Manon Lescaut Chapter 7

THE next day he succeeded in getting through to see me by passing himself off as my brother. I was overjoyed at seeing him safely in my room, and shut the door carefully. ‘There is not a moment to lose,’ I said. ‘First tell me what news of Manon, and then how to get out of here.’ He explained that he had not seen his sister since the day before I was imprisoned, that he had found out her fate and mine only by dint of careful investigation. He had presented himself two or three times at the Hôpital, but had not been allowed to speak to her. ‘Curses on G. Μ.!’ I cried. ‘He’ll pay dearly for this!’

‘Now about setting you free,’ said Lescaut. ‘This is not such an easy job as you think. Two of my friends and I spent all yesterday evening looking at the outside of the building and we came to the conclusion that it would be very difficult to get you out, with your windows looking on to a courtyard surrounded by bricks and mortar, as you yourself told me. What’s more, you are on the third floor and we can’t bring in any ladders or ropes. So I can’t see any chance from the outside. Something will have to be worked out for an inside job.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I have looked into everything, especially since I have not been watched so closely, thanks to being in the Superior’s good books. They no longer lock my door, and I am free to walk about in the monks’ galleries, but all the staircases are cut off by heavy doors that are kept shut night and day. There is no way of getting out by mere skill.’ I paused to think things out, and an excellent notion came to my mind – or it seemed so to me. ‘Just a minute!’ I said. ‘Could you bring me a pistol?’ ‘Quite simple,’ said Lescaut, ‘but you don’t want to kill somebody, do you?’ I assured him that so far from my wanting to kill anybody I did not even mind whether the pistol was loaded or not. ‘Bring it tomorrow,’ I said, ‘and don’t fail to be opposite the main entrance at eleven o’clock at night, with two or three friends. I hope to be able to join you there.’ He did his best to make me tell him some more, but in vain. I said that the enterprise I had in mind was of the sort that could seem feasible only after it had succeeded. I then asked him to cut his visit short so as to have no trouble about being admitted the next day. He was allowed in with as little trouble as the first time. He wore a very dignified look, and nobody would have taken him for anything but an honourable man.

When I found myself possessed of the instrument that was to gain me my freedom, I had scarcely any doubt left that my scheme was going to come off successfully. It was a strange and daring one, but with such motives as mine I felt that there was nothing I could not do. Since I had been allowed to leave my room and walk about in the galleries, I had noticed that every evening the janitor took the keys of all doors to the Superior, and that after that everybody went to bed and a deep silence reigned throughout the building. There was nothing to prevent my passing from my room to his through the communicating gallery. My object was to get the keys from the Superior by threatening him with the pistol if he showed signs of refusing, after which I would use them to gain the street. I impatiently waited for the time to come. The janitor did his rounds at the usual time, soon after nine. I let another hour go by so as to be sure that all the monks and servants were asleep, and then I set out with my weapon and a lighted candle. I knocked softly on the Superior’s door so as to wake him without a lot of noise. He heard me the second time I knocked, and rose from bed and opened the door, probably thinking that one of the monks was unwell and in need of help. But he first took the precaution of calling through the door to ask who it was and what I wanted. I had to say my name, but I put on a plaintive tone to suggest that I felt ill. Then he opened the door and said: ‘Ah! my dear son, is it you? What brings you here so late?’ I went in, and drawing him to the far end of the room made it clear to him that I could not stay any longer in Saint-Lazare, that night-time was best for getting out unobserved and that I asked him, as a friendly act, to be so kind as to open the doors or to lend me the keys so that I could open them myself.

This polite speech must have astonished him. He looked me up and down for some time without saying a word. As I had no time to lose I went on to say that I had been most touched by his kindness, but that liberty being the most precious of all possessions, especially for one unjustly deprived of it, I was determined to get it that night and at any price. For fear he might take it into his head to raise his voice and call for help I let him see the very convincing argument for silence that I had under my jacket. ‘A pistol!’ he said. ‘What, my son, do you mean to show your gratitude for my kindness to you by taking my life?’ ‘God forbid!’ I answered. ‘You have too much intelligence to put me to that necessity; but I mean to be free, and I am so set on it that if my plan miscarries because of you, it’s all up with you.’ ‘But, my dear son,’ said he, pale and trembling, ‘what harm have I done you, what reason have you for desiring my death?’ ‘No, no,’ I answered impatiently, ‘I have no intention of killing you if you want to live. Simply open that door, and I shall be your best friend.’ I noticed the keys on the table, took them and requested him to follow me and make as little noise as possible.

