Manon Lescaut Chapter 5

I could never describe the state I was in when I had read this letter, and to this day I cannot decide what sort of emotions swirled round in my soul. It was one of those unique situations, the like of which has never been experienced before: you cannot explain to others because they have no conception of what is meant, and you cannot unravel them for yourself because, being unique, they have no connexion with anything in your memory, nor even with any known feeling at all. And yet, whatever my emotions were, certain it is that grief, rage, jealousy, and humiliation all had a share in them. How I wish that love had not had an even greater share! ‘She loves me,’ I reflected, ‘yes, I suppose she does, but after all, what an unnatural monster she would have to be to hate me! Could it be possible to have a better right to anybody’s love than I have to hers? Is there anything else I could do for her after all I have sacrificed? And yet she casts me off and thinks she can clear herself of all blame simply by saying that she still loves me! She is afraid of hunger – good God! what a coarse, materialistic outlook, and what a response to all my delicacy! Hunger has no terrors for me; I have faced it willingly for her by giving up my fortune and the comforts of my father’s home. I have given up necessities so as to satisfy her merest whims and caprices. She loves me, she says! If she did, I know whose advice the wanton creature would have taken; she would not have left me without even saying good-bye. I am the one to talk about the cruel pains of separation, not she! Anyone who deliberately brings such torments upon himself must be out of his mind.’

I was interrupted in these recriminations by an unexpected visitor – Lescaut. As soon as I saw him I put hand to sword. ‘You unspeakable wretch!’ I said, ‘where is Manon? what have you done with her?’ He answered nervously that if this was how I welcomed him, just when he was going to tell me about the best thing he had ever done for me, he would go away and never set foot in my house again. I ran to the door, shut it carefully and turned to face him. ‘Don’t imagine you can take me in again with your fairy-tales,’ I shouted, ‘defend yourself, or help me find Manon.’ ‘Now, now, don’t you be so hasty,’ he said, ‘that is the very thing I have come for. I have come to give you some good news you aren’t expecting, and I hope you’ll show a little gratitude for it.’

I demanded to be told at once, and he spun me a yarn about how Manon had been unable to face the prospect of poverty, and still less that of having to cut down our household all of a sudden, and so had asked him to introduce her to M. de G. M., who had a reputation for generosity. He took good care not to say that the idea had first come from him and that he had prepared the way before taking her to the old man’s house. ‘I took her there this morning,’ he said, ‘and the gentleman was so taken with her that he began by inviting her to go and spend a few days with him at his country house. Now I saw at once how you could get something out of this, and I gave him to understand, in a tactful sort of way, that Manon had lost a good deal of money. I managed to tickle up his generosity to the tune of two hundred pistoles, which he gave her as a present to begin with. I said that that was very kind of him for the time being, but that the future would bring many calls on my sister’s money as she had undertaken to look after a young brother who had been on our hands since our parents’ death. If he thought Manon worthy of his interest (I went on), he would not like to see her suffer on account of this poor lad whom she thought of as part of herself. This story touched his heart, and no mistake. He has promised to rent a nice house for you and Manon, for you are the poor little orphan brother. What’s more, to fit you out with decent furniture and pay you four hundred livres a month in hard cash – that is, if my arithmetic is correct, four thousand eight hundred by the end of each year. Before leaving for the country, he gave orders to his steward to find a house and have it ready for his return. And then you will see Manon again. She told me to give you a thousand kisses for her and to say she loves you more than ever.’

