Manon Lescaut Chapter 5

I RUSHED through the street like one possessed, until I came to M. de T.’s house. As I went along, I raised my eyes and hands and called upon the heavenly powers. ‘Oh, God,’ I said, ‘will You be as pitiless as mankind? I have no other help now but You.’

M. de T. had not yet come back, but he arrived after I had been waiting a few minutes. He was crestfallen, for his mission had succeeded no better than mine. Young G. M. was less incensed against Manon and me than his father was, but he was not willing to make any representations on our behalf. He had excused himself on the grounds of his own fear of that vindictive old man, who had already treated him to a scene and upbraided him for his intended intimacy with Manon. So the only way left open to me was brute force along the lines sketched out by M. de T., and I concentrated all my hopes on that. ‘Such hopes are very precarious,’ I conceded, ‘but the best-founded one, and the most comforting to me, is that at least I may perish in the attempt.’ I asked him to help me with his good wishes, and took my leave of him. From then onwards my only concern was to collect some comrades in whom I might kindle some spark of my own courage and determination.

The first person to come to my mind was the guardsman whom I had employed to hold up G. M. Moreover, I hoped to spend the night in his room, as I had had too much on my mind during the afternoon to think about finding lodgings. I found him alone. He was delighted to see me safely out of the Châtelet, and offered me his help in the most friendly way. I explained what I wanted him to do for me. He was shrewd enough to realize all the difficulties, but generous enough to try to surmount them. We discussed my plan well into the night. He referred to the three soldiers he had used on the last occasion as good fellows who could be relied upon in a tight corner. M. de T. had told me exactly how many guards were to escort Manon: there were to be only six. Five bold and determined men were enough to scare off such miserable hirelings, who are not capable of defending themselves honourably when the dangers of a fight can be avoided by cowardice. I was not without money, and the guardsman advised me not to be niggardly if I wanted to be sure that the attack came off successfully. ‘We need horses,’ he said, ‘with pistols and a musket for each man. I will undertake to see to these preparations tomorrow. We must also have three civilian suits for the soldiers, who would never dare to be seen in uniform in an affair of this kind.’ I gave him the hundred pistoles I had had from M. de T., and they were spent the next day to the last sou. I reviewed my three soldiers, heartened them with big promises and, to allay any misgivings, started by making each one a present of ten pistoles. When the appointed day came, I sent one of them early in the morning to the Hôpital to spy out the hour at which the soldiers were to set out with their victims. Although I took this precaution only out of excessive anxiety and foresight, it turned out to be absolutely necessary. I had relied on false information about the route they were to take, and, feeling sure that this pitiful band was to be put on ship at La Rochelle, I should have wasted all my efforts and waited on the Orleans road. But thanks to my soldier’s report, I now knew that they were taking the Normandy road and that the departure for America was to take place from Havre.

We made straight for the Porte Saint-Honoré, taking care to go through different streets, and we met again on the outskirts of the city. Our horses were fresh, and we soon spied the six guards and the two wretched wagons you saw two years ago at Pacy. The sight all but deprived me of strength and consciousness. ‘Oh, Fortune,’ I cried, ‘cruel Fortune! at least vouchsafe me in this hour death or victory!’

We held a brief council of war on the method of our attack. The guards were not more than four hundred paces ahead, and we could intercept them by crossing a little field round which the highroad took a bend. My guardsman advised taking that route so as to surprise them by a sudden charge. I agreed, and was the first to spur on my horse. But inexorable Fortune had turned a deaf ear to my prayer.

The guards, seeing five horsemen bearing down upon them, realized that they were being attacked and took up the defensive positions, fixing their bayonets and levelling their guns with a resolute air. This only served to put fresh courage into the guardsman and me, but it took all the spirit out of our three craven companions. They stopped dead as if by an agreed signal, exchanged a few words I could not hear, turned their horses and galloped away towards Paris.

‘My God!’ said the guardsman, as panic-stricken as I was by such an infamous desertion, ‘what are we to do now? There are only two of us.’ I was speechless with rage and astonishment, and pulled up, uncertain whether my first revenge ought to be to pursue the wretches who had left me in the lurch. I watched them galloping out of sight and then glanced at the guards. Had I been able to cut myself in two, I would have charged simultaneously on these two objects of my rage and destroyed them together. The guardsman could tell the dilemma I was in by the shifting of my eyes, and he urged me to listen to him: ‘There are only two of us,’ he said, ‘and it would be madness to attack six men as well armed as we are ourselves and apparently determined to make a stand. We must go back to Paris and try to be more lucky in our choice of men. That escort cannot cover much ground in one day with those two cumbersome wagons, and we shall easily catch them up again tomorrow.’

