Manon Lescaut Chapter 6

AFTER a voyage lasting two months, we at length touched the shore we so longed to see. The first glimpse of the country was anything but pleasant. Nothing but bare and uninhabited earth, with here and there some reeds and a few trees blasted by the wind. Not a sign of man or beast. However, when the captain had fired a few volleys, we soon saw a group of citizens of New Orleans making for us with demonstrations of great joy. So far we had not seen the town, which is hidden from that side by a little hill. They welcomed us as if we had dropped from Heaven. These poor folk eagerly plied us with questions about the state of France and the various provinces where they had been born, and embraced us like beloved friends and brothers who had come to share their poverty and loneliness. With them we set out for the town; but, as we came nearer, we discovered with surprise that what up to then we had heard praised as a fine city was merely a collection of miserable hovels, inhabited by five or six hundred souls.20 The governor’s house seemed to stand out a little in height and situation. It is defended by a few earthworks, surrounded by a broad moat.

First we were introduced to him. He had a long colloquy with the captain, and then came over to us and examined one by one the women who had come on the ship. There were thirty of them, for at Havre we had been joined by another party. After a long scrutiny, the governor sent for various young men of the town who had been pining for wives. He awarded the prettiest to the more senior ones, and the rest were distributed by lot. So far he had not spoken to Manon, but when he had ordered the others away he made us both stay behind. ‘The captain tells me you are married,’ he said, ‘and that during the voyage he has recognized your intelligence and character. I will not go into the reasons which have brought about your misfortune, but if it is true that you are as well bred as your appearance suggests, I will spare no pains to make your life as pleasant as possible, and you on your side will help me to find some enjoyment in this wild and desolate place.’ I answered in the way I thought most likely to confirm the good opinion he had of us. He gave orders for a lodging to be made ready for us in the town and kept us to supper. He struck me as very civilized for the head of a colony of wretched outcasts. He did not ask us any questions in public about the details of our story, but the conversation remained general, and, despite our depression, Manon and I did our best to make it agreeable.

In the evening he had us taken to the house made ready for us. It was a humble shack made of planks and mud, with two or three rooms on the ground floor and a loft above. The governor had had five or six chairs put in, and a few other articles necessary for daily life. The sight of this sorry dwelling made Manon look horrified, but she was much more upset on my behalf than on her own. When we were left alone, she dropped into a chair and began sobbing bitterly. At first I tried to console her, but when I realized that her concern was for me alone and that in our common sufferings she was thinking only of what I had to bear, I put on a bold front and even simulated gaiety so as to communicate some to her. ‘What have I to complain of?’ I said. ‘I have everything I desire. You love me, don’t you? And what other joy have I wished for? Let us leave our fate in God’s hands; it does not look as desperate as all that to me. The governor is a civilized person; he has shown some consideration for us and will not let us go without necessities. As for the poverty of our hut and the primitive furniture, you may have noticed that few people here seem better housed and furnished than we are. And besides,’ I added with a kiss, ‘you are a wonderful alchemist: you change everything into gold.’

‘Then you will be the richest person in the universe,’ she answered, ‘for if there has never been a love like yours, it is equally impossible to be loved more tenderly than you are. I know what I am,’ she went on, ‘and I know full well that I have never been worthy of the wonderful affection you have for me. I have hurt you in ways you could never have forgiven but for your unfailing goodness. I have been frivolous and fickle, and even while loving you passionately, as I have always done, I have never been anything but graceless. But you cannot imagine how I have changed. The tears you have seen me shed so often since we left France have never once been for my own troubles, for I ceased to feel them as soon as you began to share them with me. No, I have only wept out of love and pity for you. I cannot console myself for having given you a single moment’s pain in my life. Over and over again I blame myself for my inconstancy, and my heart aches when I think what love has made you capable of doing for an unhappy woman all unworthy of it, and who,’ she ended with a flood of tears, ‘if she gave all the blood in her body, could never repay half the sorrow she has brought upon you.’

