Manon Lescaut Chapter 4

WE WENT off in the same coach. She fell into my arms. I had not heard her say a word since G. M.’s arrival, but when she found herself alone with me she poured forth a thousand endearments and bitterly reproached herself for being the cause of my misfortune. I assured her that I would never complain of my fate so long as she continued to love me. ‘I am not the one to be pitied,’ I said, ‘a few months of prison have no terrors for me, and anyhow I shall prefer the Châtelet to Saint-Lazare. But my heart bleeds for you, my dearest. What a fate for so charming a creature! How can Heaven deal so harshly with the most perfect of its works? Why were we not born with qualities more in keeping with our miserable lot? We have been given intelligence, taste and feeling, but oh, what a sorry use we are making of them! To think that so many base souls, just made for our fate, enjoy all the favours of fortune!’ Such thoughts as these filled my heart with grief. But that was nothing beside my forebodings for the future, whilst fear for Manon withered my very soul. She had already been an inmate of the Hôpital, and, even if she had left that institution by the front door, I knew that further offences of the same kind would entail extremely dangerous consequences. I would have liked to confide my fears to her, but was frightened of passing on too much of them to her. I trembled for her but dared not warn her of her peril, and I held her in my arms and sighed so as to convince her at least of my love, for love was almost the only sentiment I dared express. ‘Manon,’ I said, ‘tell me truly, will you always love me?’ She answered that it made her very unhappy to think that I could call that into question. ‘Very well,’ I said, ‘I do not, and with that knowledge I am ready to defy all our enemies. I will use my family influence to get out of the Châtelet, and if I do not get you out as soon as I am free myself, then all my blood will be worth nothing.’

We reached the prison and were separated. I was prepared for this, and so it was less hard to bear. I recommended Manon to the concierge, letting him know that I was a man of some position, and promising him a considerable reward. I kissed my beloved mistress before parting from her, urged her not to be too downcast and to fear nothing so long as I was alive. I was not without money, and I gave her some and out of the remainder I paid the concierge for a month’s full board in advance, for herself and for me.

My money had a very good effect, for I was put into a decently furnished room and was told that Manon had a similar one. I at once set about finding ways and means of getting free. Clearly there was nothing absolutely criminal in my case, and even assuming that our intention to commit a theft was proved by Marcel’s deposition, I knew perfectly well that mere intentions are not punishable. I determined to write at once to my father and ask him to come to Paris himself. As I have already said, I was less ashamed of being in the Châtelet than at Saint-Lazare. Also, although I still had all due respect for paternal authority, my timidity had been considerably lessened by age and experience. So I wrote; and the people at the Châtelet raised no objection to allowing the letter to go. But I might have spared myself the trouble if I had known that my father was to reach Paris on the next day.

He had had the letter written by me eight days previously,18 and it had given him great joy. But, however rosy the hopes I had held out of my conversion, he had not thought fit to rely altogether on my promises. He had made up his mind to come and witness my change of heart with his own eyes, and to let his next move be guided by the sincerity of my repentance. He arrived the day after my imprisonment. First he called on Tiberge, to whom I had to ask him to send his reply, but he could not find out from him either where I was or what I was doing at the moment. All he could gather from him were the main things that had happened to me since my escape from Saint-Sulpice. Tiberge gave him a very reassuring account of my leanings towards virtue as expressed in our last talk, adding that he thought I had broken altogether with Manon, but he was surprised that I had not given him any news of myself for a week. My father was not taken in. He sensed that there was something behind the silence Tiberge complained of that had escaped his penetration, and he took such pains to follow up my tracks that two days after his arrival he found out that I was in the Châtelet.

