Manon Lescaut Chapter 6

ALTHOUGH I realized that this action was a real piece of roguery, it was not what lay most heavily on my conscience. I had far more scruples about the money I had made at the gambling-table. And yet we did not get the benefit of either, and Heaven ordained that the more venial of these crimes was to have the heavier punishment.

M. de G. M. soon found out that he had been tricked. I do not know whether he took steps that very night to have us tracked down, but his influence was powerful enough to make any steps he took immediately effective, while we were rash enough to count far too much on the size of Paris and the distance between our neighbourhood and his. Not only did he quickly find out our address and our real position, but also who I was, the life I had been leading in Paris, the story of Manon’s former liaison with B. and the way she had swindled him too – in fact all the scandalous details of our past. He made up his mind to have us arrested and treated less as criminals than as out-and-out immoral characters. We were still in bed when a police officer entered, followed by half a dozen guards. Their first act was to seize our money, or rather that of M. de G. M.; then they hauled us brutally out of bed and took us outside where two vehicles were waiting; poor Manon was unceremoniously bundled into one, and in the other I was taken off to Saint-Lazare. Nobody who has not been through such vicissitudes can conceive into what depths of despair they can throw you. The loutish guards would not even allow me to kiss Manon good-bye or say a single word to her. For a long time I had no idea what had become of her, which was perhaps as well for me in the first few days, for such a catastrophe might have cost me my reason, not to say my life.

My unhappy mistress had been taken off and put into an institution which I cannot name without horror.12 What a fate for the most beautiful of women, who, if all men had my eyes and heart, might have sat on the most exalted throne in the world! She was not roughly treated, but confined alone in a narrow prison and condemned to perform some menial task every day as a necessary condition for obtaining some revolting food. All this I learned only long afterwards, when I myself had undergone several months of cruel and monotonous punishment. As the guards had not told me where they had orders to take me, I found out my destination only at the very gates of Saint-Lazare. I had such terrible ideas about this place that at that moment I would have preferred death to the fate I believed to be in store for me.13 My fears were redoubled at the entrance, when the guards went through my pockets for the second time to make sure that I had no weapons or means of defence. My arrival was reported to the Father Superior, who came at once and greeted me very kindly. ‘Father,’ I said, ‘no humiliations, please. I would rather die.’ ‘No, no, Sir,’ he said, ‘if you behave reasonably we shall get along quite well with each other.’ He bade me follow him to an upper room, and I meekly obeyed. The soldiers came with us as far as the door, and then the Superior discharged them and came in with me.

‘So I am your prisoner,’ I said. ‘Well, Father, what do you propose to do with me?’ He said he was very pleased to see me take such a reasonable line and that his duty was to strive to inspire in me a taste for virtue and religion, whilst mine was to mark well his exhortations and advice. If only I would try to respond to kindness I would find my confinement quite enjoyable. ‘Enjoyable!’ I said. ‘You do not know the only thing in the world I could enjoy.’ ‘Yes I do,’ he said, ‘but I hope your inclinations will change.’ I gathered from this reply that he was aware of my story and probably of my name, and I begged him to say if this was so. He answered, of course, that he had been told everything.

This was the rudest shock of all. I could not get over the humiliation of being the talk of all my acquaintances and the shame of the family. At first I wept bitterly, in violent convulsions of despair, and then for a whole week was cast down into the deepest apathy, with no ear or thought for anything but my disgrace. Even thoughts of Manon lost their power to add to my grief, but receded into the background of my mind, where they lurked as the memory of an earlier pain. My heart was filled with shame and confusion which dominated every other emotion.

Few can know the full power of these afflictions of the soul. Most men are touched only by five or six passions, and their whole life, with all its storms and stresses, moves round within this circle. Take away love and hatred, pleasure and sorrow, hope and fear, and there is nothing else they feel. But characters of a more delicate texture can be tossed about in a hundred different ways; they seem to have more than five senses, and to be a prey to ideas and sensations surpassing the ordinary limits of nature. And being conscious of this refinement which raises them above the ordinary run of men, they cherish this sensibility of theirs more jealously than anything else. That is why scorn or laughter tortures and exasperates them, that is why shame is one of their most violent emotions.