Her tears, her words and the tone in which they were uttered made such a profound impression upon me that my very soul seemed to split asunder. ‘Be careful, dearest Manon,’ I said, ‘be careful. I am not strong enough to bear such tokens of your love; I am not used to such excesses of joy. Oh, God!’ I cried, ‘I have nothing more to ask. I am assured of Manon’s heart, and that heart disposed as I have always wished it to be for my happiness; I shall never again cease to be happy. My felicity is established for ever.’ ‘Yes it is,’ she answered, ‘if you let it depend on me, and I know full well where I can rely on finding mine.’ These delightful thoughts transformed my hut into a place fit for the greatest king in the world, and I lay down to sleep. Thereafter America seemed an enchanted land. ‘New Orleans is the place to come to,’ I often said to Manon, ‘if you want to taste the true sweetness of love. Here love is free from self-interest, from jealousy and inconstancy. Our fellow-countrymen come here in search of gold; little do they imagine that we have found far more priceless treasures.’

We were careful to cultivate the governor’s friendship. A few weeks after our arrival, he was good enough to give me a small post which happened to fall vacant at the citadel. It was not a very distinguished position, but I accepted it as a boon from Heaven, for it enabled me to live without depending on anybody else. I took a man for myself and a maid for Manon. Our little fortune settled into a routine. My life was exemplary and so was Manon’s, and we neglected no opportunity of making ourselves useful or of doing good to our neighbours. Our sociable disposition and the gentleness of our manners earned us the confidence and affection of the whole community. In a short while we were so well thought of that we ranked as the leading people in the town after the governor.

The innocence of our pursuits and the unbroken peacefulness of our lives gradually brought our minds back to thoughts of religion. Manon had never been an unbeliever, nor was I one of those extreme freethinkers who glory in adding irreligion to depraved living. All our follies had been due to love and immaturity. Now experience was beginning to take the place of age, and it had the same effect upon us as ripeness of years. Our conversation was always serious, and imperceptibly it led us to a desire for virtuous love. I was the first to suggest the change to Manon. I knew her real principles. She was direct and natural in all her feelings, a quality which always inclines one towards virtue. I pointed out that our happiness lacked one thing only: the blessing of Heaven. ‘We are both too sound in heart and soul,’ I said, ‘to go on living in defiance of our duty. It is true that we did so in France, where it was equally impossible for us to give up loving each other and to satisfy our love in a lawful way; but here in America, with nobody to depend on but ourselves and no further obligation to observe the arbitrary laws of social standing and public opinion, where indeed we are thought to be married, what is there to prevent our being so in fact, and purifying our love by the vows authorized by the Church? For my part, I am not offering you anything new when I give you my heart and hand, but I am prepared to renew that gift at the altar.’ I could see that these words filled her with joy. ‘Do you know,’ she said, ‘I have thought about this a thousand times since we have been in America? I have kept the wish locked up in my heart for fear of displeasing you, for I do not presume to aspire to the position of being your wife.’ ‘Ah, Manon,’ I replied, ‘you would soon be the wife of a king, if Heaven had brought me into the world with a crown. We must not hesitate any more. We have no obstacle to fear. I mean to speak to the governor about it this very day, and confess that up to now we have deceived him. Leave it to commonplace lovers to fear the indissoluble ties of marriage. They would not be afraid of them if they were as sure as we are of always being bound by those of love.’ Having come to this decision I left Manon in an ecstasy of joy.

I am convinced that there is not a decent man living who would not have approved of my views in the circumstances in which I found myself, that is to say enslaved by a fatal passion I could not overcome, and assailed by remorse I would never be able to stifle. But will anybody be found to accuse me of complaining unjustifiably, if I bewail God’s cruelty in frustrating a design I had formed only to please Him? Frustrating, do I say? He punished it as though it were a crime. He had patiently borne with me so long as I walked blindly along the paths of sin, and His harshest chastisements were held in store for when I began to return to virtue. I fear I shall never have the strength to finish the story of the most tragic event that ever befell.