Before his visit, which I was far from expecting so soon, I had one from the Lieutenant-General of Police, or rather, to call things by their proper names, I underwent an interrogation. He criticized my conduct, but not harshly or unkindly, gently pointing out that my way of life filled him with pity and that I had been unwise to make an enemy of such a man as G. M. True, he said, it was easy to see that my troubles were due to frivolity and imprudence rather than to malice aforethought, but the fact remained that this was the second time I found myself under his jurisdiction, and he had hoped that I would have learned more wisdom after the two or three months of lessons I had had at Saint-Lazare. I was delighted to have such a reasonable judge to deal with, and answered his questions so respectfully and with such moderation that he seemed most satisfied with my replies. He urged me not to give myself up too much to despondency, and said that he felt disposed to do what he could for me out of consideration for my family and extreme youth. I ventured to put in a word for Manon and to extol her gentleness and good character. He laughingly replied that he had not yet seen her, but that she was said to be a dangerous woman. This so moved my loving heart that I defended my poor mistress in an impassioned speech, and indeed could not refrain from shedding tears. He ordered me to be taken back to my room. As I went out, this dignified magistrate exclaimed: ‘Oh, love, love, will you never be reconciled with wisdom?’

I was sadly turning over my thoughts and going over the conversation I had had with the Lieutenant-General, when I heard my door open: it was my father. I ought to have been half prepared to see him, since I expected him a few days later, but all the same I was so overcome that I would have leaped into the depths of the earth if it had opened at my feet. I went forward and embraced him with extreme embarrassment. He sat down. Neither of us had yet said a word.

I remained standing there with head uncovered and downcast eyes. ‘Sit down, Sir,’ he said severely, ‘sit down. Thanks to the scandal caused by your debaucheries and fraudulent practices, I have discovered where you are. The advantage of your sort of merit is that it cannot remain hidden. You are on the infallible road to fame. I look forward to all this ending at the Grêve, and hope you will have the real glory of being displayed there for everybody’s admiration.’

I made no answer. He went on: ‘How a father is to be pitied when, having tenderly loved his son and spared no pains to make a good man of him, all he finds in the end is a rogue who dishonours him! You can get over a reverse of fortune: time softens the blow and your bitterness fades away. But what remedy is there for an evil which grows day by day, such as the excess of a vicious son who has lost all sense of honour? You have nothing to say, you villain?’ he added. ‘Look at the modesty he is putting on, and that hypocritical air of gentleness! Wouldn’t you take him for the most perfect gentleman ever born?’

Although I had to admit that I deserved some of these insults, yet it seemed to me that he was going too far. I thought the time had come for me to explain my point of view simply and naturally. ‘I assure you, Sir,’ I said, ‘that the humility you see in me as I stand before you is in no way put on; it is the natural attitude of a true-born son who has infinite respect for his father, especially when that father is displeased. Nor do I claim to pass for the most virtuous man of our race. I know I deserve your strictures, but I implore you to season them with a little more kindness, and not to treat me like the lowest of criminals. I do not merit such hard names. You know that the cause of all my misdeeds is love. What a fatal passion it is! Do you know its power; can it be that your blood, which is the source of mine, has never burned with the same fires? Love has made me too soft, too passionate, too faithful and perhaps over-indulgent of the desires of a most charming woman; and that is the sum of my crimes. Do any of these things dishonour you, do you think? Please, father,’ I added affectionately, ‘have a little pity for a son who has always been devoted to you and full of respect, who has not turned his back on honour and duty as you think, and who is a thousand times more to be pitied than you can imagine.’ By the time I finished these words I was in tears.