He had to resign himself to it. Each time he opened a door as we went along he said with a sigh, ‘Ah, my son! Ah, who would ever have believed it?’ And each time I replied, ‘Not so much noise, Father.’ At length we reached a sort of barrier just short of the main entrance. I already felt free, and was standing behind the reverend father with the candle in one hand and my pistol in the other. While he was busying himself with the door the sound of the bolts being shot back awoke a servant who slept in the adjoining room. He got up and poked his head out of the door. Apparently the worthy priest thought this fellow could stop me, for he rashly ordered him to come to his aid. He was a powerful man and without hesitating he made one leap at me. I did not stop to argue with him, but fired point blank into his chest. ‘There, that is your doing, Father,’ I said, not without pride, ‘but that is no reason for not finishing the job.’ I pushed him to the last door, which he dared not refuse to open, and I stepped gaily out and found Lescaut waiting a few yards away, with two friends as he had promised. We made off.

Lescaut asked me if he had not heard a pistol-shot. ‘Yes, it’s your fault,’ I said. ‘What did you bring me a loaded pistol for?’ But all the same I thanked him for having taken this precaution, but for which I should certainly have been at Saint-Lazare for a long time. We went for the night to a tavern where I made up somewhat for the meagre fare I had had for nearly three months. But I could not really enjoy myself, for in my mind I was sharing Manon’s cruel sufferings. ‘She must be set free,’ I said to the three others; ‘it was for that alone that I wanted to get free myself. I want you to lend me your brains – for my own part I am ready to give my life.’

Lescaut, who was both intelligent and cautious, pointed out that I must hasten slowly, for my escape from Saint-Lazare, and in particular the mishap I had had on the way out, would certainly cause a sensation, the chief of police would hunt me out, and his arm was long. In fact, unless I was anxious to court something worse than Saint-Lazare, I should be well advised to lie low and stay indoors for a few days until the initial fury of my enemies had had time to die down. This was wise counsel, but it needed a wise man to follow it. All this delay and circumspection accorded ill with my passion, and the furthest I would go was to promise to spend the next day in bed. He shut me in his room, where I stayed until evening.

I spent part of this time turning over ways and means of rescuing Manon. One certain thing, I felt, was that her prison was even more impenetrable than mine had been. Force or violence would be unavailing, some sort of trickery would be needed; but the goddess of invention herself would not have known where to begin. I could see so little daylight that I put off going into it more carefully until after I had found out something about the internal arrangements of the place.

As soon as nightfall came and it was safe for me to go out, I asked Lescaut to accompany me. We struck up a conversation with one of the doorkeepers who seemed a sensible fellow. I palmed myself off as a stranger who had heard very good opinions expressed about the Hôpital and the excellent way it was run. I questioned him on the minutest details, the talk led on to the board of governors, and I asked him to tell me their names and something about their personal circumstances. The answers under this second heading put an idea into my head which I at once thought a very good one and set to work to put into practice. I asked him (it was a most important part of my plan) whether any of these gentlemen had children, and was told that he could not give me a full list, but that he knew M. de T., one of the principal governors, had a son of marriageable age who had often visited the institution with his father. This information was good enough for me.

I broke off the conversation as soon as I could and on the way back told Lescaut the scheme I had thought of. ‘I am assuming,’ I said, ‘that M. de T. the younger, being rich and well connected, is no more averse from a little pleasure than most young fellows of his age. He cannot be a woman-hater, nor so absurd as to refuse his help in an affair of the heart. I propose to interest him in Manon’s freedom. If he is a man of feeling and a gentleman he will help us out of the kindness of his heart. If he cannot be influenced by that motive he will at any rate do something for a pretty girl, if only in the hope of having a share in her favours. I mean to see him, and I don’t want to put it off any longer than tomorrow. The project has cheered me up so much that I think it must be a good omen.’

Lescaut agreed that there was something in it and we might hope for results from this course. I was not so miserable that night.

Next morning I dressed as smartly as my poverty-stricken condition allowed, and took a cab to the house of M. de T. He was surprised at this visit by someone unknown to him, but his expression and politeness struck me as promising. I explained the object of my visit in a straightforward way and appealed to his natural feelings by describing my passion and my mistress’s charms as two things beyond comparison except with each other. He said that he had not seen Manon, but had heard of her – at least if she was the one who had been old G. M.’s mistress. I guessed that he would have been told about the part I had played in that affair, and so I decided to win his sympathy by a little praiseworthy candour. I told him the whole story of Manon and myself. ‘So you see, Sir,’ I concluded, ‘that both my life and my heart’s desire are now in your hands, and the one is no more precious to me than the other. I am hiding nothing from you because I have been told how generous you are, and the similarity between our ages makes me hope that our inclinations may also have something in common.’ This show of frankness and candour seemed to impress him. He answered like a man who knows the world and also has delicacy of mind, a quality the world does not always give but often takes away. He said that he counted my visit as a stroke of good fortune, that he regarded my friendship as one of his most valued acquisitions and that he would strive to deserve it by helping me as energetically as he was able. He did not promise to give me back Manon, for he said that his influence was neither powerful nor infallible, but he did offer to arrange for me to have the pleasure of seeing her, and to do his utmost to restore her to me. This diffidence of his pleased me better than a sweeping promise to fulfil all my wishes, for the very moderation of his offers appealed to me as a sign of honesty. In a word, I confidently expected great things from his good offices. The mere promise to get me an interview with Manon would in itself have made me his devoted servant. I showed him something of what I felt in a way that made him feel on his side that I was not wanting in character. We embraced each other affectionately, and became firm friends out of sheer goodness of heart and that natural impulse which draws a warmhearted and honourable man towards another of the same type.