I considered this course of action for a moment, but, seeing nothing on all sides but reasons for despair, I came to a truly despairing decision. It was to dismiss my companion with thanks for his help and then, far from attacking the guards, go up to them and humbly ask them to let me join their band, so as to accompany Manon to Havre and then sail overseas with her. I turned to the guardsman. ‘Everybody persecutes or betrays me,’ I said, ‘and I have no more faith left in anybody. I have nothing more to hope for from destiny or human aid. My cup of misfortune is full; all I can do is accept it and shut my eyes to all hope. May Heaven reward your kindness! Farewell! I am going to help my cruel fate to accomplish my ruin by deliberately meeting it half way.’ He tried to make me return to Paris, but in vain. I begged him to leave me at once and let me follow out my resolve, lest the guards might think we still meant to attack them.

I slowly went towards them alone, and my face was so woebegone that they could not have found anything alarming about my approach. All the same, they stood at the ready. ‘Gentlemen,’ I said as I came up to them, ‘rest assured, I do not bring war, but come to ask favours.’ I asked them to go on their way without suspicion, and as we went along I told them the favours I wanted. They consulted together as to how they would receive such an overture. The head of the band, speaking for the rest, answered that their orders were to keep their prisoners under the closest watch, but that, as I seemed a nice fellow, he and his friends would relax their discipline a little. But I must understand that they could not do it for nothing. I had about fifteen pistoles left, and frankly told them what my reasons were. ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘we will treat you generously. It will only cost you one écu per hour to see whichever of our young ladies you like best. That is the usual Paris rate.’ I had not made any special reference to Manon, because I did not intend them to know about my passion. At first they imagined that it was just a young man’s whim that made me want to get a bit of amusement with these creatures, but when they thought they saw that I was in love, they put up their prices so much that my purse was empty by the time we left Mantes, where we had spent the night before we reached Pacy.

Can I tell you of the heartrending talks with Manon during that journey, or the impression I had when the soldiers gave me leave to go up to her cart? Words never can convey more than half the feelings of the heart: but try to picture my poor Manon chained by the waist, sitting on a few handfuls of straw, with her weary head resting against the side of the cart. Her eyes were continually shut, but her pallid face was wet with a trickle of tears flowing from beneath her lids. She had been too listless to open them, even when she had heard the noise made by the guards when they were afraid of being attacked. Her clothes were dirty and disordered and her delicate hands exposed to wind and weather. That enchanting frame, that face capable of taking the whole world back to the days of idolatry, was reduced to an indescribable state of slovenliness and neglect. For some time I rode by the side of the cart and gazed at her. I had so little control of my emotions that more than once I nearly had a bad fall. My frequent sighs and exclamations made her open her eyes and glance at me. She recognized me, and I noticed that her first impulse was to leap out of the wagon and come to me, but her chain held her down and she relapsed into her original attitude. I asked the guards to stop a moment out of pity, and they did so out of greed. I left my horse and sat beside her. She was so exhausted and dejected that a long time passed before she could utter a sound or move her hands. I moistened them with my tears. I could not find a single word to say, either, and we both remained in the most pitiful state that has ever been known. Even when we had recovered our power of speech, our words were no less miserable. Manon said little: it seemed as though shame and grief had affected her very organs of speech, for her voice was weak and tremulous. She thanked me for not having forgotten her and, she added with a sigh, for giving her the satisfaction of seeing me once again to say a last farewell. When I assured her that nothing could tear me away from her, that I was minded to follow her to the ends of the earth to care for her, serve her, cherish her and bind my wretched fate to hers for ever, the poor girl gave way to such an outburst of love and sorrow that I feared such violent emotion might endanger her life. Every feeling in her soul seemed concentrated in her eyes, which she kept fixed on me. Now and again she opened her mouth, but had not the strength to finish the few phrases she began. But a few sentences did escape her: words of wonder at my love, tender concern at the excess of it, doubt that she could really be so happy as to have inspired such perfect devotion, pleading to make me give up this idea of following her and seek some other happiness more worthy of me, which, she said, I could not hope to find with her.