This sorry distinction was mine at Saint-Lazare. My grief seemed so excessive to the Superior that he felt obliged to treat me with great gentleness and indulgence, for fear of what I might do. He came and saw me two or three times a day, and often took me for walks round the garden. On these walks he never tired of reasoning with me and offering me sound advice. I listened with great docility and even expressed my gratitude, and he took this as an earnest of my approaching conversion. ‘You have such a good and gentle disposition,’ he said one day, ‘that I cannot comprehend the excesses you are accused of. Two things astonish me: one is how, with all your great qualities, you can have given yourself over to such dissipation, and the other, which I find even more difficult to understand, is how you heed my advice and instruction so meekly after living for several years in habitual vice. If it is repentance, you are a signal example of the mercy of God; if it is natural goodness, at least it means that your character is unimpaired, and that leads me to hope that we shall not need to hold you here for long before we can bring you back to a sane and balanced life.’ I was delighted that he had such a good opinion of me, and I resolved to cultivate his esteem by behaviour which would completely satisfy him, in the belief that it would be the surest way of shortening my imprisonment. I asked for some books. He left me a free choice of what I wanted to read, and was surprised that I selected serious authors. I pretended to study them with the utmost concentration, and on every occasion I gave him evidence of the change of heart he wished to see.

All this, of course, was purely external. To my shame it must be said that at Saint-Lazare I played the perfect hypocrite. When I was unobserved, instead of studying I did nothing but rail against my destiny, and curse my prison and the tyranny that kept me there. No sooner did I feel some relief from the overwhelming sense of humiliation than I was seized anew by the torments of love. All I could think of was my absent Manon, my uncertainty of her whereabouts and my fear of never seeing her again. I pictured her in the arms of M. de G. M. – that was the first thought I had – for, far from imagining that he had dealt out to her the same treatment as he had to me, I felt sure that he had had me put out of the way simply in order to possess her in peace.

And so the seemingly eternal days and nights dragged on, and my only hope lay in the effect of my hypocrisy on the Superior. I carefully studied his words and the expressions on his face so as to find out what he thought of me, and as he was the arbiter of my fate I spared no effort to please him. It was easy to see that I was in his good books and I was sure that he could be relied upon to do his best for me.

One day I made so bold as to ask him whether my liberation depended on him. He said that his powers did not quite extend to that, but that his report would, he hoped, persuade M. de G. M., at whose request I had been imprisoned, to restore me my freedom. ‘Dare I hope,’ I said in honeyed tones, ‘that he will think the two months’ imprisonment I have already served are a sufficient expiation?’ He promised to speak to him about it if I wished, and I most earnestly begged him to do me this kindness.

Two days later he told me that G. M. had been so touched by the good report he had had of me that not only did he seem disposed to set me free, but had also shown a strong desire to know me better and intended to visit me. Although I could scarcely look forward to seeing him, I interpreted this visit as a further step towards liberty.

In due course he came to Saint-Lazare. He looked more dignified and less foolish than when I had seen him in Manon’s house. He made a few edifying remarks about my misconduct, and added, apparently to justify his own goings-on, that it was permissible for men in their frailty to gratify certain of nature’s demands, but that swindling and scoundrelly trickery ought to be punished. He seemed pleased by the meekness with which I listened. I did not even take offence when he allowed himself a few jokes about my supposed family relationship with Lescaut and Manon, and the little chapels of which, he presumed, I must have made quite a number at Saint-Lazare, since I found so much enjoyment in that pious occupation. But, unfortunately for him and for me, he let slip a remark that no doubt Manon too must have made some pretty ones in the Hôpital. This word gave me a shock, but I kept enough self-control to ask him to be so good as to explain. ‘Why, yes,’ he said, ‘for the past two months she had been learning wisdom at the Hôpital, and I trust she has benefited there as much as you have at Saint-Lazare.’