He expressed his friendship in still more practical form, for having pondered over my adventures and guessed that I could not have been well off when I came out of Saint-Lazare, he offered me his purse and urged me to accept it. I declined, but said, ‘No, my dear Sir, you are too good. If through your great kindness and friendly help I succeed in seeing Manon again, I am your servant for life. If you restore her to me altogether, I shall think that my debt to you can never be repaid even if I shed all my blood for you.’

Before we separated we agreed on the time and place of our next meeting. He was kind enough not to keep me waiting longer than the afternoon of the same day.

At about four o’clock he joined me in a café, and together we set out for the Hôpital. As we made our way through the courtyards I was trembling at the knees. ‘Oh, all-powerful god of love,’ I said, ‘so I am to see once again the idol of my heart, the object of so many tears and anxieties! Vouchsafe me life to reach her side, only that, and thereafter do as you will with my fortune and my life. I have no other boon to ask.’

M. de T. had a word with various warders who were only too willing to do anything they could to please him. He had the block pointed out where Manon’s room was, and the attendant who took us had a gigantic key which opened the door. This man was also the one detailed to look after her, and on the way I asked him how she had spent her time. He said that she was as gentle as an angel; he had never had a hard word from her. For six weeks after her arrival she had done nothing but weep, but for some time now she seemed to be bearing her troubles more patiently, and spent all her day from morning till night sewing, apart from an hour or two set aside for reading. I renewed my inquiries whether she had been properly looked after, and he assured me that at any rate she had never lacked necessities.

As we drew near her door my heart was beating furiously. I said to M. de T., ‘You go in alone and prepare her for my coming, for I fear that she will be too overcome if she sees me all of a sudden.’ The door was opened. I stayed in the passage, but overheard their conversation. He said that he was one of my friends and very concerned for our happiness, and that he had come to bring her a little comforting news. She begged him most urgently to say whether he could tell her what had become of me. He promised to bring me kneeling at her feet, still as loving and devoted as she could wish. ‘When?’ she said. ‘Now, this very day,’ he answered. ‘The long wished-for moment is coming. He will be here now, if you want him.’ She realized that I was at the door, and was rushing there as I entered and caught her in my arms. We clung to each other with all the outpouring of tenderness true lovers find so sweet after three months of separation. For a quarter of an hour M. de T. beheld a touching scene composed of sighs, half-stifled exclamations and a thousand loving names murmured softly to each other. ‘I envy you,’ he said at length, making us sit down; ‘there is no career of glory I would not give up for such a beautiful and loving mistress.’ ‘And I would scorn all the empires of the world,’ I answered, ‘for the joy of knowing I was loved by her.’

Needless to say, all the rest of the conversation we had so longed for was filled with infinite tenderness. Poor Manon told me her story and I told her mine. The pitiful state she was in and the privations from which I had just emerged moved us both to bitter tears. M. de T. consoled us with renewed promises to devote himself unstintingly to bringing about an end to our woes. He advised us not to spin this first interview out to too great a length so that he could more easily arrange others for us. But he found it very hard to make us see the point of this advice. Manon found it especially difficult to make up her mind to let me go; she continually held on to my hands and clothes, pushing me back on my chair and saying, ‘What a place to leave me in! How do I know I shall ever see you again?’ M. de T. promised to come frequently and to bring me with him. ‘And as to this place,’ he added with a smile, ‘we must not call it the Hôpital any more. Since a person worthy to reign over all hearts has been kept here, it is Versailles!’