In spite of the unsurpassable harshness of my destiny, I found my happiness in her eyes and in the knowledge that she loved me. True, I had lost all that other men value, but I was master of Manon’s heart, and that was the only wealth I cared for. What did it matter to me where I lived, in Europe, in America? Little did I care if I could be sure of the bliss of living with her. Is not the whole universe the dwelling-place of two faithful lovers? Do they not find in each other father, mother, family, friends, wealth and felicity? If anything gave me cause for anxiety, it was the fear of seeing Manon exposed to poverty and want. Already I pictured myself with her in some wilderness inhabited by savages. But I told myself that there could never be savages as cruel as G. M. and my father, for at least they would let us live in peace. If accounts were to be believed, they lived according to the laws of nature, knowing neither the mad lust for money that possessed G. M., nor the fantastic notions of honour which had turned my father into my enemy. They would not interfere with two lovers when they saw them leading as simple a life as theirs. Thus I was reassured in that direction, but I harboured no romantic illusions about the ordinary needs of daily life. Too often already I had experienced that there are some privations not to be borne, especially by a delicately reared girl accustomed to a life of ease and plenty. I was exasperated that I had emptied my purse so uselessly and that the little money I had left was on the point of being filched by these rascally soldiers. It seemed to me that, with a modest sum, I might have hoped not merely to keep poverty at bay for some time in America, where money was scarce, but even to come to some arrangement whereby I could have a settled livelihood. This train of thought led me to the idea of writing to Tiberge, whom I had always found so ready with offers of friendship and help. I wrote from the next town we passed through; but though I admitted I was bound for Havre, where I was taking Manon, I did not volunteer anything else beyond the pressing need of money I knew I should be in when I arrived there. I asked him for a hundred pistoles, payable by the postmaster, and said that he would realize that this was the last time I should prey upon his friendship, for my unhappy mistress was being taken from me for ever, and I could not let her go without a few comforts that might alleviate her sufferings and my own mortal grief.

When the soldiers discovered how passionately I was in love, they became so unreasonable that they constantly put up the price of their slightest favours, and soon had me reduced to the utmost poverty. In any case I was too much in love to think of money. From morning till night I stayed by Manon’s side, lost to the world, and time was no longer measured out to me by the hour but by whole days. Eventually, when my purse was quite empty, I found myself exposed to the whims and bullying of six brutes, who treated me with insufferable condescension. You saw that for yourself at Pacy. My meeting you there was a blessed moment of relief which fortune granted me. The compassion which the sight of my woes inspired in you was the only recommendation I had to your generous heart, and the help you so freely gave me enabled me to reach Havre. The soldiers kept their promise more faithfully than I had hoped.

We arrived at Havre. First I went to the post. Tiberge had not had time to reply. I asked exactly when I could expect his letter. It could not be there for two or more days and, by a strange caprice of my cruel fate, it turned out that our ship was to sail on the morning of the day when the post arrived. My despair cannot be described. ‘What!’ I exclaimed, ‘even in misfortune must I always be singled out for extremes?’ ‘Alas,’ Manon replied, ‘is such an unhappy life worth the trouble we are taking over it? Let us die at Havre, my beloved, let death put a speedy end to our sufferings. Shall we go and drag out our lives in some unknown land where we must certainly expect horrible privations since I am being sent there for a punishment? Let us die,’ she repeated, ‘or at least, you put an end to my life and go and seek a happier lot in the arms of some more fortunate woman.’ ‘No, no,’ I said, ‘for me it is an enviable lot to be unhappy with you.’ Her words made me shudder, for it seemed to me that her misfortunes had got the better of her. I therefore tried to assume a calmer manner in order to divert her mind from death and despair. I resolved to keep up the same attitude in the future, and since then I have found nothing succeeds more in putting new heart into a woman than a courageous air in the man she loves. When I had lost hope of help from Tiberge I sold my horse, and the money I got for it, together with what remained of your kind gift, made up the small sum of seventeen pistoles. Seven of these I spent on a few necessary comforts for Manon, and carefully put aside the other ten for a nucleus of our hopes and fortune in America. I had no trouble about being taken on the ship, for young men ready to join the colony were then in demand, and my food and passage were given me free of charge. The Paris mail was due out on the next day, and I left a letter for Tiberge. It was a pathetic letter and evidently capable of stirring him deeply, since it made him take a decision which could come only from infinite love and generosity for a friend in need.

We set sail. The weather continued favourable. The captain allowed Manon and me a place apart, and was good enough to look upon us with a kindlier eye than he had for the rest of our miserable associates. On the very first day I had a private talk with him and, in order to secure a little personal consideration, told him part of the tale of my misfortunes. I did not think I was guilty of a shameful lie in telling him that I was married to Manon. He pretended to believe it and took me under his protection. We had proofs of this throughout the crossing. He went out of his way to see that we were properly fed, and his many little attentions earned us the respect of our companions in misery. I was continually concerned to see that Manon did not suffer the slightest discomfort. She appreciated what I did, and this knowledge, together with a keen sense of the strange pass to which I had let myself be brought for her sake, made her so tender and devoted, so anxious on her side to minister to my smallest needs, that we were continually vying with each other in love and services. I did not hanker after Europe, but, on the contrary, the nearer we came to America the more I felt my heart open out into tranquillity. If I could have been sure that when we got there we should not lack the bare necessities of life, I would have thanked destiny for having granted so favourable a turn to our woes.