Manon Lescaut Chapter 8

THERE is something uncanny about the way in which Providence links one event to another. We had been walking for five or six minutes at the most, when a man, whose face I could not see, recognized Lescaut. No doubt he was looking for him round about his lodgings with the fell purpose he now carried out. ‘You’re Lescaut!’ he said. ‘Tonight you’ll be having supper with the angels!’ He fired a pistol at him and at once made off. Lescaut fell lifeless. I urged Manon to fly, for we were useless to a corpse, and I was afraid of being arrested by the watch who were bound to come on the scene. With her and the attendant I darted down the first narrow turning. She was so panic-stricken that I could hardly prevent her from collapsing. At last I saw a cab at the end of the street. We jumped in. But when the driver asked us the address I was nonplussed, for I had no safe retreat, no trusty friend I dared fall back on, and no money either, having barely half a pistole left in my purse. Manon was so unhinged by terror and fatigue that she was only half conscious and slumped down by my side. Moreover, my own thoughts were haunted by the murder of Lescaut and I was still nervous about the watch. What was to be done? Happily I remembered the inn at Chaillot where I had spent some time with Manon when we had first gone to that village to look for somewhere to live. I hoped to find safety there, and, what was more, to be able to live there for a while without having to pay. So I ordered the driver to take us to Chaillot. He refused to go as far as that so late at night for less than a pistole. Another awkward moment. Eventually we agreed on six francs – all I had left in my purse.

On the journey, for all my attempts to console Manon, I had death in my heart. Had I not had in my arms the only thing which bound me to this world, I would have taken my own life, and this consideration alone restored some calm to my mind. ‘I love her, she loves me, she is mine,’ I said to myself. ‘Tiberge can say what he likes. This is no empty shadow of happiness. I would see all the rest of the world perish and not care a rap. Why? Because I have no love left for anything else.’ There was some truth in the sentiment; but, all the same, at that moment when I was so lightly dismissing this world’s possessions I felt that I could have done with just a small share of them, if only so as to be able to scorn the rest more loftily. Love is stronger than wealth, mightier than treasures and riches, but it can do with their help; and nothing is more exasperating to a delicate-minded lover than to see himself brought, willy-nilly, down to the level of coarser souls simply through lack of money.

It was eleven o’clock when we reached Chaillot. They welcomed us at the inn like old friends, and were not surprised to see Manon in male attire, for it is quite common in and around Paris to see women in all sorts of disguises. I ordered everything to be done for her just as though I were at the height of opulence. She did not know that my purse was so poorly, and I took care not to let her know, having decided to go back to Paris alone next day to seek some remedy for this tiresome complaint.

At supper I saw how much paler and thinner she was. I had not noticed it at the Hôpital because the lighting in the room where I had seen her was not of the best. I asked her whether this pallor was still the effect of the shock of seeing her brother murdered. She declared that, although she was very upset by the accident, her paleness was due solely to her having been parted from me for two or three months. ‘You really love me very much?’ I said. ‘A thousand times more than I can say,’ she replied. ‘You will never leave me again?’ ‘No, never.’ And this vow was sealed by so many oaths and caresses that I felt it impossible that she could ever forget. I had always been convinced that at the moment she meant what she said, for what reason could she have had for play-acting to that extent? But she was even more fickle than sincere; or rather, when she was in poverty and need and saw other women living in luxury, she ceased to have any fixed character at all, and did not even recognize herself. I was about to have a final proof of this, a proof more conclusive than all the others, and one which has led to the strangest adventure ever to befall a man of my birth and position.

As I was aware of this side of her character I hurried off to Paris next day. Her brother’s death and the urgent need of getting clothes and a change of linen for herself and me were such good reasons that I did not have to look for excuses. As I went out I said to Manon and the host that I was going to take a cab, but that was mere bravado. Sheer necessity obliged me to go on foot, and I walked with all speed as far as the Cours-la-Reine, where I intended to stop for a moment of peace and quiet in order to think things out and decide what I was going to do in Paris.