Even if at that moment I had been faced with imprisonment for life or death itself, I could not have restrained my fury at this terrible news. I flung myself upon him with such uncontrollable rage that I had only half my real strength, but I still had enough left to throw him on to the floor and seize him by the throat. I had half strangled him when the sound of his fall and the shrill cries he managed to utter, in spite of my grip on his throat, brought in the Superior and several monks, who set him free. By this time I too was at the end of my tether and gasping for breath. ‘Oh God!’ I cried, almost choking with sobs, ‘oh God of justice, how can I ever survive so foul an insult?’ I tried to throw myself afresh upon this monster who had outraged me, but was held back. You cannot imagine how I shouted and wept in my anguish, and my behaviour was so frenzied that the others, not knowing the reason, looked at each other with as much alarm as amazement. Meanwhile M. de G. M. was adjusting his wig and cravat, and in his fury at having been so roughly handled he ordered the Superior to confine me more closely than ever, using all the punishments known at Saint-Lazare. ‘No, Sir,’ said the Superior, ‘we cannot treat a person of the Chevalier’s rank in such a manner. Besides, he is so gentle and well-behaved that I find it difficult to believe that he has gone to such lengths without strong provocation.’ This answer put the finishing touch to M. de G. M.’s discomfiture, and he went out vowing to find a way of crushing the Superior, me and anybody else who dared to stand up to him.

The Superior ordered his monks to show him out. When he was left alone with me he begged me to explain at once the cause of this disturbance. ‘Oh, Father,’ I said, still weeping like a child, ‘think of the most loathsome cruelty, the most inhuman savagery you can imagine, and that may give you some inkling of what this unspeakable G. M. has done. He has dealt me a blow from which I shall never recover. I should like to tell you the whole story. You are kind and you will have pity on me.’ I gave him a short account of my long and unconquerable passion for Manon, our flourishing position before we had been robbed by our own servants, the offer made to my mistress by G. M., the conclusion of their bargain and the way it had been broken. True, I put things in the most favourable light from our point of view. ‘And that,’ I continued, ‘is what lies behind M. de G. M.’s zeal for my conversion. He was in a position to have me shut up in here out of pure spite. I could forgive that, but that is not all. The woman I hold more precious than my own life has been brutally carried off by his orders and put ignominiously into the Hôpital – he had the impertinence to tell me so himself this very day. The Hôpital, Father! My beautiful Manon, my own beloved, thrown into that place like the filthiest harlot! Shall I ever find strength to live through the grief and shame of it all?’ Seeing me in such depths of affliction, the worthy priest tried to console me, saying that he had never known the true facts of my story as I had just put them. He had known, of course, about my disorderly life, but he had supposed that the motives behind M. de G. M.’s action had been concern for me and family friendship. That was the only interpretation he had been able to find, and what I had just told him put a very different complexion on the affair. He felt sure that the true account he now intended giving to the Lieutenant-General of Police would hasten the day when I should be set free. He then asked me why I had not yet thought of letting my family know what had become of me; since they were not responsible for my captivity. I met this objection with reasons drawn from the grief I had been afraid of inflicting on my father, and the shame I should have felt myself. He finally promised to go at once to the Lieutenant-General if only to forestall some still more sinister move on the part of M. de G. M., who had gone off in an ugly mood and who was influential enough to be dangerous.

I waited for his return with all the apprehension of a poor wretch whose sentence is about to be pronounced. It was an indescribable torture to imagine Manon at the Hôpital. Apart from the disgrace of her being there at all, there was my ignorance of what sort of treatment she was receiving, while recollections of the few details I had heard about that horrible place constantly revived my anxieties. I was so determined to help her, at any cost and by any means, that I would have set fire to Saint-Lazare if it had not been possible to get out by any other method. And so I pondered over the ways open to me if the Lieutenant-General of Police persisted in keeping me there by force. I cudgelled my brains and explored every possibility, but I could find nothing that would guarantee a certain escape, and was afraid of having the watch on me tightened still more if I made an unsuccessful attempt. I went over the names of friends from whom I might expect assistance, but how could I let them know about my predicament? In the end I thought I had settled on a plan so skilful that it could hardly fail, and I decided to postpone improving on it until the Father Superior’s return and the fruitlessness of his errand had made it necessary.