A father’s heart is Nature’s masterpiece. She reigns therein, so to speak, with indulgence, and controls its every movement. My father, who in addition to being a father was a man of intelligence and taste, was so touched by the form in which I had cast my apologies that he could not conceal his change of heart. ‘Come along, my poor boy,’ he said, ‘come here and kiss me. You make me sorry for you.’ I did so. I could tell what he was feeling by the way he held me to him. ‘But how are we to set about getting you out of here?’ he said. ‘Tell me the whole story and don’t hold anything back.’ As there was nothing in my behaviour, taken all round, which was completely dishonourable – at least when it was compared to that of young men of a certain set – and as a mistress is not considered anything to be ashamed of nowadays, any more than a little manipulation in winning at cards, I described the life I had been leading in a detailed and candid manner. But with each misdeed I acknowledged, I was careful to complete an illustrious parallel, so as to mitigate the shame of it. ‘I am living with a mistress,’ I said, ‘without being bound by the ties of marriage. The Duke of ***** flaunts two in the eyes of all Paris; M. de ***** has had one for ten years and he has loved her with a devotion he never had for his wife. Two thirds of the most respected men in France are proud to do the same. I have gone in for a certain amount of trickery at the gaming-table: the Marquis of ***** and the Count of ***** have no other source of income, and the Prince of ***** and the Duke of ***** are leaders of a band of knights of the same order.’19 As for my designs on the two G. M.s’ money, I could have proved just as easily that my conduct was not unexampled, but I still had too much sense of honour left to accuse myself together with all the people I could have cited as precedents; and so I merely begged my father to forgive this lapse and ascribe it to the two violent passions which had dominated me: revenge and love. He asked whether I could give him a few suggestions as to the quickest methods of gaining my liberty in a way which would avoid publicity. I told him how kindly disposed the Lieutenant-General of Police was, and said that if he met any difficulty it could come only from the G.M.s; it would therefore be to the point if he took the trouble to go and see them. He promised to do so. I dared not ask him to intercede for Manon. This was not for want of courage, but rather because of my fear of scandalizing him by such a proposal and of putting into his head some idea which might be fatal to her and me. To this day I ask myself whether this fear of mine was not the cause of my greatest misfortune, in that it prevented my testing my father’s feelings and trying to bring him to think more favourably of my unhappy mistress. I might once again have aroused his compassion, and I would certainly have put him on his guard against the impressions he was going to be too ready to receive from old G. M. Who can tell? Even then my evil destiny would perhaps have triumphed over all my efforts; but at least I might only have had my destiny and the cruelty of my enemies to blame for my undoing.

After leaving me, my father went and called on M. de G. M. He found him with his son, whom the guardsman had duly set free. I have never heard the details of their conversation, but it is all too easy to guess what they were by the terrible results. Together they went – the two fathers, I mean – to the Lieutenant-General of Police, and asked two favours of him: one, to let me out of the Châtelet immediately, and the other, to keep Manon shut up for the rest of her days or to send her to America. At that time they were beginning to transport a number of undesirable characters to the Mississippi. The Lieutenant-General of Police gave them his word to ship Manon off on the first boat. M. de G. M. and my father came at once and brought me the news of my reprieve. M. de G. M. spoke very civilly about the past, congratulated me on having such a good father and exhorted me to benefit henceforward by his precepts and example. My father ordered me to apologize for the supposed wrong I had done to G. M.’s family and thank him for having joined with him to secure my freedom.

We all left together without a word having been said about my mistress. I did not even dare to mention her name to the warders in their presence. But my poor recommendations would have been quite useless, for the cruel order had gone through at the same time as the one setting me free. An hour later the unhappy woman was taken to the Hôpital and put with some outcasts of society condemned to the same fate. My father made me go with him to the house where he was staying, and it was nearly six in the evening before I found a chance to slip away and return to the Châtelet. All I hoped to do was to have some comforts sent to Manon and to urge the concierge to look after her well, for I did not suppose that I should be granted permission to see her. And I had not yet had time to think over ways of setting her free.

I asked for the concierge. My kindness and liberality had pleased him and he felt disposed to do his best for me, so he referred to Manon’s fate as a calamity bitterly to be deplored because it must hurt me so. I did not understand what he was talking about, and for a moment or two we were at cross purposes. Seeing at length that some explanation was called for, he gave me the one I have already had the horrible experience of telling you, and which I must now go through again. No apoplectic stroke ever had a more sudden and devastating effect. The beating of my heart was so painful that, as I fell unconscious to the floor, I thought I was being delivered from this life for ever. And even when I came to, something of this thought remained in my mind, for I let my gaze roam all round the room and back to myself in order to find out whether I still was that most unhappy thing, a living man. Certain it is that had I followed the natural human tendency to look for a way out of trouble, nothing could have seemed more welcome than death in that moment of despair and consternation. Religion itself could offer my imagination nothing more unbearable in the after-life than the cruel torments which racked me. Yet, such is love’s power to work miracles, I soon found enough strength to thank Heaven for having restored my consciousness and reason; for my death would have been useful only to me, while Manon needed my life to save her, help her and avenge her. I vowed to spare myself nothing to that end.