I sat down on the grass and launched into a sea of reasoning and arguments which gradually sorted themselves out under three main headings: I needed immediate financial help for countless pressing necessities; I had to find some means of living which would at any rate lead to hopes of future security, and, last but not least, I had to see how the land lay and take steps to guarantee Manon’s personal safety and my own. After having gone through all the plans and calculations I could think of under these three heads, I decided that after all I had better cut out the last two. We were fairly well hidden in our room at Chaillot, and it seemed time enough to think of future needs when I had satisfied the present ones.

So the real point was to refill my purse at once. M. de T. had kindly offered me his, but I was most reluctant to have to raise the point with him. What a part to have to play – that of displaying one’s poverty to a stranger and begging him to share his money with one! Only a craven little soul, so devoid of feeling that he could not see the humiliation of it, would be capable of such a thing: or else a Christian, whose real humanity and greatness of soul raised him above such diffidence. I was neither one thing nor the other, and I would have given half my blood to be spared this indignity.

‘Then there is Tiberge,’ I thought. ‘Surely my good Tiberge will not refuse anything he can give me? No, my plight will touch his heart, but his moral sermons will be the death of me. I shall have to swallow his reproaches, exhortations and threats; he will exact such a price for his help that there again I would give part of my blood rather than have to face a tiresome scene which will leave me all upset and plagued with remorse. Very well, then, I shall have to give up all hope, since there is no alternative left and I am so averse from stopping to consider these, that I would rather shed half my blood than have recourse to either – that is to say the whole of my blood rather than try both. Yes, the whole of my blood,’ I reflected; ‘I would cheerfully shed it all rather than stoop to grovelling supplications.

‘But what has my blood got to do with it? What matters is Manon’s life and how to keep her alive; all that matters is her love, her loyalty. Have I anything worthy to be weighed in the balance against her? Such a thought has never occurred to me until now. For me she is glory, happiness and fortune. No doubt there are many things I would give my life to have or to avoid, but to value a thing higher than my life is no reason for valuing it as high as Manon.’ After this thought I did not take long to make up my mind. I went on my way, intending to call first on Tiberge and to go on from him to M. de T.

When I reached Paris itself I took a cab, although I had not the wherewithal to pay for it. I relied on the help I was going to ask for. I had myself driven to the Luxembourg, whence I sent a message telling Tiberge that I was waiting for him. He satisfied my impatience by coming at once. I told him of my desperate situation without any beating about the bush. He asked me if the hundred pistoles I had repaid him would do, and without a word of objection he went straight off to get the money, with that look of open-hearted joy in giving only seen in love and true friendship. Although I had never for a moment doubted that my appeal would succeed, I was surprised to have got what I wanted with so little trouble, that is to say without hard words from him on my impenitence. But I made a mistake in thinking that I could get away scot-free and without any criticism, for when he had finished counting out the money, and I was getting ready to leave him, he asked me to take a stroll with him round a path in the park. I had not mentioned Manon’s name, and he did not know that she was at large, and so his sermon was concerned only with my escape from Saint-Lazare and his fear that I might relapse into my evil ways instead of profiting by the lessons in wisdom I had been given in prison. He told me that having been to see me at Saint-Lazare on the day after my escape he had been horrified beyond words to learn how I had taken my departure; he had had a talk with the Superior, who had not yet recovered from his shock. The good Father had nevertheless been generous enough to keep the circumstances of my going from the knowledge of the police, and had thus prevented the news of the porter’s death from being known outside. I therefore had no grounds for alarm on that score; but if I had any decent feelings left I would learn my lesson from the fortunate turn things had taken, thanks to divine intervention. I ought to begin by writing to my father and seeking a reconciliation; and if, for once, I would listen to his advice, he thought I ought to leave Paris and go back to the bosom of my family.