I sank on to a seat and mused on this strange twist of fortune. My feelings were so divided and I was in such a state of bewilderment that I went on sitting there without making any answer to the questions Lescaut fired at me one after the other. At that moment honour and virtue once again stung me with remorse, and my thoughts turned wistfully towards Amiens, home, Saint-Sulpice and all the places I had lived in as a clean, self-respecting being. What an immense gulf lay between me and that happy state! It now seemed like some far-off dream, still clear enough to fill me with wishes and regrets, but too vague and misty to stir me to action. What fatal power had dragged me down to crime? How came it that love, an innocent passion, had turned for me into the source of all misery and vice? Who prevented my living peacefully and innocently with Manon? Why had I not married her before claiming anything from her love? If I had really urged a reasonable claim, surely my father would have consented, if only for love of me? He would have loved her as a dear daughter and held her most worthy to be his son’s wife. And I should now be happy with Manon’s love, my father’s affection, the respect of all decent people, Fortune would be smiling on me and I should be virtuous and at peace with myself. What a contrast with the vile part I was now being expected to play! What! did they expect me to share… But then how could I hesitate since Manon had arranged things this way, since, but for this complaisance, I should lose her altogether? I closed my eyes, as though to prevent my seeing such horrible thoughts, and almost shouted my answer: ‘Monsieur Lescaut, I suppose you meant to help me, and I must thank you. You might have found some less unsavoury way, but we’ll call it settled, shall we? It only remains for us to think out how best to take advantage of your kindness and fulfil your promise.’

My anger, and the long silence that had followed, had somewhat embarrassed Lescaut, and he was delighted to see me come to a quite different decision from the one he had feared, for he was anything but courageous, as I was to learn in due course. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said hurriedly, ‘I have done you a very good turn, and you will see that we shall make more out of it than you expect.’ We proceeded to work out a way of lulling any suspicions M. de G. M. might entertain about our relationship when he saw how much bigger and older I was than he imagined. The only way we could think of was for me to act the simple country bumpkin in front of him and to give him to understand that I was going in for the priesthood and that I went to college every day. To this end we arranged that I should be very shabbily dressed the first time I had the honour of meeting him.

He returned to town three or four days later, bringing Manon to the house that the steward had prepared. She at once let Lescaut know that she was back; he told me, and together we went to see her. Her aged beau had already left.

I had submitted to Manon’s will with resigned obedience, but when I saw her again I could not restrain some stirrings of anger within. My joy at seeing her could not altogether overcome my resentment of her infidelity, and I appeared listless and preoccupied. I could not help sighing and uttering such words as ‘perfidious’ and ‘faithless’, but she, on the contrary, seemed overjoyed at seeing me again and scolded me for my coolness.

At first she teased me for what she called my greenness, but when she saw how serious I looked, and how hard I was finding it to accept a state of affairs so distasteful to my character and wishes, she went off to her room. I followed her a moment later and found her in tears. When I asked her the reason she said: ‘It’s perfectly easy to see why. How do you expect me to go on existing if the very sight of me makes you look so gloomy and pained? You have been here a whole hour and not given me so much as a single kiss, and you have accepted mine with all the condescension of the Grand Turk in his harem.’

‘Listen, Manon,’ I said, taking her in my arms, ‘it’s no use pretending that I am not cut to the heart, for I am. I am not referring now to the shock your unexpected flight gave me, nor to your cruelty in leaving me without one word of comfort after spending the night in another bed than mine. All that and much more besides would be charmed away by your mere presence. But do you suppose I can contemplate the miserable, degrading life you want me to live in this house without being upset even to the point of tears?’ I was weeping myself by now. ‘Let us leave my honour and station in life out of this,’ I went on; ‘little things like that have long ceased to have power to compete with a love like mine. But can’t you see that it is this very love of mine that is groaning at being so ill rewarded, or rather so brutally ill-treated by a callous and ungrateful mistress?’

She cut me short. ‘Now look here, my dear,’ she said; ‘what is the use of tormenting me with reproaches that can only break my heart, coming as they do from you? I can see what is upsetting you. I had hoped that you would fall in with the plan I made for recovering some of our lost fortune, and if I had begun to put the plan into effect without your having a say in it, it was simply out of respect for the delicacy of your feelings. But since you disapprove I shall just throw it up!’ She added that all she asked was a little forbearance on my part for the rest of that day; she had already had two hundred pistoles from her old gentleman, and he had promised to bring her that night a handsome pearl necklace and other jewels, together with half the year’s allowance he had settled on her. ‘Only give me time to get his presents into my hands,’ she said, ‘and I swear he will never be able to boast of any other benefit from the hold I have given him over me, for up to now I have managed to put him off until I am in town. Of course, he has kissed my hands more than a million times, and it is only right that he should pay for the pleasure. I don’t think the price of five or six thousand francs is too high when you take into account his money – and his age.’