The concierge gave me all the help I could have expected from the best of friends, and I accepted his services with the keenest gratitude. ‘So you are touched by my sufferings!’ I said. ‘Everybody has forsaken me. Even my father, it seems, is one of my most implacable persecutors. Nobody has any pity on me. You alone, in this abode of cruelty and savagery, show compassion for the most unhappy of men!’ He advised me not to show myself in the street until I had somewhat recovered from the distressed state I was in. ‘Oh, never mind that,’ I said as I left him, ‘I shall be seeing you again sooner than you think. Get ready the blackest of your dungeons, for I am going to do my best to deserve it.’

And, indeed, my first impulse was nothing less than to get rid of the two G. M.s and the Lieutenant-General of Police, and then swoop down on the Hôpital at the head of an armed band consisting of everybody I could enlist in my quarrel. Even my father would scarcely have been spared in what seemed my just revenge, for the concierge had not concealed from me that he and G. M. were the authors of my ruin. But when I had walked a few steps down the street and the air had cooled down my blood and temper a little, my rage gradually gave way to a more reasonable frame of mind. The death of our enemies would have been of very little use to Manon, and it might have led to my being deprived of every way of helping her. Besides, would I ever have resorted to a cowardly murder? What other way could I find for revenge? I concentrated all my strength and all my mind on the first task, which was to set Manon free, and I put off everything else until after that vital undertaking had met with success. I had little money left. But money was the indispensable starting-point. I could think of only three people from whom I could expect to get any: M. de T., my father and Tiberge. There seemed little likelihood of getting anything from the last two, and I was ashamed of wearying the other with my importunities. But in desperate straits there is no room for delicacy, and I made straight for the seminary of Saint-Sulpice, without caring whether I was recognized or not, and asked for Tiberge. His first words showed me that as yet he knew nothing about my latest escapades, and that made me change my intention of working on his pity. So I talked in general terms about how happy I was to have seen my father again, and then asked him to lend me some money on the pretext that, before leaving Paris, I had a few debts to settle that I wished to keep unknown. He at once offered me his purse. I took five hundred francs out of the six hundred I found there, and offered him my note of hand, but he was too generous to accept it.

From there I went on to M. de T. I kept nothing from him, but told him the whole tale of my woes and misfortunes. He already knew it down to the minutest detail, because he had taken the trouble to follow the fortunes of young G. M., but he heard me out and expressed deep sympathy. When I asked his advice about how to liberate Manon, he gloomily answered that he could see so little chance of it that we must give up all hope, short of a miracle from Heaven. He had purposely called at the Hôpital himself, since she had been sent there, but had not been able to get permission to see her; the Lieutenant-General of Police had issued the strictest orders. As the crowning disaster, the party of unfortunates which she had to join was to set off two days from then. His news so numbed me with horror that he might have gone on talking for an hour and I should never have thought of interrupting him. Then he explained that he had not come to see me at the Châtelet, because it would be easier for him to help me if they thought he had no connexion with me. During the few hours since I had left there, his ignorance of my whereabouts had made him very uneasy, for he had wanted to see me at once so as to give me the only advice capable of leading to any change in Manon’s fate; but it was a dangerous piece of advice, and he begged me never to divulge that he had any responsibility for it. It was to choose a few stalwarts brave enough to attack Manon’s escort after it had left Paris. He gave me no time to mention lack of money, but presented me with a purse and said: ‘Here are a hundred pistoles which may be of some use to you. You can return them when fortune has put your position to rights again.’ He added that if his own reputation had allowed him to take a hand personally in rescuing Manon, he would have put his arm and sword at my disposal.

His wonderful kindness brought the tears to my eyes, and I showed my gratitude with all the enthusiasm I could summon up in my distress. I asked him whether there was anything to be hoped for from direct intercession with the Lieutenant-General. He said he had already thought of that, but had decided that method was useless, because there was no point in appealing for a reprieve of this nature without just grounds, and he could not see what reason could be invoked for interceding with so highly placed and influential a person. If any hopes of success by such means could be entertained, they could only come by softening the hearts of M. de G. M. and my father and inducing them to beg the Lieutenant-General to revoke his sentence. He offered to do everything in his power to win over young G. M., although he thought his friendship for him had cooled off somewhat, owing to suspicions he had entertained about his having a hand in our affair. Finally he urged me, for my part, not to neglect any means of bending my father’s will.