I heard this speech out to the end. There were several reassuring features about it. First of all I was overjoyed to have nothing more to fear from Saint-Lazare; once again the streets of Paris were a free country for me. Secondly I congratulated myself that Tiberge had no idea that Manon was at liberty and back with me. I did not fail to notice that he had avoided mentioning her name to me, presumably because he thought my apparent calmness about her meant that she was beginning to lose her hold on my affections. I decided, if not to return to my family, at least to write to my father, as Tiberge suggested, and to express my readiness to come back to a sense of duty and obedience. I hoped by this means to cajole some money out of him, on the pretext that I was going to study at the Academy, for I should have been hard put to it to convince him that I was in a frame of mind to take up an ecclesiastical calling again. And, seriously, I was not at all averse from what I was prepared to promise him; on the contrary, I was really looking forward with pleasure to taking up something regular and intellectual, insofar as it would fit in with my love. I reckoned that I could live with Manon and do my studies at the same time. The two things were perfectly compatible! These ideas pleased me so much that I promised Tiberge to send off a letter to my father that very day. When I left him I did in fact go to a public writing-room and wrote such an affectionate and submissive letter that when I read it over I flattered myself that it would coax something out of the paternal heart.

Although I could have taken a cab and paid for it after leaving Tiberge, I took special pleasure in striding boldly along to M. de T.’s and enjoying the liberty which my friend had assured me was no longer in any danger. But suddenly it occurred to me that his reassurances applied only to Saint-Lazare, and that on top of that I had the Hôpital affair on my hands, to say nothing of my being involved, if only as a witness, in the death of Lescaut. This recollection scared me so much that I ran down the first alley I could find and from there hailed a cab. I went straight to M. de T., who laughed at my terror, which seemed laughable to me, too, after he had told me that I had nothing to fear from the Hôpital, nor over the Lescaut affair. He explained that, thinking he might be suspected of having had some part in the abduction of Manon, he had gone to the Hôpital that morning and had asked for her, pretending not to know what had happened. Far from accusing either of us, they had made a point of telling him the extraordinary story; they were amazed that such a pretty girl as Manon should have brought herself to run away with an attendant. He had simply observed in a detached way that he was not at all surprised and that people will stop at nothing in order to get free. He had gone on from there to Lescaut’s lodgings, he told me, hoping to find me and my charming mistress there, but the landlord, a coachbuilder by trade, had sworn that he had not set eyes on either of us, adding that it was not surprising that we had not been to his house if it was to see Lescaut, because we must certainly have learned that he had just been killed at about the same time. After that he had not needed pressing to retail all he knew about the cause and circumstances of the murder. About two hours earlier one of Lescaut’s friends in the Lifeguards had been to see him and had suggested a game of cards. Lescaut had won so quickly that within an hour his friend had found himself the poorer by a hundred écus, that is to say all his money. The poor devil, now quite penniless, had asked Lescaut to lend him half of what he had lost, and this had led to some haggling which had developed into a most violent quarrel. Lescaut had refused to go and fight it out with swords, and the other had gone off vowing to smash his skull in, which threat he had carried out that very evening. M. de T. was good enough to add that he had been very worried about us, and that his offer of help was still open. I did not hesitate to tell him where we were hiding, and he asked me to allow him to come to supper.

As my only remaining task was to get some linen and clothes for Manon, I said that we could set off at once if he would not mind stopping for a few minutes with me at one or two shops. I do not know whether he thought I was suggesting this with a view to exciting his generosity, or whether it was a spontaneous impulse of his kindly nature; but having agreed to leave at once, he took me to the shops that supplied his own home, made me choose various materials considerably more expensive than I had meant to get, and when I was about to pay, forbade the shopkeepers to accept a penny from me. This graceful gesture was so tactfully made that I felt quite at ease in profiting by it.

Together we made for Chaillot, and when I arrived there I was in a much less worried state of mind than when I had left.

The Chevalier des Grieux had been speaking for over an hour, and I asked him to take a little rest and have some supper with us. He knew that we had enjoyed listening to him because our interest had never flagged, and he promised us that we should find something still more interesting in the sequel to his story. When supper was over he took up the tale again in these words.