As I had agreed with Manon, I went to see the governor to ask his consent to the ceremony of our marriage. I would not have mentioned the matter to him or anybody else, if I could have been sure that his almoner, who was the only priest in the town, would have done me this service without his knowledge; but, not daring to hope that the almoner would promise to keep it a secret, I had elected to act openly.

The governor had a nephew, named Synnelet, of whom he was very fond. He was a man of thirty, brave, but hot-tempered and passionate. He was unmarried. From the very day of our arrival Manon’s beauty had made an impression on him, and the numberless occasions he had had of seeing her for nine or ten months had so inflamed his passion that he was secretly pining away for her. But as he, like his uncle and everybody else in the town, was convinced that I was really married, he had conquered his love to the extent of keeping it unobserved, and had even shown his friendship for me by offering me his services on more than one occasion. When I reached the citadel I found him with his uncle. I saw no reason for keeping my intentions secret from him and made no difficulty about going into the matter in his presence. The governor heard me with his usual kindness. I told him part of our story, which he gladly listened to, and when I asked him to be present at the ceremony I had in mind he generously undertook to bear all the expense of the celebrations. I came away very pleased.

An hour later I saw the almoner come into our house. I imagined he was coming to give me a few instructions about the wedding; but he greeted me coldly and then stated in a word or two that the governor ordered me to put it out of my mind. He had other plans for Manon. ‘Other plans for Manon!’ I exclaimed, horror-struck. ‘What plans, pray, Monsieur l’Aumônier?’ He answered that I was not unaware that the governor was the master; Manon had been sent from France for the colony, and he had the right to dispose of her. He had not done so until then because he thought that she was married, but, having learned from me that she was not, he thought fit to give her to M. Synnelet, who was in love with her. My temper got the better of my prudence. I haughtily ordered the priest out of my house, vowing that the governor, Synnelet and the whole town put together should never dare to lay a hand on my wife, or mistress, as they chose to call her.

I at once told Manon the awful message I had received. We concluded that Synnelet had talked his uncle round since I had left, and that this was the culmination of some long-thought-out plan. They had force on their side. Here we were in New Orleans, as though in the middle of the sea: that is to say, cut off by measureless spaces from the rest of the world. Where could we run away? To some unknown country, either a wilderness or peopled by savage beasts and men equally savage? I was well thought of in the town, but I could not hope to win people’s hearts sufficiently to make them give me help proportionate to my need. For that I should have wanted money, and I was poor. Anyhow, there was no relying on popular feeling, and if luck abandoned us our disaster would be irremediable. I turned all these thoughts over in my mind and discussed some of them with Manon. I thought of new ideas without waiting for her comments. As fast as I made one decision, I gave it up for another. I talked to myself and answered my own questions aloud – indeed my agony of mind cannot be compared with anything, because there has never been anything comparable. Manon’s eyes were fixed on me and my emotion told her how grave the danger was. Trembling for me more than for herself, in her tender solicitude the poor girl dared not even open her mouth to put her fears into words.

After thinking things over and over, I came to the decision to go and see the governor, and try to influence him by considerations of honour and by reminding him of my past respect for him and his affection for me. Manon wanted to prevent my going. With tears in her eyes she said: ‘You are going to your death. They will kill you. I shall never see you again. I want to die before you.’ I had to make a great effort to persuade her that I must go and that she must stay at home. I promised that I would be back in an instant. Little did she know, or I either, that it was on her, and not on me, that all the wrath of Heaven and the fury of our enemies was to fall.