This was no easy undertaking for me; there was not only the natural difficulty I should find in overcoming his determination, but also another reason which made me afraid even to meet him: I had run away from his lodgings in defiance of his orders, and was determined not to go back now I had found out the cruel fate reserved for Manon. I rightly feared that he would have me forcibly detained and taken away into the country. My elder brother had used that method once before. It is true that I was older now, but age was a feeble argument against force. However, I thought of a way which would save me from that danger: it was to have him summoned to a public place and get myself announced under another name. I decided to adopt these tactics. M. de T. went off to G. M.’s house and I went to the Luxembourg, whence I sent word to my father that a gentleman was waiting to pay him his respects. I feared he might have some trouble in coming, as it was nearly nightfall; but in a short time he appeared, followed by a lackey. I invited him to walk down an avenue where we could be undisturbed. We walked on for at least a hundred yards in silence. No doubt he thought that so many precautions had not been taken without some important reason, and he waited for my speech while I thought out how I was going to put it.

At last I began: ‘Sir,’ I said in a trembling voice, ‘you are a good father and you have shown me infinite kindness and forgiven numberless misdeeds. And Heaven is witness that I have all the sentiments of a loving and dutiful son. But it seems to me… that your severity…’ ‘Well, what about my severity?’ father broke in, no doubt finding my slowness trying to his patience. ‘Oh, Sir,’ I went on, ‘I feel that you are being unnecessarily severe in the treatment you have meted out to poor Manon. You have sought advice from M. de G. M., and in his hatred he has painted her in the blackest colours. You have formed a dreadful picture of her, and yet she really is the sweetest and most lovable creature that ever lived. Why has not Heaven inspired you to want to see her just for a moment? I am no more certain that she is charming than that you would have found her so. You would have taken her part. You would have come to loathe the shady intrigues of G. M. and would have taken pity on her and me. Yes, I know you would. Your heart is not made of stone, and it would have been softened.’ Seeing me holding forth with an enthusiasm that would not have let me stop talking for some time, he cut me short again, wanting to know what I proposed to achieve by such an impassioned speech. ‘I am begging you for my life,’ I answered, ‘for I cannot hold on to it for a moment once Manon has gone to America.’ ‘No, no,’ he said sternly, ‘I would rather see you without life than without virtue and honour.’ ‘Then let us not go a step further,’ I cried, seizing him by the arm; ‘take this hateful and unbearable life away from me, for in the despair into which you have cast me, death will be a boon. It is a fitting gift from a father’s hand.’

‘I should only be giving you what you deserve,’ he retorted; ‘I know many a father who would not have waited as long as this to be your executioner, but my over-fondness has been your ruin.’

I threw myself at his feet. ‘Oh! if you have any affection left,’ I said, clasping his knees, ‘do not harden your heart against my tears. Remember I am your son. Think of my mother. You loved her so dearly! Would you have let her be snatched from your arms? No, you would have defended her with your life. Have not others a heart just like yours? Can anybody be so heartless when once he has known what love and suffering are?’

‘Don’t say another word about your mother,’ he angrily replied; ‘the very thought makes me boil with indignation. If she had lived to see your debaucheries, they would have killed her with grief. That is enough of this talk. It is only making me angry and it will certainly not make me change my decision. I am going home, and I order you to follow me.’ The hard and sharp tone in which he issued this command made it abundantly clear that he was inflexible. I moved a few steps off, fearing that he might take it into his head to stop me with his own hands. ‘Do not add to my desperation,’ I said, ‘by forcing me to disobey you. I cannot follow you; it is impossible. It is equally impossible for me to live after the harsh way you have treated me. So it is good-bye for ever. You will soon hear of my death, and perhaps that will revive your paternal feelings.’ I turned to go away. ‘So you refuse to follow me?’ he cried in a rage. ‘Then be off with you and go to perdition. Good-bye, thankless and rebellious son!’ ‘Good-bye, cruel and unnatural father!’ I shouted back in a transport of fury, and strode out of the Luxembourg.