As we went out I gave a generous tip to the attendant to encourage him to do his best for her. The man was less mercenary and hard-hearted than such fellows usually are. He had been present at our meeting and had been touched by our love, and the gold piece with which I presented him won him over completely. On the way down to the courtyards he took me to one side and said, ‘Sir, if you will take me into your service or give me some suitable compensation for the loss of my job here, I think I could easily set Mademoiselle Manon free for you.’ I listened to his proposal and promised him things far beyond his desires, although I was penniless myself, for I relied on finding some easy way of rewarding a man of his stamp. ‘Take it from me, my friend,’ I said, ‘that there is nothing I will not do for you, and your future is as safe as mine.’ I wanted to know what means he intended to employ. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘simply to unlock her door one evening and escort her as far as the street, where you must be ready to meet her.’ I asked whether there was any fear of her being recognized in the passages and courtyards. He admitted that there was some danger of that, but said that there were some risks that had to be taken.

His keenness delighted me, but I called in M. de T. to lay the project before him, together with the only drawback which might make it unsafe. He saw more difficulties than I had. He agreed that it was quite possible that she might get away by such means, but he pointed out that if she were recognized and stopped while attempting to escape it might be all up with her for good. ‘Moreover,’ he went on, ‘you would have to leave Paris at once, for you would never be sufficiently hidden from a search. The search would be intensified for you as well as for her, and while one man alone can easily dodge his pursuers, it is next to impossible to remain unobserved in the company of a pretty woman.’ This argument, however well-founded it might seem, could not carry any weight in my mind against an immediate prospect of setting Manon free. I said so to M. de T., begging him to be indulgent towards a lover’s imprudence and rashness. I added that I certainly did mean to leave Paris and put up in some nearby village as I had done before. So we settled with the attendant that our attempt should not be put off any later than the morrow, and, to make assurance as sure as in us lay, we decided to smuggle in men’s clothes to simplify the escape. It was not easy to get the clothes into her room, but my resourcefulness was not at a loss for a way. I merely asked M. de T. to wear two thin waistcoats, one over the other, when he came next day, and I undertook to see to the rest.

When we went back on the following day I had with me underclothes, stockings, etc. for Manon, and was wearing a long cloak over my jacket to hide any bulges in my pockets. We stayed only a minute in her room; M. de T. left her one of his waistcoats and I gave her my jacket, trusting to the cloak to get me safely out. She thus had a complete outfit – except the breeches, which I had unfortunately overlooked.

We might have had a good laugh at the absence of this vital garment if it had not put us into so serious a predicament. As it was, I was in despair at our being held up by such a silly little thing. However, there was only one thing to be done, and that was for me to leave my own breeches for Manon and get out somehow without them. My cloak was very long, and thanks to the help of a pin here and there I was fit to pass through the door with the decencies preserved. When at last night had fallen, after a day that seemed interminable to me, we took a carriage to a position just down the street from the door of the Hôpital. We had not long to wait before we saw Manon appear with her guide. We had the door open and they both jumped in at once. My dearest Manon sank into my arms. She was trembling like a leaf. The driver asked us where he was to go. ‘To the end of the world!’ I cried. ‘Anywhere you like, so long as I am never parted again from Manon!’

This involuntary flourish nearly landed me in a nasty mess. The coachman noticed my language, and when I went on to tell him the name of the street to which we wanted to be taken, he answered that he was afraid I was letting him in for some shady business; that it was plain to see that this pretty young man, whose name was Manon, was a girl I was smuggling out of the Hôpital; that he was not feeling in the mood to get himself into trouble for love of me. This fellow’s scruples were merely a desire to make me pay more for the carriage. We were too near the Hôpital not to go warily. ‘Be quiet!’ I said. ‘There’s a louis for the earning.’ After that he would have helped me burn down the Hôpital itself. We reached the house where Lescaut lodged, but as it was late we dropped M. de T. on the way, with promises to meet next day. The attendant stayed with us.

I was holding Manon so tightly in my arms that the two of us took up only one seat. She was weeping for joy and I could feel her tears on my face. When we had to alight at Lescaut’s lodgings I had a fresh altercation with the driver which was to have a disastrous sequel. I regretted having promised him a louis, not only because it was an absurd sum, but for another and much better reason which was that I was not in a position to pay. I sent for Lescaut who came down from his room, and I told him in a whisper what a fix I was in. He was an outspoken man and not at all given to humouring coachmen, and he said I must be joking. ‘A gold louis!’ he said. ‘Twenty strokes with a stick for a rogue like that would be more like it!’ I tried in vain to point out in an undertone that he would be our undoing; he snatched my stick out of my hand and made as if to go for the cabby. The man, who most likely knew by experience what it was like to fall into the hands of a Lifeguardsman or Musketeer, fled in terror with his cab, shouting that I had swindled him and would hear from him again. Once more I shouted to him to stop, but to no purpose. I was most uneasy at his having run off in this way, for I was sure he would go to the police. ‘You are putting me in a terrible position,’ I said to Lescaut. ‘I shall not be safe here; we shall have to clear off at once.’ I gave Manon my arm to help her along, and we hurried away from that dangerous street, Lescaut and all.