I went to the citadel and found the governor with his almoner. In an attempt to touch his heart, I stooped to grovelling humility that would have made me die of shame had I had recourse to it for any other reason. I worked on him with every method that could melt any heart save that of a wild and ferocious tiger, but the monster had only two answers to all my appeals, and he repeated them a hundred times: Manon was at his disposal and he had given his word to his nephew. I had steeled myself to keep the utmost self-control, and I merely said that I thought he was too good a friend to wish for my death, which I would certainly face rather than lose my mistress.

When I left him I was only too sure that nothing was to be hoped for from this obstinate old man, who would have seen himself damned a thousand times for his nephew’s sake. But I kept to my resolution to preserve the outward signs of moderation to the very end. I was resolved, however, in the event of flagrant injustice, to give America one of the most horrible and bloody spectacles love has ever produced. On my way home, as I was thinking this project over, fate, bent on hastening my destruction, made my path cross that of Synnelet. He read some of my thoughts in my eyes. I have already said he was brave. He came boldly up to me and said: ‘Aren’t you looking for me? I know my intentions offend you and I realized that it would have to come to a fight between us. Let us go and see which of us is to be the lucky one.’ I answered that he was right and that only my death could put an end to my claim. We went a hundred paces or so out of the town and crossed swords. I wounded and disarmed him almost at the same moment. He was so incensed by this mishap that he refused to sue for his life or give up his claim to Manon. Perhaps I had the right to deprive him of both there and then, but birth and breeding will out. I threw him back his sword. ‘Let us start again,’ I said, ‘and remember, no quarter!’ He came at me with indescribable fury. I must admit that I was no great swordsman, not having had more than three months instruction in Paris, but love guided my blade. Synnelet succeeded in running his sword through my arm, but I caught him on the return and dealt him such a powerful blow that he fell motionless at my feet.

In spite of the joy of victory after a mortal combat, I immediately realized what the consequences of the death of this man would be. I could not expect any pardon or delay of execution. Knowing as I did the governor’s passion for his nephew, I was certain that my death would not be deferred a single moment after his was known. Immediate though this peril was, it was not the main cause of my panic. Manon, her interests, the danger she was in and the certainty of losing her, so confused me that my vision was obscured and I did not recognize the place where I was standing. I envied Synnelet’s fate, for my own speedy end seemed the only way out of my terrible situation. But it was this very thought which promptly brought me back to my senses, and made me capable of coming to some decision. ‘What!’ I said to myself. ‘Am I thinking of dying to end my own troubles? But can there be any such that I am more afraid of than losing the woman I love? No, I must face even the most dire extremities to help her, and until all those sufferings have been in vain, I must put off all thought of death.’ I turned back towards the town and went home. Manon was half dead with terror and anxiety. She revived on seeing me again. I could not hide from her the terrible thing that had just happened. When I told her of Synnelet’s death and my wound, she fell lifeless in my arms. It took me over a quarter of an hour to bring her back to consciousness.

I was only half alive myself. I could not see the slightest chance of safety for her or me. ‘Manon, what are we to do?’ I said, when she was a little more herself again. ‘What are we to do? I must go away from here. Do you want to stay in the town? Yes, you stay here. You may still find happiness, and I shall go far away and seek death at the hands of savages or from the claws of wild beasts.’ Weak as she was, she stood up, took my hand and led me to the door. ‘We must leave together,’ she said, ‘there is not a minute to lose. Suppose they have found Synnelet’s body. We might not have time to get away.’ I felt distracted. ‘But, my dear Manon,’ I said, ‘tell me where we can go. Can you see any way out? Would it not be better for you to try to live here without me and let me give myself up to the governor?’ But this suggestion made her only all the more anxious to be going. I had to follow her. But before doing so I had enough presence of mind to go and get some spirits I had in my room, and fill my pockets with food. Our servants, who were in the adjoining room, were told that we were going for an evening walk, which we used to do every day. We hastened out of the town more quickly than would have seemed possible in Manon’s delicate state.