He soon came back, and his expression bore none of the signs of joy that one associates with good news. ‘I have spoken to the Lieutenant-General,’ he said, ‘but I was too late. M. de G. M. went to him straight from here and has so prejudiced him against you that he was on the point of sending me fresh orders to confine you more closely. Yet when I told him the full details of your story, he seemed much more favourably disposed, smiled at old M. de G. M.’s lecherousness and said that you would have to be left here six months to pacify him. And it would be all to the good,’ he added, ‘since this place could not do you any harm. He enjoined me to treat you well, and I assure you that you will have nothing to complain of from me.’

This explanation lasted long enough for me to make the prudent reflection that if I showed too much enthusiasm for my freedom I might risk upsetting all my plans. I therefore affirmed that as I had to stay there in any case, it would be a great consolation for me to know that I had some small share in his affection. Then, without appearing to attach too much importance to it, I asked him to do me a favour which would greatly contribute to my peace of mind; it was to notify a friend of mine, a priest at Saint-Sulpice, that I was at Saint-Lazare, and to allow him to visit me from time to time. He granted this without hesitation.

I was thinking of Tiberge. Not that I hoped he would help to set me free, but I meant to use him indirectly to that end, without his even being aware of it. This, in a word, was my scheme: I proposed to write to Lescaut and get him and our friends to liberate me, but the first difficulty was to have a letter delivered into his hands, and that was where Tiberge came in. But then, as Tiberge knew that he was my mistress’s brother, he might be reluctant to undertake such a task. My idea was to enclose a letter to Lescaut inside another addressed to a perfectly respectable acquaintance, with a request that it be sent on promptly. It was essential to see Lescaut so that we could agree on a plan of action, and I purposed instructing him to come to Saint-Lazare in the guise of an elder brother of mine who had come to Paris especially to find out how things stood with me. I would wait until I saw him before settling on the safest and quickest way of escape.

The Father Superior had Tiberge informed of my wish to see him. That loyal friend had not lost touch with me to the extent of not knowing what had become of me; he knew I was in Saint-Lazare, and possibly he was not altogether sorry to know about my disgrace, for he thought it might bring me back to a sense of duty. He came with all speed.

We talked in the friendliest way. He wanted to know just what my position was. I hid nothing from him except my intention to escape. ‘My dear friend,’ I said, ‘you are not the sort of man before whom I want to appear what I am not. If you think you have come here to see a reformed character, with passions all under control, a libertine whose eyes have been opened by the chastisement of God, in a word a heart purged of desire and no longer ensnared by Manon’s wiles, you have judged me too indulgently. You see me now just as you left me four months ago, still susceptible, still haunted by that fatal passion, still untiringly seeking happiness there and there alone.’

He replied that such an admission made my conduct unpardonable. Many a sinner was so intoxicated with the treacherous joys of evil that he openly preferred them to virtue, but such a man was at any rate lured on by appearances of happiness, even though spurious. But to see clearly, as I did, that the object which held me in its toils could only make me wicked and unhappy, and to persist, nevertheless, in plunging into misery and crime, was a contradiction between knowledge and behaviour which did little credit to my good sense.

‘Tiberge,’ I said, ‘how easy it is for you to carry the day with nothing to withstand your attacks! But let me have a turn at arguing. Can you assert that what you call the happiness of virtue is free from pain, disappointments and anxieties? How would you describe the prisons, crosses, tortures and executions inflicted by tyrants? Would you say, like the mystics, that what torments the body is bliss to the soul? You would never dare, the paradox is indefensible. No, this happiness you rank so high is mixed with countless sufferings, or rather it is a tissue of ills through which felicity may possibly be discerned. Now if by sheer imagination men can find pleasure in these very ills on the grounds that they may lead to some ultimate and hoped-for joy, why do you dismiss an exactly similar line of conduct on my part as contradictory and senseless? I love Manon; I am striving through a thousand ills towards a goal of peace and happiness with her. The path I am treading is hard, but it is softened by my hope of reaching the goal, and I shall deem all the cares on the way more than repaid by one moment with her. So things seem about equal on your side and on mine. If there is a difference it is still in my favour, for the bliss I hope for is near, and yours is far off; mine is of the same nature as the sorrow, that is to say corporal, whilst yours is of an unknown kind which faith alone can substantiate.’

