizings. Day after day he pointed out the wrong I was doing to my conscience, honour and prospects. I put up with his advice good-humouredly, though without the slightest intention of following it, and I was even grateful because I knew it came from the heart. Sometimes I chaffed him about it, even in front of Manon, and recommended him not to be more scrupulous than many a bishop and other ecclesiastic, who contrived to reconcile a mistress and a living. ‘Just take a look,’ I would say, pointing to my mistress’s eyes, ‘and say whether there are any sins in the world that are not justified by such a beautiful cause.’ He kept his temper; indeed, he was very long-suffering, but when he saw my wealth rapidly increasing, and that I had not only refunded his hundred pistoles but also taken a new house and doubled my expenses, and moreover that I was plunging deeper than ever into dissipation, he completely changed his manner and tactics, denounced my hardness of heart and threatened me with the wrath of Heaven, prophesying some of the evils which speedily overtook me. ‘I cannot believe,’ he said, ‘that all this money you are spending on riotous living has been legitim tely come by. You have acquired it by criminal means, and it will be taken away from you in the same way. The most terrible punishment God could inflict on you would be to let you enjoy it in peace. All my advice has been useless and I can see full well that it will soon be resented. So it is good-bye to a weak and thankless friend. May your guilty pleasures vanish like a shadow! May your fortune perish utterly, leaving you naked and alone to learn the vanity of these worldly possessions with which you in your folly are so intoxicated! And when that day comes you will find me ready with my love and help, but from now on I sever all connexion with you, for I detest the life you are living.’ This apostolic harangue was delivered in my room and in front of Manon. He got up to go. My instinct was to hold him back, but I was checked by Manon, who said he was out of his mind and the sooner we let him go the better.

And yet these words of his left an impression on my mind. I am careful, you see, to point out the various occasions when I felt an impulse to return to the path of virtue, because such recollections were to be a source of strength to me in some of the most unhappy moments of my life. But at the time Manon’s kisses dispelled all my gloom in an instant, and we went on with our life of love and pleasure. Our affection multiplied with our riches, and Venus and Fortune could not have had two more contented slaves. Why, oh why call this world a vale of tears when it is full of such fascinating delights? But alas, the weakness of such delights is that they pass so soon. If only they were made to last, what other joys could man desire? Ours had the common fate: they did not endure and were followed by bitter regrets. I had amassed such profits from gaming that I thought about investing some of my money. My servants were fully aware of my gains, especially my valet and Manon’s maid, in front of whom we often talked quite freely. The maid was pretty and the valet in love with her; they had young and easy-going employers to deal with, and they thought they could deceive us without difficulty. They worked out a plan and carried it out with such devastating results for us that they brought us down to a level from which we were never able to rise again.

One day Lescaut had invited us to supper and we returned home at about midnight. I called for my valet and Manon for her maid. Neither came. We were told that they had not been seen in the house for eight hours, and that they had gone off after having had some packing-cases dispatched – by my orders, so they said. I guessed part of the truth, but my worst suspicions were nothing like as bad as the sight I saw when I looked into my room. The lock of my closet had been forced and my money had gone, together with all my clothes. As I was trying to gather my wits together Manon came in, pale with fright, and said that the same thing had been done in her room. The shock was so terrible that it was only by a supreme effort of reason that I prevented myself from giving way to tears and wailing. But, for fear of communicating my despair to Manon, I put on a calm exterior and even told her flippantly that I would get my own back out of some poor dupe at the Hôtel de Transylvanie. But I could see that she was so well aware of our plight that she succeeded far more in upsetting me by her sadness than I did in keeping up her spirits by my feigned cheerfulness. ‘We are finished,’ she said, with tears in her eyes. I tried vainly to console her with caresses, but my own tears betrayed my consternation and despair. The truth was that we were so completely ruined that we had not a stitch left.

The best thing seemed to be to send at once for M. Lescaut. He advised me to go without delay to the Lieutenant of Police and Grand Provost of Paris. I went, but it only served to complete my undoing. This step, and those I got the police to take on my behalf, gained me nothing, and by going out I gave Lescaut time to talk to his sister and put a horrible idea into her head. He told her about M. de G. M., an old voluptuary famous for his liberality where his pleasures were concerned, and he let her see so many advantages in being kept by this man that in her troubled state of mind she entered into everything he liked to suggest. This honourable bargain was concluded before I returned, and the execution of it fixed for the next day, after Lescaut had prepared M. de G. M. When I got back I found him waiting for me, but Manon had retired to her room, having given orders for me to be told that she needed rest and quiet and asked me to leave her alone that night. Lescaut offered me a little money, which I accepted, and then he left. It was nearly four in the morning when I went to bed, and then I lay awake for hours turning over ways of recovering my money. Eventually I went to sleep, but so late that I did not wake up until nearly noon. I got up at once to go and see how Manon was, but was told that she had gone out an hour before with her brother, who had called for her in a cab. Such an outing with Lescaut sounded most mysterious to me, but I stifled my suspicions and whiled away some hours in reading. But my uneasiness finally gained the mastery, and I fell to striding up and down our rooms. In Manon’s room my eyes fell on a sealed letter on her table. It was addressed to me, in her hand. I shuddered as I opened it. This is what she had written:

I swear that you are the idol of my heart, my dear Chevalier, and there is nobody else in the world I love as I love you. But don’t you see, my poor darling, that loyalty is a silly virtue in the pass we are in? Do you really think we can love each other with nothing to eat? One fine day hunger would lead me into some fatal mistake, and thinking I was sighing for love I should really be drawing my last breath. I love you, do believe me, but try to leave our affairs in my hands for a little while. Woe betide whoever falls into my clutches; I am out to make my dearest Chevalier rich and happy. My brother will tell you that I cried bitterly at having to leave you, and from him you will be able to have news of – your own Manon.