I was still uncertain where we could find refuge, but I was not without hope of two possibilities; had it not been so I would have preferred death to the anxiety of not knowing what might happen to Manon. During the ten months of our stay in America I had learned enough about the country to know how the natives could be dealt with. It was quite possible to give oneself up to them and yet not go to a certain death. I had even learned a few words of their language and something of their customs on the various occasions I had had of seeing them. In addition to this slender resource there was another: the English, who, like us, have trading stations in this part of the New World.21 But the distances were frightening; in order to reach their colonies we had to traverse great stretches of desert several days’ journey in extent, and cross mountains so high and steep that they were difficult to negotiate even for the toughest and hardiest of men. Nevertheless I clung to the hope that we might make use of these two resources: the savages might help us to reach our objective and the English might welcome us into their homes.

We walked on as long as Manon’s courage kept her going, that is to say about two leagues, for her matchless devotion made her refuse to stop sooner. At last, overcome by weariness, she had to admit that she could not go on any further. Night had already fallen. We sat down in the middle of a great plain, not having been able to find a single tree to shelter us. Her first care was to change the bandages she had tied on my wound before we set out. It was useless for me to try to stop her, and it would have put the finishing touch to her troubles if I had refused her the satisfaction of seeing me comfortable and out of danger before thinking about her own welfare. For some time I let her have her way, but I did so in silence and felt ashamed. But when she had satisfied all the promptings of her love, how eagerly I let mine have their turn! I stripped off my clothes and laid them beneath her so that she might feel the ground less hard. Despite her protests, I made her let me do everything I could think of to lessen her discomfort. I warmed her hands with my burning kisses and the heat of my breath, and spent the whole night watching over her and praying Heaven to grant her soothing and peaceful sleep. Oh God, how sincere and heartfelt were my prayers, and by what harsh decree did You decide not to lend an ear to them!

Forgive me if I finish the story in a few words, for it is killing me to tell it. I am relating a tragedy without parallel, and I am destined to bewail it for the rest of my days. But although these events are ever present in my memory, my soul seems to recoil in horror every time I attempt to put them into words.

We had spent part of the night quietly enough. I thought my beloved was asleep and scarcely dared to breathe for fear of disturbing her. At dawn I touched her hands and noticed that they were cold and trembling. I held them to my breast to warm them. She felt the movement, made an effort to grasp my hands and murmured faintly that she thought her last hour had come. At first I took these words for the sort of language ordinarily used in misfortune, and I merely answered with tender and consoling words of love. But her frequent gasps for breath, her failure to answer my questions, the pressure of her hands as she continued to cling to mine, told me that the end of her trials was near. Do not ask me to describe what I felt, or to report her last words. All I can find to say about that dreadful hour is that I lost her, and that I received tokens of her love even as she was passing.

My soul did not follow hers. Perhaps God did not think my chastisement hard enough, for He has ordained that I must drag on my life in weariness and misery. I have no wish to be any happier ever again.

There I stayed for more than twenty-four hours with my lips pressed to my beloved Manon’s face and hands. And there I meant to die, but at the beginning of the second day the thought came to me that after my death her body would be exposed to ravening beasts. So I resolved to bury her and then await death on her grave. I was so weak through grief and lack of food that I was already near the end, and had to make repeated efforts to hold myself up. I had to resort to the spirits I had brought with me, and they gave me strength for the melancholy rites I had to perform. As the place was a sandy plain, I had no difficulty in making a hole. I broke my sword so as to use it for digging, but it was not as useful as my hands. I opened a wide trench and into it I committed the idol of my heart, having first wrapped her in all my clothes lest the sand should touch her. But first I kissed her a. thousand times with all the tenderness of perfect love. I could not bring myself to close her grave, but still sat for a long time contemplating her. But at length my strength began to ebb again, and, fearing to lose it altogether before my task was done, I laid for ever in the bosom of the Earth the most perfect and lovely thing she ever bore. Then I lay down on the grave, turned my face to the sand, closed my eyes intending never to open them again, asked God to help me, and eagerly waited for death. You will find it hard to believe that, all through my mournful task, no tear fell from my eyes nor did any sigh escape my lips. My profound dejection and firm resolve to die had checked all the normal expressions of grief and despair. Nor did I stay long in that position before losing what little feeling and awareness I had left.