This argument horrified Tiberge. He recoiled from me, saying in the most solemn way that not only were my words an affront to common sense, but that they were a heinous sophism born of impiety and irreligion, for it was a most monstrous and godless thing to make such a comparison between the goal of my sufferings and that of religion.

‘I grant you,’ I replied, ‘that it is not a fair comparison, but take note that my argument does not depend on that. I simply wanted to explain what you call a contradiction in my perseverance in an unhappy love, and I think I have satisfactorily proved that, if contradiction there be, you cannot avoid falling into it any more than I can. That is the only sense in which I treated the things as equal, and I still maintain that they are. You will no doubt answer that the aim of virtue is infinitely higher than that of love. Who would gainsay that? But is that the point at issue? Aren’t we discussing the power of each of these things to enable us to bear sufferings? They must be judged by results. How many people desert the cause of strict virtue, but how few forsake that of love! Or again, perhaps you will answer that if there are difficulties in the good life they are not inevitable and necessary, that tyrants and tortures are no longer the rule and that many virtuous people nowadays lead a tranquil and happy life. But in the same way I can say that love often runs a peaceful and untroubled course, but with this difference that is most advantageous to my argument. Love, I must add, though it may often deceive us, does at least promise only satisfaction and pleasure, whereas religion expects us to be prepared for a life of gloom and mortification.’ Seeing signs of righteous anger on his part I went on: ‘Don’t be alarmed; the only conclusion I want to draw from this is that, if you want to cure a lovesick heart, the worst method you can adopt is to decry the joys of love and promise greater happiness in the exercise of virtue. Being made as we are, it is indisputable that our felicity is found in pleasure, and I challenge anyone to define it in any other way. Now the human heart does not need prolonged study to feel that of all pleasures those of love are sweetest, and it very soon perceives that a promise of greater joys elsewhere is a fraud, and a fraud which predisposes it to mistrust the most solemn assurances. Let the preachers who seek to lead me back to virtue say by all means that virtue is necessary and indispensable, but they must not hide the fact that it is austere and painful. Let them establish that the delights of love are ephemeral, forbidden and liable to be followed by eternal punishment, and, what might make a still stronger impression on me, that the more sweet and captivating they are the more magnanimously Heaven will reward such a great sacrifice. But they must allow that with hearts like ours we cannot find more perfect joys here below.’

Tiberge was somewhat cheered by this conclusion to my discourse, and admitted that there was some sense in my opinions. His only other objection was to ask why I did not follow out my own principles by sacrificing my present love for the prospect of a reward which I valued so highly. ‘My dear fellow,’ I answered, ‘This is where I admit my unworthiness and lack of strength. Ah yes, duty says I should practise what I preach, but am I capable of any action at all? Think of the help I should need to make me forget Manon’s charms!’ ‘God forgive me,’ said Tiberge, ‘this sounds like some more of this Jansenist fatalism.’ ‘I don’t know what I am,’ I answered, ‘and I am not at all sure what I ought to be, but I am experiencing all too clearly the truth of what the Jansenists say.’

This conversation had at least the one useful result of reviving my friend’s sympathy. He realized that my misdeeds were due not so much to perversity as to weakness, and this made his friendly soul more ready to help me later on when without him I should assuredly have perished of misery and want. But I did not give him the slightest hint of my intention to escape from Saint-Lazare. I merely asked him to undertake to deliver my letter, which I had got ready before he came. I easily found reasons for having had to write it, and he was loyal enough to carry out my instructions exactly. Before the end of the day Lescaut received the note addressed to him.