This decision of hers pleased me much more than the prospect of the five thousand livres. I had not yet lost every honourable feeling, it seemed to me, since I was so glad to be spared this infamy. But I was born to fleeting joys and lasting sufferings. Fate rescued me from one abyss only to hurl me down into another. I showed my gratitude for this change of plan by embracing Manon passionately, and then said that we must inform M. Lescaut so that the three of us could act together. He demurred at first, but the four or five thousand in hard cash brought him cheerfully round to our point of view. It was settled that we should all be present at supper with M. de G. M., and for two reasons: firstly for the fun of the comic turn I was to put on as Manon’s student brother, and secondly to prevent the old rake from making too free with his mistress on the strength of having paid liberally in advance. It was arranged that Lescaut and I would take our leave when he went up to the room where he proposed to spend the night, and instead of following him Manon promised to come out and spend it with me. Lescaut undertook to have a carriage waiting at the proper moment outside the door.

Supper-time came, and with it M. de G. M. РLescaut was there in the room with his sister. By way of an introductory compliment the old chap presented his lady love with a necklace, bracelets and ear-rings, all of pearls and worth at least a thousand écus. Next he counted out two thousand four hundred livres in gold Рhalf the agreed annual allowance. He seasoned his gifts with many graceful attentions in the style of the last reign. Manon could scarcely refuse him a few kisses, if only by way of establishing as many claims on the money he was giving her. All this time I was behind the door, listening for the cue to be given me by Lescaut.

When Manon had put away the money and jewels Lescaut came over, took me by the hand, led me up to M. de G. M. and ordered me to make my bow. I made two or three, of the most obsequious I could. ‘Excuse him, Sir,’ said Lescaut; ‘as you can see he is quite inexperienced and far from having Parisian manners, but we hope that with a little practice he will soon pick things up. You (turning towards me) will often have the honour of seeing this gentleman here, and it is up to you to benefit by such a distinguished example.’ The old lover seemed pleased to see me. He tapped me once or twice on the cheek, and told me I must be on my guard in Paris, for young people could easily fall into bad habits there. Lescaut assured him that I was so pious that I was always talking of becoming a priest, and that my greatest hobby was making little chapels. ‘I can see something of Manon in him,’ said the old man, chucking me under the chin. I answered in a silly voice: ‘Sir, you see we two are one flesh, and I love my sister like a second self.’ ‘There, now!’ he said to Lescaut, ‘isn’t he clever! It’s a pity this young man hasn’t seen a little more of the world.’ ‘Oh, Sir,’ I went on, ‘I have seen plenty of folk in the churches at home, and I think I shall find lots of people in Paris who are not as clever as I am.’ ‘Fancy!’ said he, ‘isn’t he bright for a country lad!’ All through supper the conversation was on about the same level. Manon, who was in a gay mood, nearly upset everything several times by shrieking with laughter. I contrived to tell him his own story, not excluding the nasty d√©nouement in store for him. It was amusing to see Manon and Lescaut trembling, especially while I was doing a lifelike impersonation of him, but he was too vain to recognize himself, and I brought the story to so neat a conclusion that he was the first to find it vastly amusing. You will see in due course that I have my reasons for dwelling on this ridiculous episode. At length bedtime drew near, and he began saying things about the impatience of lovers. Lescaut and I withdrew. He was helped up to his room, and Manon, alleging a natural need, slipped away and joined us at the front door. The carriage was waiting three or four doors down the street, and it came to pick us up. In a trice we were far away.