After what you have heard, the conclusion of my story is of so little consequence that it does not merit the trouble you are so kindly taking to listen to it. Synnelet’s body was carried back into the town, and when his wounds were examined, it was found not only that he was not dead but that he had not even been seriously hurt. He told his uncle what had passed between us, and his generosity made him lose no time in spreading abroad the story of mine. I was sent for, and my absence together with Manon’s gave rise to suspicions that we had fled. It was too late to track me down, but the next day and the day after were spent in searching for me. They found me on Manon’s grave and seemingly dead, and those who found me in that condition, almost naked and bleeding from my wound, did not doubt that I had been robbed and murdered. They carried me back to the town, and the motion revived my senses. The sighs and groans that escaped me as I opened my eyes and found myself among the living told them that I was still in a state to receive succour. It was given, all too successfully. All the same, I was confined in a secure prison, and the case against me was drawn up. As Manon had disappeared, I was charged with having done away with her in a fit of jealous rage. I told them the pitiful story without any affectation. Despite the sorrow my tale renewed in him, Synnelet was generous enough to plead for my pardon, which was granted. I was so weak that I had to be carried from my prison to my bed, where I remained seriously ill for three months. My hatred of life did not lessen. I ceaselessly called upon death, and for a long time obstinately refused all remedies. But, having punished me so severely, God saw fit to make my sufferings and His chastisements useful to me. He shed His light upon me and brought back thoughts worthy of my birth and upbringing.22 Some peace began to return to my soul, and this change was closely followed by my bodily recovery. I occupied myself wholly with honourable thoughts and meanwhile fulfilled the tasks of my little situation, while awaiting the vessels from France which call in this part of America once a year. I had made up my mind to return to my country and to atone for the scandal of my conduct by a good and regular life. Synnelet had had my dear mistress’s body removed to an honourable place.

One day, about six weeks after my recovery, I was walking alone by the shore when I saw a trading ship arriving at New Orleans. I watched the people disembark, and to my extreme surprise I recognized Tiberge amongst those making their way towards the town. My faithful friend recognized me from far off, in spite of the changes sorrow had wrought in my face. He told me that the sole purpose of his voyage had been his anxiety to see me and to urge me to return to France. Having received the letter I wrote him from Havre, he had made his way there to give me personally the help I had asked for, and had been very distressed to find that I had sailed. Had there been a ship about to leave, he would have set off at once after me, but he had spent several months looking for one in various ports. At length, at Saint-Malo, he had found a ship about to weigh anchor for Martinique, and he had embarked in the hope of being able to find a passage easily from there to New Orleans. On the way the Saint-Malo ship had been captured by Spanish corsairs and taken to one of their islands. He had escaped from there by a ruse, and after various travels here and there, had managed to find a small ship which happily had just arrived and brought him back to me.

I could not express enough gratitude to a friend of such untiring devotion. I took him home and made him free of all I possessed. I told him everything that had happened to me since leaving France, and gave him unexpected joy by declaring that the seeds of virtue he had sown long ago in my heart were beginning to bear fruit which he would approve of. He assured me that such happy news made up for all the fatigues of his voyage.

We spent two months together at New Orleans, waiting for French ships to arrive, and set sail at last and landed a fortnight ago at Havre. As soon as I landed I wrote to my family. In my brother’s reply I learned the sad news of my father’s death, which I have only too much reason to fear was hastened by my follies. The wind was favourable for Calais, and I at once took another ship in order to go to the house of a relative of mine a few leagues from this town, where my brother writes that he will be waiting to meet me.